Women in Ancient Egypt In ancient Egyptian society women were treated with equality and respect, and had more privileges than in any other ancient civilization except for the ancient Celts. One of the major problems reconstructing this ancient history is that we have hardly any records for the majority of women except for the upper classes. Scholars are using the wisdom texts, medical papyri, some literary sources, and inscriptions in the tombs and mortuary temples to find out about the life of ancient Egyptian women.
Egyptian women were relatively short in stature with dark hair, eyes, and light brown skin, although in the paintings of ancient Egyptians, women were portrayed with white skin and men with dark skin because women worked indoors and men outdoors.
While we have no formal ancient Egyptian law codes like Hammurabi’s in ancient Mesopotamia, we know that the vizier, second in command to the Pharaoh, was head of the Egyptian judiciary. Each case was considered on its own merits by a local magistrate with the vizier judging the most grave and complex issues. Legally, women could make contracts, borrow or lend goods, and initiate court cases, although women were more likely to be defendants than plaintiffs. Whether a woman was single or married, she had the right to inherit, purchase, and sell property, including slaves. This right to own property was an important legal concession providing a degree of security for women of every status from single, married, and widowed to abandoned women and their dependent children. Women also could make a will, and apparently leave their property to whoever they wished, even bypassing their children. The Lady Naunakhte remarked, “I am a free woman of Egypt. I have raised eight children, and have provided them with everything suitable to their station in life. But now I have grown old and behold, my children don’t look after me any more. I will therefore give my goods to the ones who have taken care of me. I will not give anything to the ones who have neglected me.”
Some other startling allowances for women in ancient Egypt were: women could live alone without the protection of a male guardian as in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome. Once the Ptolemic period (fourth century b.c.e.) occurred in ancient Egypt (successors to Alexander the Great’s conquest) and then the Roman period, women lost their equal legal rights. Women then even applied to have a legal guardian so they would not appear as a provincial Egyptian, but in keeping with Greek and Roman practices. Throughout the ancient Egyptian centuries, women were not secluded when dining either as they were in ancient Greek society. Drinking beer and wine were favorite pastimes of the Egyptians, and in deference to most all other ancient cultures, Egyptian women could drink and even get drunk.
Marriage customs in ancient Egypt were another interesting aspect of this culture. The powerful goddess Isis was given credit for instituting marriage to help men settle down. Apparently there were two kinds of marriage, one formalized by a marriage contract, and the other common life with no marriage contract. A girl in ancient Egypt was usually married shortly after the beginning of her menarche or “time of purification.” Both a dowry and a bridal gift were conveyed, again showing the esteem of women in ancient Egypt. While most marriages appear to have been arranged by parents, there is evidence of young people orchestrating their own marriage. Love poems and letters survive giving us a rare vision of pre-nuptial courting. “He is a neighbor who lives near my mother’s house, but I cannot go to him....It pains my heart to think of him, and I am obsessed by my love of him. Truly, he is foolish, but I am just the same. He does not know how much I long to embrace him, or he would send word to my mother.” This passage makes no sense unless there was some element of romance within marriage. So far a specific word meaning wedding has not been found in the hieroglyphics, or any words conveying the attendant festivities, but we do have some admonishments to prospective husbands. “Take to yourself a wife when you are twenty years old that you may have a son while you are still young... and love your wife at home as is fitting. Fill her stomach with food and provide clothes for her back... and make her heart glad, as long as you live.” Indeed, there are even some modern examples of didactic directions to husbands: “Don’t boss your wife in her own house when you know she is efficient. Don’t keep saying to her “where is it? Bring it to me” Especially when it is in the place where it ought to be.” In artistic depictions of a man and his wife, equality of size is paramount, again pointing out the difference in Egypt compared with other cultures. Officials generally had their formal sculpture or painting of themselves and their wife, not alone as in modern America. Most marriages were monogamous, although some husbands did have several wives or concubines, but there was always one official wife. Punishment for adultery, though, appears to have been meted out to only the wife. Death or her nose cut off was the result. Divorce was permissible for a variety of reasons, and these seem to be quite modern in comparison to other ancient cultures: mutual incompatibility, workaholic husband, or an adulterous affair for either spouse. Although society did not approve of it, rejection of a barren wife appears common. “Do not divorce a woman of your household if she does not conceive and does not give birth.”
The birth of a child was a joyous event. Each newborn received an individual horoscope that was cast just for the baby. If the couple decided they wanted to limit the number of children, the ancient Egyptians seemed to have perfected the art of contraception. Honey and sodium carbonate (natron) were sprinkled into the vulva or crocodile dung was cut up into sour milk and inserted as a pessary. Crocodile dung is like a sponge soaked in vinegar, a common western spermicide up to recent times. Another long-term birth control method, which apparently could prevent pregnancies from one to three years, was a mixture of acacia tips, bitter apple and dates bound with honey, and again used as a pessary. Pregnant women had several goddesses to pray to for a safe delivery: Hathor, Taweret (the pregnant hippopotamus), and Bes, the ugly dwarf god used also in protection of the home. Bes also frightened away harmful demons who might threaten the mother or child.
Almost alone among ancient peoples Egyptians permitted women to succeed to the throne. We can name five to six women pharaohs, and many more influential consorts or queens of the pharaohs. The most powerful woman ruler was Queen Hatshepsut, the daughter, wife and step-mother of pharaohs. She ruled in her own right for almost two decades during the eighteenth dynasty, 1479-1458 b.c.e. At times she appeared in the stylized beard pharaohs wore and as a sphinx. Just recently her mummy has been identified, and Egyptian authorities have moved it to the Cairo Museum. Claiming to be the daughter of the sun god Ra was also another important legitimizing tool that she used. Hatshepsut built the most spectacular mortuary temple in the Valley of the Kings, Deir El-Bahri, where it is still visible today, and a major tourist attraction in the Valley of the Kings. It is the greatest surviving religious monument from antiquity to a woman. Recent research has given Hatshepsut a much more influential role in religion and the economy. It appears that Hatshepsut established the rituals, festivals and priesthood organization that ancient Egyptians used to worship their many deities for centuries thereafter. Hatshepsut also erected two giant obelisks at the entrance of Karnak, the spectacular temple complex to the sun god, Ra. These obelisks were coated with electrum and must have cast an enormous sparkling beacon to the ancient Egyptians both by day and night. When Hatshepsut sent the famous Egyptian economic expedition to the land of Punt, they brought back the myrrh and frankincense tree, which were planted not only near her temple, but all over Egypt, definitely enhancing the economy of Egypt. Her deeds can still be seen on the walls of Deir-el-Bahri, even though her step-son attempted to eradicate her efforts when he became pharaoh after her death.
Another remarkable queen, Nefertiti, was the consort to Akhenaten, the pharaoh who chose to worship only one god, the sun god or Amon-Ra. Nefertiti’s dates are circa 1350 b.c.e. and are also in the eighteenth dynasty like Hatshepsut, but about one hundred years later. Nefertiti is world-famous because of the most incredible sculptured bust, now in the Berlin Museum in Germany. It was the ancients “Mona Lisa”. While many sources state that Nefertiti was born in Egypt, others state she was a Hittite princess. In Anatolia, the Hittites worshiped a sun goddess, Arinna. While there is no proof, Nefertiti could very well have influenced her husband in his decision to turn his back on the other deities of Egypt. Nerfertiti’s mummy is now identified too, and there is evidence on her skull of the famous headpiece she wore.
King Ahmose conquered Nubia, and drove the Hyksos out of Egypt during the New Kingdom period of ancient Egypt. There is evidence that his mother, Ahhotep, played a critical part in this conquering. Ahmose dedicated a great stele at Karnak in her honor. It reads, “One who cares for Egypt: she looked after her soldiers; she has guarded her [Egypt]; she has brought back her fugitives and collected together her deserters; she has pacified upper Egypt, and expelled her rebels.” 1 This dedication interrupts the standard phrases usually applied to queens. In her tomb, a necklace was included of three gold flies on a chain. This necklace was the so-called ‘Order of the Golden Fly’, which was a military decoration given for valor.2
One of the most remarkable aspects clearly demonstrating women’s equality in ancient Egypt was their inclusion in various professions and other economic positions. The official view of the state was that women could be depended on to perform useful work even outside the home, and were therefore entitled to pay equal to men. Women could even succeed to their father’s profession. As can be expected, the majority of women were peasants, and were mostly employed in indoor domestic activities: food preparation, cleaning, brewing beer, and making linen cloth. Some women held management and supervisory positions in the private sector such as the textile and wig industries. Professional positions available to women were midwives, physicians, official mourners, and priestesses. The priesthood was the most prestigious profession for women. Being a priestess placed the highest status on women. In the old and middle kingdoms high born ladies generally were the priestesses for the goddesses. These priestesses even had reverential names, like `god’s wife’ or `god’s mother’. Women also filled the role of pontifex maximus for Upper Egypt during the twenty-first dynasty for the god Amen-Ra. This divine adoratrice or pontifex maximus remained celibate, and some of these women were deified upon death. By the new kingdom period women of all classes were allowed to work in temple services, but the male priests during this time increased their selectivity to only a chosen few. One of most important functions for a priestess was to act as the impersonator of the goddess. At every temple in ancient Egypt priestesses and other women acted as musicians, dancers and singers. They sang hymns and played instruments such as the harp, tambourine, and in later times castanets during the services. At festivals the priestesses danced through the streets, bestowing life, health and happiness on the population for the deity they represented.
There is evidence of female doctors and a medical school to train midwives. The first known Egyptian woman physician was Peseshet. A popular story shows the esteem midwives held. In this tale it was not beneath the dignity of a goddess to deliver a baby. A career in mourning was followed by many ancient Egyptian women, for those who could afford it hired professional mourners to grieve openly about the house while the seventy-day mummification process was being carried out. This is a position that women still fill today.
Perhaps the most famous examples elucidating the equal status of women and men in ancient Egypt were the power and presence of many female deities. While Egypt was polytheistic, certain gods and goddesses were national deities and had huge followings. Several goddesses were creators: Nekhebt, Ua Zit, and Nut. Nut in some of the tombs is shown swallowing the sun as it moves through the twenty-four hour day. Isis, was perhaps the major goddess. She was akin to the mother or great goddess of other cultures. The yearly flood of the Nile was caused by the tears Isis shed when her husband Osiris was slain by his evil brother Seth. Isis managed to get her husband Osiris back together enough to become pregnant while hovering over Osiris with her wings, one of the icons associated with Isis. Osiris, Isis and their son Horus make up the most important trinity of ancient Egypt. Depictions of Isis nursing or holding baby Horus, will later serve the Christians as they sculpt and paint the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Another illustration of Isis shows her with a throne on her head. This sycamore throne meant that the pharaohs gained their right to rule through Isis. Isis also was the goddess of many other facets. She taught agriculture and the healing arts to the Egyptians. Temples dedicated to Isis were located all over the Middle East after Hellenistic and Roman culture spread Egyptian ideas. Cleopatra had a sculpture made of herself in the likeness of Isis. The island of Philae is now where a Roman temple in Isis’ honor was relocated to, when a world-wide public outcry occurred against the submersion of Isis’s temple on another island when the Aswan Dam flooded the region. Another important deity was Hathor, a goddess of many attributes. She appears to have been a major competitor to Isis. In Hathor’s iconography, the transformation from zoomorphic to anthropomorphic worship in Egyptian religious practices is evident. A cow, a woman with cow horns or a woman with a head-dress of the disc of the moon and ears or horns of a cow all indicate this important goddess. She was the goddess of love (providing husbands for young gals), childbirth, the moon, heaven, and the underworld. Hathor is often mistaken with Isis because both wear the moon & horn disc headdress. The goddess Sekhmet was the defender of the divine order. Having the body of a woman and the head of a lioness, she would chastise mankind when they neglected to honor the gods. She was married to the god Ptah, who at times is credited with creation. Complementing this couple was their son Nefertum, making another triad of Egyptian deities. Their base was at the capital at Memphis. The goddess Maat was the Egyptian’s deity of justice. She was surrounded by a set of wings like Isis, and one of her feathers was weighed on the scale against a deceased’s heart with the god Anubis judging the results. It was important that the feather of justice was lighter than the heart weighted down by sin. Only those deceased Egyptians whose hearts were lighter than Maat’s feather would have eternal life. This same scale of justice was transferred down through the centuries to Greece, and ultimately to America. It is also thought that the wings of Maat and Isis become the iconography model for angels in Christianity.