The Ancient Egyptian Bride
by Ilene Springer
For all that religion played in ancient Egyptian life, there was one place it had no role at all: the Egyptian marriage. There wasnt even a civil ceremony. Rather, marriage simply took place when two young people decided to move in together (usually the bride would move in with her husband) and start a common household. But that doesnt mean that marriage was not taken seriously. From the paintings we have found, letters that were left from grieved widowers to their deceased mates, and from statues from all periods of ancient Egyptian history, we see that marriage and a close family played an integral role in ancient Egypt.
Love and Marriage
A bride would be young, about 14 or 15 years old. Her husband could be anywhere from 17 to 20or older if he was divorced or a widower. The ancient Egyptians were encouraged to marry young, considering that the life span at this time was relatively short.
"Take a wife while you are young,
that she may make a son for you
while you are youthful" (Instructions of Ani)
Many marriages were arranged with parental consent needed, as they have been in all societies, especially among the upper classes. But the abundance of love poetry between young people suggests that many couples did fall in love and choose each other as mates. Women played an important role in arranging a marriage. A suitor sometimes used a female go-between to approach the girls mother, not her father.
Interestingly, one of the most affectionate titles one could call their love was "brother" or "sister" in ancient Egypt. This had nothing to do with sibling relations, but led many archaeologists and scholars to wrongly assume that most ancient Egyptians married their siblings. Actually, this usually occurred only among royalty, and was not a common occurrence otherwise. So we find part of a love poem written by a young ancient Egyptian woman which tells us that, "My brother torments my heart with his voice, he makes sickness take hold of me; he is neighbor to my mothers house, and I cannot get to him!"
Museums are filled with statues and paintings showing husbands and wives with their arms around each others waists, holding hands or offering each other flowers or food. Love and affection were indeed a part of the Egyptian marriage, and our Egyptian bride could expect to be loved and respected by her husband.
The Marriage Settlement
It wasnt necessary, but most marriages had a contract drawn up between the parties. The poorer classes probably did not do this because they probably had few possessions to consider and also the cost of a scribe would have been prohibitive.
Marriage settlements were drawn up between a womans father and her prospective husband, although many times the woman herself was part of the contract. The sole purpose of the contract was to establish the rights of both parties to maintenance and possessions during the marriage and after divorce if it should occur, very similar to todays prenuptial agreements. What is really fascinating is the equality women held with men in their rights to own, manage and receive property.
If the marriage ended in divorce, the rights of the wife were equally protected. Generally, she was entitled to support from her husband, especially if she was rejected by him through no fault of her own. The amount might equal one third of the settlement or even more. If the bride ended up committing adultery (which was extremely frowned upon for both men and women), she still had certain rights to maintenance from her former husband. Monogamy, except for some of the higher classes and royalty, seemed to be the rule for most ancient Egyptian couples.
Heres a standard marriage contract that was found among the numerous records left by the ancient Egyptians. It contained:
- The date (the year of the reign of the ruling monarch)
- The contractors (future husband and wife)
- The names of both sets of parents
- Husbands profession (wifes rarely mentioned)
- The scribe who drew up the contract
- The names of the witnesses
Then the details of the settlement followed. Here is the beginning of a marriage contract from 219 BC:
"The Blemmyann, born in Egypt, son of Horpais,
whose mother is Wenis, has said to the woman
Tais, daughter of the Khahor, whose mother is
Tairerdjeret: I have made you a married woman.
As your womans portion, I give you two pieces of
silverIf I dismiss you as wife and dislike you and
prefer another woman to you as wife, I will give you
two pieces of silver in addition to the two pieces of
silver mentioned above and I will give you one third
of each and everything that will accrue to you and me."
The finished document was given to a third party for safekeeping or kept among the records of the local temple.
One of the expectations of the ancient Egyptian marriage was the bringing forth of children. Sometimes there would be a trial marriage for a year to see if pregnancy would occur. This was all stipulated in the marriage contract.
In some parts of ancient Egyptian society, men were permitted to have concubines. Naturally, it worked out better for the husband if his bride approved. But concubines did not have the same protective status as wives. And adultery, even in households where there were concubines, was strongly discouraged.
The Wedding Day
The day of the marriage was really quite simple. The bride merely moved her belongings into the home of her husband. He might be living alone or with his parents. A common term used to indicate marriage was grgp, meaning to set up a common household.
So what did the bride wear? She probably wore a long dress or tunic made of linen, which may have been covered from head to toe with bead-net. If she owned any gold, silver or lapis, she probably adorned herself with those, too. Unless, of course, she just dressed "down" for moving day.
Even though there was no official ceremony known to us, knowing how much the ancient Egyptians loved music, dance and food, there was bound to be family celebrations in honor of the uniting couple.
Divorce Ancient Egyptian Style
What if it didnt work out? Divorce was as easily initiated as marriage. Divorce could be brought about by either party. It was a private matter and the government took no interest in it.
The most common reasons for a husband to divorce his wife included the inability to bear children, especially a son; the desire to marry someone else, or that she simply stopped pleasing him. A woman could divorce her husband for mental or physical cruelty or adultery. In some cases, if the woman chose to divorce, she forfeited her right to communal property.
Once divorced, both men and women could remarry as soon as they wished. From the archives we have found, it seems that they readily did so. Its also apparent that our ancient bride, with the ease of marriage and divorce and the financial protection she generally received, had a better time of it than some brides in modern times.
Ilene Springer (Sennuwy) writes on ancient Egypt and archaeology. She will be taking her second trip to Egypt this January.
Egyptian Life by Miriam Stead (Harvard University Press, 1986)
Women in Ancient Egypt by Barbara Watterson (St. Martins Press, 1991)