The penis sheath was an essential element of men's costume in ancient Egypt. This strategically placed strip of cloth was worn, not out of modesty as we might assume, but to protect what was considered a vital and sacred organ from environmental elements, working hazards, as well as troublesome insects and tropical diseases.
In ancient Egypt all men adopted costume that emphasized the front of the body. The traditional male garment, called the schenti, was a simple kilt made out of leather, hide, or linen that was wrapped around the hips. This emphasis on the genital area was due to the fact that it was regarded as sacred because of its central role in procreation. Attention was also directed to this part of the body by draping cloth from the waist over the pubic area.
Some ancient Egyptian drawings depict men naked except for a belt around the waist from which hangs a strip of cloth forming a penis sheath. Even in historical times unmarried men still walked around in this garb. During the New Kingdom (c. 1500–c. 750 B.C.E. ), Egyptian military recruits donned a uniform consisting of a short kilt or merely a penis sheath, with a feather in the hair for ornament.
The penis sheath may also have inspired one of ancient Egypt's most enduring icons. The ankh hieroglyph means "life" and has been called the original cross. However, its origin remains a mystery. Some scholars have speculated that it represents a sacred or magical knot or a sandal strap. Still others believe the ankh sign may have a connection to the ceremonial penis sheath worn by the Egyptian king during the heb sed, a ritual performed every thirty years after his coronation where the king performed a ritual run and dance aimed at proving he was still physically able to rule.
Contini, Mila. Fashion: From Ancient Egypt to the Present Day. Edited by James Laver. New York: Odyssey Press, 1965.
Houston, Mary G. Ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Persian Costume. London, England: A. C. Black, 1954.