Left Behinds

The anti-andrewsullivan.com. Or, the Robin Hood (Maid Marian?) of bright pink Blogger blogs.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Brokeback Desert

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.

Archaeologists were taken aback. It was extremely rare in ancient Egypt for an elite tomb to be shared by two men of apparently equal standing.

And it was most unusual for a couple of the same sex to be depicted locked in an embrace. In other scenes, they are also shown holding hands and nose-kissing, the favored form of kissing in ancient Egypt. What were scholars to make of their intimate relationship? Link

What indeed?

Over the years, the tomb's wall art has been subjected to learned analysis, inspiring considerable speculation. One interpretation is that the two men are brothers, probably identical twins, and this may be the earliest known depiction of twins. Another is that the men had a homosexual relationship, a more recent view that has gained support among gay advocates.

James Allen, an Egyptologist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who is not involved in the research, called the twins hypothesis probable and the conjoined-twins idea "an interesting wrinkle." The least likely, he said, was the homosexual-relationship proposal.

Dr. Baines said, "The gay-couple idea is essentially derived from imposing modern preoccupations on ancient materials and not attending to the cultural context."

Well, maybe. But there aren’t a lot of male twins buried together either, are there? I mean, we’ve already heard it’s unusual for men to be buried together at all. Plus, we learn later in the article that

"We don't have a lot of information about how twins were viewed in ancient Egypt or how gay life was perceived," Dr. Allen said.

So why is the gay couple hypothesis unlikely?

This reminds me of the controversy surrounding the Boswell theory about same-sex marriages in premodern Europe, recently supported again by Alan Bray in The Friend. Initial reaction was strongly negative (at least as characterized in this review), but additional research seems to support the theory that, as the review puts it:

For a very long period, formal amatory unions, conjugal, elective and indissoluble, between two members of the same sex were made in Europe, publicly recognised and consecrated in churches through Christian ritual.


Look, I don’t much care if these Egyptians were gay, twins, conjoined twins, or just one schizophrenic guy. But it sure doesn’t seem like “gay advocates” are the ones slanting their historical assessments based on today’s prejudices.

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  • At 4:35 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Oh, interesting. I am always really careful about jumping to conclusions about gays in history, because (as Foucault taught us) homosexuality as an identity is a 19th century European invention and prior to that there were just a huge variety of practices that fell all over the spectrum of same-sex lovin.

    For instance, Doris Kearns Goodwin was saying on Charlie Rose this week that the Lincoln gay hypothesis was based on misinterpreting the flowery letters he wrote his best friend, which were in fact completely common between non-sexually-linked male friends in that period. The conventions of that era were just totally different.

    And it gets more complicated when you jump across the world to Egypt, which I know next to nothing about. All I do know is that contemporary straight Arab men tend to be much more physically demonstrative of their affection than American men. Although I also remember a friend telling me that male romantic relatonships are part of their historical tradition and only stigmatized relatively recently, historically speaking.

    Which is all to say: I want to hear a more objective Egyptologist disuss the possibility that these two guys were lovers. It certainly would be interesting in the contemporary debate about gay marriage, etc. if in fact there was a robust Arab history of same-sex romantic liaisons.

  • At 4:45 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…

    True enough. It may in fact be more likely that these two were brothers than lovers, but nothing I read in the NYT article seemed to me to come down all that powerfully in either direction. And although I also prefer to be cautious and avoid essentialist constructions of homosexuality, it seems to me very unlikely that Egyptians never had gay sex or even, depending on the societal mood, lasting gay relationships.

    And Mark was recently telling me something similar about Arab society.

  • At 4:57 PM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Good point. I shouldn't have said it would be interesting if there were a history of same-sex romantic relationships. That's almost guaranteed. I should have said it would be interesting if there were a history of socially sanctioned same-sex romantic relationships.

    Oh, and as far as Mark, not exactly an unbiased source. Heh. I am more convinced by the fact that my friend's totally straight, Muslim Arab boyfriend was telling me there's a strong history of Arab same-sex romance.

  • At 12:55 AM, Anonymous Alexander "Benjamins" Hamilton said…

    It occurs to me, along the lines of not putting our cultural blinders on, that they might have been twins and lovers. Pharoahs did commonly marry their sisters, after all.

  • At 3:18 AM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Hm, Darwin married his first cousin, and I'm in love with myself, but your twin? That's where I draw the line.

  • At 2:16 PM, Blogger Neda Cole said…

    I'm with you on the Twins AND Lovers conclusion. Reading this spurred some distant memory of the gods Horus and Set indulging in some same-sex hanky-panky, and an internet search revealed this, which i think settles the debate?

    Horus and Set

    Then Set said to Horus: "Come, let us have a feast day at my house." And Horus said to him: "I will, I will." Now when evening had come, a bed was prepared for them, and they lay down together. At night, Set let his member become stuff, and he inserted it between the thighs of Horus. And Horus placed his hand between his thighs and caught the semen of Set.

    -- Story of Horus and Set

    After Osiris' eventual death, while Horus was growing up and planning his own revenge, Set and Horus engaged in a homosexual relationship. In one part of the myth, Set proclaimed to Horus, "How lovely your backside is." Informing his mother Isis about his uncle's ardour, Horus is told to catch Set's semen rather than becoming impregnated by the murderer of his father. Set, in doing so, was planning on humiliating Horus by showing the gods that Horus would be filled with someone else's semen.

    Horus and Isis's next plan was to 'impregnate' Set with Horus' semen. His mother spreads powerful unguents on Horus' penis, after which he ejaculated into a jar, and they spread it on some lettuce, a favourite aphrodisiac to the ancient Egyptians. Set then ate the semen-covered lettuce, and so Horus (rather than Set with his first 'attack') bacame sexually dominant over his uncle. Set then asked the gods to bring the semen forth from the 'impregnated' one, to humiliate Osiris' son. The semen comes out of Set himself, and he becomes the laughing stock of the gods!

    Am off to buy some lettuce right now...

  • At 2:39 PM, Blogger Antid Oto said…



  • At 12:09 AM, Blogger Solomon Grundy said…

    Ha! I got distracted from giggling at the Horus and Set story when I clicked on the Andy Samberg link. I'd like to make him a special lettuce sandwich...;)

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    I think it is really very good work.It occurs to me, along the lines of not putting our cultural blinders on, that they might have been twins and lovers.

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