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“Marriage in Ancient Egypt” Lucia Gahlin (EEG Meeting Talk)

Last Sunday Lucia Gahlin came to the Essex Egyptology Group meeting and talked to us about marriage in Ancient Egyptian society. She started off by explaining that the talk was originally prepared around the time of the Royal Wedding because she was requested to give a talk about Egyptian Royal Weddings somewhere, to be topical. It wasn’t actually possible for her to do that, because there’s no evidence for a ceremony that could be called a wedding in Ancient Egypt even though there were partnerships that we can call marriages. So marriage in Ancient Egypt is the subject of the talk.

First she spoke a little bit about marriages of the Pharaohs. It’s known Pharaohs had one or more wives through the whole period of Ancient Egyptian history (obviously …) but it’s only in the New Kingdom and later that they begin to be distinguished from one another by titles like Great Royal Wife. Also in this period there’s evidence of the Pharaoh marrying his sister or daughter, which seems to be unique to the royal families. The only evidence of ceremonies come with marriages to foreign women – there is documentary evidence for the woman being anointed with oils, and they come into the presence of Pharaoh accompanied by their dowry.

Gahlin then moved on to the main part of her talk, which was about marriage in the non-royal population. The bulk of this evidence comes from the New Kingdom and later, from communities like the village at Deir el Medina. So the people involved are the better off, educated & skilled workers – not the general rural population.

The first evidence she talked about comes from the erotic love poetry found on ostraca at Deir el Medina. These were probably closer to what we’d think of as songs, and Gahlin said they are thought to’ve been written primarily by men even tho several of them are from the perspective of women. The bulk of them are erotic in nature, but the ones she read out to us (in translation of course) were about a desire to have a long lasting relationship. And the desire to be with one person forever (even into the afterlife). In these poems the two people often refer to each other as “brother” or “sister” but Gahlin said there’s no evidence that this is an actual relationship, instead these words are used as terms of endearment.

Another sort of evidence comes from the instructional literature – these are classic texts, which boys would be taught as part of their training as scribes (you’d learn to write using them, and you’d also learn the things in them). They tend to be addressed from a paternal figure to a young man, and there’s advice about women & marriage among other things. As well as these sorts of evidence there are also letters and legal documents.

The word used to describe these relationships is generally translated to “marriage” but the literal translation is closer to “living together” or “setting up house together”. The couple would live in the household of the parents of one or the other of them – usually the man’s parents. The advice given to young men was to marry around the age of 20 – while still young enough to get a son before they died, but not too young. Women tended to be younger, between 12 & 15 – presumably correlating with menarche. There’s evidence that the maturity of the couple was considered, Gahlin told us about a case where the father had refused to allow his daughter to marry because “it is not yet her time”. The following year he permitted the marriage. Gahlin speculated that this meant the girl had not yet started menstruating the first time the marriage was proposed. In the Middle Kingdom the marriage was organised & the marriage contract drawn up between the father of the bride and the groom. The bride generally brought with her a dowry and the groom gave an equivalently valued gift to her. Later the contract would be directly between bride & groom.

Divorce was possible in Ancient Egyptian society, and there is evidence that either party could initiate a divorce. A lot of the evidence for this comes from marriage contracts, which list what will happen in the event of a divorce. Gahlin pointed out that from these you can tell what worried people about the prospect of divorce. The contracts discuss things like how if a man divorces his wife because he wishes to marry another woman then he will repay her dowry and pay her compensation, but if she instigates the divorce then he will only repay her dowry. The contracts also list the goods the wife brought with her, and then say that he will repay goods of equal value – it’s not the exact same things that are important, it’s the value of them that’s the point. It seems clear that the woman would be the one who moved out, and some contracts have reference to what the man will provide in terms of housing. Other evidence for this comes from people’s wills – there are several instances of a father leaving his daughter a hut or a shed, as housing if she needs it. Gahlin noted that you can see the status of widows & (female) divorcees in Ancient Egyptian society is amongst the poor & vulnerable – which is also shown in the advice literature & the biographies you find on noble’s tomb walls talking about how they should or did help the unfortunate including widows/divorcees.

The talk finished with a question & answer session (they all do, but this one sparked a lot of discussion). One of the points brought up here was that the marriage contracts don’t mention what happens to the children in the event of a divorce – who brings them up, where they live. Not even the contracts that’re written after the children are born. Perhaps they stayed with the father as a matter of course? But that’s only speculation based on him being the one who had a guaranteed roof over his head.

Gahlin was also asked to re-stress something she’d brought up several times during the talk – namely that when we say “marriage”, “divorce”, “wife” and “husband” we’re applying our own societal words to the Ancient Egyptians. For instance, “marriage” is how we translate a word that’s more literally translated as “living together”. So it’s important to remember that the nuances of the language we use while talking about this subject almost certainly don’t apply to the lives of the Egyptians (or if they do, it’s coincidental).

And the last question was a side-track onto the subject of whether headrests (used instead of pillows whilst sleeping) were used during sex. I’m really not quite sure why the chap who asked wanted to know! Gahlin said there’s no evidence that they were – but that most of the pictorial evidence for sex between Ancient Egyptians (like the Turin Erotic Papyrus or various ostraca) doesn’t often involve beds so maybe that’s why there’s no headrests represented.