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Images of Women

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Wherever you go, beware of approaching the women.

Old Kingdom scribal advice

The women of Dynastic Egypt created quite a stir in the ancient world. Legally free of the strict male supervision which more patriarchal societies imposed on their wives and daughters, these fortunate females appeared to their contemporaries to lead excitingly independent lives tinged with an alluring romance. In a land of exotic and unusual customs, where the king lived as a god, the gods took the form of animals and the entire population appeared obsessed with death, women were acknowledged to be one of the strangest phenomena. Their distinctive exotic beauty, coupled with fantastic rumours of lax Egyptian morals and wanton Egyptian females, simply added to their fascination and served as an inspiration to the authors and poets of Greece and Rome. It is this rather decadent image of Egyptian womanhood which has been perpetuated by more modern authors from Shakespeare onwards, so that even today the names of Nefertiti and Cleopatra conjure up a vision of the ultimate femme fatale.

But just how accurate is this portrait of the active, independent and sexually liberated Egyptian lady? How did the Egyptians themselves view their womenfolk? And how did the women see themselves?1 It is not always easy for us to gain an understanding of the beliefs and cultural conditioning which lie behind the deeds of the past. Archaeological evidence, invaluable when attempting to assess material culture and used as the basis of all the subsequent chapters in this book, rarely allows an insight into ancient thought processes. For example, archaeology may tell us that Egyptian kitchens were situated at the back of the houses, furnishing us with a wealth of factual detail concerning different types of ovens and cooking utensils. It cannot, however, tell us who did the cooking. Was cooking a menial task to be despised? Or was the cook a respected member of the household, honoured for his or her skill?

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Fig. 1 Lady carrying goods

Fortunately, the Egyptians have left us two contrasting means of studying their attitude towards women. An examination of contemporary arts (painting, sculpture and literature) can provide us with an idealized view of womanhood by allowing us to study the image which the Egyptians themselves wished to present to the world. At a more down-to-earth level, a consideration of the legal system and its treatment of females gives us an understanding of how, in practice, women were treated within the community. By combining these two very different types of evidence we can go at least some way towards an understanding of the woman’s place in Egyptian society.

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The idiot who looks at a woman is like a fly sucking on blood.

Papyrus Insinger, first century AD

Representational art, with its colossal stone figures, vibrant tomb paintings and delicately carved reliefs, presents us with some of our most enduring images of Dynastic women, allowing us the chance to expand our knowledge of Egyptian society by examining and contrasting the ways in which men, women and children were recorded by their fellow citizens. However, Egyptian art differed greatly in both style and function from its modern western counterpart, and it is not possible to make a literal interpretation of the abundant painted scenes and statues without some understanding of the conventions which exerted a profound influence on the work of the contemporary artists.

The ancient Egyptians did not recognize the concept of ‘art for art’s sake’; every single piece of their art was commissioned for a definite purpose and each image or statue had a deliberate and well-defined function. Aesthetic considerations were never the sole or even the primary concern of either the artist or his patron. This strictly utilitarian view led the Egyptians to regard all their painters and sculptors as craftsmen rather than artists and to confine their work to certain highly specific contexts, usually either the temple or the tomb. Here, standard and widely recognized formal scenes were presented not merely as a means of enhancing the décor but because they made an important contribution to the religious and/or political aspect of the building. An illustration of the king vanquishing his traditional enemies carved high on the wall of a temple, for example, both expressed the power of the monarch and reinforced the authority of the king, while a scene depicting a dead man enjoying the delights of the Afterlife added a magical strength to the deceased’s endeavours to reach the Field of Reeds. Scenes painted on the interior walls of private houses were similarly impersonal. Accurate artistic ‘snapshots’ of Dynastic family life were extremely rare, and almost all the surviving household paintings include a fairly direct religious or magical message.

Not surprisingly, this deliberately practical emphasis stifled any impulse towards experimentation and creativity. Instead, it led to the development of strict artistic conventions and a repertoire of constantly repeated themes which satisfied the Egyptian love of tradition and continuity. Although there were many subtle changes in artistic styles throughout the Dynastic period, and although no two tomb walls are precisely identical, we find that the same conventional scenes are represented over and over again with very little variation in content.

The principal female figures depicted in formal paintings are almost invariably upper-class wives or daughters included in the scene by virtue of their relationship to a particular man. That is, they are shown in the tomb of their husband, father or son, rather than being tomb owners in their own right. It is not surprising that these women conform to a stereotyped view of the role of the Egyptian female as a passive support to her husband or father. Women take a secondary role in the proceedings; although they may be both active and prominent, they are obviously less active and less prominent than the male tomb owner. Often depicted on a much smaller scale than their spouse, they almost always stand behind their man. How far this formal representation of the relationship between men and women reflects the true situation we can now only guess, but it does seem obvious that within their tombs Egyptian husbands wished to preserve the traditional image of the man as the head of the household.

One exception to the general rule of the inert female is provided by the tombs of the queens of Egypt. Several of these women-only burials include scenes where wives act independently of their husbands; for example the 4th Dynasty tomb of Queen Meresankh (‘She-Loves-Life’) reveals the queen picking lotus blossoms while enjoying an informal boating expedition with her mother.2 An even more striking contrast to the conventional depiction of passive women is provided by the representation of a besieged Asiatic town found on the wall of an Old Kingdom

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Fig. 2 Queen Meresankh boating in the marshes with her mother, Queen Hetepheres

tomb at Deshasha. This unique scene clearly shows the village women fighting with knives and bare hands to defend their homes from enemy Egyptian bowmen. Whether or not the scene should be read as an appreciation of the bravery of the local (non-Egyptian) women, or as a less than flattering comment on the valour of their menfolk, is not now clear.3

I was an artist skilled in my art and pre-eminent in my learning… I knew how to depict the movements of a man and the carriage of a woman… No one succeeds in all of this apart from myself and the eldest son of my body.

Inscription of the sculptor Irtisen

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Fig. 3 Women fighting in the streets

The principal private individuals painted by the artists were almost invariably presented as perfect physical specimens dressed in gleaming white clothes, adorned with spectacular jewels and positively bursting with vigorous good health. The women, their femininity emphasized by rounded breasts and buttocks and less well-defined muscle groups, were all, without exception, beautiful. Every feature on their idealized body was shown from its best or most typical angle, and some rather contrived and contorted-looking poses developed as the artists struggled to paint their standing subjects with the head in profile, a single eye and eyebrow shown as from the front, the torso also shown from the front, the hips viewed from the side and the legs shown separately and slightly apart.

To modern eyes, accustomed to images which faithfully mirror reality and the now conventional use of foreshortening and perspective, this stylization leads to an unnatural and rather primitive-looking painting technique which makes all Egyptian two-dimensional art instantly recognizable. However, to the Egyptians, who expected to see a formalized rather than an impressionistic form, it was a necessary precaution. After all, the Egyptians reasoned with their own intensely practical brand of logic, if a part of the body couldn’t be seen, it almost certainly wasn’t there. It was vital that the main figures painted on tomb walls should be both seen and understood to be complete because, if by some mischance the physical body should defy the art of the embalmers and decompose after death, the spirit of the deceased might be compelled to live on in his or her painted image. Few Egyptians were willing to run the risk of surviving minus an arm or a leg in the Afterlife.4

The ‘fairer sex’, who conventionally worked indoors away from the burning Egyptian sun, were invariably painted with lighter skins than their ochre-coloured menfolk. This convention completely ignored the fact that society was racially well-mixed at all levels; as has already been noted, the Egyptians did not require their art to be an accurate representation of life. Some women were depicted with a black skin, but this did not necessarily imply a Negroid origin. Black, the colour of the fertile Egyptian soil, symbolized regeneration and was therefore used to indicate those awaiting rebirth in the Afterlife. Following this logic, a lady depicted with green skin was understood to be dead, green in this instance being the colour of life (i.e. the expectation of resurrection) rather than putrefaction. For both men and women, dead and alive, colour was used to fill in the outline of the figure without any attempt at shading, so that the image appeared complete to the pedantic Egyptian observers.

Most Dynastic men of substance chose to be preserved for posterity with stylized rolls of unhealthy-looking fat sagging around their not-insubstantial waists. This less than subtle convention was employed as a means of stressing the wealth of the subject; clearly only the richest Egyptians could afford to consume large amounts of food without needing to burn off calories during hard manual labour. Fat became firmly equated with power, a message which is made very clear in tomb scenes where skinny workmen and those of low rank are shown working beside their overweight masters. In at least a few cases the conventional upper-class paunch may have had some basis in reality. Wealthy Egyptians were inordinately fond of eating and drinking, and the mummified bodies of several New Kingdom pharaohs, including Tuthmosis II and Ramesses II, showed large folds of flabby skin over the abdominal region, indicative of a life-long weight problem.5

In contrast, fat Egyptian females were very rare indeed, and the assorted wives, daughters and sisters who accompanied the tomb owner always maintained an acceptably svelte appearance which was highlighted by their fashionably tight clothing. The obese and possibly steatopygic Queen of Punt and her fat daughter must have been regarded as both unnatural and unwomanly by the workmen who had the duty of recording their images on the walls of Queen Hatchepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri. Whether this female thinness was simply an artistic convention, or whether it should be interpreted as a deliberate comment on women’s less powerful relationship with men, is not clear. In any case, the fact that artists chose to depict all women as slender certainly does not mean that they actually were all slim.

The more minor female figures included in the painted scenes did not need to conform to a stereotyped image of slender feminine passiveness. As these non-central characters formed a relatively small and unimportant part of the total picture the artists felt free to take liberties with their appearance, rejecting the rather stilted formal poses appropriate to the tomb owner and his wife and adopting instead a more naturalistic and lighthearted style. Ugly, old, badly dressed and fat women all appear to enliven the backgrounds of more formal scenes, and it is these more relaxed figures shown working, resting and going about their business, who provide us with a lively and far more typical view of many aspects of everyday Dynastic life. Nubile young girls dance, play their musical instruments and perform impressive gyrations for the entertainment of their patrons, while sedate maids grind endless bushels of corn to make bread and elderly peasant women toil in the fields pulling flax and gleaning grain.

Egyptian sculpture was every bit as practical in its conception as Egyptian painting. All statues were automatically invested with magic or religious powers and could be used to represent or replace real people as necessary. Abstract or ‘unnecessary’ sculpture was therefore unknown in Egypt, and craftsmen confined themselves to depictions of gods, kings and wealthy individuals. All these works were ultimately intended to serve as a substitute person or god in either the temple or the tomb.

During the Old Kingdom the vast majority of private statues were carved for inclusion in the tomb. These figures provided a convenient base for the soul of the departed to receive offerings and, like the two-dimensional images, could serve as a replacement home for the spirit should the original body decay. By the Middle Kingdom, however, most private statues were commissioned so that they could be placed in the courtyards of the great temples where they would serve as an acceptable substitute for the absent devotee and could absorb and transmit any benefits received from their proximity to the god. This tradition continued throughout the New Kingdom, to the extent that most major temples developed associated stoneworking industries. Therefore the pious pilgrim who had been unable to transport a statue from home was able to buy a custom-made figure – ranging from a few inches high to lifesize – to which his or her own name could be added. These proxy worshippers were placed in silent staring ranks facing the sanctuary; when the courtyard became too crowded they were simply removed and buried in a large pit within the sacred temple precincts.

An Egyptian had to be either rich or influential to be able to afford a substantial hard-stone statue. It is not surprising that the recovered statues provide us with a fairly accurate reflection of the more high-ranking sections of society. Most statues represent relatively wealthy men, either single men or groups of related men who have contributed to the cost of a communal statue. Husband-and-wife statues and family groups including dependent children are not uncommon, and these almost always show the wife physically supporting her husband with her arm around his shoulder in a traditional wifely pose. Whether this should be interpreted as a subservient posture, or a sign of family solidarity, is not now clear. Statues of the king and queen invariably depict the wife on a much smaller scale than her husband. This is a true reflection of the relative importance of the couple, but reveals the difference between a god and a mortal rather than that between a husband and a wife; in other family groups the couple are shown more or less to scale, and in cases where a woman of normal height was married to a dwarf the husband is clearly shown to be shorter than his wife. The woman invariably wears formal clothes which allow the artist to emphasize her sexuality by stressing the outline of her breasts. Single female statues, women-only groups

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Fig. 4 Husband and wife statue

and groups where a woman plays a dominant role are very rare, suggesting that women through either choice, economic necessity or social opportunity did not invest in statues.

He who commits any offence against my concubine, he is against me and I am against him. Look, she is my concubine and everyone knows how to treat a man’s concubine… Would any of you be patient if his wife had been denounced to him? Then why should I be patient?

Letter from the priest Heqanakht

The letter quoted above was written by the minor Middle Kingdom priest Heqanakht to his family.6 It is as indicative of domestic discord and strife as any letter written today and, indeed, the disquieting undercurrents evident in this angry message inspired Agatha Christie to write her popular murder-mystery Death Comes as the End which is set in pharaonic Egypt.7

The literate Egyptians were inveterate writers, and the dry desert conditions have ensured the preservation of monumental inscriptions, fragile papyri and leather scrolls in which we have been able to read not only impersonal royal pronouncements, formal religious texts and rather dull business letters but also the private law cases, romantic love poetry and intimate family letters which give a human face to the sometimes rather dry archaeological bones. Ostraca (sing. ostracon: limestone chips and pottery fragments used as writing materials) were the memo-pads of the past, and were used in their thousands as Egyptians jotted down unimportant messages which would have wasted the expensive papyrus. Vast numbers of these ostraca have survived, allowing us a glimpse into the more humdrum day-to-day lives of the ordinary people. Perhaps we should not be too surprised to learn that personal relationships in ancient Egypt were not very different from the relationships of today; there were many loving and united families but, as Heqanakht’s correspondence suggests, there were also bitter inter-family quarrels over money and status. At all times gossip and innuendo were rife while the rumoured immoral behaviour of others was, of course, of universal interest.

However, all this written evidence needs to be treated with a due degree of caution. It should always be remembered that our record is both incomplete and randomly selected – that even though many texts have survived many more have been destroyed, leaving whole aspects of life simply unrecorded. Those documents which do survive present us with several problems of interpretation. Although we are able to translate literally many of the words which the Egyptians used we do not come from the same cultural and social background and, just as a visitor from the planet Mars equipped only with a dictionary would have trouble understanding the radio commentary to a football game or the meaning of the words of a pop song, so we may be missing some of the more subtle nuances and colloquial expressions which would have been clear to the intended reader. This is particularly true of the romantic love songs and the myths and legends, where the Egyptians deliberately employed metaphors and double entendres to add a pleasing twist to their message. The Egyptian habit of exaggerating or even inventing the glorious deeds carved on monumental inscriptions simply adds to our confusion; the Egyptians themselves could see no reason why they should not usurp the monuments, and even the actions, of their illustrious forebears.

Above all, it should be remembered that literacy was confined to a very small percentage of the population, almost all of whom were male members of the middle and upper classes. The surviving documentary evidence therefore deals primarily with matters which concerned a restricted section of the community, and is both written from a male viewpoint and intended for a contemporary male reader. Even where a text purports to be by a woman – for example, the love poetry written from a young girl’s viewpoint – it was often composed by a man and therefore gives a male interpretation of a woman’s assumed feelings. Since most women could neither read nor write, many matters of purely feminine interest are simply excluded from the written record.8

The ship commander Ahmose, son of Abana, the justified, speaks, and says: ‘I speak to all of you. I speak to let you know of the favours which have come to me. I have been rewarded with gold seven times in the sight of the whole land, with male and female slaves as well. I have also been endowed with very many fields. The name of the brave man is preserved in his deeds; it will not perish in the land forever.’

From the New Kingdom autobiography of Ahmose, son of Abana9

In a tradition which started during the Old Kingdom, many Egyptian men of high rank and breeding made a permanent record of their daily activities and achievements. This lengthy and stylized ‘autobiography’ was preserved on the walls of their tomb. Typically, these texts detail the trials and triumphs of the deceased’s life and, although invariably written in an exaggerated and, to modern eyes, rather boastful style, they can provide the student of Egyptian history with a great deal of information concerning the life of their subject. Unfortunately women, as the secondary occupants of the tomb, have rarely left us this type of information. We have no female autobiographies to compare with those of the men,10 and the rather muted epithets which are traditionally used to praise a dead woman ‘Whom the People Praised’ or ‘Guardian of the Orphan’s Heart’ are both vague and rather meaningless.

Prescription for safeguarding a woman whose vagina is sore during movement: You shall ask her ‘What do you smell?’ If she tells you ‘I smell roasting’, then you shall know that it is nemsu symptoms from her vagina. You should act for her by fumigating her with whatever she smells as roasting.

Extract from the Kahun Medical Papyrus

Only one particular type of document offers us the opportunity to see the real Egyptian woman stripped of her modest veil of privacy. The so-called Medical Papyri11 – handbooks listing all the known symptoms and suggested cures for a variety of common ailments and accidents – combine with the details recorded from the surviving human burials and mummified remains to provide us with a fascinating insight into the daily life of the Egyptian doctor and his patients. This scientific evidence indicates that the average indigenous Egyptian woman was relatively short in stature with dark hair, dark eyes and a light brown skin. She had an average life expectancy of approximately forty years, assuming that she was able to survive her childhood and her frequent pregnancies.

The idyllic scenes which decorate many tomb walls give the impression that the Egyptians were a fit and healthy race untroubled by sickness. This impression is flatly contradicted by the medical evidence which indicates a population at the mercy of a wide variety of debilitating and life-threatening diseases ranging from leprosy and smallpox to spina bifida and polio. Even less serious-sounding afflictions such as diarrhoea, coughs and cuts could prove fatal without modern medicines, while the majority of the population suffered intermittently from painful rheumatoid joints and badly abscessed teeth. The 18th Dynasty Edwin Smith Papyrus paints a vivid picture of the dangers which could be encountered in a society where major building projects were conducted with only the most minimal of safety precautions and where warfare was relatively common. This papyrus, a specialized work dealing with the treatment of horrific industrial wounds, includes typical case histories: ‘Instructions concerning a gaping wound in his head smashing his skull’ or, more seriously, ‘Instructions concerning a gaping wound in his head penetrating to the bone, smashing his skull and rendering open the brain’. Not surprisingly, this latter was classed among the ailments ‘not to be treated’.

The reverse of the Edwin Smith Papyrus presents us with information more relevant to a study of women. At some time in the past an Egyptian scribe or doctor has used the back to jot down a curious assortment of magical texts and prescriptions for a variety of complaints. These include a ‘recipe for female troubles’, two prescriptions ‘for the complexion’ and one recipe ‘for some ailment of the anus and vicinity’. In their apparently random mixture of practical advice, scientific knowledge and superstitious ritual these prescriptions clearly indicate the thin line that always existed between ancient medicine and magic. Indeed, the Egyptian physicians did not attempt to differentiate between the effectiveness of rational scientific treatment and amuletic or supernatural cures, just as they did not distinguish between medical complaints and problems such as persistent dandruff and facial wrinkles which we would now regard as cases for a beautician rather than a doctor. Instead, they took the view that all people were born healthy, and that disease and infirmity, if not the direct result of an accident, were caused either by a parasitic worm or by an evil spirit entering the body. It therefore made sense to take practical measures to alleviate uncomfortable physical symptoms while relying on magical spells to banish the evil spirit and thereby cure or remove the illness.

The Ebers Medical Papyrus, also dating to the 18th Dynasty, is perhaps the most scientifically advanced of the Egyptian medical documents. It is less specific in its content than the Edwin Smith Papyrus, but shows the same mixture of sympathetic magic and good advice when dealing with more common Egyptian ailments, internal diseases and general afflictions such as baldness and bad breath. The section dealing with specific male problems is very short, detailing four particular illnesses (itching, priapism, impotence and gonorrhoea). The much longer section on women’s matters deals primarily with reproduction and associated problems such as contraception, breastfeeding and child welfare. Surprisingly, for a country whose funerary rites encouraged the dissection of the deceased, knowledge of the internal workings of the female body was fairly limited. Gynaecology was not a specialist subject, and there were some strange misunderstandings with regard to the function of the female organs. For example, although the position of the cervix was known, no mention is recorded of the ovaries, and the uterus itself was believed to be fully mobile and capable of floating freely within the female body. As a wandering womb was thought to cause the patient great harm, various means were developed to tempt the itinerant organ back to the pelvis, the most widely used being the fumigation of the unfortunate patient with dried human excrement.

Prescription to cause a woman’s uterus to go to its correct place: tar that is on the wood of a ship is mixed with the dregs of excellent beer, and the patient drinks this.

Extract from the Ebers Medical Papyrus

There was also a mistaken assumption that a healthy woman had a free passageway connecting her womb to the rest of her body, an assumption which became absorbed into later Greek medical wisdom. Many fertility tests were designed to locate any obstruction in this corridor which would prevent conception. The Kahun Medical Papyrus therefore advised that the patient should be seated on a mixture of date flour and beer; a fertile woman would vomit after this treatment and the number of retches would give a sure indication of the number of potential pregnancies. A similar prescription is recommended by the Berlin Medical Papyrus. Alternatively, in a test later used by Hippocrates, a garlic or onion pessary could be inserted in the vagina and left overnight; if by morning garlic could be detected on the patient’s breath she was thought able to conceive. Occasionally, physicians were able to pinpoint the exact cause of female sterility: when the king of the Hittites contacted his ally Ramesses II requesting the services of an Egyptian doctor who could help to cure his sister’s childless marriage the king wrote back pointing out, with more truth than tact, that as the lady in question was about sixty years old, hopes of a cure were slim.

Then the peasant said to his wife, ‘Look, I am going down to Egypt to bring food from there for my children. Go and measure out for me the remains of last year’s barley which is in the barn.’ His wife measured out twenty-six gallons of barley for him. The peasant then said to his wife, ‘Look, you keep twenty gallons of barley as food for you and your children. Now make these six gallons of barley into bread and beer for me to eat on the days which I am travelling.’

From the Middle Kingdom Story of the Eloquent Peasant

Egyptian fiction was a relatively late development, gradually growing in subtlety from the straightforward action-packed heroic tales popular during the Old Kingdom to the more complex and challenging allegories of the Middle and New Kingdoms. Throughout the Dynastic age, however, women were included in the stories only as subsidiary figures peripheral to the main plot. Wives and daughters may have provided food and clothing for their intrepid menfolk but they never accompanied them on their adventures, appearing content to stay behind and run the home. Indeed, the extreme male-oriented content of the stories and their undoubtedly masculine appeal make it difficult to dismiss the impression that surviving Egyptian fiction represents only those tales which were told by men to men. It may well be that the corresponding stories popular among groups of women were never written down; this would certainly explain the dearth of romantic fiction and the complete absence of domestic details which would presumably not be of interest to men. The consistent portrayal of loyal but passive and rather insignificant wives and daughters in the surviving fiction confirms the impression presented by the contemporary paintings and sculpture, that Egyptian men and women led essentially separate lives with different but complementary duties.

Towards the end of the Dynastic period, when Egypt was experiencing increasing foreign influence, the tradition of writing about good but rather negligible women was suddenly halted as scribes started to depict more realistic females with both a good and a bad side to their character.12 Indeed, soon the women included in the stories were more bad than good. This abrupt change of attitude is apparent in both the fictional tales and the scribal instructions which were used as set texts in all Egyptian schools; by the Late Period scribe Anhsheshonq was writing about wives in a way that suggests that he himself did not enjoy an entirely happy home life:

Let your wife see your wealth but do not trust her with it… Do not open your heart to your wife, as what you say to her in private will be repeated in the street… If a wife does not desire her husband’s property, she is in love with another man.

Ankhsheshonq held a very ambivalent attitude towards women, for in the same work he also expresses his admiration for the good woman of noble character, who ‘is like food which arrives in times of famine’. Did he feel that a good woman was a rare thing? Or were his comments on untrustworthy wives simply the ancient equivalent of the disparaging ‘mother-in-law’ jokes still popular with some male comedians today?

Several fictional females were presented in a distinctly unfavourable light. The 19th Dynasty Story of Two Brothers, for example, tells of the rift which developed between the brothers Anubis and Bata when Anubis’s scheming spouse first attempted to seduce her brother-in-law and then, her amorous advances rejected, accused him of attempted rape:

Now the wife of his elder brother grew afraid so she took fat and grease and made herself appear as if she had been beaten, in order to tell her husband, ‘It was your younger brother who beat me.’ Her husband returned home in the evening according to his daily routine. He reached his house and found his wife lying down and seeming to be ill. She did not pour water for his hands in the usual manner, and she had not lit a fire for him. His house was in darkness and she lay vomiting…

Anubis, foolishly trusting his false wife, instantly prepared to kill his brother who, magically forewarned by his favourite speaking cow, was forced to run away from home to face a life of danger, drama and adventure. Unfortunately Bata also proved to be a bad judge of the female character, and he too was eventually betrayed by a faithless wife.

A similarly unpleasant woman was featured in the New Kingdom Tale of Truth and Falsehood where the rather naive Truth, already betrayed and blinded by the lies of his more devious brother Falsehood, was seduced by a glamorous but selfish lady. Although the woman bore Truth’s son she treated her former lover very badly, making him serve as the humble doorkeeper of her house. It was only when the son was old enough to question his paternity that Truth was finally accorded his correct position in the family.

When I see you my eyes shine and I press close to look at you, most beloved of men who rules my heart. Oh, the happiness of this hour, may it go on for ever! Since I have slept with you, you have raised up my heart. Never leave me!

New Kingdom love song

Lyrical love songs and romantic poems were popular throughout the Dynastic age. These semi-erotic verses, with their explicit references to sexual intercourse mingled with a series of more veiled allusions to love-making, allowed young Egyptian girls a chance to express their own sexuality by making it quite clear that a woman can desire a man just as a man desires a woman. There is always a danger that the verses represent wishful thinking on the part of male poets wistfully conjuring up enchanting images of a non-existent world full of sexually receptive females. They do, however, indicate that Egyptian society was unusually relaxed in its attitude towards the relationships between two unattached and consenting parties, and was apparently untroubled by women expressing feelings of love and sexual arousal.

Keep your wife from power, restrain her… In this way you will make her stay in your house.

Old Kingdom scribal advice directed at young men

The role of the woman in Dynastic art and literature is very much the image of a stereotyped female seen through the eyes of the man. In paintings and in sculpture she represents the dutiful wife, daughter and mother, while in literature she provides a loyal support for her more adventurous spouse. She is invariably passive and submissive; her private life and thoughts are very much a blank. Although this type of evidence does give us some understanding of Egyptian family hierarchy – we can see, for example, that the husband clearly considered himself to be the head of the household, and can guess that men had little understanding of the woman’s daily routine – the real woman still remains tantalizingly hidden behind a mass of convention and tradition. This idealized image of the Egyptian woman and the Egyptian marriage can, to a certain extent, be balanced by a consideration of how women were actually treated within the community.

Unfortunately, no Egyptian book of laws has survived. However, there is enough evidence in the form of court documents and legal correspondence to show that, in theory at least, the men and women within each social class stood as equals in the eyes of the law. This equality gave the Dynastic Egyptian woman, married or single, the right to inherit, purchase and sell property and slaves as she wished. She was able to make a valid legal contract, borrow or lend goods and even initiate a court case. Perhaps most importantly of all, she was allowed to live alone without the protection of a male guardian. This was a startling innovation at a time when the female members of all other major civilizations were to a greater or lesser extent relegated to a subordinate status and ranked with dependent children and the mentally disturbed as being naturally inferior to males. The contemporary written laws of Mesopotamia and the later laws of Greece and Rome all enshrined the principle of male superiority, so that the regulation of female behaviour by males was seen as a normal and natural part of daily life throughout most of the ancient world.13

In Mesopotamia the Code of Hammurabi, which consolidated Babylonian law in approximately 1750 BC, included many regulations relating to the control of female behaviour and the proper conduct of a marriage. In particular, it emphasized the complete authority of the male within the home, with wives and children treated as the disposable property of the husband. Although women were allowed certain very important legal and economic rights, including the right to own property and the right to a protective and binding marriage agreement, these rights were strictly limited. For example, it was very difficult for a wife to divorce an unsatisfactory husband, and a woman had no control over the disposal of her dowry which legally passed to her sons at her death.14

The laws and customs of Greece were if anything more repressive in their treatment of women, condemning all wives and daughters to a perpetual and suffocating protection.15 Respectable Greek women, effectively excluded from all public life, had few legal rights unless they acted with the full consent of their kurieia or male legal guardian. As a result, many upper-class women led unsatisfactory half-lives, closely confined within their own quarters where they spent long days working at the loom and supervising the household. Only in Sparta were young girls permitted to enjoy healthy exercise and positively encouraged not to spend too long at their weaving; this liberal behaviour was considered to be shockingly lax in ultra-conservative Athens. Under strict Athenian law women were effectively owned either by their father or by the husband who had been selected for them. Their dowries were at all times under the control of their husbands and they were neither allowed to inherit nor to make valid legal contracts. Their children became the property of the father and his family.

The Roman woman was also expected to behave with a becoming modesty, although she was permitted to enjoy a wider range of social activities than her Greek sister. It was quite acceptable for a Roman matron to dine with male guests, visit shops and temples and even play a restricted role in furthering her husband’s career, and indeed male Greek visitors to Rome were thrown into embarrassed confusion when first attending banquets at which the ladies of the household were also present. Despite this additional freedom, however, the Roman woman remained under her father’s legal control until she married, when her father had the option of transferring his guardianship to the new husband, thereby allowing the bride exactly the same legal rights as any daughter of the groom. If the father did not exercise this option he remained financially responsible for his daughter who was legally still a member of his household. Again the woman required the consent of her guardian in all formal legal matters, and again she was unable to act as the guardian of her children.

How did the unusually liberated women of Egypt develop and retain their equal legal status? This is an intriguing question which, as yet, has no entirely satisfactory answer. Early egyptologists, unduly influenced by the pioneering work of Frazer,16 felt that the legal freedom of the Egyptian women provided direct proof that the Egyptian system of government had evolved from a pure matriarchal system.17 This theory is now known to be totally false, and it seems likely that the answer must be sought in a consideration of the more unusual aspects of Egyptian culture. The legal subjugation of women in other societies seems to have been designed to ensure that women were denied the sexual freedom allowed to men, and thereby prevented from indiscriminate breeding. If this was a direct result of the need to provide a pure ruling élite and to restrict the dispersal of family assets, the unique position of the god-king and the absence of a strictly defined ‘citizen’ class made similar considerations irrelevant in Egypt. The rigid nature of the Egyptian class system and the traditional pattern of matchmaking meant that those assets which were held privately were unlikely to be dissipated on marriage, while the remarkable fertility of the Nile valley reduced the competition for access to resources

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Fig. 5 Stela of the child Mery-Sekhmet shown in the arms of his unnamed mother

experienced in less fortunate societies. The recognition that descent could pass through both the female and the male lines, a characteristic of several African cultures, must also have been instrumental in protecting the rights of women. The Egyptians consistently regarded the female line as an important one, and mothers were frequently honoured in the tombs of their sons.

Their equal status allowed women full access to the legal system. Women were able to bring actions against fellow citizens and give valid evidence in court, and they were liable to be publicly tried for their crimes. Egyptian justice was based on a court or arbitration system. Both rich and poor were entitled to lodge formal complaints, and each legal case was considered purely on its own merits by a local magistrate. More important cases were heard before a specially convened tribunal or jury of fellow citizens while the vizier, who was in practice the head of the Egyptian judiciary, judged the most grave and complex issues himself. Although bribery of the officials was a recurrent problem, and those from powerful families often held undue influence over the courts, justice was theoretically available to all Egyptians regardless of sex or class. Ostraca recovered from Deir el-Medina indicate that women were, however, generally less likely to be involved in legal action than their menfolk, reflecting the fact that women played a less prominent role in public life. Those women who were forced to make a court appearance were more likely to be defendants than plaintiffs, and we have legal documents dealing with cases where women were tried for non-payment of debts, theft and even the neglect of a sick relative.

The case of Mose, a bitter legal wrangle involving a complex tangle of forged documents and lying witnesses, clearly demonstrates the woman’s right to inherit property, to act as a trustee and to bring a complaint before the law courts. Mose, a bureaucrat employed in the treasury of Ptah at Memphis, proudly recorded the entire dispute on the wall of his Sakkara tomb.18 He tells us how his ancestor, a certain captain Neshi, received a small estate as a reward for his loyal services to the king. This estate remained intact within the Neshi family for over two hundred years, passing down from generation to generation and always administered by a trustee appointed to act on behalf of the legal heirs. During the reign of King Horemheb a man named Khay was appointed trustee of the estate, but his appointment was challenged by the Lady Wernero, Mose’s grandmother, and the court eventually confirmed Wernero’s position as trustee for her five brothers and sisters. Unfortunately Takharu, one of Wernero’s sisters, made an official objection to this new trusteeship, and so it was decided that the land should be divided into six equal portions and shared out between all the legal heirs. Mose’s father, Huy, and his grandmother, Wernero, both appealed against this judgement, but before the issue could be resolved Huy died and Mose’s mother Nubnofret was evicted by Khay from her one-sixth share of the land. Although Nubnofret immediately lodged a formal complaint before the court she was unable to prove her right to the land as Khay had submitted forged documents in evidence, and therefore Khay retained possession of Mose’s inheritance. It was only when Mose grew old enough to plead his own case, presenting several sworn testimonies to the Grand Court of the vizier, that the dispute was finally settled in Mose’s favour.

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.

Last will and testament of the Lady Naunakhte

The right to own property was a very important legal concession, providing a degree of security for all unmarried, widowed and abandoned women and their dependent children. The 20th Dynasty last will and testament of the Lady Naunakhte illustrates the extent to which women were able to dispose of their own goods as they wished. Naunakhte, the mother of eight children, had acquired considerable wealth from her family and from her first husband but had grown old and increasingly dependent upon her offspring. She swore her will before a court tribunal, specifying that she wished her property to be split only between the five children who were continuing to care for her in her old age, and specifically disinheriting those children who had ignored her plight. However, recognizing that she could not prevent her husband’s share of the joint property plus his personal possessions from being divided according to his wishes, she conceded that ‘as regards these eight children of mine, they shall come into the division of the possessions of their father to a proportionate part’. Clearly, the families of 3,000 years ago could be as unreliable as those of today.

The deed of transfer made by the Priest Wah:

I make this deed of transfer for my wife, Sopdu’s daughter Sheftu, known as Teti, of everything that my brother left to me. She herself shall pass it on to any of the children that she shall bear me, as she wishes. I am giving her the three Asiatics which my brother gave to me, and she may give them to any of her children, as she wishes. As for my tomb, I shall be buried in it and my wife also, without any interference from anyone. Furthermore, my wife shall live in our home which my brother built for me, without being evicted by any person…

Middle Kingdom last will and testament

Property acquired by a couple during a marriage was legally regarded as a communal asset, and so in addition to her own possessions a wife was entitled a share of any such joint property.19 This share passed to her children at her death, or to the woman herself if she was divorced, while the remaining two-thirds were divided firstly between the husband’s children and then between his brothers and sisters. In addition, a widow automatically inherited a percentage of her husband’s private property and, indeed, some husbands used their knowledge of the legal system to ensure that their partner would receive the bulk of the joint estate by legally transferring property to their wife before death, somewhat as present-day inheritance tax is avoided by those who resign themselves to giving away their goods during their lifetime.

A more devious means of preventing brothers or sisters from laying claim to matrimonial property involved the husband adopting his wife as his child; a fascinating Middle Kingdom legal document gives details of the adoption of the woman Nenufer by her husband Nebnufer: ‘My husband made a writing for me and made me his child, having no son or daughter apart from myself.’20 This declaration, made in front of witnesses, was legally binding and Nenufer was able to inherit all Nebnufer’s property as she was both his wife and his daughter. Seventeen years later Nenufer, now a widow, made an important addition to the legal deed, telling how she and her husband had purchased a slave girl to act as a surrogate mother, presumably to Nebnufer’s children. This slave had borne two girls and one boy who had been freed and in turn adopted by Nenufer, and then as Nenufer’s brother had expressed a wish to marry one of the girls, he had also been adopted by his sister so that he might receive his share of the family property. Nenufer’s legal right to inherit property, make a legally binding will, adopt a child and free a slave are all made explicit in this text.

Unfortunately, during the Graeco-Roman period when the Greek laws, customs and language started to have a profound influence on the Egyptian way of life, the woman’s right to equal status was slowly but surely eroded away. At this time many Greek families settled in Egypt and closely cloistered Greek women protected by the legal guardianship of their kurieia started to live side by side with the free-born Egyptian women. Many Egyptians, seeing the exotic Greek lifestyle as preferable to their own, rushed to embrace the new modes of behaviour; indeed, we have documents confirming that several non-Greek women who had no legal need for a guardian actually applied to have one appointed, perhaps in the hope that others might mistake them for sophisticated Greeks rather than provincial Egyptians. By the Roman period, when Roman traditions were added to the Greek and Egyptian cultural mix, women had lost many of their former rights and privileges, so that although continuing local customs allowed them to remain less suppressed than the women living in Rome, they were nowhere near as emancipated as their Dynastic forebears had been.

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