BMCR 2004.10.15

Eros on the Nile. Translated from the Polish by Geoffrey L. Packer

, Eros on the Nile. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004. xvi, 180 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 0801440009. $28.95.

Karol Mysliwiec’s Eros on the Nile is a book on the nature of sexual imagery in ancient Egyptian art and thought. The work may be considered to have a dual agenda in that it attempts to approach the erotic component in ancient Egyptian culture on the one hand from the point of view of theology and myth and on the other from that of the mundane. Overall, the two are difficult to reconcile, and the author himself concludes that one cannot obtain from the available data, sacerdotal or popular, extensive information regarding how sexuality was viewed in a day-to-day context by the Egyptians (137). Be that as it may, one of Mysliwiec’s principal aims in writing the book, as asserted at its very beginning, is to emancipate a study of Egyptian notions of sexuality from the conventional confines of the field of Egyptology: “In contradistinction to the prudish scholars who, until recently, were engaged in the study of ancient Egyptian civilization, the ancient Egyptians themselves did not consider sexual topics shameful, and did not find any ambiguity in these matters.” At the outset, the author also expresses his surprise over the “vast gulf between the amount of information available from Egyptian sources regarding the erotic in the region along the Nile and the almost total lack of publications on this topic.”

The book is organized in six chapters, the first dealing with the “Major Theological Systems” of ancient Egypt, those of Heliopolis, Hermopolis, Thebes, and Memphis, the second with “Osiris in Myth and Cult,” the third with “Apis and Other Sacred Bulls,” the fourth primarily with the myth of the divine royal birth, “Religious Aspects of Royal Power,” and the final two focusing more directly on the mundane and/or ‘vulgar’ manifestation of sexual life in society, “Religion and Magic in Daily Life” and “Sexual Life: Standards and Constraints.” The chapters are preceded by a brief preface in which Mysliwiec lightly touches on a controversial theory of his, published in detail elsewhere,1 concerning one of the most enigmatic myths of ancient Egypt, that of Horus and Seth, which includes a so-called ‘homosexual episode’ between the two gods. The author notes that the Egyptian hieroglyphic sign that depicts a man’s head viewed from the front has the phonetic value her, which is also used in exceptional cases in the writing of the name of Horus. Mysliwiec observes that wherever in Egyptian tombs and temples hieroglyphic carvings retained their polychromy, the sign in question was painted yellow, the color that characterizes the body of a woman in ancient Egyptian coloristic conventions. The author hence intimates a possible ‘effeminate’ understanding of Horus, especially in juxtaposition to Seth, the god of unruly and exuberant male sexuality, who, according to the author’s theory, may have been represented by another hieroglyphic sign, that of a man depicted in profile and painted red, tep, often placed next to the sign depicting the frontal head in yellow, red being the color associated with the male body. Mysliwiec comes back to this matter in Chapter 1 while dealing with the “Major Theological Systems.”

In Chapter 1, which has the most extensive content, Mysliwiec presents a general overview of these theological systems, highlighting certain distinctively sexual matters contained in them. Some attention is given to the primordial auto-erotic act performed by the Heliopolitan creator-god Atum in the creation of the universe, and the association of the hand with which the god masturbates with certain female deities such as Hathor, Mut, and Isis. Mysliwiec asserts that in ancient Egyptian culture “written descriptions of the sexual organs, as well as their representation in art, were considered to be a completely natural matter — devoid of emotive aspects, and ethically neutral” (9). A case in point is the ithyphallic god Min, who, according to Egyptian two-dimensional representational conventions, is shown with only one hand, the right one holding the flail, whereas the left hand that is not shown embraces the phallus. The configuration is fully visible only in sculpture in the round. The author also mentions the association of Min with the Theban head deity Amun-Re who also has an ithyphallic incarnation known as Kamutef which means the “bull of his mother.” The author comments on this designation as an instance of divine incest, pointing out that “what we have here is a specific type of autogenesis that appears to be completely illogical: The god couples with his own mother to create himself” (18). Mysliwiec further glosses this incident as an elimination of “the concept of paternity as a possible causative force preceding the autogenesis of the creator-god” (ibid.). Even though not mentioned in the book, there may be an analogy here with the Greek myth of Oedipus, which can be seen from the same cosmogonic perspective. The author also makes a connection between the Heliopolitan autogenesis and androgyny, arguing that the creator-god Atum must have been a bisexual being. He also briefly addresses the alleged ideological androgyny of Amenhotep III and Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten), without, however, relating the matter to these kings’ possible aspirations to relate themselves to the creator-god and his autogenesis. The chapter also revisits the myth of Horus and Seth, with the added argument that in ancient Egyptian texts the “relations between two men are viewed primarily as a demonstration of one man’s superiority over the other, not as an act of love” (34). Mysliwiec further tries to justify his understanding of a “passive and even sniveling” (xii) Horus with a Hellenistic terracotta figurine of an effeminate Horus-child (Harpokrates) which he understands “as a specific interpretatio Graeca of an ancient Egyptian myth.”

Chapter 2 focuses on the myth of Osiris, which the author rehearses on the basis of the account of Plutarch. In this chapter, Mysliwiec also surveys a group of archaeological finds dating to the Ptolemaic Period related to the cult of Osiris found in the Lower Egyptian site of Athribis, or Tell Atrib. Here and throughout the book, sources from Graeco-Roman Egypt are not fully set against their older traditional Egyptian background in a nuanced manner. Transitions between the two realms are often abrupt and not clearly justified, as can also be observed in Chapter 1, in which there is a quantum leap from a discussion of traditional ithyphallic Egyptian deities to a mention of Hellenistic representations of the god Bes (12). As for Chapter 3, which is only several pages long, its main focus is the cult of the bull in ancient Egypt, with special emphasis on the Apis Bull of Memphis, the incarnation of the god Ptah, as well as of Osiris. Mysliwiec here draws attention to the association of this special bull with the Egyptian king inasmuch as the bull evokes notions of fertility and abundance. The author also mentions how in the Pyramid Texts the phallus of the deceased king is identified with the phallus of Apis, as well as how when the Apis Bull died it was necessary to find its successor, which displayed certain select physical characteristics that were signs of divine embodiment. Also addressed at the end of this chapter are funerary rituals for the Apis bulls as well as the fact that in the Hellenistic period a conflation of the Apis Bull and Osiris yielded the ‘syncretistic’ deity Serapis.

As already indicated, Chapter 4 focuses on the phenomenon of the royal ‘divine birth,’ a myth that had its full manifestation in the intellectual output of the New Kingdom, even though its origins can be traced back to the Old. The most complete iconographic version of this legend survives in the Luxor reliefs of Amenhotep III, with an important precursor in the ‘birth reliefs’ of Hatshepsut, which the author refers to as “the joint achievement of theologians and artists” (88). According to this myth, the ruler was not the child of his predecessor and his royal wife but rather “represented the fruit of the union of the pharaoh’s wife with a god.” The main idea behind the legend is again the same elimination of the problematic concept of paternity encountered earlier in the autogenesis of the creator god, this time presented in a different guise. In fact, Mysliwiec’s return to this problematization of paternity in this chapter is aptly followed by a discussion of the positions of Egyptian women in the royal ‘harem’: “Within the hierarchy of women associated with the king during his lifetime, the first place was occupied by the queen mother, followed by the king’s wife,” a configuration that can be seen in the Ottoman Empire as well. Finally, the chapter also deals with a particular group of elite women who held the title ‘god’s wife,’ a status initially accorded to royal wives and princesses, but from the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty on usually to priestesses who were not associated with the royal family. The author draws attention to the role of these women as singers, musicians and dancers in certain rituals. In a book that lays so much emphasis on the visual record, one would have liked to read more about the involvement of such women in religious festivals, especially in relation to depictions in New Kingdom Theban non-royal tombs where women of a similar or identical disposition appear in a distinctively erotic manifestation. Such an analysis would also have solidified the author’s data from the traditional phases of ancient Egyptian civilization and offset the questionable weight placed on the Graeco-Roman evidence in the treatment of the topics selected.

Chapter 5 aims at an analysis of “Religion and Magic in Daily Life,” starting with the idea of feminine beauty, but shortly thereafter shifting focus first to “eroticism in lyric poetry” and later to a papyrus depicting overtly pornographic scenes known as the Turin Papyrus, dating to the Nineteenth-Twentieth Dynasty. As far as eroticism and love lyric are concerned, even though the author at the outset indicates that “the lyrics of ancient Egypt provide a wealth of knowledge regarding Egyptian eroticism in the time of the pharaohs,” it is more likely that these poems use erotic imagery in a completely representational manner which in great probability refers to metaphysical notions, as is also the case with the biblical Song of Songs and Sanskrit erotic verse. In fact, as the author himself writes in the Preface: “the refined poetry of love never makes mention of marriage. The female partner in the erotic experience is referred to as the ‘sister,’ by which it is certainly appropriate to understand ‘beloved one'” (xi). Overall, the subject of erotic lyric is treated too briefly in the book to open any substantial ground for discussion. As for the so-called Turin Papyrus, it “contains drawings that are designated in Egyptological literature as satiric-erotic” (120). The series of images, most of which are illustrated in the book as line drawings, consist of twelve scenes that depict sexual relations between a man and a woman. This division into twelve scenes, coupled with the incorporation of an ithyphallic ‘Osiride’ pose, normally reserved for scenes of resurrection in hieratic depictions, into one of the scenes on this papyrus is an indication that a satirical or playful analogy is here established with one of the New Kingdom royal books of the Afterlife, the Amduat, which represents the journey of the sun god in the Netherworld during the twelve hours of the night, each hour shown as a separate scene.

The sixth and final chapter, “Sexual Life: Standards and Constraints,” starts with the author’s assertion that documents such as the Turin Papyrus cannot “lead to any far-reaching conclusions regarding Egyptian sexual practices or the ethos of Egyptians’ sexual lives” (137), especially since the sapiential literature of ancient Egypt often advocates temperance and control in sexual matters. Before closing, the chapter briefly addresses certain social manifestations of sexuality ranging from the use of magic and medicine in fertility and childbirth to marriage, divorce and circumcision.

Notwithstanding Mysliwiec’s intention to remedy the gaps in an understanding of sexuality in Egyptological studies, what emerges so clearly from the book is that the theological and mythological deployment of sexual matters and images in ancient Egypt operates in a completely symbolic and metaphysical dimension, whereas whatever is sexual in the ‘obscene’ or ‘vulgar’ sense in the archaeological record does not go beyond magical practices, parodies or satires that belong in the popular domain. It would be exciting to see how, or if, the two realms coincide, but the book does not offer much in that regard, and throughout, the theological is treated in sections distinctly separate from the popular. The treatment of some of the mythological themes in the book is also often too general in character, which causes one to lose track of the focus on ‘eros’ and fall under the impression that one is reading a basic handbook on Egyptian myth. Even though a number of very interesting points, some addressed above, are on the book’s agenda, the text throughout is completely without footnotes save for the most essential primary sources, making it difficult for the interested scholarly audience to follow the author’s evidence or to see the range of scholarly literature available in relevant topics, notwithstanding the bibliography at the end. Further, even though the book is illustrated with both line drawings and photographs, some in color, no figure or plate numbers are cited in the text, again detracting from the flow of the author’s prose and arguments as the reader attempts to make the relevant connections. Finally, it is perhaps clear from the title that there is here an effort to make the book attractive to a general audience, but a complementary title after a colon would have helped greatly in both clarifying the intellectual agenda of the work and signaling the idea that the book is not exclusively on sensational Egyptian erotica.

In short, the book treats many matters of great interest and importance, not only to Egyptology and Classics but to a broader potential of comparative studies, in a rather abbreviated manner with not much of an overarching structure conducive to coherence and depth of argument and analysis. What is even more puzzling is perhaps an almost deliberate simplification, if not trivialization, either on the part of the author or the publisher, of intellectually very stimulating topics for the sake of what seems to be accessibility to a general audience of readers. I may well be wrong in this attempt to extrapolate the intentions of the author and the publisher, which are not expressed in the Preface or the Introduction, but the ambiguity over what the book targets in terms of its audience and intellectual agenda is the central drawback in the treatment of this otherwise fascinating body of material.


1. “A propos des signes hiéroglyphique ‘ hr‘ et ‘ tp,’ Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 98 (1972): 85-99.