Ancient Egypt sprung to life among glass cabinets and mummies at London’s Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology for LGBT history month. The glittering Helen Pike M.C’d, and the ever flamboyantly erudite John J Johnston interviewed an artist, an author (me with Rufius in tow), an astronomer, a curator and an actor (as the Egyptian God, Horus).
Interviewees were asked to choose their favourite ‘objects of desire’ from the collection to discuss how the artefacts inspired their work.
Florist and artist Lauren Craig chose the lotus flower. The lotus flower was used widely in Egyptian art and John explained its significance to the Ancient Egyptians. Lauren elaborated on how she incorporated the lotus flower into her work, and how she loved the smell, which is not typically sweet. John and Lauren discussed how lotuses were used in ceremony and how ancient Egyptians incorporated them into wig bands.
Next up was astronomer Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, where he informs the public and press about all aspects of astronomy, cosmology, astrobiology, planetary science and the history of astronomy. Marek’s book, The Intimate Universe: how the stars are closer than you think, is a curated tour of the most fascinating phenomena and discoveries in astronomy, revealing how we are inextricably, inspirationally linked to the cosmos.
Marek’s object of desire was an ancient iron meteorite from 2500 BC. It was fascinating to learn about how ancient Egyptians were using iron during the Bronze Age, not an earthly metal, but iron fallen to earth from the heavens as a meteorite. He showed an image of two pots, which were reproduced from meteorite iron ore by a contemporary artist who used the same tools ancient Egyptians would have used.
Daniel Milco, V&A curator and fashonista wove a silk path connecting Ancient Egyptian fashion to twentieth and twenty-first century catwalks. The fine pleats of an Egyptian dress clearly influenced fashion designers 5000 years later.
Daniel described how Egyptian pleats have been copied again and again throughout history, right up to modern twentieth century ‘Cleopatra at home’ versions of the pleated skirt that are almost identical to the their ancient counterparts as we see in the image below – with a wrap over effect to boot.
John talked about the fairly new idea in Egyptology of pleats in ancient garments representing wings. However, Daniel put up some modern images, that clearly demonstrated the winged motif recreating itself in modern design (RHS).
I blame Rufius for our objects of desire being a selection of ancient phalloi. Wilfully phallocentric as ever, Rufius chose a ludicrously outsized phallus (collection mark UC33601) from 4th century Alexandria. Made from terracotta (Nile silt), it is a solid model of a procession carrying a large phallus arising from what may be its seated owner at the rear (in a Bes head-dress); two Bes figures face forward at the front beneath the head of the penis, two robed priests in the centre and two at the rear. There is red and white coating in patches on the surface, so it was likely painted.
Some of the smaller Phalli may very well have come from Rufius toybox. The Ancient Roman world was awash with phalli. I remember that on my research trip to Pompeii, I was struck by the familiarity of the Roman town with its stadium, gymnasium, and theatre, but the images of phalli etched into walls on almost every street corner were utterly foreign. Naples Museum has a room dedicated to phalli of all shapes and sizes, hidden away for many years when they were thought too obscene for the eyes of the impressionable public. Although these Alexandrian phalli may well have come from Rufius’ toybox, scholars do not know for certain their ancient function. Ancient dildo? Or something more lofty, and spiritual? Being a devotee of Bacchus, no doubt Rufius would have favoured a hedonistic function.
The playful John J Johnston flashed some images of the filmset reconstruction of the Alexandrian Agora which inspired the set of Carry on Cleo, and Frankie Howard in 70s TV series Up Pompeii, as an introduction to talk about Rufius’ representation as a cinaedus. John was concerned I might take offence, but very much to the contrary, I confirmed that I had all those 70s drama queens in mind (including Kenneth Williams) when I wrote Rufius. I imagine Rufius’ voice sounding as Stephen Fry might do if he did an impression of Kenneth Williams, but with a lisp (cinaedi lisped).
John, an expert in Ancient sexuality made the point that many depictions of cinaedi in the primary literature were not only ridiculed figures, but that their only lot in life was thought to have been of lowly status, including the role of prostitute. Those roles are certainly present in the literature, but I noted that we also have the likes of Julius Caesar described in Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars as being accused of being a cinaedus and dressing effeminately, which interested me. Julius Caesar, for all the jibes about being a cinaedus was the emperor after all. A cinaedus, if he admitted to it as Rufius does, could not enter the Senate and wear the thick stripes of a senator on his toga, but what if he were born into money and was the sole inheritor of a fortune? The Ancient Romans were materialists, money talked, and so with the construction of Rufius’ character, I played with that possibility of him as a financially independent cinaedus, with many of the freedoms that money would have brought in Ancient Roman society.
John finished with a question about Antinous, Hadrian’s deified lover. We discussed how we cannot know for sure from the ancient sources whether the relationship was sexual, but like Marguerite Yourcenar in her Memoirs of Hadrian, in Rufius I have taken the sexual nature of their relationship as a given. Rufius includes a number of references to the Imperial lovers – as well as the temples dedicated to Antinous, which Hadrian had constructed all over Egypt and the Empire after his tragic death.
I reminded John of our conversation at Durham University’s Romosexuality conference. John had informed me that nobody knows exactly how the temples of Antinous were destroyed. In Rufius the image of Temples of Antinous burning along the Nile stylistically represents the destruction of paganism. Thanks to John for answering my naïve questions in the early stages of my research. I was flattered he referred to me as a historian. I joked more along the lines of an ancient historian – like historical novelists, if they didn’t know what happened, they made it up!
Lastly, but mostly was the actor and documentary film producer, Robert Eagle (by night Rob is a rather raunchy drag performer) – who wow’d the audience dressed as Horus with his falcon head and human body (and fabulous blue nose, white face paint and feather headdress).
Rob’s object of desire was a tatty looking piece of papyrus, however, what a fascinating item of filth object it turned out to be! (which is why Rob admits to loving it). It is an interesting take on the myth of Horus (uncle) and Set (nephew), who were blood relations. Rob elaborates that the papyrus gives us an insight into sexuality. John billed the papyrus as the world’s oldest ‘chat up line.’ In it is an encounter between Horus and Set.
The background to the myth is that Horus and Set have been warring for about 80 years (John makes the point that Egyptian chronology is cyclical at this point) for the throne of Egypt. Set suggests to Horus – let’s have a break from battle, spend a night together, put it all to one side and we’ll get drunk.
Rob goes on to describe their sexual encounter that night. In some versions of the story, there is a rape being planned, but in this version they both quite enjoy it. John and Rob discuss the incestuous occurrences of blood relations having sex.
The chat up line flattered Horus’ muscular thighs and beautiful buttocks and although homosexuality was not particularly acceptable to ancient Egyptians, clearly from this story of seduction, the gods were up for it!
Rob also talked about the way myths change over time. He used his drag persona as an example and how each time he performs, he uses our own cultural myths and changes them to suit the needs of the performance – giving those myths his own take.
After the show, we loitered between the glass cabinets and sipped wine. Rufius it seems had sparked the interest of the audience and I found myself signing copies (including one for the lovely Razzle Dazzle blogger, Jon Delores), before we retired to the infamous ‘Green Room’ for more wine (by Bacchus!) Things started to get heated when Horus peeled off his feathers … we’ll leave the rest to your imagination.
A big thank you to the Petrie Team for such a fab LGBT evening of Egyptology!