Gender identity and gender roles are not an invention of modern times. They have always shaped people's lives - also in antiquity. Uroš Matić, Egyptologist at the Austrian Archaeological Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (OeAW), works on gender archaeology which deals with sexuality and gender roles in prehistoric and ancient societies.
Researching Gender in Antiquity
In your opinion, what makes gender archaeology so fascinating?
Uroš Matić: The question of gender and sexuality is very relevant today. That’s why it is important to look at the past and expose power relations between the different genders. Throughout history we can see that human behaviour is culture-specific. Some things that we take for granted today might have been very different in the past.
Do you have an example?
Matić: In our current heteronormative society, you wouldn't expect men to wear make-up, because we tend to associate that with women and femininity. But it wasn't like that in ancient Egypt. Back then, men and women wore make-up, such as eyeliner. Make-up was seen as an ideal of beauty for all sexes. And it was even considered as a cure for ocular diseases.
We have a lot of evidence for same-sex relations from prehistory and early history, and also from ancient Egypt.
Is it at all possible to apply today's concepts of gender identity or sexuality to the past?
Matić: Some scholars think that modern concepts of identity cannot be applied to past societies, because these societies themselves did not use such concepts. Would someone in ancient Egypt have identified as heterosexual or homosexual? The answer is: No. We do not know of any words to describe "heterosexuality" or “homosexuality”. However, this does not mean that same-sex relationships did not exist. On the contrary, we have a lot of evidence for same-sex relations from prehistory and early history, and also from ancient Egypt.
Same-sex relationships in ancient Egypt
So, what did it mean to be "queer" in ancient Egypt?
Matić: That changed over the course of ancient Egyptian history. From Pharaonic Egypt up to the Hellenistic period and the Ptolemaic government, we don’t have many sources that talk about “queerness”. What we do know, however, is that it was socially more acceptable for men to have relations with other men, if they adopted an active role. A passive role was not considered appropriate, because it was associated with women. And women were subordinate to men in ancient Egypt. However, this was also a matter of class.
Is anything known about same-sex relationships between women in ancient Egypt?
Matić: There are ancient Egyptian terms from the 3rd and 2nd millennia BCE that may have referred to female same-sex couples. In addition, a magical plaque made of lead from the 3rd century CE was found at Hermopolis in Egypt, which contains a spell of a woman named Gorgonia who desired a woman named Sophia and tried to enchant her.