The Importance of Evidence in the Heated Debate on Homosexuality in Ancient Egypt
Sexual matters and practices are quite difficult to discern in the archaeological record. Unlike diet or diseases, sexual practices do not to leave traces on human remains. Additionally, objects used during sex (e.g. contraceptives) do not usually survive in the archaeological record, assuming they existed in the first place.
Moreover, for many ancient societies sex was regarded as a taboo subject and was seldom depicted in the material culture. When sex was depicted, the interpretation is made by modern viewers. To understand how the society that created such works wanted to present these images, one would need to rely on its literary sources.
To further complicate matters, such sources may not be representative of the entire society, as it usually presents only one point of view. Understanding sex in ancient societies becomes even more difficult when dealing with practices that did not involve a sexual act between a (living) man and a (living) woman, including, but not limited to: necrophilia, bestiality, and homosexuality.
Homosexuality in The Book of the Dead
According to the majority of the texts available on the subject, in ancient Egyptian (Pharaonic) society, heterosexual relationships seemed to be the norm. Homosexuality, on the other hand, may have been frowned upon.
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In Spell 125 of the Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day, which contains things to be said by the deceased when he/she arrives in the “hall of the Two Truths”, there is a line that reads “I have not done wrong sexually, I have (not) practiced homosexuality”. Thus, homosexuality, based on this piece of text, may have been viewed as something forbidden.
The Weighing of the Heart from the Book of the Dead of Ani. (Public Domain) After swearing the “Negative Confesion” (having not committed any of the 42 sins), the deceased’s heart would be weighed to test the validity of their confession.
The Rivalry of Horus and Seth
Although homosexuality may have been looked down upon at the time, that does not mean that it was not practiced. There are instances in the Egyptian literary sources which may be interpreted as depicting homosexual relations (usually between males rather than females). One of these can be found in the myth entitled The Contendings of Horus and Seth. One version of the relevant section of this myth is as follows:
“Then Seth told Horus: “Come, let's make holiday in my house.”
Horus told him: “I'll do so, surely, I'll do so, I'll do so.”
Now afterward, (at) evening time, bed was prepared for them, and they both lay down. But during the night, Seth caused his phallus to become stiff and inserted it between Horus's thighs. Then Horus placed his hands between his thighs and received Seth's semen. Horus went to tell his mother Isis: “Help me, Isis, my mother, come and see what Seth has done to me.”
And he opened his hand(s) and let her see Seth's semen. She let out a loud shriek, seized the copper (knife), cut off his hand(s) that were equivalent.”
To understand this part of the myth, one has to bear in mind that Horus and Seth (also known as Set) were constantly engaged in a sort of rivalry. Therefore, in this version of the myth, although Seth was engaged in what may be considered as a homosexual practice, the purpose of his actions were aimed at dominating Horus, and proving that he was the greater of the two.
Gods Seth (left) and Horus (right) adoring Ramesses. Temple at Abu Simbel, Egypt. (Public Domain)
The Story of King Neferkare and General Sasenet
Another possible depiction of homosexual relations can be found in a story known as King Neferkare and General Sasenet. This tale, which is quite likely to be fictional, is about King Neferkare’s (known also as Pepi II) nightly exploits at the house of General Sasenet:
“Then he (someone called Tjeti) noticed (?) his majesty the king of Upper and Lower Egypt Nefer-ka-Re, who had set out by himself on a walk without there being any person with him. Tjeti retreated before the king without letting him see him. Tjeti, son of Henet, stood still thinking as follows: 'If it is so, then the rumors about him going out at night are true.'
Then Tjeti, son of Henet, followed this god, without letting his heart put blame on him, in order to observe every one of his (i.e. the king's) deeds. Then he reached the house of the general Sasenet. He threw a brick after stamping with his foot. Then a ladder was lowered to him (and) he climbed up.
Meanwhile Tjeti, son of Henet, waited until his majesty went away. After his majesty had done that which he had wanted to do with him (i.e. the general), he left for his palace, Tjeti behind him. Only after his majesty had reached the Great House, life, prosperity, health, Tjeti went home.
Concerning the walk of his majesty to the house of the general Sasenet it should be noted that four hours of the night passed. He had spent a further four hours in the house of general Sasenet. (And) when he entered the Great House four hours were left until dawn.”
The text does not state explicitly the thing that the pharaoh was doing with his general, though “that which he had wanted to do with him” is thought to be an indirect way of saying ‘sexual intercourse.’ If the pharaoh was indeed engaged in a homosexual relationship with his general, then it serves to reinforce the negative attitude of the ancient Egyptians towards this sexual practice.
Bas relief of Neferkare (Pepi II) from his tomb at Saqqara, Egypt. (Copyrighted Free Use)
It must be pointed out that this story only exists in fragments and we do not know its ending, thus we cannot be entirely sure of what was going on between the pharaoh and his general.
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A Picture That Has Created a Thousand Words of Debate
At present, the strongest argument for homosexuality in ancient Egypt comes from two images from the Old Kingdom tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep in Saqqara. This tomb was discovered in 1964 and contained a particularly interesting image “on the section of the west wall between the two openings that lead to the offering rooms”.
This image depicted the two men embracing each other affectionately. This image is seen again “inside the final offering chamber on the reverse side of the entrance pillar.” The initial interpretation of this image was that the two men were brothers, or perhaps even twins.
It has also been argued that Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were in a homosexual relationship, a view that has gained support by some scholars over the last two decades. Yet another suggestion was the two men were actually conjoined twins.
Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep from their joint mastaba (tomb) at Saqqara, Egypt. (CC BY SA 3.0) The two men are depicted with their respective children standing behind them.
The lack of other supporting evidence at present, however, means that the interpretation of the relationship between Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep (as well as the more general topic of ‘Homosexuality in Ancient Egypt’) will continue to be a matter of debate for some time to come.
Featured image: Close-up of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep from their joint mastaba (tomb) at Saqqara, Egypt. (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Anon., The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day [Online]
[Allen, T. G., (trans.), 1974. The Book of the Dead or Going Forth by Day.]
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Available at: http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/texts/horus_and_seth.htm
Dollinger, A., 2006. King Neferkare and General Sasenet. [Online]
Available at: http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/texts/sasenet.htm
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Available at: http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/niankhnumt.htm
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Available at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/petrie/visit/trails/AlternateSexualities
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Available at: http://anthropology.msu.edu/anp455-fs14/2014/10/23/ancient-egyptian-sexuality/
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Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/20/science/a-mystery-locked-in-timeless-embrace.html?_r=1