Engraving from the tomb of Niankhkhnum & Khnumhotep, taken from Flickr by user Kairoinfo4u and licensed through CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Our first history lesson comes from Ancient Egypt, and may possibly be the very first historical record of same-sex relationships. It’s important to remember that just because it’s the first record we have does not make it the first to exist. People have been loving people of the same sex for longer than history has been a thing. Someone deciding to write something down doesn’t mean it hadn’t existed before. That said, this lesson comes to us from the Fifth Dynasty of Egypt, approximately 2400 BCE. It’s really old. It’s the tomb of Niankhkhnum  and Khnumhotep.

In 1964, Mounir Basta, an Egyptian archaeologist, opened a tomb in the Saqqara burial ground and discovered a unique display. Many tombs in the necropolis were burial chambers for prominent husband and wife couples and their families, but this tomb displayed two men in various displays, both holding an equal share of the scenery and often together in affectionate poses. After seeing the two men in intimate portraits, Basta’s argument was that these two men must be brothers, a father and son duo, or perhaps really good friends, because what other option could there be for such a loving duo? Just some best friends getting buried together in a room full of pictures of them holding each other, no big deal.

Engraving from the tomb of Niankhnum & Khnumhotep, taken from Flickr by user Kairoinfo4u and licensed through CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

It’s important to note that among the many scenes depicted on the walls of their tomb, and amid the various inscriptions in the tomb, not once is any mention of a biological relationship. What is contained on the walls is art which places the two men in various images that mimic scenes often used in husband/wife tombs from the same time period and geography. Decorations like a large statue of Nianknkhnum & Khnumhotep holding hands, dozens of images of them holding or supporting one another, and one scene where they enjoy the outdoors together, going fishing and bird hunting and sharing in daily activities. The most intimate of the images is at the entrance to their offering chamber, where they are shown nose to nose, kissing as their belt buckles touch, joining them at the waist. In some hieroglyphs, their names are joined in a wordplay that could suggest that they are now joined in death as they were in life. One inscription features a musician calling for a song about The Two Divine Brothers, possibly a reference to the myth of Horus and Set. Probably meant as a ribald reference to what was a rowdy tale about two male gods having a sexual encounter, this reference further supports the idea that Niankhkhnum & Khnumhotep were involved in a same-sex relationship with one another.

 The most intimate of the images is at the entrance to their offering chamber, where they are shown nose to nose, kissing as their belt buckles touch, joining them at the waist. 
Outside of what art survives the span of time, we don’t have much to go on for learning about these two men’s actual lives. They are listed in hieroglyphics as manicurists, hairdressers, and royal confidants. This means that they occupied a special position as one of very few people who could actually touch the Pharaoh. Tombs were extremely expensive, so the fact that these two shared one together meant that they were very powerful while alive. Both of their families were buried in the tomb with them, but the tomb was made specifically for these two. During the 4th through 6th dynasties, some experimentation was common with how tombs were displayed between husband and wife, speculation suggests that these two were able to take advantage of that experimentation to craft a lavish burial chamber for themselves.

Unfortunately, the theory of their relationship being one of desire between two men is still challenged within academia. Many scholars are hesitant to support a same-sex-affection reading of their tomb as the belief is that this interpretation may pull in a desire to read ancient culture in a modern lens. In other words, scholars think that a modern audience may try to pull in modern views on sexuality to artifacts that predate the idea of a “homosexual” by thousands of years. A challenge to that is being voiced by some that relationships between men and women in these artifacts are not expected to hold up to intense scrutiny. We just assume that men and women were involved romantically and sexually. Why must a relationship with two people of the same sex undergo such skepticism when the subjects in question follow the patterns of a different sex couple?

Use in your games

Knowing very little about both of these men may hamper your inclusion of them within your games, but there’s still many ways to incorporate them into some pretty popular RPGs out there. Thankfully we have a great number of words detailing their tomb, available online from many sources. It would take very little effort to overlay this floor plan on graph paper, jot down the art descriptions as some box text, and viola! Instant location to explore for your game. That’s probably not enough, though, so let’s look a little further.

Limestone relief from the tomb of Khnumhotep. Fifth Dynasty, about 2400 BC. From Saqqara. (British Museum)

If we are to take the hesitation of academia to embrace a same-sex reading of this tomb as a direct inspiration, we can play a little with what that does at the table. Investigative games like Gumshoe, Call of Cthulhu, or any campaign with detectives and high levels of roleplay would be good vehicles to delve into this. I’ve done some prep to come up with some locations, characters, and clues to build a conspiracy of an archaeologist trying to stem back this kind of reading and this prep will be included in the next installment of this series.

If you wanted to put the romance between these two men in the forefront, you might want to look at games that play with emotions & relationships. A common trope that could be useful here is that of parted lovers trying, or having struggles with trying, to reunite. In a romance setting that may mean a modern approach with Niankhkhnum & Khnumhotep as young men in a school setting. I’ve laid out some prep for Monsterhearts that could be applicable to other PbtA games as well. The new edition of Monsterhearts slimmed down prep but I still enjoy drafting up Menaces & Threats, so there’ll be a couple to be found in the next article.

Finally, if you’re just looking to smash & grab in a dungeon crawl, but at the same time introduce some cool historical context, you can use the burial chambers as a dungeon setting. I’ve prepped a Dungeon Starter for Dungeon World below as well.

As with anything historical in your games, it’s important to do some research before you hit the table, especially if you’re looking to address the subject material respectfully. Let this be the first article you read, and seek out other sources as well. Greg Reeder is an archaeologist who has written about the tomb and presented about these two men, I would suggest at least briefly glancing at his work. Most sources reference his work to some degree. I’ll provide some further reading opportunities below.

One other thing to think about is the context of same-sex desire in ancient cultures. I’ve deliberately not used the word “gay” to address the relationship between these two men. Homosexuality as it’s thought of in a modern construction is still a recent development. People even a couple centuries back did not define or express non-normative sexuality or orientations the same way we do today and it becomes a grey area when using modern speech to talk about ancient cultures. Ancient Egypt almost assuredly had a different view of same-sex desire than we do now.

It’s important to do some research before you hit the table, especially if you’re looking to address the subject material respectfully.
Cultural relativity also becomes important because if we start to project modern ideas of sexuality onto the past it becomes easy to connect stereotypes or caricatures onto history. In an interview with the Dallas Morning News, Reeder expressed some hesitations with giving a modern audience some historical information, saying “people laugh when you say manicurists.” A stereotype of many gay men, especially of men of color, is one of a grooming confidant, but that’s only a superficial modern take on what these two men were. It will be vital to respectfully address their position within the royal structure and the important role they played in court without engaging in harmful modern stereotypes. In addition, the western lens on ancient Egypt is fraught with exotification. Avoid the “jewel of the desert” stereotypes, the best way to do this is with research and context. Challenge some of the mythology we’re fed as westerners and look for papers or histories written by Egyptians about their own history.

Check the next installment for the game prep deliverables I promised above!