Family and Relationship
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The 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 husband.

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.


General Ramose

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 relationship.


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 years old. 


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 House

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.


The Shep-en-Sehemet

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.

Pregnancy Tests

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.

Birth Bricks

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.

Purification Period

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 afther birth.

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.


Giving Birth


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.

Mammisi-Birth House

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 ordinary people.

Wooden figure of Bes playing a tambourine
Wooden figure of Bes playing a tambourine

From Thebes, Egypt
18th Dynasty, around 1300 BC

The  protector of women in childbirth

Deities associated with Childbirth

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 pregnant women.

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 birth."

The papyrus further reports that Aset said:

"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 lacking.

Medical Papyrii

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.

Papyrus Ebers

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.

’Birth Bower’

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.

'Birth Box'

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

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 history.

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.

After Birth

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 Family

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 papyrus
Oriental Institute
enlarge Demotic "marriage" papyrus.

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).

Compare 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?
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.

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 remarry.

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.

View a timeline 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.


SESSION 2: Child-bearing and Family Life

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.

Click to View Slideshow
Oriental Institute
enlarge Images and symbols of fertility were of importance to the ancient Egyptians, as considered in this slideshow.
In Egyptian 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.

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 behavior.

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.

Seti I

Oriental 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 of rank.
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.


Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, OIM 10589

Djedhor and his daughters.
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 offices.

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.


SESSION 3: Dress and Fashion

Oriental Institute
enlarge Nykauinpu and his wife, Hemetradjet.
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.

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.

Click to View Slideshow
D. Brewer and E. Teeter
enlarge Consider the changing styles of dress for women and men.
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.

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.
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.

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.

Click to View Slideshow
Oriental Institute
enlarge Review the styles and fashions of the ancient Egyptians.
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.  




SESSION 4: Entertainment

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.

snake game

Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, OIM 16950

Snake (Mehen) game.
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.


Oriental 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.

game pieces
Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, OIM 9819, 9820
Game markers.
Faience, ivory.
New Kingdom and later, ca. 1300-300 B.C.
Purchased, 1920.
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 together.

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.

Nykauinpu figures
Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
Nykauinpu figures: woman grinding grain (left) and winnower (right).
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 year. 

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.

Douglas J. Brewer and Emily Teeter
A woman who over-indulged (Dynasty 19).
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] to drunkenness."

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 palace.

Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
Musicians entertain at a banquet (Dynasty 18).
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
enlarge Harpist.
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 keyboard. 

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.



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 Nile Valley.


Emily Teeter

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 Late Period 

Fig. 1. Niño de la VI Dinastía, Museo del Louvre

    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
18th dynasty
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 your tomb.
The Shipwrecked Sailor
    The love of siblings and parents is, even if somewhat stereotypically, expressed in many mortuary inscriptions:
I was one beloved of his father, favored of his mother, whom his brothers and sisters loved.
The Offering of Uha
    And the scribe Ani sums up a mother's care for her baby and exhorted the son to honour his mother as she deserved:
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.
Inscription of Khnumhotep II
    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.
    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 [6] or Taweret [7] 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 Khnum's female counterpart at Herur. Together with other goddesses she helped form the foetus and watched over its delivery. 

Isis suckling Horus
Source: Université de Fribourg 

    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 unwanted children:
This, however, of all their usages is most to be admired - that they bring up all children that are born.
Strabo, Geography Book XVIII
    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.
And they gave him the name of Merab, and registered him in the book of the "House of Life.
Princess Ahura: The Magic Book
    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 time.
Title to property made by the regulator of the corps, Antef's son Mery, calIed Keba, for his son, Mery's son Antef, called Iusenb.
Conveyance by Mery

The toddler

     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
It has been proposed that the deformity was caused by polio
New Kingdom

    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.

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 teachers:
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.
Warnings to the idle scribe
Writing board

Wooden writing board covered with plaster
Middle Kingdom
Source: Petrie Museum website 

    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:
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.
The Inscription of 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.
    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 Pharaoh.
The Inscription of Weni
    Marrying, establishing a household, raising children and taking care of old relatives who were left without a home, were duties of the adult.
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.
Autobiography of Ahmose, son of Abana
    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 older.
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.
The 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.
The stela of Mentuhotep
    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.
    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 (c.1318 -1304)
Hathor: The Seven Hathors proclaimed the fate of the king's son in the tale of The Doomed Prince:

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.
From The Doomed Prince, Harris Papyrus
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:
Do not give your son to the wet nurse and so cause her to set aside her own.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p. 169
 From the Westcar Papyrus:
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.
The Birth of the Royal Children
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume 1, p.220
From the speech of Thothrekh, son of Petosiris, High Priest of Thoth, 4th century BCE
Who hears my speech, his heart will grieve for it,
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 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
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, p.59
(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 not instructed.
(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 blamed.
(5) The fault in every kind of character comes from not listening.
(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 all punishment.
(8) The youth who has respect through shame is not scorned with punishment.
(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 astonishment.
(13) The heart of his father does not desire a long life (for him).
(14) The sensible one among the children is worthy of life.
(15) Better the son of another than a son who is an accursed fool.
(16) There is he who has not been taught, yet he knows how to instruct another.
(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 taught.
(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, p.192f
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