Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Two Egyptian men hugging... hmm.

Well, I was just reading this article from the NYT on a depiction of two men hugging. It begins:

When Egyptologists entered the tomb for the first time more than four decades ago, they expected to be surprised. Explorers of newly exposed tombs always expect that, and this time they were not disappointed - they were confounded.

It was back in 1964, outside Cairo, near the famous Step Pyramid in the necropolis of Saqqara and a short drive from the Sphinx and the breathtaking pyramids at Giza. The newfound tomb yielded no royal mummies or dazzling jewels. But the explorers stopped in their tracks when the light of their kerosene lamp shined on the wall art in the most sacred chamber.

There, carved in stone, were the images of two men embracing. Their names were inscribed above: Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep. Though not of the nobility, they were highly esteemed in the palace as the chief manicurists of the king, sometime from 2380 to 2320 B.C., in the time known as the fifth dynasty of the Old Kingdom. Grooming the king was an honored occupation.

It's really worth registering to get the rest of the article.

Anyway, they go on to say that the biggest theory is that they're twins. Another theory, which has gained popularity more recently, is that they're a homosexual couple. The latest theory is that they're Siamese twins.

As far as I'm concerned, any of these theories are possible, but what gets me is that they keep insisting that the twin theory (not Siamese) is the "simplest explanation." Why?! They keep saying these two are depicted the way a husband and a wife would be. Just because we think homosexuality is a "modern" notion (and it is NOT!), can we ignore the fact that these men are depicted in the same manner as a husband and wife?! At any rate, if there was even a chance that homosexuality wasn't so frowned upon that some Egyptian might make homosexual art, then even an Egyptian might have to wonder about the intimacy of the two men.

It would be a convoluted explanation if there weren't parallels between depictions of married men and women, but there are. I'm not saying I know enough about Egyptian culture, but even that article says they don't know much about twins or homosexuality in ancient Egypt to know for sure. I just think that by dismissing the possibility as not "simple," they're the ones actually imposing our cultural biases on the subject.

I mean, we already have proof of homosexuality in an ancient culture, so it's not just us.

On the flip side, the parallel look of the two men reminds me more of twins. However, as they say in the article, Egpytian art was far more symbolic than actual. Thus, I wouldn't be surprised if a homosexual couple were depicted in such a parallel fashion.

You could also argue that since brothers and sisters often had a marital relationship as well, depicting them in a husband/wife pose might really just be the same as a brother/sister pose.

Frankly, I don't know enough about the subject either way, but they haven't offered any good reasons in that article why it's not just as "simple" to assume they're a homosexual couple. The only context in which it's not "simple" is our own culture's bias.

They did have a really good argument for the twin theory too, though, so I do think that's just as plausible. But I'd like some equal credit where equal credit is due.

If somebody knows more about this than I do, feel free to tell me otherwise. I'm certainly curious now!

Edited to add: Ok, it occurs to me that I've been using "homosexual couple" when I should've been using "same sex relationship" or some such. Homosexuality (and heterosexuality, for that matter) is a modern concept. Same sex relationships are not. But we confuse them too easily, and I know it's become acceptable to throw on "homosexuality" as a quick label in academia. Perhaps that's where we're going wrong. Scholars have been careful to differentiate between ancient "homosexuality" and modern "homosexuality," but the term can still be misleading.


Anonymous Marcus said...

Hi, I once read an article in a special World Archaeology issue on queer archaeology about these two. I made some notes on it...they must be somewhere here within a 2 m radius ;)

The reference is:

Reeder, Greg, 2000 'Same-sex desire, conjugal constructs, and the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep.' World Archaeology, vol. 32 (2), pp. 193-208.

I think his conclusion was that the imagery used in the tombs, together with some textual evidence, strongly suggests that they had some kind of a relationship that went beyond mere friendliness. However, as he rightly pointed out we should not use modern concepts of same-sex relationships to interpret such scenes. Which, knowing the amazingly simple and crude misconceptions put forward by otherwise quite intelligent people, seems a very wise thing to do.

Still, what really intrigues me is that if they had such a relationship...why would they want to advertise it in their tomb (constructed years before their death)? Pure love perhaps, or some religious notion? Sadly, I'm not an expert on Egypt so I really cannot give it a shot, but I'm fascinated nontheless. One could also look at other cultures to see if similar scenes would exist there.

2:09 PM  
Blogger Glaukôpis said...

I'll have to look into that one. Thanks!

I'm still not entirely sure I think that same-sex relationships in general are a "modern" concept, though. The way we currently interpret same-sex relationships is certainly going to be different from the way the Egyptians or even the Greeks did, naturally. And I wouldn't presume that their lives would be the same as a homosexual couple's life would be now, but then, neither are heterosexual couples.

And the other thing is--why would any male/female couple want to advertise their relationship? Because that's part of who they are. Same goes, I should think, for two men in a relationship.

I just think that, at the very least, we can say that they saw some kind of parallel in the relationship between these two men and that of a married couple. It might not be sexual, and it might just be intellectual intimacy, but there's a parallel. And if there's a parallel, then a homosexual relationship isn't so far off from a "simple" explanation.

I think, though, that the reason we have difficulty seeing some-sex relationships as anything but a "modern" concept is because it's been taboo for so much of western history. The ancient Greeks really weren't the only ones to embrace same-sex relationships, so I think it's fair game to consider the possibility in any culture until proven otherwise.

Anyway, thank you for the citation. I'll try to look that one up as soon as exams/papers are done!

2:22 PM  
Anonymous Marcus said...

Of course, I agree with you that same-sex relationships occur in every culture because they are ultimately rooted in human nature.

However, as you already acknowledge, they are expressed in different ways in different cultures (and for different kinds of persons). I for one wouldn't like to advertise my relationship, much less constructing a large tomb with pictures of me holding hands with him ;)

So, I still think it would be very interesting to look at the various ways in which same-sex relationships are expressed and NOT expressed in various cultures. One could then consider the relation between this and religious and social structures.

I think Foucault did some of this, but he was a political-motivated kind of guy. You need a James Frazer broad-ranged scholar to accomplish such a feat.

Anyway, not me! Good luck with your exams/papers!

2:58 PM  
Blogger Glaukôpis said...

Haha, yes. I do agree that that is the real question. The other thing to consider, though, is that it only takes one couple to feel differently about expressing their relationship. Just because it wasn't commonly expressed, it doesn't mean no one would have expressed it. As far as I can tell, nobody seems to know that it was culturally forbidden. They suspect it wasn't the most popular thing, but they don't really know much.

At any rate, what we do have is something being expressed between two men that parallels the expression of a married couple. If it were so taboo to express it, I should wonder why they would make this parallel at all. Maybe it wouldn't gather suspicion, but maybe it would. I think that's enough to make this as "simple" an explanation as twin brothers.

Anyway, thanks! I'm enjoying this discussion. Probably more than I should... Back to studying!

3:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Higgledy Piggledy
Niankhkhnum, Khnumhotep,
Joined at the name, at the
Nose, at the tomb,

Carved their eternity
"Stopped grooming Pharoah but
still Groom & Groom."


7:12 PM  
Blogger Glaukôpis said...

LOL! That's great. Thanks!

7:17 PM  
Anonymous Marcus said...

Now, I'm not conspiring to disrupt your studying any further....but I did find a good web page by the author of the World Archaeology paper:


Anyway, I'm always surprised why people would consider the 'simple' explanation the best. The difference between simple and complex is a measure derived from our own interpretative framework and not rooted in reality as such.

I would rather choose the word 'plausible' to value interpretations. It's more accomodating to the enormous holes in our knowledge of the past.

Have to go back to my thesis work now though.......distractions ;)

5:23 AM  
Blogger Glaukôpis said...

Oh excellent.

I'd have to agree with that, though. I mean, every time somebody tells me, "Sometimes the simplest explanation is the best!" I want to retort, "And sometimes the complicated one is!"

I mean, just look at Greek. ::glare:: (Ok ok, back to studying.)

7:55 AM  
Blogger Broshaq said...

Are there people who don't think homosexual acts occurred in the ancient world? I've been spared contact with them, mercifully. People do say--and I agree with them--that homosexuality and heterosexuality are not ancient categories, but I'm not sure that this is what you take issue with here.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Glaukôpis said...

They're definitely not ancient categories. But yes, some people really seem to avoid at any cost admitting that such relationships occured.

9:45 PM  
Blogger mikeyboy said...

This is mostly for Marcus' benefit, because I know Glauk and Broshaq know these references, but there are some essential books about homosexuality in the ancient world (Greece and Rome in particular):

K.J. Dover, "Greek Homosexuality"--this book, from 1978, was the groundbreaker in the field and was actually the basis for Foucault's work, since Foucault had the methodology but needed Dover to provide access to and analysis of the relevant ancient texts.

Halperin, D.M., "One Hundred Years of Homosexuality" (1988)

Eva Cantarella, "Bisexuality in the Ancient World" (1992)

Craig Williams (my boss), "Roman Homosexuality: Ideologies of Masculinity in Classical Antiquity" (1999)

9:42 AM  
Anonymous Marcus said...

Thanks for the references. I'm an archaeology student specializing in mainland Greece Late Bronze/Early Iron Ages, so I don't spend much time tracking the literature of later periods. Still I could use some of the later material for reference.

It's hard to find any literature of same-sex relationships for the Aegean BA, especially for those warlike and masculine Mycenaeans! ;)But I did find this one by a Robert Koehl:

"Ephoros and Ritualized Homosexuality in Bronze Age Crete," in Queer Representations. Reading Lives, Reading Cultures, ed. M. Duberman (New York 1997) 7-13.

Apparently it's about the 'Chieftain Cup' from the Ayia Triada villa in Crete which shows two guys facing each other in an intimate manner. He links this with literary evidence from the historical period. I haven't as yet read the paper, so I cannot evaluate it any further.

I would like to a comparative paper sometime on these two cases and possible other archaeological cases. Especially interesting seems to be the connection of religion or ritual in both cases to same-sex relationships. And here such a comparative study might shake up some conventional interpretive notions of both bigots and activists. People and cultures are far more complicated than any rigid interpretive framework can account for.

But first some real thesis work again......perhaps I can find a handsome and fierce Mycenaean warrior to be outed... ;)

10:29 AM  
Anonymous Casey said...

Very interesting. I'm trying to connect the Chieftain cup and its ritual with Sparta and the dining clubs (and maybe with the ekdysia ritual of Crete, which you should totally check out if you haven't--it involves transvestism as a rite of passage; v. Leitao's article in Classical Antiquity 14). I'm starting to think it is a wild goose chase.
BTW I believe it's ball' ek korakas (-as since it's 3rd declension)

2:13 AM  
Blogger Glaukôpis said...

Hmmm, thanks for the tip!

And it's ball' es korakas, but I didn't notice that on the graphic until later and am not entirely sure how I'm going to fix it just yet. But thanks!

2:48 PM  
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8:27 AM  

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