Sunday, February 8, 2009

Love and Sex in Ancient Egypt

Both men and women in Ancient Egypt were expected to conform to their marriage vows, whatever these were as we have no evidence of a formal arrangement, and it was very frowned on for a man to consort with or have an affair with a married woman, though it seems less of a problem if a married man should have a liaison with an unmarried woman. As I mentioned in an earlier post in this series Egyptian men sometimes took on second wives. One must assume a certain inequality from the scant evidence of marital relations in Ancient Egypt. The inference one can draw from it being ok for a married man to have sexual relations with an unmarried woman but not with a married woman is that he is not to cause offense to another man, in other words the husband of the married woman.

It is speculation on my part, but I think it reasonable to assume that since marriage was all about producing children, then the strictures against a wife sleeping with anyone except her husband made sense from the point of view of determining patrimony. Consequently men are warned of even associating with women outside of their household in case they be tempted by dishonorable women. Since most of the remaining texts by which we receive a glimpse of Ancient Egyptian social mores was written by male scribes we are left to wonder what women thought about their men cheating on them with another women. It’s only speculation but I would imagine it ranged from jealousy to acceptance, as it was not exactly a proscribed behavior.

There is no particular evidence of a culture of prostitution in Ancient Egypt, certainly not during the Old, Middle, or New Kingdoms. There is a body of love poetry that exists and it would be nice to speculate that this was the work of women since much of it is presented from the female point of view. It is definitely erotically charged and seems to take place between young unattached adults. Such lyrical examples of ancient love and eroticism are a joy to read, but it would be presumptuous to assume that young adults were without family ties and social mores that stopped them from behaving too too freely. More likely these poems are part fantasy and were used as romantic stimulus to the imagination much like love songs and poetry served as a safe outlet to the Troubadours and their fetish of Courtly Love.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Childbirth in Ancient Egypt

Probably due to the assumption that no one would ever read inscriptions or papyri and not be completely familiar with the world depicted there is very little evidence of childbirth in the remaining record of Ancient Egypt. While goddesses are frequently depicted nursing, and nursemaids or wet nurses are often mentioned or shown with the family, there is very little to indicate the procedures of childbirth and the subsequent rearing of kids amongst the ordinary populace.

Most of what remains are spells and amulets indicating Het-Hert (Hathor), Bes, Ipet, Tawaret, Heqet, and Aset (Isis) as protecting deities or spirits. Childbirth, universally, was a very dangerous event in a woman’s life, both for her and the child. It is pretty clear that the Ancient Egyptians understood the moment of conception as intercourse between a man and a woman, and that birth followed after nine months. It’s probable that no physician attended the event or midwives, but perhaps some kind of attending females. It seems like birth took place in a special building or section of the building in the case of poorer people separate from the main building. Purity was very important to the Egypt and it seems that women also needed to purify before and after for at least two weeks. There are also references to the Birth House but this was a chapel used in service to the Pharaoh, representing his divinity and not the same as the huts or chambers used for the women to give birth in.

Women are shown squatting on a couple of bricks to deliver. These bricks are represented by Meskhenet who is a sort of goddess personification of the role of bricks in adding the birth process. The hieroglyph representing birth is a kneeling woman with the head and arms of a child protruding from her. It also seems that breast milk was used in magical or medical rituals and there are several vessels that have been found that depict a woman expressing breast milk that are clearly made to hold liquid. Most women probably nursed their own children, though the rich and the noble often would employ wet nurses, for three years which would reduce the risk of getting pregnant again so soon, but not guarantee it. Whether or not mother or wet nurse was the one doing nursing there were many spells to keep the milk flowing.

While the depictions of childbirth and nursing are rare that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t important. The sheer volume of spells and medical papyri devoted to safe childbirth, fecundity, as well as the amulets and birthing wands indicate a people very concerned with the safety of mother and child. Having a large family was considered very auspicious in Ancient Egypt. It was probably just too much part of daily life to need to be immortalized on tomb walls.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Marriage in Ancient Egypt from the Old Kingdom to the New Kingom

What we know about marriage in Ancient Egypt is elusive because of the assumption of the writers, in the few documents that remain, that the reader would be entirely familiar with the terms. For instance it is commonly understood by scholars that the word hemet refers to wife or mistress of the household but a second word hebsut is frequently used. Close examination of the few surviving texts suggest that the most likely definition of the word would be second wife as in second marriage sequentially, though it was known for all classes of Egyptian to be permitted more than one marriage at a time.

Polygamy is most often associated with the Royal House or other high ranking nobles but there are references in more humble texts to men having more than one wife at one time. It may well have been a matter of whether or not a man could afford more than one wife, but since women were so economically important in many cases, for instance in the case of weaving it was a female industry right up to the New Kingdom, that might be a matter of some flexibility.

While we don’t know how much choice women had in the matter of marriage from choosing spouses to whether or not they could say no to a second wife I would suggest that in general it might well have been a matter of some negotiation between all interested parties. Many men may have chosen not to take more than wife in order to have peace in the household!

The few references to taking a wife suggest there was no ceremony or legal document but rather that there were firm social rules. Once a woman took up housekeeping with a man she seems to have been considered hemet. Property could be held by both men and women and a woman could dispose of her property through her line. A father or a brother seems to have often been involved in whether or not a daughter or sister married so there is some argument for it being a patriarchal decision, perhaps with some input from the woman concerned or the mother, but that does not show up in the remaining texts or monuments.

Adultery was definitely frowned on and cause for divorce. Divorce seems to also have occurred for female infertility, or just because the couple disliked one another. What happened to a woman once she divorced is not exactly known, for instant could she remarry? Certainly men were free to remarry and did frequently. Obviously female mortality was high with the dangers of childbirth, and also women could remarry if their husband passed away. As for adultery it does not seem to be against the law so much as a big social no no. Men were frequently warned not to have intercourse with the wife of another. While it was grounds for divorce throughout most of Ancient Egyptian history it does not seem to incur too much other punishment besides censure from the neighbors. There appears to be no such thing as illegitimacy, and men and women seemed to adopt children of their spouse.

Marriage between siblings seems to be the sole prerogative of the Royal Household but in other families marriage between some other types of relatives was common, probably in order to keep inheritances in the family. It was very common for a man to marry the sister of his deceased wife, for instance.

It would be wrong to infer from the above that women had significantly more freedom in who they loved and married in Ancient Egypt than other women of the ancient world, but I think it is reasonably safe to suggest that social rules were less stringent and a woman was far safer from abuse and harm where she was freely allowed to divorce and had rights to her own property and wasn’t killed or stoned for adultery.

Source: Women in Ancient Egypt by Gay Robins

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Jane Austen goes to Ancient Egypt

I have always been a huge fan of Jane Austen. I have reread her books a number of times. I watch the movie adaptations of her novels with varying degrees of enthusiasm and most often prefer the more literal interpretations of the BBC. I even read a biography of Miss Austen. I have not developed an equivalent interest in the Regency period though I feel I know its manners and mores fairly well from Miss Austen’s wonderfully humorous and lucid writing. Instead I am a big fan of Ancient Egypt (as you may have noticed from the theme of this blog).

I have had a lot of fun, over the years, at the site in transferring wonderful Austenesque characters to Ancient Egyptian settings. In fact the name of this blog comes from my character Kemsit. She was sister to the High Priest of Imen (Amun) in ancient Waset (Karnak) and was a right royal pain in the ass. When her brother took the unimaginable step of becoming Pharaoh in our alternate history version of Cleopatra’s Egypt (read here if you’re interested in the stories) Kemsit was all for it. She became Mistress of the Harem and then schemed for her eldest daughter Tetisheri to marry her uncle and rise to the position of First Wife even if it meant Queen Sekhmet had to get supplanted. Most of my stories were all about this ambitious lady and her treatment of her daughter, siblings, and her plots to get rid of other ladies of the harem.

My latest character, Kemmiew, is a spiritual sister to Kemsit but exists in a New Kingdom setting and plots instead against King Hatshepsut, the Female Pharaoh. A little historical aside here: I refer to Hatshepsut correctly as ‘king’ because there was no concept of queen in AE nor was there a feminine form of king as a title. Hatshepsut called herself by the exact same titles as previous pharaohs and even often was referred to as ‘he’ in inscriptions as well as having a masculinazed image most of the time. Anyway back to fiction. Kemmiew views Hatshepsut as an upstart and unnatural and she’s determined to marry her daughter Satiah to young Thutmoses III and remove Hatshepsut from the throne. I have only just started telling the story of Kemmiew but I hope to differentiate her in many ways from Kemsit. I anticipate her being even more scheming and vicious and that might signal a departure from Miss Austen, but only intensity. Some of Miss Austen’s characters were just short of villainous and it was only the domesticity of the setting and the lower stakes that kept them from the poison vial in my opinion.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Call for Recommendations!

It's been a while since I have purchased or even checked out the latest on Ancient Egypt. I'm looking for good recommendations on the most recent books. I want more than pretty pictures (though those are very nice) but would like to see anything that is groundbreaking, new, or has new archaelogical finds that provide more insight into the history, art, culture, and daily lives of the Ancient Egyptians. Please comment right to this post if you have something cool and I'll be getting at least one new title to add to my collection and probably sending out a wish list to my family for gift giving ideas for moi this Christmas! Oh and if you have hot tips on great new AE sites that is welcome too. If I like them enough I'll link to them.

So that was the new, but I'm happy to accept recommendations for the classics, and if I haven't got it I want it. Discussion is awesome and comments are always welcome on my Ancient Egypt blog. Consider my per your per.

Oh? New to Ancient Egyptian language? Want to know what a 'per' is? It's Kemetic for 'house'. Kemet is what the Ancient Egyptians called their land. Correct me if I'm wrong but the word "Egypt" is a Greek rendition of the name and would have been spelled "Aegypt". Of course I'm running on fumes here. I might be wrong. Correct me if I am! Please!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Thoughts on Women in Ancient Egypt

I was thinking about various topics for posts here on my walk to the bank and it occurred to me to write a little about women in Ancient Egypt. It’s a popular topic but what really interests me, particularly when I’m trying to write fiction set in AE, is what did it feel like? I mean we sort of take for granted that we have a lot more freedom today as women in Western society, well at least I do, and I think that’s mainly true of almost any culture and any epoch in human history. But that doesn’t let me escape from thinking about how gender does define my experience from day to day even if it is just in the little things.

Fundamentally and biologically being a mother was an experience that defined and shaped me and how people respond to me from my son to other women to the men around me is all pervasive even if I try to ignore it. Just today I was told that my new hair style was nice because it made me look more feminine and pretty. Women still earn less in comparison to men for many of the same jobs. Single mothers are often blamed for bad parenting on the basis that they are incapable of doing a good job without the aid of a man (this is why I’m personally excited about Obama as president, he was the son of a single mom! Finally some representation in the White House!). The latest trends that really alarm me are the treatment of biological conditions of womanhood as diseases like giving birth (watch the documentary the Business of being Born), menopause, or even menstruation.

So while I can say that being a woman in 2008 isn’t as limiting as it was in 1880 or in Ancient Egypt I still have much in common with my ancient sisters. Not that much is really known, regardless of the copious research done on the subject, on some of the fundamentals of AE life. Much is drawn from just a few sources as to the life condition of women and for the most part that which exists applies more to well off women than the peasant farmers and their wives. What is known that is that who you were back in the Old, Middle, or New Kingdom was defined by what class of society you were born to and by what gender you were born. What you did for a living or how much you got to eat or even how long, on average, you might live was all pretty much set in stone the minute you drew your first breath.

Modern women writers like to imagine themselves in a beautiful ancient Egypt where they had lots of rights, responsibilities, and opportunity for advancement much like they have today – plus great make-up and wigs and fabulous sheer clothing and jewelry. The fact is that life was much much harder even for the well off wife. She had to work hard managing her husband’s estate, servants, and probably keeping up with a nice side business of weaving. Her status was, for the most part, entirely dependent on who her husband and relations and defined by her biological role of motherhood. There is evidence to support the sense that Egyptian women had more rights and respect than many other ancient cultures, but their place in was clearly defined by function. It’s quite possible that sexual and gender freedom was not possible in the ancient world due to expediency. That the Ancient Egyptians were more fair minded than other cultures in their treatment of the female gender is significant, even if they cannot be called femininists!

Monday, December 1, 2008

Division in Ancient Egyptian thinking

One of the most interesting aspects of Ancient Egyptian religious thinking, to my mind, is that they were really more monotheistic than people think, and that they were not focused on death like some people characterize them. Often criticized by other ancient cultures for worshipping animal headed deities and a plethora of them few people really understand the nature of the Ancient Egyptian spiritual view.

To the Egyptian mind the pantheon of Netjerew (plural form of Netjer which I think is probably most accurately defined as ‘names of god’) are really just all aspects of the divine force that rules the universe. In other words Aset (Isis) is not a goddess in her own right but rather just a piece of the whole picture that makes up God. The reasoning here is that the human mind is unable to entirely encompass the whole of what makes up God. It’s just too much to grasp. So the divine, in effect, divides its self up into aspects that are easily comprehensible to the human worshipper and these different aspects or ‘names’ of God are then responsible for certain universals. For instance Het-Hert (Hathor) represents pleasurable aspects of life such as sex and music.

The idea that the Ancient Egyptians were obsessed with death comes from the fact that their most enduring monuments are funerary in nature, but the fact is that the Egyptians believed in eternal life and much of their funerary practices were designed to sustain ‘life’ not to venerate death. There were five parts of the soul in AE thought: the ba, the ka, the akh, the name, and shewet (shadow). The ba is similar to what we would think of as the personality of a person, or even the ego. The ka is that ineffable essence that is probably what modern people would describe as the soul. The akh is something like the ba rejoined with the ka after physical life is done, but it requires the perfect balance of heart and ma’at (truth, justice). The akh is also the intermediary between the living and the dead. The name is the person’s name and must be remembered in order for the five parts of the soul to continue existence, hence all the inscriptions and the like in stone. Shewet really is the shadow of the person as in Peter Pan’s shadow having form.

As you can see the belief in the five parts of the soul is another case of the Ancient Egyptian dividing up something divine and hard to understand into easily digestible pieces. It might be harder for us to get our heads around because its alien to our thinking but its similar to the concept of the Holy Trinity which is three in one or the mental gymnastics one must do to understand the concept of Jesus as the son of God, and yet also God too when there is really only one God in Christianity.

(Thanks to Dan for his help with this, and to his Dictionary of Ancient Egypt for refreshing my mind!)