Ancient Egypt To Japan - An LGBT Trail Round The British Museum

By Kate Smith | 23 February 2007
parchment depicting two naked Egyptian males with erections the length of their bodies

A graphic funerary papyrus from ancient Egypt - just one of the intriguing items in the British Museum collection that features in this LGBT History Month trail. Courtesy the British Museum

In celebration of LGBT History Month, we've walked through the galleries of the British Museum looking for objects and stories that trace the history of the gay experience.

Taking the long view reminds us that although there's been same-sex desire in every culture, it's been 'packaged' in very different ways - as has heterosexual sex. As we'll see, the attitudes of some ancient cultures are almost a mirror image of received truths today.

The end effect is to leave us pleasingly at sea - to realise that the markers for 'lesbian' and 'gay' that have served the community very well in achieving rights in the last hundred years, may in themselves be a passing cultural phenomenon. The fashionable use of new words like 'queer' indicate a new tide coming in.

In the past few decades we've seen the opportunity to alter your sexual identity with drugs and surgery - and the possibilities and threats as science grapples with ideas of what makes a person gay. All this - and the equality laws newly in place in the West - are likely to change how homosexuality is framed over the next couple of hundred years.

But as institutions like the Dana Centre look forward, let's go back to the beginning of history for an assignation with an Assyrian goddess.

photo of a stone plaque on which is carved a naked woman with wings

The Queen of the Night, the goddess Ishtar. Courtesy the British Museum

1. Ishtar/Innana

This plaque is popularly referred to as the Queen of the Night. She comes from Iraq, and dates back to 1800 - 1750 BC. She may be an aspect of the goddess Ishtar - also called Innana. Some suggest this picture was attached to a temple, others to an upscale brothel.

Innana presides over sexual love - a familiar idea to us for a female goddess - but she's also the goddess of war. Surviving verse about the goddess suggests genderbending powers. In part of a lamentation the goddess says:

I go at the front. I am lofty.
I proceed from the rear. I am wise.
I make right into left.
I make left into right.
I turn a man into a woman.
I turn a woman into a man.
I am the one who causes a man to adorn himself as a woman.
I am the one who causes the woman to adorn herself as a man.

The Kugarus were originally guards of Innana, and later part of her cult were said to have had their gender changed from male to female by the goddess.

What was the significance of these rituals? It may simply indicate the goddess - the most powerful of the Sumerian civilisation - was able to change everything in the universe. Material from this distance in history tends to be public and ritualistic - it will tell us little about the experience of individual lives. But the Queen of the Night's story gives us the image of gender malleability as a respectable part of an enduring state religion.

photo shows brown stone with carved writing on it

Part of the epic of Gilgamesh, carved on a stone tablet. Courtesy of the British Museum.

2. Epic of Gilgamesh
Room 55, Later Mesoptamia Case 10

This tablet shows part of the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest stories ever written, and the longest story in Assyrian, the ancient Babylonian language. It tells the story of a quasi-god figure, Gilgamesh, and his close friend Enkidu. In around 2,500 BC there really was a king called Gilgamesh, so this seventh century BC tablet is the summation of myths that had been circulating around the Near East for a couple of thousand years.

It's smaller than it might appear in this imposing image - look for a piece about the size of an outstretched hand.

Gilgamesh and Enkidu fight the goddess Ishtar and win. But shortly afterwards Enkidu dies, and Gilgamesh spends the remainder of the poem grieving and trying to outwit death himself.

Their story has a place in the history of same-sex love because of the way the relationship is described. In Gilgamesh's dream he imagines caressing Enkidu like a wife, and the poem tells of them lying together and holding hands.

This doesn't 'prove' the homosexuality of Gilgamesh - their tactileness is still common in non-sexual relationships between men in the Middle East. The primacy of a man-with-man relationship may simply indicate the lesser status of women in the culture; both Gilgamesh and Enkidu have wives. Secondly the story has no one unifying author, but is the product of an oral tradition spanning many centuries - so the resonance of the tale will have altered from teller to teller.

However the tale does give a space for male homosexuality to feel at home. Four thousand years later, Victorian homophiles were expressing their desire in terms of the need for a 'special friend'. Gilgamesh and Enkidu hit the emotional registers of same-sex love, regardless of whether it was coupled with physical love. Historians periodically debate whether particular words or phrases in their story could be construed sexually.

stone carving depicting two Egyptian males, one with an erection

This image from Karnak, 1900 BC, may not be all it seems. Courtesy the British Museum

3. Egyptian image - why this is misleading

This image from the White Chapel at Karnak from 1900 BC may look like an unambiguous expression of gay sexuality, but in fact it is not. The figure on the left is the god Amun-ra, who is always shown with an erection as a sign of his power. The other figure is King Senwosret I - he embraces the deity as an indication that he too is equal to a god.

Shy of erotic imagery in secular life, the Egyptians frequently used pictures like these in their temples - a complete reversal of the situation in the 21st century west. Though the Ancient Egyptians undoubtedly recognised the existence of same-gender sex, the handful of references that survive all refer only to men, and are all slightly negative. These include the chat up line in a fictional tale - "what a lovely backside you have". But because most texts and works of art that survive are from government circles, they give out an official line. Whilst same-sex desire existed, it won't usually show through in these formal sources.

For a deeper understanding of Egyptian sexuality, try Gallery 61, which contains a case on sex and humour. One of images from the case - a funerary papyrus - is shown at the top of this trail. No, it's not an early boy's mag - the earth god's action is merely a metaphor of the self-sustaining power of the world.

photo of a vase depicting a young man straddling an older seated man

The Bell Krater. Courtesy the British Museum

4. Bell Krater - a classic image of Greek love

This krater (a vessel for mixing water and wine) shows a classic image of love between a younger man and an older tutor and protector. Ideally, the younger partner should not be more than 20, and the older partner not older than 40. These partnerships happened especially in the fifth century BC, roughly the time of Plato and the Parthenon marbles, but continued across the Roman Empire - although they remained particularly associated with Greece. Much classical art displayed naked male beauty and was intended primarily for a male audience.

The gallery where this vase is displayed has recently closed as the museum rearranges its displays.

photo of two sides of an ancient gold coin depictinga female profile

Sappho coin. Courtesy the British Museum

5. Sappho Roman coin

"Believe me, in the future
Someone will remember us...." (Fragment 147)

The poet Sappho lived in the late seventh century BC in the town of Mytelene on the isle of Lesbos. Writing was still in its infancy when she lived, so her poems may have been memorised during her lifetime, being first written down within 150 years of her death.

By the third century BC she was a canonical writer of the Greco-Roman world, and nine volumes of her poetry were held at the Library of the Muses in Alexandria.

This coin dates from the second century AD - when Sappho was already as remote in time as Chaucer is from us today. The coin was issued in Mytelene, to celebrate their most famous daughter.

Today only a handful of fragments of her verse survives. The popular myth is that her work was destroyed in the medieval period by a disgusted Pope. However, the truth may be less dramatic: it was more likely eroded by the sacking of the libraries of the ancient world, and by falling out of fashion just as the conversion of many texts from papyrus to parchment was taking place.

What remains today is from quotations in the works of admiring critics of the early centuries AD, and from papyri dug up on the rubbish heaps of the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchyus in the late 19th century. They offer the tantalising hope that one day more of her work might turn up.

photo of a stone bust of a woman in classical style

Bust of Sappho. Courtesy the British Museum

6. Bust of Sappho - Room 84

We have no idea what Sappho looked like - though one ancient source suggests that she might have been small and dark haired. This first century AD Roman bust of Sappho is based on a Greek fifth century BC image - but it’s still probably an idealised representation rather than an actual portrait. It was dug up in 1769-70 at Hadrian's villa at Tivoli. We'll meet Hadrian again a little later in this trail.

Was Sappho a lesbian in the modern sense? The belief is based on three things: the younger women who surrounded and learned from her on Lesbos; the love poems addressed to women not men; and the view of writers in the early centuries AD.

Historian Margaret Reynolds writes: "By about the third century AD Sappho, the woman, had a dubious reputation, while Sappho, the poet, owned a glorious name." Around this time, the myth of two Sapphos began - one the poetess, the other an unstable 'lesbian' who finally committed suicide over a man.

In every century since, Sappho has been attacked as an unnatural lover of women, and then reclaimed as a purely Platonic admirer of her sex. It's only since the 20th century that it's been respectable to consider poet and lesbian together without expressing horror. Regardless of her sexuality, she stands at the earliest period of recorded history as an example of a woman brilliant in her chosen work, living a life not predicated on men.

Read more translations here.

a close up photograph of a silver cup with an engraving of two men having sex

The Warren Cup offers a graphic depiction of homosexual lovemaking in the Roman world. © The British Museum

7. The Warren Cup

Given the ambiguities of much of the other ancient material, it's perhaps understandable that the Victorian owner of this cup, Edward Perry Warren, referred to it as the 'holy grail' - a vivid portrayal of the acceptance of same-sex love in other cultures.

Roman mores present some interesting oppositions to what's currently acceptable in Western Europe. Whilst we see the image of a young man penetrating a boy (probably aged between 13 and 16) as highly controversial, Roman society found the age differential as essential for making the relationship acceptable. An adult male who acted as the 'passive' partner with a man of the same age would lose status.

In his book on the cup, Dyfri Williams writes: "The basic dividing line was between the active penetrator and the passive penetrated; that is, between adult male citizens and the powerless sectors of society: women, boys and slaves. There was no division according to the gender of the partner, and so no concept of homosexuality and heterosexuality."

The hairstyles of the couples on the cup are Greek - it's possible the Roman maker was envisioning a somewhat idealised Hellenic world of perfect love when he created these pictures.

The British Museum bought this cup for £1.8 million in 1999 - one of the most expensive objects it has ever purchased. You can see it in Room 70, Case 12a.

You can read more about the Warren Cup in Dyfri Williams book - £5 from the British Museum

photo of the head of a Roman male statue

The face of Emperor Hadrian. Courtesy the British Museum

8. Hadrian and Antinous

This is the Emperor Hadrian, now in Room 3, who reigned from 76 – 138 AD. Hadrian spent over half his reign away from home, inspecting the borders of his empire, and inaugurating huge building projects - the now-famous wall in northern Britain was just one scheme among many.

In his early 50s he met a youth from Bithynia (perhaps whilst he was travelling there) who joined his retinue and became his lover. Whilst Victorian commentators tried to 'rehabilitate' Antinous as the 'adoptive son' of Hadrian, it's now admitted that their relationship was sexual.

photo of a Roman bust of a young man

The handsome Antinous. Courtesy the British Museum

When Antinous drowned in the Nile in his late teens, Hadrian's grief displaced itself into yet more building projects: he created the huge city of Antinopolis from scratch on the empty plain close to the Nile where Antinous died. He also made Antinous into a god - not unusual for members of the Emperor's family, but unheard of for an ordinary person. A huge number of statues and coins depicting Antinous have been found right across the Empire.

illustration of an old Japanese tea house with people in kimonos sitting on the floor

An Edo tea house. Courtesy the British Museum

9. Japanese imagery

This picture (not currently on display) shows a scene in a theatre teahouse. Since all actors were male, all the elegant women in this picture are actually men. The younger ones also sometimes worked as homosexual prostitutes, and teahouses were a venue for meeting patrons.

The modern section of the Japanese galleries show the inheritance from the 'floating world' of the Edo period. Japanese theatre has a tradition of transforming sexual identities in performance - and pushes the boundaries much further than, say, the recent revival of same-sex casting in some modern Shakespeare performances. An audience at a Kabuki performance might watch an 80-year-old male actor playing the part of a young woman. There's also the all-female Takarazuka troupe, where women play male roles.

photo of a set of playing cards with portraits of Japanese drag queens on them

Japanese drag queen cards. Courtesy the British Museum

This modern drag queen deck is one of the most recent acquisitions of the British Museum. It shows photographs of drag queens from across Japan, taken by Takashi Otsuka. Otsuka is a leading figure in Japan's modern gay culture. These cards will remain on display until late February. However you can see the whole deck online here.

photo of a multicoloured geometrically patterned blanket

Pakistani quilt. Courtesy the British Museum

10. Pakistani "transvestite" quilt

This quilt is not on display - we found it in the stores. It was purchased in Karachi (Sindh, Pakistan) in 1985 by textile expert John Gillow and sold to the museum. The museum notes in its database that although Gillow was told it was made by (or for) itinerant transvestites, he is not certain this is true. But even if the person he bought it from was inventing a story, this in itself links the quilt (ralli) with the hijira culture, the only manifestation of male homosexuality that’s acceptable in Pakistan.

Hijiras are men who voluntarily submit to castration and then live as women, earning money through dancing and singing at weddings, and often through prostituting themselves to men. Locals may seek profit or entertainment (or both) by playing on outsiders’ prurient interest in this phenomenon.

We've included it here because it so beautifully demonstrates how stories of gay history may be lost, how objects can still register attitudes about gay people without necessarily deriving from them, and so how ambiguously objects can reference social values. This blanket can't tell the story of its owner, and the museum database records doubt about the shape of his or her life.

Elsewhere in the British Museum there are many other cultures that created a space for other gender orientations - notably the Plains Indians who allowed 'two spirited' people to be raised in a different gender to their physical one, if they chose.

But there's been a double impulse to muffle these connections - sometimes from the cultures themselves, at others from not-so-long-ago European academics. Now that a very different attitude prevails, it will be interesting to see how far research can bring some of these more personal stories back.

We're very grateful to British Museum curators for their help in compiling this trail, particularly to Richard Parkinson for much support and Brian Durrans for a little detective work.

References:
Margaret Reynolds - The Sappho companion
Dyfri William - The Warren Cup
Sabrina Petra Ramet Ed. - Gender Reversals and Gender Cultures