LGBTime Machine: Ancient Rome

Note: This post is part of a series. Read more about the LGBTimeMachine series here

By Sabeau Rea, Communications Intern

“… And so I said, Time Traveler?! I barely know her!”

Our LGBTime Machine groans to a rattling halt, and through the windows of the ship we can just make out the Nile River in the distance. We’ve landed in Egypt– roughly 3000 years ago, and we have an agenda full of intersex deities with no time to waste so let’s get moving.

 

Allow me to cordially introduce to you the first deity on our Egyptian Polytheism list– Atum. The god/dess Atum was the first deity to exist in the Egyptian pantheon, and was also the first intersex deity in the group. Besides being a massive overachiever for all of this, and kind of the deity version of that kid always asking to be line-leader on field trips (read: me), the god/dess also sired several children. How did Atum reproduce these offspring? Essentially the same way my 8th grade sex-ed teacher told me reproduction happens– by vomiting them out of their mouth.

These bile babies (which is totally the name of a mediocre punk band somewhere) would later grow up to give birth to pretty much the entire remaining pantheon of Egyptian deities as we understand it today, which makes Atum the grandparent of the entire Egyptian religion. Not to be outdone–one time, I kept a Tamagotchi alive for a month.

Atum was not alone either; next on our list is Hapi– the swell intersex deity of the Nile River. As if being able to add an accolade like that to a job resume wasn’t already incredibly cool, Hapi also had blue skin. Along with their blue hue, Hapi rocked an androgynous-associated look with feminine-associated large breasts and round stomach, and a masculine-associated wrap-skirt and Egyptian false beard (an accessory designated for nobility). It is also safe to speculate that Hapi would have also been considered genderqueer due to their attempt to indicate their androgyny in androgynous-associated gender presentations.

It is always in these quiet moments of religious and gendered reflection that the hallowed words of Shakespeare come to me, “I am a god. Hurry up with my damn croissants.” No. Wait, that was Kanye West. Close enough. Let’s continue.

The last of the better known gender and sex variant divinities in the Egyptian religion is the god/dess Shai/Shait. Shai/Shait was a genderfluid god/dess who would be referred to alternatingly with the name Shai, when female, and Shait, when male. The deity was also discussed with both male and female pronouns used interchangeably to describe him/her. 

Think of this like ancient photoshop

Now, you may be asking yourself, “But, what about LGBTQIA+ pharaohs?” To you I would say, one, don’t begin sentences with “but,” and two, you probably aren’t asking yourself this to begin with, but I was desperately in need of a good segue so here we go. We’re headed to the palace to learn about LGBTQIA+ pharoahs.

We stroll up to the palace– and by stroll up, I mean hiked—for like five hours. Through the sweltering desert. And you were complaining about your feet for like, the whole time… (Also, don’t start sentences with “and.”)

You run to the nearest 1980s-style water fountain and start chugging in H2O like you’d just walked five hours through a desert without it or something. I conveniently ignore the blatant historical inaccuracy that is 1980s-style water fountains in Ancient Egypt. One of them pours Kool-aid.

Kool-Aid fountain aside, (though ignoring it will prove hard as it’s blasting Tschaikovsky out of its built-in speakers) this palace is crucial to our trip because it’s home to Akhenaten, a pharaoh who ruled for seventeen years during the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt. If Akhenaten doesn’t sound familiar, it’s probably because they were a pretty average Pharaoh as far as beings endowed with absolute power go.

A name you may recognize, however, is their wife’s: Nefertiti. Yeah, this pharaoh managed to marry “the most beautiful woman in the world.” She was quite a bit more than beautiful, too, but leave it to sexism to make that all for which she was known.

“Typical,” I warble out between gulps from the margarita fountain. You make a note to check the time machine manual’s policy on drinking and timing.

In actuality, Nefertiti was so much more than just aesthetically pleasing. Akhenaten, her partner in matrimony, was a total feminist themselves, and in the truest feminist form not only made Nefertiti their chief wife, but gave her way more power than any queen in the history of the empire. No, for real, these lovebirds were practically co-rulers– a decision which would’ve been entirely unprecedented for the era. Two for you, Akhenaten. You go, Akhenaten. 

“So a feminist co-regency is fantastic, but what does this have to do with intersections of sex and gender?” you may be wondering. You seem to do a lot of that. Well, dearest, and most inquisitive reader, you may have noticed I’ve been referring to Akhenaten using “they/them” pronouns. This is because– you guessed it– Pharaoh Akhenaten was intersex.

With wide hips, large breasts, and a phallus, the Pharaoh reigned over Egypt while siring several children. Kanye West also once sang, “Have you ever had sex with a pharaohhh?” Well, Nefertiti did, and, collectively along with Akhenaten’s other wives, they had six daughters. (Two for two on these Kanye quotes. Ancient Egypt is rife with possibilities.) 

What makes Akhenaten’s sex so spectacular is how universally unspectacular it was to the Ancient Egyptians.While the Pharoah’s policies, including the implementation of monotheistic worship of the sun god, were incredibly badly received, their sex and gender were never criticized, or even questioned. In fact, their physicality was so widely accepted that most official renderings of the pharaoh were depicted true-to-form.

In Ancient Egyptian art, the subjects of the pieces would be rendered in an idealized manner to hide flaws, and appear as attractive as possible. Think of this like ancient photoshop. The fact that Akhentathen’s body was rendered “as is” indicates that the culture viewed the pharaoh’s body as an acceptable physicality to the degree it that it did not need embellishing. 

All About Hatshepsut

I run full-speed through the palace, shouting back to you in labored attempts to test the acoustics. I’m trying to find a place to record my mixtape. It will not be a very good mixtape. From the other end of the hall you can just decipher something about a female pharaoh, but you can’t quite make out the entirety of what I’ve said because of the poor acoustics. It is a great sign for feminism. It is a terrible sign for my mixtape.

I return to where you’re standing and reiterate my statement more clearly. The pharaoh was assigned female at birth, but it is speculated that he/she was quite possibly genderfluid rather than female. This hypothesis is the topic of much discussion as a concrete answer cannot be found for whether he/she was an ancient member of the LGBTQIA+ community, or merely queering gender to circumvent the sexisms of the era.

With a lack of definitive clarity, but an overwhelming amount of evidence pointing in either direction, she will be tentatively included to allow you the space to make your own conclusions on the matter. Alright, so in the slightly misheard words of a popular athletic clothier’s campaign slogan, “Let’s do it.”

Briefly after Queen Hatshepsut assumed the throne of Egypt he/she began alternating between male-associated, and female-associated attire. While the majority of his/her attire vacillated, he/she kept one constant to his/her ensembles– the extravagant, wood false beard worn by pharoahs. Total aesthetic goals. 

Speaking of the word pharaoh, this leads us seamlessly into our next fact– Hatshepsut renounced the title of queen to assume the moniker Pharaoh, a title previously reserved exclusively for men. This decision occurred quickly after acquiring the throne .

In tandem with this unprecedented, pioneering decision he/she would later shift from using “she/her/her” pronouns to an interchanging usage of both masculine and feminine ones. 

My favorite factoid however, is how he/she was increasingly rendered in art as gender ambiguous. By the end of his/her reign, depictions of Hatshepsut consistently possessed a conventionally Ancient Egyptian masculine physicality–shirtless without breasts—while incorporating the conventionally feminine attribute of a waist smaller than those of his/her cis-male counterparts. 

Lest we forget that members of the LGBTQIA+ community are much, much more than one-dimensional caricatures–Hatshepsut is here to remind us. He/she is widely regarded as one of the most successful Pharaoh’s in the history of Ancient Egypt. We’re talking, “he/she reigned for a lengthy twenty-two years, during which he/she brought about one of the most tranquil, and successful eras the empire would ever see” prolific. 

 

Is it time to go already? Well, before we jet off to our next adventure, I have one last question for you: with all you’ve seen thus far, how far back do you think genderqueer, intersex, and transgender communities will really go?

Join me next time as we come a little bit closer to the answer, and educate ourselves on an ancient third-gender community now legally recognized by modern society, and a group of transgender female bodyguards that seriously have me reconsidering my employment options. See you soon.

 

Citations:

  1. Anu, Khepra Ka-Re Amente. Lifting the Spiritual Self-Esteem of the LGBT Community: A Critique of Fabricated, Discriminatory, Judgmental, and Sexist World Religions. N.p.: iUniverse, 2012.
  2. Myśliwiec, Karol. Eros on the Nile. Illustrated ed. N.p.: Cornell University Press, 2004.
  3. Ben-Jochannan, Yosef. “The Nile Valley Civilization and the Spread of African Culture.” Lecture, Minority Ethnic Unit of the Greater London Council, London, England, March 6, 1986.
  4. Hill, J. “Hapi.” Ancient Egypt Online. Last modified 2010. Accessed November 4, 2016. http://www.ancientegyptonline.co.uk/hapi.html.
  5. Bhagavatananda Guru, Shri. A Brief History of the Immortals of Non-Hindu Civilizations. N.p.: lulu.com, 2015.
  6. Foley, Francois. “Re-constructing Akhenaten: The Many Faces of a Pharaoh in Naguib Mahfouz’s Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth.” Rewriting Texts Remaking Images: Interdisciplinary Perspectives 103 (2010): 39.
  7. “Akhenaten.” In Funk and Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. New World Encyclopedia, 2016. Last modified February 20, 2016. Accessed October 30, 2016.
  8. Cavert, Dr. Amy. “Egyptian Art.” Last modified 2013. Accessed October 30, 2016. https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ancient-art-civilizations/egypt-art/beginners-guide-egypt/a/egyptian-art.
  9. Margetts, Edward L. “The Masculine Character of Hatshepsut, Queen of Egypt.”Bulletin of the History of Medicine 25, (Jan 01, 1951): 559. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1296237691?accountid=14696.

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