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Egyptian artists could depict sexual relations between humans and anthropomorphized deities without transgressing the bounds of modesty. According to Egyptian royal mythology, either a king's human mother (a queen) is impregnated by a god or his human father (a king) impregnates a goddess. The future king is born, nursed and proclaimed legitimate by the divine parent; then, when he comes of age, he accedes to the crown.(10)
These themes are depicted in the temple of Queen Hatshepsut (1478-1458 B.C.E.) at Deir el Bahari, as well as in the temple of Amenhotep III (1390-1353 B.C.E.) at Luxor. The dramatis personae are the god Amun-Ra and the human queens who bore Hatshepsut and Amenhotep III. Although in both depictions, which are almost identical to one another, sexual intercourse is only suggested, not actually depicted. Matters are explicit in the accompanying texts: The god gets into the queen's bed and, taking the form of her husband, unites with her sexually. Both queens recognize the god Amun-Ra, however, and they are delighted to be so honored.
A number of pictorial devices are used to soften the sexual dimension of the episode. The bed, the actual locale of the sexual union, is present, but the god and the queen are physically separated from it: Two goddesses seated on the bed hoist the couple above it. In one case, the god and queen sit on a long, horizontal hieroglyph for heaven, a device emphasizing the transcendental aspect of their union.
Nonetheless, it is clear what the god and queen are up to. They directly face one another, an unusual arrangement for a seated couple in Egyptian art, suggesting the imminence of an embrace. Furthermore, their legs overlap (but do not intertwine), suggesting the intercourse that is to follow and result in the birth of the king.
In both depictions, Amun-Ra makes a common gesture—repeated again and again in temple reliefs—of holding the life hieroglyph to the queen's nostrils, endowing her with life. At Deir el Bahari, Amun-Ra performs a more unusual gesture: Not only does he put the life hieroglyph to the queen's nose but he passes hieroglyphs representing life and "dominion or overlordship" to the queen at waist level. This latter symbol probably refers to the royal life transferred to the queen by the god in the act of copulation.
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