Opinion
3 min

A pharaoh’s nightly wandering

Filling in the gaps of an epic love affair between two Egyptian gods

History is about filling a lot of holes. That is, when we’re exploring the sexual and gender identities of historical figures, the further back we cast the more fragmented our stories become.

Take one story of Pharaoh Nefer-ka-re, who may have been the 22nd century BCE Pharaoh Pepi II Nefer-ka-re. This tale survives in fits and starts, as if coming through on a really poor radio signal. The story describes the Pharaoh (a father so, presumably, he had a wife) and General Sasenet. The first fragment explains (again, incomplete): “[/// /// ///] love [///] general Sasenet without there being a wife [in his house].” Sasenet was a notable bachelor, it would seem.

In the royal capital of Memphis, Sasenet went for a walk to amuse himself, and possibly discuss royal business with a number of court attendees like the supervisor of the musicians of the king, the chief domain supervisor and the chamberlain, among others. A petitioner from the city arrives, and speaks to the overseer of the gatehouse to “the Great House.” When he tries to speak a group of musicians, singers and people celebrating make a lot of noise, and he leaves, weeping.

Later a man named Tjeti, possibly the petitioner, is out walking alone one night when he spots “his majesty the king of Upper and Lower Egypt Nefer-ka-Re, who had set out by himself on a walk without there being any person with him. Tjeti retreated before the king without letting him see him. Tjeti, son of Henet, stood still thinking as follows: ‘If it is so, then the rumours about him going out at night are true.’”

The pharaoh is given to nocturnal wandering. The plot thickens.

In secret, Tjeti follows Nefer-ka-re to the house of General Sasenet. The ruler of all Egypt, a living god, throws a brick after stamping his foot, and a ladder is lowered to him so he could climb up into Sasenet’s house. Tjeti waits:

After his majesty had done that which he had wanted to do with him (ie the general), he left for his palace, Tjeti behind him. Only after his majesty had reached the Great House, life, prosperity, health, Tjeti went home. Concerning the walk of his majesty to the house of the general Sasenet it should be noted that four hours of the night passed. He had spent a further four hours in the house of general Sasenet. (And) when he entered the Great House four hours were left until dawn.

The reference to the “four hours” Nefer-ka-re spends with Sasenet might be a satirical reference to the mythical nightly “union” of the sun god Ra and (his son, in some tellings) Osiris, the god of the afterlife, which happened at the darkest part of the night.  If I may wax lyrical for a moment, here’s a beautiful symbol for gay sex — if you can overlook the potential mythical incest. A being of pure, fiery light, descends into a realm of dangerous darkness to meet its ruler. The king of that shadowy realm (the bedroom, perhaps?) relies on the intense, burning energy of his partner, while the being of light needs the resurrecting power of the one who rules over darkness — death has long been a literary symbol for an orgasm. The union of these male gods took place during the four hours of deepest darkness — the same hours Nefer-ka-re is said to have spent with his general.

From then on, “Tjeti, son of Henet, followed him every night, without letting his heart blame him,” perhaps feeling some guilt about stalking the pharaoh, or disgust at the nocturnal rendezvous, though this was clearly a routine assignation. Why he felt the need to tail his ruler is equally unclear, but “only after his majesty [the king] had entered [the Great House, Tjeti returned home . . .]”

It’s not clear what the point of the story is from the fragments. Egyptologist Dominic Montserrat points out how the story emphasizes the “clandestine nature of the affair” but how Nefer-ka-Re was “not criticized per se for having sex with another male but for being a bad ruler.” Others point out that the story is fairly neutral towards homosexuality. It’s also important to keep in mind that this is a story, dated somewhere between the 15th to 10th centuries BCE; well after the fact of Pepi II’s rule. While the affair between Nefer-ka-Re and Sasenet has no historical evidence, the fragmentary story of a pharaoh given to nightly wandering survives, and gives us the chance to fill some royal holes.

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(Original illustration by Stephen McDermott)