Uncovered: Ritual public drunkenness and sex in ancient Egypt
I’ll bet you that archaeologist Betsy Bryan’s perspective on reality-show behavior is a little longer than most. Since 2001, Bryan has led the excavation of the temple complex of the Egyptian goddess Mut in modern-day Luxor, the site of the city of Thebes in ancient Egypt. And the ritual she has uncovered, which centers on binge drinking, thumping music and orgiastic public sex, probably makes “Jersey Shore” look pretty tame.
At least it was thought to serve a greater societal purpose.
Bryan, a specialist in the art, ritual and social hierarchy of Egypt’s New Kingdom (roughly 1600 to 1000 BC), has painstakingly pieced together the details of the Festivals of Drunkenness, which took place in homes, at temples and in makeshift desert shrines throughout ancient Egypt at least once and, in some places (including at the Temple of Mut), twice a year.
Bryan, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, presents her work in the second of a four-part lecture series tonight, under the auspices of the California Museum of Ancient Art. Under the title “Magic, Ritual and Healing in Ancient Egypt,” Bryan’s lecture (7:30 p.m. at Piness Auditorium inside Wilshire Boulevard Temple, 3663 Wilshire Blvd.) outlines the meaning and the mechanics of the Drunkenness Festivals.
Lectures Three and Four, on May 13 and 21, will feature two other acclaimed Egyptologists: Francesco Tiradritti of the University of Enna, Italy, and Dr. Benson Harer, past president of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Tiradritti will lecture on Isis, Osiris’ wife, and her magical powers. Dr. Harer will lecture on women’s health concerns in ancient Egypt.
Before her lecture Monday, Bryan chatted with the Los Angeles Times about these widely observed rituals.
Q. What were these festivals of drunkenness about?
A. These rituals were related to the cult of the Egyptian lion goddess. In ancient Egyptian myth, the sun god is unhappy with mankind. He finds they are rebellious. And he orders, together with the Council of Gods, mankind’s destruction. He calls on his daughter, Hathor, to become a lion, whereupon she turns into Sakhnet (which simply means magical power — female power). The sun god sends her down to kill mankind, which she does in this lion form, running up and down the Nile River Valley eating people.
Eventually her father tells her to stop. But by this time, she has developed a lust for blood and she won’t stop killing. To foil her, the Council of Gods floods the fields of the valley with beer that has been tinted red, to look like blood, with ocher. Blood-thirsty Hathor drinks it, becomes inebriated and falls asleep, and mankind is safe.
It’s almost always a request about ensuring the well-being and protection of the people and the land. And it also goes back and forth heavily between we want the goddess’s love or we want the goddess to punish those against whom we are engaged in hostilities.
Q. And how did these festivals play out?
A. What’s really distinctive about these rituals is their communal nature, their participatory aspect. We have tons of well-preserved evidence for rituals in temples, and they’re organized around hierarchical principles: the priests or leaders would typically act on behalf of the people, rather than the people acting for themselves.
But we know that while these festivals took place in temples, people also engaged in them in their own homes with groups of people and in shrines in the desert where they would get together. The people in attendance were everybody from the highest elites to groups of far more modest members of ancient Egyptian society.
This was an early means by which people confronted their deities directly, rather than through their priests or leaders.
The destruction wrought by Hathor is the background to the level of drinking that goes on in the festival: It’s not just to drink but to drink to pass out. A hymn inscribed in a temple associated with the lion goddess describes young women, dressed with floral garlands in their hair, who serve the alcohol. It is described as a very sensual environment.
Then, everybody awakes to the beating of drums. You can imagine how they must have felt after all that drinking, with the noise. The priests are carrying a likeness of the goddess Hathor, and they express their requests to the goddess.
Q. And what was the sex about?
A. The sex is about the issue of fertility and renewal, and about bringing the Nile flood back to ensure the fertility of the land as well. The festival of drunkenness typically occurred in mid-August, just as the Nile waters begin to rise.
We don’t have the same kind of clarity as to why the sex is included as we have with the drinking. When I first speculated there was a sexual component to these rituals, I got a lot of push-back from colleagues who didn’t believe it.
There were songs — their words were found on the sides of pots that appeared to be used in these rituals: “Let them drink and let them have sex in front of the god.”
We do know people left texts that refer to the ritual’s sexual component. We have one dating back to 900 BC, saying, “I remember visiting the ancestors, and when I went, anointed with perfume as a mistress of drunkenness, traveling the marshes.” “Traveling the marshes” is a euphemism for having sex (marshes being the place from which life springs). Another was written by a man who is a priest who identifies himself as having been conceived in this context. Much later, in the Ptolomeic and Roman periods, 330 BC to 27 BC, there are a number of people identified as orphans who are gifts to the temple.
Q. Were these festivals at all controversial?
A. I found substantial evidence that these festivals of drunkenness were frowned upon by many in society. This was something Egyptians struggled with — the alcohol making them lose control. For them, this ritual is designed to bring chaos as close as it could possibly come without upsetting the world order. They allow themselves to slip to the very brink in participating in this.
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