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 Ancient Egypt

Lesko explains the historical context of ancient Egypt as it can be reconstructed by scholars. Egypt survived for 3,000 years until the Greco-Roman civilization, led by the Roman war machine under Caesar, finally conquered it in the era of Cleopatra.  As the culture survived many different dynasties, it would be difficult and impractical to detail that context here, so what follows is a generalization of Lesko’s findings. 

Queen Hatshepsut, c. 1473-1458 B. C. E.

In ancient Egypt, Lesko argues, men and women were treated relatively equally to each other, although they experienced differences in treatment based on class.  For instance, a wealthy Egyptian man and a wealthy Egyptian woman were seen as equals under their laws, as were a poor man or a poor woman; however, the wealthy citizens had more rights and more advantages under their law than did the poor. Generally, especially in the Old Kingdom, a woman’s status equaled that of the men of her own social station, and royal women enjoyed positions of great prestige and power.  Although it was not always practiced consistently, the right to succeed to the throne passed through the women of the royal family.  Thus the king, who was considered to be an incarnation of the sky-god Horus, had to marry a princess of the royal blood known as the Daughter of the God because of her kingly father’s acknowledged divinity.  Often in the royal family, brother married sister to keep the throne within the family.  This corresponds to their mythological accounts of Isis and Osiris, sibling deities who marry to maintain power. The king, however, could have more than one secondary wife and several concubines.  The idea that the familial line of descent passed through the women of the family (matriliny) shows up frequently among African tribes and survived in the royal family because theology and tradition governed much of their life.  Lesko mentions:

 .  Lists of kings often record their mothers’ names as well because of their role in the succession.

 .   Splendid tombs provide evidence of this high respect of kings’ mothers, as well.  One queen (Hetepheres) was buried with golden furniture.

 .   Royal women did not dwell secluded in harems but took an active role in court life, assuming the duties of regents if their husbands died before the heir apparent came of age.

Lesko points out that in the Old Kingdom  the administration of the country was in the hands of the ruler, so the entire royal family--including, the wife, mother, and daughters of the king--occupied administrative positions.  The women had (no separation of church and state here) religious functions and officiated as priestesses in cults of major deities like Thoth and Hathor.  At times, queens became involved in political intrigue. 

 .   Pepi I (about 2300 B. C. ) was apparently conspired against by his wife, Intes, although the plot was uncovered in time.  

 .   Amenemhet I, founder of the Twelfth Dynasty, was assassinated in 1962 B. C..  The plot apparently originated in his harem.  His son claimed that “women had marshaled the ranks against him.”

Lesko then explains that through much of Egyptian history that common women also received treatment equal to that of the common men. Women among commoners assumed roles outside the home.  Murals show unveiled women selling products in marketplace and working in harvest scenes alongside men.  Women winnowed wheat, handpicked flax, spun it into thread, wove it into linen cloth, ground wheat, and brewed beer.  Household accounts of an Egyptian farm in 2000 B. C. Shows that all members of one family received wages for the work they performed; adult men and women receiving equal amounts, youths less.   Egyptians, it seems, did not perceive women as the “weaker sex.”  In fact, they could be called up by the state for labor service, apparently as part of the tax program.  Recent historians believe that perhaps the Pyramids were built by the common Egyptian peoples as part of the tax program, in addition to or perhaps instead of the slave labor that has been assumed based on some of the biblical writings. 

Lesko further mentions that there is evidence that even humbly-born women were respected for their intelligence, and the equality practiced in employment and wages applied to inheritance issues, too.  Records exist of mothers willing property to children with no need of a co-signer and daughters could inherit property and employment from their fathers.

As time went on, Lesko continues, power was transferred from divine ruler to wealthy business-types and back to the nobility again.  During this time, women gain and lose rights with respect to the men of their station.  These gains and losses occur over thousands of years, but generally, women could engage in the same professions as men and get relatively the same compensation for that work, even within the field of religion; women could be priestesses and officiate over ceremonies.  While the rulers were determined largely matrilineally, the men tended to be the ultimate pharaohs.  The king is still considered the incarnation of Horus, and the Great Royal Wife continued to be regarded as the great heiress and, in theological terms, the embodiment of the goddess Hathor.  Sobekneferu, a queen of the Thirteenth Dynasty, ruled alone as king at the end of that period (1789-1786 B. C.), according to Lesko.

In the New Kingdom (1567-1085 B. C.) Queens achieved the peak of power and possessed great wealth in the form of extensive estates and their own palaces.  The Great Royal Wife often lived apart from her husband and some of the most prominent men of the kingdom served her as stewards, tutors, and advisors.  Pharaoh would have to travel to her palace if he wanted her company.  Lesko cites a male scholar, Donald Redford, as commenting, “Here was matriliny and matrilocal residence with a vengeance!”

She then explains that there are records of the high position some women attained within Egyptian society:

 .   King Ahmose (1554-1529 B. C.) Left a monumental inscription honoring his grandmother and exhorting his subjects to render gratitude to his mother, Queen Ahhotep, for her vital role in the war of liberation against the Hyksos (foreigners who, for a time, had ruled Egypt).  She rallied the troops after her first son Kamose fell in battle.  She was buried with ceremonial weapons and military medals.  She was the first queen to bear the title “God’s Wife,” which allowed her to participate in religious ceremonies. 

 .   Hatshepsut was the sole surviving child of the great warrior-king Thutmose I and his Great Royal Wife Ahmose.  She had reasons for feeling a stronger right to rule than her husband, as her lineage was more illustrious than her husband’s.  Upon his death, Hatshepsut shared the throne as regent for Thutmose III, but after she obtained wide support from the powerful men of her father’s reign and from her own ministers and servants, she assumed the full regalia and power of king.  She vigorously continued the policies of her father strengthening the defenses and bolstering the economy (through foreign trade) of Egypt.  She led armies south into Nubia to secure that southern flank--and ensure the flow of Africa’s tribute into Egypt.  She encouraged building, and her impressive terraced temple, Deir el Bahri, is the greatest surviving monument from antiquity to a woman.  She intended for her only child and daughter, Neferure, to succeed her, but when the child died, she bowed to political expedience and accepted Thutmose III (who did not express his bitterness toward her until years after her death, at which point he had her face removed from most of the statuary bearing her likeness). 

 .   Tiy, the daughter of commoners, fell in love with King Amenhotep III, and records indicate that she was involved in the conduct of foreign affairs and matters of state, corresponding with foreign rulers among Egypt’s allies.

 .   Nefertiti, Tiy’s daughter-in-law, was apparently much-loved by her husband, King Akhenaten.  She appears on temple walls officiating both with her husband and alone, which suggest co-rule.  In later art she appears wearing traditional kingly regalia, in one brandishing a scimitar over a cowering foreign captive.  She succeeded her husband as Pharaoh Smenkhkare.  

Such political power for queens was short-lived, however, Lesko reportss, as a backlash occurred precipitated by Nefertiti’s third daughter.  Widowed by Pharaoh Tutankhamun, she tried to seize power by allying herself with a foreign (and rival) prince.  Her plot was discovered before it succeeded, and she lost political power. 

By the Nineteenth Dynasty, literati wrote satirical pieces which reflect badly on the character of highly placed women, but some kings still honored their wives and built temples to them, and at the end of that dynasty, another queen, Tausert, reigned as pharaoh. As time goes on and foreign influences and attacks increase, Lesko observes, the women’s status does seem to decrease. While they were still educated and still worked alongside men, the idea of their equality seems to change. Literature, such as the love poetry which appeared for the first time, now reflected women in a different light, as objects of veneration; lyrics suggest a free mingling of the sexes outside of, or prior to, marriage.  Tomb scenes of naked serving girls and entertainers at banquets, erotic papyri and other documents indicate that free sexual expression was tolerated or encouraged.

Virginity seemed to matter little in arranging marriages, according to Lesko’s findings. Couples were brought together by the goddess Hathor, patroness of love and joy.  Women were valued for beauty and love but also for their skills and feelings.   The general practice seems to be that the woman moved into a new house with her husband.  Sages recommended that young men wait to marry until they could afford their own house, so the newlyweds would not have to live with the groom’s parents.  The wife shared everything acquired by the husband and inherited one-third of the estate upon his death; two-thirds went to the children.  If no children were born or survived, the husband could”adopt” his wife legally to make her his sole heir.

Women enjoyed equal rights with men throughout Egyptian history.  A married woman maintained her status as a completely independent legal personality. Lesko cites a number of examples to support this equal status:

 .   Egyptian women did not need a male cosignatory when they witnessed legal documents; executed their own wills; inherited, bought, administered or sold property; freed slaves; adopted children; or sued someone. 

 .   They could testify in court--even the highest in the land.

 .   They could disinherit children who did not look after them in old age.

 .   They could own property and have an income (inherited or from labor or investments) and administer or dispose of it.  Women could loan money, buy or sell slaves or land.

Lesko concludes her discussion of Egypt by pointing out that after the conquest by Alexander the Great in 323 B. C., two parallel legal systems functioned in the country: Egyptian and Greek.  A crucial difference, she explains, was that under the Egyptian law, a woman held the same position as the Egyptian man; under the Greek law, a woman required a male guardian to perform many legal acts.  Herodotus, the “father of history,” was so struck by the oddity of seeing women in public that, she notes, that he wrote, “The Egyptians themselves, in their manners and customs, seem to have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind.  For instance, women attend market and are employed in trade, while men stay at home and do the weaving.” 

Lesko believes that this equality among Egyptians should have changed over time, given Engels’s materialistic theory which links women’s status to the economic organization of a society.  As women’s status did not change markedly over the millennia, even though private property became more widely distributed, Lesko is able to refute Engels’s theory.  She suggests that several factors contributed to the maintenance of this equal status:

  .   The basic optimistic and secure outlook of the people and of the country as a whole

 .   Preservation and respect for age-old traditions

 .   The state’s official view that women could be depended upon to perform useful work for the greater society outside the home

Ancient Egyptian society seems to be the first documented example of relative liberation.  While not totally equal, Lesko reminds us that important precedents are provided by these ancient women: they received equal pay for equal work; they had independent and equal legal status; and equal opportunities existed in many kinds of work, including positions of leadership and authority.  Egypt’s society sustained itself for 3000 years, outliving the Sumerian, Babylonian, and Assyrian civilizations, all of which were very patriarchal in nature.

On the other hand, she notes, when women gained supreme control, resentment arose, especially because although some women ruled in secure times, the others ruled when there were times of crisis--perhaps when no man wished for responsibility in what seemed to be impossible economic or political situations.  In Egypt’s 3000 year long history, the female examples of pharaonic rule remain in the minority.

Egyptian Mythology

Because ancient Egypt existed for so long and over such a large area, creation myths can be traced to three separate regions.  In each we see the pattern of order being created out of chaos.  Egyptians believed that the waters of chaos surrounded their world, which was separated into three parts: the earth, the sky, and the underworld (the Duat).  Paralleling the idea of creation with the Nile and its fertility capabilities, they thought that land rose out of the waters of chaos, and their god Tatjenen, personified this. In these separate creation stories, we see a patriarchal but non-misogynistic culture emerge. This will be contrasted to Sumerian creation stories, where female deities originally hold more importance than males, or the ancient Israeli creation stories, which have traditionally been interpreted as affirming a patriarchal structure.

In the region of Heliopolis, a family of nine gods, the Ennead, was worshiped. The first created, Atum, came into being of himself, masturbated to produce the next two: Shu (Air) and Tefnut (Moisture).  They then created Geb (Earth) and Nut (Sky), who, in turn, created Osiris and Seth, and Isis and Nephthys.

In Memphis, the creator god was Ptah, who was part of a trio of deities, along with the lioness-goddess Sekhmet and their son the lotus god, Nefertem.  This myth co-existed with the Atum myth, neither superceded the other.

And in Hermopolois, the Ogdoad, “Group of Eight,” was worshiped.  Four pairs of gods and goddesses, who inhabited the primeval waters before the world existed.  The men were represented as frogs, the women as either snakes or baboons. Initially separated by sex, they eventually were driven together, which produced the violent upheaval that produced the primordial mound.

Excerpted and modified from
Lesko, Barbara S. “Women of Egypt and the Ancient Near East.”
Becoming Visible:
        Women in European History. Eds. Renate Bridenthal et al. Geneva, Illinois:
        Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987. 41-77.

You may take this link to a lecture, in progress, comparing the creation chapters in Genesis to Egyptian creation stories.

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Contact Kimberly M. Radek, the instructor of Women in Ancient Cultures, at Kimberly_Radek@ivcc.edu

This page was last updated on 01 February 2008 . Copyright Kimberly M. Radek, 2001.