The Egyptian sacred 'prostitute' (who was probably a highly regarded as a member of Egyptian society because of her association with different gods or goddesses (such as Bes and Hathor), rather than the street walker that the modern mind imagines) advertised herself through her clothing and make up. Some of these women wore blue faience beaded fish-net dresses. They painted their lips red, and tattooed themselves on the breasts or thighs and even went around totally nude. There is no evidence that these women were paid for these fertility-related acts, so some believe that word 'prostitute' is probably an incorrect term for these women.
Photo taken with
kind permission of
the Petrie Museum,
Another idea, pointed out to me by Daniel Kolos, an Egyptologist academically trained at the University of Toronto, is that this premarital sexual activity might be a prerequisite for marriage. One of the theories that disassociates these women from being prostitutes, is that their sexual activity could be part of a "coming-of-age ritual", just as circumcision was one for males. With Egypt's heavy emphasis on fertility as the defining nature of a man or a woman, this idea is a highly likely probability.
Other theories could be that the young virgin girls joined itinerant performing groups - dancers, singers and the like - and during their time with these groups they experienced their first sexual encounters. If a girl became pregnant, she would probably leave the troupe to head home to her family with proof of her fertility. (Motherhood was venerated, giving a woman a much higher status in society, so pregnancy was something to be proud of in ancient Egypt.)
These travelling groups of women were strongly linked with midwifery and childbirth-related deities. The goddesses Isis, Nephthys, Meskhenet and Heqet disguised themselves as itinerant performers, travelling with the god Khnum as their porter. Carrying the sistrum and menat instruments - instruments with sexual overtones - they showed it to Rawoser, the expectant father. Knowing that his wife, Raddjedet, was having a very difficult labour, he told these women - the disguised goddesses - about his wife's troubles, and at their offer of help, he let them in to see her.
These women do not seem to be pay-for-sex prostitutes, instead they seem to be a link with the divine, a helper of expectant mothers and singers, dancers and musicians. This is not to say that there were no pay-for-sex prostitutes in ancient Egypt, it it just that there is little evidence of this found. Considering Egypt's very different image of sexuality, the modern concept of both sexuality and prostitution do not fit this ancient society. Women operated under a totally different cultural imperative than women today, thus ancient Egyptian sexuality must be looked at without modern prejudices. It seems that these female performers, these 'prostitutes', were treated with courtesy and respect, and there seemed to be a well established link between these travelling performers and fertility, childbirth, religion and magic.