3000-Year-Old Text Discusses Sexual Assault In Ancient Egypt

Papyrus Salt 124, pictured here, is 68.3 centimeters (27 inches) long and 45.4 centimeters (18 inches) wide. The Trustees of the British Museum

A scrappy 3,000-year-old legal text, Papyrus Salt 124, might just be the world’s first documentation of a powerful man getting fired for sexual assault.

After it was first discovered in the early 19th century, the Papyrus Salt 124 was sent over to the British Museum to be analyzed and picked apart by scholars. It tells the story of a lengthy legal complaint against a man called Paneb, an ancient Egyptian chief-workman from the village of Deir el-Medina around 1244 BCE. The village was home to the hundreds of workers and artisans who helped construct the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. The complaint is written by Amennakht, a workman and the son of a former chief-workman, and addressed a high-ranking political official of Eygpt.

Among the accusations thrown at the dubious character of Paneb  tomb robbing, violence, adultery, and general debauchery – the text also appears to accuse him of sexually assaulting a woman, as recently highlighted by historian Carly Silver writing for Narratively. It explains that Paneb stripped a woman named Yeyemwaw of clothes, threw her against a wall, and then “debauched her”. The list of accusations was used to argue that he should be removed from his post of chief-workman.

One translation of the text reads: “Paneb debauched the citizeness Tuy, when she was the wife to the workman Kenna, he debauched the citizeness Hunro, when she was with Pendua, he debauched the citizeness Hunro, when she was with Hesysenebef; so said his son.”

It’s easy to interpret this story through our 21st-century eyes, particularly in a climate where the #MeToo movement has brought issues of sexual consent to the front of the zeitgeist. However, it’s important to not lose sight of the original context in which it was written. Effectively, you have to get into the mindset of an ancient Egyptian where today's rules and social norms don't apply.

It’s unclear what the phrase “debauched her” really entails, or whether the act was consensual or non-consensual. Much of the text explains how Paneb was a serial adulterer, sleeping with half of the town’s women, which was a pretty outrageous crime in itself back in 1244 BCE. So, it could be that he actually got into trouble because he had sex with numerous unmarried individuals and the issue of consent never factored in. Nevertheless, the story of Yeyemwaw does appear to have been an especially important accusation against him, as it was one of the more detailed accounts in the text.

The fate of Paneb, Yeyemwaw, and his victims remains unknown. However, given the list of accusations, it's safe to assume that he lost his job (or perhaps was even killed under capital punishment).

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