#4. Bestiality in ancient civilizations

As mentioned in my last blog post, I am examining ancient civilizations’ attitudes toward non-procreative sex acts as one way of evaluating the hypothesis that humans have evolved psychological adaptations to discourage us from engaging in these acts, or adaptations that cause us to morally condemn such actions in others. Last time I focused on ancient societies’ attitudes toward anal sex and masturbation, and for this post, I will look at their attitudes toward bestiality (human sexual contact with animals). Before we begin, I wanted to make a quick note about trying to identify moral attitudes in any given time or place: There is always a divergence between the standards actually practiced among the mass of the population, or what the majority of people consider permissible, versus the ideals enforced by legislators in these communities. This is especially important to keep in mind when examining cultural attitudes toward bestiality, because although laws and customs surrounding bestiality vary from condemnation to acceptance in different cultures, bestiality has been a part of human race throughout history, “in every place and culture in the world.” In fact, Hani Miletski argues that the abundance of information from around the world leaves no doubt that bestiality has been an “integral part of human life” since the dawn of civilization.

Practice of human-animal sex began at least in the Fourth Glacial Age (between 40,000-25,000 years ago), if not earlier. Cave drawings from the stone age demonstrate that prehistoric ancestors had frequent sexual relations with animals. Paintings and carvings of human-animal sexual acts in ancient religious temples also indicate the preoccupation of ancient men with bestiality. As for ancient civilizations, there was evidence of bestiality in the Ancient Near East, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and Ancient Rome, but with varying legal consequences: Whereas some cultures did not punish bestiality at all, others subjected the bestialist and the animal to death.

Bestiality was practiced in Babylonia, the ancient Empire in Mesopotamia. In the Code of Hammurabi, King Hammurabi (1955-1913 BC) proclaimed death for any person engaging in bestiality. However, during the Spring Fertility Rites of Babylon, dogs and other animals were used for constant orgy for seven days and seven nights. The Book of Leviticus describes bestiality as being very widespread in the country of Canaan, which is perhaps why Hebrews later considered sexual relations with animals a way of worshipping other Gods (similar to homosexuality) and put the bestialist and animal to death.

Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Greeks both practiced bestiality and believed that it cured nymphomaniacs, but had differing legal consequences for engaging in human-animal sexual contact. Ancient Egypt portrayed bestiality on tombs and in their hieroglyphics, while Ancient Greece often used themes of bestiality in their mythology (e.g. Leda and the swan.) Ancient Greeks and Ancient Egyptians both incorporated bestiality into their religious practices. Ancient Egyptians engaged in “worshipful bestiality” with the Apis bull in Memphis, Egypt, and with goats at the Temple of Mendes. Similarly, Ancient Greeks engaged in bestiality during religious celebrations and festivals. Although several Egyptian kings and queens had a reputation for engaging in bestiality, and Egyptian men were known to have sexual intercourse with cattle, other large domesticated animals, crocodiles, and goats, bestiality was still punishable in Egypt by a variety of torture mechanisms, leading to death. In contrast, bestiality was never punishable in Ancient Greece.

Like the Ancient Greeks, the Ancient Romans also incorporated bestiality themes into their mythology. Although bestiality was particularly widespread among the shepherds, Roman women were also known to keep snakes for sexual purposes. Bestiality flourished as a public spectacle in ancient Rome, where the rape of women (and sometimes men) by animals were used to amuse the audience at the Colosseum and Circus Maximus. Similar to Ancient Egyptian leaders, many Roman emperors and their wives were known to engage in bestiality or to enjoy watching others engage in bestiality, including Emperor Tiberius and his wife Julia, Claudius, Nero, Constantine the Great, Theodora, and Empress Irene.

Many cultures in the Arab countries, the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas  had beliefs or customs that encouraged bestiality among its men. For example, the belief that bestiality would lead to enlargement of the human penis was fairly widespread. Arab men believed that intercourse with animals increased virility, cured diseases, and enlarged their penises. Likewise, among the Muslims in Morocco, fathers encouraged sons to practice sexual intercourse with donkeys to make their penises grow. Muslims believed that sex with animals prevented men from committing adultery. Turks also believed that sex with a donkey makes the human penis grow larger. Some nomad tribes in Africa incorporated intercourse with cattle as a ritual of passage for young males. Adolescent males in Ibo (Nigerian tribe), for example, had to “successfully” copulate with specially selected sheep in front of a circle of elders. Among other tribes, it was custom for hunters to engage in sexual acts with freshly slain animals while they were still warm. This custom was seen among the Yoruba (tribe in Nigeria), Plains Indians, the Canadian Indian tribe of the Saulteaux, and the Crow Indians. As for the Native Americans and Eskimos, bestiality varied from tribe to tribe, but was largely socially acceptable and went unpunished among Navajo Indians, Crow Indians, Hopi Indians, Sioux, Apache, Plains Indians, the Canadian Indian tribe of the Saulteaux, as well as the Kupfer and Copper Eskimos.

Taking into account the widespread practice of bestiality from the dawn of civilization, and the considerable variation in terms of laws either regulating or punishing the practice, it is not clear whether there is a human psychological mechanism that has evolved to condemn the practice. A problem with this research is that it is not apparent just how common bestiality was among these different cultures. In the future, it may be helpful to consider the cultures that did institute laws against bestiality, and their justifications for doing so.


  1. Wow, that’s fascinating. I know it probably is beyond the scope of your project, but do you think that it would be possible for a researcher in the future to examine the relationship between an ancient society’s instances of non-procreative sex and that society’s observed birth rate?

  2. The main question I’m left with here is what kind of sexual purposes women kept snakes for… because the obvious sounds pretty unappealing. Definitely a lot of things could go wrong there. Also, I can’t say I’d want to share a partner with a donkey, but maybe that’s just my psychological adaptations talking. This sounds like it was a really interesting project!