Lost in Translation: Exploring Gender in the Ancient World

In mid May, the Royal Ontario Museum organized an event titled Lost in Translation? Gender and Sexuality across Time and Cultures. It took place in Toronto, Canada during Pride Month, a time in our city where we take a closer look at our society, celebrate our diversity, and bring marginalized groups to the forefront. The key event, of course, was to be the Pride parade, which took place on July 3. Hence, it was only appropriate that the museum decided to partake in this very important conversation

The event was also organized in conjunction with a provocative exhibit Third Gender: Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints, which opened in early May. The exhibit takes a close look at the young male youths and how they are the object of desire of many Japanese men and women in Edo Japan (1). Gender and sexuality are front and centre of the exhibit.

Richard Parkinson takes us on a whirlwind tour through Sexuality in ancient Egypt (photo: author)
Richard Parkinson takes us on a whirlwind tour through Sexuality in ancient Egypt (photo: author)

Approaching Visual Media in the Ancient World

To us today, when we look at images, e.g. advertisements, we immediately know the meaning and context behind them. The people, who create visual media right now, they are still alive, they are in the same world as I, and so the culture speaks to them as it does to me. Of course, our personal backgrounds will influence how we see this media. We here in Canada turn the telly on and see the latest Coke advertisement. A person on a different part of the globe does similar, yet the Coke advertisement is constructed differently.

Elaborate elements in iconography, but what does it all mean? (from the Temple of Sety I at Abydos - photo: author)
Elaborate elements in iconography, but what does it all mean? (from the Temple of Sety I at Abydos – photo: author)

When we look at images from the ancient world, the situation changes entirely. No longer can we just go and ask the craftsperson, about what led him or her to the design of the image. We can consult texts perhaps, from where we can get some idea of the symbolism behind the image. In ancient Egypt, the inscriptions within a tomb are often helpful in figuring out, what is going on. Now, what about an object? To the ancient, it would have immediately been clear what it is for; whereas, for us, we have no clue. It is the same thing with electronics these days. Give a child your iPhone for a minute and almost immediately, the child knows how to use it. Yet when you give it to one of your grandparents, they have no idea what to do with it.

Interpreting Identity in Ancient Egypt

Interpreting the myriad visual media from the Egyptian world can prove difficult. Richard Parkinson in his talk focused on the renown tomb of Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep. Located within the extensive necropolis of Saqqara near modern Cairo, the tomb was discovered in the 1960s and has since become THE example of a same-sex couple in ancient Egypt. This is just one of the many misconceptions we have about the past, according to Dr Parkinson. Our modern eye has led us to look at these two individuals as same-sex, when in fact they are twins.

Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep depicted embracing within their mastaba at Saqqara (WikiMedia)
Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep depicted embracing within their mastaba at Saqqara (WikiMedia)

Again, to an ancient Egyptian, in constructing and looking at the scene, their purpose was immediately evident. For us, it is an entirely different process and we are to be careful in our interpretation not to be influenced by our own ideals (2).

When we look at the identity of an individual, it should be no surprise that his or her identity is influenced and shaped by the individual’s personal experience – something which was already prevalent over 2,000 years ago. We like to think ourselves as different from these ancients, thinking that our issues today have never been experienced in the past. Yet, these people then had the same concerns, wishes, desires, and fears as you and me. This is just one of the major aspects which Dr Parkinson explored in his talk, but stuck with me the most. It was also a major focus for him in his little booklet on A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across the World.

Further Reading

Richard Parkinson has written extensively on the subject of Middle Kingdom literature and has also taken a closer look at aspects of Egyptian sexuality. Here are some suggested readings:

  • R.B. Parkinson. “‘Homosexual’  Desire and Middle Kingdom Literature.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 81 (1995):57-76 – available through JSTOR.
  • R.B. Parkinson. A Little Gay History. Desire and Diversity Across the World. London: British Museum Press, 2013 – available through BookDepository or Amazon.

An exhibit catalogue entitled A Third Gender: Beautiful Youth in Japanese Prints is currently in preparation and will be published by the Royal Ontario Museum Press. ROM and exhibit Curator Asato Ikeda is authoring the volume together with Joshua S. Mostow.


  1. For a review of the exhibit, see the article published in the Toronto Star on May 16, 2016 – LINK.
  2. Some argue that we can never be separate from our ideals.

Thank you also to Shayna Gardiner for some editing.


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