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


Joielle said...

Great post, Nebet Kemsit. It is always interesting to hear about marriage customs from times past, for although we may think we know a lot about them, I have always found that I learn so much by reading what others have written on the subject and usually finding out that I didn't know nearly as much as I had thought. Again, great post. I really liked it.

Kemsit at Panhistoria said...

Thank you! feel free to make any suggestions on other AE topics you would like to read about.