Homosexuality in Ancient Egypt – Worse than Sodom and Gomorrah?

It's unclear if homosexuality was an act of crime or culturally accepted in Ancient Egypt.

HomoCulture LGBT History Silvia Hildebrandt

This article was published on January 22nd, 2019

While the revolution of 2011 not only brought hope for a new progressive and democratic movement in Egypt, it also gave activists for LGBT rights a chance to put their demands for equality and acknowledgment into the limelight. But after six years of making slow progress, the Rainbow Flag Incident of September 2017 took a huge step backwards: during a concert for the Lebanese band Mashrou’ Leila in Cairo, youths raised a rainbow flag. The media picked up that image to spread hate against the LGBT community. In the following weeks, about 84 people were arrested. Being defiled in society, many homosexual people decided to leave the country. 

Homosexuality in Ancient Egypt

Egypt once was an advanced civilization, like Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. However, while those two cultures are known to have had a mostly positive and culturally accepted opinion of homosexuality, it’s unclear if the same could be said about Ancient Egypt. Too few sources exist to determine with valid evidence. Three notations could be interpreted as depictions or descriptions about same-sex love. 

The first is the Mastaba tomb for the two high officials Nyankh-Khnum and Khnum-hotep who lived during the 5thdynasty (c. 2494–2345 BC). While each of them had a family of their own, they are buried together. In their Mastaba, several paintings show them with nose-to-nose-touching. Egyptians are sure this intimidate gesture symbolizes a kiss. But they argue how this kiss can be interpreted. Some take the interpretation that these officials shared romantic feelings for each other, some scholars interpret the kiss as a visual for a family bond with Nyankh-Khnum and Khnum-hotep being twins. 

Another story that can be seen as a description of a romantic male/male relationship is that of King Pepi II and his general officer Sasenet. The main plot centers around the king who does not want to listen to an anonymous lament, and leaves his palace at night, to spend several hours at the house of his general Sasenet. There, he “did to him what his majesty desired,” a phrase used to describe sex. Again, a dispute between scholars cannot decide if it’s a characterization for the king and his general to have a homosexual relationship, or if it’s an allegory for the sun God Ra to visit the underworld God Osiris during the middle of the night, thus mainly associating the king with Ra and applying a more religious and politically flattering depiction of the king. 

The last obvious mention of homosexual intercourse is part of the Osiris myth. Osiris’ brother Seth fights for the throne of Egypt with his nephew Horus. Being jealous of Horus’ popularity, Seth decides one day to come to him at night and rape him. The violent sexual act is described in every detail, mainly to characterize Seth as an abhorous and flawed person, unable to lead Egypt as king. Clearly, the sexual act is used in a negative light, not only because of its violent, abusive nature, but underlining that discrediting portrayal of Seth with the added connotation, that homosexuality is generally seen as something associated with crime and blasphemy.  

This trope leads directly into Talmudic lore, where Ancient Egypt is a place of shameful sexual preferences, lesbianism and homosexuality being on top of the list of the sinful insults done by Sodom, Gomorrah, and Amalek against God. 

As unclear and rare as these mentions of same-sex mentions are, one can state that homosexuality in Ancient Egypt certainly did not have a political and society-building characteristic like it did later on in Ancient Greece. Only in Christian times was the Greece form of pederasty introduced in Egypt; Arabic sources tell about Christian boys becoming sex workers in Egypt and cross-dressing men being a part of entertainment. 

In the Egyptomania mood of the Roaring Twenties, the Siwa Oasis become a place for romanticized homosexual relationships between Egyptian nomad warriors, as described in that time by popular travel literature. 

To this day, homosexuality is not recognized as legitimate in Egypt, neither by Islam nor by the government. If made public, it can be used as a evidence of a criminal act, mentioned in one breath with Satanism, prostitution and public immorality.  

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