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Ancient Egypt: Gender roles and relationships, gender in art
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Gender

    Ancient Egyptians divided mankind into two sexes, as is reflected in their language, which knows, like the semitic languages, two grammatical genders only. [5] Their attitude towards hermaphroditism is unknown, as is whether they had a word for the phenomenon. It did exist in their mythology. Some of their creator gods had androgynous features–male gods bringing forth the next generation of deities, even if the process of giving birth was somewhat unconventional, in the case of Atem it included spitting out and vomitting. Female deities might occasionally have male features: a bearded Isis figure holding a baby Horus has been found, [6] while Neith is represented with an erect phallus in some papyri.
    If some rare people had features of both sexes, others might be unsexed. Castration of humans was, if not completely unknown, at least very rare, [7] and the only known word relevant in this context, sxtj, may or may not refer to a eunuch. [8] In literature references to castration are few. There is the story of the murder of Osiris, in which Seth kills his brother and cuts off his genitals, throws them int the Nile where they are swallowed by a fish, in the Pyramid Texts Seth's manhood is impaired in his power struggle with Horus,whether he was castrated or not is unclear, [9] and a Middle Kingdom execration text threatens the enemies of Egypt, all males, all eunuchs(?), all women[7]

Gender roles

    In theory the roles of men and women were different but largely equal [1]. The reality was somewhat different. Women bore and raised children and were responsible for the familiar, domestic relationships, while men taught their growing up boys their own trade and related to society at large. At least during the first dynasties women belonging to the elite at least received post-mortem treatment similar to that of men: they were buried in individual tombs, with statues of themselves alone. As the civil administration grew stronger and men became more involved in its hierarchy, their wives' economic and social dependence grew, weakening their position. From the 5th dynasty onwards women are frequently shown as part of group statues only.
    Women took care of the daily needs of their families; men interpreted this as women serving them. In grave scenes of the Old and Middle Kingdoms wives are often depicted in subservient roles, baking bread, making beer and generally looking after their husbands.
    Still, they enjoyed quite a bit of independence in this male-dominated society, and even among the Greeks who began settling in Egypt during the first millennium BCE and restricted the freedom of their women severely, men did not have it all their own way:
Paniskos to Ploutogenia, his wife, greeting.
I enjoined you when I left that you should not go off to your home, and yet you went. If you wish anything you do it, without taking account on me. But I know that my mother does these things. See, I have sent you three letters and you have not written me even one. If you do not wish to come up to me, no one compels you. These letters I have written to you because your sister compels me here to write. But since you find it impossible to write about this, but write thus about yourself. But I have heard the things which [do not] concern you.
Send me my helmet and my shield and five lances and my breastplate and my belt.
I salute your mother Heliodora. The letter carrier said to me when he came to me: "When I was on the point of departing I said to your wife and her mother: 'Give me a letter to take to Paniskos,' and they did not give it." I have sent you one talent by Antoninus from Psinestes. I pray for your welfare.
Private letter, ca. 296-297 CE, Coptos
P.Mich.inv. 1364, Papyrus Collection of the University of Michigan [8]
    When a woman took on a typically male role in public, as Hatshepsut did when she became pharaoh, she might disguise her feminine features by displaying the insignia of power which people connected with the masculine holders of the title, such as the pharaonic beard.

Gender and literature

    In literary works female voices are rare. They are possibly heard in the love poetry which flourished above all during the New Kingdom - but the vast majority of authors was probably male. Most of the writings such as the Instructions were composed by men for men expressing widely diverging views of womanhood [2].
If you take a wife, do not . . . Let her be more contented than any of her fellow-citizens. She will be attached to you doubly, if her chain is pleasant. Do not repel her; grant that which pleases her; it is to her contentment that she appreciates your work.
 
If you are wise, look after your house; love your wife without alloy. Fill her stomach, clothe her back; these are the cares to be bestowed on her person. Caress her, fulfill her desires during the time of her existence; it is a kindness which does honor to its possessor. Be not brutal; tact will influence her better than violence; her . . . behold to what she aspires, at what she aims, what she regards. It is that which fixes her in your house; if you repel her, it is an abyss. Open your arms for her, respond to her arms; call her, display to her your love.

Raherka and Mersankh, 5th Dynasty
The chief of scribes Raherka and his wife Mersankh
5th Dynasty, painted limestone, found in a mastaba at Gizeh
Adapted from a photograph scanned from Les Merveilles du Louvre

Gender relationship in art

Akhenaten and Nefertiti. 18th Dynasty
Akhenaten and Nefertiti
18th Dynasty, painted limestone, 22 cm tall
Adapted from a photograph scanned from Les Merveilles du Louvre

    Various features of statues of couples have been interpreted as pointing to the wives' subordination: the (inferior left) side of the men they stand on, their position slightly behind their husbands, their smaller size or the woman touching the man without any reciprocal movement on his behalf.
    This may all be true, but the important point is that the men chose to be depicted in the company of their wives. The artists may have fudged the truth a bit, women (and men for that matter) are rarely shown as ugly, fat (the Egyptians seem to have invented our 20th century yearn for thinness), old or bad-tempered.
    It seems that they thought that if you had to live an eternity with somebody, then why not in his or her most attractive guise.
    Moreover, features can generally be interpreted in more than one way. If a man was shown seated with his wife standing by his side, it may have been in order to offset the larger physical size of the man or, conversely, to stress his greater importance.
    During the New Kingdom the representations became less rigid with husband and wife embracing each other, sitting side by side or holding hands.

 


Footnotes:
[1] Teresa A. Meade, Merry E. Wiesner, Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, A Companion to Gender History, Blackwell Publishing, 2004, p.30
[2] The Late Period demotic Instructions of Ankhsheshonq are replete with sayings which may well have been proverbial. The 9th Instruction deals mostly with women:
(20) THE NINTH INSTRUCTION.
The teaching not to be a fool, so that one does not fail to receive you in the house.
(21) Wrongdoing [occurs] to the heart of the fool through his love of women.
(22) He does not think of the morrow for the sake of wronging the wife of another.
(23) The fool who looks at a woman is like a fly on blood.
(24) His --- attains the bedroom, unless the hand of another attains him.
(8,1) the [fool] brings disturbance to --- because of his phallus.
(2) His love of fornication does harm to his livelihood.
(3) He who knows how to hold his heart has the equivalent of every teaching.
(4) If a woman is beautiful you should show you are superior to her.
(5) A good woman who does not love another man in her family is a wise woman.
(6) The women who follow this teaching are rarely bad.
(7) Their good condition comes about through the god's command.
(8) There is she who fills her house with wealth without there being an income.
(9) There is she who is the praised mistress of the house by virtue of her character.
(10) There is she whom I hold in contempt as an evil woman.
(11) Fear her on account of the fear of Hathor.
(12) The fool who wrongs the mistress of the house, his portion is to be cursed.
(13) He who is worthy before the god will have respect for them.
(14) There is he who forgets a wife when he is young because he loves another woman.
(15) She is not a good woman who is pleasing to another (man).
(16) She is not the fool of the street who misbehaves in it.
(17) He is not a wise man who consorts with them.
(18) The work of Mut and Hathor is what acts among women.
(19) It is in women that good fortune and bad fortune are upon earth.
(20) Fate and fortune go and come when he (the god) commands them. Total: 23.
The Instruction of Ankhsheshonq
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. 3, p. 190f.
[5] On should not read too much into this. Languages with three grammatical genders still use male or female gender for grown people of unclear sex, sometimes according to which sex preponderates. In German a hermaphrodite, der Zwitter, is male.
[6] A. H. Krappe, "The Bearded Venus" in Folk-Lore, Vol. 56, No. 4 (December 1945), pp. 325-335
[7] Gary Taylor, Castration: An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood, Routledge, 2000
[8], Erman & Grapow, Wörterbuch der ägyptischen Sprache, vol. 4, 264.3
[9] Geraldine Pinch, Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press US, 2004, p.82

  The people of ancient EgyptThe people of ancient Egypt
procreationProcreation
Petrie PapyriMan and woman

 

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Egyptian WomenEgyptian Women in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt
The Egyptian Economy and Non-royal Women[4] The Egyptian Economy and Non-royal Women: Their Status in Public Life
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
Women in Ancient EgyptWomen in Ancient Egypt

 

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© August 2000
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