Sexual History: The Ancient Erotica of Great Civilizations

This story originally appeared in Dirge Magazine on September 4, 2016. 

Though it may not be polite to talk about in history class, erotica appears in most great civilizations in human history. From hieroglyphs of fornicating Egyptians, to wild orgiastic Greek romps painted on pottery, to octopus cunnilingus wood cuts in Edo-period Japan, when there is art and culture, there is erotica.

Attitudes about sex and art change constantly and vary across cultures, but you’d be wrong to assume modern sexual mores are more depraved than those of antiquity. Ancient erotica is rife with kink of many stripes, and the artwork here proves anything that can be tried has been tried thousands of years before you came along. If it can’t be tried (the human body has limitations), it’s been imagined and recorded in graphic detail.

In ancient Egypt, sexual images were common in temples, tombs, and religious texts. The Sun God created other Gods by masturbating, an important event recorded in Egyptian art. Often, hieroglyphs implied sexual acts rather than depicting them in detail. Artists used symbols and coded iconography. The Turin Erotic Papyrus, however, shows twelve sexual positions in detail and even makes creative use of a chariot and a piece of pottery. Some interpret this piece as a satirical work poking fun at the pious upper classes. Whatever its purpose, it’s explicit, imaginative, and is changing modern views of sex in ancient Egypt.

A reconstruction of part of the Turin Erotic Papyrus.

Anyone who’s read a few Greek myths knows how the desires of sex-crazed Gods wreaked havoc on their own societal structure and us mortals. In ancient Greece, bisexuality was common, as was prostitution. Grown men sometimes had condoned sexual relationships with adolescent boys. With sex so intertwined with religion, myth, and culture, it’s not surprising it shows up in art as well.

An erotic scene on the rim of Greek drinking cup from 510 B.C.

19th Century Japanese artist Hokusai’s beautiful “Wave” woodcut graces t-shirts and handbags today, but Hokusai produced several x-rated works too racy for the museum gift shop. Hokusai’s “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” (also known as “The Pearl Diver and the Octopus” and several other titles) is part of the Shunga tradition, a style of Japanese erotic art done in ink or woodblock prints from 1600-1860. These works were outlawed in Japan in 1722, but were still produced, shared, and used as sex education material for young couples. In such cases, I assume the couples looked at pictures focusing on human sex acts rather those featuring octopi.

Hokusai’s “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife.”

Several hundred years of cultural influence from Islamic countries and the British colonists have made India into a morally conservative country. However, don’t forget this is also the country that brought us the Kama Sutra. The sculptures on the Khajuraho temples, built between 950 and 1050, show statues of men, women, and animals in a number of inventive sexual acts. Theories differ as to why these sexual images appear on the temple. Some believe people came to the temples to learn about sex. Others think the sculptures represent new beginnings.

A scene from a Khajuraho temple.


The ancient Roman erotic art proved too racy for Francis I, King of the Two Sicilies, who, after viewing numerous sculptures, frescos, and statues, ordered they be hidden from the public in a secret cabinet in 1819. The National Archeological Museum of Naples put the pieces back on display 181 years later. Now, visitors can come see the collection of stone penises, the famous (infamous?) and expertly crafted statue of a satyr penetrating a female goat, and many other pieces of ancient erotic art too sexy for the 19th century.

Greek statue of Pan having sex with a goat.

The restored ancient Roman erotic frescos from a Pompeii brothel show idealized vignettes of sexual encounters that, while enticing for viewers, were far more glamorous than the encounters taking place in the building’s cramped rooms. Similar scenes adorned walls of Pompeii’s bathhouses.

This painting adorns the wall of an ancient Pompeii bathhouse.

In modern times, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft’s Justice Department put a curtain over the breasts of Lady Justice in a fit of modesty in 2002. Lady Justice, and her bare breasts, come from the ancient Roman goddess Justitia. She’s often shown holding a balance scale, an image taken from Egyptian hieroglyphs. In fact, our entire system of government comes from ancient Greece, those heathens who drank wine out of orgiastic goblets. Had Ashcroft been armed with a full history of erotic art, he might have felt he got off easy with the bare-breasted Justice statue. She is definitely less obscene than Ashcroft’s performance of his original song Let the Eagle Soar.

Our ancient forefathers were human after all, filled with carnal desires and depraved sexual fantasies. They recorded their humanity in their art; good, bad, and taboo. It’s been uncovered and catalogued, it’s just not easy for us modern prudes to discuss.