The Turin Erotic Papyrus: The Oldest Known Depiction of Human Sexuality (Circa 1150 B.C.E.)

Turin_Erotic_Papyrus

With the old joke about every gen­er­a­tion think­ing they invent­ed sex, List­verse brings us the papyrus above, the old­est depic­tion of sex on record. Paint­ed some­time in the Rames­side Peri­od (1292–1075 B.C.E.), the frag­ments above—called the “Turin Erot­ic Papyrus” because of their “dis­cov­ery” in the Egypt­ian Muse­um of Turin, Italy—only hint at the frank ver­sions of ancient sex they depict (see a graph­ic par­tial recon­struc­tion at the bot­tom of the post—probably NSFW). The num­ber of sex­u­al posi­tions the papyrus illustrates—twelve in all—“fall some­where between impres­sive­ly acro­bat­ic and unnerv­ing­ly ambi­tious,” one even involv­ing a char­i­ot. Apart from its obvi­ous fer­til­i­ty sym­bols, writes archae­ol­o­gy blog Ancient Peo­ples, the papyrus also has a “humor­ous and/or satir­i­cal” pur­pose, and prob­a­bly a male audience—evidenced, per­haps, by its resem­blance to 70’s porn: “the men are most­ly unkept, unshaven, and bald­ing […], where­as the women are the ide­al of beau­ty in Egypt.”

Turin Animals

In fact the erot­ic por­tion of the papyrus was only made pub­lic in the 1970’s. Egyp­tol­o­gists have known of the larg­er scroll, tech­ni­cal­ly called “Papyrus Turin 55001” since the 1820s. On the right side of the papyrus (above) ani­mals per­form var­i­ous human tasks as musi­cians, sol­diers, and arti­sans. The artist meant this piece too as satire, Ancient Peo­ples alleges. Like ancient Roman and Greek satir­i­cal art, the ani­mals may rep­re­sent sup­posed arche­typ­al aspects of the artists and trades­men shown here. All very inter­est­ing, but of course the real inter­est in Papyrus Turin 55001 is of the pruri­ent vari­ety.

Egyp­tol­ogy stu­dent Car­o­line Sea­wright points us toward the rather lurid His­to­ry Chan­nel seg­ment on the erot­ic papyrus above, which calls the pic­tures “full on pornog­ra­phy” and “one of the most shock­ing sets of images in the whole of antiq­ui­ty.” Against a per­cep­tion of ancient Egyp­tians as “but­toned-up and repressed,” the video, and Sea­wright, detail the ways in which the cul­ture rev­eled in a styl­ized rit­u­al sex­u­al­i­ty quite dif­fer­ent from our own lim­it­ed mores.

Sacred tem­ple pros­ti­tutes held a priv­i­leged posi­tion and mytho­log­i­cal nar­ra­tives incor­po­rat­ed unbi­ased descrip­tions of homo­sex­u­al­i­ty and trans­gen­derism. Ancient Egyp­tians even expect­ed to have sex after death, attach­ing fab­ri­cat­ed organs to their mum­mies. The above applies main­ly to a cer­tain class of Egypt­ian. As archae­ol­o­gist David O’Connor points out, the Turin Erot­ic Papyrus’ high “artis­tic mer­it” marks it as with­in the prove­nance of “an elite own­er and audi­ence.” You can find more detailed images from a dif­fer­ent recon­struc­tion of the erot­ic papyrus here.

Turin Reconstruction

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Old­est Known Illus­tra­tion of Cir­cum­ci­sion (2400 B.C.E.)

Lis­ten to the Old­est Song in the World: A Sumer­ian Hymn Writ­ten 3,400 Years Ago

The First Sex Man­u­al Pub­lished in North Amer­i­ca, 1766

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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