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.)
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 .
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.