regndoft: (Vestal {Ab Antiquo})
[personal profile] regndoft
[livejournal.com profile] dhampyresa asked: Are there any figures you've come across in your studies that you think are lgbt, for any reason?

I love this question, but it's also... surprisingly difficult to answer? I think this has to do with the material, in more ways than one; with fictional characters there's a comprehensive narrative and inside perspective, while historical sources (at least from the time periods I mostly work with) don't necessarily let you get to know a person enough for you to get an impression of their sexuality or gender identity? I guess I just don't make a habit of developing headcanons about historical figures.

Also, my field is religious history, and while deities and other creatures are almost inherently queer, or at least have the possibility of being queer due to existing outside of normal social and uh, physical boundaries, that's the very thing that makes trying to define their sexuality or gender identity kind of difficult, almost superfluous.

(I'm using the term queer because it encompasses a greater variety of sexuality and gender expressions-- which feels more appropriate, especially when talking about deities).

But that doesn't mean I don't have any!!


Since I live an Ancient Egypt Appreciation Life, let's talk about that part of the world. Probably the most famous depictions of an ambiguously gay couple in ancient history is that of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, two royal overseers of manicurists of king Niuserre, 5th Dynasty (that'd be about 2400 B.C.). In their shared tomb, they are repeatedly shown embracing, a rather intimate gesture of affection that is usually reserved for husbands and wives and the king and gods. Afaik it's unique in all known Egyptian iconography. Their wives, sons and daughters also appear in the tomb, although it's worth noting that 1. they aren't portrayed in similar poses and 2. Niankhkhnum's wife was erased from at least one scene in ancient times. Initially assumed to be brothers, a lot of scholars now favour the interpretation that they were lovers.

As with all interpretations based on images (the texts in the tomb don't appear to be concerned with clarifying their relationship status) we may never be completely sure, but the counter-arguments I've heard to this queer interpretation are, frankly, rather ridiculous. They mainly seem to be concerned with 1. that both men have wives and family, which means they must be SUPER STRAIGHT and 2. that their names, which both refer to the god Khnum and form a whole where they're carved at the entrance, would imply that they're born brothers. Which is quite weak, because we know for sure Egyptians changed names sometimes during their lifetime, particularly when getting married (what, did Pepy II look for a wife conveniently names "She Lives For Pepy"? Prooobably not). Possibly one or both of them literally changed names to match.

I think what stands out to me a lot about these two is how familiar the scenes are. Part of why the reliefs are surrounded by so much debate is because they're not rock-hard evidence of these men having the homo sex 3500 years ago-- instead they're portrayed in quiet, intimate scenes. They embrace each other sitting, they watch dancers and musicians together in a banquet, they're surrounded by their wives and kids. They are so clearly the main characters of these depictions, and while other examples of men sharing graves are known - sometimes you and a mate could pool your resources in order to afford a tomb slightly out of your pay rate - they're not portrayed as a unity.

Social norms would not have allowed them to remain unmarried and childless. What were their relationships with their wives like? How present were they in the lives of their children? How much did their families interact? Is this not just the earliest depiction of a queer couple, but a queer family unit? WE MAY NEVER KNOW. But I love it nonetheless.

Wikipedia article
Site with more detailed descriptions and images

Returning for a moment to social norms, and the possibility that Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum's relationship (assuming they had one) might have been acceptable because they were both married-- ancient Egyptian attitudes towards homosexuality pre-Graeco-Roman period are difficult to pin down. This is partly due to lack of material about something that can never have been entirely monolithic; attitudes must've been different during different times, different for different people. Some mortuary texts we have don't seem to look kindly upon it, counting it as a moral transgression that the dead must recite they have not committed in the afterlife, while other sources seem to be more open to the possibility. This might be because Egyptian religion heavily focuses on death and rebirth, as well as a proclivity towards dualism; the procreation of a man and a woman imitates the life cycle and is an integrated part of the natural order. A relationship between two men (or two women) would remain barren, and is therefore... not. Homosexual activity, in religious as well as secular literature, seems to be viewed as an aberration of family life in the same vein as adultery, but exactly how this might've been received in reality (and how this might help us understand Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum's relationship) is impossible to tell.

I'm mentioning this because Seth, the Egyptian god of chaos and confusion, is explicitly connected with barrenness. As mentioned above, if cosmic order is continuity, flourishing, then chaos is by its nature destructive and non-reproductive. In magical spells, Seth is named in relation to miscarriages, and his secret name which belies his true nature is "Evil Day", that on which no one can be conceived or born. At the same time, he's characterised as loud, rowdy, immensely strong and sexually promiscuous. Possibly also a drunk (or at least, men with a love for drink are described as "Sethian"-- trust the Egyptians to have a god for bar fights).

He's also the only Egyptian god that we know of to have instigated and engaged in sex with another man-- in several accounts of the contendings of Horus and Seth (absurdly quick recap for those who don't know their Egyptian mythology: Seth murdered his brother Osiris and took his place on the throne; Horus is Osiris' son and rightful heir), he propositions Horus as part of a plan to discredit him (explicitly stated in one version; the below is a bit more ambiguous, but it's also extremely fragmentary). Horus accepts, sleeps with him (the only explicit references to gay sex in Egyptian texts are found in these myths) and dupes him, following the advice of his mother Isis.

(In which we find one of history's earliest examples of a pick-up line, and probably the earliest example of a mother mortally embarrassing her immortal son with sex tips.)

[...........]
And then the Person of Seth said
to the Person of Horus: "How lovely your backside is!
Broad are [your] thighs(?) [and......]
And the Person of Horus said:
"Watch out, I shall tell this!"
[Then they returned] to their palaces.
And the Person of Horus said
to his mother Isis:
["Look,] Seth [sought] to have (carnal) knowledge of me."
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 potency shall not match your potency,' so you shall say to him.
Now, when he gives (his) potency to you,
you shall thrust your fingers between your buttocks.
Look, causing it to [...] for him is like [...].
Look, it will be sweet to his heart, more than [...].
[You shall then] catch the semen which has come from his member
without letting the sun see it."
[Then the Person of Seth said:
"Come, so I can see [you],
and [........]"


Seth is a queer god, not just in the sense that he, uh, literally has sex with a man and gives birth to Thoth from his head as a result of his romp with Horus in some versions of the myth, but in that he's a god set apart from the others. He's an often shunned, disruptive element who is nonetheless necessary for the continued survival of the cosmos (in his role as the slayer of Apep, the Great Serpent). As far as queer representation goes he's kind of a dick, but an immensely interesting one.

... And because I managed to make a myth involving gay hatesex and MAGICAL SEMEN sound boring, here is my girlfriend's recap of another telling of the myth.

... I could probably write more that's not related to ancient Egypt, but it's really late and my shoulders hurt. :P I might write some more about queerness in the ancient world in another post.

June 2016

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