Homosexuality in the Ancient World

The modern conception of sexuality relies on a strict categorisation of sexual appetites and personal desires – heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality, etc. In the ancient world, however, these words did not exist and the concepts they represent were not necessarily analogous to our modern understanding of sexuality.

Attitudes towards homosexuality in recent history have coloured the perspective through which we view the nature of sexuality in the ancient world. Early historians, archaeologists and antiquarians viewed notions of alternate sexual identity through the lens of their own social mores, and their discussion of these sexual identities was often stilted and couched in euphemism (when it wasn’t downright ignored).

Modern scholarship has done a great deal to explore the history of sexual identities in ancient cultures and, though progress is slow, there is now a wider consensus on the existence of alternate sexual practices in the ancient world. Despite this, the application of modern labels to sexual identities in antiquity still provides an inadequate exploration of the lived sexual identities of ancient peoples.

Ancient Greece

Ancient Greece has a reputation in modern culture as a society in which homosexuality was accepted – even encouraged. Realistically, however, this is an oversimplification of a complex matter centring on gender, identity and social structure. Ancient Greece has served as an idealised utopia for alternative sexual identities, with Oscar Wilde famously referencing, in his trial in 1895, affection between two men as the “very basis” of the philosophy of Plato. Similarly, the attraction of the Greek isle of Lesbos – home of Sappho, the “tenth muse” and famous poet and writer – to lesbian women has taken on an almost mythological light. But to what extent was homosexuality truly accepted in ancient Greece?

Ancient Greek society was not an equal one. Citizenship was an obstacle to freedom, and those who were not counted as citizens – for example, in classical Athens, women, children and slaves – did not have the same rights or social esteem extended to the citizenry. Even between male citizens same-sex courting was couched in the terminology of pederasty, with an older male – the erastes – taking the role of a teacher, and a younger male, usually in his teens – the eromenos – taking the role of a student. Ignoring the necessary power imbalance that this imposed upon the relationship, the eromenos was often idealised as an embodiment of the virility, impressionability, naivety and beauty of youth. Pederasty had its own complex social-sexual etiquette and does not reflect the modern understanding of homosexual relationships as being functionally similar to heterosexual relationships.

The relationship of Plato with same-sex desire is a complex one. In his Symposium, the speaker Aristophanes discusses same-sex relationships in a way that closely resembles a more modern understanding – with the two participants treated as equals whose relationship completes the other. In his Laws, however, Plato dismisses same-sex relationships as being unnatural and unsuited to his vision of utopian society. This contradictory view of homosexual relations is characteristic of our understanding of alternate sexual identities in ancient Greece – same-sex relationships did occur, and in some ways may have been accepted and even celebrated, but they were not the ideal partnership and the way that courtship occurred is fundamentally unrecognisable to our modern understanding of same-sex relationships.

Ancient Rome

Though Rome has a rich history of homoerotic art and literature, their conception of same-sex relationships between men hinges around a traditional viewpoint of masculinity and femininity. Male same-sex relationships were generally accepted amongst the citizenry of Rome, but only as long as the citizen was in the dominant (or penetrative) role. The men who took on the “feminine” or submissive role were generally slaves, prostitutes or entertainers, men with lower social status known as infamia – technically free men, but not afforded the rights and protections of the citizenry. For a free man to allow himself to be penetrated threatened his sexual integrity and invited challenges to his virility and masculinity.

Female same-sex relationships are generally less well-attested in Roman literature during the Republic and Principate, although whether this reflects an issue of decorum – a refusal to mention these relationships as they were viewed as improper in some way – is debateable. Certainly, the attitude of prominent Roman poet Ovid hints at this, with his claim that female same-sex relations were “a desire known to no one…no female is seized by desire for a female”. In his Metamophoses, Ovid tells the tale of a pregnant woman named Telethusa, whose husband claims that he will kill their unborn child if she is female. She attempts to conceal the sex of her daughter when she is born, giving her the ambiguous name Iphis, and she is married to a golden-haired maiden named Ianthe. Though initially the relationship between the two is described romantically – “Love came to both of them together / in simple innocence, and filled their hearts / with equal longing”. The tale ends with Iphis being so horrified that the goddess Isis intervenes and transforms her daughter into a man – “Iphis: rejoice, with confidence, not fear! You, who were lately a girl, are now a boy!” This tale betrays not only Roman attitudes towards the clear division of gender roles and a lack of ambiguity in gender identity, but also highlights the valuation of female same-sex relationships as lesser or improper compared to heterosexual relationships.

Ancient Egypt

Attitudes towards same-sex relationships in ancient Egypt are hotly debated due to a lack of surviving literary evidence. In Talmudic literature, the ancient Egyptians are painted as a sexually promiscuous and “debauched” people, with Maimonides referring to lesbianism as “the acts of Egypt”. In truth, however, there is little evidence that such sexual freedoms existed in the ancient past.

In the New Kingdom tale of the Contendings of Horus and Seth, Seth assaults Horus in an attempt to dominate him and prove that Horus is unfit for kingship before the Ennead of Egyptian gods. Horus, however, catches Seth’s semen in his hands and tricks Seth into consuming his own semen. When this is revealed before the Ennead, Seth flees in embarrassment and is seen as unfit for kingship, giving some hint at possible Egyptian attitudes towards male same-sex relationships.

Perhaps the most famous case study regarding Egyptian homosexuality is the tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, two Overseers of Manicurists in the Palace of King Nyuserre. The two men were buried together in a joint tomb at Saqqara, and have been considered by some scholars to be the first recorded same-sex couple in history. A great deal of this argument is based on the interpretation of tomb decoration showing the two men standing nose-to-nose and embracing, the most intimate pose allowed by the decorum of Egyptian art. There are a number of flaws in this theory – most obviously, the families of the two men are depicted in the decoration of their tomb, showing that both men had wives and children. Is it possible that the two men were engaged in a same-sex relationship? Was this permitted, allowed, even encouraged, by their families? Were they engaged in a polyamorous same-sex and heterosexual relationship? The dearth of solid evidence provides space for a great deal of supposition, but unfortunately such supposition tells us little of use about the practicalities of ancient Egyptian engagement and understanding of same-sex relationships and alternative sexual desires.

Projecting onto the Past?

The nature of academia is to not only strive for new discoveries, but also re-examine past interpretations of evidence to divorce oneself from the attitudes and lenses that coloured scholarly analysis in the past. It is crucially important to identity the biases and prejudices that existed in the past in order to come to a greater understanding of the truths of the past. Still, it is equally important to note that our own understanding is tinged by the attitudes of modernity, and our own conclusions will necessarily require re-examination by scholars in the future.

In truth, the projection of utopian ideals of sexual acceptance – particularly in the case of same-sex relationships – onto ancient cultures does not truly capture the complexity and social nuance that surrounded the complex issues of sexuality and desire in the past, and continues to cause controversy in the modern day. The application of modern labels onto sexual attitudes in the past – labels still hotly contested by scholars today – creates the issue of forcing a modern understanding of sexuality onto people who did not necessarily conceptualise sexual identity in the same way we do.

Furthermore, it is challenging to answer questions such as “What were ancient Roman attitudes to homosexuality?” or “How did the ancient Egyptians conceptualise same-sex relationships?” as these questions inherently assume a continuity of culture through vast chronological spaces. When discussing ancient cultures, it is important to appreciate the length of time and space through which they existed, and summarising socio-cultural attitudes so generally can obscure the fluid nature of human society. Attitudes towards homosexuality in, for example, the UK, have changed a great deal in just the last few decades – how much might attitudes have changed in the span of, for example, thousands of years of Egyptian culture?

Nonetheless, it is crucially important to continue re-examining the work of previous scholars and to try to understand these attitudes in the ancient world, not just to combat misinformation but also to come to a closer understanding of this fundamental aspect of human identity. The truth likely exists amongst layers of complexity between dated and conservative interpretations of ancient sexuality, and amongst modern utopian reinterpretations – as in modernity, attitudes towards sexuality in the ancient world were likely various and multifaceted in a way that archaeological and textual evidence struggles to communicate.

Christopher Bebbington.

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Aspects of a Goddess: The Cult Image of Hathor in the Garstang Museum (E.66)

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This New Kingdom cult image found by Garstang at the site of Esna depicts the goddess Hathor, the mother (and sometimes daughter) of the sun god Re. Hathor was a prominent Egyptian goddess, and held many titles and epithets relating to her function in mythology and day-to-day religious practice. Some of these titles include “Mistress of the West” (an allusion to her role in funerary beliefs), “Lady of the Sycamore” (associating her with trees, vegetation and the environment) and “Lady of Turquoise” (associating her with turquoise from Serabit el-Khadim). Hathor was also associated with dance, romance and song, and was one of the few goddesses depicted carrying the was sceptre.

Hathor and Fertility

A key feature of Hathor as a goddess is her association with fertility. Symbols of Hathor such as the menat necklace and the sistra (a musical instrument used in cult worship) were thought to help promote fertility. Her bovine form was a symbol of fertility, prosperity and abundance. As a fertility goddess Hathor was closely associated with many other Egyptian deities such as Isis, Min, and Bes.

Hathor’s temple at Dendera had two birthing houses connected to it with statues of the god Bes outside of them. In Papyrus Westcar, midwives hold items sacred to Hathor to aid the woman giving birth. The menat necklace and the sistra are often items used in spells to protect the milk of the mother and likening the mother to Hathor’s bovine form. At Hathor’s temple often fertility symbols were left as dedications to ensure fertility (both male and female) and to provide protection from the moment of conception in life (to avoid miscarriages, protect the child, and protect the mother) until the moment of rebirth in the afterlife. Her connection as a fertility goddess extends to her role in divine mythology, where Hathor birthed the sun god each morning.

Hathor and Rebirth

Hathor is often mentioned in New Kingdom funerary compositions such as the Book of the Dead, where the deceased regularly identifies with aspects of Hathor; in Spell 186, Hathor is mentioned as “She of the West”, “Lady of the Sacred Land” and “Eye of Re which is on his forehead”. Hathor is said to have “built the Great Bark of Osiris in order to cross the water of truth”.

Hathor has the title ‘Mistress of the West’ (protector and guide of the deceased) and in the New Kingdom, was thought to reside in the mountains protecting the Valley of the Kings. The cult image of Hathor in the Garstang Museum is made of limestone and gilded with gold and painted, rather than completely made of gold as most cult images were. This is likely why this image has survived being melted down and reused.

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Traces of paint and gold foil are still visible on the cult statue today.

As well as a protector of the deceased, Hathor is also a provider for the dead. As ‘Mistress of the Sycamore’ she provides them with shade, food and water on their journey. The cult image from Esna depicts deceased tomb owners drinking water from Hathor’s bovine form on the bottom right. The text on the image indicates Hathor is asking for nourishment to be provided for the deceased tomb owners.

Hathor and the Pharaoh

Hathor (through her association with the goddess Isis) is often depicted in her bovine form providing nourishment and milk to a young child Horus in the marshes of the delta region. This association likely derives from The Contendings of Horus and Seth, wherein Hathor restores Horus’ sight using milk after he is blinded by Seth. Due to this, Hathor is depicted as the symbolic mother of the pharaoh and his protector; she is often depicted in bovine form nursing pharaohs with her milk. In the tomb of Seti I, Hathor is depicted placing the menat necklace around his neck to protect him from evil on his journey in the afterlife, indicating Hathor’s continued protection of the pharaoh and ensuring his chance at rebirth.

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In this depiction of Hathor, she is surrounded by individuals drinking the life-giving water that flows from her.

Hathor and Ma’at

Ma’at was the goddess of maintaining order and the concept of ma’at itself, the “correct way” that things should be in pharaonic Egypt (often translated as “balance” or “order”, as opposed to isfet – “chaos”). In The Book of the Heavenly Cow, humanity plot and rebel against the rule of Re and attempt to destroy him causing chaos in Egypt and disrupting ma’at. Re asks his daughter Hathor to carry him into the sky where he now remains; she is then sent by the sun god (as the ‘Eye of Re’) to Earth to punish humanity for their crimes against him and for causing chaos and disruption to order. By punishing humans for the crime Hathor restores order, and therefore ma’at, back on Earth.

In Hathor’s temple at Dendera, Hathor is depicted receiving the ma’at ritual from the Pharaoh. She is often shown on the boat of the sun god standing next to Ma’at, ensuring that the sun god survives the journey through the night to be reborn in the morning.

Final Remarks

Hathor is an example of the many interlocking facets and aspects of ancient Egyptian deities; she has many roles and is associated with many different things both in mythology and in day-to-day life. Her cult statue is an incredibly rare find, and this unique and valuable object illustrates the style and content that would be included on cult statues of Egyptian gods. In modern portrayals, Hathor is often associated primarily with fertility and motherhood, but in ancient Egyptian religious beliefs she was fundamentally tied into aspects of divine kingship, afterlife belief and the philosophical conception of divine order in Egypt.

Hannah Drummond & Chris Bebbington.