Family and Relationship
The concept of marriage in Egypt
is not an easy topic. Certainly Egyptians seem to have taken
mates in what most often appears to be lifelong monogamous
relationships. After the Third Intermediate period we begin to
find ancient "marriage contracts" that incorporate the
phrase shep en shemet (price for "marrying" a
woman) and mostly set out property rights without elaborating on
the act of marriage itself. More abundant are divorce records
that also deal mostly with property settlements.
When examining ancient reliefs
and statues, it is easy to assume that the ancient Egyptians
marriage was similar to today's institution, but beyond these
visual clues, there is little in the way of documentation to
substantiate this. Little written evidence of either true
marriage ceremonies or marriages as a concept has been found.
Usually there was a grand party associated with the joining of
two people, but we believe it was simply a social affair and had
no real religious or legal bearing.
Traditionally, the term hemet
has been translated as "wife", but is probably more
accurately "female partner". The legal and
social implications of the word are not clear.
Interestingly, the word hi is the male counterpart to hemet
but seems to have been rarely used. However, this is
probably due to funerary text most frequently being related to
men, and so the female partner is referred to and defined by her
General Horemhab and His Wife
King Tut Ankh Amun And Queen Ankhsenamun
Hebswt is another word
that seems to apply to a female partner, but traditionally it
has been translated as "concubine". However, this
meaning is less clear because in some New Kingdom text both hemet
and hebswt are used at the same time to apparently refer
to the same female. It has been suggested that the term hebswt
might more accurately describe a second or third wife after
the first one died or was divorced.
Of course, our modern, romantic
concept of marriage is a relationship based on love between
partners who consent to share their lives together. But up
until the 26th dynasty, relatively late in Egyptian history, the
bride herself seems to have little choice in the marriage. In
fact, during this time frame most marriage contracts are
actually between the girl's father and future husband. The
girl's father and even her mother had much more say in the
matter then the bride. After the 26th dynasty, the bride
appears to have had more say in her future husband, and we find
phrases in marriage contracts that indicate a more defined
Among common people, polygamy may
very well have existed as it obviously did in the royal class,
but if so it was rare. We known from excavations such as
Deir El Medina that the housing of common people conformed more
to monogamy rather then polygamy.
Yet from the 13th Dynasty
(1795-1650 BC) on polygamy was common among kings and some of
the ruling elite. While one principal wife (hemet nesw weret)
was chosen, others were probably taken by the king in order to
assure a royal heir, or cement relationships with foreign
countries or even powerful regional leaders. Kings might
have as many as several hundred wives, and in some periods other
high officials took more then one wife.
Also, the tradition of
brother/sister or father/daughter marriages was mostly confined
to the royalty of Egypt, at least until the Greek period.
In tales from Egyptian mythology, gods marriage between brothers
and sisters and fathers and daughters were common from the
earliest periods, and so Egyptian kings may have felt that it
was a royal prerogative to do likewise. However, there are
also theories that brother/sister marriages may also have
strengthened the king's claim to rule. It was not uncommon among
common people to marry relatives. Marriage between
cousins, or uncles and nieces were fairly common in Egypt prior
to the Greek period. Interestingly, after the Greek
arrival, one study found that 24 percent of marriages among
common people were brother/sister relationships.
Marriages were most often between
people of the same social class, but their seems to have been
little regard given to race or even nationality. It was
not unusual for a northern Egyptian to marry a Nubian, or
someone even from another country.
Marriage contracts do not generally tell the age
of the parties, but we know from other documents that marriage
almost always occurred after sexual adulthood. The average
age for girls to enter puberty was 12 to 13, and around 14 for
boys. Indeed boys, who had to achieve some work abilities
in order to support a wife and future children, were usually 15
or over before contemplating marriage. However, from the
Roman period we find documentation of brides being as young as
8, though most scholars believe that is an exception and that a
more common age for brides was 12 or older. In royal marriages,
particularly between brothers and sisters, the parties seemed to
be often much younger. We know, for example, that
Tutankhamun probably married his sister when he was about nine
It was not all together uncommon for older men
who had usually lost their wife to either death or divorce to
marry very young "women". Qenherkhepeshef, a
scribe from Deir El Medina for example married a 12 year old
girl when he was 54.
Particularly during the early periods of ancient
Egypt, the future husband made a payment to the bride's father,
usually amounting to about the cost of a slave. Later,
this practice was abandoned and later the practice was reversed
where often the father of the bride had to compensate the future
husband for her upkeep. However, if divorce occurred, the
husband was obligated to continue some support to his ex-wife,
usually amounting to about one third of his earnings.
All of this said, there are many indications
that husbands and wives in ancient Egypt were often happy and in
love. There are many touching portraits and statues of
families including spouses and their children that reveal
marital delight and warmth within the family.
The Rights and Duties of the Lady of the
Ceremonies and Legalities
In a theocratic society such as ancient Egypt, where all land
literaly belonged to the King, and with a hierarchical structure
from the top down, the family was still a societal institution
to be counted with.
No matter where on the social ladder you lived, getting
married was important business in ancient Egypt. Why? Apart from
the obvious ones, the simplest reason was that having children
meant chances for survival increased. Death rate for mother and
child was high and Despite this there were no marriage or
bethrotal ceremonies as we know them today, but the decision to
form a pair was most likely celebrated with all due festivites
from both sides of the parties involved and encompassed as much
colorfulness as the social level and economy would admit.
Unfortunately not much information about the ins and outs of
these plesantries has come down to our day, but some papyrii
give us a glimpse of the legalities surrounding the affair.
From the 7th century and through the Late Period, a marriage
contract about property and economics was often drawn up among
the elite between a woman´s father and the husband. It stated
the year of the ruling king, names of the husband and wife,
names of their parents, the husband´s occupation or origin.
Then the name of the scribe who drew up the contract and the
names of the witnesses. Then came the details of the settlement.
Royal marriages were most likely celebrated with a great deal
of pompous attention and ceremony. Kings often married several
women, foreign princesses and the like, for political reasons.
It was also a reason to give lavish banquets and offerings to
the gods, and also exchange of gifts to the bride´s father, who
might be an important possible foreign ally in coming days.
Among commoners, there was sometimes a gift to the bride
mentioned in these marriage contracts, called 'shep-en-sehemet'.
It is suggested that this gift was originally a payment to the
bride´s father, as a compensation for taking his daughter away.
They were often drawn up after several years of 'marriage' when
the success and validity of the marriage had been proven by one
or preferrably several children.
Confusing Wifely Titles
The word for wife was 'hemet' which is known from the Old
Kingdom. In the middle of the 18th Dynasty, it was often
substituted by 'senet', meaning sister or other female
collateral. 'Hemet' was still used in hieratic, meaning wife,
whereas 'senet' never seemed to have had that meaning. From the
Middle Kingdom there is the word 'hebsut'. Sometimes women are
referred to as both 'hemet' and hebsut'. There is also the word
'ankhet en niut' which seems to denote a married woman, along
with 'nebet per'. These titles differ according to where they
appeared; 'Hebsut' were seldom used in monumental contexts but
could appear as 'hemet' in tombs, on stelae or statues. Likewize
with ankhet-en-niut (citizenness) from New Kingdom, who appeared
in hieratic material, and 'nebet per' (mistress of the house)
who were frequent on monumental contexts.
If children were produced, the marriage was considered as
successful. Accordingly the foremost duty of a married woman was
to have as many children as possible (the death rate was high)
and to take care of them and the home.
There are pregnancy tests described in several medical
papyrii. Taking the pulse was one test, examine the condtion and
the color of the skin of the woman was another, and there was
one in which the effect of urine on pots of barley and emmer
weat, would tell wether the child would be a boy or a girl. The
woman was to urinate on these daily, and if the barley sprouted
ifrst, she would have a girl. If the emmer wheat sprouted first,
thei child would be male. And if they did not sprout at all,
then she was not pregnant.
Women gave birth squatting on two large bricks, so called
Birth bricks, which were personified as the goddess Meshkhenet.
And from the New Kingdom onwards, there seems to have been built
or erected a small room either on the roof of the regular house,
or a sort of pavillion in the garden, a so called 'birth bower'.
where the woman giving birth were taken, and where she spent the
first weeks with the newborn infant, other women waiting upon
her. This is shown on ostraca from Deir-el-Medina.
After a woman had given birth to a child, she was expected to
go through a period of purification, maybe for a couple of
weeks, before she could join society again. This time she spent
in the aforementioned birth bowers or birth rooms, where often
the walls were decorated with Tawaret and Bes, protectors of
mothers and their newborn child. Childhood was full of dangers
and to somewhat protect the child, it was named immediately
Despite producing children, the ancient Egyptian woman was
not limited to her house. Often due to necessity, a woman
employed herself in different occpations and professions. Let´s
take a look at these next time.
Our knowledge about the
conventions and habits connected to childbirth in Ancient Egypt
is not very clear. We know that the mortality rate was very high
both for women and infants, and we know that many spells and
prayers to special deities were aimed at getting help and
protection in this precarious situation. but what was really
happening there among the women concerned, wether in the royal
chambers or the simple mud huts when a new child was about to
enter life along the Nile? References are vague. Some
information can be found in fragments of stories and myths
together with illustrations of the 'Divine Birth' rituals carved
on the walls of Late Period Birth Houses, so called 'mammisi',
at certain temples. The best rendition of a birth is given us in
the Westcar Papyrus from the Middle Kingdom. Other sources are
found in medical texts, which partly deals with treatments for
women in and after childbirth, as well as tests for pregnancy.
Depictions which deal with the
actual practicalities of giving birth are very rare, to say
non-existent. Of the seven hieroglyps for woman and her
occupations in Gariner´s sign list, five are related to giving
birth and nursing; but texts elaborating the process are
lacking. There are also reliefs in the Mammisi at Ptolemaic
temples showing the birth of a divine child. These depictions
are of course rich in symbolic and ritual content but say
nothing about the practical conventions employed.
The word 'mammisi' is an
artificial Coptic word, meaning 'birth-place' or birth'house. It
was invented by Jean-Paul Champollion in the 19th Century, to
denote this specific structure attached to certain Late Period
temples (Philae, Edfu, Dendera). These mammisi were a kind of
chapel where rituals ascertaining the divine heritage of the
king were carried out. The only persons allowed to be present at
these rituals were the king and certain members of the
priesthood. These chapels helped emphasize the theocratic and
political structure of the stae and were not intended for use by
figure of Bes playing a tambourine
18th Dynasty, around 1300 BC
The protector of women in childbirth
Deities associated with
While Het-Hert (Hathor) from the
earliest times appears as a universal cow goddess, her primary
function was as mother and protector of the hawk-god Heru
(Horus). By time she became a protector and Mother deity for all
women and children, which trait she shared with Aset (Isis)from
the Middle Kingdom onwards. In time these two goddesses merged
into the same deity and both were then accordingly appealed to
in matters of childbirth and the caring of children.
Also Aset originates as the
symbolical mother of the king but when the myth of Osiris gained
importance during the Middle Kingdom, her popularity as a
protective goddess for women and children began to spread. From
having been a deity emerging in the royal funerary cult as the
source of the 'Living Horus' (i.e. the new ruler), her cult
developed and gained popularity among common people, especially
women, first across Egypt, then in the Late Period all across
the Mediterranean and far beyond. In the process her original
fierceness seems to have been watered down until she appears as
a benevolent mother deity for everyone.
The Seven Hathors were seven cow
deities, sometimes considered seven aspects of Het-Hert, whose
task it was to predict the destiny of the newborn child.
Depictions of these can be found in tombs, and in the Book of
Going Forth By Day.
Bes was the name for a
combination of several dwarf-deities protective of women and
children. His grotesque features was carved on household items
and particularly on bedroom furniture. He is often seen holding
the Sa symbol or a knife in his raised hand, prepared to scare
off evil with his uglu looks.
Tawaret, in the figure of a
pregnant hippopotamus, with a tail of a crocodile and arms and
legs of a lion, is another deity connected to the protection of
pregnancy and childbirth. She too carries a knife to ward off
evil. Statuettes and amulets of Tawaret were very popular among
Heqat, or Heqet, the frog
goddess, is also associated with fertility and giving birth.
Amulets and scarabs inscribed with her image were also used by
pregnant women. First mentionings of Heqet in connection with
childbirth occurs in the Middle Kingdom.
Meskhenet is a personification of
the so called birthing bricks upon which women squatted during
childbirth. She helps to protect the delivery, and further
predicts the future of the infant.
Khnum was the creator of humans´
bodies on his potters wheel and breathed the life force into the
child. A detailed description of how he went about creating
humans is found at the Temple at Esna. It describes in detail
how he orders the bloodstream to cover the bones, the skin to
enclose the body and how after that he created the respiratory
system and the food digestion system.
The Westcar Papyrus
In the Westcar Papyrus from The
Middle Kingdom, we find the story of the woman Reddjedet, which
is the most detailed account we have of a childbirth. It is told
how the woman, miraculously giving birth to triplets, fathered
by Re, used a portable birthing-stool, with a hole in it for the
baby to pass through. There were also five deities; Aset (Isis),
Nebt-Het (Nephtys), Heqet, Meskhenet and Khnum, all disguised as
female musicians, arriving to assist her. The papyrus says that
they 'sealed' the room with her (and them) in it and that:
"Aset placed herself before
of her, Nebt-Het behind her, Heqat ‘hastened’ the
The papyrus further reports that
"Be not strong (user) in her
womb, in this your name as a powerful man (user) indeed (word
play on the name Userkaf). The child rushed forth into her two
arms as a child of one cubit (i.e. 52 cm)..."
Then it goes on to say that the
goddesses cut the navel cord, washed the child and laid it on a
pillow of cloth. Meskhenet then told the fortune of the newborn
and Reddjedet purified herself with a purification of 14 days.
More detailed descriptions of the proceedings than that are
There is no known word for
‘midwife’ or gynecologist etc., and no evidence for
physicians being regularly or singularly involved in childbirth
or childcare. However medical spells and remedies exist which
were used to predict fertility and pregnancy or to help in
childbirth. There are also many medical papyri with sections for
gynaecology which include spells and treatments for female
ailments and childgiving. The oldest of them is the Kahun
papyrus, dating from about 1800 BC, and which is probably a copy
of an older text. It´s first two-three pages state 17
prescriptions and instructions of a gynaecological nature, as
well as for assessing pregnancy. The Kahun papyrus can therefore
be called the first textbook on gynaecology.
There is also the Papyrus Ebers,
dating from 1526-1505 BC, which includes a group of remedies
like: ‘For speeding up the childbirth of Aset’, which tells
the deities what disasters will happen if Aset fails in giving
birth when her time has come. Another one is ‘... a
contraction of the uterus’ and ‘To cause a woman to give to
earth’. The remedies are taken by mouth or placed in the
vagina, applied to abdomen or bandaged around it.
Ostraca from Deir-el-Medina show
a ‘birth bower’ resembling an airy tent, decorated with
garlands and festive bowers, which might have been built with
the purpose of a woman giving birth there. However it is
believed this might have had a more symbolical than practical
meaning, or that perhaps this bower was used by the more wealthy
people and town officials. There are also fragments of plaster
showing that this ‘bower’ was included in decorations of
some of the houses in the village. It seems to be built of
columns of papyrii form, decorated with garlands of convulvulus
vines and with the roof made of matting.
There are also ostraca showing a
woman either sitting on a stool or a bed, nursing her newborn.
When seated on a stool she is wearing only a collar and a girdle
around her hips, her hair is bound up on top of her head and
falls down in thick heaps. She is attended by young women
dressed the same way. When seated on a bed, she usually wears a
linen dress and a wig with an ointment cone on top of it. Female
servants often hold mirrors and wash her feet, sometimes
cosmetic jars are shown beside.
In the front room of almost half
of the workmens´ houses at Deir el Medina, an enclosed platform
was found. This platform is believed to have served as a so
called 'birth box'. It was a rectangular mud brick construction,
partially enclosed but with an opening on its long side, with a
couple of steps leading up to it. There were traces of plaster
with painted images of Bes and Tawaret.
The placenta probably held a
special significance. There is early evidence of the royal
placenta depicted on an Old Kingdom royal standard and even
earlier. On the Narmer Palette it is probably the placenta we
see depicted as carried on a pole in procession in front of the
king. In the 5th Dynasty, the reliefs in the Sun temple of King
Niuserre show this standard being carried by a priest of Aset,
the mother the Living King in the form of Heru (Horus). These
indications of a 'cult of the royal placenta' in early times
seem to stay associated with the King all throughout Egyptian
Among common women, the placenta,
as it was thought to be directly linked to the child´s life,
was probably buried either under the threshold of the house or
thrown into the Nile to ensure that the child survived. Other
speculations are that as it was rich in iron, a piece of it
might have been eaten by the mother or even offered the child.
The story of Reddjedet in the
Westcar Papyrus tells that after giving birth Reddjedet paid the
midwife-deities in corn and ‘cleansed herself in a
purification of fourteen days’. It seems that the woman as
well as the child was entitled to some rest and even seclusion
after the delivery, a habit which is practiced still today among
certain peoples. Other female occupants of the household
shouldered her part of the work so that the mother could occupy
herself with the newborn.
The dangers to a newborn child
were many. There could be sudden fevers and diseases of
different kinds and few people could afford to pay a doctor. The
lack of effective medical remedies made life hazardous and even
the treatments themselves often made the situation worse. The
child was named by the mother immediately after birth as having
no name meant that you did not truly exist. It must also have
been important to name the child in case it would not survive,
as the deceased person would have an eternal life as long as its
name was remembered. Non-royal persons had mostly only one name,
but it was quite common to chose the name after a favorite
deity, local or not, or even after a royal person. Long names
were common, and so were also nicknames. Family names did not
exist, instead a person was defined as being the son of a
certain person; i.e. Amenhotep, son of Hapu.
Children were breast fed up to
three years. Breast milk was a highly nutritious additive to
regular food and its contraceptive qualities were most likely
not overlooked. A nursing woman was a sign of successful
womanhood, and these are frequently depicted. There are also
medical papyrii saying that the quality of the milk should be
tested before given to the child. If the milk smelled like dried
manna, it was good, but if it smelled like fish it was bad.
Mother´s milk, especially from a woman who had given birth to a
boy, was considered having high medical value, both for feeding
children, for treating burns and for fertility.
Mothers who for some reason were
unable to breast-feed and those of noble origin, resorted to a
wet-nurse. Due to the high death-rate for birth-giving women as
well as for newborn infants, wetnurses were often needed, they
were well-paid and enjoyed a good status. Parents could draw up
legal papers for a wet-nurse who had to bind herself to nurse a
child for a certain number of years. During this period she
could not herself risk a pregnancy as it would jeopardize her
lactation. In the higher social layers, and especially in the
royal family, the position as wet-nurse was a coveted one, being
one of the most influential that a non-royal woman could ever
hope for. These royal wet-nurses were often married to high
court officials. In the Roman days the importance of royal
wet-nurses diminished however.
As the family was the founding
institution of ancient Egyptian society, children were desired
and important. To have many children meant being blessed by the
gods and women doubtlessly spent a major part of their time
rearing and caring for children. Adoption was a common way of
dealing with childlessness, for no doubt old age would look less
sinister if there were children to support and help you.
Activities such as giving birth and caring for young children
hasn´t left much hard archaeological evidence. But carved
wooden animals or clay dolls tell us of loving parents and
playing children. Spells and remedies speak of concern and worry
about sickness and bad luck, amulets and images of deities bear
witnesses of where the ancients turned for support and
protection. All this taken together lets us glimpse the humans
which once lived and had the same experience as we, with all the
joy and worry that goes with it.
Marriage and the
The Egyptians appear to have reversed the ordinary
practices of mankind. Women attend markets and are
employed in trade, while men stay at home and do the
weaving! Men in Egypt carry loads on their head, women
on their shoulder. Women pass water standing up, men
sitting down. To ease themselves, they go indoors, but
eat outside on the streets, on the theory that what is
unseemly, but necessary, should be done in private, and
what is not unseemly should be done openly.
(Herodotus II: 33-37)
The nuclear family was the core of Egyptian society and many of the
gods were even arranged into such groupings. There was
tremendous pride in one's family, and lineage was traced
through both the mother's and father's lines. Respect for
one's parents was a cornerstone of morality, and the most
fundamental duty of the eldest son (or occasionally
daughter) was to care for his parents in their last days and
to ensure that they received a proper burial.
Countless genealogical lists indicate how important
family ties were, yet Egyptian kinship terms lacked specific
words to identify blood relatives beyond the nuclear family.
For example, the word used to designate "mother" was also
used for "grandmother," and the word for "father" was the
same as "grandfather"; likewise, the terms for "son,"
"grandson," and "nephew" (or "daughter," "granddaughter,"
and "niece") were identical. "Uncle" and "brother" (or
"sister" and "aunt") were also designated by the same word.
To make matters even more confusing for modern scholars, the
term "sister" was often used for "wife," perhaps an
indication of the strength of the bond between spouses.
Once a young man was well into adolescence, it was
appropriate for him to seek a partner and begin his own
family. Females were probably thought to be ready for
marriage after their first menses. The marrying age of males
was probably a little older, perhaps 16 to 20 years of age,
because they had to become established and be able to
support a family.
Virginity was not a necessity for marriage; indeed,
premarital sex, or any sex between unmarried people, was
socially acceptable. Once married, however, couples were
expected to be sexually faithful to each other. Egyptians
(except the king) were, in theory, monogamous, and many
records indicate that couples expressed true affection for
each other. They were highly sensual people, and a major
theme of their religion was fertility and procreation. This
sensuality is reflected by two New Kingdom love poems: "Your
hand is in my hand, my body trembles with joy, my heart is
exalted because we walk together," and "She is more
beautiful than any other girl, she is like a star rising . .
. with beautiful eyes for looking and sweet lips for
kissing" (after Lichtheim 1976: 182).
Marriage was purely a social arrangement that regulated
property. Neither religious nor state doctrines entered into
the marriage and, unlike other documents that related to
economic matters (such as the so-called "marriage
contracts"), marriages themselves were not registered.
Apparently once a couple started living together, they were
acknowledged to be married. As related in the story of
Setne, "I was taken as a wife to the house of Naneferkaptah
[that night, and pharaoh] sent me a present of silver and
gold . . . He [her husband] slept with me that night and
found me pleasing. He slept with me again and again and we
loved each other" (Lichtheim 1980: 128).
The ancient Egyptian terms for marriage (meni, "to
moor [a boat]," and grg pr, "to found a house")
convey the sense that the arrangement was about property.
Texts indicate that the groom often gave the bride's family
a gift, and he also gave his wife presents. Legal texts
indicate that each spouse maintained control of the property
that they brought to the marriage, while other property
acquired during the union was jointly held. Ideally the new
couple lived in their own house, but if that was impossible
they would live with one of their parents. Considering the
lack of effective contraceptives and the Egyptian's
traditional desire to have a large family, most women
probably became pregnant shortly after marriage.
the legal weight of marriage among the ancient
Egyptians with marriage practice in other cultures.
How similar is this ancient concept and construct to
contemporary Western notions of marriage?
Although the institution of marriage was taken seriously,
divorce was not uncommon. Either partner could institute
divorce for fault (adultery, inability to conceive, or
abuse) or no fault (incompatibility). Divorce was, no doubt,
a matter of disappointment but certainly not one of
disgrace, and it was very common for divorced people to
Although in theory divorce was an easy matter, in reality
it was probably an undertaking complicated enough to
motivate couples to stay together, especially when property
was involved. When a woman chose to divorce--if the divorce
was uncontested--she could leave with what she had brought
into the marriage plus a share (about one third to two
thirds) of the marital joint property. One text (Ostracon
Petrie 18), however, recounts the divorce of a woman who
abandoned her sick husband, and in the resulting judgment
she was forced to renounce all their joint property. If the
husband left the marriage he was liable to a fine or payment
of support (analogous to alimony), and in many cases he
forfeited his share of the joint property.
Egyptian women had greater freedom of choice and more
equality under social and civil law than their
contemporaries in Mesopotamia or even the women of the later
Greek and Roman civilizations. Her right to initiate divorce
was one of the ways in which her full legal rights were
manifested. Additionally, women could serve on juries,
testify in trials, inherit real estate, and disinherit
ungrateful children. It is interesting, however, that in
contrast to modern Western societies, gender played an
increasingly important role in determining female
occupations in the upper classes than in the peasant and
working classes. Women of the peasant class worked side by
side with men in the fields; in higher levels of society,
gender roles were more entrenched, and women were more
likely to remain at home while their husbands plied their
crafts or worked at civil jobs.
of the ancient Egyptian dynasties.
Through most of the Pharaonic Period, men and women
inherited equally, and from each parent separately. The
eldest son often, but not always, inherited his father's job
and position (whether in workshop or temple), but to him
also fell the onerous and costly responsibility of his
parents' proper burial. Real estate generally was not
divided among heirs but was held jointly by the family
members. If a family member wished to leave property to a
person other than the expected heirs, a document called an
imeyt-per ("that which is in the house") would ensure
the wishes of the deceased.
The relationship between coitus and pregnancy was clearly
recognized by the ancient Egyptians. For example, the Late
Period story of Setna relates, "She lay down beside her
husband. She received [the fluid of] conception from him";
and a hymn to Khonsu relates, "the male member to beget; the
female womb to conceive and increase generations in Egypt."
Although the Egyptians understood the general functions of
parts of the reproductive system, the relationships between
parts was sometimes unclear. For example, they knew that the
testicles were involved in procreation, but they thought the
origin of semen was in the bones and that it simply passed
through the testicles. Female internal anatomy was
understood even less well. Anatomical naivety can be gleaned
from the fact that, although the function of the womb was
understood, it was erroneously thought to be directly
connected to the alimentary canal. Thus, placing a clove of
garlic in the vagina was supposed to test for fertility: if
garlic could be detected on the breath of a woman then she
was fertile; if not, then she was infertile.
households of all classes, children of both sexes were
valued and wanted (there is no indication that female
infanticide was practiced). In addition to fertility tests,
tests for pregnancy and the determination of the gender of
the child were devised. One test involved watering barley
and emmer wheat with the urine of a hopeful mother-to-be. If
the barley sprouted, the woman was pregnant with a male
child; if the emmer wheat germinated, she was pregnant with
a female child. If the urine had no effect, the woman was
not pregnant. Though there actually may be some scientific
basis for this test--a pregnant woman produces a variety of
hormones, some of which can induce early flowering in
particular plants--there is no known relationship between
these plants and the determination of gender.
symbols of fertility were of importance to the
ancient Egyptians, as considered in this slideshow.
The birth of a child was a time of great joy as well as
one of serious concern given the high rate of infant
mortality and the stress of childbirth on the mother.
Childbirth was viewed as a natural phenomenon and not an
illness, so assistance in childbirth was usually carried out
by a midwife.
Data collected from modern non-industrial societies
suggest that infant mortality in ancient Egypt was
undoubtedly high. One of the best ways to maintain a healthy
infant under the less-than-sanitary conditions that
prevailed in ancient times was by breast-feeding. In
addition to the transfer of antibodies through mother's
milk, breast-feeding also offered protection from food-born
diseases. Gastrointestinal disorders are common under poor
sanitary conditions, and because infant immunity is reduced
during weaning, children's susceptibility to disease
increases at this time. Indirect evidence for this occurring
in ancient Egypt comes from a number of cemeteries where the
childhood death rate peaks at about age four, which
correlates with an Egyptian child's introduction to solid
foods. Prolonged lactation also offered a number of heath
advantages to the mother. Primarily, it reduces the chance
of conceiving another child too soon by hormonally
suppressing ovulation, which allows the mother more time
between pregnancies. The three-year period for suckling a
child recommended in the "Instructions of Any" (New Kingdom)
therefore struck an unconscious but evolutionarily important
balance between the needs of procreation, the health of the
mother, and the survival of the newborn child.
Egyptian children who successfully completed their fifth
year could generally look forward to a full life, which in
peasant society was about thirty-three years for men and
twenty-nine years for women, based on skeletal evidence.
Textual records indicate that for upper-class males, who
were generally better fed and performed less strenuous labor
than the lower classes, life expectancy could reach well
into the sixties and seventies and sometimes even the
eighties and nineties. Upper-class women also looked forward
to a longer life than women from the lower classes, but the
arduous task of bearing many children resulted in a lower
life expectancy compared to their male counterparts.
Dolls and toys indicate that children were allowed ample
time to play, but once they matured past infancy (i.e., were
weaned) they began training for adulthood. Young girls
assisted their mothers with household tasks or worked with
them in some capacity in the fields. Other female members of
the mother's household would aid in the care of younger
siblings. Similarly, young boys followed their fathers into
their occupation, first carrying out simple chores, then
later working and carrying out more important tasks. Parents
also familiarized their children with ideas about the world,
their religious outlook, ethical principles, and correct
The end of childhood appears to have been marked by the
onset of menses for girls and the ceremony of circumcision
for boys. That circumcision was a ritual transition from
boyhood to manhood is indicated by references such as "When
I was a boy, before my foreskin was removed from me." As far
as is known, in the Pharaonic Period only males were
circumcised, but exactly how prevalent circumcision was
through society is unclear. Some uncircumcised mummies,
including King Ahmose and perhaps King Amunhotep I, indicate
that the practice may have not been universal.
Young men did not usually choose their own careers.
Herodotus and Diodorus refer explicitly to a hereditary
calling in ancient Egypt. This was not a system of rigid
inheritance but an endeavor to pass on a father's function
to his children. A son was commonly referred to as "the
staff of his father's old age," designated to assist the
elder in the performance of his duties and finally to
succeed him. The need for support in old age and to ensure
inheritance made adoption quite common for childless
couples; one New Kingdom ostracon relates, "As for him who
has no children, he adopts an orphan instead [to] bring him
up." There are examples of a man who "adopted" his brother
and of a woman named Nau-nakht, who had other children, who
adopted and reared the freed children of her female servant
because of the kindness that they showed to her.
Institute, University of Chicago, OIM 10507
Seti I and his
son, the future Ramesses the Great.
New Kingdom, Dynasty 19, Reign of Seti I, ca. 1291-1279 B.C.
Purchased in Cairo, 1919.
Mythically, kingship was passed from Osiris (the deceased
king) to the "Living Horus" (his successor); in actuality,
the eldest son of the king normally inherited the office
from his father. This stela shows King Seti I (second from
left) and his son, later Ramesses II ("The Great"), who
stands behind him. Ramesses wears his hair in a side
ponytail, a style characteristic of a youth or of a special
type of priest, and he carries a slender fan that was a sign
This relief was probably commissioned by the two priests
shown at the right to commemorate their function in the
religious cult of the royal family. Showing oneself in the
presence of the king was a great honor.
Institute, University of Chicago, OIM 10589
Reign of Philip Arrhidaeus, ca. 323 B.C. Athribis.
Purchased in Egypt, 1919.
This statue base, which once supported a magical healing
statue, was dedicated by a man named Djedhor. He was Chief
Guardian of the Sacred Falcon who, according to the
hieroglyphic texts on this block, cared for flocks of sacred
birds. On one side of the base he appears with his
daughters, on the other with his sons, an indication that he
revered his daughters as much as his sons which in turn
reflects the high status of women in ancient Egypt.
Although peasant children probably never entered any
formal schooling, male children of scribes and the higher
classes entered school at an early age. (Young girls were
not formally schooled, but because some women knew how to
read and write they must have had access to a learned family
member or a private tutor.) Though we have no information
about the location or organization of schools prior to the
Middle Kingdom, we can tell that after that time they were
attached to some administrative offices, temples
(specifically the Ramesseum and the Temple of Mut), and the
palace. In addition to "public" schooling, groups of nobles
also hired private tutors to teach their children. Because
education had not yet established itself as a separate
discipline, teachers were drawn from the ranks of
experienced or pedagogically gifted scribes who, as part of
their duties and to ensure the supply of future scribes,
taught either in the classroom or took apprentices in their
Education consisted mainly of endless rote copying and
recitation of texts, in order to perfect spelling and
orthography. Gesso-covered boards with students' imperfect
copies and their master's corrections attest to this type of
training. Mathematics was also an important part of the
young male's training. In addition, schooling included the
memorization of proverbs and myths, by which pupils were
educated in social propriety and religious doctrine. Not
surprisingly, many of these texts stress how noble (and
advantageous) the profession of scribe was: "Be a scribe for
he is in control of everything; he who works in writing is
not taxed, nor does he have to pay any dues."
Length of schooling differed widely. The high priest
Bekenkhonsu recalls that he started school at five and
attended four years followed by eleven years' apprenticeship
in the stables of King Seti I. At about twenty he was
appointed to a low level of the priesthood (wab). In
another documented case, one scribe in training was thirty
years of age, but this must have been an unusual case.
Ancient Egyptians were
extremely interested in fashion and its changes. This seems
evident from trends seen in tomb scenes where the costumes
and styles of the upper classes were soon copied by the
lower classes. The most common fabric for clothing (both
women's and men's) was linen. Because linen is very hard to
dye, most clothes were off-white, so color was added with
heavy beaded collars and other jewelry.
and his wife, Hemetradjet.
The standard apparel of women from the Old Kingdom into
the New Kingdom was the sheath dress, which could be worn
strapless or with two broad shoulder straps. Most examples
of these dresses reach the ankles. Most sources depict women
wearing impossibly tight and impractical dresses, suggesting
that the representations are idealized to emphasize the
sensuality of the female body.
The most ancient
garment worn by men was a kilt that was made of a
rectangular piece of linen cloth wrapped rather loosely
around the hips, leaving the knees uncovered. As a rule, it
was wrapped around the body from right to left so that the
edge of the skirt would be in the front. The upper edge was
tucked behind the tie, or girdle, that held the kilt
together. This garment was the standard male attire for all
classes from peasants to royalty, though the quality of the
linen and the exact style varied according to one's
purchasing power. Some of the fancier, more expensive kilts
had bias-cut edges, pleated decorative panels, or fringed
edges, and were made of finer, softer linen. By late Dynasty
4 and early Dynasty 5, it became fashionable to wear the
kilt longer and wider or to wear it with an inverted box
pleat that appeared as an erect triangular front piece.
Though styles changed over time, the simple kilt remained
the standard garb for scribes, servants, and peasants.
Brewer and E. Teeter
the changing styles of dress for women and men.
In the winter, the middle and
upper classes wore a heavy cloak extending from neck to
ankle, which could be wrapped around and folded or clasped
in front. Depictions of such cloaks extend from Archaic to
Ptolemaic times. Although sandals of rush and reeds are
known, regardless of the occasion or social class, Egyptians
apparently often went barefoot.
Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, OIM 7189
Ptolemaic-Roman, 2nd century B.C.-2nd century A.D.
Fayum, Grave H 17.
Gift of the Egypt Exploration Fund, 1901-2.
During the New Kingdom, when Egypt extended its political
influence east into Asia, Egyptian fashion changed
radically. With the influx of trade and ideas from the east,
fashions became more varied, changed more quickly, and often
took on an eastern flavor. Men and women of the upper
classes, for example, wore layers of fine, nearly
transparent kilts and long- or short sleeved shirts that
tied at the neck, or draped themselves in billowing robes of
fine linen that extended from neck to ankle and were drawn
in at the waist by a sash. The better examples of these
garments were heavily pleated, and some were ornamented with
colored ball fringe.
For most of the
Pharaonic Period, women wore their hair (or wigs) long and
straight; after Dynasty 18 hairstyles became more elaborate.
During all periods men wore their hair short, but they also
wore wigs, the style befitting the occasion. These wigs were
made of human hair or plant fiber. Both genders wore copious
amounts of perfumes and cosmetics made of ground minerals
and earth pigments. Fashion statements were made with
accessories such as jewelry and ribbons. Men also carried
staffs that marked status and social class.
styles and fashions of the ancient Egyptians.
There is much
evidence for the leisure activities of the ancient
Egyptians. Men engaged in physical sports, such as hunting,
fishing, archery, wrestling, boxing, and stick fencing.
Long-distance races were organized to demonstrate physical
prowess, and both men and women enjoyed swimming. Board
games were popular, and games boards were constructed of a
number of materials: wood, stone, clay, or simple drawings
scratched on the ground. Moves on board games were
determined by throw sticks, astragali (animal anklebones),
or after the late New Kingdom, cubic dice that were usually
marked in the same pattern used today. One of the most
common games was senet, which was played on a board
of thirty squares divided into three rows of ten squares.
Like so many other aspects of Egyptian culture, senet
had a religious significance, and the game was likened to
passing through the underworld.
Institute, University of Chicago, OIM 16950
Egyptian alabaster, pigment.
Old Kingdom, Dynasties 3-6, ca. 2750-2250 B.C.
Purchased in Egypt, 1934.
A game board in the form of a coiled snake was among the
earliest Egyptian games. Using a set of lion-shaped and
round markers, play started at the snake's tail, which was
in the form of a bird's head. The two or four opponents
raced each other to the goal located in the snake's head.
Mehen was the name of the serpent deity whose coils
protected the sun god.
Institute, University of Chicago, OIM 371
20 square game.
Acacia wood, copper.
New Kingdom, Dynasties 18-19, ca. 1570-1069 B.C. Akhmim?
Purchased in Egypt, 1894-5.
The game of 20 squares was played by two opponents, each of
whom had 5 playing pieces. Play began with the pieces placed
on the undecorated areas on each side of the board. The
players moved down the side squares and up the middle of the
board. Plays were determined with throw sticks, dice, or
knucklebones. Religious texts indicate that playing the game
was likened to passing through the underworld in the quest
for eternal rebirth.
The "twenty square
game," which originated in Sumer and was known through the
entire ancient Near East and Cyprus, was played on a
rectangular board divided into three rows of four, twelve,
and four squares, respectively. Both senet and twenty
squares were played by two opponents. Another ancient game
was mehen, played by several players on a round board
that looked like a coiled snake. The playing pieces, tiny
lions and small balls, were moved from the tail of the snake
to the goal on its head. Although this game was played in
Egypt only during the Old Kingdom, it continued to be played
in Cyprus for another 1,000 years.
Tomb paintings indicate that
banquets were a popular form of relaxation, at least for the
upper class. At such events food, alcoholic beverages,
music, and dancing were common forms of entertainment. The
organization of the tomb scenes may be misleading, it seems
that proprieties of the times kept male and female guests
seated in separate areas although men and women performed
Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, OIM 9819,
New Kingdom and later, ca. 1300-300 B.C.
The foundation of all daily or banquet meals, regardless
of social class, was the same: bread, beer, and vegetables.
The latter included leeks, onions, garlic, a number of
pulses (beans, peas, lentils, etc.), and several varieties
of melons. Wealthier Egyptians had more opportunities to
enjoy red meat, fowl, honey-sweetened cakes and other
delicacies. Lower-class Egyptians relied on fish and fowl
for most of their meat proteins. The ready availability of
wild fish and fowl made them inexpensive, while beef and, to
a varying extent, other red meats were expensive and
considered by many to be a luxury.
The national drink in ancient Egypt was beer, and all
ancient Egyptians--rich and poor, male and female--drank
great quantities of it. Wages were paid in grain, which was
used to make two staples of the Egyptian diet: bread and
beer. Beer was made from barley dough, so bread making and
beer making are often shown together. Barley dough destined
for beer making was partially baked and then crumbled into a
large vat, where it was mixed with water and sometimes
sweetened with date juice. This mixture was left to ferment,
which it did quickly; the liquid was then strained into a
pot that was sealed with a clay stopper. Ancient Egyptian
beer had to be drunk soon after it was made because it went
flat very quickly. Egyptians made a variety of beers of
different strengths. Strength was calculated according to
how many standard measures of the liquid was made from one
hekat (4.54 liters) of barley; thus, beer of strength
two was stronger than beer of strength ten.
In addition to beer, wine was
also widely drunk. Jar labels with notations that the wine
was from the "Vineyard of King Djet" indicate that wine
production was well established as early as Dynasty 1. By
Dynasty 5 and 6, grapevines and wine production were common
motifs in decorated tombs, and records imply that some
vineyards produced considerable amounts of wine. One
vineyard, for example, is said to have delivered 1,200 jars
of good wine and fifty jars of medium-quality wine in one
Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
Nykauinpu figures: woman grinding grain (left)
and winnower (right).
Wines in ancient Egypt, like wines today, were recognized
by their vintage, often identified by the name of the
village, town, district, or general geographic region where
it was produced. At least fourteen different wine-producing
areas existed in the Delta alone; although the extent of
these regions cannot be defined, their general location can
be identified--Upper Egyptian vintages were not as numerous
as those of the Delta, but were said to be of excellent
quality (e.g., Theban wines were known for their lightness
and wholesomeness). Wines were also known to have been
produced in the oases.
Wine jar labels normally specified the quality of wine,
such as "good wine," "sweet wine," "very very good wine," or
the variety, such as pomegranate wine. It is difficult to
speculate about the taste of Egyptian wine compared to
modern standards. Nevertheless, because of the climate, low
acid (sweet) grapes probably predominated, which would have
resulted in a sweet rather than dry wine. Alcohol content
would have varied considerably from area to area and from
vintage to vintage, but generally Egyptian wine would have
had a lower alcohol content than modern table wines.
It has been suggested that the
effects of drinking wine were sometimes enhanced by
additives. For example, tomb paintings often depict wine
jars wrapped or draped in lotus flowers, suggesting that the
Egyptians may have been aware of the narcotic qualities of
blue lotus petals when mixed with wine. There is much
evidence for the excess consumption of both beer and wine,
and King Menkaure (Dynasty 4) and King Amasis (Dynasty 26)
figure in tales about drunkenness. Some ancient scenes are
quite graphic in their depiction of over-indulgence. For
instance, in the tomb of Paheri an elegant lady is shown
presenting her empty cup to a servant and saying "give me
eighteen measures of wine, behold I should love [to drink]
J. Brewer and Emily Teeter
woman who over-indulged (Dynasty 19).
Along with eating and drinking went dance and song.
Dancing seems to have been a spectator sport in which
professionals performed for the guests. As a rule, men
danced with men and women with women. Singers, whether
soloists or entire choruses accompanied by musical
instruments, entertained guests in private homes and in the
Ancient Egyptians played a
variety of musical instruments. Of the wind instruments, one
of the oldest was a flute made of reed or wood, and
illustrated on Predynastic pieces of broken pottery (i.e.,
sherds) as well as on a slate palette from Hierakonpolis. By
the Old Kingdom, single and double flutes were played. They
could be side-blown (much like a modern flute), or end-blown
(like a recorder). The flute always remained popular among
Egyptians and it has survived to this day as the Arabic nay
and uffafa. Also popular during the Old Kingdom were large
floor harps and various percussion instruments ranging from
bone or ivory clappers to hand-rattles (sistra) and
rectangular or round frame drums. Drums of all sizes were
played using fingers and hands; sticks or batons were
apparently not used.
Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
Musicians entertain at a banquet (Dynasty 18).
During the New
Kingdom, many new instruments were added to the instrumental
ensemble, including small shoulder-held harps, trumpets,
lutes, oboes, and seven-stringed lyres. Trumpets were
generally restricted to the military. Egyptian lutes had a
long slender neck and an elongated oval resonating chamber
made of wood or tortoise shell (the sound emitted from these
instruments would have been something approximating a cross
between a mandolin and the American banjo). The cylindrical
drum, about 1 meter high with a leather skin laced on at
each end, was also popular during the New Kingdom; it was
used both by the military and civilian population. The long
oboe, played with a double reed, was introduced to Egypt
from Asia Minor, and during the Graeco-Roman period, a
number of instruments of Greek origin were adopted by the
Egyptians, including pan-pipes and a water organ with a
Although the sound quality of the ancient instruments can
in some cases be recreated, no evidence exists that the
Egyptians ever developed a system of musical notation; thus
the ancient melodies, rhythms, and keys remain unknown. Some
scholars believe, however, that vestiges of the ancient
music may be found in the music of the peoples now living in
Western Desert oases, and these songs are being scrutinized
for their possible origins.
In contrast to the banquets of the rich and the organized
meetings of the lower classes, a different type of
entertainment was provided by inns and beer houses where
drinking often led to singing, dancing, and gaming, and men
and women were free to interact with each other. Taverns
stayed open late into the night, and patrons drank beer in
such quantities that intoxication was not uncommon. In one
ancient text a teacher at a school of scribes chastens a
student for his night activities: "I have heard that you
abandoned writing and that you whirl around in pleasures,
that you go from street to street and it reeks of beer. Beer
makes him cease being a man. It causes your soul to wander .
. . Now you stumble and fall upon your belly, being anointed
with dirt" (Caminos 1954: 182).
The streets of larger towns no doubt had a number of
"beer halls," and the same text as just quoted refers to the
"harlots" who could be found there. Proverbs warning young
men to avoid fraternization with "a woman who has no house"
indicate that some form of prostitution existed in ancient
Egyptian society. For instance, the "Instructions of
Ankhsheshenqy" admonish, "He who makes love to a woman of
the street will have his purse cut open on its side" (Lichtheim
1980: 176). During the Graeco-Roman period, brothels were
known to exist near town harbors and could be identified by
an erect phallus over the door, and tax records refer to
houses that were leased for the purpose of prostitution.
Prostitution was not, however, associated with temples or
religious cults in Egypt.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Douglas J. Brewer
Douglas J. Brewer is professor of
anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana, and
director of the Spurlock Museum. He has written four books
and numerous articles on Egypt, and has spent eighteen years
involved in field projects in Egypt, including research on
the natural history of the Eastern Desert, the Palaeolithic
/ Neolithic transition in the Fayum, and excavations
concerned with the Predynastic and Dynastic culture of the
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Emily Teeter is research associate and curator
of ancient Egyptian and Nubian antiquities at the Oriental
Institute Museum, University of Chicago. She is the author
of a wide variety of books and scholarly articles about
Egyptian religion and history, and has participated in
expeditions in Giza, Luxor, and Alexandria.
COPYRIGHT This seminar is
extracted from Chapter 7 of
Egypt and the Egyptians, Cambridge University Press,
2001. Copyright Douglas J. Brewer and Emily Teeter 1999.
A Child Mummy facial reconstruction from the
Children are not infrequently depicted, but
never given a voice in ancient Egypt. What we know about them
and their lives derives from descriptions and recollections of
grown-ups and the objects they equipped the children's tombs
with for after-life.
Seneb, his wife and children
Source: Jon Bodsworth
Similar to our own views on the growth of the personality the
ancient Egyptians recognized different stages of development:
infant and toddler, child (which included the first years of
teen-age) and youth (late teen-age). The New Kingdom official
Bekenkhonsu inscribed his curriculum vitae on the back of
a squatting statue of himself:
I passed four years in extreme childhood.
In contrast to our modern customs, ancient Egyptian
children became involved in the world of their parents early on
and were regarded to some extent - and at times also portrayed -
as diminutive adults fulfilling social and economic tasks which
became ever more important and demanding as they grew older. The
economic role of helpmate is reflected in one of the words used
for child, Xrd, which occasionally also refers to
servants, and in stelae where children and servants are depicted
together (cf. the stela of Mentuhotep).
It was the duty of the parents to educate
their children, but little is known about how girls were
treated. Most literary sources of this kind are instructions of
fathers for their sons. Boys were often considered to be wayward
and in need of a firm hand to guide them, much in the spirit of
the biblical "He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but
he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes." (Proverbs
13:24) we have come to despise .
Family outing in the marshes
Nakht, his wife, two daughters and a son
Source: L.Casson Ancient Egypt, p.115
Prince Djehutmose Son of King Amenhotep III
and brother of Akhnaton
But children were also
cherished for themselves and for the role they played in
perpetuating their parents. The Serpent in The Shipwrecked
Sailor promised the castaway the fulfilment of three of his
foremost hopes - to live in his homeland, to be surrounded by
his offspring and to receive an appropriate burial:
Behold you shall come to your country in two months, you
shall press to your bosom your children, and you shall rest in
The love of siblings and parents is, even if
somewhat stereotypically, expressed in many mortuary
I was one beloved of his father, favored of his mother,
whom his brothers and sisters loved.
And the scribe Ani sums up a mother's care
for her baby and exhorted the son to honour his mother as she
Offering of Uha
A heavy burden you were to her. After nine months of
pregnancy you were born and she continued carrying you on her
neck. Three years your mouth was on her breasts. She felt no
nausea at your excrements.
The instructions of Ani
P. Montet Daily Life in Egypt, chapter 3, §4
The accident of birth was (and still is
today) for the vast majority of the population a sure
prognosticator for some aspects of the future life of a person.
The hereditary prince, count, king's confidant, whom his
god loves, governor of the eastern highlands, Nehri's son,
Khnumhotep, triumphant; born of the count's daughter, the
matron, Beket, triumphant.
Sons, and to a lesser extent daughters,
inherited their parents possessions, usufructs, social station,
profession and offices. Some of these inheritances were subject
to official approval, some, like the ownership of land, were
passed on apparently without state interference apart from the
ownership having to be registered, even if - theoretically at
least - the land itself belonged to the crown. As is only to be
expected, the children of the rich were less likely than the
paupers to suffer hardships like malnutrition, though to what
degree this affected their development or life expectancy in
normal times is unknown.
of Khnumhotep II
There was little contact between children of
different social classes or communities. Most of them, above all
the villagers, grew up in the midst of their extended families
who could provide them with support in case they were orphaned.
These family ties between the inhabitants of a village brought
about many marriages between close relatives (though brother and
sister marriages seem to have existed mostly in the royal
families) and caused at times phenomena of inbreeding like the
occurrence of a sixth finger.
Beset by evil demons and spirits, the
woman in labour delivered her baby crouching on birth bricks
decorated with images of Hathor , invoked the dwarf-god Bes 
or Taweret 
who had the form of a hippo, an animal known for its fierce
protectiveness of its young. The goddess Meshkenet who created
the ka of the baby while it was still in the uterus,
announced its destiny at birth. She was the personification of
the birth brick on which, according to the Rhind Papyrus, Thoth
inscribed the end of the newly born. The chthonic frog goddess
Heket, was worshipped as
female counterpart at Herur. Together with other goddesses she
helped form the foetus and watched over its delivery.
Isis suckling Horus
Despite this divine intervention
complications at delivery and during confinement remained the
main cause of mortality among young women, probably as many as
one woman per 10 births. Infants too fell victim to accident and
disease. An estimate of a 10% to 30% mortality during the first
year probably reflects reality. The toll might have been even
higher, but according to Strabo the Egyptians, unlike many other
ancient peoples, did not practice infanticide or exposure of
Source: Université de Fribourg
This, however, of all their usages is most to be admired -
that they bring up all children that are born.
The Egyptians seem to have had a registry for
births, and possibly deaths as well. According to the Tale of
Princess Ahura the registrar resided in the House of Life, a
kind of repository of all ancient Egyptian knowledge.
Strabo, Geography Book XVIII
And they gave him the name of Merab, and registered him in
the book of the "House of Life.
The name the newborn received at birth would
be used throughout his life for purposes of official
identification, together with nicknames if he had any, the name
of his father and less frequently the name of his mother, and
his profession, rank or position. This additional information
was important as, despite there being a great many possible
names, parents often followed the fashion of the day calling
their child one of a limited number of names popular at the
Ahura: The Magic Book
Title to property made by the regulator of the corps,
Antef's son Mery, calIed Keba, for his son, Mery's son Antef,
During the first years of life
children are busy acquiring basic skills like walking and
speaking and play no economic role. Their chances of survival
improved when they were weaned late, as in a hot country like
Egypt diseases of the digestive tract are widespread.
Wet nurses suckled babies whose mothers could
not or would not feed their children themselves. They often
had considerable influence over their former charges and if they
had fed the king they enjoyed a high social status. Ay's
position at court was certainly not diminished by his marriage
to Tiy, great nurse, nourisher of the god, adorner of the
king, who had nursed Akhenaten.
Royal with deformed foot,
possibly Siptah, leaning on a crutch
Childhood diseases against which mother's
milk and amulets were ineffective were often fatal or caused
infirmities. Mothers tried to protect their young children from
accidents or animal bites and stings by carrying them much of
them time and keeping them close by. Thus the children became
acquainted with all the household chores since the earliest age
and would have little difficulty to perform them on their own
when they had grown up sufficiently.
It has been proposed that the deformity was caused by polio
Learning for life
Only a small minority of privileged
children, sons of scribes and noblemen destined to fill their
fathers' administrative positions one day, received a formal
school education which included reading, writing and arithmetics.
Sometimes their sisters would be taught too as quite a few women
are known to have been literate.
The intricacies of the Egyptian writing
systems and the complicated notation of numbers cannot but have
caused the young students to be occasionally inattentive or even
wanting to abandon school altogether, which exasperated their
They tell me that thou forsakest writing, and departest and
dost flee; that thou forsakest writing and usest thy legs like
horses of the riding-school(??). Thy heart is fluttered; thou
art like an axj-bird. Thy ear is deaf(?); thou art like an ass
in taking beatings. Thou art like an antelope in fleeing.
to the idle scribe
Wooden writing board covered
Knowledge was acquired by rote. Texts were
learned by heart, copied time and again on any available
material with a flat and smooth surface: slivers of stone, pot
sherds, pieces of wood and, less frequently, papyrus. Many
ancient texts have survived only in this form of pupils'
exercises with all the mistakes schoolboys forced to do boring
tasks are likely to make. The pedagogical expertise of the
teachers appears to have lacked subtlety:
Source: Petrie Museum website
But though I beat you with every kind of stick, you do not
listen. If I knew another way of doing it, I would do it for
you, that you might listen.
It is likely that the best education was
given to the royal princes. They were at times joined by other
children, sons of noblemen or officials
... in the time of Shepseskaf; whom he educated among the
king's children, in the palace of the king, in the privy
chamber, in the royal harem; who was more honored before the
king than any youth; Ptahshepses.
Most boys were destined to become
labourers, peasants or craftsmen, the girls to become
housewives. They underwent a kind of mostly informal
apprenticeship, being taught their trade by working side by side
with their fathers, mothers or other family members. From the
Graeco-Roman Period contracts for formal apprenticeships signed
by the parents of children and master craftsmen are known which
included stipulations concerning duration, living and working
conditions of the child and payments due.
Inscription of Ptahshepses
As early as the New Kingdom some workers,
above all artisans working on tomb decorations which included
copying of sacred texts, are known to have acquired writing
skills and to have used them in every-day situations. Whether
they were taught as children or picked up the knowledge through
work is unknown.
Play has always been a crucial part of a
child's life teaching it social and motor skills. A wide variety
of games were played testing strength, agility and dexterity.
The equipment used was generally basic, sticks, stones or pieces
of clay given rough forms, though sometimes toys were intricate
and obviously made by skilled craftsmen.
The children of poor parents had probably
little time for indulging in play as their economic contribution
to the survival of the family was important, though they must
often have been able to combine work and play.
Coming of age
There was no specific age at which a
youngster would be considered to be grown-up. Uha was
circumcised, together with one hundred and twenty men, and one
hundred and twenty women, which has been interpreted as
meaning that the circumcision was done to men as a rite of
passage. A few officials wrote about fastening on the girdle
which seems to have been a ritual preceding the assumption of
duties we would consider to be adult responsibilities
[I was a child] who fastened on the girdle under the
majesty of Teti; my office was that of supervisor of [....]
and I filled the office of inferior custodian of the domain of
Marrying, establishing a household, raising
children and taking care of old relatives who were left without
a home, were duties of the adult.
Inscription of Weni
I grew up in the town of Nekheb, my father being a soldier
of the King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Sekenenre, the
justified. Baba son of Reinet was his name. I became a soldier
in his stead on the ship "The Wild Bull" in the time
of the Lord of the Two Lands, Nebpehtire, the justified. I was
a youth who had not married; I slept in a hammock of netting.
Now when I had established a household, I was taken to the
ship "Northern", because I was brave.
Apart from some child marriages arranged for
dynastic reasons, most young people got married when they were
economically and physically ready to do so. For girls this often
happened shortly after the beginning of menstruation, boys who
were expected to provide a home for their wife were a few years
of Ahmose, son of Abana
His majesty gave to him the king's eldest daughter, Matkha
as his wife, for his majesty desired that she should be with
him more than with anyone; Ptahshepses.
Inscription of Ptahshepses
Death and the child
Kimberly Kania / MIR Photography
In 1985 a small mummy was
donated to the St. Louis Science Center where it was stored out
of sight for the next 22 years. Little was known about the mummy
other than it was reportedly purchased in Egypt near the turn of
the century. Recently Al Wiman, Vice President of Public
Understanding of Science, discovered this mummy child locked
away and wanted to learn more. He approached Dr. Charles
Hildebolt, DDS, PhD, of the Electronic Radiology Lab within the
Mallickrodt Institute of Radiology at Washington University
School Of Medicine to help sort out the mysteries surrounding
the child mummy
Losing one or even both parents was quite
a frequent occurrence. The average age at death of adults was
between thirty and forty, women having a somewhat lower life
expectancy because of childbirth complications. Orphaned
children, even if they were cared for by relatives, had to build
their own lives. The age at which Mentuhotep, a Middle Kingdom
foreman, lost his parents is unknown. But according to his own
account he had to make his own fortune:
Now I was ...... one whose (own) counsel replaced for him a
mother at home, a father making the family fortune (??) ......
, one whom his (own) nature instructed as (it were) a child
growing up with its father. Now although I was become an
orphan, I acquired cattle and got oxen (?) and developed my
business in goats; I built a house and excavated a
(garden-)pond, the priest Menthotpe.
A child would also have to witness the death
of siblings. About a third of all children did not reach their
fifth birthday and only half would grow up to be adults. Parents
protected their children with magical charms but all too often
to no avail.
stela of Mentuhotep
Apparently newborn infants were not or rarely
buried in cemeteries, but rather in pits dug inside the house.
Petrie found boxes containing baby bones under the floors of
houses at Lahun. Older children were buried in cemeteries, their
tombs equipped with amulets and with the things they used to
play with, such as marbles, balls, spinning tops and other toys,
and sometimes inscriptions in their memory made. Concerning at
least part of the dolls that have been discovered some experts
think that they may have served magical purposes rather than
been used as playthings.
Menmare: Seti I
Hathor: The Seven Hathors
proclaimed the fate of the king's son in the tale of The
Once upon a time there was a king in Egypt whose heart was
heavy because that he had no son. He called upon the gods, and
the gods heard, and they decreed that an heir should be born
to him. In time came the day of the child's birth. The seven
Hathors greeted the prince and pronounced his destiny; they
said he would meet with a sudden death, either by a crocodile,
or a serpent, or a dog.
Among the nobility it was seemingly not
uncommon for women not to nurse their babies themselves. Hiring
wet nurses who were economically dependent on their employers
may not have been completely unproblematical as one of the
maxims in the Instruction of Ankhsheshonq suggests:
Doomed Prince, Harris Papyrus
Do not give your son to the wet nurse and so cause her to
set aside her own.
From the Westcar Papyrus:
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature,
Volume III, p. 169
Then said the majesty of Re, lord of Sakhbu, to Isis,
Nephthys, Meskbenet, Heket, and Khnum: "Please go,
deliver Ruddedet of the three children who are in her womb,
who will assume this beneficent office in this whole land.
From the speech of Thothrekh, son of
Petosiris, High Priest of Thoth, 4th century BCE
The Birth of the Royal Children
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume 1,
Who hears my speech, his heart will grieve for it,
The age of three years seems to have
been a common age for weaning. At times older children were
referred to as still suckling, apparently hyperbolically. The
mortuary stela of Isenkhebe speaks of death as
For I am a small child snatched by force,
Abridged in years as an innocent one,
Snatched quickly as a little one,
Like a man carried off by sleep.
I was a youngster of /// years,
When taken to the city of eternity,
To the abode of the perfect souls;
I therefore reached the Lord of Gods,
Without having had my share.
I was rich in friends,
All the men of my town,
Not one of them could protect me!
All the town's people, men and women,
Lamented very greatly,
Because they saw what happened to me,
For they esteemed me much.
All my friends mourned for me,
Father and Mother implored Death;
My brothers, they were head-on-knee,
Since I reached this land of deprivation.
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature,
Volume III, p.53
The dark, a child's terror, engulfed me,
While the breast was in my mouth!
From the Stela of Isenkhebe, 7th century BCE
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III,
(21) THE TENTH INSTRUCTION. The teaching not to weary of
instructing your son.
(22) A statue of stone is the foolish son whom his father has
(23) It is a son's good and blessed portion to receive
instruction and to ask.
(24) No instruction can succeed if there is dislike.
(9,1) The youth [who] is not spoiled by his belly is not
(5) The fault in every kind of character comes from not
(6) Thoth has placed the stick on earth in order to teach the
fool by it.
(7) He gave the sense of shame to the wise man so as to escape
(8) The youth who has respect through shame is not scorned
(9) A son does not die from being punished by his father.
(10) He who loves his spoiled son will spoil himself with him.
(11) The stick and shame protect their owner from the fiend.
(12) The son who is not taught, his <...> causes
(13) The heart of his father does not desire a long life (for
(14) The sensible one among the children is worthy of life.
(15) Better the son of another than a son who is an accursed
(16) There is he who has not been taught, yet he knows how to
(17) There is he who knows the instruction, yet he does not
know how to live by it.
(18) He is not a true son who accepts instruction so as to be
(19) It is the god who gives the heart, gives the son, and
gives the good character.
Instructions of Papyrus Insinger
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III,