"Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected."
– William of Ockham
In our third article, we are going back into ancient history again, to the middle of the 5th dynasty in Egypt, and to possibly one of the first same-sex couples depicted in history. Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum’s tomb was found in 1964 and has been a topic of fierce debate since it was uncovered. With a written language so different from our own, it can be easy for translation bias to exist, and it is possible to interpret things in many ways, so people often see what they want to. Though there is no way to prove the sexuality of these two people conclusively, what we can do is look at the evidence we have and extrapolate from that, a process that we use for most of the historical studies. So first, let’s look at the facts in their barest form.
Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum were not nobles, but they were well placed in society as chief manicurists to the King. This made their shared tombs very rare, as they were of equal rank. When people were buried together in Egypt, it was so they could accompany each other to the afterlife. Often, servants and family would go together. If they were nothing more than coworkers, there would be no reason for them to be buried together, as neither would serve the other.
In the hieroglyphs on their tombs, the two men are also shown holding hands, kissing, and sitting next to each other; one of their portraits has them nose to nose, embracing in a way that was used when depicting a married couple. They both had wives and children, but they are not depicted often in the tombs. When they were, they were off to the side, never taking precedence or focus. The focus was almost always on the two men together. When they are portrayed at a table, they sit together in the seating arrangement expected of a married couple. Besides all of this, the names we have for them are not their given names, but how people referred to them. Their names together roughly translate out to “joined in life, joined in death.”
Interpreting this small collection of facts, we have found, is subject to much debate within the historian community. While there is a small group that believes that the two men were lovers, the much more widely held belief is that they were siblings; their tomb is often called “The Tomb of Two Brothers,” even though it was rare for brothers to be buried together. While kings and nobility had servants and slaves in their tombs with them, that came with the express purpose of having them come to the afterlife with their rulers to serve them even in death. It seems unlikely that this is the case here, as they were of equal status, as previously stated. There is no reason one of them would be serving the other in the afterlife, so it seems like the only reason could be for companionship. Unfortunately, we have learned that most historians would rather twist things around so they can make history as heterosexual as possible, so this possibility is often ignored.
They explain away the many portraits of the two in intimate positions as them being conjoined twins, though if they were joined, they would likely be depicted as being joined in one place rather than the place switching in each portrait. They also use this explanation to explain the two men's names, saying “joined in life, joined in death” is regarding their alleged physical connection. Though one could argue the point of these two men being brothers, it would be hard to do so. And in its difficulty, we find why it probably isn't true. It takes a lot of stretching to reach such a conclusion, and that makes it rather unlikely. It assumes many things that there is no evidence of when there is a simpler answer that needs not a leap of logic to reach, but just a small, sensible step forward.
These two men were most likely in a romantic relationship. The facts lead to that obvious conclusion with no large assumptions being made. It’s just the idea that there was a gay couple in that period, in a time and a place that shows little evidence of the same homophobia that plagued Europe when it was discovered, and that the two were respected. But that is a horrifying thought to many historians.
If this tomb were shared by a man and woman, instead of a man and man, the conclusion of a romantic relationship would have been assumed immediately. No one would have even thought to suggest that the two were fraternal conjoined twins, or that their relationship was in any way platonic. The reason that historians are reaching so hard to avoid looking at the simplest answer is obvious, and we are sure you have guessed it. They do not want to believe such a relationship could exist, much less be accepted, and the very idea that the Egyptian society could produce such a thing is an insult to them because homosexuality is an insult to them.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
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