Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll in Ancient Egypt

Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll in Ancient Egypt

by Amy Cowle

A university course titled “Sex Drugs and Rock and Roll in Ancient Egypt” is now offered to freshmen at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. The course explores the ancient Egyptian notions of divine experience and the ritual magic that assisted with it. The means of experiencing the gods in ancient Egypt often involved rituals that included drunkenness and music.

The instructor, Betsy Bryan, is a professor of Egyptian art and archaeology and chair of the Near Eastern Studies Department. Bryan says, “Sexuality helped to guarantee the maintenance of world order and was important to all notions of life and death.”

Bryan specializes in the Egyptian New Kingdom (18th to 20th dynasties), spanning the time from 1567 B.C.E. to 1085 B.C.E. Photos from Bryan’s excavations and her related travels throughout Egypt are important teaching tools in the course. Using her laptop computer and a projector, Bryan lights up one wall of the classroom with slides of tomb art. Parsing the images, she helps her students see that the paintings are rich with sexual symbolism. For example, students learn that lettuce is featured in several scenes depicting feasts because the vegetable was considered an aphrodisiac. Figs appear in the paintings to echo love poems of the day, when the fruit was often shared between lovers. Actions associated with amorous behavior are also all over the tomb walls; women fixing their hair, beds being made and wives handing arrows to their husbands are all considered to be sexual gestures, Bryan says.

A web site that chronicles Bryan’s excavation each January at the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt, garners thousands of hits each winter. To see a day-to-day account of the 2005 excavation and to find links to digs dating back to 2001, go to

Amy Cowles is a news and information officer at Johns Hopkins University. For more information visit

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