Same Sex Desire, Conjugal Constructs and the Tomb of Ni-ankh-khnum and Khnum-hotep

MR. GREG REEDER, who delivered our February lecture, is a contributing editor to KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, and has been studying Ancient Egypt all his life.  An article on the same topic appeared in KMT in the Spring 1993 issue.  Mr. Reeder is a member of the Northern California Chapter of ARCE.

He opened his remarks by referencing Dominic Monserrat's book, Sex and Society in Greco-Roman Egypt, in which the author recalls having stumbled upon an extensive collection of phallic figurines and erotic terracottas at the Petrie Museum, University College, London.  Almost all were uncatalogued and unpublished.  The cabinet was labeled “Memphis”.  Clearly this is an area of ancient Egyptian history which has received scant attention.

Mr. Reeder then recounted for the audience several versions of the myths that took place prior to, and surrounding, The Contendings of Horus and Seth. In the beginning, the Heliopolitan god Atum had no wife, thus the literature states that, “he played husband to his fist because there was no vagina.” (P. Leiden I-350), thereby creating his two offspring, Shu and Tefnut.  Shu and Tefnut subsequently parented Geb and Nut, the god of the earth and the goddess of the sky. The children of Geb and Nut, who were Osiris, Isis, Seth and Nephthys, completed the Heliopolitan Ennead.

The birth of Seth introduced a disruption in cre-ation. Mr. Reeder stated that “he embodied chaos, confusion, and irregularity; he is the trickster and ultimate outsider and marginal being”. Seth is called HMTI [w/phallus determinative], which Mr. Reeder translated, possibly, as meaning “homosexual” or perhaps as a pun on the word for woman - HMT - denoting something such as “retreats or turns one’s back to the phallus”. Seth became the husband of his sister, Nephthys, but was husband in name only. Nephthys became the close companion of her sister Isis.

The Chester Beatty Papyrus 1 relates the text of The Contendings of Horus and Seth, in which the two gods engage in a lengthy conflict to determine which shall inherit the crown of Egypt following the death of Osiris - who has been murdered by Seth.   The papyrus refers to them as the "two youths" who are being judged by a council of the gods at the behest of Hathor, in hopes of putting an end to their squabbling.  According to one version of the story - and there are several - Seth lured Horus into his bed after an evening of banqueting, inserted his phallus between the thighs of Horus who in turn captured Seth’s semen in his hands. Upon taking the semen to his mother, Isis, she was so enraged at what Seth has done that she cut off Horus’ hands and threw them into the river.  When calm prevailed, Isis made a new set of hands for her son, then manipulates his phallus until he produces semen which she captures in a pot. She then took her son's semen and spreads it on the lettuces in Seth‘s garden, knowing them to be his favorite food.  Upon eating the lettuce, Seth became pregnant ”with the seed of Horus“. Seth attempted to convince the gods that he should be awarded the kingship because Horus had allowed Seth to have intercourse with him. Horus, in order to prove to the assembly of gods that Seth lied, suggested that the semen be summoned.  Thus, Mr. Reeder, advised, ”The god Thoth summoned the seed of Seth and it answered not from inside Horus but from down in the marsh.  When Thoth summoned the seed of Horus it came out of Seth's head as a golden sun disk.“

Ultimately, the gods make the determination that Horus should rule the land - thus the king assumes the role of the living Horus - and Seth became the disruptive force, along side perfect order, needed to keep the world in motion.  Thus this union formed the foundation of Egyptian kingship. The two gods are often represented in the construct known as the sma-ta-wy - in which the sedge and papyrus, symbols of the reconciled gods, are entwined and knotted about the windpipe and lungs that symbolize the united Egypt.

Another construct which Mr. Reeder referenced is Maxim 32 in The Instruction of Ptahhotep. This document is composed of 37 maxims in which Ptahhotep instructs his son in the way a righteous man conducts his life. Miriam Lichtheim, in Volume 1 of  Ancient Egyptian Literature; The Old and Middle Kingdom, did not translate this maxim, but rather states that, “This maxim is an injunction against illicit sexual intercourse.  It is very obscure and has been omitted here." In fact, per Mr. Reeder, Ptahhotep cautions his son regarding the dangers of having intercourse with a “woman boy”  [hmt-hrd] possibly a boy prostitute, and advises him to “just say no”!

Yet another source which sheds light on attitudes toward homosexuality in Ancient Egypt is the Tale of General Nefer-ka-re [probably Pepi II] and General Sa-sen-et. This is a tale about the king and his trysts with his lover, General Sa-sen-et. Though referencing a king of the 6th Dynasty, the story probably originated during the Middle Kingdom. A character called “the pleader of Memphis” tries diligently to inform the court of the king‘s deviant behavior, but each attempt is met with the entire court bursting into a cacophony of song, shouting, and whistling which drowns him out. In yet another tale of Nefer-ka-re and Sa-sen-et, a spy follows the king as he goes to a tryst with his supposed lover.

At the Temple of Opet at Karnak, there is a construct which provides yet another example of possible same-sex attraction. Osiris god of the underworld and the sun god, Ra are depicted in a scene on the temple wall. Greg Reeder quoted Jan Bergman as having observed that, “The most decisive divine confrontation encountered in Egyptian religious thought is without doubt that between Ra and Osiris.  As the princial representation of sky and earth, life and death, light and darkness, day and night, they constitute one another’s necessary compliment.  Without some form of union between them, the Egyptian world view would have been hopelessly divided and the rhythm of life broken.”  In the wall relief, the youthful, ithyphallic Osiris is just arising from a lion bed, and hovering over him is the equally ithyphallic god Ra, in the form of a Ba bird. Their integration undoubtedly represents the “union between them” Bergman refers to.

All of these representations, predominately from the Old Kingdom, substantiate a record of, if not a tradition of, same sex relationships that are viewed variously based on the context in which they occur.

On 12 November 1964, the shaft of a tomb near the causeway of Unas, at Saqqara, was entered for the first time.  The tomb dates from the 5th Dynasty, and is that of two men, both royal manicurists. Repeatedly the two tomb owners, Ni-ankh-khnum and Khnum-hotep, are depicted in the wall reliefs embracing each other.  We don‘t know the relationship between the two men as it is never spelled out in the tomb.  They may be brothers - some have speculated that they are twins - or possibly father and son. As the tomb was reconstructed, some of the earliest investigators suggested that they were in fact, twin brothers. Mr. Reeder noted, however, that Egyptologist John Baines, questioned this assumption based on the “exaggerated affection” portrayed in the reliefs.

Greg Reeder believes that the reliefs depict a “husband/wife” relationship between the two men.  He has investigated many other tomb reliefs of the period, and studied the work of Nadine Cherpion, and concurs with her that the mode in which Ni-ankh-khnum and Khnum-hotep are portrayed is identical to the mode in which husbands and wives are typically portrayed. He believes that the two manicurists chose specifically to portray themselves in this manner.  Only at the entrance to the tomb are the two men portrayed in a fishing and fowling scene with each of their wives and their children. In every other portrayal in which the two men are shown together, Ni-ankh-khnum is positioned either to the right of or behind Khnum-hotep, just as a wife would be portrayed. When the two men are portrayed separately as in an elaborate banqueting scene, Ni-ankh-khnum is shown holding a lotus blossom, a construct which appears nowhere else during this period except when portraying wives or women. The two men are frequently portrayed holding hands, always with Ni-ankh-khnum behind Khnum-hotep, just as a wife following her husband is portrayed. At the south end of the tomb‘s rock cut chamber in the aforementioned banquet scene, Khnum-hotep is seated to the left.  Behind him is the remnant of a "wife" image. His wife, Khenti-kaus, dutifully stands behind her husband with the remnants of one hand resting on his right arm and the other grasping his left shoulder. The image has been plastered over so that only the shadow of the image is visible. Ni-ankh-khnum, who sits to the right in the scene, is not portrayed with a wife behind him at all. An inscription, associated with the musical director who faces singers and harpists in the register below the banqueting principles, reads, “play the song about the two divine brothers”.

Finally, at the entrance to the offering chapel is the first of several very intimate reliefs of the two men embracing. Their children surround them, but their wives are not in evidence.  Between the false doors in the tomb, the two manicurists are again united in an intimate embrace. The whole composition is strikingly similar to that in the tomb of Kha-hay and his wife, Meret Yetes, of an earlier period, which is located in the same part of the cemetery at Saqqara.  Finally the most intimate of the reliefs appears on the reverse side of the entrance.  They stand so close together that “they are literally nose to nose.”

Mr. Reeder closed his remarks by stating that “the two manicurists were no more ‘special liminal beings’ who were ‘dual anomalies in need of symbolic correction’ any more than are male/female couples. The iconographic treatment of this same-sex, 5th Dynasty couple has the best and most direct parallels in the iconographic treatment of male/female couples of the 4th, 5th and 6th Dynasties who wished to express publicly their conjugal status. The ideal family consisting of father, mother and children was central to society and official discourse. But sometimes we see glimpses of other sexualities existing in spite of official attitudes. The stories and poems I have shared with you today give some evidence that same sex desire existed just behind the ideal facade constructed by the ancients”.

  • Nancy Corbin
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