28 Mar 2007

Ni-Ankh-Khnum and Khnum-Hotep

Here's an interesting topic and helps me make a point about history and bias. It emphasizes how historical art, or any art for that matter, is just too darn easy to interpret based on how one feels. That's why inscriptions are so handy, but sometimes even experts like to ignore them or misinterpret them according to modern views or their own biases. Even well-intentioned people with degrees out their yin-yang are found debating incessantly their own pet theories back and forth without ever an agreement between them. Sometimes the suggestions are absurd; sometimes pedantic. You be the judge.

There were two male individuals named Ni-Ankh-Khnum and Khnum-Hotep strangely portrayed together and very close, standing side-by-side (almost lip-locked, some may say). They were apparently both buried within a single Egyptian tomb, yet also appear to have had wives and children if the murals have been read correctly.

This tomb was found more than forty years ago. Still today however, academics can't decide whether this is a homosexual couple, a pair of brothers, or even conjoined twins! Egad, this debate sounds painfully narrow to me. This is just like the nonsense that goes on with Etruscan burial murals with which I'm more familiar. Essentially many whimsical statements are made by learned people about what they (think they) see in a mural, but nothing productive comes of it, save more conjecture, of course, until somebody comes a long with a thorough and comprehensive analysis.

We need to be careful with this. While I don't hold to any particular view on this so far, after just finishing a blog on sexuality and based on what I know about sexuality, I do know that what we now call "homosexual" love between men and a "heterosexual" life of wives and children is not necessarily incompatible in many societies.

First, bisexuals are not unicorns. They exist now and they existed in the past. Ancient texts may not have necessarily had a term "bisexual" but it happened (nb. consider Julius Caesar and the open claims of his bisexuality). To even label this Egyptian mural as specifically homo- rather than bisexual shows a naiveté about the human spectrum of sexual tastes and the added possibilities this mural may or may not represent.

In Ancient Greece, our concepts and terms relating to sexual orientation would have seemed to them quite foreign. (See http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/homosexuality/ for more details.) Due to the vaguer way that they looked at sexual orientation, a man could easily love another man without any social disdain while still having a wife and children. The latter could be seen as a societal obligation to procreate while the former, pleasure. To an Ancient Greek, we know there was no conflict in this behaviour, hard as it may be for some conservative-minded individuals to comprehend today.

So then, to understand what's going on with these murals and be fair on ethnological grounds, I might ask: In what way is Ancient Egyptian views of sexual orientation different from Ancient Greek views? If no significant difference, how then do we distinguish here between brothers and lovers? If Ancient Greece, as just one example, is to be our cultural guide on what is possible in human societies, the mere presence of wives and children in these murals does not say anything afterall.

However, this is just an idle thought I had when I read the story. It doesn't seem that the New York Times author was aware of these added considerations and I fear that without going through all the possibilities we're being one-dimensional about this debate.

Read here the New York Times article on the subject and get informed about a kooky corner of Egyptology your professor may not have told you. Perhaps you too will see other unique perspectives on these images from the past that haven't yet been considered by the old school.


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