Did Egypt's most celebrated queen really have a vibrator filled with bees?
History is laden with nonsense—made-up stories with no basis in reality that gets repeated enough times that they become, as far as the world at large is concerned, true. One of these, that shows up all over the place (including Maude’s history of the vibrator, in fact) is the idea that Cleopatra invented the vibrator, getting around the no-electricity-in-ancient-Egypt issue by using either a gourd or a papyrus box filled with bees.
To cut a long story short, no she didn’t. There’s no evidence for it at all, and it’s clearly a terrible idea. Trapped bees get extremely angry, which is presumably, within the story, the point, their livid buzzes shaking their case to deliver stimulation. But then what happens? Either they’re released and sting the hell out of everyone, or are left in there until dead, which is pretty gross. Times were different back then, but still, killing a bunch of insects seems unlikely to really get anyone in the mood.
The tale seems to have originated in a book in the early 1990s and been widely repeated since—it’s a short, very repeatable story, told in a sentence, that, as long as you don’t think about it too much, seems to make sense. Bees buzz, vibrators buzz, job done. Good work, Cleopatra, sort of.
It also fits in with the cultural idea we have of Cleopatra as being highly sexual, an idea that may or may not have any basis in reality. There has been a lot more written about Cleopatra after her life than during it, and a lot of speculation has become entwined with the truth.
We do know that she was Queen of Egypt from 51BC to 30 BC, and her death marked the end of an era—afterward, Egypt was under the control of the Roman Empire. While Queen, she had a son with Julius Caesar, and later had an affair with Mark Antony, previously one of Caesar’s most senior generals.
This slight soap opera-esque piece of information became the biggest thing people knew about her, and over a thousand years after her death, she became a central figure in a huge amount of medieval romantic tragedies. Renaissance artists painted her, William Shakespeare dramatized her in Antony and Cleopatra, and she became as much an archetype—the all-powerful ruler consumed by doomed romance—as a real historical figure.
In Victorian times, Ancient Egypt became extremely fashionable, with a huge surge in interest known as Egyptomania. Cleopatra—or, to be more accurate, a vague idea of Cleopatra—became something of a sex symbol, nearly two millennia after her lifetime. While, as far as historians know, she had just two sexual partners in her lifetime, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, she was reinvented into something of a femme fatale.
Movies were made about her, presenting her as impossibly glamorous. Pretty much every generation of moviegoers has had some incarnation of Cleopatra portrayed by the most glamorous actress of the era, from Theda Bara in 1917 to Claudette Colbert, Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Vivien Leigh, and Monica Bellucci. While the real figure was said to be celebrated more for her wit and brains than physical beauty, she is very much now associated with phenomenal, irresistible beauty.
There are other myths concerning her sexuality, none of which have ever been verified in any way. One, thought to date from the fourth century, said that men would occasionally pay for sex with her with their lives—that she was so desirable men would die to sleep with her, and she was so immoral and insatiable she’d let them.
According to another, believed to have originated in a series of fake letters written in the sixteenth century, Cleopatra’s sex drive was so high that it was a cause for medical concern. Visiting a brothel full of male prostitutes and sleeping with 106 of them in one session did nothing to satisfy her, leaving Mark Antony with no solution but to seek the services of the entertainingly-named doctor Soranus. He prescribed a special ointment for Mark Antony’s penis which brought Cleopatra such pleasure she never needed to look anywhere again.
Why was she the subject of so many more sex-based myths than other rulers? There are no stories of Ptolemy inventing pegging, for instance, or Rameses IV creating a masturbation aid from some reeds.
Unfortunately, when it comes to women, history seems to have a habit of rounding up. Cleopatra had relationships with two powerful men, therefore by some curious arithmetic, she had to have been completely sex mad. When dealt with by medieval scholars, any sexuality at all becomes inflated and exaggerated to the point that people easily believe absurd tales of insect-assisted orgasms.
All of which is to say, no, Cleopatra didn’t invent the vibrator at the expense of some bees. That would be no way to beehive.