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Ancient Egypt: Man and woman
Finding a match, Marriage, Family, Property, Violence against women, Hen-pecked husbands, Sex, Infidelity, Death, Divorce, Re-marriage, Beyond death

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Man and Woman

    Some people nowadays seem to think that ancient Egyptian women lived in an almost ideal world of equality. This was not the case. They may have had more rights and independence than women in other ancient societies, but they were not treated as equals by men. Throughout history they had little direct influence on public affairs. Their choice of profession was limited mostly to that of mistress of the house, though some became priestesses, others entertainers and a small handful even came to rule the country, be it as regent or as pharaoh. But the life of the ordinary ancient Egyptian woman was restricted to doing household chores [43], though one should not forget that the options the average ancient Egyptian man had were barely more numerous.

Finding a match

    In a society where mobility was low and most of the population lived in small villages, the choice of partners was limited. There were of course occasions attracting crowds like seasonal pilgrimages to important temples, regional market days or public holidays, when one might meet attractive strangers. Some have suggested that religious junketings were often a pretext for indulging in sexual promiscuity, but whether this would have led to more than a brief encounter is open to doubt. Most matches were probably made between people who grew up together, or through arrangements made by the families, a state of affairs not highly conducive to romantic love.
    Yet, ancient Egyptians fell in love, and there were times when they made their feelings known in – at times merely literary – outpourings of love songs, some celebrating mutual attraction, others hoping to make the object of their yearning respond. There were also the sinister cases of lovelorn swains, whose unrequited feelings made them have recourse to magic, trying to enslave their beloved:
... Do not disobey, spirit of the deceased Antinoös, but wake for me and go to every place, every quarter, every house, and bring to me Ptolemais, born by Aias, daughter of Origenous; prevent her from eating, from drinking, until she comes to me, Sarapamonos, born by Area; do not let her know another man, but only me, Sarapamonos; drag her by her hair, by her guts, until she does not leave me anymore, me, Sarapamonos, born by Area, and I own her, Ptolemais, born by Aias, daughter of Origenos, submissive for the whole duration of my life, loving me, desiring me, telling me her thoughts...
Greek magical tablet from the region of Antinoöpolis
After a French translation by Sophie Kambitsis
S. Kambitsis, Une nouvelle tablette magique d'Égypte, BIFAO 76 (1976), p.219


Seneb and family     Marriage was a private matter, concluded between a man and a woman by setting up a common household and its main aim was procreation. It did not need the sanction of any public authority, be it secular or religious, though there is a New Kingdom letter describing how a crowd of villagers tried to force a man to commit himself publicly to his lover and make his wedding vows before a court of justice. [52]
    We do not have any descriptions of weddings; in the New Kingdom tale about Merneptah's daughter, Ahura, for instance no ceremonies of any kind are expressly mentioned, though one probably would not be wrong to suppose that such momentous occasions with their far-reaching economic, social and legal consequences would have been celebrated somehow [24]. All the good things the king sent to her new abode suggest that there was a feast of sorts:
And the king told the steward of the palace,"Let them take Ahura to the house of Naneferkaptah tonight, and all kinds of good things with her."
So they brought me (i.e. Ahura) as a wife to the house of Naneferkaptah; and the king ordered them to give me presents of silver and gold, and things from the palace.
And Naneferkaptah passed a happy time with me, and received all the presents from the palace; and we loved one another.
W. K. Flinders Petrie Princess Ahura
    Apparently marriages between close relatives were not taboo. [45] There is evidence of first cousin, brother-sister, and father-daughter unions both among indigenous Egyptians and immigrant Hellenists [34]. Census returns from the Roman period lead us to believe that at least during this time such marriages were quite common. Twenty-six out of a total of 121 recorded marriages were between close kin (20 brother-sister, 4 half sibling, 2 first cousin marriages), [46] in the Fayum, heavily populated by Greeks, a quarter of the marriages would be considered incestuous today in the West.
    The families of either partner were involved both socially and economically in case of a merger, but it seems they could not prevent a marriage not to their liking if the couple insisted on going ahead [17]. Girls were often only twelve or thirteen and boys a few years older, when they were married [5], though frequently the groom was significantly older than the bride as he had to be economically established.
    The influence a bride's parents, above all her father, had on these decisions was generally decisive. The fictional Ankhsheshonq gives prospective fathers of brides this piece of advice: "Choose a prudent husband for your daughter; do not choose for her a rich husband." [33]
    Prenuptial agreements were at times drawn up by the bride's father and the bridegroom, generally with the aim of protecting the woman from being abandoned.
Year 23, Month 1 of the Planting Season, day 5. This day, Telmontu declared to the Chief Workman Khonsu and the Scribe Amon-nakht, son of Ipui: "Cause Nakhemmut to swear an Oath of the Lord to the effect that he will not depart from my daughter."
The Oath of the Lord which he swore: "As Amon lives, as the Ruler lives, if I should turn away to leave the daughter of Telmontu at any time, I will receive a hundred blows and be deprived of all profits that I have made with her.
The Chief Workman Khonsu, the Scribe Amon-nakht, Neferhor, Khaemnun
Marriage agreement between a bridegroom and his father-in-law
Ostracon Bodleian Library 253
    After the New Kingdom [19] such contracts were often concluded by the bridegroom and the bride themselves. They became increasingly common during the first millennium BCE.
    Newly-weds often received economic support from their families. The dowries women brought with them remained their property, as did the seemingly mostly symbolic bride price.
List of the articles
two combs(?) 1 talent
one shawl(?) 150 (pieces of silver)
one cup 40 (pieces of silver)
one kettle(?)
hbb 100 (pieces of silver)
one jug 100 (pieces of silver)
one ... 100 (pieces of silver)

wheat 3¾ artabs
Demotic papyrus found at Thebes, Ptolemaic Period
My translation from the German [9]

The family

    Families were mostly nuclear [23], though unmarried aunts and siblings of husband or wife might live with them. From Kahun we have a number of documents describing the development of a family: Hera's family
  1. Tehuti, a professional soldier, and his wife, Harekhni, had a son, Hera, and five daughters, Katsenut, Mekten, Isis, Rudet and Sat-Senefru. (His household may have had further members we do not know about.)
  2. His son Hera, married Shepset and founded a new household. They had a son, Senefru
  3. On the death of Tehuti, his mother and his sisters joined Hera's household.
  4. After the demise of Hera, Senefru, still a minor at the time, inherited the household which included now
    his mother, Sepdusat's daughter, Shepset,
    mother of his father, Harekhni,
    sister of his father, Katsenut,
    sister of his father, Isis,
    sister of his father, Sat-Senefru
    Kahun, Middle Kingdom
    Griffith, F.Ll. ; 1898 , Hieratic Papyri from Kahun and Gurob,
    Senefru's aunts Mekten and Rudet had either married or died in the mean time.
Female slaves and their young children were included in the household counts, but seemingly not grown-up male slaves [16].
Do not control your wife in her house, when you know she is efficient;
Don't say to her, ‘Where is it? Get it!’ when she has put it in the right place.
The Instruction of Ani, c.1100 BCE
    The wife was mistress of the house, nb.t pr, organizing the servants and slaves if they were rich enough to have any or, if they were too poor, doing the housework herself helped by her daughters. Spinning, weaving and sowing were the duty of women, as were carrying water, washing clothes and cleaning the house. The daily grinding of corn alone kept a person busy for hours. While preparing food and drink was generally the wife's task [4], the husband was responsible for slaughtering animals and often also for cooking the meat.
    If any of these chores were done outside of one's own house, they often became men's work. Above all supervisory positions were almost always filled by men, though women were never quite excluded. Their role in the priesthood was especially important. As Wives of the God the High Priestesses wielded much power, which became even more pronounced during the reign of the Kushites in the Late Period.

    Polygamy was not unknown. Kings had many wives, often married for political reasons. But their main wife was generally cherished and some pharaohs professed their deep attachment quite publicly.
    Most marital relationships were monogamous. The reason for this is often thought to have been economic, i.e. the man could not afford more than one wife. This view of the man as main provider is probably quite wrong. Today, the economic role of women in agricultural African societies is at least as important as the men's. It can't have been much different in ancient times: women and children were economic assets rather than burdens.
    The reason for most relationships having been monogamous was probably that this was what the women preferred, could afford – not being excluded from ownership of land and other assets – and could insist upon, given a male/female ratio which was possibly as high as 1.1 at times. It would have required special incentives such as the lure of extraordinary wealth or high social status for a woman to give up her standing as respected and mostly equal partner. There are a few records indicating that polygamy did occur. From the 20th dynasty:
The citizeness Herer the wife of the watchman NN of the Treasury of Pharaoh. The citizeness Ta-Neferet his other wife, making two.
Peet: Pap. Mayer, 13-C-5

    The position of second wife, whether the first one was still alive or not, could be a difficult one. Heqanakht wrote to his sons
Behold, this is my second wife. It is known what is to be done for a man's second wife. For all that one does to her is equally done to me. (If) one among you would tolerate his wife being accused before him, then I would tolerate it (as well). Can there be a form of my being with you at one dining table. Not if you do not respect my second wife for my sake.
From the Heqanakht Papers

Personal property

    Wives kept their possessions and even increased them, but often their husbands administered them [30], though when the husband was away the wife very likely ran things [32]. The community property appears to have consisted of movable chattels acquired during the marriage. If the woman was living in her husband's house, two thirds of these assets were seemingly deemed to belong to the husband and one third to the wife [22]. No mention is ever made in marriage contracts that the husband's house the wife moved into was a communal property [29].
    Descent relationships were matrilineal - sons of the main wife had precedence over the offspring of concubines, and husbands of pharaohs' daughters could become pharaohs, if there was no male successor and their own social standing was adequate; inheritance was mostly patrilineal - sons inherited their fathers' profession and position. This duality is reflected in the way Egyptians - in the absence of family names - refer to themselves, as sons of their mothers like Ahmose, son of Ebana, or, at other times, of their fathers. But wives and daughters generally inherited as well, and if your benefactor was a 4th dynasty prince, you might inherit whole towns.
Year of the twelfth [occurrence] of the numbering of large and small cattle.
King's son, Nekure .... .... he makes the (following) [command], (while) living upon his two feet without ailing in any respect.
I have given to the king's confidant, Nekennebti, (in) .... , (the towns of) Khafre-.... and Khafre-.... .His son, the king's confidant, Nekure (in) the eastern backland, (the town of) [Khafre-.... , Khafre-.... and Khafre-....]. His daughter, the king's confidante, Hetephires, (in the eastern district, (the town of) Khafre-...; (in) the eastern back-land, (the town of) Khafre-.... . [His son] the king's confidant, Kennebtiwer (in) .... , (the town of) Great-is-the-Fame-of-Khafre; (in) the Mendesian nome, (the town of) Khafre-.... , and Khafre-.... . ........, (in) the Mendesian nome, (the towns of) Khafre-.... and Khafre-.... . His beloved wife, the king's confidante, Nekennebti, (in) the nome of the Cerastes-Mountain, (the town of) Beautiful-is-Khafre; (in the pyramid town) Great-is-Khafre, the estate of his daughter, .... and ....
Will of prince Nekure, son of King Khafre
J. H. Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part I, §§ 192 ff.
    Ordinary mortals had to be satisfied with less. Userkaf appointed Nekonekh priest of Hathor at Tehneh and mortuary priest of Khenuka, a nobleman living at the time of Menkaure. These offices were accompanied by land endowments of 60 setat each. Nekonekh bequeathed these appointments and the land to his children. Eleven of his inheritors received one twelfth of the land each and served one month as priest. The last two got only half the amount of land and served just two weeks. A daughter called - like her mother - the King's confidante Hezethekenu, revered, served as priestess of Hathor during the five intercalary days and the first month of the first season, and as mortuary priestess during the 4th month of the third season, for which she was given 10 setat of land [28].
    Women could dispose of their own property as they wished
'As for me, I am a free woman of the land of Pharaoh. I brought up these eight servants of yours [i.e. children] and gave them an outfit of everything (such) as is usually made for those in their station. But see, I am grown old, and see, they are not looking after me in my turn. Whoever of them has aided me, to him I will give (of) my property, but he who has not given to me, to him I will not give of my property.'
    But apparently they - and their property - were more likely to be imposed upon or fall prey to the greed of their fellow men. Even royals had such problems. Somebody, probably her father, was worried about what might happen to the property of princess Makare and made the gods look after her interests:
[We charge] any king, any great priest of Amen at the head of the army, any army chief and any person of any kind, be it man or woman, who will rule and those who will rule afterwards, to confirm all property of any kind which Makare has [bought in Upper Egypt from] certain [people] and all property of any kind which certain people have given her and which she has taken (as) a small contribution of their goods, and to confirm them in her possession. We shall confirm them in the possession of her son of hers, of the son of her son, of her daughter, of the daughter of her daughter, of the child of her child, for all eternity.
After a French translation
J. Cerny, Le caractère des Oushebtis d'après les idées du Nouvel Empire, BIFAO 41 (1942), p.127

Violence against women

    Violence was part of Egyptian life: children and servants were beaten for being disobedient, students were beaten for not wanting to study or for making mistakes, workers were beaten to make them more productive, suspects were beaten by the courts trying to get the truth (or the semblance of it) out of them, peasants were beaten by tax-collectors, subordinates were beaten because their superiors felt like it [31]. Nor was it uncommon for a husband to beat his wife [12], but - at least during the Late Period - women could ask for the protection of the courts against abuse.
    Year 20, Month 3 of the Summer Season, day 1. The day the Workman Amonemipet came before the Tribunal of Judges: The Foreman Khonsu, the Scribe Wennefer, the Scribe Amon-nakht, the Deputy Amonkhau, the Deputy Inherykhau, the Administrator Neferhotep, the Administrator Kha [...]
    Statement: "My husband [......]. Then he made a beating, he made a beating [again] and I caused the [...] to fetch his mother. He was found guilty and was caused [...]." And I said to him: "If you are [...] in the presence of the court." And he swore (an Oath of the Lord) saying: "As Amon endures, as (the Ruler) endures [...]
Ostracon Nash 5
    Women, however independent they were, were still considered to belong to their husbands, and the Late Period author of the Instruction of Ankhsheshonq thought that the appropriate punishment for violating somebody else's wife–or, as some read it, for having an extramarital affair with her (in which case it would be a violation of the husbands rights rather than the woman's body)–was to have the same happen to one's own wife.
Do not violate a married woman.
(19) He who violates a married woman on the bed will have his wife violated on the ground.
The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 3, p. 176
    One of the Carlsberg Papyri tells a tale of forced sexual relations between a high ranking priest and a lowly servant woman. There was probably little to prevent upper class men from taking advantage of their subordinates with impunity:
[...] Psemmut and Hatmehit, his wife. When the [...] discovered [.....] before them to take them to a tavern in Buto. He (i.e. Psemmut) was the servant [.....] while his wife (i.e. Hatmehit) poured drink for (lit. to the hands of) the men.
It happened one day that the Prophet of Horus-[of-Pe] saw [Hatmehit. He] desired her very much.He had her brought to his home by force. He slept with her [...]
Fragment D1 [54]
The papyrus is much destroyed and how the tale ended is unclear, but it seems that, in addition to raping the woman, the Prophet of Horus-of-Pe had her husband locked up.

Hen-pecked husbands

    Few men like to admit to being dominated by their wives, and, accordingly, such records are rare. An official living sometime in the declining Egypt of the late Ramessides or their successors, listed his attempts at satisfying every whim of his wife:
And whereas everybody who came to me, saw me in thy presence. I never received anybody before knowing whether thou wouldst have anything to say to it, saying; "I will act according to thy heart."
    Like the declarations of innocence, the 'negative confessions', which were intended to appease vengeful gods, the arguments of the official offered to the ghost of his departed wife may have been the result of a selective memory.


    There are very few direct references to sex: Adultery is rebuked; sexual techniques were, in theory at least , varied; and homosexual practices were apparently tolerated though they may have conferred a somewhat lower social status upon the partner taking on the role of submissive similar to that of women [10].
    Women had to be more circumspect in sexual matters than men, even when they were not in a relationship. Prjmhj, daughter of Senpeteyris wrote a letter to Kolanthion, suggesting that the Amen oracle should be asked about her sexual behaviour:
May I be asked in front of Amen!
As follows: Since I left the house of my husband (?) until the day when Psenosiris preferred Taperôs to me, I have not slept nor had intercourse with any man save Panuris, son of Grimya.
Kairo JE 95205, about 300 BCE [48]
    There is no known word for virginity in ancient Egyptian and many have concluded that the concept of virginity was of little to no importance in ancient Egypt [55]. At any rate, if women are referred to in texts as having been opened, this means that they had given birth and not that they had lost their virginity as it used to be thought. [56]


Do not sleep with a wife who is not yours, that no fault may be found with you because of it.
Ostracon from Deir el Bahri
Ronald J. Williams, "Fragmentary Demotic Wisdom Texts" in Janet H. Johnson & Edward F. Wente (eds.), Studies in Honor of George R. Hughes, Oriental Institute Chicago 1976, p.270

In literature

    Infidelity on the part of the man was probably common, seemingly with little consequences for an unfaithful husband, but a straying wife (and her lover) could expect severe punishment, at least in literature: The wife of a royal scribe committed adultery. Pharaoh ordered her to be seized and ...
On the north side of the house she was bound to a stake and burned alive, and what remained of her was thrown into the Nile.
The Wax Crocodile
Papyrus Westcar
    A misogynistic view of female fidelity is also reflected in the story of Anpu and Bata, two brothers. The elder, Anpu, was married and his wife tried to seduce Bata, who would have none of it. The wife accused him of ill-treatment, after which the angry Anpu tried to kill him. Bata fled and the gods, seeing how lonely he was, created a wife for him who later left him and had him killed.
    Some of the demotic wisdom literature deals with women in a similar way, expressing distrust of their sexuality and economic abilities, and warns the reader from starting affairs with married women,[58] which seems to indicate that women had a large degree of independence, both socially and economically.
    In one of the stories contained in the Westcar Papyrus Rudidit cuckolded her husband, a priest of Re, with a young man, gave birth to three children and claimed that they were the offspring of Re himself and destined to rule Egypt wisely.
After many days Rudidit quarreled with a slave-girl and punished her. And the slave-girl said to those present: "Will she do this to me? Will she do this to me? Three kings were born to her. I shall go and tell this to the king of Upper and Lower Egypt."
And she went and saw her elder brother who was tying flaxen ropes in the barn. And he said to her: "Where to, little girl?"
And she told him everything. Her brother said to her: "Do you come to me and I should be involved?" And he took a flaxen rope and did her great damage.
Djedi, the Magician
Papyrus Westcar
    Tabubuit, a respectable temple slave, required of her lover to disinherit his sons and later to kill them. In the Tale of Truth and Falsehood another gentlewoman met a good-looking young man, had sex with him and then threw him out. Much later she told her little son that the beggar before her house was his father.
    According to the following satirical description by Herodotus (Diodorus Siculus recounts it as well), Pheros, son of Sesostris became blind:
For ten years then he was blind, and in the eleventh year there came to him an oracle from the city of Buto saying that the time of his punishment had expired, and that he should see again if he washed his eyes with the water of a woman who had accompanied with her own husband only and had not had knowledge of other men: and first he made trial of his own wife, and then, as he continued blind, he went on to try all the women in turn; and when he had at least regained his sight he gathered together all the women of whom he had made trial, excepting her by whose means he had regained his sight, to one city which now is named Erythrabolos, and having gathered them to this he consumed them all by fire, as well as the city itself; but as for her by whose means he had regained his sight, he had her himself to wife.
Herodotus 2,111
Project Gutenberg
    In a demotic story from Roman times the wife of a prophet of Atem asked to be given the son which her husband's lover was going to give birth to:
The wife of the prophet of Atem came before Pharaoh, saying: "The prophet of Nebethetepet's wife is pregnant by my own husband."
The wife of the prophet of Atem said: "This son, which she will give birth to, order him to be (my) son. [As his] [father] is [my husband, the] prophet of Atem."
One did everything according to what Pharaoh had ordered. [/// ///] the woman. "May it be said before Re that our heart [is satisfied (?) ///] with our children!"
Tales of Petese, P. Petese Tebt. A
after a transcription and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website.
    One may surmise that the lot of such illegitimate children was a difficult one, in patriarchal societies husbands do not take being cuckolded lightly. His father's wife adopting him would probably have been a stroke of good luck for the child.

In reality

    In real life adultery does not appear to have been a crime prosecuted by the authorities, but it was considered to be at least morally wrong and possibly cause for a civil action against the adulterer. There are a few records of men being brought to court for having sex with married women, but it is unclear whether these were cases of sex between consenting partners or rape, and no judgments are known. The aggrieved party, in the eyes of the ancient Egyptians generally the husband of a straying wife, who had lost his exclusive rights to her body, rather than the wife of a philandering husband, might want to soothe his pain by killing his rival [18] or at least throwing his wife out of the house, keeping all of their common property.
    A few affairs are known from Deir el Medina. The chief workman Pa-neb was apparently somewhat of a ladies' man. Amen-nakhte, a rival for the office of chief workman and therefore probably not the most reliable of witnesses, tried to get Pa-neb deposed by accusing him of a number of crimes and misdeeds, among them adultery (or, as it has been interpreted by some, sexual assault):
Pa-neb slept with the lady Tuy when she was the wife of the workman Qenna; he slept with the lady Hel when she was with Pen-dua; he slept with the lady Hel when she was with Hesy-su-neb-ef.
And when he had slept with Hel, he slept with Webkhet, her daughter. And A'o-pekhty, his son, slept with Webkhet himself.
A. G. McDowell, Village Life in Ancient Egypt, p.46
Paneb's actions seem to have had few if any consequences. He continued being foreman and built his own grave at Deir el Medina. [57]
    In Ptolemaic times many inhabitants of the Fayum joined religious associations [44] which fostered trust and cooperation between its members. Apart from everyone having to pay a high annual fee of between one and two thousand drachmas, heavy fines were imposed on those who fell foul of the rules. The most costly misbehaviour by far was adultery with the wife of a member which would cost the guilty party 6000 drachmas (300 deben) while most other offenses cost 1000 drachmas or less [37].

A parting

    Of course not all relationships between men and women were mistrustful or destructive. Most were loving or at least respectful [21]. In a letter which the husband of the deceased songstress of Amen Akhtai asked her coffin to transmit to his dead wife, he complains:
...You (i.e. the coffin) are the one who shall say to her: "'Woe, she did not endure,' thus speaks your brother and mate."
Woe, the one with the beautiful face, there was none like her, and I found nothing bad about you. A blessing for me are mother, father, brother, and sister, for they come; but you have been taken from me...
Letter to the dead Akhtai, oLouvre 698 [42]
Thebes, 21st dynasty
    The pressure on the women to give birth to a male heir was great [14], and could cast a deep shadow over a relationship [27].
O scribes, priests, princes, noblemen and people, you who come to this tomb. Listen and hear who is buried here. In the ninth year, in the fourth month of the inundation on the ninth day of the reign of Ptolemy XIII I was born. In the year twenty three, in the third month of summer on the first day my father gave me as wife to the High Priest Paherneptah, son of Petubasti. The heart of the priest was heavy, because thrice I became pregnant and gave birth to three daughters. And no son did I bear him.
I prayed with the High Priest to His Excellence the good and benevolent God Imhotep, son of Ptah, who gives sons to the childless. He heard our pleas, because he listens to the entreaties of those who supplicate him. As a reward I was with child and bore a son in the sixth year, the third month of summer on the fifth day, the first hour of the day, of the reign of Queen Cleopatra, the festival of offerings, we shall offer them to this awesome and esteemed God Imhotep called Petubasti. All shared in my joy.
In the sixth year, in the second month of winter on the sixth day I passed to the other side of the Nile. My husband, the High Priest Paherneptah buried me in the city of the dead. He endowed me with all the holy ceremonies that are due to the righteous. He wrapped me in shrouds of magnificence and splendour. and laid me to rest in my tomb.
From a stela in the British Museum
    With the average grown-up reaching only an age of about 35, one always had to be ready to lose one's partner through disease, accident or childbirth.
Who died here? - Herois. - How and when? - Heavy wombed
In pained labor she set down her burden,
Mother was she for a moment, the child perished also.
What was the luckless one's age? - Two times nine
Years of flowering youth had Herois. Light may
The earth be on her, may Osiris bestow cooling water.
Epitaph, Roman Period
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.7
    Apart from such a bereavement being an emotional burden, it could also be a major economic disaster for the surviving partner, above all for a widow. Most Egyptians had little personal wealth and she was often left with nothing. Unless she had family which could take her in, her life would henceforth be marked by deprivation.
    But sometimes the marriage ended in separation:


    Without the unfortunate burden of marriages made in heaven and above all approved of and enforced by religious authorities, ancient Egyptians may have had a slightly easier task when ending a relationship gone wrong. The procedure appears to have been informal. A letter from the late Ramesside period describes how a man announces his intention to divorce his wife by saying: I am separating myself from you [38]. Such a declaration may have been all that was needed to bring about a separation.
    As seen in the pre-nuptial agreement above women kept their own property. If they had had means of their own when marrying, they could continue an independent existence, otherwise they might seek their parents' help:
The Workman Horemwia says to the Citizeness Tent-desheret, his daughter: You, my goodly daughter, should the Workman Baki cast you out of the house that (he) has made (for you), as for the house ..........., you shall sit in the gateway of my storehouse, that which I have made myself, and no one in the land shall cast you out from there.
A father's promise to his daughter in case of divorce
Ostracon Petrie 61 [11]
    Childlessness may often have led to a man to try his luck with somebody else, but the demotic Instruction of Ankhsheshonq exhorts husbands:
Do not abandon a woman of your household when she has not conceived a child.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.3, p.170
    In the late New Kingdom at Deir el Medina, an independent woman seems to have entered into a relationship with a man, which was apparently less than a marriage. The man had moved in with her bringing his sleeping mat and headrest, some food and a few odds and ends. The woman ended the cohabitation on her own terms, and the man complained:
And they threw me out, although she had not made for me (even ?) a garment for my behind.
I went again with all my property in order to live with them. Look, she acted exactly the same way again.
A. G. McDowell, Village Life in Ancient Egypt, p.46
    The last a woman might hear from her former husband might be a final attestation of her being a free agent again:
Year 31, Month of Thoth, of King Darius (about 492/491 BCE)
The choachyte of Tales Padiparui (?), son of Nesamenhotep, says to Mistress Takhet//// (?), daughter of Ankhpakhered, her mother is Tadiamenkherwas. Today I have released you from being my wife. I am separated from you. I have no claim whatsoever on you anymore. I shall not have the right to prevent you from entering any of houses you will enter, saying: "Do not take a man in there!" from today to eternity.
Written by Horudja, son of Nes-hor-pakhered.
BM 10449 [47]
    Apparently women could initiate divorce at least since the second half of the first millennium, though that freedom may have had its price. In a marriage contract from the period of the Persian king Darius a husband garanteed his wife one third of their common property if he left her, [51] while in another dating to the 30th year of the reign of Darius (493/92 BCE) Esenkhebis, daughter of the choachyte of Tales Ankhpakhered mentioned above, promised her husband Irturou, son of Pashutefnakht to waive any claims on their common earnings if she broke up with him: [49]
....You have made me your wife today. You have given me a kite [50] of silver from the treasury of Ptah, of full value, as my wife's gift. Should I leave you as my husband and choose a man other than you, then I shall give you half a silver kite from the treasury of Ptah, of full value, from this one kite of silver from the treasury of Ptah, of full value, which you have given me as my wife's gift mentioned above, not having any part in anything and everything in this world I shall have acquired with you and without going to court in this world....
    The right of women to divorce their husbands was possibly a result of the influence Jewish refugees, who had settled in significant numbers at Elephantine and in the Fayum, had on the culture of the indigenous society [26].
    Even though a man might be ruined if he had to pay back the bride price, or, being incapable of doing so, had to pay alimony [40], divorce with its economic and social consequences was, generally speaking, harder on the woman than it was on the man [41]. Husbands were therefore more likely to divorce their wives than vice versa [13]. At Deir el Medina eighty percent of the divorces were initiated by the husband [36].


    As marriages often endured for only a few years, survivors or divorcees were still quite young and frequently got married again. In order to prevent injustice from occurring, testaments were sometimes written, attested by witnesses and agreed to by surviving children of previous marriages.
I bequeath to the Citizeness Ineksenedjem, the woman who is in my house, all that I have acquired with her, namely, two male servants and two female servants, total 4, and their children. (This is) my two-thirds share in addition to her one-third share.
And I bequeath the nine servants which fell to me in my two-thirds share with the Citizeness Tathari to my children, as well as the house of my maternal grandfather now in their possession.
They (the children) shall not be deprived of anything that I acquired with their mother. I would (also) have given to them from what I acquired with the Citizeness Ineksenedjem, but Pharaoh has said: " Give the dowry of each woman to her."
The Vizier said: "What do you think about this testament that your father is making for the Citizeness Ineksenedjem, this (second) wife of his?" They (i.e. the children of the first marriage) said: "We have heard what our father is doing. As for what he is doing, who can argue with him? It is his own property. Let him dispose of it as he wishes.
The will of Amonkhau in favor of his second wife, c.1100 BCE
excerpt, Papyrus Turin 2021
    It has always happened for some stepfathers and -mothers to have bad relationships with their stepchildren. In a society such as the ancient Egyptian, where many people lived close to the subsistence level much of the time and depended on relatives to survive, a little ill-will on behalf of a stepmother for instance could have dire consequences. Nehsi, a Middle Kingdom overseer, wrote to Kay how Senet, Kay's daughter, was in danger of starving because her stepmother prevented grain deliveries to her:
... You will cause her (i.e. Kay's daughter) to die because of not sending Lower Egyptian barley on behalf of /// to my household. Behold, I know (now) the nature of my father's wife. Do you (i.e. Kay) follow the wishes of your wife by killing my household?
Letter of Nehsi, pBM 10549
After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site

Beyond death

    The union of man and woman often transcended death. Couples were frequently buried in the same or in adjacent tombs, and depicted together, their statues showing them in a somewhat rigid embrace, jointly facing an uncertain future in the hereafter.
    The sadness from having one's partner die on one may have been alleviated somewhat by the thought, that one continued to have an ally who still had one's interest at heart. The deceased were magical beings and one could hope, that they would remember one with fondness and exert their influence on one's behalf.

Kaiemankh and Tjeset Kaiemankh and Tjeset before their estrangement.
Hermann Junker ed., Grabungen auf dem Friedhof des Alten Reiches, Band IV: "Die Mastaba des Kai-em-anch", Wien und Leipzig 1940, Abb.9

    But there were times when hatreds developed which only the hope that one's formerly trusted partner would be destroyed forever could assuage. Kaiemankh, a 6th dynasty official, must have had a serious disagreement with his wife Tjeset, while he was decorating his mastaba, serious enough for him to have all mention of Tjeset erased [39]. The obliteration of her name would have greatly diminished her chances of eternal life.


[5]    During the reign of Psamtik I a superintendent of the treasury of Amen in the nome of Oxyrhynchos named Horwedja asked Pediese, father of Nitemhat, for the girl's hand:
"...May our(?) lord grant that the girl Nitemhat be given to me as wife."
Pediese said to him: "Her time (of menarche) has not arrived yet. Be a priest of Amen-Re, king of the gods. I shall give her to you..."
   During the Roman Period the youngest brides seem to have been eight years old. Puberty was generally a precondition. In the royal family where dynastic considerations were of importance, marriages of pre-pubertal children were often concluded.
[6]   Names of the witnesses
[10]   In the satirical Contendings of Horus and Seth the latter god claimed the right to rule on the basis that he had inseminated Horus.
[12]   The 4000-year old skeleton of a woman buried in a simple wooden coffin among other commoners at Abydos showed multiple signs of violence. She seemingly died of a stab wound, but had also injuries which had healed and are commonly interpreted as signs of abuse: three ribs and a bone in her left hand had been broken, and she had suffered from an infection in her fractured right wrist. (Brenda Baker, New York State Museum in Albany)
[14] According to the sixth dynasty Instruction of Hardjedef the purpose of founding a household is the birth of a son:
When you prosper, found your household,
Take a hearty wife, a son will be born you.
It is for the son you build a house.
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume I, p.58
[15] Light may the earth be on her, may Osiris bestow cooling water: An interesting blending of Egyptian and foreign customs. (Light may the earth be on her - Latin: Sit tibi terra levis)
[17] The consequences of marrying below one's own social position seems to have had adverse consequences above all for the woman, who was dependent on her husband as far as her standing was concerned. The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq reminds husbands to respect their wives' descent: If a wife is of nobler birth than her husband he should give way to her. (M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.180)
[18] Making advances to a married woman was, according to the Instruction of Ankhsheshonq  fraught with risk and not advisable:
Do not make love to a married woman.
He who makes love to a married woman is killed on her doorstep.
M. Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Volume III, p.177
[19] A prenuptial agreement from Ptolemaic times among Greeks stipulates stiff consequences in case of a contravention. Interesting are the facts that not a court but three men mutually agreed upon should referee, that the dowry was to pass into the possession of the husband (which seems to have been common practice, but other marriage contracts also speak of owning their property in common ), that the woman appeared to be acting for herself without being represented by a guardian (though the possibility of being represented is mentioned), and that the penalties should be equal. cf. Marriage Contracts.
[21] Often mortuary inscriptions do not provide the most sincere descriptions of relationships and should be taken with a grain of salt:
An offering which the king gives (to) Osiris presiding over the Westerners, that he may give mortuary offering of bread and beer, oxen and geese, and everything good and pure to the spirit of the house mistress Tanebet, justified in the presence of Osiris. It is this householder, her beloved, her darling, who keeps her name alive, (namely) Nebnofer, living again.
Round-topped sandstone stela of Tanebet and Nebnofer. Thebes (?) 18th dynasty
T.G. Allen, Egyptian Stelae, 1936
[22] Nau-nakht named four of her children whom she did not want to receive anything from her part of the communal property:
'They shall not participate in the division of my 1/3, but in the 2/3 of their father they shall participate
The will of Nau-nakht, New Kingdom
[23] According to censuses taken in Roman Egypt almost half the households were populated by nuclear families:
% of households
1. Solitary 16.2
2. No family (unmarried siblings living together etc)4.8
3. Conjugal family 43.1
4. Extended family 15.0
5. Multiple families (mostly married siblings living together)21.0
Bagnall and Frier The Demography of Roman Egypt
Differences between town and countryside were significant. While in towns more than half of the households were populated by nuclear families, in the villages 43% of the householders (and two thirds of family members) lived in extended or multiple families.
In contrast to what had been happening in western countries until recent years, young people apparently did not choose to leave their parents in order to found a household of their own, if there was enough space for all in the parental home. In many cases the heir at least seems to have continued living at home even after he got married, changing a formerly nuclear conjugal family into an extended one. Family of Horos With the death of the householder, the father, siblings often continued to share the abode forming multiple families households.
At least in Roman times extended and multiple families households were frequent, above all in rural surroundings. The risk of losing the family income was smaller, as there were a number of household members earning a living.
Horos and his descendants, whose census returns for the years 89, 103, and 117 CE are listed in the graph on the right, were farmers at Bacchias in the Arsinoite nome. The brothers Peteuris, Horos and Horion continued to live together, even when one or the other of them got married.
The number of surviving children is small (3 in this case), just replacing the parent generation:
♣ Peteuris died without issue.
♣ Horos, who inherited his elder brother's position of householder, had 2 sons when his wife was aged 45 and unlikely to have any more children.
♣ Horion's wife Thenatymis gave birth at the age of 38 years.
Source: Bagnall & Frier, The Demography of Roman Egypt
[24] Nicole Hansen thinks (April 2005) [25] that the so-called Deir el Medina love songs are really wedding songs. She proposes three stages:
1. The preliminaries included petitions of the man to Hathor, his asking the woman's mother for her hand and the parents agreement.
2. The wedding party, possibly gender-segregated, which lasted for seven days.
3. The setting up of a common household, accompanied by the sacrifice of an animal on the doorstep of the bride's house, the kissing of the groom's hand and a celebration in honour of Hathor.
[27] The problem of childlessness was, occasionally at least, solved by buying a slave woman, impregnating her and adopting her children. Cf. the Adoption Papyrus.
[28] J. H. Breasted: Ancient Records of Egypt, Part One, §§ 213ff.
[29] Annalisa Azzoni: Women and property in Persian Egypt and Mesopotamia, p.18, Conference on Women and Property, Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University, August 2003
[30] A husband acknowledged his wife's rights over her property:
I have received them from your hand; they are complete without remainder; my heart is satisfied with them. If you are inside, you are inside with them. If you are outside, you are outside with them. Their property right belongs to you, the power of disposing of the property to me.
Annalisa Azzoni: Women and property in Persian Egypt and Mesopotamia, p.19, Conference on Women and Property, Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University, August 2003
[31] Such beatings were not trivial affairs. A weaver named Iollas complained that
five scourge-bearing Egyptian men [- - - he] whipped me brutally, so that my skin was even cut through and now [- - -] has been even worse treated by [him].
P.Mich.inv. 3135, 257 BCE
APIS record: michigan.apis.1825
[32] The sister and possibly wife of Terentianus wrote the following report in 99 CE:
Apollonous to Terentianus, her brother, greetings and continual good health. I want you to know that since I wrote to you before about my affairs, now . . . that the full amount of the rent and the seed will surely be available. And do not worry about the children; they are in good health, and they are kept busy with a teacher. And about your fields, I have reduced your brother's rent to the extent of two artabai. Now I receive from him eight artabai of wheat and six artabai of vegetable seed. And do not worry about us and take care of yourself. I understood from Thermouthas that you obtained for yourself a pair of belts, and I was much gratified. And about the olive yards, they are quite productive so far. And the gods willing, if it is possible, come to us. I wish you to be in good health, and your children and all your kin salute you. Farewell.
Year 2 of the Emperor Caesar Nerva Trajan Augustus Germanicus, Phamenoth(?) 20. . . . .
(Verso) Deliver to Iulius Terentianus, soldier.
P.Mich.inv. 6001, 99 CE
APIS record: michigan.apis.2619
[33] M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 3, p.178
[34] Documents speak of such relations matter-of-factly, without any moral censure:
[Didymos] the younger, son of Lysimachos, about 41 years old, tall, with honey-colored skin, with a scar on his right shin, acknowledges to his wife, Hero, who is also his sister on both his father's and his mother's side, about 35 years old, of middle height, fair-skinned, with a scar in the middle of her forehead, with her guardian, her kinsman Herodes, son of Ptolemaios, about 30 years old, of middle height, with honey-colored skin, with a scar below his left temple, that he has ceded to her and to her heirs and assigns for transfer forever from the catoecic estates belonging to him near Theogonis in the division of Polemon ten arourai, or as many as there may be, of the catoecic allotment formerly belonging to Herakleides, son of Didymos, and all the appurtenances....
Cession of Catoecic Land, 34-35 or 35-36 CE
APIS record: michigan.apis.2619
Didymos and Hero apparently had no common offspring, while Hero appears to have had heirs. This may have been a marriage for economic convenience rather than procreation. In this context it is also interesting to note that Didymos, the husband, was not Hero's guardian.
Jack Goody in The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (Cambridge 1983, p.43) speaks of there having existed a 'preference' for brother-sister marriages under the Ptolemies in order to keep the family wealth intact.
[36] Lynn Meskell, Private Life in New Kingdom Egypt, Princeton University Press, 2002 , p.99
[37] Andrew Monson, 2005
[38] cf. Late Ramesside Letters [67]
[39] Hermann Junker ed., Grabungen auf dem Friedhof des Alten Reiches, Band IV: "Die Mastaba des Kai-em-anch", Wien und Leipzig 1940, pp.35f.
[40] Lexikon der Ägyptologie I, 1176: entry Ehe
[41] Lynn Meskell, Archaeologies of Social Life: Age, Sex, Class Et Cetera in Ancient Egypt, Blackwell Publishing 1999, ISBN 063121299X p.158
[42] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website => Altägyptisches Wörterbuch, Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften => Briefe => Briefe nach dem Neuen Reich => Briefe an Tote => oLouvre 698: Brief an den Sarg der toten Ichtai, I. Hafemann, ed.
[43] As the Germans said so infamously only a few decades ago: KKK, i.e. Kinder (children), Kirche (church), Küche (kitchen), a slogan attributed to Kaiser Wilhelm II.
[44] The statutes of a Ptolemaic religious association
[45] J. Cerny found very little evidence for unions of blood relatives among second millennium BCE couples (Lexikon der Ägyptologie, entry "Geschwisterehe".) The relative prevalence a millennium later may be a late development or due to better documentation. D. S. Bendall, Evolution from Molecules to Men, CUP Archive, 1986, p.500, cites Hopkins' 1980 study, which concluded that among 113 Roman Egyptian marriages analyzed about 20% were between brothers and sisters or between half siblings.
There is very little evidence that close kin marriages had any unhealthy effects on the Egyptian population at large: A child's mummy at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology was found to have a sixth finger on one of its hands. The Museum's newsletter from the fall of 2003 suggests–without offering any proof– that this may have been the result of inbreeding. [35] The results of inbreeding on Tutankhamen and his family on the other hand seem, according to DNA tests done in the year 2010, to have had a number of unfortunate consequences for the health of the young man.[53]
[46] Walter Scheidel, "Ancient Egyptian Sibling Marriage and the Westermarck Effect" in Arthur P. Wolf, William H. Durham, Inbreeding, Incest, and the Incest Taboo: The State of Knowledge at the Turn of the Century, Stanford University Press, 2004, p.93
[47] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, G. Vittmann ed. => Demotische Textdatenbank, Akademie für Sprache und Literatur Mainz => administrative und dokumentarische Texte => Scheidungsurkunden => BM 10449
[48] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, G. Vittmann ed. => Demotische Textdatenbank, Akademie für Sprache und Literatur Mainz => administrative und dokumentarische Texte => Briefe => Kairo JE 95205 => Kairo JE 95205
[49] After a transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, G. Vittmann ed. => Demotische Textdatenbank, Akademie für Sprache und Literatur Mainz => administrative und dokumentarische Texte => Ehe- und seanch-Urkunden => Berlin P 3078
[50] One kite was one tenth of a deben, about 9 grammes.
[51] BM 10120 A on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae website, G. Vittmann ed. => Demotische Textdatenbank, Akademie für Sprache und Literatur Mainz => administrative und dokumentarische Texte => Ehe- und seanch-Urkunden => BM 10120 A
[52] Under the Ptolemies Greek marriage laws were enacted which institutionalized marriage. As a first step the bridegroom had to register with an official, setting a date for the ceremony. The bride made a similar announcement. Sacrificial ceremonies, the paying of the dowry and other steps were regulated by law. See P.Penn. Museum inv. E02782. ( accessed 17th May 2009)
[54] Kim S. B. Ryholt, The Carlsberg Papyri, Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006, Volume 6 pp.101f.
[55] C. Scott Littleton (ed.), Gods, Goddesses, And Mythology, Marshall Cavendish Corporation 2005, Volume 2, p.1416.
Still, a number of expressions have been interpreted as possibly meaning "virgin", but they could simply refer to a girl or a young woman who has not given birth: ama.t (Wb 1, 185.15-16), aDd.t (Wb 1, 242.18-19), rwn.t (Meeks, AL 77.2345; 78.2381).
Bob Brier in Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008, p.79, claims that the groom gave a "virginity gift" to the bride if it was her first marriage, which would mean that virginity did have a certain importance.
[56] Cf. D. Mackenzie's 1907 translation of The Story of the Green Jewel vs. the newer rendering by M. Lichtheim.
[57] Marc Orriols-Llonch: La traición a la maat. La violencia contra las mujeres en el antiguo Egipto, accessed at, 14.12.2013
[58] From M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 3: "The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq", pp.159ff.
      (13,12) If you find your wife with her lover get yourself a bride to suit you.
      (13,22) What she does with her husband today she does with another man tomorrow.
      (12,13) Let your wife see your wealth; do not trust her with it.
      (8,12)   Do not take to yourself a woman whose husband is alive, lest he become your enemy.

  The people of ancient EgyptThe people of ancient Egypt
Petrie PapyriGender
Petrie Papyri[16] Petrie Papyri: Legal documents - Enumeration of the persons composing the Middle Kingdom household of Kha-kau-Ra (12th dynasty)
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Die aegyptische Frau[1] Die ägyptische Frau
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The Egyptian Economy and Non-royal Women[4] The Egyptian Economy and Non-royal Women: Their Status in Public Life
Stela of Seven Persons[7] Stela of Seven Persons by Luca Zaninelli
Papyrus Collection[8] Papyrus Collection of the University of Michigan
Ausgewaehlte demotische Ostraka[9] Wangstedt, Sten V. Ausgewählte demotische Ostraka aus der Sammlung des Victoria-Museums zu Uppsala und der Staatlichen Papyrussammlung zu Berlin
The Egyptian Economy and Non-royal Women[11] Texts accompanying "The Egyptian Economy and Non-royal Women: Their Status in Public Life," by William Ward
Reflections Of Women In Ancient Egypt[13] Reflections Of Women In Ancient Egypt
-[25] Glyphdoctors: Study Egyptology online
-[35] Archaeologies of Childhood (Kelsey Museum)
Tutankhamun[53] National Geographic: "King Tut Mysteries Solved: Was Disabled, Malarial, and Inbred", accessed February 2010
Phallic RepresentationsPhallic Representations
Women and gender in ancient EgyptWomen and gender in ancient Egypt
From warrior women to female pharaohsFrom warrior women to female pharaohs: careers for women in Ancient Egypt by Dr Joann Fletcher, July 2001
The Status of Women in Ancient Egyptian SocietyThe Status of Women in Ancient Egyptian Society by Dr. Peter Piccione
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Um Testamento maternoUm Testamento materno em tempos faraônicos by Margaret Marchiori Bakos
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