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.