LGBTQ+ Figures in Ancient Egyptian Society and Religion

For the research paper project, I think that it would be incredibly interesting to examine the representation of LGBTQ+ figures in Ancient Egyptian society and religion. Most of the literature in this category concerns only homosexuality in Ancient Egypt, although there are also some interesting sources describing gender diversity, particularly in the context of deities in Ancient Egyptian religion. In doing some research to see if there was enough relevant literature published that I could base this paper around, I found a great deal of writings on presentations of masculinity and femininity within Ancient Egyptian art and historical documents that can give additional context into how large a role gender played in Ancient Egyptian society. There is also a large amount of literature devoted to more general opinions on sex and sexuality within Ancient Egypt that can give additional depth to discussions of how queer acts and relationships were viewed within this particular society. One especially comprehensive source that I linked to for this blog post is Deborah Sweeney’s 2011 writings on sex and gender in the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology. In the abstract, Sweeney writes the following: “Masculinity, femininity, and possible other (intersexual) genders in ancient Egypt were expressed in, and simultaneously shaped by, many different contexts, such as material culture, artistic representation, burial equipment, texts, and the use of space. Ideally, gender should be investigated in combination with other factors, such as social standing, ethnicity, and/or age, focusing on specific periods, places, professions, and/or social settings to avoid over-generalization.” This point of avoiding over-generalization is important, and for this reason I think it would be advantageous to limit the discussion in this paper to strictly Ancient Egypt instead of following a longer historical thread in the same geographical area. While focusing on Ancient Egypt, however, I do think it critical that this discussion focus not just on members of Ancient Egyptian society, but also on their deities. In Ancient Egyptian creation stories, Atum, the first deity (also referred to as Atem, Tem or Temu), was said to be both male and female. Atum created Shu and Tefnut through asexual reproduction , and not until several generations later are representations of archetypal males and females represented (in this case in the form of Isis and Osiris). There are also many  examples in Ancient Egyptian religion of individuals whose physical characteristics are not in line with binary interpretations of sex and gender, and even a representation in the Book of the Dead of the goddess Mut portrayed with traditionally male secondary sex characteristics. In an archaeological example of LGBTQ+ figures in Ancient Egypt, the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep’s 5th Dynasty tomb in Saqqara depicts iconography “similar to that of a married couple–iconography that has been variously interpreted as that of a same-sex couple.” (Sweeney, 2011) Both Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were married to women during their lives, and both had children, and are sometimes used as potential evidence that bisexuality was accepted in Ancient Egypt, though the degree to which queer acts and relationships were accepted in Ancient Egypt is made more complex given the very different ways they are documented by different historians. The amount of (often contradictory) literature on this subject is fascinating; there are many LGBTQ+ figures in Ancient Egyptian society and religion that I had never heard of before, and I would like to explore their stories more through this research paper.

Click to access Some_Aspects.pdf

A Map of Gender-Diverse Cultures



2 thoughts on “LGBTQ+ Figures in Ancient Egyptian Society and Religion

  1. I think that this will make for a very interesting research paper! Representation is important and I believe it would be interesting to see how the ancient Egyptians classified/related to different sexualities and gender identities. This is something that many past civilizations have had a hard time coming to terms with (for example, homosexuality/non-binary gender identities were things that were considered “wrong” and “sinful” in many different periods/areas in history). This may be a broad topic since there are so many different sexualities/identities to consider, but I believe that you can definitely narrow it down a little bit based on the sources that you find. I also think that it’s great that you are going to try to talk about gender/sexuality/gender identity in the contexts of many other important aspects of life (especially social standing and age). 

    I was particularly struck by what you said about Deborah Sweeney’s article in the UCLA Encyclopedia of Egyptology. The first place that I would think to look for evidence of intersexuality in artwork, texts, and material culture. However, I never would’ve thought to look at burial equipment and the use of space. I would be interested in learning about how these things were different for intersexual individuals than masculine/feminine (those who fall on either end of the gender dichotomy) individuals. I also think that it would be interesting to compare how the ancient Egyptians thought about gender and sexuality as it compares to how those of us in the modern United States think about gender and sexuality. That also may help to explain why the literature relating to your topic is so contrasted.

  2. I think this will be an excellent topic and I’m really excited to learn about what you find!! I didn’t even know that this was a topic shown in the historical record, but that just proves how important representation is and how important it is to research these topics. When I first noticed your topic, I was afraid that there wouldn’t be much research, but I’m very relieved that that wasn’t the case. I think the idea of also looking at their deities is very smart. Given the long history of persecution by various cultures during many time periods, it would make sense if LGBTQ+ individuals weren’t super prevalent in the historical record. This doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist and I think their religion is a great way to fill these gaps. I also agree with the above comment concerning intersectionality. Simply showing that LGBTQ+ people were a part of Egyptian society isn’t enough and I think you have some great sources that dive into this. I think you have a great start here! I think the contrast in literature is very interesting and I think that can be explained by modern biases. When dealing with topics that focus on people who are still oppressed today we tend to bring in our own view of how society treats people. I think that although these are conflicting they are still of use and maybe this conflict can be used to answer a larger question about gender and sexuality. For instance, how have the ideas of femininity and masculinity changed and how is it different in various cultures? Even today, these ideas differ so I can imagine they were different in ancient Egypt. I’m really excited to see how this turns out!!

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