Homosexuality in Ancient Egypt
HOMOSEXUALITY AND THE BIBLE, Supplement
By Bruce L. Gerig

Could a homoerotic romance have occurred in ancient Israel between Jonathan and David, have been known openly, and further have been recorded in that nation’s historical records? To try to answer this question, we now turn to see how homosexuality was more widely perceived in the ancient Near East, including Egypt, Mesopotamia, Anatolia (modern Turkey), and the Aegean. Also, we shall look at what the general social climate was during Israel’s early period, in the books of Judges and 1 Samuel. Ancient Egypt is a good place to begin, because the nation of Israel was born in Egypt. From the sixty-six descendents of Jacob’s family who moved there from Canaan because of famine, along with Joseph’s family of four who were already there (Gen 46:26-27), came the multitude of Israelites whom the Lord delivered out of Egypt. Although Jacob’s family settled in Goshen in northern Egypt and the Egyptians had a general dislike of foreigners (Gen 46:33-34), still the Joseph story (Gen. 37-50) and the book of Exodus show “a marked familiarity with Egypt and Egyptian customs.”1

Yet, 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.2 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…”3 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.4 Today more open-minded research is being done, although academic homophobia still exists. In this study, we shall focus on six major sources that relate (or have been related) to homosexuality in ancient Egypt: (1) Conflict of Horus and Seth, (2) Book of the Dead, (3) Teaching of Vizier Ptahhotep, (4) Neferkare’s Affair with General Sisene, (5) Akhenaten’s Disappearing Boyfriend, and (6) Tomb of the Two Manicurists.

Conflict of Horus and Seth – One famous story in ancient Egypt describes 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. This narrative, 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.5 The earliest longest version, dated c. 1160 B.C., late in 20th Dynasty in the New Kingdom,6 describes how “Seth said to Horus: ‘Come let us spend a pleasant hour at my house.’ Horus answered, ‘With pleasure, with pleasure.’ When it was evening a bed was spread for them and they lay down. During the night Seth made his penis stiff and he placed it between the loins of Horus. Horus put his hands between his loins and caught the sperm of Seth.7 Then Horus went to his mother, Isis [and said]: ‘Help me…! Come, see what Seth has done to me.’ And he opened his hand and let her see Seth’s semen. With a scream she took her weapon and cut off his hand and threw it in the water, and conjured up for him a hand to make up for it.”8 Then Isis helped Horus ejaculate and smeared his sperm over some lettuce, which was Seth’s favorite vegetable and which she then gave to him to eat. Later, when Seth boasted to the Ennead (the nine gods judging the conflict) that he had done the “work of a male [warrior]”9 on Horus, the gods “screamed aloud, and belched and spat in Horus’ face.” Wolfhardt Westendorf thinks that the Egyptians looked upon semen as poison when taken into the body in the wrong way – yet Seth did not die here. Still, the gods apparently felt that for Horus to be used like a woman sexually was so incompatible with kingship that they erupted with contempt.10 Seth’s act is usually interpreted as one of dominance and aggression, yet as Dominic Montserrat points out, the story is more complex, because here: (1) Two males, comparatively the same age (adults) and same status (gods), lie down for sexual play. (2) Both rivals are able to penetrate the other, in some way, and therefore may be looked upon as equals. (3) Horus willingly consents to have sexual relations with Seth (although not anal intercourse), who physically desires him (“sweet to his heart”) and unabashedly makes his request known.11

An earlier but shorter version, dated c. 2000 B.C.,12 from the 12th Dynasty in the Middle Kingdom and from Lahun (Kahun), describes what happened a little differently: “The divine person of Seth said to the divine person of Horus: ‘How beautiful are your buttocks, how vital! […] Stretch out your legs …’13 And the Person of Horus said: ‘Watch out; I shall tell [this]!’” Then he ran and told his mother Isis, that Seth desired to sodomize him. “And she said to him: ‘Beware! Do not approach him about it! When he mentions it to you another time, then you shall say to him: “It is too painful for me entirely, as you are heavier than me. My strength [backside] shall not support your strength [erection]…”’14 Then when he gives you his strength, place your fingers between your buttocks. … Lo, he will enjoy it exceedingly (?). [Keep] this seed which has come forth … without letting the sun see it…”15 Later, Isis threw Seth’s semen into a nearby stream, then spread some of Horus’ semen on lettuce and gave it to Seth to eat. Later, when Seth boasted to the gods that he had sexually taken Horus, the youth denied it. To settle the argument, the gods called forth the seed of both. The seed of Seth answered from the water into which Isis had thrown it, while the seed of Horus came forth from Seth’s forehead in the form of a golden disk, which was grabbed by the moon god Thoth to become his symbol.16

This story, of the family of Osiris, who was looked upon as the first human king of Egypt,17 suggests that from the earliest period for a male (god or human) to take, or be forced into, a woman’s role and be anally penetrated was looked upon as humiliating and shameful.18 Yet, at the same time, homosexual desire was known and spoken of openly; and men knew of and some engaged in homosexual play in bed, apart from the degrading act. For Horus to be penetrated was a frightening prospect; yet at the same time his semen in Seth brought benefit to the moon god. So, the signals are rather mixed. Actually Seth only fell into disfavor in the 8th century B.C., when his castration and incineration began to be celebrated in hymns, while earlier kings worshipped him as the god of storms and violence, including the Hyksos rulers in Second Intermediate Period (c.1674-1553 B.C.) and Seti and Ramses in the New Kingdom (13th century B.C.). Only much later did the valiant god become a vile demon.19

Book of the Dead – The Book of the Dead is a compilation of funerary (tomb) texts, gathered together from the 18th-21st Dynasties (1552-945 B.C.), although it derives from earlier sources. These spells were meant to preserve and protect the body, particularly from terrifying demons who were believed to inhabit the region before reaching the blessed kingdom of Osiris. Chapter 125, titled “The Protestation of Guiltlessness,” included two sets of “negative confessions” that the deceased was to declare before Osiris and forty-two other gods, to show that he or she was worthy to be granted eternal life.20 The first series states straightforwardly certain actions that the deceased declares never to have committed, while the second series names and is addressed to specific deities, also disclaiming certain actions. Acts that are considered “impure” include everything from murder (A14), blaspheming a god (A8), using dishonest scales (A25), and committing adultery (B19), to lying (B9), being quarrelsome (B25), being loud-mouthed (B37), and making someone weep (A13). Clearly no one could say that he or she had never done any of these things! Perhaps Hans Goedicke is right (1967) when he suggested that the deceased only picked those declarations that could truthfully be made, while overlooking the others.21 In any case, four of the declarations are relevant to our discussion; the initial translations are by John Wilson (in J.B. Pritchard22):

(A20) “I have not had sexual relations with a boy.” Parkinson notes that this reads, “I did not nk a nkk(w),” which is best translated as “I did not sexually penetrate another male,” not indicating any age bracket.23 Later inscriptions in the temple at Edfu (in Memphis) and in a papyrus from Tanis stated that it was a taboo “to unite oneself with an hm [effeminate male] or with a nkk [passive homosexual].”24 Yet, other versions of A20 are more general, stating something like “I have not committed fornication.” (Budge, 1951) or “I have not copulated [illicitly].” (Allen, 1960; cf. Faulkner, 1972).25

(B27) “O His-Face-Behind-Him, who comes forth from Tep-het-djat, I have not been perverted; I have not had sexual relations with a boy [a male].” Tep-het-djat was a sanctuary in the region of Memphis, the northern capital of Egypt (about 12 miles south of modern Cairo) during the Early Dynastic Period and Old Kingdom.26 Budge translates this confession as, “Hail, thou whose face is [turned] backwards, who comes forth from the Dwelling, I have not committed acts of impurity, neither have I lain with men.”27 Posener notes how homosexuality was forbidden in Memphis and two other nomes (provinces).28 Therefore, the question can be raised whether this is a condemnation focused really on the outlawing of sexual acts, whether heterosexual or homosexual, in sacred places.

(A21) I have not defiled myself.” Because of its vagueness, Budge translates this as “I have not polluted myself [in the holy places of the god of my city].” – filling in from the Papyrus of Amenneb (British Museum, No. 9964).29 T.G. Allen translates from the Ryerson Papyrus (OIM No. 787, University of Chicago): “I have not been unchaste, as priest of the city-god.” – drawing from the Turin, Leyden T 2, and L 3074 Papyri.30

(B20) O Maa-Intef, who comes forth from the Temple of Min, I have not defiled myself.” Budge translates this as, “Hail, thou who lookest upon what is brought to him, who comest forth from the Temple of Amsu [Min], I have not committed a sin against purity.”31 Min, an Egpytian fertility god, was normally depicted with an erect penis, which sometimes he held in his left hand. Bunson notes that “his festivals were joyous occasions”32 and one wonders what that meant with a fertility god! As Posener notes, “The Egyptians, who devoted themselves enthusiastically to the pleasures of life, knew how to appreciate the art of ‘spending a merry day’ – to quote their expression.”33 Still, perhaps homosexual acts were frowned upon in the sacred precincts of Min, since they were, in fact, infertile.

At certain points and in certain strata, then, the Book of the Dead does look upon both active and passive homosexuality as a “sexual taboo”34 and as “a deviation from Maat,”35 the goddess and path of universal harmony.36 Yet, at the same time, ample evidence displays a high concern with purity (rather than moral) issues and the prohibiting of sexual intercourse in sacred places and with priests serving their duties in such locales.37

Teaching of Vizier Ptahhotep – The oldest surviving text dates from the 12th Dynasty (1991-1785 B.C.) in the Middle Kingdom, although it may have had an earlier origin.38 Although this “manual of good and polite conduct” was difficult to understand even back in ancient times, these kinds of work were popular. The earliest (and fortunately complete) copy of Vizier Ptahhotep’s manual is contained on the Prisse Papyrus (Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris) and begins, “The teaching of the City Governor and Vizier Ptahhotep under his Majesty the King of Upper and Lower Egypt Izezi [Djedkari Isesi],” who reigned in the 5th Dynasty (c. 2470 B.C.), near the end of the Old Kingdom.39 The term “vizier” (tjaty) in ancient Egypt referred to the chief minister of Egypt, subordinate only to the Pharaoh.40 While this kind of literary work belongs to the most official and idealizing of discourses, it seeks to give practical advice on human dangers and failures. Such teaching could well have been recited at the pharaoh’s command.41 The 32nd maxim (of 45 total) is of special interest here, and reads: “Do not copulate [nk] with a woman-boy [hmt], for you know that / what is (generally) opposed will be a [necessity] to his heart, and that which is in his body will not be calmed. Let him not spend the night doing what is opposed in order that he may be calm after he has [quenched] his desire.”42 Parkinson translates the last line a little differently: “Let him not spend the night doing what is opposed; he shall be cool after destroying [renouncing] his desire.”43 Here Vizier Ptahhotep argues that the nocturnal activities of a ‘woman boy’ will bring him no lasting relief. Nk refers to penetration, and hmt refers to a male who is open to taking the womanly role, although his social status is unclear. In many cultures, women and boys were interchangeable as sexual objects. Parkinson notes that although same-sex penetration is condemned here, it is the passive partner who is demeaned and not the active partner, who has not departed from his appropriate (active) sexual role. It is assumed elsewhere in these maxims (21st, 37th) that the pupil or audience will marry, so the aim of this prohibition is probably to safeguard the morality of the youth. Still, a certain reticence is displayed here toward the active role.44 Any gay person reading this maxim would immediately know that it is written by a heterosexual male, not someone who knows how strong homosexual desire can be and how futile the call for abstinence may also be.

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. Known from three fragmentary copies, from the 19th–25th Dynasties (1295-656 B.C.), this text also probably originated earlier and had a long reading history.45 Although the beginning of the text is damaged, there is a reference to Sisene amusing the king “because there was no woman [or wife] there with him”; and the word “love [desire]” is mentioned in the line above.46 A little later we read that Teti, a commoner, saw “the divine person of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferkare, going out during the night to walk on his own… [Remaining hidden,] Teti said to himself, ‘if this is the case, then it is true what is said about him, that he goes forth during the night.’ … [Then Teti followed the king, who] arrived at the house of the general Sasenet. He threw up a stone and stamped his foot, at which a [ladder] was lowered down for him. He climbed up, and Teti son of Henet waited... When his divine person had done what he wanted to with [the general], he returned to the palace, and Teti son of Henet followed him...” 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.”47 Montserrat notes that this tale stresses the “clandestine nature of the affair,” points to “rumors [circulating] of the king’s nocturnal cruising,” and “enhances the secrecy” of the affair by describing the king’s sneaking off to meet at the general’s house. 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.”48 Some Egyptologists have suggested that this piece (including the affair) conveys an atmosphere of “royal corruption,” yet Greenberg notes that the description itself is fairly “neutral in tone and non-judgmental.” Still, contemporaries might have looked upon such activity on the part of a king, who was an incarnation of deity, as undignified and inappropriate.49 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).50 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.51 Sir Grafton Elliot Smith suggested that these symptoms might have been caused by Froehlich’s Syndrome, a glandular-hormonal disorder – although this condition also leads to infertility, which would hardly fit Akhenaten, who fathered six surviving daughters by Queen Nefertiti, plus two other girls through his daughters.52 Alwyn Burridge suggested instead Marfan’s Syndrome, caused by an abnormal gene, which also may have led to heart trouble and the king’s early death. Still other 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,53 although this idea also seems speculative.

After the discovery in 1922 of the tomb of Tutankhamen (a child of unknown relationship to Akhenaten),54 Percy Newberry noted that objects had been taken from Smenkhkare’s burial chamber to increase the treasure in Tutankhamen’s tomb; and among these was a box inscribed on its knobs with “Ankheprure beloved of Neferkheprure” and “Neferneferuaten beloved of Waenra.” Decoding these titles, the text would read, “Smenkhkare beloved of Akhenaten” and “Akhenaten beloved of Smenkhkare.”55 Even more unusual, “Neferneferuaten” had formerly been a title borne by Queen Nefertiti, suggesting that in some sense Smenkhkare came to fulfill her role.56 Newberry in his article (1928) also drew attention to a small private stele (upright stone slab) in the Berlin Museum, originally made for a military officer, which showed two kings (identified by their crowns, one the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt and the other a war crown), nude and sitting side by side. Although the piece is unfinished, with its cartouches blank (ovals which usually contained names), the figures seemed easily identified as Akhenaten and Smenkhkare, the former caressing the youth’s chin while Smenkhkare rests his arm around the older king’s shoulder.57 Two other pieces then also came to mind, a relief of a similar youth pouring wine into Akhenaten’s cup (Berlin Museum) and a sculptor’s trial piece of Akhenaten kissing a child seated on his lap (Egyptian Museum, Cairo) – and some scholars pondered whether these pairs might also include Smenkhkare.58 (Actually the former conveys no sexual meaning, and the child in the latter seems very young.) Subsequently, Egyptologists battled over Akhenaten’s sexual biology and orientation.59 For example, Donald Redford, a Canadian archaeologist, wrote (1984) that he personally disliked “this effete monarch, who could never hunt or do battle,” while Cyril Aldred, Keeper of Art and Archaeology at the Royal Scottish Museum in Edinburgh, saw (1968) “homosexual relations between the elder and the younger monarch” pictured on the Berlin stele, taking into account also the same-sex “beloved” titles, the disappearance of Nefertiti’s name from all records near the end of Akhenaten’s reign, and the king’s physical deformity (although how this latter might be a cause of homosexuality is unclear). Still he warned, the evidence is “slender” and not conclusive.60

Then in 1973 John Harris, studying the seven blank cartouches on the Berlin stele, argued that the four cartouches flanking the sun disk would have contained the name of Aten, while the other three could only have contained the name of a king and a queen, since the name of a king always required two cartouches, but a queen only one. Therefore he concluded that the figure being petted on the chin was Queen Nefertiti, not Ahkenaten’s boyfriend Smenkhkare.61 Nicholas Reeves (2001) details this and other research which has led Egyptologists, on the whole, to believe that Queen Neferititi did not disappear or die but was elevated to co-regent by Akhenaten. She changed her name to “Smenkhkare” and then even succeeded him on the throne for a few years as an independent ruler, similar to the remarkable Queen Hapshetsut (1478-1458 B.C.), who a century earlier had also presented herself as pharaoh, with male attributes and names. So, Smenkhkare may not have been a youth at all, but the great queen in a new disguise!62 Dominic Montserrat, who has written elsewhere in a perceptive way about sex in ancient Egypt, reviews this subject also (2000), takes the gay community to task for claiming that Akhenaten was “the first historical gay person” and a free spirit in some modern sense, and says that “almost nothing reliable is known about Smenkhkare’, not even his or her sex.” He notes how important it is both for historical writing to include a homosexual presence and also not to do violence to the past by reading in things which are not really documented. At the end of his book, he offers no conclusions on who the real Akhenaten and Smenkhkare were;63 and perhaps that’s where the matter must be left. Still, there remains “fierce resistance” on the part of some Egyptologists to the theory that Nefertiti became Smenkhkare,64 and questions remain.


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