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Love in Ancient Egypt

By | February 15, 2008 | Print This Post | E-mail This Post | 2 Comments

My husband and I have been members of the Friends of Ancient Egypt special interest group at the Royal Ontario Museum since its inception a year or so ago and one of the benefits of FAE members are lectures on the subject.

Past lectures have been on recent acquisitions of Egyptian pieces, funerary customs, The Book of Going Forth by Day, The Beautiful Feast of the Valley – many of these given by Egyptologist Gayle Gibson, president of the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities, ROM educator and an all ’round delightful person. Some of these were accompanied by slides from her digs, which were really nifty to see. She’s a great speaker, always smiling, upbeat and deeply knowledgeable about her subject; her dedication and passion for Egyptology always comes through in her talks.

Gayle’s lecture on Wednesday was titled “Sex and Love in Ancient Egypt” in honour of Valentine’s Day. Despite the sensational title, there were only about a dozen people in attendance, as seems typical for most of these events. I never see announcements for ROM lectures, and in many years of membership, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve received an e-mail about them – despite the fact that I’m supposed to be on their mailing list. Apart from the ROM website, which I regularly check, I never see ROM lectures advertised anywhere. But I digress.

My knowledge of Ancient Egypt is decidedly limited, which is a part of why I joined the FAE. Numerous lectures have turned me on to new books, authors and avenues of exploration. This lecture focused primarily on love between couples, and the importance of family life as illustrated with slides, stories, and surprisingly touching poetry.

There’s a Zen koan where the master asks the student to show the face he had before he was born; Gayle points out that, contrarily, the ancient Egyptians have preserved for us the faces they wear after they died. Representative of how the ancient Egyptians wanted to live in the afterlife, the portraits preserved in the tombs are naturally idealized, as are the statues. One particularly fetching slide shows a portrait of a couple seated across from each other, enjoying a meal together, for eternity.

As one might imagine, every image found in the tombs contains several layers of significance, from the height and position of the figures, where men are typically shown as larger than women, though some couples are shown as being of equal height, particularly in statues. I’m unclear on whether it’s a (not entirely unwelcome) feminist bias which leads a number of slides to depict equal status between men and women, or whether it is representative of the figures typically found.

A number of jibes are directed at ancient Greek history, culture, and most especially their gods – all in the spirit of a friendly rivalry of antiquities. I get the references, but not the context, not being a scholar from either study. Even so, it’s fun.

Hathor is particularly renown as a goddess of love and beauty, and much of the poetry recited is dedicated in her honour. She’s often depicted with cow ears, cow-headed, or with the body of a cow and head of a human woman. We’re told cows love music, and Hathor takes particular pleasure in music, and a song is read praising her through music.

This may seem strange, but despite the prosperity of the Nile, the average life expectancy was about thirty to thirty-five years. Infant infant mortality was high, and there was a one in four chance of the mother dying in childbirth, thus cows and cow milk was quite important for nourishing a child; they were seen as mothering.

When I hold my love close

When I hold my love close

(and her arms steal around me),

I’m like a man translated to Punt

or like someone out in the reedflats

When the whole world suddenly bursts into flower.

In this dreamland of South Sea fragrances,

My love, you are essence of roses.

Part of Gayle’s goal with this lecture was to help humanize then ancient Egyptians, present them a context we could relate to today. She did well.

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Psyche is the editor of and the curator for the occult resource, Psyche also operates a tarot consultation business, Psyche Tarot. She has been published in The Cauldron, Konton, Tarot World Magazine, among other magazines, and her essay “Strategic Magick” appeared in Manifesting Prosperity (Megalithica, 2008).

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  1. dina sachs says:

    Hi. I need to know, please, if your name is Mary parsons and if you happen to live in Cairo, Egypt, working mostly in archeology and museum curating? Can you please email me your reply? This is personal.Thank you,Dina.

    Current score: 0
    • Psyche says:

      Sorry, my name isn’t Mary, and I live in Toronto, Canada.

      Best of luck in locating your friend.

      Current score: 0