Ancient Egypt, both Pharaonic and Graeco-Roman, has yielded much representational and artistic evidence for gender and sexuality. Ignored and even censored out of existence by scholars of the past, such materials from the ancient world have excited considerable scholarly interest in recent decades. Much of this recent scholarship treats ancient sexual imagery as symbolic of fertility rather than as literal evidence for sexual behavior or attitudes. Certainly, in an agrarian society like ancient Egypt with a high rate of childbirth mortality, fertility is a matter of great concern. But the evidence is not restricted to representations of reproductive sexual activity or images that can realistically be tied to fertility. Images of and allusions to homoerotic activity and nonreproductive sex between men and women (as well as humans and animals) are frequently explained as humorous or satirical, but often the intent seems to be more descriptive or even erotic, even to an ancient audience. In truth, ancient Egyptian images of men and women emphasizing sexual characteristics probably spoke to their ancient audiences on a number of levels: reproductive, erotic, comical, satirical, mystical.
Images of women that emphasize sexual characteristics have complex meanings related to sexuality, fertility, and religion. Female nudity is an important marker of association with fertility, but representations of nude female adolescents are linked to sexual pleasure as well. By contrast, male representations associated with sexuality and fertility focus on a single element: the erect penis or phallus. Representations of gods and mortals with erect penis as well as isolated phallus images and amulets were common and connoted fertility, sexuality, even comedy.
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