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Egypt: Ancient Egypt Marriage and the Standing of Women


The Life of Ancient Egyptians

Marriage and the Standing of Women


The Wedded State was to ancient Egyptian minds the ideal part of the divine order. Monogamy is documented even from predynastic times. A young man who had hitherto led a bachelor life and sometimes had a high time of it, but had now attained a certain social standing, would go to the house of his chosen's father to ask for her hand.

Above: Nofert and Rahotep, two courtiers whose portrayal reflects the great importance of their positions. Nofert was designated as one known to the king'. Her Husband Prince Rahotep was probably the sun of King Snofru. He held the titles of high priest of Re at Heliopolis, Director of Expeditions and Chief of Construction. The colored diadem worn by Nofert over her wig represents a silver band with ornamental inlays. Her collar was made of semi-precious stone beads and pendants. According to artistic convention the man's complexion is much darker than his wife's. This is one of the masterpieces of Egyptian art. See also ill.80. Painted limestone. From the mastaba of Rahotep and Nofert, Medium. Early 4th dynasty. Cairo, Egyptian Museum.

Entering into a marriage was described as 'making a wife' or 'taking a wife', but in accordance with the prevailing patriarchal system it seems that the girl's father had the main say. Nor were the views of her mother to be ignored, as an eager girl's words reveal in a love-song: 'Little does he know how I long to embrace him, and for him to send word to my mother.' If the girl had no father, an uncle would step in.

The ratio of love-matches to arranged marriages is not clear from the evidence. We have a biographical inscription of the Ptolemaic Period where a woman says: 'My father gave me in marriage' to so-and-so.

In the absence of any preexisting agreement it seems that the girl's consent to a marriage was unimportant until the 26th dynasty, when brides also began to have a say. It is then that we find marriage contracts using not only the formula 'I have made you into a wife', but also, putting the woman's side, 'You have made me into a wife.' Whether there was a period of engagement before marriage we cannot tell.

At what age did young people marry in those days? Age is not usually mentioned in the contracts. References to child-marriage or early maturity among Egyptian girls repeated in some popular accounts have no basis in fact. We have already seen that the average age of puberty was 12 to 13 among girls and around I4 for boys.

Take a wife while you are still young, so that she can bear you a son.

It would follow that attainment of sexual maturity was a precondition of marriage. One Ptolemaic document gives the lowest age for a bridegroom as 15, which agrees exactly with this reasoning. At an even later time the Instruction of Ankhshoshenq advised boys precisely: 'Marry at 20, so that you can have a son while you are still young.

Probably, then, a man could marry as soon as he was physically mature and had reached a point in his chosen career that ensured his ability to provide for his wife and for the children they could expect. Ptahhotep, whom we have so often quoted, writes: 'If you have already made yourself a name, then start a family.

We know of cases on the other hand where very 'mature' men took wives many years younger. The scribe Qenherkhepeshef of Deir el-Medina, for example, married the 12-year-old girl Nanakht when he was 54. Again, having established the age of Queen Mutnodjmet when she died we can deduce that she was between 25 and 30 when the 5o-year-old General Horemheb chose to marry her. This was of course a classic marriage of convenience, enabling Horemheb to join the ruling family of the 18th dynasty and secure the throne.

It was a different matter for brides, who did not need to wait till they attained social status and could not afford to see their youthful attractions waning. The earliest known ages for brides are quoted by Pestman from Roman Period documents that speak of marriage at 8, 9 and 10. And the label of one late mummy states, in a demotic hand, that the body was of a married girl who had died at the age of 11. Others have argued that such cases were either exceptional or were scribes' errors. Erich Luddeckens, an outstanding student of Egyptian marriage contracts, found from analysis of Ptolemaic contracts that most of the brides were aged 12 or 13. Reconstruction of the biographies of the Amarna princesses has produced the same figure, and the Ptolemaic Period woman mentioned above as having been 'given in marriage' by her father was I 4 when this occurred.

Above: Nefertiti, the beautiful wife of King Akhnenaten and mother of the six princesses of Amarna. This unfinished head was to be one of the elements of a composite statue. That artist captured the sensibility, grace and beauty of a woman of great spirit and importance. This is arguably the most beautiful of the all known portraits of Nefertiti. Brown quartzite. The studio of Thutmosis at Tell el-Amarna. 18th dynasty. Cairo, Egyptian Museum



It seems reasonable to conclude, then, that in contrast to men, some girls married as early as, or soon after, puberty, that is between I 2 and I 4. Pre-puberty marriages, however, were quite customary in the royal families, where for dynastic reasons they were often early unions of brother and sister. A well-known example is the marriage of Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun. Since he died aged about 18 after a nine-year reign, he must have been nine when he married, although she may well have been older.

Marriages between kin were familiar among the common folk. Step-brothers and sisters married, as did uncles and nieces quite frequently, and cousins still more so. Marriages between cousins are indeed a regular occurrence in Egypt, and particularly in Nubia, to this day. Between very close blood-relations, however, it was wholly exceptional among ordinary people. Jaroslav Cerny investigated 490 marriages from the First Intermediate Period up to the 18th dynasty and found only two cases where the partners were brother and sister. After the time of Tuthmosis III it is hard to prove the occurrence of close-kin marriages since it was now becoming normal to call a wife or girlfriend 'sister'. One sibling marriage is attested by the stele of Ptah, the 22nd-dynasty high priest of Memphis. Here both parents had the same family lineage. But the father was a commander of Libyan mercenaries and may have been deliberately adopting the customs of the Egyptian court.

In the royal family it had been almost mandatory since time immemorial for marriages to be solemnized between the closest kin, the notional prototype evidently being the mythological sibling-spouses Osiris and Isis, who had come into this world to raise humans from savagery, teach them the elements of civilization and proclaim the wisdom and omnipotence of the gods. As the king saw himself as a god-incarnate he hoped to pass on his exclusive divine status to his successor. Accordingly he had no hesitation in taking as wife his sister or-step-sister (as did Seqenenre Tao II, Ahmose I, Amenophis I, Tuthmosis I, Tuthmosis IV, Ramesses II, Merenptah and Siptah), his daughter (Amenophis II, Akhenaten and Ramesses II who went so far as to marry three of his daughters) or even his aunt (Sethos II). Ptolemy II and his successors all married one of their sisters. These last were kings of Greek blood, but they took care to adhere strictly to old Egyptian practice in their marriage policy as in everything else. Interestingly enough, investigation of the many kin-marriages in the 18th, 19th and Ptolemaic dynasties by Marc Armand Ruffer has revealed no evidence of degeneration resulting from persistent inbreeding.

Examination of 161 marriages among commoners in the Ptolemaic Period, 24 per cent of which were between siblings, shows the power of example even in those days. It was evidently Hellenistic influence that weakened the barrier between exclusively royal practice and that of the people. During the reign of the Roman emperor Commodus it was reported that as many as two-thirds of marriages in the city of Arsinoe (formerly Crocodilopolis, capital of the Faiyum) were between very close kin.



Above: Amun placing the crown on the head of Hatshepsut, one of the few reigning queens, who kneels before him dressed as a pharaoh, Relief on the top of a fallen obelisk erected by the Queen in the temple of Karnak. 18th dynasty


Another feature of ancient Egyptian marriage custom is that the partners usually came from the same social stratum. There were however exceptions, such as Naunakhte in the 2oth dynasty who married first a scribe and then an artisan, or King Amenophis II who fell for the commoner Teye and made her his principal wife.

No obstacles seem to have been put in the way of marriage between people of different racial background. An Egyptian could marry a Syrian or Nubian girl, and an Egyptian woman could become a foreigner's wife. The kings themselves might take princesses from abroad as secondary wives. Ramesses II, for example, wed the Hittite princess Maathornefrerure and granted her the same title of 'Great King's Wife' as he did to his principal wife Nefertari. From the Late Period on, Egyptians were regularly intermarrying with Greek colonists in some of the Delta towns, just as in the Roman Period they did with Latins, especially in the Faiyum.

Marriage of a free man to a slave, by contrast, was regarded as mere concubinage and enjoyed no legal protection; any ensuing children remained slaves. To contract a proper marriage, a slave-woman had first to buy her freedom or to be adopted. A man was free to adopt any children he had by a slave.

This raises the question of how many wives an Egyptian was allowed to have. In theory there was no limit, but in practice it would have depended on the man's means. Most Egyptians were content to have only one wife. Marriage was an expensive matter for the man, and the whole contract system provided such far-reaching safeguards for the material rights of wives and children that most men could only afford one wife at a time.

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