My previous post about mirrors of Ancient Egypt happened to be very long already, so at some point I had to stop it even if I had more ‘mirrors in art’ to talk about. This one is more or less a follow-up, or a ricochet, although it can be read as a stand-alone story, too.
In the previous post I mostly told about very solid artifacts from Ancient Egypt, such as bas-reliefs or frescos wall. The objects I am talking about, metal mirrors, are also relatively robust. Even these solid are often eaten by time quite severely, and what can we expect from fragile papyrus, a sort of paper used in Ancient Egypt? It seems to be almost a miracle that such frail and brittle things like papyrus, made of the plant leaves few thousands years, would survive till our time. But the miracles seem to happen from time to time, and by now we have a whole collection of ancient papyruses. As a rule, they are preserved very badly, and it often takes considerable efforts to simply unfold then without destroying, and simply to see what’s written on them (as in the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls; in this case many of the scrolls are in fact made of parchment, not papyrus; even this, more durable material inevitably comes into disrepair with time).
The fragment I’ve shown above is not even the worst possible scenario, the majority of the artifact we had look like that:
These pieces are often destroyed and incomplete, written in the languages we barely understand, and also most likely tell about the things and events we have no idea about. Images are very found on these manuscripts very rarely, and to expect to find the depiction of a mirror would seem to be ‘miracle of the miracles’.
And yet we are apparently very lucky, since there exists at least one manuscript from Ancient Egypt that contains the picture of the mirror. But what a colourful manuscript it is!
The papyrus is often called ‘Turin Erotic Papyrus‘ (and so the portmanteau in the title of this post where I try to glue ‘mirror’ and ‘erotic’). It’s called Turin because of its current location, in the Museo Egizio in Turino (or at least the wikipedia article says so, I didn’t find any mentioning of this manuscript on the museum website) .
Its discovery is very enigmatic. The sources that I have say that it was found in 1820 in the Egyptian village Deir el-Medina, not far from the Valley of King near contemporary Luxor. However, the first excavations began on this site in the 1840s, and became really big only in the beginning of 20th century. This doesn’t exclude that the manuscript could be found by the locals earlier and sold to the travellers.
The Russian wikipedia article mentions that the manuscript was seen very critically by Jean-François Champollion, one of the first serious egyptologist who managed to decode the Rosette stone, thus helping us to (re)learn the old Egyptian language. Apparently, Champollion was shocked by the very explicit content of the manuscript, which is often referred as the ‘Egyptian Playboy’ and sometimes described as the earliest known depiction of sex in human history (but also important is that Champollion died in 1832, so if this incident, of him seeing and critiquing the manuscript is real, that it had be indeed found in the 1820s).
What is shown above is, of course, not exactly how the manuscripts looks like today, it’s a contemporary reconstruction. The real fragment appear look more like that pieces:
But even these fragments were too shocking, and not only to the researcher in the beginning of 19th century but even the people of our modern times. The #NSFW part of the manuscript was not on public display up until the mid 1970s!
The interpretations of its controversial content are very diverse and there is no consensus even today how to understand this document, which is dated to 12-11the centuries BC, the times of the so called New Kingdom, and the ruling of either Ramses III or his son, Ramses IV (I am using these dates straight from wikipedia, but I never read any serious articles confirming this attribution).
It’s a pretty large artifact, by the way, the scroll is not that tall, 20cm or so, but very long, almost 2m long. It has two distinctive parts, so called Animal Part (the right part of the scroll) and Playboy Part (my own naming; the official version is either Sex Part, or Orgy Part; or simply the Left Part).
The Animal part contain what we would describe as ‘humorous’ pictures of animals that are depicted doing human activities (I am again using a contemporary remake, which was even colored):
To my knowledge, the rightmost part of the manuscript has another very interesting piece, an old map…
Which is also greatly interested and in many ways unique… but which I have to park for better times (or for another blog, about maps-in-art, which I may decided to start in the next life.
Among many kama-sutra-ish scenes of the Left Part there is one which seemingly depicts a mirror. I actually started this posting with this fragment, but now also show the contemporary reconstruction of the depicted scene:
The scene depicts, and pretty explicitly, not only various coital alignment techniques, but also the application of the mirror by a girl, who apparently uses it to put a lipstick (or rather put something on her lips using the stick).
The kind of mirror she is using should be already very familiar to the readers of this blog, it’s a typical metallic disk with a handheld. We see no traces to depict the refelction here, but the efforts to show it is the mirror are pretty clear.
In reality, and to see her own face reflected, the woman should have held the mirror at different angle (and we should be seeing its side view, not the frontal one).
The big question remains to what extent this is an authentic document, and not a much later fake. We don’t have any other document of this kind from Ancient Egypt, and both its content and also the style of drawings are very different from other artifacts (including papyri) we have. Champollion couldn’t believe it’s a real scroll because of its content; I don’t care about the content (or rather we know by now that sexual scenes were depicted by all ancient cultures, and often very explicitly, from Ancient India, to Aztecs and Maya, and up until Greeks and Romans (and by everyone in between, temporally and spatially).
My question will be about how accurate we interpret the meaning of this scene; was it intended to show the sexual scene during putting make-up? or to show the make-up as a routine practice prior to sex? Or – and again referring to my previous post – perhaps the idea was to show a certain priestess of the cult related to the Sun, who is still praying and making sex at the same time?
Either way, but we still have allegedly the oldest depiction of an object that is apparently able to reflect light (otherwise known as a ‘mirror’) in a manuscript. The next ones will start popping up only two thousands years later.