Homosexuality in Ancient Egypt, continued

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.65 This tomb shows the two men who were buried there holding hands and embracing intimately, noses touching.66 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.67 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, as William Naphy notes (2004), 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.68 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.69 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. (See the Reeder website link, at end of article.)

Conclusion – As Dominic Montserrat notes, most references from Egypt of the Pharaohs view homosexual acts as morally negative (non-reproductive), socially dangerous (like adultery), or physically violent (about conquest). Yet, evidence (although limited) does suggest that same-sex acts took place between partners of a comparable age and social status. Also, the negative references display an equivocality (ambiguity) that may argue against there being a single, monolithic ‘attitude’ toward it which prevailed.70 R.B. Parkinson notes a distinction between commemorative and religious texts, and fictional and autobiographical texts – the first category (including the Book of the Dead and the Teachings of Ptahhotep) always being a kind of “official” discourse, while the second category (including the stories of Horus and Seth, and of Neferkari and Sisene) allowed for a “freer discussion of problematic events.”71

Pictorial evidence exists, as well, but is often very tricky to “read,” as we have seen with the Berlin stele of “two kings.” The Turin Papyrus contains a drawing of a boy sodomizing another short-haired boy (although some insist he is a girl).72 Scratched on an ostraka (broken pottery piece) in the Berlin Museum is a boy gently fondling the genitals of another boy (although this is usually called ‘a wrestling match’).73 Yet, the Tomb of the Two Manicurists provides a remarkable testimony to the devotion that these two men had for each other, a deep, abiding love with a physical (homoerotic) side to it.

Parkinson notes that certainly “same-gender sexual acts, such as sodomy, took place in ancient Egypt” – and some individuals, then as now, probably had a greater tendency to this desire and these acts than others.74 However, for a man to abandon his “proper gender role” and allow himself to be sodomized was looked upon as a sign of weakness and disgrace, and the act of penetration was generally looked upon as one of power and conquest. We do not find “initiatory pederasty” (e.g. as in Greece), but still same-sex relationships between two adult men were conceivable and occurred in ancient Egypt. Yet, one can be sure that daily life was even less “schematic” (planned) than literature, and surely presented many “untidy facts” (to use Bruce Smith’s phrase). “[Homosexual] acts and desires occurred [in ancient Egypt], despite the official ideology, and “more frequently than the texts offer any means of assessing.”75

Vern Bullough notes that the mark of shame heaped upon the passive same-sex partner can also be seen in the statement made about Shu and Tefnet, two other gods, that “their abomination is for the hand of god to fall on them, and for the shade of the god to abuse them sexually. His seed shall not enter into them.” A coffin text also states, “Re has no power over me, for I am he who takes away his breath. Atum has no power over me, for I copulate between his buttocks.” This suggests that Re and Atum could be rendered powerless by being made the submissive partner in anal intercourse. Yet, “although anal intercourse was known and practiced by the ancient Egyptians, when it took place between two men, it was not viewed with great public favor, if a man and a young boy were involved, it was more strongly condemned. … As to sex life, the need for producing children was stressed, and this accomplished, other sexual activities were allowed, provided they did not take advantage of others. All sexual activities, from bestiality to anal intercourse to oral-genital contacts are portrayed in the various tomb pictures, and though the Egyptians might has disapproved some activities more than others, their society seemed to be fairly permissive sexually.”76

So, what light might all of this shine on the Jonathan and David story? First, although there was a negative official view of homosexuality in ancient Egypt, still there were persons with dominant homoerotic desires who found ways to satisfy them, as with Pharaoh Neferkari and the general, and the two royal manicurists. Second, there were those rare occasions when a description of such relationships made it into the historical record; at the same time, there must have been many other examples of same-sex love which went unnoticed and unrecorded. Third, the examples of same-sex love that we do know about occurred among kings or members of the court, whose lives would tend to be recorded and whose power might also shield them from retribution. It should not come as any surprise, then, that a homoerotic story crops up in the historical record of the royal life of Israel, where it is recorded by a sympathetic but cautious scribe. On the other hand, ancient Egypt records point to various negative forms of homosexuality (forced anal intercourse and sex in religious places and with sacred personnel), which will also resonate with what we find in the Hebrew Scriptures.

See http://www.egyptology.com/niankhkhnum_khnumhotep/ for images in the Tomb of the Two Manicurists, a site set up by Greg Reeder (1999).

See http://www.heptune.com/Akhnaten.html then click on “The Art of the Amarna Period” and look for the “Kissing Akhenaten” statuette (10th picture down) and the “Two Pharaohs” Berlin stele (13th picture down). This site was set up by Megaera Lorenz (2000).


FOOTNOTES: 1. LaSor, W.S., “Egypt,” ISBE, II, p. 46.     2. Greenberg, p. 127-28.      3. Parkinson, p. 57-58.       4. Gregersen, p. 187.      5. Dates in general are taken from Grimal, p. 389-95. Cf. Simpson, p. 108-26; Greenberg, p. 131; Griffiths, passim.      6. Bullough, p. 64; Greenberg, p. 131.      7. Trans. by and in Montserrat, 1996, p. 141-42; from the Chester Beatty Papyrus, I.       8. Trans. by W.K. Simpson, in Greenberg, p. 131.       9. Parkinson, p. 65.      10. Greenberg, p. 131-32; Montserrat, 1996, p. 142.       11. Montserrat, 1996, p. 142.      12. Deakin, p. 34.      13. Trans. by and in Montserrat, 1996, p. 141.      14. Trans. by and in Parkinson, p. 71.       15. Trans. by and in Griffiths, p. 42; from Griffith, F., Hieratic Papyri from Kahun and Gurob, 1908.       16. Griffiths, p. 42.      17. Grimal, p. 42.       18. Montserrat, 1996, p. 71; Bullough, p. 65.      19. Posener, p. 259.       20. Mercatante, p. 24; Pritchard, p. 34-36.        21. Greenberg, p. 133.      22. Pritchard, p. 34; from Charles Maystre’s compilation, 1937.       23. Parkinson, p. 61-62.      24. Deakin, p. 33; Greenberg, p. 133.       25. Budge, p. 361; Allen, p. 196; cf. Faulkner, p. 31.        26. Greenberg, p. 132; Thompson, J.A., “Memphis,” ISBE, III,1986, p. 316-17.       27. Budge, p. 369-70.      28. Later the capital of Egypt was moved to Heracleopolis (in central Egypt) in the Middle Kingdom, and then to Thebes (in southern Egypt) in the 18th Dynasty; still throughout Egyptian history Memphis would remain an important religious and cultural center, only c. 80 miles from where the Israelites settled. Cf. Posener, p. 279; Thompson, p. 317.      29. Budge, p. 361.       30. Allen, p. 196,203.      31. Budge, p. 368.      32. Bunson, p. 248.       33. Posener, p. 260.      34. Montserrat, p. 140.      35. Parkinson, p. 62.       36. Shaw, p. 180.      37. Posener, p. 260.      38. Parkinson, p. 68.       39. Simpson, p. 159.      40. Mercatante, p. 209.      41. Parkinson, p. 70.       42. Trans. by R.O. Faulkner, in Simpson, p. 171.       43. Parkinson, 1995, p. 68.      44. Ibid., p. 68-70.      45. Greenberg, p. 129; Parkinson, p. 71.      46. Montserrat, 1996, p. 142; Parkinson, p. 72.      47. Trans. by and in Montserrat, 1996, p. 142-43.      48. Ibid., p. 143.       49. Greenberg, p. 129.      50. Montserrat, 2000, p. 14-19.      51. Ibid., p. 14-19.       52. Shaw, p. 147.      53. Ibid., p. 146-47.      54. Grimal, p. 10; Montserrat, 2000, p. 28.      55. Collier, p. 180-81.       56. Deakin, p. 36.      57. Reeves, p. 167.      58. Giles, p. 89-90; for illustrations, see Reeves, p. 167-68 and Aldred, plates 81,83. 59. Montserrat, 2000, p. 15.       60. Monserrat, 2000, p. 13; Aldred, p. 139.       61. Reeves, p. 168.       62. Ibid., 168-73.      63. Montserrat, 2000, p. 172, 184.      64. Reeves, p. 172.       65. Naphy, p. 22; cf. Parkinson, p. 62.       66. Greenberg, p. 130.      67. Naphy, p. 21-22; Reeder, passim.      68. Ibid., p. 22-23.       69. Greenberg, p. 130.       70. Montserrat, 1996, p. 140-41, 144.      71. Parkinson, p. 60.      72. Gregersen, p. 188.       73. Brunner-Traut, p. 52; and Mannicke, fig. 9 containing a crude sketch of this.      74. Parkinson, p. 59.      75. Ibid., p. 74-76.       76. Bullough, p. 65-67.

Aldred, Cyril, Akhenaten: Pharaoh of Egypt – A New Study, 1968.
Allen, T. George, ed., The Egyptian Book of the Dead Documents in the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago, 1960.
Brunner-Traut, Emma, Die Altägypischen Scherbenbilder (Bildostraka) der Deutschen Museen und Sammlungen, 1956.
Budge, E.A. Wallis, The Book of the Dead, 1951.
Bullough, Vern L., Sexual Variance in Society and History, 1976.
Bunson, Margaret R., Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, 2002.
Collier, Joy, King Sun: In Search of Akhenaten, 1970.
Deakin, Terence, “Evidence for Homosexuality in Ancient Egypt,” International Journal of Greek Love, 1(1), 1965, p. 31-38.
Faulkner, Raymond, trans., The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, 1990. Carol Andrews, ed.
Giles, F.J., Ikhnaton: Legend and History, 1970.
Gregersen, Edgar, Sexual Practices: The Story of Human Sexuality, 1983.
Greenberg, David, The Construction of Homosexuality, 1988.
Griffiths, J. Gwyn, The Conflict of Horus and Seth, 1969.
Grimal, Nicolas, A History of Ancient Egypt, French 1988, English 1992.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 4 vols., 1979-88.
Manniche, Lise, Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt. 1987.
Mercatante, Anthony S., Who’s Who in Egyptian Mythology, 2nd ed., 1995.
Montserrat, Dominic, Akhenaten: History, Fantasy, and Ancient Egypt, 2000.
Montserrat, Dominic, Sex and Society in Graeco-Roman Egypt, 1996.
Naphy, William, Born to Be Gay: A History of Homosexuality, 2004.
Newberry, Percy E., “‘Akhenaten’s Eldest Son-in-Law, ‘Ankhkhneprure,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 14, 1928, p. 3-9.
Parkinson, R.B., “‘Homosexual’ Desire and Middle Kingdom Literature,” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, vol. 81, 1995, p. 57-76.
Posener, Georges, Dictionary of Egyptian Civilization, English ed. 1959.
Pritchard, James B., Ancient Near Eastern Texts: Relating to the Old Testament, 3rd ed., 1969.
Reeder, Greg, “Same-Sex Desire, Conjugal Constructs, and the Tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep,” World Archaeology, 32(2), Oct. 2000, p. 193-208.
Reeves, Nicholas, Akhenaten: Egypt’s False Prophet, 2001.
Shaw, Ian, Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction, 2004.
Simpson, William Kelly, ed., Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthrology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry, 2nd. 1973.


© 2005 Bruce L. Gerig

Previous Page

Back to Homosexuality & the Bible