BMCR 2009.04.35

Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt: ‘Don your wig for a joyful hour’

, Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt: 'Don your wig for a joyful hour'. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2008. xxv, 220. ISBN 9781905125241. $100.00.

This collection contains essays presented at a conference organized by the Egypt Centre and the University of Wales, the Institute of Classics and Ancient History (19th-20th December 2005, University of Wales Swansea).

After the introductory chapter by Carolyn Graves-Brown with an overview of the state of the art concerning sex and gender studies in Egyptology and an informative report about the conference—the papers, the main discussion topics, debates (with a stress on a debate about the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep)—the volume under review continues with the following studies:

Kathlyn M. Cooney, “The Problem of Female Rebirth in New Kingdom Egypt: The Fragmentation of the Female Individual in Her Funerary Equipment” (pp. 1-25): analyses the problem of female rebirth using the funerary equipment from the New Kingdom to the Third Intermediate Period. In ancient Egypt, male sexual activity was one of the main avenues to rebirth in the afterlife. Since the creation and rebirth were a male prerogative, the deceased Egyptian females were subject to the gender adaptations, including the fragmentation of their identity. As the sexualised rebirth was necessary, the deceased female, as well as the male, was associated with the creator gods Atum, Osiris, and Re, so that he or she can initialise the rebirth process. Cooney convincingly points out that the tomb equipment makes it clear that gender transformation, in order to manage rebirth, included various sets of mechanisms: magical, liturgical, physical, grammatical—the masculine singular personal pronoun =f is retained on many of the female funerary texts. Among other things, a deceased woman was named Osiris, being intimately associated with a masculine sexualised rebirth. Furthermore, Cooney stresses the importance of the fragmentation and regeneration of the body. By fragmentation, gender was preserved and the female deceased retained her feminine nature as an akh.

Thomas A Dowson, “Queering Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt” (pp. 27-46): discusses the question of heteronormativity in Egyptology, using as one of the examples the debate concerning the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep. According to his assumption, the study of sex and gender is heteronormative, because ‘traditional’ Egyptology imposed on the archaeological material heterosexuality as a norm. In addition, Dowson points out that our own implications on “normative” and “heteronormative”, which we use for understanding sex and gender in everyday life, “create” our constructions (among other things the misuse of the term ‘queer’) of sexual behaviour in ancient Egypt. He also explores how recent attempts to queer Egyptian archaeology, i.e. present-day understanding of gender and sex relations between Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, can be developed. Sine ira et studio—to assume that the idea of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep being a same-sex couple would be more acceptable if their tomb had been unearthed at the very end of the 20th century (cf. page 36), is equally wrong, from the standpoint of the methodology of history, as to reject it because the tomb came to light in 1960s.

Terence DuQuesne, in “Power on their own: gender and social roles in provincial New Kingdom Egypt” (pp. 47-62) reports on the feminine stelae that are part of the cache of votive objects (includes about 500 stelae) from the Salakhana tomb of the New Kingdom at Asyut. The author points out that a significant number of Salakhana stelae were dedicated by women, including chantresses. The feminine stelae from Salakhana shed light on the marital and social status (for example, female independence) of women in the provincial Egypt of the New Kingdom. Furthermore, DuQuesne also discusses the stela Cairo JE 47381 (CM 004) dedicated by two ‘soldiers’, Re-mose and Upwawet-mose. The idiosyncratic iconography of the monument opens the question of the nature of the relationship of the two donors: brothers, comrades-in-arms, or lovers, but, without any conclusion.

Jiri Janák and Hana Navrátilová, “People vs. P. Turin 55001” (pp. 63-70): surveys the history of the study of research on the Turin Papyrus 55001 (‘Turin Erotic Papyrus’), as well as the details of contents, cultural purpose, authorship, and use of that valuable artefact.

Renata Landgráfová, “Breaches of Cooperative Rules. Metaphors and Parody in ancient Egyptian love songs” (pp. 71-82): discusses sexual metaphors, formally and thematically, in love songs. Furthermore, the author analyses the collection of love songs on ostracon Deir el Medina 1650 and, based on their motives, suggests that these are parodies.

Heather Lee McCarthy, “Rules of Decorum and Expressions of Gender Fluidity in Tawosret’s Tomb” (pp. 83-114): examines the patterns of decoration of the late 19th Dynasty tomb of Tawosret (KV 14). Tawosret was the “Great Royal Wife of Seti II, regent of her successor Siptah and finally, after Siptah’s death, ruler in her own right. Her tomb is exceptional, especially with respect to its decorative program, compared with other Ramesside royal tombs. The author suggests that changes, especially in the standard pattern of tomb decoration (for example, scenes depicting a king alongside Tawosret as queen in the first corridor, the male deities holding epithets with feminine grammatical gender, etc.), have been used to accommodate the changes in her role and status, as well as to convey the gender fluidity necessary for Tawosret’s rebirth.

Richard B. Parkinson, “Boasting about Hardness: Constructions of Middle Kingdom Masculinity” (pp. 115-142): opens the question of the status of masculinity in ancient Egypt. His study (focusing on Middle Kingdom examples and on readings of the tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep) shows that masculinity has been very often constructed in terms of visual arts and literary works. Parkinson points out that further analysis of masculinity, same-sex admirations, and same-sex friendship must be undertaken outside present day normativity, i.e. heterosexual normativity.

Greg Reeder, “Queer Egyptologies of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep” (pp. 143-155): explores the questions of non-normative sexualities that are suggested by the iconography of the 5th Dynasty tomb of the two manicurists, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep. Reeder points out that there is neither clear textual evidence from their tomb nor their mortal remains indicating a biological relationship between them. His analysis of the tomb iconography, i.e. to look to the iconography of the tomb itself and place it in the context with other depictions of the time (p. 145), speaks in favour, according to Reeder, of a deep same-sex affection between the two men. However, it is important to note that the same methodological approach may produce the opposite conclusions (see most recently Vera Vasiljević, Embracing his double: Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, SAK 37, 2008, 363-372)

Carolyn Routledge, “Did Women ‘Do Things’ in Ancient Egypt? (Circa 2600-1050 BCE)” (pp. 157-177): challenges the traditional opinion that in ancient Egyptian art women are generally shown in passive poses. An important element of her study is the reanalysis of the term iri xt. The author concludes that iri xt, almost exclusively used for men, relates to the creation and maintenance of cosmic order in ancient Egypt. As such, ‘doing things’ to maintain cosmic order was suitable for man. This gender separation (male/active—female/passive) implied artistic and verbal expressions.

Racheli Shalomi-Hen, “The Bearded Woman and the Queen. The Formation and Transformation of Female Divine Classifiers” (pp. 179-189): discusses the female divine classifier. Her conclusion is that development of the female divine classifiers have been related to the rise of Osiris as a prominent god from the end of the Old Kingdom. Further stages of the development of the female-divine classifiers (First Intermediate Period and Middle Kingdom) have also been considered, with the conclusion that they reflect the distinction between an ordinary woman and a goddess.

Deborah Sweeney, “Gender and Requests in New Kingdom Literature (pp. 191-214)”: is a continuation of her research on the topic of language and gender. This study considers requests, with respect to the gender differentiations, as they are represented in Ramesside texts. Sweeney notes that there is no evidence that women spoke more politely than men, but, on the other hand texts demonstrate they were very persistent, and with more success in their requests, than man.

To sum up, this is a valuable contribution to the research of various aspects of gender studies. Various methodological approaches (philological, iconographic, analysis of material) illuminate the difficulties in research and in understanding male and female life in ancient Egypt.