Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum & Occam's Razor

Hieroglyph of Niankhkhnum (standing, left) and Khnumhotep (right, with his right arm on Niankhkhnum’s shoulder)

Hieroglyph of Niankhkhnum (standing, left) and Khnumhotep (right, with his right arm on Niankhkhnum’s shoulder)

"Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected."

– William of Ockham

This week we're heading back into ancient history, to the middle of the 5th dynasty of Egypt and one of the first known same-sex couples in history. The tomb of Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum was uncovered in 1964 and has been a fierce topic of debate since. As with all translation work, bias is prevalent and it's possible to interpret things in many ways; people often see only what they want to see. What we can do is look at the evidence we have and extrapolate from there.

Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum were not nobles, but they were well-placed in society as Overseers of the Manicurists to the King. As they were of equal rank, their shared tombs are quite rare. People were buried together in Egypt so they could accompany each other to the afterlife. Servants and families would often go together, as would couples. If they were nothing more than coworkers, they would have no reason to be buried together; neither would serve the other in the afterlife.

The hieroglyphs on their tomb show the two men holding hands, sitting together, and standing nose to nose, embracing in a way that depicts a married couple. They both had wives and children, but they are rarely depicted on their tomb or shown to the side, out of focus. Instead, each man is put in the place of a spouse. In addition to 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.”

Interpretation of these facts, we've found, is subject to much debate amongst historians. While there is a group that believes the two men were lovers, there are far more who believe the two men were brothers. Their tomb is often called “The Tomb of Two Brothers,” though it was quite rare for brothers to be buried together. Rarer still is the emphasis of sibling love above wife and children.

While kings and nobility were buried with servants and slaves, this came with the express purpose of having them serve their rulers even in death. As previously stated, the two were of equal status, so it is unlikely that this is the case. The only other logical reason would be companionship. Unfortunately, most straight historians will twist facts to make history as heterosexual as possible, so this theory is often ignored.

Some have explained away their many intimate portraits as the two men being conjoined twins; if they were joined, they would likely be joined in one spot through every portrait, rather than switching between each one. This is the same way they interpret their names, "joined in life, joined in death." The truth does not require a leap of logic, but a small, sensible step forward.

The two men were most likely in a romantic relationship. The facts require no twists or wild assumptions to be understood. Most historians who interpret them as brothers struggle with the idea that there could have been a gay couple who lived with little evidence of the same homophobia that plagued Europe when the tomb was uncovered.

If the tomb were shared by a man and woman, the conclusion of a romantic relationship would have been reached immediately. No one would have suggested fraternal conjoined twins or loving siblings or friendly colleagues. The reason so many historians reach to avoid the simplest answer is nothing short of homophobia.

[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]

Reeder, G. (2000). Same-sex desire, conjugal constructs, and the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep. World Archaeology, 32(2), 193-208.

Dowson, T. A. (2008). Queering sex and gender in ancient Egypt. World Archaeology, 32, 27-46.

McCoy, J. (1998, July 20). Evidence of gay relationships exists as early as 2400 B.C. The Dallas Morning News. Retrieved from http://www.egyptology.com/Niankhkhnum_Khnumhotep/dallas.html

Gerig, B. L. (n.d.) Homosexuality in Ancient Egypt. Epistle. Retrieved from http://epistle.us/hbarticles/ancientegypt1.html

Wilford, J. N. (2005). A Mystery, Locked in Timeless Embrace. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/20/science/a-mystery-locked-in-timeless-embrace.html?_r=0