Found your household and love your wife at home as is fitting. Fill her stomach with food and provide clothes for her back… Make her heart glad, as long as you live.
Old Kingdom Wisdom Text
Those of an unromantic or cynical disposition may take the view that marriage is little more than a simple economic contract drawn up between a man and a woman, intended to create an efficient working unit and strengthen alliances while protecting interests in property and legitimizing children. Love may, or may not, be an additional bond which unites the participants; it is certainly not fundamental to a successful marriage. For women in particular the wedding ceremony, marking the important change in status from daughter to wife, also represents the recognized transition from child to adult and the start of a new role in society. Very unfairly, married women are almost universally regarded with more respect than their unmarried sisters; indeed, the view that an unmarried woman is a woman who has failed in her main role in life is one which is expressed with monotonous repetition by both men and women of different cultural backgrounds and different historical periods.
All these generalizations are true of marriage in ancient Egypt, where the formation of a strong and unified family provided much-welcomed protection against the harsh outside world. And yet the Egyptians, far more than any other past civilization, have passed on to us, through their paintings, their statues and, above all, their lyric love songs, their satisfied contentment with the romance of marriage. To marry a wife and beget many children may have been the duty of every right-thinking Egyptian male, but it was a duty which was very much welcomed: the Egyptians were a very uxorious race.
Tradition and biology combined to ensure that marriage followed by motherhood would be the inevitable career-path for almost all Egyptian women, and mothers trained their young daughters in domestic skills accordingly. Once a girl had reached adolescence she had no real social role, being neither child nor wife, and so she remained in a kind of protective limbo, living in her father’s house until a suitable match could be found. The best marriages were widely agreed to be those arranged between members of the same family, or between neighbours of the same social standing and professional class, and scribe Ankhsheshonq advised parents ‘don’t let your son marry a bride from another town, in case he is taken away from you’. Just as modern Egyptian peasants acknowledge the right of a paternal male cousin to claim the hand of his father’s brother’s daughter, so their ancient forebears gave preference to marriage between first cousins or uncles and nieces which would prevent the splitting of family property and the inherited right to work land, an important consideration in an agricultural community. The genetic implications of inbreeding do not seem to have worried the Egyptians unduly, although several examples of congenitally deformed skeletons recovered from local cemeteries suggest that occasional problems did occur.
The state itself was remarkably relaxed in its attitude to marriage and, unlike almost all other ancient civilizations, the Egyptians placed no official restriction on unions with foreigners. There was no perceived need to preserve the purity of the Egyptian race, so exotic beauties were frequently included in the New Kingdom royal harem, while a stela found at Amarna shows an Egyptian woman and her foreign husband, easily identified by his unusual hairstyle and dress, sitting peacefully
Fig. 6 Foreign women and their children
together sipping beer through straws. In marked contrast, both the Greeks and the Romans placed a very high value on the inherited right of citizenship which was legally confined to the upper echelons of society, and it was at least in part due to their desire to protect the purity of the bloodline that the tradition of segregating women from men developed. The Egyptian tolerance of mixed marriages extended to unrestricted slave-marriages, both between two slaves or between a free person and a slave:
Year 27 of the reign of Tuthmosis III. The royal barber Sabestet appeared before the tribunal of the royal house testifying: my slave, my property, his name is Imenjui. I fetched him with my own strength when I accompanied the sovereign. I have given to him the daughter of my sister Nebta as a wife, her name is Takamenet.
New Kingdom legal document
This approach is in sharp contrast to the complex inheritance rules which were enforced in Egypt during the period of Roman control, when it was clearly regarded as desirable that people should be pressured to marry only within their own caste:
Children born to a townswoman by an Egyptian husband have the status of Egyptians and inherit from both parents. If a Roman of either sex marries anyone of the status of a townsman or of an Egyptian without being aware of their status, their children take the status of the inferior parent. If a Roman or a townsman marries an Egyptian wife in ignorance of her status, the children may take the status of the father after erroris probatio. If a townswoman marries an Egyptian husband in the mistaken belief that he is a townsman she is not to blame, and if the declaration of birth of children is made by both the status of citizen is granted to the offspring…1
The most unusual aspect of the state’s lenient attitude towards marriage was the complete lack of any taboo against the marriage of close relations. Most societies feel that the union of children with parents, or brothers with sisters, is undesirable and take steps to ensure that it does not occur. Egypt was a notable exception to this rule. However, incest was certainly not as rife as popular fiction would suggest. With the exception of the royal family who intermarried to safeguard the dynastic succession and to emphasize their divine status, there is no real evidence for widespread brother–sister marriages until the Roman period, while parent–child incest is virtually unrecorded. The brother–sister marriages which are recorded are more likely to be between half-brothers and half-sisters than full siblings. Unfortunately for modern observers, the Egyptians employed a relatively restricted kinship terminology, and only the basic nuclear family were classified by precise kinship terms (father, mother, brother, sister, son and daughter). All others had to be identified in a more laborious manner, such as ‘mother of the mother’ (maternal grandmother) or ‘sister of the mother’ (maternal aunt). To make matters even more confusing the precise family names could also be applied to non-family members, so that ‘father’ could be correctly used to indicate a grandfather, stepfather, ancestor or patron, while ‘mother’ could describe either a grandmother or even a great-grandmother. The use of the affectionate term ‘sister’ to encompass a wide group of loved women, including wife, mistress, cousin, niece and aunt, taken in conjunction with a theology which condones the brother–sister marriage of principal deities such as Isis and Osiris, has contributed to our misunderstanding of the prevalence of brother–sister incest, and there has been a general reluctance to lose the image of the intriguingly decadent Egyptian lifestyle conveyed by these errors in interpretation.
A similar misconception has grown up around the subject of Egyptian polygamy. Although there were no laws to specifically prohibit polygamous marriages, and in spite of the fact that Herodotus firmly believed that only the Egyptian priests were expected to remain monogamous – thereby implying that all other Egyptians chose to be polygamous – multiple marriages were not as common as has often been supposed. Polygamy, when not actually illegal, has always been a rich man’s hobby, and things were no different in ancient Egypt where only the more wealthy members of society could afford to indulge in the luxury of more than one wife. Confusion has arisen in this matter because of the Egyptian habit of depicting one or more dead first wives together with their living successor on their joint husband’s tombstone. The most often-quoted evidence used to support the theory of polygamous Egyptian marriages consists of a papyrus written by the Lady Mutemheb in which she clearly states that she is the fourth wife of her husband Ramose, adding that two of his other wives are dead while one is still living. Although the precise circumstances of this marriage are not spelt out to us, there is nothing further to suggest a polygamous alliance, and it would seem far more logical to assume thatRamose had divorced his third wife before marrying his fourth. Serial polygamy, or re-marriage following bereavement or divorce, was comparatively common, and again scribe Ankhsheshonq had an opinion to offer: ‘Do not take to yourself a woman whose husband is still alive, in case he should become your enemy.’
He is a neighbour who lives near my mother’s house, but I cannot go to him. Mother is right to tell him ‘stop seeing her’. It pains my heart to think of him, and I am possessed 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.
New Kingdom love poem
The matchmaking involved a series of negotiations conducted between the father of the bride and either the groom or, less commonly, his father. Yet again Ankhsheshonq had an opinion on the selection of a suitable partner, recommending that his son should ‘choose a prudent husband, not necessarily a rich one, for your daughter’. A widow was able to negotiate on behalf of her fatherless girls, but it was not until the very end of the Dynastic period that matrimonial tradition was relaxed enough to allow the bride and groom to negotiate their own marriage. Although surviving texts make it clear that the bride was ‘given’ in marriage by her father to the groom we have no idea whether this was purely a conventional turn of phrase, directly comparable with the tradition of fathers symbolically ‘giving away’ their legally independent daughters which still survives in western marriage ceremonies, or whether the daughter had little or no say in the choice of her husband. The idea of the caring Egyptian father of many family portraits deliberately contracting his daughter to marry against her will, or refusing to permit a love match without good reason, is certainly difficult for us to accept, and we have no textual evidence to suggest that women were ever forced into marriage.
There were no legal age restrictions on marriage, although it has generally been assumed that a girl would not be considered eligible before the onset of puberty and menstruation, which would have occurred at about the age of fourteen. A 26th Dynasty document recording a father’s refusal to agree to his daughter’s wedding because she was too young and ‘her time has not yet come’ supports this view. However, evidence from Rome, where female puberty was legally fixed at the age of twelve regardless of the physical development of the girl concerned, indicates that ten- or eleven-year-old brides were not uncommon, and we have no reason to doubt that such young girls were also married in Egypt. Indeed, it is only within the past fifty years that in modern rural Egypt marriage with girls as young as eleven or twelve has been prohibited by law. There is certainly textual evidence from the Graeco-Roman period for Egyptian girls marrying as young as eight or nine, and we have a mummy label, written in demotic, which was made out to identify the body of an eleven-year-old wife.
The bridegroom, particularly in an uncle–niece marriage, was likely to have been considerably older and more experienced than his immature child-bride; Ankhsheshonq recommended that men should marry when they reached the age of twenty, while scribe Ptahotep considered that a youth should not marry until he had become a respectable man. To assume that the young brides were not sexually active before the onset of their periods would be very naive and, despite the availability of a range of contraceptives, the problem of fertile but physically immature children themselves becoming mothers must have contributed to the high levels of infant and maternal mortality during pregnancy and childbirth.2 Strabo gives some indication of the widespread acceptance of pre-pubertal sex by describing at some length the religious dedication of a young and beautiful high-born girl to the service of Amen or Zeus: ‘She becomes a prostitute and has intercourse with whoever she likes until the purification of her body takes place.’ By the purification of the body Strabo meant the onset of her menstrual periods. Although it is possible that Strabo may have misunderstood the situation, or may have been misled by helpful locals inventing lurid stories to interest the foreigner, it is clear that this story is regarded as one of general interest, and not one of revulsion.
I see my sister coming. My heart exults and my arms open to embrace her. My heart pounds in its place just as the red fish leaps in its pond. Oh night, be mine forever, now that my lover has come.
New Kingdom lover’s song
In western societies marriages have become unions with strong legal implications which are matters of concern to the state bureaucracy. They may in addition be regarded as religious unions requiring the approval of a priest. This outside involvement creates an established wedding protocol, with a requirement to take certain legal vows, register with various authorities and in some countries even undergo simple blood tests. As a result, it becomes relatively easy for anyone to determine whether or not a couple are actually married, and the moment of the actual wedding is usually clearly defined. The ancient Egyptians took a very different approach to marriage, regarding it as a purely personal matter between two individuals and their families which was of little or no concern to the state and which required no associated religious or legal ceremony. There was therefore no compulsory registration of the marriage, and although a form of marriage contract could be drafted either at the time of the wedding or, more usually, later, this was not a legal necessity and certainly did not constitute a marriage agreement. Consequently, although the Egyptians themselves were very clear about who was and who was not married to whom, the intricacies of their family life are now not always apparent to us.
The most obvious difference between our modern and the ancient Egyptian marriage is the complete lack of any prescribed wedding ceremony. There was no Egyptian word meaning wedding, no special bridal clothes to be worn, no symbolic rings to be exchanged and no change of name to indicate the bride’s new status. There may have been the consumption of a special wedding meal, perhaps involving the eating of salt, but this is only a tentative suggestion based on the interpretation of one broken line of text.3In the absence of all other visible evidence for wedding ceremonies, we must assume that the cohabitation of the happy couple served as the only outward sign that the marriage negotiations had been successfully concluded, and so it was by physically leaving the protection of her father’s house and entering her husband’s home that a girl transferred her allegiance from her father to her husband, becoming universally acknowledged as a wife. She took with her all her worldly possessions, the ‘goods of a woman’, which are usually specified as including a bed, clothing, ornaments, mirrors, a musical instrument and an expensive shawl which may well have been the equivalent of our bridal veil. The nuptial procession, where the young bride in all her finery was escorted through the streets by a happy crowd of friends and relations, must have been an occasion for great family rejoicing; the ancient Egyptians were inveterate party-givers who seized every opportunity for throwing a lavish banquet, and we may assume that the wedding celebrations went on well into the night.
We do not know how much importance or ritual, if any, was attached to the consummation of the marriage. Until comparatively recently the defloration ceremony formed a definitive part in the celebration of an Egyptian wedding, being witnessed by a variety of married female relatives who could vouch for the honour of the new bride and her family. Indeed, the deflowering most often occurred with the young bride firmly restrained while either the groom or a female relation used a finger covered in clean gauze to break the hymen and draw the blood necessary to prove her purity. In ancient Egypt, where the chastity of unmarried females was not considered to be of overwhelming importance to society, the consummation of the marriage may well have been a more private and less harrowing ceremony. It does seem likely that consummation was necessary to make a marriage legally valid and binding, as is the case in many societies today. Certainly in contemporary Mesopotamia, where the bride was expected to prove herself fertile, the marriage was not a true marriage until conception had occurred, and it was only after the birth of a child that the dowry became payable.
The groom was not required to pay his new father-in-law a bride-price, although in a tradition arising during the New Kingdom he was expected to hand over a token gift of money and sometimes corn to his wife. The actual financial value of this payment varied, ranging from negligible to the purchase price of a slave, and it seems to have represented a consideration which made the marriage agreement binding on both parties, perhaps somewhat as a new husband is today expected to provide his wife with a wedding band during the marriage ceremony. Whether this tradition is the survival of an earlier custom of actually making a payment to the father, either as compensation for removing the bride and her services from her birth-family, as consideration to mark the transfer of the right of ownership of the bride, or even a straightforward purchase price paid for the bride, is unclear.
In his turn, the father of the bride contributed to the well-being of the happy couple by donating wedding presents of domestic goods and food, often continuing to supply substantial quantities of grain for up to seven years, until the union became generally recognized as well-established, therefore a true marriage rather than a simple ‘living together’. Towards the end of the Dynastic period it became fashionable to record these ‘dowries’ in a legal contract which could be used to prevent dispute and protect the economic rights of the woman and her children in the unhappy event of a divorce. These marriage contracts were not a part of the marriage itself, and were often drawn up after the couple had produced several children.4 The example quoted below represents a Graeco-Roman contract, with the Egyptian-born Horemheb agreeing that his wife Tais will be adequately compensated should the marriage fail:
If I divorce you as my wife, and hate you, preferring to take another woman as my wife, I will give you two pieces of silver beside the two pieces of silver which I have given you as your woman’s portion… And I will give you one third of everything which will be owned by you and myself furthermore.
It is very difficult for us, looking back from a different culture and through thousands of years, to really understand the accepted day-to-day rights and duties of Egyptian married life. We may know that the husband was almost invariably the breadwinner while the wife worked in the home, but we cannot fully appreciate the subtleties of the situation, particularly as women have left no record of their daily existence, thus, we have no idea of how the wife expected to be treated by her husband, or how each regarded the function of the other. Did husbands view their wives as equal partners in the marriage, or were they considered to be inferior in every way? Were women deferred to within the home, or were they verbally abused? Was wife-beating unheard of, or accepted by both as an absolutely normal aspect of family life scarcely worthy of comment? Inscriptions from the tomb-chapels of the Old Kingdom suggest that the perfect wife was both submissive and compliant, ‘she did not utter any statement which repelled my heart’, although this ideal did not necessarily reflect real life, and Ankhsheshonq’s comment ‘may the heart of a wife be the heart of her husband’, hints that marital disagreements may have been more common than men liked to admit. Scribal instructions, written for the guidance of young unmarried men, generally suggest that in an ideal world the husband would treat his wife with respect while retaining control of his household and its members. Perhaps the best indication of how the husband himself perceived his moral duty towards his wife can be gleaned from reading a detailed letter written during the 19th Dynasty by a man wishing to ingratiate himself with the dead wife whom he believed to be haunting him:
I took you as my wife when I was a young man and you were still my wife when I filled all kinds of offices. I did not divorce you and I did not injure your heart… Everything I acquired was at your feet, did I not receive it on your behalf? I did not hide anything from you during your life. I did not make you suffer pain in anything I did with you as your husband. You did not find me deceiving you like a peasant and making love with another woman. I gave you dresses and clothes and I had many garments made for you.
The legal situation is somewhat easier for us to follow. The new husband assumed the father’s former role of protecting and caring for the bride, although he in no way became her legal guardian. The wife was allowed to retain her independence without becoming legally subservient to her spouse, and was able to continue administering her own property. Although the husband usually controlled the joint property acquired during the marriage, it was acknowledged that a share of this belonged to the wife; she was able to collect her portion when the marriage ended. One Ptolemaic text gives us a very clear picture of the legal equality of women when it records the business deal of an astute wife who lent her spendthrift husband three deben of silver, to be paid back within three years at a hefty annual interest rate of 30 per cent.
I shall not leave him even if they beat me and I have to spend the day in the swamp. Not even if they chase me to Syria with clubs, or to Nubia with palm ribs, or even into the desert with sticks or to the coast with reeds. I will not listen to their plans for me to give up the man I love.
New Kingdom love song
The marriage was ended, as is the case today, either by the death of one of the partners or by divorce. The death of a spouse loomed as an ever-present threat to happiness as life expectancy was not high and reminders of mortality were everywhere. Very few couples survived into middle age without losing most members of their immediate family, and the death of several children would have been accepted with resignation. Young girls married to much older men must frequently have been widowed before they left their teens, while the very real dangers associated with pregnancy and childbirth contributed to the many motherless families. Fortunately, the woman’s right to inherit one-third of her husband’s property meant that a widow was not forced either to rely on the charity of her children or to return to her father’s house, although convention decreed that the bereaved should be cared for by their family whenever necessary. Vulnerable women without the protection of a male were clearly to be pitied, and were regarded as being in need of protection. As the Eloquent Peasant flattered his judge in the New Kingdom fable ‘for you are the father of the orphan, the husband of the widow and the brother of the divorced woman…’ Tomb scenes indicate that loving couples torn apart by death confidently expected to be re-united in the Afterlife. In the meantime remarriage after widowhood was very common, and funerary stelae indicate that some individuals married three, or even four, times. We do not know whether there was a prescribed period of mourning for widows, although most societies impose a waiting period of approximately six months following bereavement which allows proper respect to be paid to the dead husband while ensuring that there is no doubt over the paternity of posthumous children.
Let Nekhemut swear an oath to the lord that he will not desert my daughter… As Amen lives and as the Ruler lives. If ever in the future I desert the daughter of Telmont I will be liable to hundreds of lashes and will lose all that I have acquired with her.
Although many marriages were both stable and happy, some ended in divorce. This was without doubt a serious matter for those involved but, just as the marriage itself was not seen as a matter of legal formality, so the divorce could be brought about by mutual agreement without the costly help of lawyers and courts. Those who had had the foresight to draw up a marriage contract were bound to honour its terms, while those who were involved in acrimonious disputes over the division of joint property could invest in a legal deed to resolve their differences. These legal cases were, however, unusual, and the majority of marriages ended by the couple simply splitting up, with the wife leaving the matrimonial home and returning to her family house, taking her own possessions together with her share of the joint property and occasionally, in cases where she could in no way be regarded as a guilty party, a fine paid by the husband as a form of compensation. In a few rare cases it was the wife who owned the house, and consequently the husband who was expected to leave. This parting, and the returning of all the woman’s property, ended the husband’s obligation to maintain his wife and set both parties free to marry again. We do not know who had custody of the children and who had the duty to pay for their upbringing and education, although it is generally assumed that they were left in the care of their mother. If so this is a further indication of the liberal Egyptian attitude towards women’s rights, which was in marked contrast to accepted practice in Greece or Rome where the male head of the household was the sole guardian of the dependent children and a divorced wife lost all legal rights to her offspring. In patriarchal Rome, a pregnant widow was obliged by law to offer her newborn baby to her dead husband’s family; only if they had no use for the child was she given the chance to raise her baby herself.
The right of a man to end an unhappy alliance by ‘repudiating’ an unsatisfactory wife is known from the 12th Dynasty onwards and almost certainly existed earlier in Egyptian history. The corresponding right of a wife to initiate a divorce is only documented from the New Kingdom onwards but, given that Egyptian law consistently treated married women as independent individuals, it would appear that it simply went unrecorded in earlier times. There are certainly very few recorded case histories dealing with a woman repudiating her husband; whether this indicates that women were less fickle or had lower expectations of their partners is not clear. It may be that, in a society which placed great emphasis on fertility, and consequently on youth, an elderly wife would think twice about rejecting her husband as she might well be unable to find a replacement willing to maintain her. As there were no legally defined grounds for divorce almost any excuse could be cited as a reason to end the alliance and in effect the marriage could be terminated at will. In practice, financial considerations and perhaps pressures from the two families concerned, who may well have been related, must have provided some restraint. There is no indication that divorce was regarded as a social stigma for a man, although the repudiated wife, particularly one rejected in favour of a younger and more attractive or more fertile bride, may well have felt publicly shamed.
Do not divorce a woman of your household if she does not conceive and does not give birth.
Late Period scribal advice
A diverse variety of reasons have been recorded for the ending of marriages, many of which would be familiar to the divorce lawyers of today. Marriages often failed because of mutual incompatibility, because the husband wished to devote himself to his work, or because one party had fallen in love with another. The rejection of an infertile wife was a common enough tragedy, although not one that society approved of. A 21st Dynasty letter which has survived from the workmen’s village of Deir el-Medina quotes the unusual and almost certainly apocryphal story of a man and wife who had been married for over twenty years. When the husband fell in love with another woman he looked for a reason to end his marriage, and decided on ‘I repudiate you because you have no sight in one eye.’ Not surprisingly his wife, who had been partially blind throughout the entire marriage, was not particularly impressed by her husband’s feeble excuse and roundly mocked him for taking twenty years to notice her deformity.
For a long time egyptologists believed that concubines, the official mistresses of both married and unmarried men, were accepted throughout Egyptian society although they were not generally accorded either the respect or the legal rights reserved for married women. It now appears that the number of official concubines may have been seriously overestimated as there has been an unfortunate tendency to classify all otherwise unidentified single women as concubines. A growing understanding of the textual evidence is starting to indicate that many of the unmarried ladies attached to households actually served as administrators, musicians or maids. Even in the letters of Heqanakht, where the Lady Iutemheb is described as hbsw.t, a term which has not been found in any other text but which has been traditionally taken to mean concubine, it is by no means certain that the lady in question was not an official second wife.5
Do not fornicate with a married woman. He who fornicates with a married woman on her bed, his wife will be copulated with on the ground.
Late Period advice to young men
Married women were certainly not allowed any degree of sexual licence and adultery – ‘the great sin which is found in women’ – was the most serious marital crime which a wife could commit, and one which would almost certainly lead to ignominious divorce and the total loss of all legal rights. Men in turn were expected to respect another man’s sole right of access to his wife, and indulging in sexual relations with a married woman was frowned upon, not for moral reasons, but because it was a sure and certain way of enraging a cuckolded husband. Even a relationship between a willing unmarried woman and a married man could be fraught with danger, and one letter which has survived from Deir el-Medina tells how a group of villagers ganged together to confront a woman known to be conducting a clandestine affair with the husband of a neighbour.6 The mob could only be prevented from seriously assaulting both the woman and her family by the timely intervention of the local police. The wronged wife had attracted the sympathy of her community, and the adulterous husband was ordered to regularize his affairs and obtain a divorce at once, as the people could not be restrained from acting for a second time. As in many cases of adultery the woman was clearly seen as a temptress corrupting a weak but essentially innocent man, and Egyptian myths and wisdom texts, all written by males, are full of dire warnings to stay clear of other men’s wives who would use all their feminine wiles to snare them into sexual relationships.
Then she spoke to him, saying ‘You are very strong. I see your vigour every day.’ And she desired to know him as a man. She got up, took hold of him, and said ‘Come, let us spend an hour lying in bed together. It will be good for you, and afterwards I will make you some fine new clothes.’
New Kingdom Tale of Two Brothers
A wife caught in adultery was open to the harshest of physical punishments from her husband. In theory she could be put to death; the New Kingdom Westcar Papyrus, a collection of stories about the fabulous Old Kingdom court of King Cheops, tells how an unfaithful wife was burned and her ashes scattered on the River Nile, while in the Tale of Two Brothers Anubis eventually kills his guilty wife and throws her body to the dogs, thereby denying her an honourable burial. Diodorus Siculus reports that the adulterous Egyptian wife was liable to have her nose cut off, while her partner in crime would be savagely beaten. In practice divorce and social disgrace seem to have been the accepted penalty, and the wife repudiated on the grounds of adultery was roundly condemned by everyone.
Prescription to make a woman cease to become pregnant for one, two or three years; grind together finely a measure of acacia and dates with some honey. Moisten seed-wool with the mixture, and insert it in the vagina.
Ebers Medical Papyrus
Illegitimate children appear to have suffered no specific hardships or discrimination in Dynastic Egypt, although in the New Kingdom Tale of Truth and Falsehood a young fatherless boy was cruelly taunted by his schoolmates: ‘ “Whose son are you? You don’t have a father.” And they reviled him and mocked him.’ Several contraceptives and even abortion-procuring prescriptions were available for those couples who wished to avoid a pregnancy; these were generally concocted from a diverse range of curiously unpleasant ingredients and frequently included a measure of crocodile dung. The use of animal excrement as a contraceptive appears to be a peculiarly widespread phenomenon: in southern Africa elephant droppings have often been used as a prophylactic, while the English Boke of Saxon Leechdoms of AD 900 cheerfully suggested that those wishing to avoid children should ‘take a fresh horse turd and place it on hot coals. Make it reek strongly between the thighs up under the raiment.’7 The efficacy of these methods is unknown, although it is tempting to assume that the application of a judicious amount of any type of dung to the private parts may well have cooled the ardour and made the use of any further precautions unnecessary. Perhaps not surprisingly, no evidence for ‘male’ contraceptives such as condoms or recipes for potions to be applied to the male genitalia have been recovered; methods such as coitus interruptus (withdrawal of the penis before ejaculation) or coitus obstructus (full intercourse with the ejaculate entering the man’s bladder due to pressure on the base of the urethra) would naturally leave no trace in the archaeological record.
Man is more anxious to copulate than a donkey. What restrains him is his purse.
Observation of Scribe Ankhsheshonq
The more intimate aspects of married life were very important to the Egyptians, who held the continuing cycle of birth, death and rebirth as a central and often repeated theme in their theology. Intercourse naturally formed an integral part of this cycle, and the Egyptians displayed no false prudery when dealing with the subject of sex. Unlike most modern views of heaven, which tend to concentrate on spiritual rather than physical gratification, potency and fertility were regarded as necessary attributes for a full enjoyment of the Afterlife, and consequently false penises were thoughtfully moulded on to the mummified bodies of dead men, while their wives were equipped with artificial nipples which would become fully functional in the Afterlife. Female fertility dolls with wide hips and deliberately emphasized genitalia were often included among the grave goods of men, women and children to help the deceased regain all lost powers. Although clearly sexual symbols, these figurines are often carrying tiny baby dolls, emphasizing the fact that sex was regarded as just one of the more pleasing aspects of the wider subject of fertility. There was no artificial distinction drawn between the enjoyment of sex and the wish to produce children, and a woman’s fertility consequently contributed to her sexual attractiveness. The clear and artificial division which most westernized societies make between sex and reproduction can be seen when trying to picture a provocatively pouting Playboy centrefold posing with her newborn infant.
The Egyptians were certainly not coy about sexual matters. However, as most of the evidence which they have left us comes from religious or funerary contexts where explicit references to
Fig. 7 Pottery fertility figurine
intimate subjects would have been considered inappropriate, we do not have much opportunity for archaeological voyeurism. Love songs, myths and stories all make rather vague and veiled references to intercourse, while crude graffiti, dirty jokes and explicit drawings scribbled on potsherds are far more basic. One of the world’s earliest examples of pornography, the so-called Turin Erotic Papyrus, contains a series of cartoons depicting several athletic couples cavorting rather self-consciously in a wide variety of imaginative and rather uncomfortable-looking poses. Unfortunately, we do not know whether the papyrus was supposed to be a true record of events observed in a brothel or, as seems far more likely, simply represented the draughtsman’s more extravagant fantasies. Certainly, basing our understanding of conjugal relations on the Turin Papyrus would be similar to believing all that is suggested by blue movies to be typical of modern western life. More down-to-earth evidence compiled from texts and ostraca confirms that the more conservative ‘face-to-face’ positions and intercourse from behind were the preferred sexual postures for most couples.
Then Seth said to Horus: ‘Come, let us have a feast day at my house.’ And Horus said to him: ‘I will, I will.’ Now when evening had come, a bed was prepared for them, and they lay down together. At night, Seth let his member become stiff, and he inserted is between the thighs of Horus. And Horus placed his hand between his thighs and caught the semen of Seth.
New Kingdom Story of Horus and Seth
We must assume that, as in any sophisticated society, more unusual sexual castes did exist, but the Egyptians themselves maintained a discreet silence in these matters. Homosexual activity, which was by no means frowned upon in many parts of the ancient world, seems to have played little part in Egyptian daily life; the Book of the Dead, that indispensable guide to the Afterlife, lists abstinence from homosexual acts among the virtues but gives us no indication of how common such acts might have been. The homosexual episode in the Story of Horus and Seth, quoted above, has been variously interpreted as either a symbol of Seth’s general unfitness to rule or as a sign of Seth’s physical dominance over his nephew. The Middle Kingdom version of this tale credits Seth with the immortal line ‘How lovely your backside is.’ Horus then reports this unexpected advance to his mother Isis, who advises her
Fig. 8 A prostitute enjoying sex with a client
son to catch Seth’s semen, thereby avoiding the humiliation of impregnation by his enemy.
As in many societies where men write the histories, lesbianism seems to have passed completely unrecorded. Rumours of more fantastic sexual behaviour were recorded by Herodotus, who seems to have been particularly fascinated by the seamier side of Egyptian life: ‘In my lifetime a monstrous thing happened in this province, a woman having open intercourse with a he-goat.’ Even if this was true, it was clearly not a common occurrence. Necrophilia involving the abuse of freshly dead female bodies in the embalming houses, also hinted at by Herodotus, is again totally unrecorded by the Egyptians themselves.
Take to yourselves a wife while you are young, so that she may give you a son. You should begat him for yourself when you are still young, and should live to see him become a man.
New Kingdom scribal advice
In the days following her wedding the young bride would have eagerly looked for the telltale signs which would indicate that a baby was on the way. It would be very difficult for us to overemphasize the importance of her fertility to the Egyptian woman. A fertile woman was a successful woman. She was regarded by men as sexually attractive, was the envy of her less fortunate sisters and, as the mother of many children, she gained the approval of both society and her husband. Every man needed to prove his masculinity and potency by fathering as many children as possible, and to do this he had to have the co-operation of a fruitful wife. The wife, for her part, needed many children to please her husband, ensure her security within the marriage and enhance her status in the community. Mothers had an important and respected role within the family, and were frequently represented in positions of honour in the tombs of both their husband and sons. Children were not, however, simply status symbols. Both husband and wife appear to have loved their
Fig. 9 A prostitute painting her lips
offspring dearly, and Egyptian men had no misplaced macho feelings that made them embarrassed or ashamed of showing affection towards their progeny. To produce a large and healthy brood of children was every Egyptian’s dream, and babies were regarded as one of life’s richest blessings and a cause for legitimate, if occasionally exaggerated, boasting; we must either assume that the 11th Dynasty army captain claiming to have fathered ‘seventy children, the issue of one wife’ was over-counting to emphasize his virility, or else feel deeply sorry for his wife.
The Egyptians were by no means unusual in their desire to father many offspring. Peasant societies traditionally show a great respect for fertility, and nowhere is this more true than in modern rural Egypt where a great man can easily be identified by his many sons and the unfortunate woman who shows no signs of pregnancy becomes the subject of endless speculation and gossip less than a year into her marriage. To remain childless is a tragedy in a country where parents stress their parenthood by themselves taking the name of their eldest son, using the prefix abu (father of) or om (mother of), and where women without children are politely referred to as om el-ghayib, ‘mother of the absent one’. In these circumstances the concept of waiting to start a family, or perhaps restricting the number of planned children, becomes incomprehensible, and sterile men have been known to kill themselves rather than admit that they are incapable of fathering a child. The ancient Egyptians would have felt at one with their modern counterparts in this matter.
Do not prefer one of your children above the others; after all, you never know which one of them will be kind to you.
Late Period advice to parents
There are very few societies where female babies are actively preferred to males, and Egypt was no exception to this general rule. Although girls were clearly loved by their parents, as witnessed by several family portraits which include daughters in formal but affectionate poses, boy children undeniably conveyed greater status. This preference for boys may be hard for us to condone but is perhaps easy to understand. In any society with no efficient welfare or pension system children represent a financial investment for the future. Boys, who traditionally work outside the home, have a high-earning potential while girls, whose work within the home is unwaged, will marry and devote their work to the good of their husband’s family. In ancient Egypt the eldest son also had an important part to play in his parents’ funeral ritual; a role which could not be adequately performed by a daughter.
The preference for boy children was never as extreme as it was in other ancient societies, and the Egyptians never developed the tradition of overt female infanticide – the abandoning of girl babies at birth – which became accepted practice in both Greece and Rome. This legalized form of murder was to its practitioners simply a late form of abortion, and as such remained valid Roman law until AD 374. It allowed the father the sole right to refuse to rear any child, just as the father had the sole right to authorize his wife to have an abortion. The mother had absolutely no say in the matter, and an unwanted infant was simply exposed on the local rubbish dump soon after birth.
Double the food which your mother gave you and support her as she supported you. You were a heavy burden to her but she did not abandon you. When you were born after your months she was still tied to you as her breast was in your mouth for three years. As you grew and your excrement was disgusting she was not disgusted.
New Kingdom scribal instruction8
Although the detailed mechanism of menstruation was not fully understood the significance of missing periods was clear, and most Egyptian women were able to diagnose their own pregnancies and even forecast the expected delivery date without any medical interference. Those who were in doubt could consult a doctor who, for a fee, would conduct a detailed examination of the woman’s skin, eyes and breasts, all of which are known to undergo marked changes in the first few weeks following conception. As an additional test, a urine sample was collected from the hopeful mother-to-be and poured over sprouting vegetables or cereals, with subsequent strong growth confirming pregnancy. The changes in the levels of hormones present in the urine, monitored in our modern pregnancy-testing kits, had a stimulating effect on the vegetation. Following a positive test it was even possible to anticipate the sex of the unborn child by a further study of the growing power of the mother’s urine; if it was sprinkled on both wheat and barley a rapid growth of barley would indicate a boy, wheat a girl. The physicians also developed a number of tests which could be used to determine whether a childless woman was ever likely to become pregnant. A physical inspection of the lady could prove particularly informative in this respect as, ‘if you find one of her eyes similar to that of an Asiatic, and the other like that of a southerner, she will not conceive’. An expert examination of the breasts could be used to indicate a fertile woman, a newly pregnant woman and even the sex of an unborn child.
Certain vegetables were strongly equated with fertility, and so vast quantities of lettuce were consumed by those wishing to conceive. The Egyptian lettuce grew tall and straight, rather like a modern cos lettuce, and when pressed it emitted a milky-white liquid. It is therefore not entirely surprising that this vegetable became associated with the ithyphallic god of vegetation and procreation, Min, and was firmly recommended by the medical papyri as a sure cure for male impotence. The experts, however, differed over the precise effects of lettuce. Discorides and Pliny believed that it should be taken to repress erotic dreams and impulses, while Hippocrates felt that it was actually an anti-aphrodisiac. Pliny recommended leeks rather than lettuce to stimulate the sexual appetite.
Sadly, although the skill and wisdom of the Egyptian doctors was famed throughout the ancient world, even the most experienced of physicians could offer no real hope to those faced with the tragedy of a childless marriage. The Egyptians well understood what had to be done to make a woman pregnant but they were less certain of the actual mechanics of conception, and without this knowledge backed up by sophisticated laboratory techniques infertility was almost invariably blamed on the wife. Consequently, barren marriages were often ‘cured’ by divorce, with the husband simply taking a different and hopefully more fertile partner; whether in these circumstances anyone realized that the man himself might have been the infertile partner is not clear. A second practical means of ending sterility was adoption. The short life expectancy and high birth rate meant that there was a readily available supply of orphaned children, and infertile couples frequently adopted the child of a poorer relation.
He who is ashamed to sleep with his wife will not have children.
The lack of even the most basic medical help, and the air of mystery and ignorance which surrounded the creation of a new life, meant that those who longed for pregnancy were far more likely to turn to religion and magic than to professional doctors. In all societies and at all times conception and childbirth have attracted numerous superstitions and old wives’ tales, and we can assume that Egyptian girls were no different in trying out the unofficial remedies passed down by word of mouth from one generation of women to the next. Unfortunately, it is precisely this sort of information which is lacking from our record of women’s lives. The type and extent of information which is lacking is suggested by Winifred Blackman’s 1927 survey of the peasant communities of modern Egypt which included a whole chapter devoted to fertility rites and rituals, all of which were very important to the hopeful mothers-to-be, but none of which would yield material evidence for the archaeologists of the future. For example, she noted that:
It is a popular belief in Egypt that if a dead child is tightly bound in its shroud the mother cannot conceive again. Therefore the shroud and the cords binding it are always loosened just before burial, dust also being put into the child’s lap. The dust is put there, so I was told, in order to keep the body lying on its back. The woman who gave me this information said that sometimes a body twists round when decomposition sets in, and if this happens the mother cannot have another child. If, in spite of precautions, the woman as time goes on seems to have no prospect of again becoming a mother she will go to the tomb of her dead child, taking a friend with her, and request the man whose business it is to do so to open the tomb. The disconsolate mother then goes down inside the tomb where the body lies, and steps over it backward and forward seven times, in the belief that the dead child’s spirit will re-enter her body and be born.
More alarmingly, Miss Blackman observed that ‘sometimes if a woman has no children her friends will take her to the railway and make her lie down between the lines in order that the train may pass over her’. This frightening rite gives some indication of the despair felt by women who are prepared to risk their lives for the chance to conceive a child. The ancient Egyptians have left us no evidence for similar fertility rituals, although we do know that a variety of amulets, worn next to the skin for increased efficiency, was available. The hippopotamus goddess Taweret, the bringer of babies to childless women, was a very popular charm, as was the dwarf god Bes.
Who makes seed grow in women and creates people from sperm. Who feeds the son in his mother’s womb and soothes him to still his tears. Nurse in the womb. Giver of breath. To nourish all that he made.
The Great Hymn to the Aten
Childbirth itself was not generally considered to be a matter for either medical or male interference, and the medical papyri offered little practical advice to the midwives who customarily assisted at the delivery. Indeed, the whole process of birth developed into a female-controlled rite far beyond the experience of most men, and consequently we have no contemporary description of childbirth. This means that our understanding of the single most important event in the Egyptian woman’s life has to be pieced together from fragments of surviving stories and myths combined with the illustrations of divine births carved on the walls of temple mammisi.9 Not surprisingly, this type of evidence is very strong on ritual and symbolic content but rather weak on practical details. TheWestcar Papyrus gives us our most detailed account of childbirth when telling the story of the miraculous birth of triplets to the Lady Reddjedet. We are told that for her delivery Reddjedet used a portable birthing stool, and that she was assisted by four goddesses who arrived at her house disguised as itinerant midwives. Isis stood in front of the mother-to-be and delivered the babies, Nephthys stood behind
Fig. 10 The goddess Taweret
her, and Hekat used an unspecified technique to ‘hasten’ the births. Meskhenet then fulfilled her divine role by telling the fortunes of the new-born babies while the god Khnum gave life to their bodies. All three infants were washed in turn, the umbilical cords were cut, and they were placed on a cushion on bricks. Reddjedet then presented the midwives with a payment of corn, and ‘cleansed herself in a purification of fourteen days’.
Although ostraca recovered from Deir el-Medina suggest that women in labour may have entered a specially constructed ‘birth bower’, a tent-like structure with walls hung with garlands (seeChapter 8), these representations probably have more symbolic than literal meaning with most births occurring within the
family home. For her delivery the naked mother-to-be either knelt or squatted on two low piles of bricks or sat on a birthing-stool, a seat with a hole large enough for the baby to pass through. Gravity was used to assist the birth, and the midwife who squatted on the floor was able to help the mother by easing the baby out. Most women were left to give birth unaided, although for more difficult cases there were several approved procedures intended to ‘cause a woman to be delivered’; these included bandaging the lower part of the abdomen and the use of vaginal suppositories. The only surgical implement used by the
Fig. 11 The goddess Hekat
midwife was the obsidian knife which was used to cut the umbilical cord after the delivery of the afterbirth; this knife had an unknown ritual significance. We do not know what happened to the afterbirth, but it seems likely that it would have been disposed of carefully. Traditionally, in Egypt, the fate of the placenta is believed to be directly linked to the life of the baby, and it is often safely buried at the threshold of the house or thrown into the Nile to ensure the survival of the infant. It may even be that the afterbirth, rich in iron, was partially eaten by the new mother. A piece was occasionally offered to the newborn child, and if it was refused, or if the baby turned its head downwards, groaned, or cried ‘no’ rather than ‘yes’, this was taken to be a very bad omen, indicating that the infant would soon die. The umbilical cord was also regarded as important; in the Myth of Horus, Horus recovered the umbilical cord of his murdered father and buried it safely at Herakleopolis Magna.
The Westcar Papyrus provides us with one of the few Egyptian references to multiple births. Twins do not seem to have been particularly welcomed: ‘… we shall fill her womb with male and female children, and save her from giving birth to twins’, an attitude which perhaps reflects the additional dangers involved in a multiple birth. Although we do know of examples of Egyptian twins these are few and far between, which has led to suggestions that either one or both of a set of twins may not have been allowed to live. This is a theory, however, which is very difficult to prove, and one which does not immediately agree with the often-repeated belief in the Egyptian love of children.10
Unfortunately, tragedies associated with childbirth were all too common. Female pelvic abnormalities sufficient to have made childbirth difficult, if not impossible, have been recognized in several mummies and serve to stress this point; one of the worst examples is the 12th Dynasty mummy of the Lady Henhenet which shows a dreadful tear running from the bladder to the vagina, almost certainly caused during childbirth when a large baby was dragged through the mother’s abnormally narrow pelvis. The royal family was not exempt from these tragedies, and the body of Mutnodjmet, wife of King Horemheb, was recovered with the body of a foetus or new-born child, suggesting that the queen had died attempting to provide an heir to the throne. Surprisingly few mummified or buried babies have been recovered, and it is likely that in many cases an infant who was stillborn or who died soon after birth was not regarded as a full member of society and consequently not accorded full burial rites; the recovery of infants buried under village houses implies that the dead baby itself may have had some religious or superstitious value. This suggestion is reinforced by the discovery of two miniature coffins of gilded wood which had been carefully placed in the tomb of Tutankhamen. Each contained an inner coffin and a tiny mummified foetus. These could be the remains of two premature children born to the young king and his queen, Ankhesenamen, but the inclusion of the small bodies within the tomb may have had a more complex symbolic meaning as yet unexplained.
The new mother was expected to ‘purify’ herself for fourteen days following the delivery. The term ‘purification’ was also used to describe menstruation, indicating an understandable confusion between menstrual bleeding and the lochia or discharge from the womb which follows childbirth. Whether the use of this apparently emotive term, with its connotations of impure or dirty, should be taken to indicate some religious or ritual avoidance of ‘unclean’ bleeding women, or whether it was simply a colloquial expression with no deeper significance than ‘the curse’, is unclear. It does indicate, however, that the new mother was allowed a period of rest after the birth, with her female relations taking over her household duties and allowing her to concentrate on recovery and caring for the new arrival.
I made live the names of my fathers which I found obliterated on the doorways… Behold, he is a good son who perpetuates the names of his ancestors.
Middle Kingdom tomb inscription
The mother named her new baby immediately after the birth, presumably following an advance briefing by the father, thereby ensuring that her child had a name even if she or he then died. Names were very important to the Egyptians, who felt that knowledge of a name in some way conferred power over the named person or object. One of their greatest fears was that a personal name might be forgotten after death, and rich men spent a great deal of money building commemorative monuments to ensure that this would not occur. Dying a ‘second death’ in the Afterlife – the complete obliteration of all earthly memory of the deceased including the name – was almost too awful to contemplate, and specific spells ‘for not perishing in the land of the dead’ were included in the texts routinely painted on the wooden coffins.
Most non-royal Egyptians were given one personal name but could also be distinguished by his or her relationship to others, for example, as in the case of Ahmose, son of Abana, the subject of a famous New Kingdom war biography. We know of many examples of personal names being favoured repeatedly within one family; a good example is the family of the New Kingdom Third Prophet of Amen, where the sons were named in alternate generations Pediamennebnesttawy (literally ‘Gift of Amen who is Lord of the Thrones of the Two Lands’) and Hor (literally ‘Horus’). Family names were also given to girls, and it was not considered confusing that both a mother and one or more of her daughters should share the same personal name. Presumably these women were distinguished from each other by their nicknames. The Egyptians certainly did not baulk at giving their children very long names; Hekamaatreemperkhons, son of Hekhemmut, would not have felt particularly hard done by, although again it is perhaps not surprising that nicknames were both common and widely used. In the absence of a favourite family name it was considered a good idea to include the name of a local god or goddess within a child’s name, and some children like the above-mentioned Pediamennebnesttawy were named in a way that suggests that they were considered to be the specific gift of a particular deity. Some names emphasized the relationship between the child and her mother or family, such as Aneksi, ‘She belongs to me’ or Senetenpu, ‘She is our sister’. Naming children in honour of members of the royal family was also popular, and attractive animals or flowers made nice names; Susan, ‘a lily’, was a favourite Egyptian girl’s name.
My son, O King, take thee to my breast and suck it… He has come to these his two mothers, they of the long hair and pendulous breasts… They draw their breasts to his mouth and evermore do they wean him.
Old Kingdom Pyramid Texts
It was customary to breast-feed infants for up to three years, much longer than is common in western societies and way beyond the point where the child would be happily eating solid foods. Not only did breast milk provide the most nutritious, most convenient and most sterile form of food and drink available for babies, it also had a certain contraceptive effect, reducing the chances of the new mother becoming pregnant too soon after she had given birth. There was no false prudery over breast-feeding, and the image of a woman squatting or sitting on a low stool to suckle a child at her left breast became symbolic of successfully fertile womanhood, frequently depicted in both secular and religious Egyptian art. The medical papyri suggested that the quality of the milk should be tested before feeding the infant; good milk should smell like dried manna but ‘to recognize milk which is bad, you shall perceive that its smell is like the stench of fish.’ To ensure a copious supply of milk the same texts advise rubbing the mother’s back with a special mixture, or feeding her with sour barley bread. Mother’s milk, particularly the milk of a woman who had borne a male child, was regarded as a valuable medical commodity, useful not only for feeding babies but also for increasing fertility and even healing burns. It was often collected and stored in small anthropomorphic pots shaped like a woman holding a baby.
Mothers of high birth and those who were unable to breastfeed left the feeding of their baby to a wet-nurse. Wet-nursing was one of the few well-paid jobs which was open to women of all classes, and the unfortunately high rate of female mortality during childbirth meant that it was a profession always in demand. It was usual for the parents to draw up a legal contract with the chosen nurse, who would undertake to feed a child for a fixed period of time at a fixed salary. Late-Period contracts usually included a clause stating that the nurse should not indulge in sexual intercourse for the duration of the employment, as this may have resulted in pregnancy and possibly ended the lactation. There was no shame attached to working as a wet-nurse and indeed, during the Dynastic period, the position of royal wet-nurse was eagerly sought after as it was one of the most important and influential positions that a non-royal woman could hope to hold. Royal wet-nurses were therefore often married to, or were mothers of, high-ranking court officials. During the Roman period the position of wet-nurse became less valued. We have a number of contracts from this time which make it clear that nurses were being paid to rear totally unrelated foundlings who were presumably the abandoned babies rescued from the local dump. These children were later sold by their owners, a practice which made sound economic sense at a time of high slave-prices.
When death comes he steals the infant from the arms of the mother just as he takes him who has reached old age.
New Kingdom scribal instruction
The high levels of infant mortality meant that childhood illnesses were always worrying times for the mother. Very few parents could afford to take their sick children to consult doctors, and anyway the lack of some of the most basic of medical skills meant that little effective treatment was available. If, for example, a child had teething trouble the standard cure was to offer the infant a fried mouse to eat; this must certainly have presented a challenge to a baby without molars. Illnesses such as measles which we today regard as trivial were, without proper treatment, fatal. Not surprisingly, mothers turned again to folk wisdom and magic to protect their darlings, placing their trust in a variety of charms, amulets and spells:
Perish, you who come in from the dark. You who creep in with your nose reversed and your face turned back, and who forgets what he came for. Did you come to kiss this child? I will not allow you to kiss him.
New Kingdom medical advice
The evil spirit described in this incantation cunningly wore his nose reversed so that he would not be recognized sneaking into the house. These spells were known to be so effective that they were frequently written on a small scrap of papyrus packed into a specially carved wooden or gold bead and carefully suspended around the neck of the beloved child to ensure maximum protection. Two thousand years later, little had changed in the Egyptian village and as Miss Blackman observed: ‘To prevent or cure disease in their children the women will go to one magician after another and purchase from them amulets and written charms, not grudging for a moment the expenditure of what may be to them considerable sums of money. Numbers of these prophylactics may be seen hanging from the necks of the hapless infants.’
There is no question that the care of babies and children, not only her own but also her younger brothers and sisters, her grandchildren and the children of friends and relations, would have played a major part in any Egyptian woman’s life. Royal children are occasionally depicted with male child-minders or tutors but, as a general rule, it was women who cared for children. Unfortunately, this type of work is not easily detected in the archaeological record, and in consequence we are left with very little knowledge of Egyptian child-care practices.11 The most important aspect of child-care, however, is clear; all surviving evidence indicates that most parents were loving and conscientious guardians who made every effort to ensure a happy and carefree childhood for their offspring.
Parents bought or made a wide range of toys for their darlings, and boys and girls were able to enjoy carved wooden animals, miniature boats, wooden balls and spinning tops which would still delight any modern child. For those who could not afford such luxuries there were the open fields to play in and the river and canals to swim in, while thick Nile mud was always in plentiful supply for use as modelling clay; several primitive clay dolls and animals, presumably made by children themselves, have been recovered from workmen’s villages. However, as might be expected in a hard-working society where teenage marriages were common and formal education a luxury, childhood was a relatively short-lived experience in ancient Egypt. As the children grew older they were gradually introduced to the work which they would be doing for the rest of their lives. Young children were expected to supervise their tiny brothers and sisters or to take care of the animals, girls helped their mothers around the house while older boys were sent to school, worked in the fields or started to learn their trade. ‘Teenagers’ as a distinct class of young adults simply did not exist. At the age of thirteen or fourteen a daughter would be eagerly anticipating her own marriage, while her mother, probably herself less than thirty years old, could look forward to the pleasant prospect of acquiring a new son-in-law and becoming a respected grandmother.