Attitudes to same-sex relationships in Ancient Egypt are significant, not least because they may have informed or influenced sexual mores in Ancient Israel and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. The period spans almost three thousand years, from 3100BC to 332BC, and attitudes may have varied quite considerably across the centuries, or even from one ruler to the next. Primary sources are fairly silent on the subject of samisen love, and the principal evidence, which is open to interpretation, comes from just three areas: a myth about the gods Horus and Seth, a tale about Pharaoh Neferkare and his general Sasenet, and the manner of the burial of court officials Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep.
In the Contendings of Horus and Seth, a mythological story of which there are several versions, Seth and his nephew Horus vie for the throne of Egypt. Seth keeps on trying to get the better of Horus. At last, he decides to subjugate him by inebriating, seducing, and, at last, inseminating him. “How beautiful are your buttocks, how vital!’ used by Seth on his nephew, is probably the oldest recorded chat-up line in history. In the event, Horus is not all that drunk, and manages to catch Seth’s semen in his hand. The next day, he shows his manky hand to his mother Isis, and together they plot their revenge. Horus masturbates into Seth’s lunchtime lettuce. That afternoon, Seth puts his case before the gods, but Horus disputes his claim. When Thoth calls forth their semen, that of Seth rises from the Nile, while that of Horus pours out of Seth’s mouth. This episode suggests that, as in Ancient Rome, the sticking point, if you’ll forgive the pun, is not so much with same-sex love per se as with a male playing the part of a passive partner. In 46BC, Caesar submitted, or appeared to submit, to Nicomedes IV of Bithynia, leading to the disparaging title, ‘the Queen of Bithynia’. A popular quip at the time ran: Gallias Caesar subegit, Caesarem Nicomedes (‘Caesar subjugated Gaul, and Nicomedes Caesar’).
From three extent fragments, it is possible to reconstruct the 23rd century BC story of Pharaoh Neferkare (the long-reigning Pepi II) and his clandestine nocturnal visits to General Sasenet. A spy observed Neferkare going on his own from the palace to Sasenet’s house. Once there, ‘he threw a brick after stamping with his foot. Then a ladder was lowered to him (and) he climbed up.’ Neferkare spent four hours with Sasenet, leaving only ‘after his majesty had done that which he had wanted to do with him’. One fragment specifies that there was no woman, or wife, in Sasenet’s house, and the same incomplete sentence also contains the word ‘love’. The spy’s sighting confirms that ‘the rumours about [Neferkare] going out at night are true’. The tale is censorious of the king’s conduct, but more because it does not behove a king and god.
In the 25th century BC, Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep shared the title of Overseer of the Manicurists at the court of Pharaoh Nyuserre Ini. As with the Gentleman of the Bedchamber at the royal court of England, the title is much more prestigious than it sounds, since Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep would have been granted the rare privilege of touching the person of the pharaoh, and may first and foremost have been his confidants. When they died, Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were buried together in a mastaba tomb. In this tomb, they are severally depicted embracing and, in one instance, even touching noses, which in Ancient Egypt generally signified kissing. As their wives and children also feature in the tomb, it has been suggested that they were brothers rather than lovers—but having a family need not have precluded them from being lovers, and in the tomb they are represented in the same manner as a husband and wife. Nyankhkhnum and Khnumhotep may well be the oldest recorded same-sex couple in history; and their tomb suggests that, in Ancient Egypt, at least in certain strata and certain periods, same-sex relationships, or same-sex bonds tighter than marriage, could be accepted to the extent of being celebrated after death.
It is beyond reasonable doubt that homosexuality did exist in Ancient Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians enjoyed sensuous pleasures and, although proper, they were not in the least prudish. Their myths are full of all kinds of sex. They represented the cosmos with Nut the goddess of the night sky overarching her ithyphallic (erect) brother Geb the god of the earth. They attached false penises to male mummies, and false nipples to female ones, to equip the dead for sex in the afterlife. Like all ancient peoples, they valued fertility and dominance, and disapproved in particular of the passive male role. But they did not have a binary convention of sexuality as either heterosexual or homosexual, and, at certain times, in certain strata, and in certain circumstances, may have tolerated and even celebrated same-sex love.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.