Enculturated Sexuality of Egyptian Religion

Sheldon Gosline

Director of the Hieratic Font Project

Institute for the History of Ancient Civilizations

Northeast Normal University

138 Renmin Street, Changchun 134000 PR China


Gender differentiation is a universal human social norm. Every society has a mechanism intact for casting people into socio-sexual roles and this gender process can be traced in the archaeological record. That said, one must quickly counter that HOW gender is expressed varies drastically. Within a culture, the engendering process varies according to caste, class, economic standing or other cultural sub-group. Between cultures gender is continually interacting with other social norms. Gender takes on a life of its own as it changes through time, like all other aspects of a society. Tracking this change through time and space is the study of what I call "archaeogender."

Multi-cultural and post-colonial approaches can aid our efforts to get away from the Western binary gender paradigm. One case study of gender concerns matters of faith and spirituality in ancient Egypt. The gender of priests and even "GOD" is a hot issue. It was world-wide headline news when the Church of England decided to allow women to enter the priesthood, and much resistance persists, especially in Roman and Orthodoxy circles. Likewise, the movies "Priest", "Jeffrey" and the strong protests against them, illustrate the strong reaction against homosexuality among Roman Catholic clergy, only hinted to in the earlier "La Cage aux Folles". The ancient model for priesthood, that of devotee to a divinity, is all but lost in our modern consciousness.

By comparison what was it to be a female "priest" or even a female "goddess" in an ancient society, such as Egypt? As early as the Old Kingdom, we can document that hundreds of non-royal women served in the priesthood of important deities, but we are still up against a wall of past and present gender biases. We derive most of our material culture data concerning ancient Egyptian women through biased Egyptian written records. Hired artisans carved most texts for the husbands of female sacerdotai. Men controlled the economic power that made these artistic expressions possible. In the rare instances when women held power to patronize memorials, we obtain clearer evidence of their true status, but only a glimpse. Philologists identified priestly titles of women as "honorific" while never making such a suggestion about men. Similarly, Western scholarship has assumed that the type of priesthood in which the women were involved was not professional, and when religion became more organized there was an effort to exclude women.

Women in priestly service in ancient Egypt were not living in a hypothetical "golden age" of the Mother Goddess, nor in a poorly documented age of the early Church. Egyptian women were not only very active in religious leadership but also received theological education to perform their duties. Constructed gender roles did not restrict their religious experience in Egyptian culture, although we know the most were from the highest social status and represent a small proportion of the entire population. The official theological culture incorporated these ancient women to participate in shaping the spiritual landscape.