Status of Women in
Unlike the position of women in most other ancient and modern
civilizations up to 30 years ago , including that of Greece, the Egyptian
woman seems to have enjoyed the same legal and economic rights as the
Egyptian man. This notion is reflected in Egyptian art and historical
by Dr. Peter Picone
It is certain why these rights existed for the woman in Egypt but no
where else in the world. It may well be that such rights were the key role
of the religious system of Gods and Goddesses and ultimately
related to the role of the king and Queen in Egyptian society. If the
pharaoh was the personification of Egypt, and he represented the corporate
personality of the Egyptian state, then men and women might not have been
seen in their familiar relationships, but rather, only in regard to this
royal centre of society. Since Egyptian national identity would have
derived from all people sharing a common relationship with the king, then
in this relationship, which all men and women shared equally, they
were--in a sense--equal to each other. This is not to say that Egypt was
an egalitarian society. It was not. Legal distinctions in Egypt were
apparently based much more upon differences in the social classes, rather
than differences in gender. Rights and privileges were not uniform from
one class to another, but within the given classes, it seems that equal
economic and legal rights were, for the most part, accorded to both men
Most of the textual and archaeological evidence for the role of women
that survives from prior to the New Kingdom pertains to the elite, not the
common folk. At this time, it is the elite, for the most part, who leave
written records or who can afford tombs that contain such records.
However, from the New Kingdom onward, and certainly by the Ptolemaic
Period, such evidence pertains more and more to the non-elite, i.e., to
women of the middle and lower classes. Actually, the bulk of the evidence
for the economic freedom of Egyptian women derives from the Ptolemaic
Period. The Greek domination of Egypt, which began with the conquest of
Alexander the Great in 332 B.C., did not sweep away Egyptian social and
political institutions. Both Egyptian and Greek systems of law and social
traditions existed side-by-side in Egypt at that time. Greeks functioned
within their system and Egyptians within theirs. Mixed parties of Greeks
and Egyptians making contractual agreements or who were forced into court
over legal disputes would choose which of the two legal systems in which
they would base their settlements. Ironically, while the Egyptians were
the subjugated people of their Greek rulers, Egyptian women, operating
under the Egyptian system, had more privileges and civil rights than the
Greek women living in the same society, but who functioned under the more
restrictive Greek social and legal system.
WOMEN'S LEGAL RIGHTS
The Egyptian woman's rights extended to all the legally defined areas
of society. From the bulk of the legal documents, we know that women could
manage and dispose of private property, including: land, portable goods,
servants, slaves, livestock, and money (when it existed), as well as
financial instruments (i.e., endowments and annuities). A woman could
administer all her property independently and according to her free will.
She could conclude any kind of legal settlement. She could appear as a
contracting partner in a marriage contract or a divorce contract; she
could execute testaments; she could free slaves; she could make adoptions.
She was entitled to sue at law. It is highly significant that a woman in
Egypt could do all of the above and initiate litigation in court freely
without the need of a male representative. This amount of freedom was at
variance with that of the Greek woman who required a designated male,
called a kourios, to represent or stand for her in all legal contracts and
proceedings. This male was her husband, father or brother.
WOMEN'S PROPERTY RIGHTS
There were several ways for an Egyptian woman to acquire possessions
and real property. Most frequently, she received it as gifts or as an
inheritance from her parents or husband, or else, she received it through
purchases--with goods which she earned either through employment, or which
she borrowed. Under Egyptian property law, a woman had claim to one-third
of all the community property in her marriage, i.e. the property which
accrued to her husband and her only after they were married. When a woman
brought her own private property to a marriage (e.g., as a dowry), this
apparently remained hers, although the husband often had the free use of
it. However, in the event of divorce her property had to be returned to
her, in addition to any divorce settlement that might be stipulated in the
original marriage contract.
A wife was entitled to inherit one-third of that community property on
the death of her husband, while the other two-thirds was divided among the
children, followed up by the brothers and sisters of the deceased. To
circumvent this possibility and to enable his wife to receive either a
larger part of the share, or to allow her to dispose of all the property,
a husband could do several things:
1) In the Middle Kingdom, he could draw up an imyt-pr, a
"house document," which was a legal unilateral deed for donating
property. As a living will, it was made and perhaps executed while the
husband was still alive. In this will, the husband would assign to his
wife what he wished of his own private property, i.e., what he acquired
before his marriage. An example of this is the imyt-pr of Wah from
el-Lahun. 2) If there were no children, and the husband did not wish his
brothers and sisters to receive two-thirds of the community property, he
could legally adopt his wife as his child and heir and bequeath all the
property to her. Even if he had other children, he could still adopt his
wife, so that, as his one of his legal offspring, she would receive some
of the two-thirds share, in addition to her normal one-third share of the
A woman was free to bequeath property from her husband to her children
or even to her own brothers and sisters (unless there was some stipulation
against such in her husband's will). One papyrus tells us how a childless
woman, who after she inherited her husband's estate, raised the three
illegitimate children who were born to him and their female household
slave (such liaisons were fairly common in the Egyptian household and seem
to have borne no social stigma). She then married the eldest illegitimate
step-daughter to her younger brother, whom she adopted as her son, that
they might receive the entire inheritance.
A woman could also freely disinherit children of her private property,
i.e., the property she brought to her marriage or her share of the
community property. She could selectively bequeath that property to
certain children and not to others. Such action is recorded in the Will of
WOMEN IN CONTRACTS
Women in Egypt were consistently concluding contracts, including:
marriage and divorce settlements, engagements of wet-nurses, purchases of
property, even arrangements for self-enslavement. Self-enslavement in
Egypt was actually a form of indentured servitude. Although
self-enslavement appears to have been illegal in Egypt, it was practiced
by both men and women. To get around the illegality, the servitude was
stipulated only for a limited number of years, although it was usually
said to be "99 years."
Under self-enslavement, women often technically received a salary for
their labour. Two reasons for which a woman might be forced into such an
arrangement are: as payment to a creditor to satisfy bad debts; (2) to
be assured of one's provisions and financial security, for which a person
might even pay a monthly fee, as though they were receiving a service.
However, this fee would equal the salary that the provider had to pay for
her labour; thus, no "money" would be exchanged. Since this
service was a legal institution, then a contract was drawn up stipulating
the conditions and the responsibilities of the involved parties.
In executing such an arrangement, a woman could also include her
children and grandchildren, alive or unborn. One such contract of a woman
who bound herself to the temple of Saknebtynis states:
The female servant (so & so) has said before my master,
Saknebtynis, the great god, 'I am your servant, together with my children
and my children's children. I shall not be free in your precinct forever
and ever. You will protect me; you will keep me safe; you will guard me.
You will keep me sound; you will protect me from every demon, and I will
pay you 1-1/4 kita of copper . . . until the completion of 99 years, and I
will give it to your priests monthly.'
If such women married male "slaves," the status of their
children depended on the provisions of their contracts with their owners.
WOMEN BEFORE THE BAR
Egyptian women had the right to bring lawsuits against anyone in open
court, and there was no gender-based bias against them, and we have many
cases of women winning their claims. A good example of this fact is found
in the Inscription of Mes. This inscription is the actual court record of
a long and drawn- out private land dispute which occurred in the New
Kingdom. Significantly, the inscription shows us four things: (1) women
could manage property, and they could inherit trusteeship of property; (2)
women could institute litigation (and appeal to the court of the vizier);
(3) women were awarded legal decisions (and had decisions reversed on
appeal); (4) women acted as witnesses before a court of law.
However, based upon the Hermopolis Law Code of the third century B.C.,
the freedom of women to share easily with their male relatives in the
inheritance of landed property was perhaps restricted somewhat. According
to the provisions of the Hermopolis Law Code, where an executor existed,
the estate of the deceased was divided up into a number of parcels equal
to the number of children of the deceased, both alive and dead.
Thereafter, each male child (or that child's heirs), in order of birth,
took his pick of the parcels. Only when the males were finished choosing,
were the female children permitted to choose their parcels (in
chronological order). The male executor was permitted to claim for himself
parcels of any children and heirs who predeceased the father without
issue. Female executors were designated when there were no sons to
function as such. However, the code is specific that--unlike male
executors--they could not claim the parcels of any dead children.
Still, it is not appropriate to compare the provisions of the
Hermopolis Law Code to the Inscription of Mes, since the latter pertains
to the inheritance of an office, i.e., a trusteeship of land, and not to
the land itself. Indeed, the system of dividing the estate described in
the law code--or something similar to it- -might have existed at least as
early as the New Kingdom, since the Instructions of Any contains
the passage, "Do not say, 'My grandfather has a house. An enduring
house, it is called' (i.e., don't brag of any future inheritance), for
when you take your share with your brothers, your portion may only be a
It is uncertain, generally, how literate the Egyptian woman was in any
period. Baines and Eyre suggest very low figures for the percentage of the
literate in the Egypt population, i.e., only about 1% in the Old Kingdom
(i.e., 1 in 20 or 30 males). Other Egyptologists would dispute these
estimates, seeing instead an amount at about 5-10% of the population. In
any event, it is certain that the rate of literacy of Egyptian women was
well behind that of men from the Old Kingdom through the Late Period.
Lower class women, certainly were illiterate; middle class women and the
wives of professional men, perhaps less so. The upper class probably had a
higher rate of literate women. In the Old and Middle Kingdoms, middle and
upper class women are occasionally found in the textual and archaeological
record with administrative titles that are indicative of a literate
ability. In the New Kingdom the frequency at which these titles occur
declines significantly, suggesting an erosion in the rate of female
literacy at that time (let alone the freedom to engage in an occupation).
However, in a small number of tomb representations of the New Kingdom,
certain noblewomen are associated with scribal palettes, suggesting a
Women are also recorded as the senders and recipients of a small number
of letters in Egypt (5 out of 353). However, in these cases we cannot be
certain that they personally penned or read these letters, rather than
employed the services of professional scribes.
Many royal princesses at court had private tutors, and most likely,
these tutors taught them to read and write. Royal women of the Eighteenth
Dynasty probably were regularly trained, since many were functioning
leaders. Since royal princesses would have been educated, it then seems
likely that the daughters of the royal courtiers were similarly educated.
In the inscriptions, we occasionally do find titles of female scribes
among the middle class from the Middle Kingdom on, especially after the
Twenty- sixth Dynasty, when the rate of literacy increased throughout the
country. The only example of a female physician in Egypt occurs in the Old
Kingdom. Scribal instruction was a necessary first step toward medical
WOMEN IN PUBLIC
The Egyptian woman in general was free to go about in public; she
worked out in the fields and in estate workshops. Certainly, she did not
wear a veil, which is first documented among the ancient Assyrians
(perhaps reflecting a tradition of the ancient Semitic- speaking people of
the Syrian and Arabian Deserts). However, it was perhaps unsafe for an
Egyptian woman to venture far from her town alone. Ramses III boasts in
one inscription, "I enabled the woman of Egypt to go her own way, her
journeys being extended where she wanted, without any person assaulting
her on the road." A different view of the travelling women is found in
the Instructions of Any, "Be on your guard against a woman
from abroad, who is not known in town, do not have sex with her." So
by custom, there might have been a reputation of impiousness or looseness
associated with a woman travelling alone in Egypt. Despite the legal
freedom of women to travel about, folk custom or tradition may have
discouraged that. So, e.g., earlier in the Old Kingdom, Ptahhotep would
write, "If you desire to make a friendship last in a house to which
you have access to its master as a brother or friend in any place where
you might enter, beware of approaching the women. It does not go well with
a place where that is done." However, the theme of this passage might
actually refer to violating personal trust and not the accessibility of
women, per se. However, mores and values apparently changed by the
New Kingdom. The love poetry of that era, as well as certain letters, are
quite frank about the public accessibility and freedom of women.
In general, the work of the upper and middle class woman was limited to
the home and the family. This was not due to an inferior legal status, but
was probably a consequence of her customary role as mother and bearer of
children, as well as the public role of the Egyptian husbands and sons who
functioned as the executors of the mortuary cults of their deceased
parents. It was the traditional role of the good son to bury his parents,
support their funerary cult, to bring offerings regularly to the tombs,
and to recite the offering formula. Because women are not regularly
depicted doing this in Egyptian art, they probably did not often assume
this role. When a man died without a surviving son to preserve his name
and present offerings, then it was his brother who was often depicted in
the art doing so. Perhaps because it was the males who were regularly
entrusted with this important religious task, that they held the primary
position in public life.
As far as occupations go, in the textual sources upper class woman are
occasionally described as holding an office, and thus they might have
executed real jobs. Clearly, though, this phenomenon was more prevalent in
the Old Kingdom than in later periods (perhaps due to the lower population
at that time). In Wente's publication of Egyptian letters, he notes that
of 353 letters known from Egypt, only 13 provide evidence of women
functioning with varying degrees of administrative authority.
On of the most exalted administrative titles of any woman who was not a
queen was held by a non-royal women named Nebet during the Sixth Dynasty,
who was entitled, "Vizier, Judge and Magistrate." She was the
wife of the Nomarch of Coptos and grandmother of King Pepi I. However, it
is possible that the title was merely honorific and granted to her
posthumously. Through the length of Egyptian history, we see many titles
of women which seem to reflect real administrative authority, including
one woman entitled, "Second Prophet (i.e. High Priest) of Amun"
at the temple of Karnak, which was, otherwise, a male office. Women could
and did hold male administrative positions in Egypt. However, such cases
are few, and thus appear to be the exceptions to tradition. Given the
relative scarcity of such, they might reflect extraordinary individuals in
Women functioned as leaders, e.g., kings, dowager queens and regents,
even as usurpers of rightful heirs, who were either their step-sons or
nephews. We find women as nobility and landed gentry managing both large
and small estates, e.g., the lady Tchat who started as overseer of a
nomarch's household with a son of middling status; married the Nomarch;
was elevated, and her son was also raised in status. Women functioned as
middle class housekeepers, servants, field hands, and all manner of
skilled workers inside the household and in estate-workshops.
Women could also be national heroines in Egypt. Extraordinary cases
include: Queen Ahhotep of the early Eighteenth Dynasty. She was renowned
for saving Egypt during the wars of liberation against the Hyksos, and she
was praised for rallying the Egyptian troops and crushing rebellion in
Upper Egypt at a critical juncture of Egyptian history. In doing so, she
received Egypt's highest military decoration at least three times, the
Order of the Fly. Queen Hatshepsut, as a ruling king, was actually
described as going on military campaign in Nubia. Eyewitness reports
actually placed her on the battlefield weighing booty and receiving the
homage of defeated rebels.
WOMEN AND CRIME
These ordinary and extraordinary roles are not the only ones in which
we see Egyptian women cast in ancient Egypt. We also see Egyptian women as
the victims of crime (and rape); also as the perpetrators of crime, as
adulteresses and even as convicts.
Women criminals certainly existed, although they do not appear
frequently in the historical record. A woman named Nesmut was implicated
in a series of robberies of the royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings
during the Twentieth Dynasty. Examples of women convicts are also known.
According to one Brooklyn Museum papyrus from the Middle Kingdom, a woman
was incarcerated at the prison at Thebes because she fled her district to
dodge the corvee service on a royal estate. Most of the concubines and
lesser wives involved in the Harim conspiracy against Ramses III were
convicted and had their noses and ears cut off, while others were invited
to commit suicide. Another woman is indicated among the lists of prisoners
from a prison at el-Lahun. However, of the prison lists we have, the
percentage of women's names is very small compared to those of men, and
this fact may be significant.
The position of women in Egyptian society was unique in the ancient
world. The Egyptian female enjoyed much of the same legal and economic
rights as the Egyptian male--within the same social class. However, how
their legal freedoms related to their status as defined by custom and folk
tradition is more difficult to ascertain. In general, social position in
Egypt was based, not on gender, but on social rank. On the other hand, the
ability to move through the social classes did exist for the Egyptians.
Ideally, the same would have been true for women. However, one private
letter of the New Kingdom from a husband to his wife shows us that while a
man could take his wife with him, as he moved up in rank, it would not
have been unusual for such a man to divorce her and take a new wife more
in keeping with his new and higher social status. Still, self-made women
certainly did exist in Egypt, and there are cases of women growing rich on
their own resources through land speculation and the like.
Women's Legal Rights in
by Janet H. Johnson
room our earliest
preserved records in the Old Kingdom on, the formal legal status of
Egyptian women (whether unmarried, married, divorced or widowed) was
nearly identical with that of Egyptian men. Differences in social status
between individuals are evident in almost all products of this ancient
culture: its art, its texts, its archaeological record. In the textual
record, men were distinguished by the type of job they held, and from
which they derived status, "clout," and income. But most women
did not hold jobs outside the home and consequently were usually referred
to by more generic titles such as "mistress of the house" or
"citizens." Women were also frequently identified by giving
the name and titles of their husband or father, from whom, presumably,
they derived their social status. Thus the New Kingdom literary text
entitled "The Instructions of (a man named) Any" state, "A
woman is asked about her husband, a man is asked about his rank."
But in the legal arena
both women and men could act on their own and were responsible for their
own actions. This is in sharp contrast with some other ancient societies,
e.g., ancient Greece, where women did not have their own legal identity,
were not allowed to own (real) property and, in order to participate in
the legal system, always had to work through a male, usually their closest
male relative (father, brother, husband, son) who was called their
"lord." Egyptian women were able to acquire, to own, and to
dispose of property (both real and personal) in their own name. They could
enter into contracts in their own name; they could initiate civil court
cases and could, likewise, be sued; they could serve as witnesses in court
cases; they could serve on juries; and they could witness legal documents.
That women very rarely did serve on juries or as witnesses to legal
documents is a result of social factors, not legal ones.
The great disparity
between the social and legal status of women can be observed in both
documentary and literary materials. For instance, in the literary text
entitled "The Instructions of the (Vizier) Ptahhotep," preserved
in Middle Kingdom and later copies, a man's wife is seen basically as a
dependent, of whom it behooves him to take good, and loving, care:
When you prosper and found your house and love your wife with
fill her belly, clothe her back; ointment soothes her body. Gladden her
heart as long as you live; she is a fertile field for her lord.
But next comes a jarring statement,
Do not contend with her in court. Keep her from power, restrain her--her
eye is her storm when she gazes. Thus will you make her stay in your
This reference to contending with one's wife in court clearly indicates
that women had legal rights and were willing to fight for them. This
distinction between the legal status of women in ancient Egypt and their
public or social status is of major importance in understanding how the
Egyptian system actually worked.
Egyptian civil law
The Egyptian word
which most corresponds to our word "law" (of which a possible
definition is: a system of rights, i.e., individual claims, which are
enforced by the "state" if they conform to certain conditions)
is hp, which can also connote custom, order, justice, or right,
according to its usage. In ancient Egypt all law was given from above;
there was no "legislature" which would draft
"legislation." In a New Kingdom court case, a man cites the
"law of Pharaoh" as precedent and in another, when citing the
law a man says, "The King said, . . . " Thus, "law" is
the king's word (wd-nswt).
Contracts were written
copies of oral agreements in which Party A spoke to Party B in the
presence of witnesses and a (professional) scribe who copied down (and put
into "legalese") the words of Party A. Although only Party A
spoke, Party B had the right to accept or refuse the contract, thus making
these agreements bilateral and binding on both parties. Copies of
contracts concerning real property were filed in the local records office,
under the ultimate jurisdiction of the vizier. These public records made
it possible for the state to know who was responsible for paying taxes on
the land; the documents were also available for consultation in any
involved an oral petition to the court by a private individual. The
best-known example of a local court is the one at Deir el-Medina, the New
Kingdom village on the west bank of the Nile at modern Luxor, ancient
Thebes, inhabited by the workmen who carved and decorated the royal tombs
in the Valley of the Kings. This court was composed of local people,
usually the relatively important local citizens including the scribes and
crew chiefs, but also some simple workmen and, even more rarely, women.
Egyptian judges based their decisions on traditions and precedent and kept
copies of their decisions.
The earliest contracts
of which we have record are imyt pr documents, literally "that
which is in the house." These contracts frequently have been
identified as "wills," but a better translation is "(land)
transfer document." They were used to transfer property to someone other
than the person(s) who would inherit the property if the owner died
intestate (i.e., without a will). These documents were sealed and filed or
recorded in a central government office.
There is a fair amount
of Old Kingdom evidence for women in the economy or "public
sphere," including women shown as merchants in market scenes and
women acting as priestesses, especially for the goddess Hathor. Much of
the New Kingdom evidence for the economic role of women comes from
documents reflecting their dealings with both men and women. That the
government was also perfectly willing to deal with women is indicated by
Papyrus Wilbour, a long text recording "taxes" due on farmland;
each piece of land is identified by owner and (if different) by the person
working the land. Of the 2,110 parcels of land for which the name of the
owner is preserved, women are listed as owners of 228, just over 10
percent; the land frequently is described as being worked by their
children. However these women originally acquired this land, what is
significant is that they hold title to the land and bear responsibility
for assessments due.
It should be noted
that the Egyptians not only had a concept of private property, they also
developed a concept of "joint property," property acquired by a
married couple during their marriage. The husband had use of the joint
property, meaning he could dispose of joint property without his wife's
permission. But if a husband sold or otherwise disposed of a piece of
joint property (or of any of his wife's property which she brought with
her to the marriage), he was legally liable to provide his wife with
something of equal value. That it is the husband who has use of joint
property reflects the social fact that men normally participated in
the public sphere, whereas women did not.
The legal independence
and identity of Egyptian women is reflected not only in the fact that they
could deal with property on the same terms that men did and that they
could make the appropriate contracts in their own names, but also in the
fact that they themselves were held accountable for economic transactions
and contracts into which they had entered.
In one case, a woman
named Iry-nefret was charged with illegally using silver and a tomb
belonging to a woman named Bak-Mut to help pay for the purchase of a
servant-girl. Iry-nefret was brought to court and told in her own words
how she acquired the girl, listing all the items which she gave the
merchant as price for the girl and identifying the individuals from whom
she bought some of the items used in this purchase. She had to swear an
oath before the judges in the names of the god Amon and the Ruler. The
judges then had the complainant produce witnesses (three men and three
women) who would attest that she had used stolen property to purchase the
girl. The end of the papyrus recording the court case is lost, but it is
clear that the woman Iry-nefret acted on her own in purchasing the
servant-girl and was held solely liable for her actions while the
testimony of both women and men was held by the judges to be equally
Marriage and family law
Marriage in ancient
Egypt was a totally private affair in which the state took no interest and
of which the state kept no record. There is no evidence for any legal or
religious ceremony establishing the marriage, although there was probably
a party. The preserved portion of the first Late Period story of Setne
Khaemwast tells how Ahure and Na-nefer-ka-Ptah fell in love and wanted to
marry. Their parents agreed, so Ahure was taken to Na-nefer-ka-Ptah's
house, people (especially the father of the bride) gave presents, there
was a big party, the two slept together, and then they lived together and
had a child. But basically marriage was an agreement by two people, and
their families, that they would live together (hms irm), establish
a household (grg pr), and have a family. The same vocabulary was
used for both women and men. Although most marriages may have been
arranged at the desire of the husband and parents of the bride, there is
also a repeated literary image of a girl persuading her father to let her
marry the man whom she wishes, rather than the father's choice.
Modern scholars have
analyzed the role of women in many societies, ancient to modern, as that
of a commodity, sold by the father and bought by the husband. Some
Egyptian evidence could suggest that this was or had been true in Egypt,
as well. For instance, a man might give a gift to his prospective
father-in-law, which could be interpreted as "buying" the man's
daughter as wife. But the gift which a man might give to his future
father-in-law has also been analyzed as serving to break the bonds of the
woman with her biological family, so that the new couple could establish
their own family as the centre of their life and loyalty.
Although women were
legally the equals of men, and could deal with property on equal terms
with men, the social and public role of women was vastly different from
that of men. Although there are examples where the wife of a couple is
stronger or more important than the husband (by family, fortune, or
personality), most Egyptians tended to marry a person from their own
social class; thus, a woman frequently would marry a man in the same or
similar profession as her father and brother(s). This resulted not from
formal laws or restrictions but simply, presumably, from the fact that
this was the group of people with whom one had the most contact and with
whom one was most comfortable.
sometimes helped their husbands with their jobs (whether the equivalent of
the modern "mom and pop store" or the wife filling in for her
husband when the husband was "on the road") and although women
had ways of acquiring some wealth through their own initiative (especially
through textile production), they needed some assurance that the father of
their children would provide for their (hers and their children's)
material future. Thus there developed what have been called "marriage
contracts," although such documents are purely economic and embody no
social expectations at all.
These documents were
not designed to legitimize the marriage--they were not a prerequisite for
marriage nor did they have to be contracted at the time of the union since
some refer to children who are already born to the couple. They were not
intended to establish the social/personal rights and responsibilities of
either party toward the other, as did both the Greek and Aramaic Jewish
marriage contracts preserved from first millennium Egypt.
certainly existed; they are presented in wisdom literature from the Old
Kingdom on, and in a New Kingdom letter a man spells out what he
considered the obligations of a man to his wife: fidelity, (loving)
attention, the responsibility to provide well for her and their children,
to take care of her medically, to take pride in her, and not to treat her
as a master treats a servant.
"marriage contracts" concern themselves only with economic
matters--the annual responsibility of the husband to feed and clothe the
wife (and their children) and the right of their children to inherit his
wealth--and are better called annuity contracts. As such, they were
extremely advantageous to the wife and one may assume that the woman and
her family exerted as much pressure as they could to ensure that the
husband made such a contract. Because Egyptian women were full
participants in the legal system, not chattel and not dependent on a man
to handle their legal concerns for them, such contracts were made by the
husband directly with the wife, not her father or any other man on her
behalf. This is in sharp contrast with other ancient "marriage
documents," whether these documents were purely economic or also
embedded social concerns.
In an annuity contract
found in the Ptolemaic "Family Archive from Siut" (a town in
Middle Egypt), the man addresses the woman. He lists the value of all the
expensive property that she brought with her to the marriage, he notes
that he will give her an amount of money as a "bridal gift," and
he declares that, if they divorce (and whether the divorce was instigated
by him or by her), he must give her money equivalent to the full value of
everything which he had mentioned; if he doesn't give her all the money,
then he must (continue to) feed and clothe her (the amounts of grain, oil,
and money for clothing which he must provide every month are spelled out)
until he does give her the full amount in silver. If he defaults on his
payments, she remains legally entitled to any and all arrears. By
implication, if they divorce, then once he has paid her the full amount of
silver included in the contract, she returns the contract to him and all
obligations are cancelled.
Note that although the
wife "owned" the property, the husband had use of it. Thus, in
case of divorce, the husband had to repay the value, not return the
specific items. It has been suggested that the "bridal gift" (in
this case 20 pieces of silver), and similarly the earlier fine imposed on
a husband who divorces his wife, was intended as a deterrent to the man's
divorcing his wife. In either case, the man would have had to actually
hand the money over to the woman only at the time of divorce. The contract
is confirmed by the husband's father: since the husband would not actually
come into ownership of the property to be inherited from his father until
his father's death, the father must confirm that he approves of his son's
marriage and will not use this marriage as an excuse to disown his son
(thereby leaving the son's new wife high and dry).
Divorce and remarriage
were common in Egypt at all periods and contention between siblings and
half-siblings, frequent. To stress the close nature of siblings, both
literary and documentary sources frequently specify that they share both
mother and father. To resolve potential disputes before they might arise,
the somewhat practical or pragmatic expediency was chosen of making it
incumbent on the father to secure the permission of his older children,
who stood to lose part of their inheritance. Since men, even full grown
men, remained economically dependent on their parents, and especially
their fathers, until the parents died, it would also be in the best
interests of the son to agree to his father's remarriage (and not risk
rupture and complete disinheritance). Thus, everybody's wants or needs
were satisfied by getting everyone to agree to what at least some people
wanted. This pattern fits with the observation that agreement and
resolution of conflict, rather than "abstract justice," often
seem to have been the aim of Egyptian court decisions.
Divorce and remarriage
seem to have been relatively easy and relatively common. There is little
convincing evidence for polygamy, except by the king, but extensive
evidence for "serial monogamy." Either party could divorce a
spouse on any grounds or, basically, without grounds, without any interest
or record on the part of the state. The vocabulary for divorce, like that
for marriage, reflected the fact that marriage was, basically, living
together; a man "left, abandoned" a woman; a woman "went
(away from)" or "left, abandoned" a man.
Although neither party
had to provide legal (or social, moral or ethical) grounds for divorce,
the economic responsibilities spelled out in the annuity contracts made
this a serious step. Thus, normally a married woman was supported by her
husband for as long as they remained married and his property was entailed
for their children. Since even remarriage after the death of a first wife
could lead to wrangling over property and inheritance rights, a bitter
divorce and remarriage could lead to major legal contests.
If a man divorced his
wife, he had to return her dowry (if she had brought one) and pay her a
fine; if she divorced him, there was no fine. A spouse divorced for fault
(including adultery) forfeited his or her share of the couple's joint
property. After divorce, both were free to remarry. But it seems clear
that, until the husband has returned his wife's dowry and paid her the
fine, or until she has accepted it, the husband remained liable for
supporting her, even if they were no longer living together. Some
(ex-)husbands, then as now, tried to avoid supporting their (ex-)wives,
and we have several references to a woman's biological family stepping in
to support or assist her when her husband can't or won't.
The ancient Egyptian
concept of adultery consisted of a married person having sex with someone
other than that person's spouse. It was just as "wrong" for a
man to commit adultery as for a woman. The Egyptian system was family
cantered, and the terminology for marriage and divorce was the same for
both sexes; adultery was defined in family terms and condemned for both
men and women, and sex by unmarried individuals seems not to have been a
This brief overview on
women's rights, which has necessarily omitted many questions and much
detail, only touches upon the complexities of this ancient culture, where
women's remarkable legal equality and ability to own and dispose of
property must be seen in the light of the social world in which they
lived--a world dominated, at least in the range of records which have been
preserved for us, by men and men's concerns.
THE AUTHOR | Janet H. Johnson
Janet H. Johnson, professor of Egyptology in the Oriental Institute and
department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations at the University
of Chicago, is also a member of the university committees on the ancient
Mediterranean world, Jewish studies, and gender studies. Her main
interests include Egyptian language and Egypt in the "Late
Period" (1st millennium B.C.). Publications include the 3rd edition
(online) of her teaching grammar of Demotic, Thus Wrote 'Onchsheshonqy,
as well as numerous articles and books. She is the director of the Chicago
Demotic Dictionary Project and director of the Egyptian Reading Book
James C. Thompson
This tomb painting illustrating the
reunion of a husband and wife in the after-life shows the
very real affection that was considered the norm in Ancient
Egypt treated its women
better than any of the other major civilizations of the ancient
world. The Egyptians believed that joy and happiness were
legitimate goals of life and regarded home and family as the
major source of delight.
It was taken for
granted in the ancient world that the head of the house was the
man. The true meaning of this fact for women varied considerably
from one place and time to another, and the impact was much
greater if the law drew a distinction between a man and a
woman. Marriage and offspring were always considered desirable,
but in some societies wives were simply domestic servants and
offspring acquired importance only when they grew up.
Undoubtedly there were a number of very strong willed women who
disregarded custom and ruled their families with the sheer force
of their personalities, but they were the exception.
Egyptian women were
fortunate in two important ways:
- While women
could become Pharaoh only in very special circumstances,
they were otherwise regarded as totally equal to men as
far as the law was concerned. They could own property,
borrow money, sign contracts, initiate divorce, appear
in court as a witness, etc. Of course, they were also
equally subject to whatever responsibilities normally
accompanied those rights.
- Love and
emotional support were considered to be important parts
of marriage. Egyptians loved children as people and not
just as potential workers and care-takers.
Athenian men married
out of a sense of civic duty and put off the fateful day until
the age of 30 or more, at which time they married girls of half
their age whose youth made them more easily controlled. In
contrast, Ancient Egyptian men and women valued and enjoyed each
other's company. Love and affection were thought to be
important, and marriage was the natural state for people of all
It is interesting to
note, however, that there is no record anywhere of an actual
marriage ceremony. We have records of divorce, we know that
adultery (defined as sexual relations with a married woman---not
a married man) was forbidden, and it is clear that everyone knew
who was married to whom. Some scholars believe that the absence
of any information on an actual marriage ceremony is merely a
fluke in the historical record. Others argue that there was in
fact no ceremony: a couple were considered married when they
began to live together, calling to mind the modern North
American concept of 'common-law marriage'.
A small handful of
documents mention a man giving permission for a marriage, but
all are sufficiently ambiguous to leave open the question of
whether or not a father's permission was necessary as it was in
other societies of the time. The earliest known Egyptian
marriage contract dates from the seventh century BCE, long after
the end of the New Kingdom.
those in the New Kingdom, had several wives, although only one
bore the title King's Great Wife and functioned as Queen.
Monogamy seems to have been the norm for the rest of the
country. A high death rate, particularly in childbirth, meant
that many Egyptians of both sexes had more than one spouse.
There is no unambiguous evidence of a man having more than one
wife at a time, although there is some evidence of men who
fathered children by a servant girl when their wives were unable
Marriage was the
natural state for Egyptians of both genders, and the most common
title for non-royal women was "mistress of the house". There is
little doubt that in Egypt, as in the rest of the ancient world,
the man was expected to be the head of the family, but a popular
bit of advice urged husbands to avoid interfering in household
matters and trust their wives to do the job properly. There was
certainly enough work for everyone as there were no TV dinners
and food had to be prepared from scratch; in fact, if you wanted
a loaf of bread you would even have to grind the grain yourself.
You might buy sandals but most other articles of clothing were
made in the home. Those who could afford it had servants and
slaves to do the actual work, but the 'mistress of the house'
would still be expected to supervise and to see that everything
was done properly.
considerably in size, but they were all made of mud brick with a
flat, thatched roof. Summer days were very hot and winter nights
very cold, so the houses were designed with the climate in mind.
Since the rooms in the center of the house provided the best
protection from the heat that was where the living room was
located. Depending on the size of this room, wooden pillars
might be put in the center to help support the roof which was
high enough to allow an open window along the length of the
north wall to let in light and a cooling north breeze. A stone
hearth on the floor would allow for a fire to produce heat on
cold evenings. The combination of window and fire place would
have made this the most comfortable room in the house. Niches
were cut into the walls for religious items and for lamps.
Behind the living room would be the master bedroom and kitchen.
Beneath the kitchen most houses had a basement that could be
used for storage.
The state provided a
block of houses for the tomb workers on the outskirts of the
city of Amarna. Each house was five meters wide and ten meters
long. The town of Deir el Medina housed the workers who build
the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Those houses were larger
and offered about seventy-five square meters of living space to
each family. The men in both communities were highly skilled and
likely their families were better off than most peasant families
who unfortunately left few signs of their existence. We can only
guess what their life was like.
Egypt had a significant
middle class during the New Kingdom; their houses would have
been much the same size as the houses of their socio-economic
equivalent in North America today. The portion of the house in
front of the living room would be used as a reception and
storage area. A wealthy family might well have had a full time
doorman living in that reception area. Instead of just a single
bedroom and kitchen a wealthy home had many rooms behind the
living room. These additional rooms might have included an
office for the head of the house, a room for bathing, storage
areas, a harem and a room for other families living in the
It should be noted here
that except in the largest homes of the very wealthy it was
gender and marital status, not rank, that determined where in
the house you slept. The harem was simply the room in the house
occupied by the unmarried women. This could have included the
mother, or even grandmother, of the householder or 'mistress of
the house' as well as any unattached female servants or slaves.
LITERACY IN ANCIENT EGYPT
We have already noted that
women in Ancient Egypt had the same rights and obligations as men as
far as the law was concerned. They could own and manage property
and they regularly attended social events with their husbands. This
seems to have been more than just a formality for Athenians were
quite horrified by the freedom of Egyptian women to wonder about as
To what extent did this
allow women to acquire high status employment? To what extent to it
lead to widespread literacy among upper class women? We don't have
a clear cut answer to either question, but it would appear that the
answer is 'very little'.
The Mistress of the House
was in charge of running the home, and among the well-to-do that
would have been quite a responsibility. It involved the management
of many servants and an extensive inventory of supplies. The
largest estates would have had a male scribe on staff to record
detailed inventory, and it is quite possible the mistress kept track
of everything else in her head.
In the Middle Kingdom we
see occasional references to seshet which sounds like the
feminine of the Egyptian word for scribe. It is quite possible that
one woman with this title was indeed a scribe, but the others were
clearly from a non-elite class. One with the title was a
hairdresser by trade and it has been suggested that seshet
could have been an abbreviated word for cosmetician. These
references do not appear in the Old or New Kingdoms. There may have
been a few women scribes, but it seems certain that the position was
almost totally reserved for men. No woman achieved prominence in the
bureaucracy of government.
Women did serve in temples,
but it is quite possible that their duties did not require literacy.
Several New Kingdom scenes
show women with a scribal kit under their chairs. In only one,
however, can we be certain that the kit belonged to the woman in
question. There are letters from women but we cannot be sure that
they did not have a servant to do the writing.
In light of the prominence
of women in the upper classes and the importance of royal women it
seems likely that some, if not all were literate, but we have no
evidence of it. In any event there is no body of writing directed
to the women of society nor is there a literary manuscript with a
clearly feminine name as author.
FEMININE TITLES IN ANCIENT EGYPT
All societies, ancient and
modern, have sought to find ways to acknowledge the people who
contribute more than most to their community. Medals are handed out
to soldiers who perform particularly heroic deeds. Pictures and
statues of leaders are displayed in public places. One very common
method of honoring special people is to give them a title. Countess,
duke and duchess would be examples used today in parts of Europe.
Ancient Egypt was a very
hierarchical society, and as you might expect, titles were very
important. There were three ways by which women could acquire a
title: inheritance, marriage and merit. We know that all three of
these ways were in operation, but at this point we do not have
sufficient evidence to do more than guess which method was used for
a specific title or which method a specific woman used to earn her
The highest ranking women
at any one time were the King's Mother and the King's Great Wife.
Egyptian kings could and did have many wives. All bore the title
King's Wife, but it was the Great Wife who took precedence at
special ceremonies and it was her son who was first in line to
inherit the throne. Occasionally a king, Amunhotep III, for example,
is known to have had two Great Wives living at the same time.
Whenever they were shown together in the same painting, however,
only the senior was shown with the title; the other was then simply
called King's Wife. As might be expected, there was considerable
prestige attached to the titles of King's Sister and King's
Daughter, whether the holder be related to the current king or his
It will only take a few
generations before the descendents of a King's Sister or a King's
Brother will have to move out of the palace and live on their own.
Such people could no longer consider themselves related to the
current king, but they did form an aristocracy that could be called
on to fill leadership roles in local governments. The most prominent
men in this group bore the title Hereditary Nobleman (rpat).
The female equivalent was Hereditary Noblewoman (rtpat).
Older texts translated this word as "Hereditary Princess", but that
expression has been abandoned as it called to mind the now
discredited theory of an "Heiress Princess" whose husband became
king. Also, not all the holders of this title were princesses in the
sense that they were related to the reigning monarch. Since nobility
implies heredity anyway, it might be simpler and more accurate to
call her Noblewoman. The title corresponds to the British Duchess or
the European Countess.
The titles Ornament of the
King (Xkrt nsw) and Sole Ornament of the King (Xkrt nsw
watt) were equivalent to the modern expression, Lady in Waiting.
The word Sole did not mean unique but simply signified a higher
rank. Further down the social ladder was the Servant of the Ruler.
The women who held this title were married to rather junior
officials so the "ruler" was likely a governor and not the king.
All of the above titles
carried a large amount of prestige, but no responsibility or
authority. A second category identifies a particular job and ranged
from the lowly position of washerwoman all the way up to the one
woman who held the rank of Vizier, the top bureaucrat in the
country. The percentage of women in high office was relatively small
but significant enough to suggest it was more than an aberration.
Some scholars have argued that women could supervise other women but
could not supervise men.
The most common titles in
this category referred to a religious function. In the Old Kingdom
the priesthood was a part time job filled by community minded
members of the middle and upper classes, who devoted one or two
months a year to the service of their god. Many women bore the title
Priestess (Hmt nTr) of Hathor, Neith and occasionally some
other deity. Musicians (xnr) danced and played musical
instruments under the leadership of the Great Musician (wrt xnr).
The usual title for women in the choir was Singer (Hsyt)
By the New Kingdom the
priesthood gradually turned into a full time profession. Although
two women held the very prominent office of Second Prophet of Amun
and Mut respectively, women were largely confined to musical roles
in the temple. A very common title at this time was Musician (Smayt)
These women regularly served both gods and goddesses and were shown
on temple and tomb walls carrying a sistrum or tambourine.
The title Mistress of the
House (nbt pr) was available to any woman who owned or was
married to someone who owned a house. Many women bore the title with
pride, but others seem to have regarded it as a meaningless
affectation. In legal documents women were often referred to as
citizeness (anx niwt).
WOMEN, RELIGION AND PIETY IN ANCIENT
Pictures on this page are Copyright
The British Museum
and are used with permission
More, perhaps, than any other culture in the ancient world or since,
the Egyptians were struck by the rhythms of the universe. Everyone
is aware of the rising and setting sun, night and day, the moon’s
monthly cycle, the seasons, birth and death, etc., but only the
Egyptians made a religion of these recurrences. Possibly it was the
Nile River that made them realize how dependent they were on
continuity, for every year the river flooded its banks turned the
entire country into a shallow lake, and four months later the water
receded enough to plant. Any time the flood levels were low there
would be famine and any time there was too much water villages would
As leader of the
country, it was the King’s job to ensure the willingness of the gods
to work for the maintenance of order and the continuation of these
natural cycles for life itself depended on them. The Pharaoh was
thought to be partially divine in order to facilitate his work with
both humans and gods.
Akhenaten tried to convince
his people that there was only one God, Aten, but the experiment in
monotheism did not survive the death of the Pharaoh who introduced
it. Otherwise the Egyptians were a remarkably tolerant people when
it came to matters of religion. There were no atheists or
agnostics, of course, but there is no evidence of the sort of “my
view of god is better than your view of god” that is all too common
in interdenominational and inter-religion relations today.
In theory the Pharaoh was the
chief priest and appointed a High Priest in each of the temples to
act in his absence. In reality every temple functioned as an
independent unit and more often than not the High Priest got his job
the same way other men got theirs: by being the son of the
predecessor. Each god or goddess had his or her own cult center
that operated without ties to any other organization. Even when two
or more temples worshipped the same god or goddess, they usually
operated as unrelated entities.
There was no catechism or
official body of doctrine that all worshippers were expected to
believe, nor were there congregations in the manner of churches
today. Worship was carried out by the priests, not by ordinary
people, and was designed to ensure the gods and goddesses looked
with favor on Egypt. It was not designed to facilitate a
relationship between the individual and his deity.
A statue of the god or goddess
was kept in a cupboard in the sanctuary. Every day a priest would
clean the statue, change its clothes, and offer food and drink. The
statue, a man-made representation, was a home for the god or goddess
in the same way that a mummy was a home for a person’s Ka and Ba: no
one thought of the statue as the real thing any more than would a
modern Christian offering prayers to a Crucifix or a statue of the
Occasionally the statue was
taken out of the temple and paraded around for the masses to see.
This would be a time of feasting and celebration. While some
provided a place for ordinary people to present their petitions or
to offer personal prayers, temples existed to propitiate the gods.
Those seeking a more personal relationship with the divine
worshipped household gods at home.
It is a truism that the
Egyptians were a very conservative people. They had no real
objection to new ideas, but they tended to layer the new on top
rather than discard the old. Where we see contradiction, they saw
further clarification. There are several creation myths: modern
people would say that while they could not believe any of them,
logic would decree that if one were true the others had to be
false. The Ancient Egyptian would see no reason not to accept them
all despite the differences.
Isis was undoubtedly the most popular goddess in Ancient Egypt. She
is normally pictured as a woman with the hieroglyphic sign for a
throne on her head. Her enormous popularity, however, led to a
merging with other goddesses, so, for example, she can often be
found wearing Hathor’s cow horns and solar disk. The Greeks equated
her with both the moon goddess Astarte and the corn goddess Demeter.
temples had a corner reserved for the worship of Isis, but it was
not until Dynasty XXX (The Late Period) that Isis got her own temple
in the Eastern Delta. Other temples followed soon after at Philae
(just south of Aswan) and at Denderah.
She was often
thought of as the protector goddess and was one of the deities that
guarded the four corners of the king’s sarcophagus. It was as a
loving and faithful wife and mother, however, that Isis was best
known and revered.
As king of Egypt,
the god Osiris taught his people to harvest crops and to worship the
gods. His brother Seth was jealous enough of Osiris popularity but
he was absolutely furious that Isis and not he was made regent while
the king traveled to spread his ideas around the world. Seth killed
his brother by locking him in a box and tossing it into the river.
The box drifted downstream, into the Mediterranean Sea and ended up
wedged in a giant tamarisk tree in the palace of the King of Byblos.
distraught at the death of her husband and set out to find his
body. Using a combination of help from the humans she met along the
way and her magical powers as a goddess she learned the whereabouts
of the box and her husband’s body.
herself as an old lady, she was invited into the palace, the queen
thinking that an Egyptian might know some spells that would cure her
ailing son. Isis was revealed as a goddess. As a reward for saving
the prince, she was given the tamarisk in which, unknown to anyone
else, her husband’s body had been lodged. Isis retrieved the body
of Osiris and returned the tree to the King of Byblos who made it
the centerpiece of a new temple.
Shortly after Isis
returned to Egypt Seth found the body, cut it up, and scattered the
pieces. With the help of her sister, Nephthys, Isis managed to find
all of the pieces. The gods Anubis and Thoth helped them put the
pieces back together, embalm the body and wrap it in linen cloth,
thus making the first mummy. Isis changed herself into a bird and
used her wings to fan life back into him. He was then made King of
Isis had an infant
son at this point and the next few years were spent raising him.
Life was not easy for a single mother, even a goddess, and they were
often hungry and constantly in fear that Seth would find them.
Eventually Horus reached manhood and was ready to claim his throne.
The Tribunal of the Gods agreed to meet to decide the issue.
Re preferred the
throne would go to the more experienced Seth and ordered that Isis a
women, be excluded from the discussion. The wily Isis bribed the
ferryman to take her to the island where she transformed herself
into a beautiful young woman. Seth was besotted. Not realizing who
she was, he determined to possess her, but she refused his advances
unless he agreed to help her.
Her son, she said,
was caring for his father’s cattle, when a stranger came and stole
them. She needed his help to get them back. The Egyptian word for
cattle was also used as a synonym for the Egyptian people. As soon
as he promised to get back her son’s “cattle”, Isis revealed herself
as a goddess and demanded he keep his promise to return the Egyptian
people to Horus. The gods all agreed that Seth had been beaten and
Horus became King of Egypt.
We can see from
this story that gods and goddesses have considerable power but that
were limits to what they could do. They had the same emotions and
the same needs as humans. Some scholars have suggested that the
conflict between Seth and Horus may have reflected an actual
incident in early history where it was decided that the succession
would pass to a king’s son and not to his brother.
assimilated with a number of goddesses and her worship spread to the
farthest corners of the Roman Empire. It has been suggested that if
Emperor Constantine had not given his support to Christianity early
in the Fourth Century A.D. that the cult of Isis might still be a
major religion in the world of today.
to Isis, Hathor was the most popular goddess in Ancient Egypt. Her
name, in Egyptian, meant “The Mansion of Horus”, so there is no
doubt that she was considered one of the senior sky goddesses and
sometimes called “Eye of the Sun God, Re”. She can be pictured in
a variety of ways:
as a gigantic cow standing astride the four corners of the
earth with the stars and planets attached to her hide and udder.
The sun is fixed between the horns on her head. (The sky goddess
Nut is also pictured this way, minus, of course, the udder and
a woman with a round, somewhat flattened face with a wig
through which one can see the ears of a cow.
a very beautiful, young woman wearing an image of the sun
caught in the grip of the horns of a cow.
When the aging Re became
concerned that some humans were plotting against him he sent Hathor
to catch and punish the guilty. Hathor took so much joy from her
task and the taste of blood that he feared she would go on to kill
all of humanity. The Sun God ordered that red ochre be mixed with
enough beer to flood the land. Hathor thought it was blood and
greedily drank it all. Needless to say she got so drunk that she
forgot about her plan to kill all mankind.
Despite this one image of a
bloodthirsty Hathor, she was normally thought of as a fun loving
goddess concerned with the well being of humanity. She took a
special interest in unmarried girls, for whom she would often find
husbands, and as a fertility goddess she was called upon to help
women in childbirth. When the Greeks came to match their deities
with those of Egypt Hathor was thought to be the equivalent of
Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty.
The Seven Hathors, a group of
goddesses resembling Hathor, were able to foretell the fate of a
newborn in the same way as the Fates of Greece.
Many temples were built in her
honor both in Egypt and outside. Most of Egypt’s large towns had at
least a shrine dedicated to her and often showed the local goddess
as a manifestation of Hathor. In honor of his wife Nefertari,
Ramesses II built a temple for Hathor at Abu Simbel in Nubia. One
of the best known and most important Hathor temples was the one at
Denderah, some 60 km north of Luxor. We have already noted that
temple worship was usually carried out by the priests rather than
the people, but commoners had a chance to participate during the
great festivals when the divine statue was taken on a trip outside
the temple. At Denderah the special occasion was the annual
celebration of the Sacred Marriage of Hathor and Horus. Two weeks
before May’s new moon, Hathor’s statue sailed 70 km up-river to
Edfu. The procession stopped at several places along the way to
allow the goddess to visit local deities. She was met at Edfu by
the statue of Horus and together the two deities were carried to
various holy sites for the performance of the appropriate rituals.
For the next two weeks temple staff supplied free food and drink to
all pilgrims. It was, of course, the biggest party of the year.
The Egyptian concept of ma’at refers to the natural order of the
universe, ‘the way things ought to be’. It is sometimes called
‘justice’ but there is no word in the English language that really
encompasses what the Egyptians meant and more often than not the
word is simply left untranslated. Ma’at included the proper
relationship between one human and another, between ruler and ruled,
and between gods and people. Even the universe was subject to Ma’at
as it was the force that kept the seasons in succession.
Ma’at did not mean that
everyone should be equal. Some will have more money, social status,
and authority than others, but responsibility goes with privilege.
The rich should provide aid to the poor and those with power should
use it to ensure there is justice for the weak.
On the day of judgment the
heart was weighed against a feather to determine if the deceased had
lived a life in accordance with Ma’at. There was no attempt to
measure the amount of goodness or sin; a heart that weighed too much
was as unacceptable as a heart that weighed too little. If the
heart did not match the feather exactly, it was thrown to the
Devourer, a creature with the head of a crocodile, the forequarters
of a lion and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus: without a heart
to serve as home, no life was possible for the Ka or the Ba.
The concept of Ma’at was so
important that it was personified as a goddess. Portrayed as a
woman wearing a feather in her headband, she was thought to be the
daughter of the sun god, Re. She was often shown as a gift being
presented by the king to the other gods.
WOMEN AND WORSHIP
Worship services in the
temples were intended to promote a good relationship between the
state and the gods. Personal piety was an individual and family
matter, not a corporate one. Once a year most statues of a god or
goddess were taken out of the temple and paraded around for the
general public to see. This would be an excuse for a party as well
as an opportunity for the masses to express their devotion to the
Level of ritual purity
determined how far into a temple one could go, much like the levels
of security clearance in a modern spy novel, but anyone could enter
the outer courtyard. Here there was often a place where the
faithful could present their petitions within earshot of the deity.
Failing that, some public spirited individual may have constructed a
statue where people could leave an offering with the expectation
that someone would approach the divine on their behalf.
who could afford it set up a votive stela in the courtyard bearing
a prayer and a picture of himself or herself making an offering to
the god. A cheaper alternative was to use a shard of pottery.
Either approach may perhaps have operated in much the same way as a
candle left burning by the faithful in some Christian churches
today. This stela, dedicated to the god Ptah, pictures a number of
ears, symbolizing the donor's hope that people can stand before it
and have their prayers heard by Ptah.
Much of the personal religious
activity seems to have taken place at home. Unfortunately much of
the evidence for this has disappeared along with their mud brick
houses, but it appears that home had altars or niches that held
votive stelae. Worship involved food offerings, libations and
flowers, and stressed problems associated with conception and birth.
stela is from the Ptolemaic or Roman era of Egypt and was likely put
in the courtyard of a private home to keep evil away. Women looked
to the god Bes to promote pregnancy and to keep them safe during
childbirth. He is pictured in the stela brandishing a sword and
holding a serpent (the symbol of evil)
AND TEMPLE SERVICE IN ANCIENT EGYPT
There is no division in
Ancient Egypt between church and state; the temples were as much a
department of government as any other state activity. Each temple
was responsible to the Pharaoh, worshipped a single god or goddess,
and had no relationship to any other temple. The priesthood was
like any other job: it might be full or part time; one might work
for two temples without implying any relationship between the
temples; one could be a priest and still hold other office in the
community. In addition
to the priests, each temple had an administrative staff who managed
the temple's assets and maintained the building.
In charge of everything was
the high priest (literally first servant of the god) assisted
by as many as three deputies (second servant of the god,
etc.) Below them were fathers of the god and other middle
management posts, lector priests, wab priests and
priests (servants of the god). The lector priests read the
sacred texts during the ceremonies.
In the Old and Middle
Kingdoms many elite women bore the title priestess in the temple of
Hathor or Neith. There were also a few women who were wab
priestesses, but no woman held higher rank than that. The temples
of Hathor and Neith had few male priests and we do not really know
very much about the relative duties of priests and priestesses in
these two temples. By the New Kingdom the title Priestess had
The title God's Wife of
Amun first appeared in the Middle Kingdom as a priestly office.
(Perhaps it should be noted here that despite the name there was
nothing sexual in the office.) In the New Kingdom the title was
given only to royal women (usually the Pharaoh's Great Wife) and
acquired its own estate. While the office continued to have sacred
duties they were clearly secondary.
Next to Mistress of the House the most common title given to a woman
in the New Kingdom was shemayet (musician) in the temple of a
particular god or goddess. They apparently sang hymns and played a
sistrum (a rattle which was used to pacify gods and goddesses). Men
and women were musicians, but it is interesting to note that the
women musicians came from all classes in society while the men were
from the lower class only.
We do not know if the
musicians were paid or not, nor do we know if their jobs were full
or part time. The female musicians were under the direction of an
elite woman bearing the title Great One of the Troupe off Musical
Performers, but we do not know if the male musicians were under her
charge or not. It is quite possible that wealthy women volunteered
their services and lower class musicians were paid.
It would appear, then, that
women were always involved in temple worship but never at the senior
level of priesthood and never in a management role beyond the
supervision of other women.
HUMAN NATURE IN LIFE
AND IN DEATH
civilization frequently differentiates between body and soul, and
sometimes between mind and body or between what is inherited and
what is learned. The Ancient Egyptian would go much further and saw
each person as made up of five separate elements. Since all were
considered to be of equal importance, they are listed here in random
Physical Body: This is the part that everyone could see and
the part that related to other living creatures. It ate, walked,
and worked during its earthbound existence. Mummification provided
much information about the appearance of the inner organs, but the
Egyptians knew surprisingly little about their function., believing,
for example, that the heart (not the brain) was the seat of emotion
and thought. Although at death the body lost its ability to do
things, it remained an essential part of the individual, for the Ka
and the Ba required a home.
Shadow: Since the sun shone brightly almost every day it
should perhaps not be surprising that a person’s shadow was
considered an integral part of the individual. The shadow went
everywhere the woman went and was always visible except at night
with the lamp extinguished.
Ka: We might better use the phrase “life force”, for the
presence or absence of the Ka marked the difference between life and
death. The Ka did not die, but its flight meant death for the
Physical Body. Like the body, the Ka required nourishment and had
to be fed. The Egyptians knew, of course, that if you left food for
the dead at night, the offering would still be there in the morning,
but they believed that the Ka could make use of the energy within
Ba: The Ba is not an easy concept for modern westerners to
grasp. It closely resembles our concept of the soul, for it is
spiritual not physical, contains the individual’s full personality,
and comes into being, or at least becomes significant, when the
physical body dies for it can then move at will among the living.
It is usually pictured as a bird (commonly the falcon) with a human
head to emphasize that each is quite specific and different from
every other Ba. Soul would be a perfect English translation, were
it not for the fact that the Egyptians believed that inanimate
objects, like chairs and doors, though clearly not alive, also had a
Ba. In this sense, Ba seems to refer to the impression a person or
thing makes on others. Osiris was said to be the Ba of Re because
both gods share similar qualities. (Perhaps there is a parallel
here with the assertion of Jesus Christ that “those who have seen me
have seen the Father”.) As long as you are talking about the Ba of
an individual man or woman, however, soul is a good translation and
certainly conveys the idea the Egyptians meant.
Name: The Egyptian word ren is usually translated as name
but actually meant a great deal more. A person’s name was not just
a means of distinguishing one from another but an integral part of
the person herself. To know a person’s name implied power over that
person. Writing a name on a shard of pottery, and then breaking it,
was believed to be a way of inflicting harm on someone. As a means
of self preservation each Egyptian god and goddess had names so
secret that even the other gods did not know them. Perhaps the
people of today who fear the advent of identity cards and the loss
of privacy entailed by the computer age have their roots in the
ancient concern about the power of a name.
Death occurred when the ka
left the body. The Egyptians did not envision a utopian paradise or
heaven for the dead, but rather a continuation of earthly life. The
spirits of the dead moved among the living and continued pretty much
as they had before death except that they could not be seen. All of
this was possible, however, only if the proper steps were taken.
The first step was the
preparation of a suitable home for the Ba could wander freely among
the living during the day but needed a home or a place to go every
night. Some have suggested that the daily rise and setting of the
Ba closely parallels the sun’s cycle. The ideal home for the Ba was
the original body, but a statue or even the name of the deceased
would do as long as it was something recognizable. If the body was
to be the Ba’s home for more than a few days it had to be dried out
to prevent decay. The poor were wrapped in a reed blanket and
buried in the desert sand, but those who could afford the best
wanted to be mummified. After the brain was removed and discarded,
the body was covered with natron to remove all of the moisture. The
liver, lungs, stomach and intestines were placed in four vases
called Canopic jars. The body was then wrapped in linen cloth. The
cost of the process varied with the quality of the linen and the
length of time the body was dried in natron. The full process took
70 days to complete.
Tombs, at least for those who
could afford them, were modeled after homes. Once the coffin was
entombed the burial room would be permanently sealed, offering the
same kind of privacy provided by a master bedroom. Next to the
burial chamber were one or more rooms for the use of family members
and friends who wanted to visit the tomb to honor the dead and to
bring food and other gifts for his or her use in the afterlife. The
well to do would have many of their favorite and valuable things
buried with them. These objects would be intended to both impress
the survivors and to be of use to the deceased in the next life.
The most important part of the
funeral ceremony was the Opening of the Mouth. This was done to the
mummy and any statuary in order to allow the deceased to be able to
eat, talk and move about. The Ba could now rejoin its Ka and become
an Akh. The effectiveness of the funeral ceremony was dependent on
the deceased’s ability to survive the final judgment where his heart
was weighed against the feather of truth, justice and proper
behavior. If the deceased had indeed led a good life he could
finally join the society of the dead. .
There was a Judgment Day and
if the Devourer got your heart then you ceased to exist---there was
no Hell or Purgatory as places of punishment---but there were any
number of spells that could be used to ensure a favorable verdict,
so the link between religion and morality was a tenuous one.
The eldest son was expected to
take charge of the funeral arrangements and Egyptian law
disinherited any son who failed to live up to this obligation in a
manner appropriate to his social and economic class.
A final word would be
appropriate. Much of our evidence for life in Ancient Egypt does
come from tombs and therefore deals with death, but this reflects
the kind of evidence that survived several thousand years and is not
really a sign that the Egyptians were preoccupied with death. It
was life that the Egyptians loved: they just could not bear the idea
of giving it up.
GOD’S WIFE OF AMUN
applied sporadically in the Middle Kingdom to non-royal women,
became a major honor given only to the wives, mothers, and daughters
of kings in the Eighteenth Dynasty, and celibate daughters of kings
in the Third Intermediate Period. Although the same title was used
in all three periods, it would probably be best to treat them
separately for what we say about the office in one period may not
apply in the other. We know almost nothing about the office in the
Middle Kingdom so we will look at the evidence for the New Kingdom
and for the Third Intermediate.
The first of the royal women to bear the title was
Ahhotep, but it was under her daughter, Ahmose-Nefertari, that
the office achieved importance. King Ahmose made a deal with the
priesthood of Amun whereby his wife and her heirs would hold the
title in perpetuity. Along with it came its own estate and
officials. Amun acquired a great deal of wealth; the king acquired
a position of considerable prestige and power for a queen or
An18th dynasty God’s Wife might have worn
priestly garments (short wig, a thin square of cloth hanging in a
knot from the back of the head, and a belted or unbelted sheath
dress) or, the dress and regalia appropriate to her standing as a
royal princess or queen.
From the reign of Hatshepsut there is a scene in which
the God’s Wife participated in temple ritual along with a male
priest, a scene in which she led male priests into the sacred lake
for purification and one where she followed the King into the inner
court of the temple. So much wealth and prestige was attached to
the office that we must wonder if there was not more to it than the
performance of a few rituals. There is absolutely no sign of sacred
prostitution anywhere in Ancient Egypt so we can safely assume that
despite the title there was nothing sexual about the office. The
following have been suggested:
is possible that she was, perhaps through the playing of music,
supposed to make Amun happy and stimulated enough to carry out
the reproductive activity necessary for the continued survival
of Egypt. This could account for the word wife without
involving any sexual activity.
Egyptians did see everything in pairs---good and evil, order and
chaos, day and night, etc.---so that one was never possible
without the other. It has been suggested that the God’s Wife
could participate in worship along side the King as a sort of
matching pair. The problem with this suggestion is that the
office was not always held by a King’s Great Wife and yet the
chief queen was a much more natural match for a king.
Others have suggested that a fear of the rising power of the
Amun priesthood existed as early as the end of the Seventeenth
and the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasties and that Ahmose
hoped that by planting a trusted female relative in a position
of power at the center of the Amun temple he could curb the
pretensions of the male priesthood. This argument is
strengthened by the fact that throughout the Eighteenth Dynasty
princesses were forbidden to marry anyone but the king himself.
This prevented the dispersal of royal wealth and hence of
political power. Whatever authority and prestige a royal woman
possessed came entirely from the King, allowing no one to set up
a rival power base simply through association with a King’s
- If a
queen or princess is the wife of Amun then the god might have
fathered any children she produced. Pharaohs liked to claim
that they were sons of the divine. The claim was always made
retroactively: after they ascended the throne they could point
out that their mother had been the wife of the god.
THE THIRD INTERMEDIATE PERIOD
Central authority broke down
once again in the Third Intermediate Period. Unlike the first two
such periods, fragmentation was not seen as a particularly bad
thing. The power and size of each region fluctuated over time and
there were moments of intense rivalry that could include war, but
the four-century period was more stable than one might expect.
Upper Egypt was essentially a
theocracy under the control of the god Amun and his priests; Lower
Egypt (the Delta) was further divided into several principalities.
For most of the time all parts of Egypt pretended to accept a single
ruler, usually the King of Tanis, as the supreme Pharaoh, but this
individual rarely demanded or received obedience outside of his own
corner of the country.
Throughout the Old, Middle and
New Kingdoms one of the Pharaoh’s most important jobs was that of
leading the worship of the gods in order to maintain Ma’at. By the
beginning of the Third Intermediate Period the Amun priesthood had
succeeded in transferring that responsibility to itself, at least in
the area of Upper Egypt. If the king was not needed to propitiate
the gods, he was certainly not needed to appoint men to important
civic offices like the Vizier, Treasurer, and Commander of the
Army. At times a Pharaoh based in Tanis would have his daughter
appointed as God’s Wife of Amun. By having a celibate daughter
carry out the traditional ceremonies by which the monarch appealed
to the gods to help Egypt, the Pharaoh could pretend to rule the
whole country without the Amun priesthood actually having to give up
any real power, though it is possible there were occasions when the
balance shifted and the God’s Wife actually exercised some genuine
Towards the end of this period the kings of Kush controlled the
God’s Wife. New Kingdom Pharaohs had taken great pains to control
Nubia, but over the course of the 20th Dynasty Egypt’s
physical presence disappeared. By the middle of the Eighth Century
BCE the roles were reversed and Nubia controlled Upper Egypt.
Although the King of Kush called himself the Pharaoh of Egypt, his
authority seldom extended north of Memphis and was often exercised
through the office of God’s Wife of Amun.
Third Intermediate Period the God’s Wife of Amun was always
celibate; she might have been the daughter of a king or a high
priest, but she was never a king’s wife. She was always pictured
wearing a queen’s costume and never the dress of a princess or
priestess. Paintings show her performing rituals that had hitherto
only been carried out by a Pharaoh: making an offering or libation
to a god; being embraced by a god; receiving the symbols of kingship
from a god. A relief from North Karnak even shows a God’s Wife
celebrating a Sed Festival, traditionally the thirtieth anniversary
of a king’s reign.
figure of a 22nd Dynasty God's Wife of Amun. Photo used
with the kind permission of Jon Bodsworth
THE EGYPTIAN ECONOMY
THE CASHLESS SOCIETY AND WOMEN'S PLACE IN IT
Three features of Ancient Egypt combine to make a unique
They had no
They had no
their wealth, they could trade for all of the
necessities and a wide range of luxuries.
Coins did not arrive in Egypt until after the Greeks.
Although every purchase involved the trade of one item
of merchandise for another the system worked
surprisingly well. The deben was their monetary unit
and it functioned much as the dollar does in North
America today to let customers know the price of things,
except that there was no deben coin. A deben was
approximately 90 grams of copper; very expensive items
could also be priced in debens of silver or gold with
proportionate changes in value.
Since seventy-five litters of wheat cost one deben and a
pair of sandals also cost one deben, it made perfect
sense to the Egyptians that a pair of sandals could be
purchased with a bag of wheat as easily as a with chunk
of copper. Even if the sandal maker had more than
enough wheat, she would happily accept it in payment
because it could easily be exchanged for something
else. The most common items used to make purchases were
wheat, barley, and cooking or lamp oil, but in theory
almost anything would do.
Unlike the Greeks and Romans, the Egyptians did not see
trade as a legitimate way to get rich. Merchants were
simply servants employed to find and deliver
merchandise; they were paid for their labor but did not
expect any additional profit. Temples and wealthy
noblemen had them scour the country for whatever was
needed. If in the process they picked up a surplus in
some things they were made available for trade to the
general population. Items were simply priced according
to the cost of production. Over the centuries there
were adjustments in relative value but these were fairly
Most Egyptians were agricultural workers and so their
pay was whatever they produced less taxes, rent, etc.
Those on salary would receive most of their wage in
wheat which they could either eat or exchange for other
There were no legal restrictions on the economic
activity of women in Ancient Egypt. Most of the
contracts and business papers we have found bear men's
names, but there are enough legal documents of all types
with the names of women that we can be certain their
rights were more than merely theoretical. Women could
and did own property, buy and sell, borrow and lend, sue
and be sued, make a will and inherit property.
Men and women could make a will distributing their
property as they wished. We even have examples where
the husband and wife made wills bequeathing their shares
of the family assets in different ways. Most people did
not bother making a will and at death their estates were
simply divided among their children, with sons and
daughters inheriting equally. We hear about these cases
only if there is a dispute that went to court. There is
evidence to suggest, however, that a son or daughter who
did not participate in the expense and act of burial was
not entitled to inherit.
happen to a farm when the owners die? In particular,
should it be passed intact to a single heir or be
divided among all heirs? In some countries the whole
farm went to the eldest son and other arrangements had
to be made for any additional children. In other
countries it could be split into small farms and divided
among the heirs. The Egyptians generally followed the
second course, but there are cases where one of the
heirs (either a man or a woman) administered the intact
property and simply shared the income with the remaining
heirs who lived elsewhere.
There were many ways in which a "Mistress of the House"
could supplement her income. Some had small vegetable
gardens. Many made clothing. One document shows an
enterprising woman purchasing a slave for 400 deben.
She paid half in clothing and borrowed the rest from her
neighbors. It is likely the woman expected to be able
to repay the loan by renting out the slave. Indeed, we
have a receipt showing that one woman received several
garments, a bull and sixteen goats as payment for 27
days work by her slave. Those who could not raise the
money on their own sometimes joined with neighbors to
buy a slave. Women were often part of such a
know that a woman could inherit and operate a large,
wealthy estate. A man who owned such an estate would
hire a male scribe to manage it and it would seem
reasonable that an heiress would do the same thing. We
have little evidence of elite women with paying jobs
whether full or part time.
The fact that a woman could manage her own financial
affairs did not necessarily mean that she could live
without male support. Outside of domestic service there
were few opportunities for a woman to earn a wage. If
she inherited a three to five acre plot of land (a
fairly typical holding among the independent peasantry)
she would need a husband or son to do the physical
work. What it did mean was that in case of marital
breakup or old age she might have some savings that
could be used to finance her care.
Life was harsh everywhere in the ancient world. For
most men, as well as women, their only assets were those
they earned that day. The legal right to manage your
finances was meaningless if there were no finances to
manage, and numerous writers mentioned the sad plight of
IN ANCIENT EGYPT
essentially a male activity in Ancient Egypt but Queens always had
an important role to play. Royal women grew very powerful in the
New Kingdom and clearly had an influence on the country. One women,
Hatshepsut, even became Pharaoh and ruled in her own name for a
number of years.
THE QUEEN IN THE
OLD AND MIDDLE KINGDOMS
Throughout the Old and
Middle Kingdoms the duties of the Queen might be summed up as
- Provide many children.
Succession was much smoother if there was a clearly recognized
son whose legitimacy as the new ruler was unquestioned. In an
age with such a short life expectancy, it paid to have as many
sons as possible to serve as spares.
- Ensure the smooth
running of the palace.
- If necessary, act as
regent if her husband, the king, died before his son was old
enough to rule on his own.
- Give silent support to
- Be a passive, but
visible, complement to the king.
ROYAL WOMEN IN THE
In the New Kingdom the
Queen became much more prominent and powerful. She acquired in her
own right secular and religious titles that carried with them
genuine jobs to do and estates with land, servants and
administrators to provide an independent income. The title God's
Wife of Amun provided the Queen with her own source of money and
gave her a considerable degree of independence.
Ankhesenamun (wife of
Tutankhamun) is shown wearing the kind of crown used by New Kingdom
queens to demonstrate their increased prestige.
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The Egyptians never told us
why this change took place, but we can guess. Emerging out of a
period of profound civil unrest, the New Kingdom saw a deliberate
attempt to enhance the power and prestige of the monarchy. Perhaps
a prominent queen was a part of the technique used by the kings to
make themselves more visible from one end of the land to the
Following the horrors of
World War II the United States ended its self imposed isolation and
decided to play a major role in world affairs. Egypt seems to have
done the same thing at the beginning of the New Kingdom. For the
first time it established a full time army for service in peace time
and in war and for the first time it sought to establish control
over lands that contained people who were not Egyptian. A simple
way to demonstrate friendship between two countries was to arrange a
marriage between the king of one country and the king's daughter of
another. Royal polygamy made this feasible but increased the need
to distinguish between the "real" wife and the ceremonial wives.
Egyptian kings had always
had secondary wives, probably to increase the odds of having the all
important son to inherit the throne, but the royal harem was small
and discrete and kept very much in the background. The number of
secondary wives increased in the New Kingdom and for the first time
we see the use of the expression "King's Great Wife" to
differentiate between the primary wife and the lesser wives.
Egyptians used the terms
"King's Great Wife", "King's Wife" and "King's Mother" where we
would use the term Queen. Their phrasing was much more explicit
than ours and clearly identified the queen's place in the scheme of
The rules of succession
provided that the next pharaoh would be the eldest son by the King's
Great Wife. Failing that, it would be a son by a lesser wife.
Unfortunately we do not have enough evidence to determine exactly
how that rule functioned in practice. Did a Pharaoh have a say in
which of his lesser wives would have her son become Pharaoh? We do
know that on occasion a Pharaoh would appoint his heir-apparent as
co-regent and this would certainly help eliminate any controversy
over the succession. If there was no son by a lesser wife then the
throne went to some other male relative. Always, however, the throne
went to a man.
At one time it was believed
that the succession was matrilineal. The throne went to the man who
married the Heiress Princess. The Heiress Princess would be the
eldest daughter of the
so in most cases kings would end up marrying their sisters. The
theory was developed to explain the large number of brother-sister
marriages in the royal family. Although largely discredited some
scholars still cling tenaciously to the theory.
If the heir was a child at
the time he became Pharaoh then his mother (presumably the Great
Wife of the previous monarch) could become regent. This did happen
on several occasions and in each case the mother performed all of
the ceremonial and political requirements of the job. When
Thuthmosis III ascended the throne as a young child in the New
Kingdom his mother, Hatshepsut, as expected, became regent and
carried out all the duties of king on behalf of her son. After a
few years, however, she simply abandoned the whole idea of a regency
and began to call herself the Female Horus, the legitimate Pharaoh,
and ruled as full king until her death.
The last time in the New
Kingdom that the heir was a child was in the reign of Tutankhamun,
who ascended the throne at the age of eight or nine. Presumably
there was someone in the background telling the young king what to
do (the most likely candidate for this job was Aye, the chief
advisor in the reign of Akhenaten), but there was no formally
proclaimed regent. This meant, of course, that Tutankhamun had to
marry Ankhesenamun right away, although Egypt had no history of
child marriage. Although there are several possibilities, we do not
really know who Tutankhamun's mother was, and it is quite possible
that she had died before he became king and was not available to be
It is easier to visualize
their clothing once you understand the unique way Egyptians drew the
human form. We will look at the material, the various styles they
wore, their makeup and finish with the scented cone.
Every artist must follow a
particular set of conventions in order to transfer three dimensional
reality to a two dimensional painting. To reverse the process and
see the reality that inspired a particular painting we must use the
same conventions the artist used.
Many artists today, for
example, want to show what something looks like to a person standing
in a particular place. The artist uses relative size and shadow in
order to show the required perspective. The Ancient Egyptian was
less interested in how something appeared to a particular viewer and
more interested in what the object actually looked like. To that end
he chose different view points for each part of the body.
The face, hip, legs and
feet are usually shown in profile while both shoulders face the
viewer. Paintings of women often show one breast in profile. It is
clearly impossible for anyone to stand this way, but it was believed
that this was the best method for solving the problems that arise in
going from three dimensions to two.
Most of the clothing in
Ancient Egypt was made of linen; a few items were made from wool.
Cotton was not introduced until the Coptic (Christian) period.
Linen is spun from the stem of the flax plant. Different grades were
produced depending on the desired end product. The finest thread was
produced from the youngest plant.
Spinning, weaving, and the sewing of clothes was an important
activity at all levels of society. Royal harem ladies were involved
in it as a commercial enterprise, and peasant and workers' wives
produced clothing for their families and bartered the surplus.
Various plant dyes were sometimes applied before weaving to produce
red, yellow or blue thread, but most was left in its natural color.
After the weaving was done, linen could be sun bleached to produce
an attractive white cloth that was very popular with the well to do.
Unlike the modern western
world, women's clothing in Ancient Egypt tended to be more
conservative than that of men. Throughout the Old, Middle and New
Kingdom, the most frequently used costume for women was the simple
sheath dress. A rectangular piece of cloth was folded once and sewn
down the edge to make a tube. The dress would extend from a few
inches above the ankles to either just above or just below the
Two shoulder straps held the
dress up. Some people believe the evidence should be accepted at
face value and assert that the dress was worn with the breasts
exposed. Others argue that the narrow strap was an artistic
convention only and that in real life the shoulder straps were wide
enough to cover the breasts. All of the figurines and the few
surviving dresses support the latter view. It should be noted that
the Ancient Egyptians would certainly not have regarded a bare
breast as immodest.
A popular variant of this dress had a short sleeved top with a
gathered neck opening to replace the straps
In the New Kingdom many men
and women adopted a robe which could be draped in various ways. Two
rectangular pieces of cloth, each about four feet by five feet and
sewn together along along the narrow end, leaving a space for the
neck. The basic outfit was easy to make and could be worn by a man
or a woman depending on what was done next. Once the dress was on
her, a woman would lift the two bottom corners, bring them around to
the front and knot them under the breasts. The robe was often worn
with vertical pleats.
The shawl, or sari, was very
popular among upper class women in the New Kingdom. It consisted of
a piece of cloth approximately 4 feet wide by 13 or 14 feet long.
One corner was tied to a cord around her waist on the left side.
Pass the material lengthwise around the back, gather up some pleats
and tuck them into the cord at the front, and pass the remainder
around the back and front again, passing it under the left armpit,
around the back again, over the right shoulder and toss what remains
back over the left shoulder, bringing it around and tie it to the
end originally caught in the belt.
The shawl was often made of
pleated material. Common accessories, as illustrated at left,
included a pleated cape and a long colored sash that was knotted
around the waist and allowed to hang almost to the floor at the
most important of all the fashion accessories was the wig. Shiny,
black hair, perhaps because of its association with youth and
vitality, was associated with eroticism, and artificial hair was a
simple way to maintain what nature neglected. Wigs served a more
practical function, however. Natural hair that was thick enough to
protect the wearer from the direct rays of the sun on a bright
summer day or keep the heat in on a cold winter night, was much too
hot to wear indoors, and a luxuriant hair-do was a breeding ground
for lice. The compromise was simple: Egyptians who could afford it
cut their hair short and then wore a wig. Unlike many toupee wearers
of today, the Egyptians were quite proud of their wigs and made no
attempt to pretend they were natural. Paintings and sculpture
frequently show an area of natural hair between the forehead and the
wig. While the most expensive wigs were made with real, human hair,
the design and structure were such that it would be almost
impossible to confuse a wig with the real thing. Egyptians were
proud of their wigs and would have been distressed at the thought
that someone might think they were not wearing one---or even worse,
could not afford one.
Palm fiber was used to make a skull cap to fit
the subject’s head. Human hair, alone or mixed with plant fiber and
wool, was twisted, curled, or pleated into slender braids and
attached to the cap with beeswax or resin. Various dyes were used to
produce the desired black. The basic structure remained the same
throughout Egyptian history, but many variations were possible, and
the style varied over time with the age, gender, and social class of
Old Kingdom women wore wigs with two or three
lairs of very tight braids across the top of the head and down both
sides and the back. There may or may not have been a part in the
middle. Several additional layers were added underneath to make the
sides so much fuller.
In addition to having or not having a part in
the middle, Old Kingdom wigs varied in length. Simpler style stopped
anywhere between the top of the shoulders and just below the ears, a
fuller version of what today might be called a bob. There were two
very popular styles with hair going down to the breasts. The
tripartite wig, as the name suggested, was divided into three parts.
Two extended behind the ears and down the sides of the face and the
front of the body as far as the breasts. A third part went down the
back as far as the shoulder blades. The enveloping wig was similar
in size, but covered the ears and circled from one side, around the
back, to the other side in one piece rather than three. The length
of the braids varied to allow them to fall freely to the breasts at
the front, to the shoulders at the sides, and down the back to the
The sun and heat required
the Egyptians to pay considerable attention to their skin and their
appearance for reasons of good health as much as vanity.
Egyptians bathed frequently, some several times a day. Unguents and
oils were applied to the skin by both sexes. One popular mixture was
made of plant extracts mixed with the fat of a cat, crocodile and
Eye makeup was regularly used to provide protection from the glare
of the sun and from disease bearing insects. Red ocher was applied
to the lips and cheeks for the same reason women use makeup today.
Hair was a special problem. It was hot, hard to keep clean and
easily infested with lice. Many solved the problem by shaving their
heads and wearing a wig. The wig could be raised on small pads to
allow a flow of air between the scalp and the hair and, of course,
they never turned grey or bald.
Women who kept their hair were told they could enhance its natural
color by rubbing in a mixture of oil and the boiled blood of a black
cat or bull.
was the fashion at parties for men and women to wear a perfumed cone
on the tops of their heads. The cone was usually made of ox tallow
and myrrh and as time passed melted and released a pleasant scent.
Men and women socialized together. When it came time to eat they sat
as couples at small tables piled high with food. The guests are
wearing robes with vertical pleats. The servant girl (standing on
the left) is wearing a thin belt on her hips, a brightly decorated
collar and very little else; she does, however, have the scented
cone on her head.