Romance in Ancient Egypt

With Valentine’s day recently been and gone love is still on the mind and with that I thought, I would explore the world of romance in ancient Egypt through the art they produced to reflect romance. Orientalist thoughts have led us to believe one of two views about the world of romance in ancient Egypt. The first that Ancient Egyptians where constantly lusting after one another, with pharaohs having massive harems of beautiful women and even the everyday man maybe having more than one wife. However, multiple marriages are not as commonplace as one might expect of you take this line of thought. The second that it is often implied that attitudes towards sexuality were somewhat naïve and coy. In reality like most societies, they applied their code of ethics to certain aspects of sexuality, adultery was not condoned, but their general attitude was distinctly pragmatic and unprudish[1].

Furthermore, many current descriptions of ancient Egypt tend to assume that marriage in the pharaonic period was similar to the modern institution, there is surprisingly little evidence either for marriage or marriage ceremonies or for the concept of the married couple (as opposed to a man and woman simply living together)[2]. Although marriages in Ancient Egypt were arranged for communal stability and personal advancement, there is ample evidence that romantic love was as important to people, just like today[3].

Romance though is what is on the cards for today, not marriages or ethical codes. Romantic love was a popular theme for poetry, especially in the New Kingdom (1570-1009 BCE) when several works appear to praise lovers and wives alike[4]. The verses allow people to tap into the emotional side of Egyptian daily life.

Love Songs and Poetry  

As I have said above the New Kingdom saw a flourishing in this cosmopolitan atmosphere with Egypt being more influenced by those outside its borders and so these poems and songs began to be written down and expanded as a genre. The poems were written on papyri or ostraca and date primarily to the 19th / 20th Dynasty and seem to have been read aloud with musical accompaniment from harpists, and so might have been a form of entertainment for the banquet goes[5].  Perhaps banquets like those shown on the walls of the Tomb of Rehkmire TT100 (Figure 1) and the Tomb of Nebamun (Figure 2).

Figure 1: Musicians and banquet goes from the tomb of Rehkmire TT 100 https://www.osirisnet.net/tombes/nobles/rekhmire100/e_rekhmire100_11.htm Accessed 15.02.2021

A famous collection of love poems can be seen in the Chester Beatty Papyri. The most elaborate of these series of songs is the song composed of a seven-stanza song which plays out a conversation between and young man and a young woman of their love in separation[6]. This song follows are few commons features, the pair of lovers call each other brother and sister and sing of their love in separation a common theme amongst describing their feelings of joy, /loss at their particular romantic situation, or delivering monologues to their own heart[7].  

Figure 2: Musicians and dancers perform for banquet goes from the tomb of Nebamun. British Museum EA37984 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA37984 Accessed 19.02.2021

The song starts with the man taking the first verse. In this opening verse, the man sings of the woman’s beauty and wishes to approach her. At length, he describes the object of this affections as ‘without rival, most beautiful of all, she looks like the star-goddess rising at the start of the good new year… her hair is true lapis, her arm gathers gold’[8]. In the second verse the women, separated, in her mother’s house she sings of longing for her love to arrive. Describing her longing for him to be there with her, ‘Come to me, let your beauty be seen, let father and mother be glad. Unfortunately, in the next verse, the man seems to abandon hope of reaching her seemingly lost saying that ‘River and road looked a like: I couldn’t decide where to put my feet’[9].  The song continues with the woman struggling with her desires exclaiming at the end of the verse ‘she is a woman fallen by love’[10].  In the next verse, we turn back to the man, having righted himself after getting lost he rejoices that he has seen the woman “overjoyed, ecstatic, great when told. there she is these, look, she has come’[11]. As following this alternating between the pair, we return to the woman as she has now seen the man approaching the house, she begins to sing of her hope that her mother will share the same sentiments as she does, ‘How my heart races for joy, brother, when I can see. If only the mother knew my desire’[12]. Now we come to the final verse, will the two lovers finally get to meet? The final verse is given to the man and after seven days of separate, the man has become sick with only the woman being able to cure him “sickness has entered deep into me; I have grown heavy in my limbs…. , my health cure is her visit … when I embrace her, she has banished harm from me’[13].

Love in Art

Figure 3: Nebamun, his wife and daughter enjoy time together in the marshes fishing and fowling. A common setting for love poems. British Museum EA37977 https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/object/Y_EA37977 Accessed 19.02.2021

But these poems did more than just reflect the feelings of those speaking in them. The scenes they described as reflected in the tomb paintings (Figure 3). References to fishing and fowling, to plants, trees and above all rich colours[14]. The poem from Chester Beatty I describes the woman as having hair of lapis, golden skin and fingers like dainty lotus blossoms. Flowers and plant play a major hook in the so-called ‘Flower Song’. Which has a woman describing the joy she has from seeing her love that she compares her feelings to being ‘like a field of fragrant blooms, an abundance of blossoming buds… a lovely place for a stroll while you hold your hand in mine’[15].   

Figure 4: Rekhmire and his wife seated togother in the banquet shown on his tomb wall. Her arm is placed on his shoulder in support and affection. https://www.osirisnet.net/tombes/nobles/rekhmire100/e_rekhmire100_11.htm Accessed 15.02.2021

Portrayals of married couples in the statuary, paintings and tomb reliefs of high -placed men and royal craftsmen alike seem to radiate a similar tenderness to that of the poems above. The couples are usually depicted standing or sitting side by side holding hands and the wife often has an arm around the neck or shoulder of her husband[16]. (Figure 4) With the New Kingdom, alongside this surge in poetry, the loving relationships of kings and queen begging to be revealed. A particularly famous example of this would be the relationship of King Tutankhamun and his wife Queen Ankhesenamun. This does also reflect the artistic style shift that came with the Amarna period but I won’t go into detail about that just now. However, a brief run-through of this style would produce some key characteristics. The scenes as much more relaxed and informal compared to other artistic phase, faces have pronounced facial folds, narrow/slitted eyes, while the body itself consisted of a thin, attenuated neck, sloped shoulders, a heavy paunch, large hips and thighs, and rather spindly legs[17]. In keeping with this more informal style, Ankhesenamun is always pictured with her husband, with it being noted that the artist has through this sought to emphasis the devotion to one another by proximity, hand gestures and facial expression[18](Figure 5). This relief is currently on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin shows King Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun and is often referred to as ‘a walk in the garden’.  In this snapshot, the ‘togetherness’ of the couple is there even though they aren’t touching. This togetherness is achieved through the style, body shape and colours, which appear in the same amount in both individuals[19]. The eyes also give the impression that the king is looking directly at his wife, while the viewer looks directly at her. 

I hope you have enjoyed this week’s instalment learning about the world of romance in Ancient Egypt, they were quite a romantic bunch really.  

Figure 5: King Tutankhamun and his wife Queen Ankhesenamun in a scene often referred to ‘a walk in the garden’ displaying a much more intimate look at royal relationships (No. ÄM 15000) Authors own photo.

References


[1] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 298

[2] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 190

[3] Mark, Joshua J. “Love, Sex, and Marriage in Ancient Egypt.” Ancient History Encyclopaedia. Last modified September 26, 2016. https://www.ancient.eu/article/934/. Accessed 15th February 2021

[4] Mark, Joshua J. “Love, Sex, and Marriage in Ancient Egypt.” Ancient History Encyclopaedia. Last modified September 26, 2016. https://www.ancient.eu/article/934/. Accessed 15th February 2021

[5] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 108

[6] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt/literature/lovesongs.html Accessed 18th February 2021

[7] Shaw, I. and Nicholson, P., 2008. The British Museum Dictionary Of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press. Page 108

[8] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt/literature/lovesongs.html Accessed 18th February 2021

[9] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt/literature/lovesongs.html Accessed 18th February 2021

[10] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt/literature/lovesongs.html Accessed 18th February 2021

[11] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt/literature/lovesongs.html Accessed 18th February 2021

[12] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt/literature/lovesongs.html Accessed 18th February 2021

[13] https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt/literature/lovesongs.html Accessed 18th February 2021

[14] Fowler, B., 1994. Love lyrics of ancient Egypt. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Page XIV

[15] Fowler, B., 1994. Love lyrics of ancient Egypt. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Page 26

[16] Strouhal, E. (1992) Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. Page 57

[17] https://www.britannica.com/art/Amarna-style Accessed 18th February 2021

[18] Mark, Joshua J. “Love, Sex, and Marriage in Ancient Egypt.” Ancient History Encyclopaedia. Last modified September 26, 2016. https://www.ancient.eu/article/934/. Accessed 15th February 2021

[19] http://www.smb-digital.de/eMuseumPlus?service=ExternalInterface&module=collection&objectId=607029&viewType=detailView Accessed 18th February 2021

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