Marriage In Ancient Egypt
by Jimmy Dunn writing as Mark Andrews
The concept of marriage in Egypt is not an easy topic. Certainly Egyptians seem to have taken mates in what most often appears to be lifelong monogamous relationships. After the Third Intermediate period we begin to find ancient "marriage contracts" that incorporate the phrase shep en shemet (price for "marrying" a woman) and mostly set out property rights without elaborating on the act of marriage itself. More abundant are divorce records that also deal mostly with property settlements.
When examining ancient reliefs and statues, it is easy to assume that the ancient Egyptians marriage was similar to today's institution, but beyond these visual clues, there is little in the way of documentation to substantiate this. Little written evidence of either true marriage ceremonies or marriages as a concept has been found. Usually there was a grand party associated with the joining of two people, but we believe it was simply a social affair and had no real religious or legal bearing.
Traditionally, the term hemet has been translated as "wife", but is probably more accurately "female partner". The legal and social implications of the word are not clear. Interestingly, the word hi is the male counterpart to hemet but seems to have been rarely used. However, this is probably due to funerary text most frequently being related to men, and so the female partner is referred to and defined by her husband.
Hebswt is another word that seems to apply to a female partner, but traditionally it has been translated as "concubine". However, this meaning is less clear because in some New Kingdom text both hemet and hebswt are used at the same time to apparently refer to the same female. It has been suggested that the term hebswt might more accurately describe a second or third wife after the first one died or was divorced.
Of course, our modern, romantic concept of marriage is a relationship based on love between partners who consent to share their lives together. But up until the 26th dynasty, relatively late in Egyptian history, the bride herself seems to have little choice in the marriage. In fact, during this time frame most marriage contracts are actually between the girl's father and future husband. The girl's father and even her mother had much more say in the matter then the bride. After the 26th dynasty, the bride appears to have had more say in her future husband, and we find phrases in marriage contracts that indicate a more defined relationship.
Among common people, polygamy may very well have existed as it obviously did in the royal class, but if so it was rare. We known from excavations such as Deir El Medina that the housing of common people conformed more to monogamy rather than polygamy.
Yet from the 13th Dynasty (1795-1650 BC) on polygamy was common among kings and some of the ruling elite. While one principal wife (hemet nesw weret) was chosen, others were probably taken by the king in order to assure a royal heir, or cement relationships with foreign countries or even powerful regional leaders. Kings might have as many as several hundred wives, and in some periods other high officials took more than one wife.
Also, the tradition of brother/sister or father/daughter marriages was mostly confined to the royalty of Egypt, at least until the Greek period. In tales from Egyptian mythology, gods marriage between brothers and sisters and fathers and daughters were common from the earliest periods, and so Egyptian kings may have felt that it was a royal prerogative to do likewise. However, there are also theories that brother/sister marriages may also have strengthened the king's claim to rule. It was not uncommon among common people to marry relatives. Marriage between cousins, or uncles and nieces were fairly common in Egypt prior to the Greek period. Interestingly, after the Greek arrival, one study found that 24 percent of marriages among common people were brother/sister relationships.
Marriages were most often between people of the same social class, but their seems to have been little regard given to race or even nationality. It was not unusual for a northern Egyptian to marry a Nubian, or someone even from another country.
Marriage contracts do not generally tell the age of the parties, but we know from other documents that marriage almost always occurred after sexual adulthood. The average age for girls to enter puberty was 12 to 13, and around 14 for boys. Indeed boys, who had to achieve some work abilities in order to support a wife and future children, were usually 15 or over before contemplating marriage. However, from the Roman period we find documentation of brides being as young as 8, though most scholars believe that is an exception and that a more common age for brides was 12 or older. In royal marriages, particularly between brothers and sisters, the parties seemed to be often much younger. We know, for example, that Tutankhamun probably married his sister when he was about nine years old.
It was not all together uncommon for older men who had usually lost their wife to either death or divorce to marry very young "women". Qenherkhepeshef, a scribe from Deir El Medina for example married a 12 year old girl when he was 54.
Particularly during the early periods of ancient Egypt, the future husband made a payment to the bride's father, usually amounting to about the cost of a slave. Later, this practice was abandoned and later the practice was reversed where often the father of the bride had to compensate the future husband for her upkeep. However, if divorce occurred, the husband was obligated to continue some support to his ex-wife, usually amounting to about one third of his earnings.
All of this said, there are many indications that husbands and wives in ancient Egypt were often happy and in love. There are many touching portraits and statues of families including spouses and their children that reveal marital delight and warmth within the family.