Chapters (Layout Features)

Sacred and Obscene Laughter in "The Contendings of Horus and Seth," in Egyptian Inversions of Everyday Life, and in the Context of Cultic Competition

Morris, Ellen F.

The eminent historian Robert Darnton has spent much of his career investigating episodes in French social history that no longer readily make sense,
such as why violent and obscene fairy tales were so popular in the French countryside during the Enlightenment and why a mass cat-lynching would
have proved so hilarious that a mere allusion to it was enough to dispatch the perpetrators into thigh-slapping bouts of laughter for weeks on end. To Darnton’s mind, historians have been far too apt to view eighteenth century France as comfortingly familiar terrain, where men and women thought and behaved much as they do today. Much enjoyed narrative events such as pre-pubescent Little Red Riding Hood’s strip-tease before the wolf just prior to being eaten, however, force an acknowledgment of the distance between now and then, between us and them. “When we cannot get a proverb, or a joke, or a ritual, or a poem,” Darnton maintains, “we know we are on to something.”

Despite the fact that millennia rather than centuries separate ancient Egypt from its historians, Egyptologists, too, have imposed their own worldviews upon the peoples they study. The many instances in which the Egyptian sense of decorum and humor did not match those of the keepers of their legacy has led over the past couple of centuries to the unabashedly sexual elements of their material culture and literature routinely being sequestered under lock and key or tastefully rephrased in Latin. While such censure has eroded markedly in the wake of the western sexual revolution and gay rights movement, it still persists in many of the visions of ancient Egypt conjured up for public consumption. Alan Lloyd, one of the most accomplished and insightful of Egypt’s historians, has never been guilty of the twin sins of boorish cultural imperialism and humourless prudery. It is to him, then, with hopes that he will enjoy it, that I dedicate this study exploring the conundrum of just why the sun-god, Pre-Harakhti, should have found the unexpected sight of his daughter’s genitals refreshingly funny. This seemingly gratuitous interlude in "The Contendings of Horus and Seth" defies a modern common sense approach to understanding it. If viewed from a more structural and etiological perspective, however, I hope to show that Hathor’s flash—like Darnton’s cat massacre—is capable of providing unexpected insight.

Geographic Areas


  • thumnail for Morris_2007_Sacred_and_obscene_laughter_in_The_Conte.pdf Morris_2007_Sacred_and_obscene_laughter_in_The_Conte.pdf application/pdf 470 KB Download File

Also Published In

Egyptian Stories: A British Egyptological Tribute to Alan B. Lloyd on the Occasion of His Retirement

More About This Work

Academic Units
Classics and Ancient Studies (Barnard College)
Published Here
June 14, 2018