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Fertility, Potency, Passivity, and Activity in Male and Female Egyptian Nudes

Orly Goldwasser’s theories about the significance of semantic determinatives in hieroglyphic script rest on the premise that the array of determinatives “consists of and reflects a system of knowledge-organization; furthermore… this organization is not at all arbitrary or context-bound, but faithfully represents the deep structured system of world-organization of Egyptian elite society” (Goldwasser 25).  Throughout his analysis, this assumption about word categorization’s relation to world categorization is used in a very productive way, allowing the Egyptian record to speak for itself with a conscious attempt to avoid superimposing modern patterns onto the historical text. 

            Gay Robins, though she does not state it explicitly as Goldwasser does, uses a closely related assumption to found her argument about the relation of nudity in Egyptian art to broader cultural concepts of fertility and potency.  If she were to make a parallel statement about the basis of her argument, it might sound something like this:  Motifs in representational art that depicts human and humanoid figures consist of and reflect a system of knowledge-organization; furthermore this organization faithfully represents the deep structured system of world-organization of Egyptian art-consuming society.  To a great extent, she uses this assumption to make significant and valuable observations—concluding that male nudity communicates either a lack of power (when humans with flaccid phalluses are depicted) or great potency (when deities with erect phalluses are depicted), while female nudity communicates fertility and often has the goal of provoking male arousal.  But I believe she reads some of our own cultural sensibilities into the corpus she is studying, and that by returning to the primary evidence at hand her conclusion might alter significantly. 

            Robins constructs a gender dichotomy with her unquestioning use of the terms “fertility” and “potency.”  Fertility implies a passive relation to reproduction—in this view a woman is something like a field for the growth of life; potency requires an active role in reproduction—male sexuality is here seen as a demonstration of power.  By using this model, an implicit assumption seems to be that active female sexuality is a relatively new convention. 

            In the Egyptian context, it is not entirely unwarranted to posit that femininity in general was construed as less active than masculinity.  As Robins points out, women were more restricted than men in choice of occupation, and the range of titles that could precede their names was more limited—and “the most common by far was ‘mistress of the house” (Robins 27).  It is important to note, however, that this occupation itself is not a passive role!  Administration of an estate, managing domestic contracts, birthing and rearing children are really quite active pursuits.  Robins calls the images of naked women “fertility figurines” and says that “their purpose was to help the deceased, male or female, to be reborn into the afterlife” (30).  She is right to point out the female connection to rebirth—but she should also point out that birth labor is active, not passive! 

            Robins explains that “in contrast to the penis that is either flaccid or erect, there is no easily seen external change in the female genitals between nonarousal and arousal” (39).  While Egyptian art may have lacked the technical capacity to express female arousal visually, this alone should not indicate that in the Egyptian world-view, female sexuality was relegated to passive fertility. 

            The image of Isis as a bird descending upon the dead Osiris’ penis indicates an alternative to this model.  Here Isis is quite active—she is not only atop her lover but she in fact reconstituted his entire body after it had been rent apart in order to initiate the scene.  Considered with her subsequent birth of Horus, this appears to be a visual representation of active female sexuality.  It is executed outside the classifier of human nudity, which is perhaps why it escaped Robins’ study in the first place, but its evidence is well-known enough and significant enough to her conclusion that its neglect is a serious problem indeed.

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