Women In Ancient Egypt


In many ancient societies women were treated as inferior beings and in some cases the property of their male family members. In Ancient Egypt women were treated with respect and had rights equal to men. Egyptian society ranked a person by the titles he/she held and the Egyptians cherished their titles dearly. Most women only held the title "Mistress of the House" but a few are recorded as having the title of steward, treasurer and there is one recorded physician. Women were banned from government post where writing was needed so most were believe to be illiterate. An Egyptian woman’s status normally depended on the rank of her male relations but she had individual rights. A woman could own property in her own name and hold professions that allowed her to have economic freedom from male relatives. A wife was entitled to one third of any property that she owned jointly with her husband and on her death could will her property to anyone she wished. Egyptian women were equal in the court system. They could act as a witness, plaintiffs or a defendant. Women were accountable for crimes they committed and would have to answer for them in court and if found guilty suffer the same punishment as the men. Most of the information we have of ancient Egyptian women’s daily life is that of noblewoman and the wealthy. Little is known about the life of peasant women. If modern times show an example they probably did not lead the lives their wealthy sisters did. Peasant women took care of their families and work for the wealthy as a servant. At home they shared the work load with other female family members. The extended family concept was present in Ancient Egypt with mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts, living together or in close proximity of each other. Tombs depict women at various occupations such as singers, musicians, dancers, servants, beer brewers, bakers, professional mourners, priestess and the loyal loving wife. Men were some times depicted as old and fat a sign of wisdom but women were always youthful and the female body’s child bearing parts were always emphasis. There is no difference in the way age is shown all women are portrayed as young and beautiful. This is why in tomb paintings a man’s wife, sisters and mother appear to be the same age. This may do with the negative image that old age has with child bearing and that a youthful body is able to bear children. It could also reflect the belief that a woman in the afterlife will have her youthful beauty restored and she will be an ageless beauty for eternity. Midwifery is always depicted as a female duty. Wall paintings show that two midwifes assisted a woman in labor. One attended to the mother and the second midwife attends to the unborn child. There are documents of tests the Egyptians used to find if a woman is fertile or pregnant and if the child would live or die. There are many documents that show that the importance of good hygiene and female health. Many documents deal with conception, miscarriage, child birth and milk supplies.

Couples are shown with the woman’s arm around her husband or each partner embracing the other. Husbands are normally shown in front of their wives this is the position of importance. Marriages were regarded as the normal process in a person’s life. It was uncommon for a person to go unmarried. Most marriages (excluding the royal family) appear to be monogamous. It appears no civil or religious ceremony took place to start marriage a couple just started living together as man and wife. Divorce was an acceptable end to a marriage. Grounds for divorce included childlessness (this was rare most childless couples adopted a poor relative or an orphan) and adultery on the woman’s part. Men left their property to their children and it was important for them to know who was biologically their child. It appears men were accountable for adultery by the community. There is documentation of an uprising in Thebes when a man carried on an affair without divorcing his wife, the entire neighborhood was up in arms, so it appears social pressure kept husbands faithful without civil laws.

The priesthood was a male occupation although many elite women served as priestess of the goddess Hathor, few women served other gods. A royal woman would hold the title of "God’s Wife of Amun" she was normally the unmarried sister or daughter of the present pharaoh. Women did hold temple titles such as the songstress of a god/goddess, the musician of a god/goddess, the dancer of a god/goddess. There is a scene from Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s Karnak temple that shows a group of female singers of the god Amun. The woman in charge of such a group would be given the title of "The Superior of the Musical Troupe of Amun." Professional mourners are depicted in tomb paintings. They follow the funeral procession to the deceased man’s tomb lamenting, pulling hair and shedding tears the entire route. Two women from the decease’s family are selected to portray the roles of the goddesses’ Isis and Nephthys mourning for the dead Osiris. Women’s funeral’s are depicted less but it is known that they received an equal in style but a less expensive version of their male relatives. It was customary for the eldest son to care for the tomb and funerary cults of decease parents however there are examples where a female relative performed this ritual. This duty would entail the burning of incense and a token offering of wine or food to the deceased parent.

Royal women in ancient Egypt are never called queen, there was no such word in their language. Their female attendants held the title of "Royal Ornament", a nurse maid and wet nurse for their children would have held titles showing their special relationships to the royal family. Titles like "Nurse of such and such" or the "Wet nurse of so in so" The pharaoh’s primary wife held the title of "Great Wife"; "God’s Wife" or "Great Royal Consort" and his daughters by her were considered royal princess. Females did not inherit their father’s throne it would be pass down normally to a son who would then marry the eldest royal princess. In some cases a royal female ruled in behalf of a young male relative until he came of age. To rule as true pharaoh the "Queen Regnant" would have to adopt the title roles of the pharaoh and this did not happen until Pharaoh Maatkare Hatshepsut. Pharaohs were considered the living son of Horus and assuming a Horus name was essential to ruling as Pharaoh. Hatshepsut did just that thus she is considered a true pharaoh. Royal women were married to their brothers or in some cases the father to keep the throne in the family. Royal women were never married to foreign kings or princes. (There is only one case document in the Bible to King Solomon). There is a written account that the King of Babylon sent a princess to King Amenhoptep III to marry and requested an Egyptian Princess be sent to Babylon to marry him. Amenhoptep III turned down the request replying "That since the days of old no Egyptian king’s daughter has been given to anyone." Foreign princess were welcomed to marry the Pharaoh but Egyptian princess did not marry foreign kings or princes. Any foreign princess that married the Pharaoh came with a large dowry and many attendants, she settled into life at the palace by taking an Egyptian name and becoming a minor (second)wife, although Ramesses the II gave the title "Great Wife" to a Hittite princess named Maatneferure. It should be noted that he had two Egyptian wives at that time that held the "Great Wife" title so this was not the normal practice. Other women of less noble birth were given the title "Concubine." These lesser wives’ children became important when the "Great Wife" produced no son to succeed the father. That is the case that happened to Thutmoses III, Hatshepsut’s successor. His mother was a minor wife and her son succeed to the throne of Egypt. This gave her the title of "Mother of the Pharaoh" and did not change the fact that Hatshepsut was the "God Wife" of Thutmoses II.

Women and men of Ancient Egypt held appearance in high regard. Good hygiene and grooming habits played and important part of their lives and reflected a person of breeding. Even by today standard Ancient Egyptian women are known for their beauty. Tomb paintings depict the owners in the latest fashions in wigs, clothing, and makeup. Cosmetics were not considered a luxury but a necessity for daily life and many examples of makeup, perfume, and toiletry items are found in tombs. Women are often shown gazing into a mirror at a banquet or party. These items were a status of wealth and would be placed in the tomb of the owner for the after life. A hairy body was not desired by either sex and shaving was a must for the wealthy. Women kept their hair short and even were known to shave their heads. Elaborate wigs adorn the heads of the wealthy. Bathing was done frequently and although the Ancient Egyptians did not have soap they used a soda mix solution to a bath in. Henna was used to dye the hair, nails and body. Wealthy ladies had female attendants that helped with her daily grooming. Nudity was not taboo in Ancient Egypt and both men and women are depicted nude. Nudity in paintings show the social rank and status. An example is the dancing girls are depicted nude but the party goers are all adorned in fashionable attire. The landowner is clothed but the field hands are nude.

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2nd December 2004


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