The British Museum's collections, £16.99
Poetic love between men in Mesopotamia
The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the earliest poems we have and tells the story of a semi-historical king, Gilgamesh, and his close friend Enkidu. This tablet, from more than 2,500 years ago, is part of it.
The full epic tells how Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight the goddess Ishtar and win. But shortly afterwards Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh spends the rest of the poem grieving and trying to outwit death itself.
In Gilgamesh's dream he imagines caressing Enkidu like a wife, and the poem tells of them lying together and holding hands.
Such intimacy does not necessarily involve sexual desire. However, some historians have debated whether particular words or phrases in their story could be understood sexually, and whether Gilgamesh and Enkidu are not just friends but lovers: a ‘homosocial’ relationship or a ‘homosexual’ one? There is no clear sexual contact, but the relationship is described in erotic terms.
Two ancient Egyptian men together
Desire and love leave no archaeological traces, and with different cultural conventions it is hard to tell whether male intimacy is an expression of same–sex desire or not. There are a few controversial cases from ancient Egypt.
This funerary stela has been deliberately damaged. It is dedicated to two male officials, named Hor and Suty, and is carved with their names, titles and hymns to the sun god. It has been suggested that they might have been a male couple, whose images were later erased by their wives and children. While this interpretation is possible, it is very unlikely, as on another stela of the two men the erasures include these same family members.
Here, the men refer to each other as:
my brother, like myself, his
ways pleased me,
for he had come from the womb
with me on the same day.
This is usually interpreted as meaning that they were twins – and their names suggest they were named after the twin gods Horus and Seth (also known as Suty). They both worked as architects on the great temple of Amun at Luxor in around 1375 BC.
Iconography or pornography? An ancient Egyptian god
This bronze figure shows a god with a large erection. To modern eyes, it may appear to be pornographic. In fact it is a standard representation of the god Amun-Kamutef (‘the bull of his mother’) and was dedicated in a temple at Thebes. The presence of an erection symbolizes strength, virility and the ability to stay alive.
It is hard to assess what is erotic in another culture, and easy to project our ideas onto such images. Sex and gender seem like universals, but even with such direct visual images, everything is culturally shaped.
This scene from the White Chapel at Karnak (1900 BC) may look like an expression of gay sexuality, but it is not. The figure on the left is the god Amun-ra, who is shown with an erection as a sign of his power. The other figure is King Senwosret I who embraces the deity as an indication that he is equal to a god.
The Ancient Egyptians recognised the existence of same-sex desire, but the handful of references that survive all refer to men, and are all slightly negative. These include a fictional tale in which one god tries to seduce another by saying ‘What a lovely backside you have’. This is perhaps the earliest recorded chat-up line in human history.
Most of the texts and works of art that survive are from government or elite circles, and as such present an official view of society.
More information about the objects featured here:
- Relief from the White chapel at Karnak. © RB Parkinson