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  • Writer's pictureKatlyn Roberts

The First Recorded Same-Sex Couple in History

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

OMG, they were tomb-mates

Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, as depicted in their tomb in the necropolis at Saqqara, Egypt

I’m going to rip the bandaid off real quick here by letting all my gaybies know that there is significant (as in “much”, not “important”) debate about the nature of the relationship between Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, two royal manicurists whose shared tomb was discovered at Saqqara, Egypt in 1964. But isn’t there always significant debate when it comes to historical LGBTQ+ relationships?

“Oh, they slept in the same bed, went everywhere together, cherished each other’s romantic/erotic letters, called each other ‘my love’, and had each other’s zodiac signs tattooed on their asses? …Gal pals.”

Granted, I could probably get to that place with a girl and still have no clue I was in a relationship, but Bisexual Obliviousness is a whole other phenomenon that doesn’t erase the fact that history actually did gay on purpose sometimes.

If Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum (their ship name is KhnumKhnum, btw) isn’t a legit, in-character relationship, I’m calling out all of Ancient Egypt for queerbaiting us. All 30 centuries of it. Because what the hell, all of Ancient Egypt? This isn’t the King of Queens. This show has aesthetic and it’s gone far too many seasons without queer representation. I don’t think you realize how many rabid fans you have in the community. You owe us this.

The following is not going to be a particularly well-rounded discussion of the many possible relationships between Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum because that article’s been written too many times and I don’t care.

I’ll tell you that one professor at the N.Y.U. Institute of Fine Arts goes so far as to argue that they’re conjoined twins. The man can’t let sleeping gays gay. The two are depicted, separately, on opposite pillars at the entrance of the tomb as well as at opposite ends of a banquet table. There’s even some evidence that Khnumhotep died long before Niankhkhnum and I can’t say I know how conjoined twins work, but I don’t think that’s it?

Oh god, I hope that’s not it.

…Yeah, a very sad rabbit-hole of a Google search says that’s not likely, so I’m just gonna stick to my headcanon if that’s ok with everybody.

Here’s what we know:

1. It’s the only tomb in the necropolis where men are displayed embracing and holding hands.

Let’s take a look at the tomb depictions, shall we? Note the adorable nose kissies, an extremely intimate gesture in Ancient Egyptian art, usually reserved for husband and wife pairs. My guess is that the 2D style made actual kisses a pain in the ass to depict. Lips and noses go where?

Note the close proximity, the raw sexual tension, the hand on the shoulder, the hand on the wrist. They’re both very careful to display their lovely nails because, let’s remember, these two are royal manicurists.

Note how cute everyone around them thinks they are, their hands on their hearts because they just can’t handle it. Everyone stans. Everyone would follow these two into the afterlife and did.

Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum, surrounded by their kids.

In another part of the tomb, there’s a banquet scene in which KhnumKhnum are clearly the hosts. Underneath the table, much smaller depictions of their respective wives and heirs dance around, play music, eat the scraps, etc.

Yes, they were both married. Don’t start with me. This is why some scholars are quick to yell, “BROTHERS! They were brothers!” while mopping up their sweaty foreheads with a handkerchief like the disgruntled academics they are.

But can we talk for a minute about how important it was in Ancient Egypt to have heirs?

Without heirs, who’s going to take care of you in your old age? Who’s going to pay for your mummification and the fancy tomb that ensures you make it to the afterlife, huh? Who’s going to remember your name and carve it into stuff? Who’s going to visit with offerings, keep tomb raiders out, dust all the canopic jars, and tell you all the latest family gossip? It would be super embarrassing to build a tomb without a ton of depictions of your giant family dutifully worshiping you like you’re on par with the gods. What would even be the point?

2. Followers of Khnum.

Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum are chosen names, they’re not the names these two were born with. Khnumhotep means “Khnum is satisfied” and Niankhkhnum means “life belongs to Khnum”.

These are two devout worshipers of Khnum, the god of Human Life. He’s the ram-headed fertility god who sits at his potter's wheel, molds humans out of clay, and blesses every child with a “ka”, or life-force. My guess is that being a worshiper of Khnum and never procreating would have been like being a worshiper of Beyonce and never trying to belt the high notes in Love on Top. I’m saying the gays made it happen. I can’t presume to know how these wives were treated but we know for a fact that Ancient Egypt was a patriarchal society, sooo the prognosis isn’t great.

Then again, if we’re already deciding to look at this through rose-colored rainbow glasses, maybe we can go a teensy step further and choose to imagine that it was a beneficial situation for everybody? One big, happy, polyamorous family with two gay/bisexual patriarchs and pampered wives who were told on a daily basis how smart and stunning and miraculous they were. They also got free manicures, obviously.

Interesting note, though. The wives didn’t get any cutesy romantic scenes with their husbands on the walls of the tomb itself. Only the guys did.

3. They’ve provided their CVs.

On the walls of the tomb, the work histories of both Khnumhotep and Niankhkhnum are provided, and let me tell you — this was a career-focused power couple. They weren’t just responsible for the pharaoh’s nails. These guys had his ear too.

I find it endlessly fascinating that we have this kind of information about people who lived *mumbles a large number* years ago. It really does bring them back to life, which was exactly the purpose of a tomb like this.

The following jobs were held by one or both men throughout their lives:

  • Overseer/Inspector of Manicurists in the Palace

Wow, you could say these guys really clawed their way to the top, huh? You’ve gotta hand it to them, this is already an extremely polished resume, they nailed it.

  • Guardian of Secrets

All manicurists should add this to their resumes.

  • King’s Acquaintance

  • Confidant of the King

  • Keeper of the King’s Things

I get it. These guys were besties with the king and used it to pad the crap out of their resumes.

  • King’s Scribe

Ok, I joke, but an educational text that was once used to train scribes had this to say about where scribes stood in the Ancient Egyptian hierarchy:

The scribe directs the work of the people. For him there are no taxes for he pays his tribute in writing … Put writing in your heart that you may protect yourself from hard labour of any kind and become a respected magistrate.

Putting aside my own jealousy that writers were once this respected and didn’t have to pay taxes (women were rarely trained as scribes back then anyway), to be the scribe of the king meant that you were trusted with his life, i.e. his legal forms, accounting, and correspondence. And since the Ancient Egyptians believed that putting something down into written form was the magical process by which it became reality, these two were basically magicians.

…And they did nails and kept secrets and watched over the pharaoh’s cool stuff? Who are these guys?

  • Sun Priest in the Solar Temple

Can we just take a moment to imagine a modern priest/manicurist/wizard/writer/accountant/lawyer/high-ranking political advisor? Is there anyone alive today who comes even close to that level of polymathery? Oprah? Dolly Parton?

  • Purity Attendant of the King’s Pyramid Complex at Abusir

I assume that’s like a janitor, right?

Besides all these titles, the two are shown fishing and hunting in various reliefs and they even appear in someone else’s tomb (the vizier Ptahshepses) as quarry supervisors in a harvest scene. Which is cool, I hope they keep popping up in other people’s storylines, they’re my favorite characters in this show.

As impressive as they were as individuals, the most commonly depicted scene throughout their own shared tomb is that of the two of them making out. The only thing that changes with each depiction is the length of their hair or beards, indicating that they added to this tomb throughout their lives and never got sick of the kissy scenes.

Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep are depicted embracing one another in this scene from their joint mastaba (tomb) Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Unfortunately, Niankhkhnum and Knumhotep’s tomb was robbed at some point and their mummies weren’t there when it was re-discovered in the 60s, so we’ll never be able to definitively prove the nature of the relationship between these two. All we can do is stubbornly insist they belong to us and imagine lives for them that are fun and relatable based on the few facts we have.

I think it’s what they would have wanted.

The final title bestowed upon Niankhkhnum and Knumhotep is:

  • “Lord of Those Who Is Honored Before the Great God”

The facts are: This is a somewhat vague and confusing, entirely symbolic title bestowed on a person after death, signifying that the king himself donated to the construction of the tomb.

The obvious conclusion is: This shrine to gay/bi excellence was sponsored by the gods’ own representation on Earth. This relationship is blessed and they were all best friends. And if someone doesn’t write a show about that dynastic dynamic, I freaking will.

I’ll call it The King’s Queens.


(Article originally published and featured in An Injustice!.)

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Here's what people are saying about this article over on Medium:

"Hahaha, you're literally the funniest writer I know, can I get a signed copy of your future book, please?" - Itxy Lopez

"Loved it. The snark and the puns got me. And I love to hear about historical gays. Your roasting of all the 'but they were brothers! D:' theories is superb." - Nessa Sparks

"What a cool story, and how delightfully written! Love it! By the way, if you'd ever like to submit something like this to Prism & Pen, we'd probably bow down and, errrr... feature it or something. Lol." - James Finn

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