Museums are often misconstrued as dusty and lifeless — the least likely place to find something hot and steamy. But the Ancient Near East section in The Israel Museum’s Archaeology Wing features rare erotic art from the land between the rivers (Tigris and Euphrates), which predates India’s Kama Sutra by over 1,500 years. Such astonishingly intimate works reveal a side to the ancient Near East that contrasts sharply with the modesty prevalent in the modern Middle East.
Two clay plaques, small enough to hold in your palm, depict couples copulating in remarkable detail. Dating from the early second millennium BCE, the Old Babylonian period, they come from a 300-year window when mass-produced terra cotta plaques were popular, including those that exhibit sexual acts.
Mesopotamian erotica was “really something racy,” Laura A. Peri, curator of Western Asiatic Antiquities, said when we met in the labyrinthine bowels of the museum. “It’s not all, you know, missionary and that’s it.”
The first plaque shows a man penetrating a woman from behind, while standing. The second, slightly smaller one, depicts a man and woman in a similar position, with the woman drinking beer through a straw from a jug.
According to Dr. Julia Assante, a Near Eastern social historian, the woman drinking beer from a straw was not just a reflection of lifelike sexual encounters, but was “undoubtedly a [visual pun].” The straw in the woman’s mouth and the man raising a cup of wine to his lips were symbolic of performing oral sex on their respective partners. The Babylonians, Assante writes, held “an exalted cultural view of sex as inducing an altered state of wonder.”
The terra cotta plaques from Mesopotamia yield numerous different sexual positions, but one of the most popular was what’s referred to technically by the Latin: coitus a tergo — from behind. While erotic Mesopotamian art doesn’t detail a specific means of entry, anal sex was deemed a popular means of contraception by ancient couples before the invention of prophylactics. The depiction of couples engaging in rear entry may be indicative of that practice. Other plaques show partners side-by-side, standing up (aka lleváme) and plain old missionary; some depict women with legs spread, squatting over a comically large phallus.
That the erotic clay plaques were found in temples, graves and private homes makes it difficult to generalize about their intended use, but is testament to their popularity. That excavators found the erotic artwork in high-traffic rooms of homes leads Assante to infer that they were accessible to men, women and children.
“It’s a kind of pop art, because it’s very cheap material and easy to make,” curator Peri said. She explained that sexuality was very prominent in ancient Sumerian and Babylonian art and literature, particularly in the late-third and early-second millennia. Cylinder seals — small cylinder-shaped stones etched with figures and cuneiform used as a signet — occasionally featured men and women in erotic poses. Peri, an expert in understanding the symbolism of the seals, noted that erotic scenes usually weren’t the central image, nor did those seals belong to the king or officials.
Ancient Mesopotamian texts were so graphic in their detailing of the erotic arts that “you can really reenact the actions — what they did between the sheets — according to the descriptions,” Peri explained when we met at her office in The Israel Museum.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, Mesopotamia’s great literary work, lauds sex as one of the carnal pleasures humans ought to indulge in during our brief tenure on this planet. Siduri, a divine alewife, tells the eponymous king of Uruk to “let your belly be full, your clothes clean, your body and head washed; enjoy yourself day and night, dance, sing and have fun; look upon the child who holds your hand, and let your wife delight in your lap! This is the destiny of mortals.”
‘And let your wife delight in your lap…’
Peri explained that “delight in your lap” was a common euphemism for sex in ancient Akkadian, the language in which Gilgamesh was written.
The Gilgamesh epic also describes sexuality as a potent force that distinguishes humans from beasts. Enkidu, the wild man who becomes Gilgamesh’s comrade-in-arms, is tamed by a temple prostitute who ensnares him with her sexual wiles: “She was not restrained, but took his energy. / She spread out her robe and he lay upon her, / She performed for the primitive the task of womankind.”
Israelite and Canaanite artwork, by comparison, typically had very little overt sexuality, only nude female figures that disappeared after the institutionalization of early Judaism in the eighth century BCE. A mid-second millennium BCE Canaanite scarab seal found at Tel el-Far’a — near the junction of the Israeli border with Egypt and the Gaza Strip — shows the figures of a man and woman in a standing posture similar to the clay plaque at The Israel Museum. Both figures are fully clothed, however, and there is no latent intercourse, only the suggestion of it.
Siduri’s advice finds its way into the biblical literature, appearing in a toned-down version in Ecclesiastes 9:7-9. “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart,” Kohelet says among his many iterations of “under the sun.” But whereas the Mesopotamians spoke of enjoying sex, the Bible enjoins man to “Enjoy life with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity.”
The similarity between the two passages comes as little surprise. Ancient Israel was the land bridge connecting the two major civilizations of the ancient Near East, Egypt and Mesopotamia, and its culture was influenced heavily by both. A stark difference, however, was the difference in ancient Babylonian and Israelite perspectives on male homosexuality. The Babylonians, writes Prof. Karen Rhea Nemet-Nejat in her book Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, “didn’t condemn this practice” and observed a live-and-let-live attitude in regard to male-male sex. The Book of Leviticus, on the other hand, bans lying “with mankind, as with womankind” as “an abomination.”
Artifacts from ancient Babylon exhibit latent — even shockingly graphic — sexuality, but the exact purpose of the plaques remains unclear. Dr. Ilan Peled of The Hebrew University said there’s a scholarly debate over what purpose the erotic art served, with some contending they were votive objects for the veneration of Ishtar, the love goddess. Assante argues they were apotropaic, like other terra cotta amulets from the era, meant to keep away evil spirits. Others say that the clay plaques “portrayed prostitution, sexual relations conducted within a tavern, or sexual intercourse between a husband and wife,” with no particular context.
“It is possible that we merely face here a very early version of Playboy, Middle-Eastern style,” Peled said.