Contrary to what archaeologists, historians, and conspiracy theorists may tell you, the pyramids were erected as a stiff monument to the prostitutes that once graced the banks of the Nile – at least, that’s the punchline to a smutty joke that Ancient Egyptians used to tell.
Though not remembered for their sense of humor, the residents of Ancient Egypt were in fact great fans of low-brow comedy, and while the majority of their wisecracks have been lost to history, a few scraps of slapstick can be found among the memoirs of the Greek philosopher and historian Herodotus. While traveling through Egypt in the fifth century BCE, the ancient scribe recorded numerous local jokes and folktales, some of which are presented and analyzed in the PhD thesis of classics student Alex Tarbet from the University of Michigan.
One notable example of ancient “oral graffiti” concerns the construction of the pyramid that stands just in front of the Great Pyramid of Giza, which was built by the pharaoh Khufu, otherwise known as Cheops.
According to the tongue-in-cheek narrative recorded by Herodotus, Cheops forced his own daughter into prostitution when he ran into financial difficulties. However, in addition to collecting payment from her customers, the royal daughter also “asked every man who had sex with her to give her a single stone.”
“They say that’s how the pyramid was built, from those very stones!” quipped the anonymous ancient comedian, before explaining that “every side of it measures a hundred and fifty feet…I measured these very pyramids myself.”
Far from taking pride in their country’s most iconic monuments, then, it seems that some Ancient Egyptians debased and derided the famous pyramids. According to Tarbet, the general population despised these giant monuments to the “hubris and selfishness” of Cheops, built by the aching limbs of the impoverished peasants.
“In fact, Egyptians who lived nearby hated the sight of the things so much that they refused to even speak Cheops’ name,” writes Tarbet. Instead, some locals used to refer to the pyramids using the name of a local shepherd, probably because of the way that sheep turds “tend to look like little stones stacked on top of one another.”
Thus, “in their version, the oral one performed for Herodotus, the people are really the ones responsible for the pyramids, namely the local men who went into a brothel and penetrated the royalty (literally),” explains Tarbet. “To that extent the humor would orally reclaim the pyramids as cultural sites belonging to the shepherds, women, and workers descended from their actual builders.”
In a similar example of iconoclastic humor, the Ancient Egyptians also used to tell a story about Setne, the favored son of Ramses the Great who used to go by numerous self-given titles such as “valiant heir” and “vigilant champion”. According to the popular tale, Setne once descended into a tomb in search of a magic book, where he ended up trying to have sex with a priestess of the cat goddess Tabubu.
However, as Setne wakes up from this illusory adventure, he finds himself lying naked in the middle of a street with his penis in a chamberpot full of excrement. According to Tarbet, this slanderous anecdote served to bring the pretentious Setne back down to earth, transforming him into an object of ridicule and allowing the resentful populace to regain control of his personal narrative.
Likewise, the joke about Cheops’ daughter and the pyramid provided more than just a cheap laugh, and offered a way for Egyptians to own the story of these ancient wonders. Or, as Tarbet explains, “by prostituting his own daughter, Cheops’ genetic lineage, thanks to his own financial failure, inherited the semen and shit of all the disgruntled workers.”