The crumbling papyrus was found at the famed Tebtunis Library — a cache of thousands of papyrus scrolls at a temple complex in the Fayoum Oasis not far from Antinoopolis.
The papyrus is believed to be 1,900 years old, which would make the author a contemporary of the nearby Priests of Antinous at Antinoopolis, only a short boat ride up the Nile from Tebtunis.
Thousands of scrolls were found at Tebtunis, few of which have been translated. This scroll is currently in Florence, Italy, in the Istituto Papirologico "G. Vitelli."
The newly deciphered tale refers several times to priests dressing up, wearing makeup, partying and having sex. At one point a speaker implores a person to "drink truly. Eat truly. Sing" and to "don clothing, anoint (yourself), adorn the eyes, and enjoy sexual bliss."
The narrator of the story adds that the chief deity of his temple, the vulture goddess Mut, will not let you "be distant from drunkenness on any day. She will not allow you to be lacking in any (manner)."
The narrator defends his views by saying, "As for those who have called me evil, Mut will 'call' them evil."
Christian writers at the time harshly condemned Egyptian priests in general, and the Priests of Antinous in particular, for engaging in what they called "debaucheries" and "wanton sexual perversities" in the name of religious ecstasy.
So it is possible this story was a reaction to the prudishness of the fanatical Christians, who insisted that Jesus was virginal and sexually abstinent, as were his priests.
Researchers know the story is fictional because it employs an Egyptian noun used only in fiction to mark separate sections of a story. They know when it was written because the priest wrote in DEMOTIC, which was the Egyptian script used during the Roman occupation of Egypt.
Reconstructing the overall plot narrative of the papyrus is tricky. The text is fragmentary, and researchers cannot be certain how the full story unfolded since there are large "lacunae" or gaps where bugs have eaten away sections of the text.
"Conceivably, we have here the remains of an account of how an adherent of the goddess Mut persuaded another individual to devote himself to her worship or join in her rites," according to the researchers, professors Richard Jasnow and Mark Smith, who published their translation and analysis of the papyrus in the most recent edition of the journal Enchoria.
Jasnow, from Johns Hopkins University, and Smith, from Oxford, write that evidence of ritual sex is rare in ancient Egypt and the act probably would have been controversial in earlier ages.
"There is surprisingly little unequivocal Egyptian evidence for the performance of the sex act as such in ritual contexts," Jasnow and Smith write.
Thus it is possible that the ancient priest was writing a tongue-in-cheek satire lampooning the prudishness of contemporary Christian writers who accused Egyptian pagans of lasciviousness in their temples.