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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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.

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

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.

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.”

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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