While the level of tolerance for LGBT people in ancient Egypt remains subject to debate, the truth can be found in the ostraca. Mythology depicted in hieroglyphics and history revealed on pyramid walls confirms same-sex relationships existed within the culture and lore along the Nile. Many scholars today suggest that while all matters of sex were treated as somewhat taboo, intolerance of homosexuality seemed such a foreign concept that no records show the practice as forbidden. In addition, several intersex figures were not only recorded but celebrated. Here is a review of their stories as well as the other Egyptian deities who fall within the LGBT spectrum.
The storm god associated with many natural disasters, Seth was among the more colorful figures in the Egyptian pantheon. Researcher Mark Brustman says Seth, while married to his sister Nephthys, is depicted as engaging in sexual activities with other male deities such as Horus. Seth is also described as having impotent testicles, and he never had a child. This may not be a sign of great tolerance in the culture; Seth was cast in a terribly negative light in many stories. And while his childbearing siblings Osiris and Isis represent life, he represents the desert. This may indicate a certain negative sentiment about gay identity. But many stories show that while Seth could be called a villainous figure, his homosexuality was not what made him so.
Many tales about Seth focus on his envy of his nephew Horus, the child of Isis and Orisis. In one tale documented well in Richard Parkinson's Homosexual Desire and Middle Kingdom Literature, Horus is either raped or seduced into a sexual encounter. Seth intends to embarrass Horus by showing others Horus was the receptive partner in the act. But Horus gets the upper hand, because he secretly captured Seth's semen, then had his mother Isis feed it back to Seth in his lettuce. When the semen is called forth by Seth in an attempt to humiliate Horus, it comes from Seth instead. Interestingly, the tale shows that ancient Egyptian culture didn't look down on homosexuality -- something heroic Horus engaged in himself -- so much as it held being subjugated in low esteem.
This resurrection figure holds ties to ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures. Antinous was a real historical figure and the male companion of the Roman emperor Hadrian. The pair would take journeys around the Mediterranean. And on one trip, Antinous drowned in the Nile on the same day that Egyptians commemorated the watery death of Osiris. Deeply affected by the death of his lover, Hadrian encouraged the deification of Antinous, and cults sprung up around the Mediterranean honoring him. In some tellings, Antinous rose from the Nile after his death and was then revered as a form of Osiris reborn. Indeed, the god and the Roman cult that followed him still have devotees today.
In the creation story for the Egyptian gods, the first deity, Atum, was both male and female, according to studies by researcher Mark Burstman. The ancestor to all self-produced two offspring, Shu and Tefnut, through either a sneeze or his own semen, and it wasn't for a few generations that the archetypal male and female gods of Isis and Osiris were born.
While there are fewer tales in Egyptian history and mythology about female than male homosexuality, many considered the goddess Nephthys to be a lesbian. The sister and constant companion of Isis, she married brother Seth but bore him no children. Scholars have debated whether the stories of Nephthys, who did bear one son by Osiris, show that the culture held lesbians in greater esteem than gay men, because they could still be fertile despite their sexual orientation. Then again, others express skepticism about her lesbianism altogether.
Isis was among the few goddesses worshipped both by the Egyptians and their Mediterranean neighbors in Greece. The mother goddess and a protector of children, she also cared for society's downtrodden, which may be why gay priests in ancient Egypt worshipped the deity. In one tale documented at Isiopolis, Isis appeared in a dream accompanied by an Egyptian retinue to calm the pregnant Telethusa, who feared she would deliver a girl against her husband's wishes. Isis told the mother to carry the child, Iphis, who was born a girl but raised as a boy. Later in life, Iphis called on Isis to change his gender to male, an ancient gender affirmation granted by divine means.
While the sun god Ra in most mythological accounts was regarded as the father to the major gods, Sir Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge wrote of clear indications of a double-gender nature to the deity. As early as the fifth dynasty, Budge wrote of Ra's female counterpart Rat, who was considered the mother of the gods.
Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep
The clearest evidence that bisexuality was acceptable in ancient Egypt may be the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, two men laid to rest in the necropolis of Saqqara. Hieroglyphics indicate that the men were married with children but also show them in intimate embrace. The two men apparently worked as overseers to manicurists in the palace of King Nuiserre. There is some scholarly debate as to whether the men were brothers, but virtually all depictions of the pair show a commitment that looks far more than fraternal.
The first documented transgender figure in history may have been the Egyptian pharaoh Hatshepsut. Deidra Ramsey McIntyre of Red Ibis Publishing notes that unlike other female Egyptian rulers, Hatshepsut was always depicted in ancient art wearing men's clothing, and she frequently was drawn with a male body. Her descendent Thutmose III would later try to eradicate nearly all historic reference to her.
Neferkare and Sasenet
The Egyptian King Neferkare, who many scholars believe rose to become Pharoah Pepi II, would make conspicuous midnight visits to his favorite general, Sasenet, according to tales dating to the era of the Middle Kingdom. According to German scholars Gunter Burkard and Heinz Thissen, some ancient texts state Neferkare would do to the military leader "what his majesty desired," a phrase they interpret as clear innuendo of sexual congress.
Hapi, the god of the Nile, is depicted in hieroglyphics as an intersex person with a ceremonial false beard and breasts. While generally referred to as male, the god also was also considered a symbol of fertility. According to Richard Parkinson's Homosexual Desire and Middle Kingdom Literature, the deity was portrayed to suggest both male and female reproductive power, a topic that has incited debate among scholars.
Another male god widely associated with fertility was Wadj-Wer, a deity depicted at a pyramid site in Abusir. Sometimes referred to as the "pregnant god," Wadj-Wer held the same type of station as river gods in Greek mythology, representing the Mediterranean Sea in some accounts or rivers and lagoons of the northern Nile Delta in others. An association with water seems the greatest distinguishing feature separating iconography of Wadj-Wer from that of Hapi.
The Egyptian god of fate Shai sometimes was depicted in male form,and other times presented as the female Shait. Related to both birth in the world and rebirth in the afterlife, Shai was born with each individual, constantly starting life anew but also an immortal god, according to ancient Egyptian belief. Wallis Budge suggests the deity was viewed in parts of Egypt as combining the facets of a male Shai, decreeing what should happen to man, and a female Renenutet, the goddess of good fortune. "Subsequently no distinction was made between these deities and the abstract ideas which they represented," Budge wrote in The Egyptian Book of the Dead.