James C. Thompson
This tomb painting illustrating the reunion of a husband and wife in the after-life shows the very real affection that was considered the norm in Ancient Egypt.
Egypt treated its women better than any of the other major civilizations of the ancient world. The Egyptians believed that joy and happiness were legitimate goals of life and regarded home and family as the major source of delight.
It was taken for granted in the ancient world that the head of the house was the man. The true meaning of this fact for women varied considerably from one place and time to another, and the impact was much greater if the law drew a distinction between a man and a woman. Marriage and offspring were always considered desirable, but in some societies wives were simply domestic servants and offspring acquired importance only when they grew up. Undoubtedly there were a number of very strong willed women who disregarded custom and ruled their families with the sheer force of their personalities, but they were the exception.
Egyptian women were fortunate in two important ways:
While women could become Pharaoh only in very special circumstances, they were otherwise regarded as totally equal to men as far as the law was concerned. They could own property, borrow money, sign contracts, initiate divorce, appear in court as a witness, etc. Of course, they were also equally subject to whatever responsibilities normally accompanied those rights.
Love and emotional support were considered to be important parts of marriage. Egyptians loved children as people and not just as potential workers and care-takers.
Athenian men married out of a sense of civic duty and put off the fateful day until the age of 30 or more, at which time they married girls of half their age whose youth made them more easily controlled. In contrast, Ancient Egyptian men and women valued and enjoyed each other’s company. Love and affection were thought to be important, and marriage was the natural state for people of all classes.
It is interesting to note, however, that there is no record anywhere of an actual marriage ceremony. We have records of divorce, we know that adultery (defined as sexual relations with a married woman—not a married man) was forbidden, and it is clear that everyone knew who was married to whom. Some scholars believe that the absence of any information on an actual marriage ceremony is merely a fluke in the historical record. Others argue that there was in fact no ceremony: a couple were considered married when they began to live together, calling to mind the modern North American concept of ‘common-law marriage’.
A small handful of documents mention a man giving permission for a marriage, but all are sufficiently ambiguous to leave open the question of whether or not a father’s permission was necessary as it was in other societies of the time. The earliest known Egyptian marriage contract dates from the seventh century BCE, long after the end of the New Kingdom.
Kings, particularly those in the New Kingdom, had several wives, although only one bore the title King’s Great Wife and functioned as Queen. Monogamy seems to have been the norm for the rest of the country. A high death rate, particularly in childbirth, meant that many Egyptians of both sexes had more than one spouse. There is no unambiguous evidence of a man having more than one wife at a time, although there is some evidence of men who fathered children by a servant girl when their wives were unable to conceive.
MISTRESS OF THE HOUSE
Marriage was the natural state for Egyptians of both genders, and the most common title for non-royal women was “mistress of the house”. There is little doubt that in Egypt, as in the rest of the ancient world, the man was expected to be the head of the family, but a popular bit of advice urged husbands to avoid interfering in household matters and trust their wives to do the job properly. There was certainly enough work for everyone as there were no TV dinners and food had to be prepared from scratch; in fact, if you wanted a loaf of bread you would even have to grind the grain yourself. You might buy sandals but most other articles of clothing were made in the home. Those who could afford it had servants and slaves to do the actual work, but the ‘mistress of the house’ would still be expected to supervise and to see that everything was done properly.
Houses varied considerably in size, but they were all made of mud brick with a flat, thatched roof. Summer days were very hot and winter nights very cold, so the houses were designed with the climate in mind. Since the rooms in the center of the house provided the best protection from the heat that was where the living room was located. Depending on the size of this room, wooden pillars might be put in the center to help support the roof which was high enough to allow an open window along the length of the north wall to let in light and a cooling north breeze. A stone hearth on the floor would allow for a fire to produce heat on cold evenings. The combination of window and fire place would have made this the most comfortable room in the house. Niches were cut into the walls for religious items and for lamps. Behind the living room would be the master bedroom and kitchen. Beneath the kitchen most houses had a basement that could be used for storage.
The state provided a block of houses for the tomb workers on the outskirts of the city of Amarna. Each house was five meters wide and ten meters long. The town of Deir el Medina housed the workers who build the tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Those houses were larger and offered about seventy-five square meters of living space to each family. The men in both communities were highly skilled and likely their families were better off than most peasant families who unfortunately left few signs of their existence. We can only guess what their life was like.
Egypt had a significant middle class during the New Kingdom; their houses would have been much the same size as the houses of their socio-economic equivalent in North America today. The portion of the house in front of the living room would be used as a reception and storage area. A wealthy family might well have had a full time doorman living in that reception area. Instead of just a single bedroom and kitchen a wealthy home had many rooms behind the living room. These additional rooms might have included an office for the head of the house, a room for bathing, storage areas, a harem and a room for other families living in the house.
It should be noted here that except in the largest homes of the very wealthy it was gender and marital status, not rank, that determined where in the house you slept. The harem was simply the room in the house occupied by the unmarried women. This could have included the mother, or even grandmother, of the householder or ‘mistress of the house’ as well as any unattached female servants or slaves.
CLICK ON THE FOLLOWING FOR INFORMATION ON THE LIVES OF WOMEN IN SPECIFIC AREAS OF THE ANCIENT WORLD