The Construction of Masculinity in Middle Kingdom Egypt (2055-1650 B.C.E.)

By Lachlan Mutimer

Edited by Honor Rush

Image credit: “The Peasant Farmer, “The British Museum. ca. 1985-1795 B.C.E.

The Middle Kingdom (2055-1650 B.C.E.) in ancient Egypt was a period of cultural proliferation in which the influence of masculinity can be widely observed. Using Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, this essay will explore how gender was performed in Middle Kingdom Egypt. Butler defines gender performance as follows: 

‘The gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality. …the action of gender requires a performance that is repeated. This repetition is at once a reenactment and reexperiencing of a set of meanings already socially established, and it is the mundane and ritualized form of their legitimation.’

This essay looks at four areas of evidence to present the performative nature of Middle Kingdom masculinity: 1) Literature, a source for the expectations and self-reflexive view of society; 2) Middle Egyptian hieroglyphic, a symbolic reference to the roles of men; 3) Artefacts, an insight into how masculinity was represented; and 4) Infrastructure, which allows for the analysis of performativity through the labour from which the monuments in Middle Kingdom Egypt was built. 

According to Nicolas Grimal, Middle Kingdom Egypt was the era from which ancient Egypt’s most popular and ‘important’ narratives originated. Ancient Egyptian literature provides a reliable reference point as to how Middle Kingdom men behaved and acted which contributed to the construction of their masculinity. Three literary texts from the Middle Kingdom portray this: The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor, The Story of Sinuhe, and The Discourses of the Eloquent Peasant. All three tales feature male protagonists and predominantly male characters, something which Uroš Matić notes, is attributed to the male-dominated court and scribal profession. In the Shipwrecked Sailor, the narrator refers to sailors as men, associating men with sailing to suggest that it was an act of masculinity (Amenaa, The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor, 6). Furthermore, the two main characters are masculine, legitimising men in positions of power that sanction male superiority as another performance of masculinity. In the case of Sinuhe, the role of men is more explicit. This is seen in how Sinuhe refers to his sons:

‘my boys grew into strongmen,

each man his tribe’s suppressor.’ 

These lines are shaded with positivity and pride, highlighting gestures of strength and dominance as desirable masculine traits. As noted with the Shipwrecked Sailor, protagonists in Sinuhe are also male, creating similar associations between men and positions of authority and importance. In The Discourses of the Eloquent Peasant, a man’s mental strength and intellect are championed over the attributes of physical strength and dominance, purporting how a man should assert his masculinity within the domestic sphere. This is shown through the male peasants’ speeches, and his interactions with his family: ‘So, that peasant said to that wife of his,

“Look, I am going down to Blackland

to get provisions for my children.’ 

As Louise Hitchcock explains of performativity, ‘It is not who you are but what you do, so by having male characters perform acts of power, dominance, and intellect to display their gender, these stories construct masculine figures. Moreover, the story tells of Sinuhe and the peasant having children after they impregnate their wives which ascribes procreation as an inherently masculine act, according to R. B. Parkinson. These narratives clearly show that masculinity was performed in Middle Kingdom Egypt, attributable to the male-dominated audience of these stories and the male-dominated groups from which they were produced. Educators, scribes, and those in the royal court read these texts and adopted how the male characters performed their gender so that over time, the reiteration of the performance became a behavioural expectation. Middle Kingdom literature reveals how masculinity was performatively constructed through the actions and gestures of its characters who represented the patriarchal society. In addition to Middle Kingdom literature, the hieroglyphic language of the Middle Kingdom emphasises the nature of gender performativity by subjecting its users to a binary patriarchal system. Hieroglyphs consisted of two grammatical genders: female and male. This is seen through the hieroglyph of the seated man (𓀀), a determinative for words that have no inherent gender: ‘heir’, jwaw; ‘ruler’, HqA; ‘farmer/peasant’, sxtj, linking these roles with masculinity. Espousing Butler’s theory, if an ancient Egyptian man were to perform one of these roles, they would be contributing to the construction of masculinity. This determinative also endorsed the upper Egyptian class’s belief that these roles were designed for men, so any hieroglyph with this determinative before it classified it as a masculine role. For instance, the Middle Kingdom female pharaoh, Sobekneferu, adopts traditional masculine elements in her presentation and titulary, which Gae Callender says is because of the association between ‘pharaoh’ and ‘man’. Female pharaohs like Sobekneferu opted for a more masculine-looking presentation to assimilate into the role more easily and to appear as a ‘king’. The appearance was essentially propaganda that conveyed to onlookers that the person who wears a (male) pharaoh’s regalia was the pharaoh. James P. Allen’s guide further highlights the imbalance between male-to-female hieroglyphs, suggesting this to be rooted in patriarchal ideology. Given most Egyptians were illiterate, many would not have seen or understood hieroglyphs while those who were literate had greater exposure to these gendered hieroglyphs. Unsurprisingly, this was predominantly male scribes or high-status persons who had the authority to establish genderless roles as something that only a man could perform. Middle Egyptian hieroglyphics reveals how masculinised words created an association between masculinity and certain actions and behaviours, affirming masculinity as a performance to uphold itself.

Figure 1. Figure 2.

In addition to ancient Egyptian visual discourse, artefacts from the Middle Kingdom also depict how masculinity was performed. Ranging from relics to effigies, each artefact was given agency to perform independently from whomever it represented. Artefacts of male figures were intended to create a relationship between those they represented and the most desirable male features. In Butler’s theory, someone’s gender is identifiable when they exhibit archetypal gendered traits. Applying this logic to an artefact, an object solidifies a societal or behavioural norm through a static representation of the most desirable gendered qualities. This can be seen in the “Colossal Seated Statue of a Pharaoh” (fig. 1) through which the themes of power, dominance, and intellect are explicit in the pharaoh’s strong figure and patient gaze (fig. 1). Richard Bruce Parkinson refers to the features of defined and large musculature in ancient Egypt as the “valorisation of masculinity”, while he terms the concept of men performing their masculinity as ‘homosocialism’. This social dynamic is evident within the male burials from the Middle Kingdom period. The weapons and jewellery buried with a man functioned as accessories to affirm his financial and social status, thereby conflating wealth, and power with masculinity. Stephen Quirke explains that weapons buried near the body were significant to a man’s identity as they classified him as a male, and the number of items buried with him was indicative of his social status. A higher status implied superiority and domination, two of the most defining masculine traits. So, not only did the weapons and jewellery in male burials exhibit a man’s social rank, a lauded homosocial value, but they also distinguished their gender. Another artefact that demonstrates how gender was constructed is one of male peasant farming, reinforcing this to be a masculine activity (fig. 2). Many other artefacts created during the era of the Middle Kingdom also depict men in laborious tasks while female depictions are scarce. Although women had farmed, the number of male-farming artefacts implies that it was a masculine activity, making endurance and strength more applicable traits for men than for women. Essentially, artefacts convey how ancient Egyptians understood gender to have opposing roles, reaffirming Butler’s theory that gender is performed by the way it is represented.

Figure 3.

Monuments and other buildings were a key aspect of how the pharaohs of the Middle Kingdom were able to assert and present their power and dominance. Like performing a role, the monuments are a symbolic representation of the most admirable traits of the pharaohs in the Middle Kingdom, as seen in Amenemhat III’s Black Pyramid (fig. 3). Continuing Old Kingdom traditions, the Middle Kingdom pharaohs also sought to establish themselves as powerful rulers. The pyramid, monumental and dominating in size, is the ultimate Egyptian symbol of power, according to Kathryn Bard, as it’s characteristic of a pharaoh. This is seen in figure 3 by the distance from which the Black Pyramid is visible, reminding viewers of the king’s colossal powers. A key factor of Butler’s theory of gender performativity is iteration, performing or depicting certain traits frequently and consistently, which creates an association between two things. This is exhibited in the many monuments built during the Middle Kingdom by Amenemhat I, Amenemhat II, Amenemhat III, Mentuhotep II, Senusret I, and Senusret III. With such prolific buildings being built during the Middle Kingdom, an association would have developed between the king, their power, and their monuments, making the king’s masculinity synonymous with how their power was represented. Bard articulates “at least hundreds of men were needed to construct and maintain” the Nubian forts, and Barry Kemp describes how papyri regarding Amenemhat III’s pyramid records ‘gangs of men’ dragging stones for its construction. The physical act of labour becomes another performance of gender when it’s repeatedly shown to have been executed by a man, and as Parkinson notes, symbols of strength, dominance and endurance are key characteristics of masculinity. The production and presentation of the Middle Kingdom monuments are not only symbolic of the most admirable masculine traits: power and dominance; these characteristics also convey how men should exert their gender.   

Masculinity’s influence in Middle Kingdom Egypt can be seen throughout numerous sources. Using Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, this essay has explored how masculinity in Middle Kingdom Egypt was constructed and performed through acts, gestures, and behaviours. The male protagonists in Middle Kingdom literature embodied the archetypal qualities that contributed to the construct of masculinity. Similarly, the language of the Middle Kingdom and its masculine determinatives developed a discourse about masculinity and the ways it was performed as represented in the Middle Kingdom’s artefacts and monuments. Like the male protagonists in ancient Egyptian literature, Middle Kingdom pharaohs epitomised the masculine traits of power, dominance, and leadership through their colossal monuments. These examples provide valuable insight into the intricate construction of gender in Middle Kingdom Egypt, but more significantly, they show how in the Middle Kingdom the construct of masculinity was solidified through performance. 


Primary Works:

Amenaa, ca. 2055-1650 B.C.E. “The Story of the Shipwrecked Sailor.” In Middle Egyptian Literature: Eight Literary Works of the Middle Kingdom, edited and translated by J. P. Allen, 9-54. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Unknown, ca. 2055-1650 B.C.E. “The Discourse of the Eloquent Peasant.” In Middle Egyptian Literature: Eight Literary Works of the Middle Kingdom, edited and translated by J. P. Allen, 229-326. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Unknown, ca. 2055-1650 B.C.E. “The Story of Sinuhe.” In Middle Egyptian Literature: Eight Literary Works of the Middle Kingdom, edited and translated by J. P. Allen, 55-154. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Secondary Works:

Allen, J. P. 2014. Middle Egyptian: An Introduction to the Language and Culture of Hieroglyphs. 3rd ed. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Arnold, D. 2015. “Colossal Seated Statue of a Pharaoh.” The Metropolitan Museum. 

Bard, K. A. 2015. An Introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt. 2nd ed. Oxford: John Wiley & Sons. 

Butler, J. 1999. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Callender, G. 2000. “The Middle Kingdom Renaissance (c.2055-1650 BC).” In The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by I. Shaw, 137-71. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Di Teodoro, M. 2014. “The Organization of Seasonal Labour during the Middle Kingdom.” In Current Research in Egyptology 2013: Proceedings of the Fourteenth Annual Symposium, edited by K. Accetta, Renate Fellinger, P. Lourenço Gonçalves, S. Musselwhite, and W. Paul van Pelt, 64-80. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Grajetzki, W. 2014. Tomb Treasures of the Late Middle Kingdom: The Archaeology of Female Burials. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania.

Grimal, N. 1994. A History of Ancient Egypt. Translated by Ian Shaw. Oxford: Blackwell.

Hitchcock, L. 2008. Theory for Classics: A Student’s Guide. New York: Routledge.

Kemp, B. J. 2006. Ancient Egypt: Anatomy of a Civilization. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge.

Matić, U. 2016. “Gender in Ancient Egypt: Norms, Ambiguities, and Sensualities.” NEA 79:174–83.

Parkinson, R. B. 2008. “‘Boasting about Hardness’: Constructions of Middle Kingdom Masculinity.” In Sex and Gender in Ancient Egypt: ‘Don Your Wig for a Joyful Hour’, edited by C. Graves-Brown, 115-42. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales.

Quirke, S. 2016. “15 Writings for Good Health in Social Context: Middle and New Kingdom Comparisons.” In Mummies, Magic and Medicine in Ancient Egypt: Multidisciplinary Essays for Rosalie David, edited by C. Price, R. Forshaw, A. Chamberlain, P. T. Nicholson, R. Morkot, and J. Tyldesley, 183-96. United Kingdom: Manchester University Press.

List of Figures

Figure 1. On loan from the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung (7264). ca. 1919-1878 B.C.E. The Metropolitan Museum.

Figure 2. The British Museum. ca. 1985-1795 B.C.E.

Figure 3. Brodkey, A. K. 1984. Arielle Kozloff Brodkey: Egyptian and other Ancient Art.