Return to Born Eunuchs Home Page

The Third Gender in Ancient Egypt


              The notion of gender complexity is deeply rooted in ancient Egyptian culture. In the Egyptian story of the creation of the gods, the first god is male and female, and its name is Atum. Through asexual reproduction, Atum creates two other gods, Shu and Tefnut. These two in turn produce another pair, Geb and Nut. Finally, Geb and Nut, the earth and the sky, combine and produce the two pairs of Isis and Osiris, and Seth and Nephthys. In the stories of these archetypal beings, Isis exemplifies the reproductive female, Osiris the reproductive male, Seth the nonreproductive eunuch, and Nephthys the unmarried virgin (lesbian).

             Seth and Nephthys are supposed to be a couple like Isis and Osiris, but they have no adventures together and no children. Nephthys spends all of her time with Isis, being of assistance to her in various ways. Seth, likewise, spends all of his time with Osiris and then with Osiris's son Horus, but unlike Nephthys he spends his time causing all kinds of havoc. Seth and Osiris are in competition for primacy among the gods. Seth kills Osiris by cutting him into pieces and scattering them all over Egypt, but Isis, with the aid of her sister Nephthys, gathers the pieces back together and revives him long enough for him to impregnate her. Isis then bears a son Horus, and Osiris goes to rule in the afterlife. Next Seth turns his attention to Horus, attempting to discredit him as a male by having sex with him. On his mother's advice, Horus catches Seth's ejaculate in his hand. He then brings the semen to Isis who throws it into the river. Then she takes some of Horus's seed and sprinkles it on Seth's favorite food, (the non-sexually reproducing) lettuce, which Seth eats. Seth, thinking his semen is in Horus, although he himself has actually eaten Horus's seed as salad dressing, appears with Horus before the judges who will determine who has primacy among the gods. Seth tells the judges to call to his semen so that it can respond telling where it is. They do, and his semen responds from the reeds along the river, making it seem as though Seth was sterilely pleasuring himself down by the river. Then they call to Horus's semen, and it responds, much to Seth's surprise, from Seth's own belly. Seth is disgraced and Horus assumes the role as prime god.

             Another version of this story, referred to in the Book of the Dead, says Seth casts "filth" into the eye of Horus, causing it to emit liquid. What exactly is meant by filth is open to question. In response, Horus attacks the testicles of Seth. Perhaps Seth ejaculated into Horus's eye. In any case, Horus is always spoken of in terms of the regained strength of his eye, and Seth in terms of the loss of his virility.

             Seth's behavior may be considered inappropriate and harmful, and he may lose face, but he unquestionably displays exclusively homosexual tendencies, which means a homosexual is one of the most ancient central archetypes in Egyptian mythology. And Seth is described as having impotent testicles, which is consistent with my thesis that exclusively homosexual men in the ancient world were defined as eunuchs.

             The intrigues among the gods have been interpreted to reflect not only human interactions, but the interaction of the Nile with the surrounding desert. The Nile is Osiris, who contributes the fluid that brings life. The dryness of the desert is Seth, who kills off life. When the desert dryness becomes too powerful, the river dries up and is divided into thousands of pools along the entire riverbed. The evaporated liquid comes together in the sky (female principle or Isis) and rain falls down, replenishing the river temporarily. The river brings forth new life (Horus) in the form of vegetation. Thus life wins out over death in a never-ending struggle.

             How does Nephthys, Seth's third-gendered counterpart, fit into this scheme? She provides an instructive example. She is initially childless, and spends all of her time with Isis. She does, however, eventually have a child, not by her "husband" Seth, but by Osiris. In the allegory of the Egyptian landscape, Nephthys has been said to represent the desert ground outside the reach of the Nile's flooding (see Plutarch). On rare occasion, the Nile exceeds its limits and flows out onto this desert ground, producing vegetation.

             This story of Nephthys exemplifies a difference between gay men and lesbians, in that a woman who is unattracted to men is still able to engender a child through sex with a man. But a man who is not attracted to women will not easily get an erection with a woman, which is prerequisite to his having procreative sex. Since gender was traditionally defined as a role in procreation -- with the male being the one who reproduces in another person's body, and the female being the one who reproduces in her own body -- the eunuch, or exclusive homosexual, who does not reproduce either in his own body or in another person's body, is neither male nor female. But a lesbian, in spite of her lack of attraction to men, does not necessarily sacrifice her femaleness, since she is not hindered in fulfilling the female role.

             Inscribed pottery shards discovered near ancient Thebes (now Luxor, Egypt), and dating from the Middle Kingdom (2000-1800 BCE), contain a listing of three genders of humanity: males, eunuchs, and females, in that order. (See Sethe, Kurt, "Die Aechtung feindlicher Fürsten, Völker und Dinge auf altägyptischen Tongefäßscherben des mittleren Reiches," in: Abhandlungen der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse, 1926, p. 61.) The word for male includes a picture of a penis and a picture of a man kneeling. The word for eunuch includes a picture of a man kneeling, but not a picture of a penis. The word for female includes a picture of a woman kneeling, but no picture of body parts (unless the shield-like shape which designates "woman" is a picture of the female pubic region).




             The pronunciation of the words on the shards is given as tai (tie), sht (sekhet) and hmt (hemet), respectively. The word for eunuch here, sht, also appears in a pyramid text where it is contrasted with the word for male, tai. There is not much evidence, if any, for castration of living human beings in ancient Egypt. [See my translation of Frans Jonckheere's 1954 article  attempting to find such evidence, I think unsuccessfully.] One can assume in the absence of contrary evidence that eunuchs in ancient Egypt were anatomically whole, natural eunuchs such as are found elsewhere throughout the ancient world.

             There is also another common word for eunuch in ancient Egyptian inscriptions, which is hm. The word is similar to the word for female, but it lacks the feminine grammatical ending -t. The word hm is used with a variety of senses. The Berlin Dictionary defines it as " coward". A text in the temple at Edfu says that in Sebennytus one must not have sex with a hmti or a male, which positions the hm as a man who is not male. [This text was written in a late period after Greeks had already conquered Egypt, so its prohibition of sex with eunuchs may reflect the influence of Platonic and Aristotelean moral philosophy.] Hm is also a very common word in tomb inscriptions which Egyptologists like to translate as "priest," because the hm's are depicted performing all kinds of sacrifices for the dead. This word for priest hm is written with a kind of upward pointing club, differently from the word for eunuch hm, but the pronunciation is exactly the same and the range of uses overlap in the meaning of servant.

             In a tomb established by two men at Sakkara near Memphis they are depicted holding hands, feasting together, and in their sacrificial chamber they are shown twice in very loving embraces (see Ahmed Moussa and Hartwig Altenmüller, Das Grab des Nianchchnum und Chnumhotep, Old Kingdom Tombs at the Causeway of King Unas at Saqqara, Excavated by the Department of Antiquities, Archäologische Veröffentlichungen, vol. 21, Mainz: Philipp von Zabern, 1977). They were both manicurists for the king Neuserre, and both referred to by the word hm (priest).

             Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep have their names intermingled at the entrance to their tomb: Niankh-Khnum-Hotep, which means "joined in life, joined in death" (or "joined in peace"). Inside the tomb is a legal declaration authorizing the hm priests to carry out their duties and forbidding the tomb owners' respective family members to impede them (page 87). The excavators of the tomb noted that there are an extraordinary number of hm priests depicted in their tomb and an extraordinary number of them are mentioned by name (page 30). This they saw as a sign of the high social position of the tomb owners, but of course, it can also be a sign that they were personally acquainted with lots of these hm priests. Perhaps the hm priesthood was an association of exclusive homosexuals, of which they were prominent members? If so, these hm priests were merely playing the spiritual role that homosexuals in many cultures play.

             The walls of the tomb are very elaborately carved with pictures and text, depicting the two men in various scenes. One of the men, Niankhkhnum is consistently placed in a typical male position with respect to the other man, Khnumhotep, who is consistently depicted in a female position (this analysis I heard from Greg Reeder, author of There are remarkably few female figures in the tomb. Those who are depicted are either the sisters, daughters, or wives of the men. Each man had one wife. In one banquet scene, the men are depicted at either end of the table, and the wife of Niankhkhnum is depicted sitting behind him - but her image has been chiseled out of the scene and is only recognizable as an erased outline. At the other end of the table, Khnumhotep is depicted sitting alone, without even any room available to portray his wife. In one section of another wall there is a procession of females, but the figures are all allegorical depictions of different crops, etc. (plates 66-67). Male and female (and other) family members account for only 21 out of the 97 individuals named on the wall. Besides the two tomb owners, the other 76 named individuals are all men and are all called hm (priests). The describers of the tomb translated hm as Totenpriester or funerary priest.

             Scene 16.2 (Plate 40) in the tomb shows a hunting scene. In one corner a dog-like animal mounts another dog-like animal from behind. It is the only depiction of a sex act in the tomb, which raises the question of why this sex act was depicted. The small pair of copulating animals in a lower corner of the scene is not prominently displayed, and they would be easy to overlook (click here for picture of dogs). They do not particularly add a note of procreativity to the heavily homoerotic tomb. Perhaps it is a modest or humorous representation of the type of intercourse preferred by the two tomb owners. The animals themselves might be hyenas, which have long been a symbol of gender confusion, or jackals, which is the animal most often used to represent Seth.

            The conventional interpretation of these tomb owners' relationship has been that they were brothers. This is based on their depiction in the tomb within what appears to be a family posing scene (plate 30). Ten people are depicted in a line. At the front are a man and a woman with the woman embracing the man. Next follow two men, three women, and three more men. The last two men are Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep in that order. All the persons depicted have their left hands over their hearts, except for the first woman (presumably the mother) and Khnumhotep. The latter two are affectionately touching the men in front of them - the woman has her left arm draped around her husband, and Khnumhotep is holding Niankhkhnum's right hand in his left. Clearly, the Egyptologists, due to their heterosexism, have been unable to see that Khnumhotep is clearly represented as a spouse in this family scene, not as one of the siblings.

            For more information and pictures on this tomb and some other aspects of homosexuality in ancient Egypt, see Greg Reeder's website


            Background reading:

             Te Velde, H. Seth, God of Confusion: A Study of His Role in Egyptian Mythology and Religion. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1967. Especially chapters II and III.

             Budge, E.A. Wallis. The Gods of the Egyptians, or Studies in Egyptian Mythology. Volume II. New York: Dover, 1969. Especially chapter XV.

             Plutarch. Isis and Osiris.

Return to Born Eunuchs Home Page