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Ancient Egypt: Drink, drugs and sex.
  Sexual Mores
  Sexual Freedom
  Male Homosexuality

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Drink, drugs and sex


    Drinking alcohol was widespread. Children indulged as well, even if it was just the somewhat weak Egyptian beer. Actually beer may have been safer for them than water or even milk which were often infected by germs. But a scribe warned his pupil:
I hear that you are neglecting your writing and spending all your time dancing, going from tavern to tavern, always reeking of beer...If only you realized that wine is a thing of the devil...You sit in front of the wench, sprinkled with perfume; your garland hangs around your neck and you drum on your paunch; you reel and fall on your belly and are filthied with dirt.
pAnastasi IV
Casson, op.cit. p.56
    Religious holidays were often occasions for joyous public celebrations which included drinking, at times to excess, but which was not frowned upon on these occasions:
Drink till drunk while enjoying the feast day!
Inscription from the tomb of Petosiris, 4th century BCE
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.51

.... the soldiers were drunk and anointed with beq oil every day, as in the festivals in Egypt.
29th year of the reign of Thutmose III
Petrie A History of Egypt Part Two, p.114
Woman vomitting at banquet     There were inns and bordellos where men could indulge and which were not frequented by respectable women. These had to pursue their pleasure in their own home.
    Both men and women were known to get intoxicated. In one tomb picture a woman is seen vomitting, in Pahery's tomb at el Kab a man is depicted saying
Give me eighteen jugs of wine - I want to get drunk, my insides are as dry as straw.
Unshaved pharaoh wearing Blue Crown     Royalty did it too, at least in the eyes of a student learning how to draw: A drawing on limestone shows a New Kingdom king with what seems to be a six o'clock shadow, looking much the worse for wear.

Pharaoh wearing the Blue Crown
His not having shaved may denote that he was in mourning. On the other hand this was seemingly a student's drawing, with all the puerile humour that entails.
Ramesside Period
Source: V. Easy

    In the demotic story Ahmose and the Sailor the pharaoh had a night out, had supper with his wives and amused himself with them.
He drank a great amount of wine, for the pharaoh had a desire for the Egyptian qlbj-wine. That night the pharaoh lay down to rest by the shore of the lake. He slept under a vine in the north. In the morning the pharaoh could not rise because of his great hang-over.
After the transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website
G. Vittmann, ed.: Demotische Textdatenbank, Akademie für Sprache und Literatur Mainz => literarische Texte => Erzählungen u.ä. => Amasis und der Schiffer (P. Bibl. Nat. 215, Vso a)
    The New Kingdom scribe Any, seemingly a paragon of middle class rectitude, warns potential drunks of what will happen to them:
Don't indulge in drinking beer,
Lest you utter evil speech
And don't know what you are saying.
If you fall and hurt your body
None holds out a hand to you;
Your companions in drinking
Stand up saying: "Out with the drunk!"
If one comes to seek you and talk with you,
One finds you lying on the ground,
As if you were a little child.
The Instruction of Any
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Records of Egypt, Volume II, p.137
    One effect of excessive alcohol consumption is the headache the morning after. The Roman Dio reported that the Egyptians used boiled cabbage and cabbage seeds against hang-overs. The addition of a small amount of sea water to the wine was also practiced in order to improve the taste (according to Pliny) and prevent headaches (in the opinion of Athenaeus).


Couple with blue lotus flowers-     In many scenes blue lotus flowers (Nymphaea caerulea, a water lily) are depicted with the revellers ostensibly sniffing them. This has led some researchers to suspect that they might be psychoactive, but no such effects have been found. [16]
    What drugs apart from alcohol were used is unclear. Traces of tetrahydrocannabinol [13] have been found in mummies. The properties of mandrake and opium were certainly known during the Late Dynastic Period and psychoactive plants are (or at least seem to be) depicted since early times [2].
    Dr Svetla Balabanova of the Institute of Forensic Medicine at Ulm found traces of cocaine and nicotine in 21st dynasty mummies [1], but it is unclear whether these are remains of drug use, stem from plants of the same families or are modern contaminations.


    Nudity was an accepted part of Egyptian life and had little to do with sex. According to tomb depictions children were often naked and even grown ups removed their clothes in public when the work they were doing required it.
    Representations of phalli are not infrequently found in temples as part of fertility scenes rather than sexual activity. The purification rites priests had to undergo before entering their temple point to there having been a taboo on sex in sacred grounds. While there were many depictions of the act of creation by sex or self-impregnation, in Egypt, not like in some Middle Eastern countries, there was apparently no 'temple prostitution' [5]. Even entering a tomb after having intercourse was forbidden:
As concerns any person entering this tomb, having eaten something abominable abominable to the akh-spirit, and having slept with a woman, I shall have him judged before the tribunal of the dead before the great god.
Mastaba of Hesi, Sakkara, reign of Teti[18]
    Virility and sex are closely connected with power. In the papyrus of Nu, part of a New Kingdom Book of the Dead, the deceased rejoices:
The inhabitants lower their heads because of me.
I am their lord.
I am their bull.
I am stronger than the lord of strength.
I copulate and have power over millions.
pBM EA 10477, reign of Amenhotep II[19]
To enable a deceased man to do so, he needed his sexual organ. Thus, "Mummy 1770", who died during a brief encounter with a crocodile, was furnished with a false penis made of a roll of linen bandages when his original member could not be identified by the mummifiers.[23]
From the Turin Erotic Papyrus

Sexual Mores

    Little is known about the sexual mores, and the rarity of any mention of sex has been variously interpreted as being the result of prudish attitudes or, conversely, of sex being an accepted, natural phenomenon not worthy of a special mention [8]. Depictions of a sexual nature [11] have been described as satires or as symbols of the creation acts of the gods [4]. The fact that there was what looks suspiciously like pornography [3] might be interpreted as there having existed at least periods when sexuality was repressed.
    Egyptian terms for the various kinds of sexual intercourse are ill defined. It is often unclear whether a word refers to rape or to adultery. Rape, if that is what Ptahhotep refers to, was not acceptable, any opposition to having intercourse should be respected.
You should not copulate with a woman (or) a child, (if) you have recognized opposition to the water (i.e. the seminal fluid) on her forehead. There is no cooling for what is in one's body.
The instruction of Ptahhotep, pPrisse 14.4ff.[]
    If this passage is translated correctly, then paedophilia was apparently not evil by itself. At any rate, given the nature of the (human) beast, one ought to expect individuals to have existed in ancient Egypt, who were sexually attracted to pre-pubescent children, and the dearth of records referring to it, may be a clue to the attitude of grown-up Egyptians towards paedophilia.
    Adultery had generally more consequences for the wife than for the husband and was roundly condemned. But while affairs must have started the neighbours' tongues wagging, they were apparently not punishable by law, in contrast to other ancient Near Eastern societies.
    Premarital sex in rural societies is quite frequent, whether this was the case in ancient Egypt is unclear. The New Kingdom love poems may rather be the outpourings of frustrated young men than indications of joyful consumation. There is the occasional allusion to what could be premarital sex in biographical inscriptions and Hekaib for instance doesn't seem to have experienced any moral qualms about it. [26] It has also been claimed that in Graeco-Roman times premarital sex even between siblings was accepted even if it was not the norm. [27]
    Leading people on was frowned upon. One was expected not to behave in a way that could be interpreted wrongly or arouse expectations which one did not have the intention of satisfying:
One should not get ready for the night (with the intention) of resisting. One would only be cooled after damaging one's heart.
The instruction of Ptahhotep, pPrisse 14.4ff.


    How widespread prostitution [9] was cannot be verified; that there would have been customers of such services we can be sure of. As Ankhsheshonq said in his demotic Instruction:
Man is even more eager to copulate than a donkey; his purse is what restrains him.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.178
    To the fictitional Setne Khamwas, son of Pharaoh Usermare, one hour with Tabubu, the daughter of the prophet of Bastet, was worth 10 pieces of gold:
Setne said to the servant: "Go, say to the maid, 'It is Setne Khamwas, the son of Pharaoh Usermare, who has sent me to say, "I will give you ten pieces of gold - spend an hour with me....
Setne Khamwas and Naneferkaptah
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.134
In the story Tabubu was less offended by the proposition itself but rather that she was being treated like a low woman of the street, though it may be doubted that a street walker would have been remunerated in such a handsome way.


    While there was little explicit sex in literature, erotic love poetry was widespread in Ramesside times at least. The terms 'brother' and 'sister' generally referred to one's beloved.
My heart desires to go down to bathe myself before you,
That I may show you my beauty in a tunic of the finest royal linen...
I'll go down to the water with you, and come out to you carrying a red fish, which is just right in my fingers.
I'll set it before you, while looking upon your beauty.
O my hero, my brother,
Come, look upon me!
Fox, op.cit., p. 32.
dancing girls The sexual yearning appears to have brought forth somewhat kinky literary blossoms at times:
Would that I were the laundryman of my sister
for a single month.
I would be happy to handle [the underwear]
which had touched her body.
I would be the one who washed out the ointment
that is in her kerchief.
I would rub my body with her frock.
O. IFAO 1266 + O. Cairo 25218 [21]
Of course some of the imagery is in the eye of the beholding translator. In another rendering underwear is given as garment and the last line of the poem appears as I would work myself to the bone on her frocks[20]
    Dancing too could often be titillatingly erotic, when scantily clad young women performed sinuous dances at banquets [6]. The preferences of ancient Egyptian men were remarkably similar to those of modern Westerners. In a story from the Westcar papyrus Pharaoh Snofru decides to go on an outing:
Indeed, I shall go rowing! Have brought to me twenty ebony oars worked in gold with handles of skeb-wood worked in fine gold. Have brought to me twenty women with beautiful bodies and breasts and hair who have not given birth. And have brought to me twenty nets and give these nets to these women in place of their clothes.
    Itinerant dancers, acrobats and musicians are thought to have been connected with prostitution. They are depicted with tattoos of, among other things, Bes on their thighs, possibly as protection against venereal diseases. [15]

Sexual Freedom

    Generally speaking - and as has been the case throughout most of history and in most societies - men had much more social and sexual freedom than women [10]; but, at least in theory, wives of other men were out of bounds.
Beware of a woman who is a stranger,
One not known in her town.
Don't stare at her when she goes by,
Don't know her carnally.
A deep water whose course is unknown
Such is a woman away from her husband.
"I am pretty," she tells you daily.
She is ready to ensnare you,
A great deadly crime when it is heard.
The Instruction of Any
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Records of Egypt, Volume II, p.137
    How much men could and did permit themselves with their female servants and slaves is not known. Apparently, they often did not restrain themselves as this mourner did:
Three years have passed since that day (i.e. since his wife died). I do not enter another house, and a man of my rank does not have to abstain from this... The sisters who dwell in the house, I did not visit any of them.
From a papyrus at the Leiden Museum

Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep embracing - friends, brothers or lovers? - Source: Jon Bodsworth

Male Homosexuality

    As to homosexual behaviour, of which there is very little testimony [7], it was, at least in certain quarters, frowned upon. Sexual misconduct, which in the various versions of the Book of the Dead included homosexual relations, ranked high in the list of misbehaviour men were at pains to distance themselves from when confronted with their judges in the other world.
Hail, Qerrti, who comest forth from Amentet, I have not committed adultery, I have not lain with men [12].
Hail, Tutu, who comest forth from Ati, I have not debauched the wife of any man.
Hail, Uamenti, who comest forth from the Khebt chamber, I have not debauched the wife of [any] man.
Hail, Maa-antuf, who comest forth from Per-Menu, I have not polluted myself.
    The general tone of the story of King Neferkare and General Sasenet, describing what appears to be a clandestine homosexual relationship between Pepi I and his general, is not approving, but, according to the Contendings of Horus and Seth, the Egyptian attitude towards homosexuality may have been similar to that of the Greeks who considered the man performing the part of submissive to be inferior, but did not attach opprobrium to homosexuality per se.
    The story relates that Seth caused his phallus to become stiff and inserted it between Horus's thighs. Then Horus placed his hands between his thighs and received Seth's semen. When Horus told Isis what Seth had done, she let out a loud shriek, seized the copper (knife), cut off his hand(s) with which he had received Seth's semen. Seth clearly considered Horus to be unworthy to rule, as did the other gods:
Said Seth: "Let me be awarded the office of Ruler, l.p.h., for as to Horus, the one who is standing (trial), I have performed the labor of a male against him." The Ennead let out a load cry. They spewed and spat at Horus's face.
It was only thanks to the trickery of Isis that the gods came to believe that Seth and not Horus was the effeminate one, unfit to rule.
    But Horus and Seth had always been evenly matched and the relationship between them was sexually loaded from the beginning. In the Pyramid Texts is written:
Horus has penetrated Seth's anus with his seed. Seth has penetrated Horus' anus with his seed.
PT 1036 [22]


    Necrophilia was, at least according to Herodotus, of some concern. The better-off seem to have released the bodies of their departed wives and daughters after a few days only in order to prevent the mummifiers from having their evil ways with them. Xenophon of Ephesos recounts how a man kept the mummy of his departed wife in his bedroom, but does not offer any explanation.[24]
    There were few restrictions on the sexual behaviour of the gods, at any rate, dead or alive. Intercourse with a dead body even lead to the birth of Horus, who was conceived after Isis had reassembled the cut-up body of her dead husband Osiris and mounted him.


    Given the close proximity between the ancient Egyptians and their livestock, the rare references to intercourse with animals are probably based on reality rather than on pure imagination. Never admitted, such relations pop up in dream books in which the author (invariable a man) envisages the union of a woman (of course) with animals, be they mice, horses, crocodiles or falcons. The general opinion was that something bad was going to happen.[24] An alternative encounter is referred to in a curse, proposing one being interfered with by a donkey, a notion making one whince, but which seems to have inspired some artist to create a faience statuette showing a donkey doing the nasty to a woman.[24]
    The truth must have been more prosaic: some of the men probably bonked their favorite porker behind a neighbour's shed, a practice still found in modern societies.[25]


Picture sources:
[  ] Couple with blue lotus flower:
[  ] Excerpt from the Turin erotic papyrus
[  ] Dancing girls:
[  ] Photograph of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep embracing: Jon Bodsworth
[5] 'Temple prostitution' is a most unfortunate term we owe our Victorian ancestors with their warped minds.
By the first century BCE the mores may have changed a bit, if we are to believe Strabo
But to Zeus (i.e. Amen) whom they worship especially, the most beautiful virgin belonging to the noblest family is dedicated, called by the Hellenes Pallades. She also indulges in fornication offering herself to any she wants to, until the natural purification of her body occurs. After her purification she is given to a man; but before she is given to him, obsequies are held after her period of fornication has ended.
Strabo, Geografica, Book 17, 1st part, § 46
[6] Nubian dancing girls were much sought after in the Roman empire and their ancient dancing tradition is still alive today in the remoter parts of the Sudan.
[8] According to a 20th dynasty letter the discovery of an extramarital sexual relationship caused quite a commotion among the villagers who would have beaten up the man (and his relations for good measure), trying to force him to commit himself publicly.
The composer of the Insinger Papyrus did not go as far as the later Christian moralists to whom gluttony and lust were deadly sins, but he did not have a good opinion of bodily urges:
[The] evil that befalls the fool, his belly and his phallus bring it.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p. 189
On the other hand, sex was one of the things the deceased looked forward to, some, such as milling, a drudge, but all of them necessary for a full existence and most of them pleasurable:
I furnish your field, Hotep, which you love, your produce, lord of the winds.
May I be transfigured in it!
May I eat in it!
May I drink in it!
May I plough in it!
May I reap in it!
May I mill in it!
May I copulate in it!
May I be rich in it!
May my magic be in it!
pKairo CG 51189 (pJuja), reign of Amenhotep III
After a transliteration and a German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website
[9] A number of Egyptian words have been interpreted as 'prostitute': xnm.t,, kAj, ms.t. Prostitutes seem, at least at times, to have plied their trade in bordellos: In a first millennium BCE tale Isis, fleeing with her son Horus asked for shelter in such a house of pleasure. (Manniche, op.cit., p.18
[10] From this rule we apparently must exclude a woman called Hel and her daughter Webkhet who lived at Deir el Medina and seem to have been rather generous with their favours. (cf. Man and Woman)
Man and woman copulating, Valley of te Kings [11] According to Marc Orriols speaking at the Congreso Ibérico de Egiptología, September 11 - 14, 2006 (¿Cómo eran los egipcios en la cama?) we have only some thirty-odd depictions of sexual activity between humans dating to pre-Graeco-Roman times. (Cf. the intercourse scene on the right, found in a grotto above the chapel of Hatshepsut, which has been interpreted by some–on somewhat flimsy grounds–as depicting Queen Hatshepsut and her close adviser Senenmut. [14])
Man and woman copulating.
Graffito in a cave in the Valley of the Kings
[12] n nk=j nkk which the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website translates somewhat quaintly "Ich habe nicht mit einem Buhlknaben gebuhlt" ("I have not copulated with a rentboy" or the like). nk (copulate) was used for humans, animals and deities, e.g. in pKairo CG 51189 it is said of the ba of Re: nk =f jm =f, i.e. he copulates with himself.
[13] Tetrahydrocannabinol occurs in hemp and frankincense. It may have been used for pain relief (cf. Nerlich, 1995), but could also have entered the body during religious ceremonies when frankincense was burned.
The Egyptian term SmSm.t is often translated as hemp because it was also used in rope making:
Unas has tied the ropes of hemp (?) (SmSm.t)
-Pyramid Texts PT 319
Some experts doubt that hemp was used in Egypt, either in rope making or as a drug.
[15] Manniche, op.cit., pp.16f.
[16] Rosalie David, Patricia Lambert-Zazulak, Egyptian Mummies and Modern Science ,Cambridge University Press, 2008, p.208
[17] After a transliteration and a German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website
P. Dils ed.: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Sächsische Akademie der Wissenschaften => 3. Weisheitslehren => Die Lehre des Ptahhotep => pPrisse (Ptahhotep, Version P)
[18] After a transliteration and a German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website
S. Grunert ed.: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Grabinschriften => Sakkara => Mastaba des Hesi => Eingangsvorhalle => Südwand => Gewände => linkes Durchgangs-Gewände
[19] After a transliteration and a German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website
B. Backes ed.: Totenbuchprojekt, Nordrhein-Westfälische Akademie der Wissenschaften => pBM EA 10477 (pNu)
[20] Rosalind Hall, Egyptian textiles, Osprey Publishing, 1986, p.56
[21], accessed 19th May 2009
[22] Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website: Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Pyramidentexte => Pyramide Pepis I. => Vorkammer => Ostwand => PT 1036 [23] Brier 1994, p.185
[24] Lise Manniche: Some Aspects of Ancient Egyptian Sexual Life, p. 18, accessed at, 14th December 2013
[25] Rydström, op. cit., p.189
[26] Nicolas-Christophe Grimal, Amr Kamel, Cynthia May-Sheikholeslami, Hommages à Fayza Haikal, 2003, p. 154
[27] Keith Hopkins, "Brother-Sister Marriage in Roman Egypt" in Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 22, No. 3, (Jul., 1980), pp. 303f.

Bob Brier, Egyptian mummies: unraveling the secrets of an ancient art, W. Morrow, 1994
Lionel Casson, Daily Life in Ancient Egypt, Time-Life Books, 1975
Michael Fox, The Song of Songs and Ancient Egyptian Love Songs, Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin, 1985
Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, University of California Press 1973-1980
Lise Manniche, Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt, Routledge, 1987
Lynn Meskell, Object worlds in ancient Egypt: material biographies past and present, Berg Publishers, 2004
W. M. F. Petrie, A History of Egypt, 1905, republished by Histories and Mysteries of Man LTD., London, 1991
Jens Rydström, Sinners and Citizens: Bestiality and Homosexuality in Sweden, 1880-1950, University of Chicago Press, 2003
Shaw & Nicholson 1995
Strabo, Geografica

- The Turin erotic papyrus[3] Papyrus 55001
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Offsite links(Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the availability or content of these websites.

Cocaine Mummies[1] The Mystery of the Cocaine Mummies
Art and Artifact[2] Art and Artifact as Ethnobotanical Tools in the Ancient Near East with Emphasis on Psychoactive Plants by William A. Emboden, Jr.
The Turin erotic papyrus[4] The Turin erotic papyrus: Eros in Egypt by David O’Connor
La sexualidad[7] La sexualidad by Manuel Crenes
Senenmut and Hatshepsut[14] Senenmut and Hatshepsut
La droga en el Antiguo EgiptoLa droga en el Antiguo Egipto

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