Papyrus Turin 55001, also known as ‘The erotic papyrus’
Papyrus Turin 55001 is known for its humorous and erotic content. The piece is now, and has been since it was ‘discovered’, in the Egyptian Museum of Turin, Italy. It has been known since at least 1820, but due to its controversial content it was not published until the 1970’s. The papyrus was made in the Ramesside Period, the period after Ramsess II (better known as Ramsess the Great) until the end of the 20th dynasty. It was found in the workmen’s village of Deir el-Medina in Thebes, a small village which was inhabited by the artisans and workers who created the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
The papyrus is made from two different pieces of papyrus and it is relatively short (only 259 centimeters, 101.97 inch.). It is therefore safe to assume that these pieces were not made to be one papyrus but glued together. All the scene are done in black ink and then colored in, all the scene are shown on the recto side of the papyrus.
The papyrus has two ‘sections’ of scenes; on the right side of the papyrus there are a group of animals who are making music on various instruments and other human activities. On the left side of the papyrus there are 12 scenes which show couples who are having sex, in many various positions.
The animals section (the right side)
The image shown here is a reconstruction of the original, which is in poor shape, but shows many different animals carrying out a variety of human activities. There is a monkey playing a large flute, a crocodile carrying a Menat-necklace (associated with the goddess Hathor) and a lion and donkey playing the harp. A lion and a gazelle are playing a game and animals having a conversation. The strangest column however, is the second one from the top. It shows mice besieging a fort of cats (and winning!) and a bird capturing an animal hiding out in a tree. These are drawings that were meant as satirical comments on society, and are therefore humorous. The world is shown as being upside down, something the Egyptian liked to draw in their spare time as a joke between themselves. This kind of ‘art’ is often seen on ostraca, broken pieces of pottery on which anybody could ‘doodle’ something fun.
The erotic section (the left side)
On this side of the papyrus there are 12 erotic scenes which are often accompanied by short inscriptions. It is not fully clear but is appears as if more than one couple is depicted here, and this section is also meant to be humorous and/or satirical. This can be seen in the difference between the men and the women, the men are mostly unkept, unshaven, and balding men, whereas the women are the ideal of beauty in Egypt. They have long limbs, their hairs is beautifully kept and they are willing, exactly how Egyptian men liked their women. The men and women alike are shown with their genitals ‘Full Frontal’ and the papyrus shows no signs of covering some parts up. There are 12 different scenes, each with a different sexual position, however some positions are rather unconventional. Especially the one in the chariot catches the eye, it appears that this man is also different from the other men (he is not bald and a little shorter).
Besides the obvious sexual content of these scenes, there are many other indicators that this is meant as a sexual, or fertility, piece. Most women have round forms, showing that a woman is of the right age to have sex. The extremely large penis of the men are meant to show us that they are very potent, and that they can satisfy their women. The woman all have a lotus flower on their head, a strong Egyptian symbol for fertility, along the perfume bottle which appears under chairs and even on one of the women butts.
The inscriptions are also an important part of the papyrus because they indicate us that it is not just the men that are enjoying themselves; “… come behind me with your love, Oh! Sun, you have found out my heart, it is agreeable work…”.
Why this papyrus was written remains a mystery, perhaps it was meant to be humorous or perhaps it was a scribal workout? Perhaps it is the Egyptian version of the Kama Sutra? Whatever the reason may have been, this papyrus has drawn the attention for almost two centuries and will for many more.
Sexual life in Pharaonic Egypt : Towards a urological view, A.A. Shokeir (2004)
Sex and gender in Ancient Egypt, C. Graves-Brown (2008)
Der Papyrus 55001 und seine Satirisch-Erotischen Zeichnungen und Inschriften, J.A. Omlin (1973)