Woman and Law
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The Status of Women in

Ancient Egyptian Society

INTRODUCTION

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 inscriptions.

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 and women.

 

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 community property.

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 Naunakht.

 

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 storehouse."

 

 

FEMALE LITERACY

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 literate ability.

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 training.

 

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.

 

 

WOMEN'S OCCUPATIONS

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 unusual circumstances.

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.

 

 

CONCLUSION

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 Ancient Egypt


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 ardour, 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 house.
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 subsequent lawsuit.

Civil lawsuits 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.

Property

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 admissible.

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.

Annuity contracts

Although women 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.

Such concepts 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.

The so-called "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

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 major concern.

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.

ABOUT 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 Project.

 

 

WOMEN IN ANCIENT EGYPT

By

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.

 

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

 

MARRIAGE

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 classes.

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.

Kings, particularly 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 to conceive.

 

MISTRESS OF THE HOUSE

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.

Houses varied 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 house.

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.

WOMEN AND 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 they wished.

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 titles.

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 predecessor.

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 EGYPT

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 be destroyed.

        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 Virgin Mary.

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:

            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.

            Most Egyptian 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.

            Isis was 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.

            Having disguised 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 the Underworld.

            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.

            Isis was 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.

 

HATHOR: 

Next 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:

        1.      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 horns.) 

        2.      a woman with a round, somewhat flattened face with a wig through which one can see the ears of a cow.

3.      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.

 

 

MA’AT:

            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 local deity.

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.

Limestone stela of MahwiaThose 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.

Limestone stela with three figures of BesThis 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)

 

WOMEN 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 disappeared completely.

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

 

 

            Modern western 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 order.

1.      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. 

2.      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.

3.      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 the food.

4.      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.

5.      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

 

 

            This title, 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.

 

NEW KINGDOM:  

            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 princess.

            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:

  1. It 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.
  2. The 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. 
  3. 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 daughter.
  4. 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 authority.

      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.

            Throughout the 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.

 

 

Standing figure of a 22nd Dynasty God's Wife of Amun. Photo used with the kind permission of Jon Bodsworth www.egyptarchive.co.uk

 

THE EGYPTIAN ECONOMY

THE CASHLESS SOCIETY AND WOMEN'S PLACE IN IT

 

Three features of Ancient Egypt combine to make a unique economic system:

  1. They had no coinage

  2. They had no merchant class

  3. Depending on 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 minor.

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 items.

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. 
What should 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 consortium.

We 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 widows.

 

ROYAL WOMEN IN ANCIENT EGYPT

 

Kingship was 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 follows:

  1. 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.
  2. Ensure the smooth running of the palace.
  3. If necessary, act as regent if her husband, the king, died before his son was old enough to rule on his own.
  4. Give silent support to her husband.
  5. Be a passive, but visible, complement to the king.

 

ROYAL WOMEN IN THE NEW KINGDOM

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 other.  

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 things.

 

SUCCESSION

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 Heiress Queen, 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 regent.
 

 

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.

 

ARTISTIC CONVENTION

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.

 

 

 

MATERIAL

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.

 

 

WOMEN'S CLOTHING

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 breasts.
 

 

 

 

 

 

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 front.

 

 

WIGS

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 the wearer.

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 shoulder blades.

 

COSMETICS

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 hippo.
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.

 

SCENTED CONE

It 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 
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