Studying homosexuality in ancient Egypt is a difficult task. Not a single legal text has survived from ancient Egypt (in contrast to elsewhere in the ancient Near East); and no sure evidence points to cult prostitution taking root there (until the late Roman period). In fact, sexual intercourse was viewed as ritually defiling in sacred places. Explicitly sexual motifs in art and literature are limited, and coded images and metaphors often confront the investigator. Also, as Egyptologist R.B. Parkinson puts it, “the subject [of homosexuality in ancient Egypt] is surrounded by modern as well as ancient taboos…” Edgar Gregersen noted how some Egyptologists have been embarrassed by statues of the god Min, who is always depicted with an erection; and he reported on one young museum curator who was surprised to discover a box containing over a dozen wooden phalli that had been hacked off of Min statues in the museum and then hidden away. Today more open-minded research is being done, although academic homophobia still exists. We are going to focus on four of the major sources that relate (or have been related) to homosexuality in ancient Egypt: (1) Conflict of Horus and Seth, (2) Neferkare’s Affair with General Sisene, (3) Akhenaten’s Disappearing Boyfriend, and (4) Tomb of the Two Manicurists.
Conflict of Horus and Seth
Set or Seth in Egyptian religion was the god of evil. Set was a sun god of pre-dynastic Egypt, but he gradually degenerated from being a beneficent deity into being a god of evil and darkness. In a widespread Egyptian myth he murdered his brother Osiris and was in turn defeated by Horus, the son of Osiris. Horus was the ancient Egyptian god with the head of a falcon and whose eyes were the sun and moon. The kings of Egypt were called living incarnations of Horus. During the 1st dynasty Horus was known principally as an opponent of Seth, but after about 2350 BCE he became associated with the Osiris cult and was identified as the son of Osiris. He destroyed Seth, the killer of Osiris, and became ruler of all Egypt. His left eye (the moon) was damaged by Seth but was healed by Thoth.
The conflict between Seth and Horus was an extended conflict between the god Osiris and Seth, his rival brother, who murders Osiris and then seeks to remove Horus, Osiris’ son and heir, with his claim to be king of the gods. Osiris had been murdered by Seth and cut into 13 pieces. His wife Isis found 12 of the pieces, but was never able to find the 13th, his penis. Seth had thrown it into the Nile River, where it brought fertility to all of Egypt. To replace his penis, Isis fashioned one of wood in which she used to impregnate herself and bear their son Horus.
The story of their conflict, usually referred to as “The Contendings of Horus and Seth,” exists in different versions and dates back to the early Middle Kingdom (2040-1674 B.C.), with origins that are probably older. The basis of the story is that Seth and Horus vied for the Kingship of Egypt. Seth tries to seduce Horus, telling him what a lovely ass he has and how vital he looks. Seth gets Horus to join him in his bed and proceeds to fuck him. However, Horus does not allow Seth to ejaculate inside of him, but reaches back with his hand and catches his semen. Horus then takes the semen to his mother and shows it to her (I can’t imagine what my mother would have done), and in various versions Isis cuts off his hand and throws it into the Nile (then conjures him a new hand) or has Horus throw the semen into the Nile. Then Isis and Horus plot their revenge.
They trick Seth into eating lettuce that has been laced with Horus’s semen. (yum, yum, can you imagine how good the semen of a god tastes?) When the two gods go before the judgment of the other gods of Egypt to decide who will rule, Seth states that he has penetrated Horus and deposited his seed. Horus, says, yes he penetrated me, but his seed was deposited in my hand and I threw his seed in the Nile. Neither Seth nor the other gods believe Horus; his credibility to rule has been destroyed by the fact that he was the receptive partner. Then Horus tells the gods in judgment that Seth has ingested his seed which is even more of a horror to the gods (sexual relations could be forgiven by the Egyptian gods, but a man’s semen should only be deposited into a woman’s vagina [or in the Nile for fertility, more on that later]). So the gods decide to call forth their semen. (Can you imagine what the world would be like if someone could call forth your semen? What a white sticky mess that would make over everything.) When the gods call for the semen, Seth’s semen rises from the Nile River, while Horus’s semen emerges from Seth’s mouth. It is then decided that Horus would rule Egypt and all kings and Pharaohs after him would be seen as the earthly incarnation of Horus.
Neferkare’s Affair with General Sisene
Pharaoh Neferkare (Pepi II) and Sisene (or Sasenet), a military commander, lived during the 6th Dynasty (2460-2200 B.C.) in the Old Kingdom. In the first part of a partial text about Neferkare, it is stated that General Sisene amused (or loved) the king “because there was no woman [or wife] there with him.” A little later we read that Teti, a commoner, saw “Neferkare, going out during the night to walk on his own. Teti decided to follow him and watched as he arrived at Sisene’s house. The king threw up a stone and stamped his foot, at which a [ladder] was lowered down for him. He climbed up, and Teti waited. When the king had done what he wanted to (presumably fucked) the general, he returned to the palace. Teti then notes that the king went to the general’s house at the fourth hour of the night [10 p.m.] and spent four hours there.”(quite a love-making session). Although the narrative implies a censure of homosexuality, Neferkari is not criticized per se for having sex with another male but for being a bad ruler, because he was sneaking around at night as opposed to doing his kingly duties. Contemporaries might have looked upon such activity on the part of a king, who was an incarnation of deity, as undignified and inappropriate. He was a god on earth; he should not have been sneaking around. Yet, the pharaoh evidently had homosexual desires strong enough so that he found a secret lover and a nocturnal way to satisfy them happily, at least until he was discovered.
Akhenaton’s Disappearing Boyfriend
Was there a homoerotic relationship that existed between Akhenaten, 10th ruler (c. 1352-1338 B.C.) of the 18th Dynasty in the New Kingdom, and his co-regent, the youthful Smenkhkare? Akhenaten came to the throne as Amenophis IV, turned from the worship of Amon-Re to Aten (lit. “sun disk”) and changed his name accordingly, and then built a new capital in middle Egypt named Akhetaten (now known as Amarna). Also unusual was the way the king had himself portrayed, with feminine-like broad hips, swelling breasts, and large thighs, rather than normally as an ideal young man – and also with a long face, bulbous chin, and plump belly. ( It is thought that he had Marfan’s Syndrome. He is also thought to also be the father of Tutankhamen, aka King Tut and born with the name Tutankhaten). Along with his wife Queen Nefertiti, Akhenaten turned the religious life of Egypt on it’s head—partly to take some of the power from various priests of different god cults. Some Egyptologists believe that Akhenaten had himself portrayed in a bisexual way for theological reasons, e.g. to echo Hapy, the god of Nile flooding, who was deliberately portrayed bisexually to suggest both male and female fertility.
Two theories exist about Nefertiti’s fate. Some say that he ruled alongside her husband but in order to lessen her influence in Egypt (Egypt did have female pharaohs but they were never well liked), she was murdered and an attempt was made to erase her form history. If this was the case then a man known as Smenkhkare replaced Nefertiti as Akhenaten’s lover and co-ruler. It is known that at some point Nefertiti’s influence was replaced by that of Smenkhkare in every way, in the bedroom and the throne room. Some have speculated that Nefertiti actually began dressing as a man (not uncommon with female rulers of Egypt). As a man, she became known as Smenkhkare. It is unknown if Smenkhkare was Nefertiti or a male lover of Akhenaten, either way there seems to at least be some degree of gender bending going on between the two. Some even suggest that Smenkhkare was Akhenaten’s son, not his lover at all.
After Akenaten’s death, Tutankhamen became king and the Egyptian priest of other gods were restored. In an attempt to erase the religious upheaval caused by Akenaten’s rule, the restored priests attempted to erase the names of Akenaten, Smenkhkare, and Nefertiti from history. Some, however, survived for we now know the tale of Akenaten.
Tomb of the Two Manicurists
Initially dubbed the “Tomb of the Two Brothers,” this burial place was discovered (and partly reassembled) in 1964 at Saqqara, near Memphis. This tomb shows the two men who were buried there holding hands and embracing intimately, noses touching. Inscriptions reveal that both men held the title of Royal Manicurist and Chief of Palace Manicurists; and the tomb dates from the reign of Niuserre (2453-2422 B.C.), in the 3rd Dynasty in the latter half of the Old Kingdom. The two men, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, ingenuously had their names decoratively intertwined above the entrance to the inner chambers as “Niankh-Khnum-Hotep,”, which may be translated “joined in life and joined in death [or ‘peace’].” Both men are identified as hm (with the sense of “priest” here), and another inscription authorizes other priests (hm) to carry out their duties, while forbidding the men’s families from hindering them. The Egyptian hm derives from the common hieroglyph for “female,” but drops the feminine ending. This pictograph was used in a variety of senses, including “coward,” more generally “eunuch” (more in the sense of one being born a male biologically but having changed one’s gender, than being castrated), and commonly “priest” in tomb inscriptions. How these males were changed into hm is not clear, although such androgynous servants have often played a role in cultic rituals related to death and burial. Both men, as palace officials, enjoyed a high social status; and they also were counted as members of a large favored circle of priests, who performed a significant religious role. Since the inscriptions note that both men were married and had children, they were not eunuchs.
Various explanations have been offered for the relationship between Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep – that they were brothers, twins, related by marriage, close relatives, business associates, or members of the same guild – yet it has been suggested that the unique nature of the iconography (images and symbols) here and their closeness (especially their embracing) point to a more strong emotional bond. Also, both of them being called hm (a gender-ambiguous term) would be more in keeping with a homoerotic bond than any of the other relationships suggested. Egyptian art rarely depicted figures embracing, and scenes of two men doing so are virtually unknown. If these men were lovers, it would demonstrate that homosexual love did express itself on some occasions in ancient Egypt and also found some acceptance. In the outer part of the tomb, the two men are seen seated together, arm in arm, greeting offering-bearers and visitors to their burial place, and also walking, hand in hand, touring and inspecting their tomb. In the inner part is displayed a banquet scene, where the two men are entertained by dancers and musicians. Also here are three scenes of the two men embracing: one rests his arm around the other’s shoulder, while the second grasps the first man’s arm. In two of the scenes, the figures stand so close together their noses touch and even their thighs, seemingly, as well – just how the two men evidently wished to embrace each other throughout eternity.