Close-up of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep from their joint mastaba (tomb) at Saqqara, Egypt.

The Importance of Evidence in the Heated Debate on Homosexuality in Ancient Egypt

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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.

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.

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.

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

By: Ḏḥwty

References

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 .]

Available at: http://oi.uchicago.edu/sites/oi.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/shared/docs/saoc37.pdf

Dollinger, A., 2003. The Contendings of Horus and Seth. [Online]
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

Dunn, J., 2013. The Tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep at Saqqara in Egypt. [Online]
Available at: http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/niankhnumt.htm

Johnston, J. J., 2010. Beyond Isis and Osiris, Alternate Sexualities in Ancient Egypt. [Online]
Available at: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/petrie/visit/trails/AlternateSexualities

Lyon, A., 2014. Ancient Egyptian Sexuality. [Online]
Available at: http://anthropology.msu.edu/anp455-fs14/2014/10/23/ancient-egyptian-sexuality/

Wilford, J. N., 2005. A Mystery, Locked in Timeless Embrace. [Online]
Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/20/science/a-mystery-locked-in-timeless-embrace.html?_r=1

Comments

“I have not done wrong sexually, I have (not) practiced homosexuality”.

The term "homosexuality" is a very modern culture-bound concept that cannot convey an accurate translation of whatever Egyptian term was used.

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It is well established that Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep shared the title of Overseer of the Manicurists in the Palace of King Niuserre. They were buried together in their joint royal tomb, and depicted intimately touching noses. The fact that they both had wives and children, far from discounting their intimate relationship with each other, actually clues us that, like most ancient cultures, male / male relationships were common and a non-issue as long as they fulfilled their duty to reproduce and care for their offspring.

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