An Ancient Egyptian Valentine

Did you know there were no homosexuals until the late 19th century? It’s true.


For centuries in the Eurocentric world, there’d been horrific punishments for the “crime against nature.” These acts could earn a crushing jail sentence, or even death. Emphasis on “these acts.”


But how to think about people instead of just their acts? Karol-Maria Kertbeny, a brave early fighter for the rights of same-sex lovers, seems to be the one who coined “homosexual” and “heterosexual.” By the late 1890s, “homosexual” overcame other attempts at naming, such as “Urning.”


As for “crime against nature” laws, they’re a relatively recent construct in human history. Hammurabi, the fearsome King of Babylon, codified all behaviors into 282 laws. This was around 1754 B.C. — almost 4 millennia ago. His laws concern both business matters and personal ones related to marriage and sexual behavior. There were no anti-same sex structures anywhere.


Nearby, Egypt likewise failed to restrict same-sex desire. In fact, even further back than Hammurabi, in early 25th century B.C., we find Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep, the “Overseers of the Manicurists of the Palace of the King.” These men and their minions serviced royal bodies daily to prepare them for smooth days and nights. That means they actually touched the pharaoh!


The well-rewarded pair could afford their sumptuous, conjoined tombs. Paintings and sculptures show them, outsized. There is an ( Egyptian style) kiss. And painted on a wall, they feast at a massive table, with small wife and children figures painted behind them, partially erased. According to the glyphs, the men are “joined in life and joined in death.”


For Egyptians, the tasks of daily living were a necessity, but the Afterlife was a person’s most serious concern. You had to prepare yourself for the next life by paying homage to the gods and outfitting yourself with whatever you’d need to continue the life begun in the physical realm.


But what if you did not have the wealth needed to construct lavishly treasured tombs? What could a couple do to preserve themselves together for all eternity? Well, you could commission a statue of the two of you together, gazing into the Afterlife for all time.


Called ka statues (the Egyptians believed the soul had nine parts; The ka is everything that makes a person unique), once fashioned, they became the dwelling place for the spirits of both of the deceased. Wealth meant your statue could be larger than life. Other statues were more modest. A number of these painted limestone figures still exist; and again and again, a married pair is shown seated, feet to floor and each facing forward, the man’s left arm tenderly placed behind the woman’s back, the woman’s right likewise behind him.


So, what are we to make of Idet and Ruiu (Middle Kingdom, 18th century, 1479–1425 B.C.)? Their ka statue shows the two women, entwined for eternity.


Housed in the Egyptian Museum in Turin, Italy (, the pair came into history via their inclusion in “The Women, Queens and Goddesses” special exhibition, launched for March 8, 2020, International Women’s Day.


A great deal of speculation began about the two. What sort of a pair are they, both dressed conventionally in typical blazing white, tight but modest linen sheath dresses, with the usual elaborate, braided wigs? Idet is seated on the right, the place of honor, the place reserved for the man of the house. The glyphs read, “Lady of the House” while Ruiu has no title.


From her side of the seat, Idet offers a prayer to “Osiris, lord of eternity, that he may give … every good and pure thing, and the pleasant breeze of the north wind, to the souls of the lady of the house.” This Osiris prayer is repeated, with some variations, by Ruiu, on her side.


Today, the women have arrived on their third continent, part of a spectacular new Egyptian exhibit at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, “Queen Nefertari’s Egypt.”


Queen Nefertari, (not Nefertiti), 1370–1330 B.C., was Rameses II’s beloved wife. But she’s also a woman short-changed by history. This new exhibition aims to change that.


Among her show’s 230 objects, queers seek out a certain statue: we want to see Idet and Ruiu’s 3,500-year-old hypnotic gaze. The love that speaks “Eternity.”


The exhibition, the Kimbell’s first post-COVID-19, runs until March 14.