Women in ancient Egypt

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Women in ancient Egypt had a status that significantly contrasts the status of many modern women because they occupied power in ways that women commonly do not in contemporary societies. Although men and women in Egypt had traditionally distinct powers in society, there was no insurmountable barrier in front of those who wanted to deviate from this pattern. Egyptian society recognized women as equal to men, but as having an essential complementarity, expressed especially in the action of producing children. This respect is expressed clearly in the ancient Egyptian theology and morality. They had the opportunity to rule the country and have the same basic human rights as men.

Working women[edit]

Kitchen model; women workers grinding, baking and brewing. Bread- and beer-making (made of fermented bread) were usually women's tasks. Twelfth dynasty of Egypt, 2050-1800 BCE. Egyptian Museum of Berlin.

Most women belonged to the peasantry, and worked alongside their husbands doing agricultural work. Women were known to manage farms or businesses in the absence of their husbands or sons. Among the upper classes of society, a woman usually did not work outside the home, and instead supervised the servants of the household and her children's education. Women belonging to families wealthy enough to hire nannies to help with childcare frequently worked as perfume-makers, and also were employed in courts and temples, as acrobats, dancers, singers, and musicians, which were all considered respectable pursuits for upper-class women. Women belonging to any class could work as professional mourners or musicians, and these were common jobs. Noblewomen could be members of the priesthood connected to either a god or goddess.[1] Women could even be at the head of a business as, for example, the lady Nenofer of the New Kingdom, and could also be a doctor, like the lady Peseshet during the Fourth dynasty of Egypt.

Pregnancy and childbirth[edit]

Wall relief showing childbirth, Treasure Hall, Temple of Edfu, Egypt.

There is much evidence of complex beliefs and practices in ancient Egypt related to the important role fertility played in society. If a woman was not fertile, her husband could potentially divorce her for not producing heirs. Religious beliefs included rules concerning purification, similar to other religions in the region. Women in Egypt were believed to be eliminating impure elements during menstruation, and were excused from work and could not enter the restricted rooms of temples while menstruating. Fertility rituals were used by couples desiring children. Contraception was permitted as well, and medical texts survive that refer to many contraceptive formulas (although the ingredients are often now difficult to identify). Some formulas, such as drinks made of celery base and beer, are dubious, but others show a basic knowledge of somewhat effective methods, such as a spermicide made of fermented acacia gum, which produces a sperm-killing lactic acid.[2]

Once pregnant, the uterus was placed under the protection of a specific goddess, Tenenet. Ritual medical care was given by anointing the woman's body with beneficial oils, using a small bottle in the form of a woman posed with her hands placed on a round belly. There was a way in the Egyptian society for families who wanted to know the sex of their baby, which spread to Greece, Byzantium, and then to Europe, where it was practiced for centuries without anyone realizing its origins in ancient Egypt. It involves placing grains of barley and wheat in a cloth sachet and soaking them in the pregnant woman's urine; if barley sprouted first, the baby was said to be a boy, and if the wheat sprouted first, the baby was said to be a girl. In ancient Egypt, the word for barley was the synonym of "father".[3]

When it was time for childbirth, the pregnant woman was assisted by midwives. She would be shaved, including her head. The midwives would support the woman during labor while she remained in a squatting position on a mat. On the corners of the mat were placed four bricks, believed to be the incarnation of four goddesses: Nut, the great goddess of the sky; Tefnut, the elder, the feminine polarity of the first couple; Aset the beautiful; and Nebet Hut, the excellent.[4]

Women playing an official role at the highest levels[edit]

Old Kingdom Egyptian princess Nefertiabet (dated 2590-2565 BCE) from her tomb at Giza, painting on limestone, now in the Louvre Museum, Paris.

Few ancient civilizations enabled women to achieve important social positions. In ancient Egypt, there are not only examples indicating women high officials were not so rare, but more surprising (for its time), there are women in the highest office, that of Pharaoh. More than a kind of feminism, this is a sign of the importance of theocracy in Egyptian society. Women were also equally important to the Egyptians because of the importance of childbirth.

Egyptian society of antiquity, like many other civilizations of the time, used religion as a foundation for society. This was how the throne of the power of the Pharaohs was justified, as anointed by the gods, and the holder of the throne had a divine right. Typically, in ancient societies power was transferred from one male to the next. Women gave birth to the heirs, signaling importance towards marriage, as well. The son inherited the power, and in cases where the king did not have a son, the throne was then inherited by the male members of the family further removed from the king, such as cousins or uncles. But even if the monarch had daughters, they could not gain power.

In Egyptian civilization, this obligation of passing power to a male successor was not without exceptions. Royal blood, a factor determined by divine legitimacy, was the unique criteria for access to the throne. However, the divine essence was transmitted to the royal spouse, as was the case with Nefertiti, wife of Akhenaton.

Egyptians preferred to be governed by a woman with royal blood (being divine according to mythology) rather than by a man who did not have royal blood. Also, during crises of succession, there were women who took power. When this happened, the female Pharaoh adopted all of the masculine symbols of the throne. There even exist doubts, in some instances, about the sex of certain Pharaohs who could have been women.

During the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, when Amenhotep I died, his successor Thutmose I appears to have not been his son, at least he was not the child of a secondary wife of the late Pharaoh; if his wife Ahmes was related to Amenhotep I, this union permitted divine legitimacy. For the following successor, princess Hatshepsut, daughter of Thutmose I and the Great Royal Wife, enabled Thutmose II, son of his second wife and therefore half-brother of the princess, to gain the throne by marrying him.

It became more common for women to gain the throne in ancient Egypt. For example, as with Hatshepsut, who took the place of her nephew Thutmose III. When Hatshepsut inherited the throne from her late husband and became Pharaoh, her daughter Neferure took on a role that exceeded the normal duties of a royal princess, acquiring a more queenly role.[5] There were also the Cleopatras, of whom the best known is Cleopatra VII (69 BCE to 30 BCE), famous for her beauty and her relationships with Julius Caesar and then Marc Antony, the leaders who depended upon her throne.

The women Pharaohs who are best known, and of whom historians are most certain, are:

Many of the Great Royal Wives also played significant diplomatic and political roles:

Elsewhere in the New Kingdom, the Great Wife was often invested with a divine role: "Wife of god", "Hand of god". Hatchepsout was the first Great wife (of Thutmose II) to receive this latter title.

For women holding office in the highest levels of the bureaucracy, one can cite Nebet, a Vizir in ancient Egypt during the Sixth dynasty of Egypt. It is necessary to recognize that a woman at such a high level of authority remained extremely rare and it was not until the Twenty-sixth dynasty of Egypt that a similar situation can be found. Women did, however, occupy numerous offices such as scribe in the bureaucracy, except during the New Kingdom, where all public bureaucracy posts were filled by men.

There was also the Divine Adoratrice of Amun, granted major spiritual power, but also a power restricted to Thebes.

Women in ancient Egyptian literature[edit]

Fayum mummy portrait, circa 100-200 CE, Louvre Museum, Paris.

Certainly, the literature of ancient Egypt did not hesitate to present women as frivolous, capricious, and rarely trustworthy. But despite this, women benefitted from a status that was rare in the civilizations of the time.

While the painters and sculptors gave to women a serene image as part of a happy family, the writers were not tender, and they portrayed women as being the origin of misfortune and guilty of many sins (where one can see a form of the myth of Eve and the apple, or Pandora).

As Gaston Maspero describes in Contes populaires (Popular Tales), there was the fatal misadventure of Bytaou, the humble farmhand at the home of his brother Anoupou. Seduced by the wife of his brother, he succumbs to the charm of her beauty. She does not hesitate to denounce him to Anoupou, lying and never ceasing until she obtains the ultimate punishment for Bytaou at the hands of Anoupou. But she is punished in turn; Anoupou discovers much later that he has been played for a fool by his wife, who he kills, and throws her body to the dogs.

It is important not to interpret this incorrectly: the rarely flattering portrayal of women in Egyptian literature does not reveal for nothing that women were despised. The Pharaoh was often given the same treatment by storytellers who presented the Pharaoh as a stubborn and whimsical character.

Men were invited to cherish their wives. Ptahhotep (Third dynasty of Egypt) expressed this in the following maxim (written in the Papyrus Prisse): "You must love your wife with all your heart, [...], make her heart happy as long as you live".

Romance was present in Egyptian literature, for example, in a papyrus at the Leyden Museum:

I took you for my wife when I was a young man. I was with you. Then I conquered all ranks, but I never abandoned you. I have never made your heart suffer. Here is what I have done when I was a young man and I exercised all the high functions of Pharoah, Life, Health, Strength, I never abandoned you, saying to the contrary: "That it was by being with you!" [...] My perfumes, cakes and clothes, I did not bring them to another dwelling. [...] When you became ill, I made myself an official of health and did whatever was necessary. [...] When I joined Memphis, I asked for a holiday as Pharoah, I went to the place where you dwell (your tomb) and I wept deeply. [...] I will not enter another house. [...] But, here are the sisters who are in the house, I did not go to any of them.[6]

Women in ancient Egyptian art[edit]

Upper torso of a woman's figurine. Slit eyes and mouth. She wears an elaborate headdress. Pottery fragment. Ramesside period. From Egypt. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London
Nefertiti with body similar to Akhenaten's

Egyptian women were seldom depicted as ageing and wrinkled; there were standards to be met. The women were shown as slender and beautiful, partly so that they could take on that frame in the afterlife. Egyptian art was far from realistic. It shows how much the ancient Egyptians cared about how they were perceived. There were hardly any images of pregnant women or women's bodies after giving birth. The man, however, could be shown as athletic and engaging or old and experienced. These idealistic depictions would reflect the targeted image, such as the physically able king, or the tired king who works day and night for his people. People were depicted at the peak of their beauty and youth, in an attempt to remain so forever. However, in the Third Intermediate Period, we see a shifting in the artistic style representing women. A more rounded body type appeared, with larger, more drooping breasts and a thickened body.[7] This depiction was no longer necessarily associated with the ageing of women. There was also a certain "type" to be followed. Women, and children, were represented with an artistic style that would link them to their husband or father. The most obvious example would be the Amarna Period. Akhenaten's Amarna Period hosted great changes in artistic style. However, the most distinctive part was how Nefertiti, his wife, and his kids were shown with the same body type as his, which was quite unique for that matter. There are depictions showing Nefertiti with a body so similar to Akhenaten's, that you couldn't tell which one of them it was; long chins, round waists, full buttocks, sunken cheekbones and full lips. But there are also other depictions showing Nefertiti completely different, with a feminine face and a slender shape. After the Amarna Period, elite women were occasionally shown with fuller breasts.

Divine image[edit]

Osiris and Isis, statuettes at the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

In the abundance of divinities in Egyptian mythology, there existed a large number of goddesses, as was also the case in Greece. By studying their symbolism we learn the image that women had in the eyes of the ancient Egyptians. As with Greek divinities, many were related to one another, by blood or marriage, such as Isis and her sister Nephtys, both the respective wives of Osiris (the god of the dead) and of Seth, themselves brothers.

Women and their image were most often associated with life and fertility. In the case of the goddess Isis, who was associated with many principles: as the wife of Osiris who was killed by his brother, she was connected to funeral rites. As a mother, she became the feminine protector, but above all the mother-creator, she who gives life. Through this goddess, the principles of life and death were closely linked. In effect, while she was associated with funeral rites, these rites were to prevent the deceased from submitting to a second death in the succeeding dimension, which explains among other things, the food found in abundance by archeologists in the tombs. On the other hand, life in its physical aspect meaningful only by death, because these principles are part of a movement of eternal new beginning that is then in a sense more spiritual, the movement of life, or eternal life. A symbol of the goddess is also the palm tree, the symbol of eternal life. She breathed the breath of eternal life to her dead husband.

The goddess represented the era's regard for women, because it was crucial to maintain the spirit in her image, it was this idea of eternal life and of maturity that Isis reflected, venerated as the Celestial Mother. It was in this role that Isis was arguably made the most important deity of Egyptian mythology. Her influence even extended to religions of different civilizations, where she would become identified under different names and where her cult grew, particularly in the Roman Empire.

The most influential goddesses were:

  • Isis: goddess of magic and mysticism,
  • Hathor: goddess of nourishment and love,
  • Bastet: goddess protector of the home,
  • Sekhmet: goddess of wrath

God's Wives[edit]

"God's Wife of Amun" was the highest-ranking priestess of the Amun cult. At the beginning of the New Kingdom, the title was associated with royalty, usually kings' wives or kings' mothers. The first royal wife to hold this title was Ahmose-Nefertari, wife of Ahmose I, who then passed it on to her daughter, Meritamen who then passed it on to Hatshepsut. Both Ahmose-Nefertari and Hatshepsut used this title as an alternative to King's Principal Wife which reflects the significance that lay behind the title. The title God's Wife was another title given to royal women in sacral roles. In the Nubian and Saite Periods, they built their own chapels and mortuary temples. In addition to God's Wife, these women had other titles such as Divine Adorer or God's Hand. As religious figures, some would expect that they would remain pure. However, the sexual endeavors of the Gods' Wives were left to question; the concept of chastity in a religious sense wasn't relevant to the ancient Egyptians' religious practice.[8]

Influence of the image[edit]

The rediscovery of ancient Egypt during the era of Napoleon[edit]

In 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte led a campaign in Egypt that would be a military fiasco, but which enabled him to return to France with drawings and observations by artists and scientists that he had brought on the expedition.

But it was in 1822 that Egypt became more open to researchers, the wider world developed a passion for ancient Egypt, and wanted to know more about its history and its culture.

The fascination with Egypt that followed, and with everything that concerned Antiquity, carried a powerful influence. In this era, in Paris, almost all fields of creativity were heavily inspired by the rediscoveries from Antiquity. The arts became redirected along this path, following the fashion for ancient Egypt down every esthetic route. In this way, clothing styles changed, and women during the Napoleonic Empire adopted styles associated with ancient Egyptian women, combined with the influence of Ancient Greece and Rome: corsets were abandoned (only temporarily), as well as petticoats, and the raised Empire waist was the popular dress silhouette. Dresses were lighter, and were decorated with motifs from Antiquity, for example palm trees, one of the symbols of the goddess Isis.

Modern images of women in ancient Egypt[edit]

Theda Bara poses in a still image from Cleopatra. Exotic sets and costumes, depicting a fantasy version of ancient Egypt, were a good fit for Theda Bara's popular "vamp" image.

When women in ancient Egypt are evoked, the first image that comes to mind for most is that of Cleopatra, or more precisely, Cleopatra VII. Although having a Greek origin, it is she who would be associated with the image of women in ancient Egypt, for several generations. This has been in large part due to modern cinema, especially the films of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

During the 1950s and 1960s, a number of costume dramas were produced, putting on screen Egyptian women imagined during this era where filmmakers want to show glamour. In 1963, the glamorous image of Cleopatra was cemented for the public in the film Cleopatra directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and portrayed by Liz Taylor.

This passion for the queen is explained by the tumultuous life that she lived, full of intrigues, romances (her two most famous lovers being Julius Caesar and Marc Antony), her power, and her tragic death (she died by suicide). In short, she fascinates, by her life and by what she did. Through her connection to ancient Egypt, she has an aura of mystery for spectators, the same aura that surrounds ancient Egypt and its esoteric aspects, the same mysteriousness linked in the popular imagination with ancient curses of mummies, or other secrets of the tombs. Presented this way, Egyptian women become a sort of seductress, fascinating because of a romanticized view of her.

As a sign of celebrity, this imagined Egypt has not only been the object of fantasies but has also been caricatured. The best-known of these caricatures today are those appearing in such media of popular culture as the Astérix comic books of René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. Playing on the glamorous image created by cinema, the authors satirize the fascination that Cleopatra exercises on those around her, focusing especially on her nose and exaggerating her queenly status by depicting her as capricious and temperamental, far-removed from the ideal of the seductive woman so often imagined.

In a more general manner, this image of Egyptian women, forceful, behind a mysterious and magical veil, and exercising a seductive power, continues to this day, for example in the American series Stargate SG-1, or again in Luc Besson's film The Fifth Element (1997).

Fashion designers are also regularly inspired by the iconography of Egyptian women, who have become an esthetic point of reference.

The social and political position of women[edit]

Couple harvesting crops
Female musicians
Amenhotep III and Queen Tiye

In many of ancient Egypt's artistic approaches, we see women supporting or clasping their husband, maybe even protecting them. So in some sense, the woman could be the protector, probably associated with the concept of protective goddesses. Women mingled in society, we see evidence of that where peasant women were depicted helping with the harvest;[9] townswomen are shown as professional musicians, dancers,[10] members of temple staff and party guests. So women weren't just traditional stay at home wives, but they contributed to society and sometimes even in untraditional ways. There are scenes of women in weaving workshops, and tomb inscriptions of women's professional involvement. Such titles could range from political to religious to funerary. Some titles inscribed on tombs were mainly honorific; to honor the women after they die. Some examples of titles are: Overseer of Female Physicians, Judge and Vizier, Director of the Dining Hall, and Overseer of Funerary Priests.[11] Religious positions weren't limited to noblewomen as some would think, in fact, we see evidence of priestesses of major goddesses bearing humble titles like tenant farmer. As history moves from the Old Kingdom to the Middle Kingdom, we see less and less of women in authority which may suggest changes in political and social norms. In the New Kingdom, however, texts show that women had their own legal identity and could even purchase and inherit land without the need for male consent. During this period, women were portrayed in all shapes and sizes, where their status and wealth were reflected in the size of their statue. Idealistic portrayals were an important part of Egyptian art, mainly because they believed that these representations would follow them into eternity. Egyptian mothers were a significant part of ancient Egypt. Egyptian men, even those of the highest social class, often placed only their mother's names on their monuments. Egyptian mothers were more prominently displayed than the fathers, also in literature. The ancient Egyptians paid attention to size and quantity; large tombs indicated a significance of the deceased. Some queens of the early dynasties even commemorated tombs as large as their husbands'. The pair statue of Amenhotep III and his common-born wife, Queen Tiye, dominates a room at the Cairo Museum, showing the queen as of equal size as the king. Hatshepsut, unsatisfied with her status as second best to her father, took it to clarifying her divine conception, so as to legitimize her ruling as pharaoh by recording the miracle of her birth on the walls of the second terrace.

Family and marriage[edit]

Fixed property descended from mother to daughter and then maybe from daughter to son.[12] It was the property of the Royal Daughters and whoever became king, acquired the kingdom by virtue of marrying the princess. Incest was the norm; not only was a brother permitted to marry his sister, but he was also expected to. In love songs, brother and sister carried the same significance as husband and wife. "Sn", the Egyptian word for "brother", also meant "peer", "mate", or "second". Thus, the love songs may be referring to the egalitarian relationship between husband and wife.[13] The example for interbreeding, amongst royalty, was set by the gods since Osiris married his sister, Isis. Depictions usually show husband and wife in an affectionate attitude with their children so we assume most families were generally happy, but of course realism wasn't a goal in Egyptian depictions. The wife also shared responsibilities and work with her husband.

Known royal women (by chronological order)[edit]

Bust of Cleopatra VII, who reigned toward the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt. Altes Museum, Berlin.

See also[edit]

Bibliography[edit]

Sources[edit]

  • Christiane Desroches Noblecourt, La femme au temps des pharaons, Stock, 1986
  • Pierre Montet, La vie quotidienne en Égypte au temps des Ramsès, Hachette, 1946

References[edit]

  1. ^ Hunt, Norman Bancroft (2009). Living in Ancient Egypt. New York: Thalamus Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8160-6338-3. 
  2. ^ Jacq, Christian (1996). Les Egyptiennes. Perrin. ISBN 2-262-01075-7. 
  3. ^ Jacq, Christian (1996). Les Egyptiennes. Perrin. ISBN 2-262-01075-7. 
  4. ^ Jacq, Christian (1996). Les Egyptiennes. Perrin. ISBN 2-262-01075-7. 
  5. ^ Tyldesley, Joyce (2006). Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt. Thames & Hudson. p. 98. ISBN 0-500-05145-3. 
  6. ^ cité par P. Montet
  7. ^ Forever Young? The Representation of Older and Ageing Women in Ancient Egyptian Art by Deborah Sweeney, Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 41, (2004), pp. 67-84
  8. ^ God's Wife, God's Servant: The God's Wife of Amun (c. 740–525 BC) by Mariam F. Ayad
  9. ^ Women's Monumental Mark on Ancient Egypt by Barbara S. Lesko, The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 4-15
  10. ^ Women's Monumental Mark on Ancient Egypt by Barbara S. Lesko, The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 4-15
  11. ^ Women's Monumental Mark on Ancient Egypt by Barbara S. Lesko, The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Mar., 1991), pp. 4-15
  12. ^ Marriage and Family Life in Ancient Egypt by Ray Erwin Baber, Social Forces, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Mar., 1935), pp. 409-414
  13. ^ Marriage and Family Life in Ancient Egypt by Ray Erwin Baber, Social Forces, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Mar., 1935), pp. 409-414

External links[edit]