Sexuality in ancient Egypt was open, untainted by guilt. Sex was an important part of life – from birth to death and rebirth. Singles and married couples made love. The gods themselves were earthy enough to copulate. The Egyptians even believed in sex in the afterlife. Sex was not taboo. Even the Egyptian religion was filled with tales of adultery, incest, homosexuality and masturbation… with hints of necrophillia! Masculinity and femininity itself were strongly linked with the ability to conceive and bear children.
..Revel in pleasure while your life endures
And deck your head with myrrh. Be richly clad
In white and perfumed linen; like the gods
Anointed be; and never weary grow
In eager quest of what your heart desires –
Do as it prompts you...
Homosexuality and Lesbianism
There is little evidence for lesbianism in ancient Egypt. There are two possible mentions, one being The Book of the Dead in Papyrus Nestanebtasheru (c. 970 BC) which mentions that she had never had sexual relations with the wife of a male – however, this may be because the text was mistakingly copied from the male version of the Book of the Dead instead of the correct female version. The other is related to a book of dreams, the Papyrus Carlsberg XIII (c. 2nd Century AD), which shows that lesbianism was at least recognised late in Egypt’s history:
If a married woman has intercourse with her, she will have an ill fate, and one of her children will [lacuna] … If a female has intercourse with her, she will lie.
— Manniche, L. 1987, Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt, pp. 102-103
There is, however, much more evidence for homosexuality, other than that occurring during the battle of Horus and Set:
Ancient Egyptian culture is shrouded in mystery due to its age and the paucity of sources which detail the average Egyptians’ life, and what does exist focuses more on the elite than the layman. This study delves into a highly intimate and secretive aspect of Egyptian life: same-sex desire. Through an examination of primary source documents and artifacts from Egypt, and existing Egyptological research, this study will catalogue homosexuality amongst males in Ancient Egypt in an effort to better understand the origins of documented queer history. The results of this study indicate that while same-sex desire amongst males was officially condemned, in practice the attitude seemed to be more accepting. Understanding that modern hetero-normative relationships do not monopolize history, and that in many cultures the family unit was not bound by modern day constructs is crucial for queer youth and other members of the queer community and better contextualizes our understanding of history.
Depictions of possible homosexuality
Nyankh-khnum and Khnum-hotep
The best known case of possible homosexuality in Ancient Egypt is that of the two high officials Nyankh-Khnum and Khnum-hotep. Both men lived and served under pharaoh Niuserre during the 5th Dynasty (c. 2494–2345 BC). Nyankh-Khnum and Khnum-hotep each had families of their own with children and wives, but when they died their families apparently decided to bury them together in one and the same mastaba tomb. In this mastaba, several paintings depict both men embracing each other and touching their faces nose-on-nose. These depictions leave plenty of room for speculation, because in Ancient Egypt the nose-on-nose touching normally represented a kiss.
Egyptologists and historians disagree about how to interprete the paintings of Nyankh-khnum and Khnum-hotep. Some scholars believe that the paintings reflect an example of homosexuality between two married men and prove that the Ancient Egyptians accepted same-sex relationships.
Other scholars disagree and interprete the scenes as an evidence that Nyankh-khnum and Khnum-hotep were twins, even possibly siamese twins. No matter what interpretation is correct, the paintings show at the very least that Nyankh-khnum and Khnum-hotep must have been very close to each other in life as in death.
King Pepi II and his general officer Sasenet
A well known story, dating back to the Middle Kingdom and handed down on three time apart from one another documents, tells about an anonymous citizen, who comes to the audience hall of king Pepi II (here named by his birth name, Neferkarê). The citizen wants to lament about an unnamed circumstance, but the king does not want to listen to the laments, so he orderes his royal musicians to drown the strangers speech with noise. Disappointed, the stranger leaves the palace. When this happens several times, he orders his friend, the high official Tjeti, to follow the king. The king in turn is frequently leaving the palace during the night. Tjeti finds out that king Pepi II keeps visiting his loyal general officer Sasenet for several hours, then returning back home.
The chapter in which king Pepi II visits his loyal general officer is subject of passionate discussions. Espacially one certain phrase stays in the centre of investigations: the text says, that “his majesty went into Sasenet’s house and did to him what his majesty desired.”. The phrase “doing what ones desires” is commonly an flowery paraphrase to describe sex. For this reason, some scholars are convinced, that the papyrus reveals king Pepi’s homosexual interests and his same-sex relationship to his general officer.
But other scholars are instead convinced, that the precarious passage is merely an allegoric pun to religious texts, in which the sun god Râ visits the underworld god Osiris during the middle four hours of the night. Thus, king Pepi II would be taking the role of Râ and Sasenet would take the role of Osiris. The phrases about “doing what ones desires” would therefor be overrated and misinterpreted.
Horus and Seth
A further famous story about same-sex interactions can be found in Papyrus Illahun, dating back to the Middle Kingdom. It contains the nearly completly preserved story of the Osiris myth and the legendary fight for the throne of Egypt between Horus and Seth. The chapter in question reports that Seth was unutterably jealous about his young nephew Horus, because Horus was very young and popular. He got literally pampered by the other gods. Seth instead had very few companions and he was comparatively unpopular because of his choleric and vindictive behaviour. As a result, Seth tried to either chase away or even kill Horus, no matter what the cost. When Seth constantly fails, he plans to humiliate his rival so badly, that Horus would be banned from Egypt for ever. Seth invites Horus to some kind of slumber party and convinces the teenage Horus to drink more booze than Horus could normally cope with. When Horus is boozed, Seth seduces him to sleep over the night in one bed together. When lying together in one bed, Seth grabs Horus and rapes him. But Horus has tricked Seth, his drunkenness was staged. He catches Seth’s semen with his hands and hides it. At the next morning, Horus runs to his Mother, Isis, to tell her what happened. Isis is first speechless with rage and disbelieve. Then she decides to return the like on Seth: she cuts off Horus’ hand and lubricates Seth’s semen on Seth’s own favorite food (Egyptian lettuce). Totally clueless, Seth eats the manipulated lettuce, then he goes to the divine court to inform on Horus. At first, the divine judges swear at Horus, but when Thot, the scribe of the court, calls for Seth’s semen to come out of the body of Horus, the semen instead comes out of the body of Seth. Seth blushes in embarrassment and shock, then flees. Horus is acquitted.
The famous rape of Horus by his jealous uncle is also subject of passionate discussions. While most scholars agree that the papyrus clearly describes rape, it must remain open, if it actually describes an homosexually driven deed. Background of the dispute are Seth’s motives: he does not love Horus, in contrast, he hates his nephew and the rape was clearly performed to humiliate Horus. The only common ground between the rape and homosexuality is that the act was of same-sex nature.
But some scholars are not so sure and point out, that Seth was often credited with questionable sexual interests. For example, Seth once tried to seduce his own sister Isis. In another story, taking place before the great fight for the throne, Seth makes clear overtures to Horus. Basically, Seth was often mentioned in sexual contexts that could be interpreted as “unnatural” or even “perverted”.
Ancient Egyptian views
It remains unclear, what exact view the Ancient Egyptians fostered about homosexuality. Any document and literature that actually contains sexual orientated stories, never name the nature of the sexual deeds, but instead uses stilted and flowery paraphrases. While the stories about Seth and his sexual behaviour may reveal rather negative thoughts and views, the tomb inscription of Nyankh-khnum and Khnum-hotep may instead proof, that homosexuality was likewise accepted. Ancient Egyptian documents never clearly say that same-sex relationships were seen as reprehensible or despicable. And no Ancient Egyptian document mentions that homosexual acts were set under penalty. Thus, an straight evaluation remains problematic
Further Information about Sexuality in Ancient Egypt
- Homosexuality in Ancient Egypt – Wikipedia
- Eros in Egypt – David O’Connor
- Family and Sexual Mores in Ancient Egypt – Daniel Kolos
- Drink, drugs and sex – André Dollinger
- Adult Life in Ancient Egypt – Digital Egypt