Egyptian Third Gender
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Egyptian Third Gender         

             Plutarch. Isis and Osiris.
             Inscribed pottery shards discovered near ancient Thebes (now Luxor, Egypt), and dating from the Middle Kingdom (2000-1800 BCE), contain a listing of three genders of humanity: males, eunuchs, and females, in that order. (See Sethe, Kurt, "Die Aechtung feindlicher Fürsten, Völker und Dinge auf altägyptischen Tongefäßscherben des mittleren Reiches," in: Abhandlungen der Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse, 1926, p. 61.)
 
             In the Egyptian story of the creation of the archetypal beings (gods), the first being is male and female, and its name is Atum. Through asexual reproduction, Atum divides and creates two other beings, Shu and Tefnut. These two in turn produce another pair, Geb and Nut. Finally, Geb and Nut, the earth and the sky, combine and produce the two pairs of Isis and Osiris, and Seth and Nephthys. Isis exemplifies the reproductive female, Osiris the reproductive male, Seth the nonreproductive eunuch, and Nephthys the unmarried virgin .
 
             This story of the origins of the archetypal beings recapitulates the cellular process of meiosis in sexual reproduction, in which chromosomes are doubled, then shuffled, then divided, then shuffled, and then divided again. Through this doubling, shuffling, and dividing, a single FM being, such as Atum, can eventually produce beings which are MM (Osiris), FF (Isis), MF (Nephthys), and FM (Seth).
 
             The stories told about these archetypal beings support an understanding of Seth and Nephthys as third gender beings. For information see Wallis Budge's Gods of the Egyptians and Plutarch's treatise On Isis and Osiris. Seth and Nephthys are supposed to be a couple like Isis and Osiris, but they have no adventures together and no children. Nephthys spends all of her time with Isis, being of assistance to her in various ways. Seth, likewise, spends all of his time with Osiris and then with Osiris's son Horus, but unlike Nephthys he spends his time causing all kinds of havoc. Seth and Osiris are in competition for primacy among the archetypal beings. Seth kills Osiris by cutting him into pieces and scattering them all over Egypt, but Isis, with the aid of her sister Nephthys, gathers the pieces back together and revives him long enough for him to impregnate her. Isis then bears a son Horus, and Osiris goes to rule in the afterlife. Next Seth turns his attention to Horus, attempting to discredit him as a male by having sex with him. On his mother's advice, Horus catches Seth's ejaculate in his hand. He then brings the semen to Isis who sprinkles it on Seth's favorite food, (the non-sexually reproducing) lettuce, which Seth eats. Seth, thinking his semen is in Horus, although he has actually eaten it himself as salad dressing, appears with Horus before the judges who will determine who has primacy among the archetypal beings. Seth tells the judges to call to the semen so that it can respond telling where it is. They do, and much to Seth's surprise, the semen responds from his own belly, not from Horus's. Seth is disgraced and Horus assumes the role as prime archetypal being.
 
             Another version of this story, referred to in the Book of the Dead, says Seth casts "filth" into the eye of Horus, causing it to emit liquid. What exactly is meant by filth is open to question. In response, Horus attacks the testicles of Seth. Perhaps Seth ejaculated into Horus's eye. In any case, Horus is always spoken of in terms of the regained strength of his eye, and Seth in terms of the loss of his virility.
 
             Seth's behavior may be considered inappropriate and harmful, and he may lose face, but he is unquestionably a homosexual, which means a homosexual is one of the most ancient central archetypes in Egyptian mythology. And he is defined as having impotent testicles.
 
             The intrigues among the archetypal beings have been interpreted to reflect not only human interactions, but the interaction of the Nile with the surrounding desert. The Nile is Osiris, who contributes the fluid that brings life. The dryness of the desert is Seth, who kills off life. When the desert dryness becomes too powerful, the river dries up and is divided into thousands of pools along the entire riverbed. The evaporated liquid comes together in the sky (female principle or Isis) and rain falls down, replenishing the river temporarily. The river brings forth new life (Horus) in the form of vegetation. Thus life wins out over death in a never-ending struggle.
 
             How does Nephthys, Seth's third-gendered counterpart, fit into this scheme? She provides an instructive example. She, being unattracted to men, is childless, and spends all of her time with Isis. She does, however, eventually have a child, not by her husband Seth, but by Osiris. In the allegory of the Egyptian landscape, Nephthys has been said to represent the desert ground outside the reach of the Nile's flooding (see Plutarch). On rare occasion, the Nile exceeds its limits and flows out onto this desert ground, producing vegetation.
             Therefore, one would not necessarily expect such a woman to be recognized as not female, or as a third gender, especially in a patriarchal culture where women's desires were not counted. But one would expect there to be at least one word for the nonprocreative man. This is reflected in the gender listing on the Middle Kingdom pottery shards of males, eunuchs, and females. The word for male includes a picture of a penis and a picture of a man kneeling. The word for eunuch includes a picture of a man kneeling, but not a picture of a penis. The word for female includes a picture of a woman kneeling, but no picture of body parts (unless the shield-like shape which designates "woman" is a picture of the female pubic region).
 

(males)
 

  (eunuchs)

  (females) 

 
             The pronunciation of the words on the shards is given as tai (tie), sht (sekhet) and hmt (hemet), respectively. The word for eunuch, sht, also appears in a pyramid text where it is contrasted with the word for male, tai.

             There is also another common word for eunuch, which is hm. The word is similar to the word for female, but it lacks the feminine grammatical ending -t. The word hm is used with a variety of senses. The Berlin Dictionary defines it as a coward It is a very common word in tomb inscriptions which Egyptologists like to translate as "priest," because the hm's are depicted performing all kinds of sacrifices for the dead. This word for priest hm is written with a kind of upward pointing club, differently from the word for eunuch hm, but the pronunciation is exactly the same and the range of uses overlap in the meaning of servant.
 
             There is a tomb established by two men at Sakkara near Memphis in which they are depicted holding hands, feasting together, and in their sacrificial chamber they are shown twice in very loving embraces (see Moussa, Ahmed, and Altenmüller, Hartwig, Das Grab des Nianchchnum und Chnumhotep, Old Kingdom Tombs at the Causeway of King Unas at Saqqara, Excavated by the Department of Antiquities, Archäologische Veröffentlichungen, vol. 21, Mainz Philipp von Zabern, 1977). They were both manicurists for the king Neuserre, and both referred to by the word hm (priest). The walls of the tomb are very elaborately carved with pictures and text, depicting the two men in various scenes. One of the men, Niankhkhnum is consistently placed in a typical male position with respect to the other man, Khnumhotep, who is consistently depicted in a female position (this analysis I heard from Greg Reeder, author of www.egyptology.com). There are remarkably few female figures in the tomb. Those who are depicted are either the sisters, daughters, or wives of the men. Each man had one wife. In one banquet scene, the men are depicted at either end of the table, and the wife of Niankhkhnum is depicted sitting behind him - but her image has been chiseled out of the scene and is only recognizable as an erased outline. There is a procession of females in one section of a wall, but the figures are all allegorical depictions of different crops, etc. (plates 66-67). Male, female, and other family members account for only 21 out of the 97 individuals named on the wall. Besides the two tomb owners, the other 76 named individuals are all men and are all called hm (priests). The describers of the tomb translated hm as Totenpriester or funerary priest.
 
             Scene 16.2 (Plate 40) shows a hunting scene. In one corner a dog-like animal mounts another dog-like animal from behind. It is the only depiction of a sex act in the tomb, which raises the question of why this sex act was depicted. The copulating pair of animals doesn't make a dramatic impression, so if they were not there they would not be missed

 

 The animals themselves might be hyenas, which have long been a symbol of gender confusion, or jackals, which is the animal most often used to represent Seth.
 
             Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep have their names intermingled at the entrance to their tomb: Niankh-Khnum-Hotep, which means joined in life, joined in death (peace). Inside the tomb is a legal declaration authorizing the hm priests to carry out their duties and forbidding the tomb owners' respective family members to impede them (page 87). The excavators of the tomb noted that there is an extraordinary number of hm priests depicted in their tomb and an extraordinary number of them are mentioned by name (page 30). This they saw as a sign of the high social position of the tomb owners, but of course, it can also be a sign that they were personally acquainted with lots of these hm priests, as a result of the hm "priesthood" being an association  of which they were prominent members. These hm priests were merely playing the spiritual role that the gender variant in many cultures play.
 
             The conventional interpretation of these tomb owners' relationship has been that they were brothers. This is based on their depiction in the tomb within what appears to be a family posing scene (plate 30). Ten people are depicted in a line. At the front are a man and a woman with the woman embracing the man. Next follow two men, three women, and three more men. The last two men are Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep in that order. All the persons depicted have their left hands over their hearts, except for the first woman (presumably the mother) and Khnumhotep. The latter two are affectionately touching the men in front of them - the woman has her left arm draped around her husband, and Khnumhotep is holding Niankhkhnum's right hand in his left 

     Te Velde, H. Seth, God of Confusion: A Study of His Role in Egyptian Mythology and Religion. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1967. Especially chapters II and III.

             Budge, E.A. Wallis. The Gods of the Egyptians, or Studies in Egyptian Mythology. Volume II. New York: Dover, 1969. Especially chapter XV.

             Plutarch. Isis and Osiris.

 
 

 

 

Last modified: 12/24/13