Should Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep be Viewed as a Same-sex Couple?

The Old Kingdom tomb of two men named Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep at Saqqara has been cited as the earliest possible documented evidence for a same-sex couple in world history, despite the fact that their tomb is also the resting place of both of their wives and their many children and grandchildren are mentioned in the tomb too!  And also despite the fact that our understanding of ancient Egyptian society’s acknowledgement and identification, much less the acceptance, of homosexuality is extremely limited.

Construct an essay on this topic by responding to readings on the tomb and what we know of homosexuality in ancient Egypt.  The essay should argue whether Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep should be viewed as a same-sex couple or not, taking into consideration Egyptian cultural and social views on gender and sexuality.

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Note:  There is no ‘correct’ answer to this question.  The world of Egyptological experts is divided on the subject, with some agreeing the two men were same-sex life partners and others disagreeing.  The purpose of this essay is for you to present a well-laid out argument for your case using evidence and facts, not to get the “right” answer.

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Homosexuality in Ancient Egypt

The Saqqara tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep has attracted considerable interest from Egyptologists and historians since its discovery in 1964. The tomb’s features have led to much speculation regarding the nature of the relationship between the two males, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, laid to rest in the tomb. Some speculate that the two males were a same-sex couple while others argue that they were twins. The former has led to some historians of sexuality citing that the Saqqara tomb contains the earliest possible documented evidence for a same-sex couple in the world. This essay explores the nature of the relationship between the two men from the lens of iconography. The paper argues that Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were twins and not a same-sex couple as the interpretation of the images and inscriptions in the Saqqara tomb point to a twinship relationship.

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Should Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep be Viewed as a Same-sex Couple?

The central aspect that those arguing in favor of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep being a same-sex couple is the art drawn in their tomb which depicts the two men in a manner suggesting that they had sexual relations. The picture shows the two men embracing in a manner that was commonly utilized to decorate the tombs of wife and husband in the Old Kingdom. In the image, Khnumhotep is depicted in a manner that suggests he assumed the role of ‘wife’ (Reeder, 2000). A comparison of the image with others drawn in pictures of married pairs debunks the theory that the two were same-sex partners. According to Evans and Woods (2016), in images of conjugal affection drawn in other tombs in the Old Kingdom, only one individual of the married couple actively embraces their partner. In the case of the Saqqara tomb, both men equally reach out to grasp each other. Evans and Woods also elucidate that in the Old Kingdom images of men embracing are also evident in multiple cases in the tombs of siblings or family members. Thus, the embrace as depicted in the image is not a depiction of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep’s sexual orientation but rather is idiosyncratic.

Another aspect that has led to the speculation that Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were a same-sex couple is the omission of the kinship term sn’. In the Old Kingdom the term sn’ was inscribed in a tomb to indicate the persons buried in the tomb are brothers. Vasiljević (2008) explains that in the Old Kingdom it was not unusual to omit kinship inscriptions. Additionally, the kinship inscription was utilized to exhibit hierarchy. Vasiljević elucidates that a possible reason that the kinship inscriptions were not incorporated in the tomb’s decorations was that both Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep held hierarchical social status. If the kinship inscriptions were incorporated into the tomb’s decorations, it would have required an inscription that the two men were sons of Khabaukhfu and Rudjzaus, who held lower positions in society than them. The inscription would not have only placed the two brothers in a lower position in relation to their parents but also on an equal status with their siblings (Vasiljević, 2008). Thus, the sn’ inscription was omitted due to status reasons.

The names of the two men laid to rest in the Saqqara tomb have also informed the speculation that the two men were same-sex partners. Those supporting the premise that the two men were a same-sex couple argue that if the two were siblings they would not have similar names, Khnum (Reeder, 2000). It is worth noting that cases of parents giving the same name to multiple of their children were present in the Old Kingdom. The name Khnum refers to an Ancient Egypt god Khnum. In Ancient Egypt mythology, Khnum is the god responsible for creating humans. The parents may have named the twins Khnum since twin birth was considerably dangerous in ancient Egypt owing to the rudimental nature of labor and delivery care. They possibly had a deep conviction that Khnum was responsible for ensuring the safe birth of the twins. However, the parents utilized expressions referring to their age or physical characteristics to distinguish the children; hence the expressions Niankh and Hotep to distinguish between the two brothers (Vasiljević, 2008). Thus, the two men laying to rest in the Saqqara tomb bear the same name because the parents wanted to stress the graciousness of the god Khnum.

Moreover, those supporting that the two men were same-sex partners seem to prioritize the image of the two men embracing and overlook those showing that both Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep had wives and children. There are many other images drawn in the tomb that shows that both men had wives and children, but they shared a special connection (Evans & Woods, 2016). Whereas the premise of the two men having wives and children is not sufficient to prove that the two were not lovers since they could have been bisexual, the fact that the two bore the same name and had similar job positions cannot be a mere coincidence. Niankhkhnum held the position of Manicurist of the King while Khnumhotep was the Inspector Manicurist of the Palace (Reeder, 2000). The only plausible explanation regarding why the two men had the same ranking is if they were twins. Evans and Woods (2016) explain that in the Old Kingdom since twins’ survival during birth was a rare occurrence, socially, those who survived were considered a single person. Arguably, this explains why the two men were buried together.

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Lastly, even if Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep could have possibly been same-sex partners it is unlikely that this would have been acknowledged in the Old Kingdom. According to Wilkinson (2007), although there exists evidence that same-sex relations may have existed during the Old Kingdom, they were frowned upon by society. Wilkinson stress that same-sex relations were prohibited during the Old Kingdom. Thus, if the two men were a same-sex couple, they would not have been buried in such a highly decorated tomb and images of them embracing would not have been used to decorate the tomb.

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In conclusion, as demonstrated in this paper the most plausible explanation for the reason Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep were buried in the same tomb with decorations of them embracing each other is that they were twins. The twinship relationship explains why they held the same job in the King’s Palace, the reason they bore the name, and the mutual face-to-face embrace image drawn in their tomb. The Old Kingdom treated twins as a single person socially since they were a rare occasion, hence the reason the two men were buried in the same tomb and the images are idiosyncratic to depict the bond they shared. The decorations in the Saqqara tomb depict that the bond Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep shared extended into the afterlife.

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