Love, Sex, and Marriage in Ancient Egypt

This oldest of civilizations could be surprisingly liberal.

Posted Oct 03, 2017

Source: Wikicommons

Attitudes toward love, sex, and marriage in Ancient Egypt are significant in themselves, and because they may have informed or influenced mores and practices in Ancient Israel (and therefore in the Bible) and as far out as Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. According to the Book of Exodus, Pharaoh gave the order for every son born to the Hebrews to be drowned because he feared being deposed by their growing number—which is how baby Moses ended up in an ark of bulrushes on the Nile, to be rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. The Ancient Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus, whom Plato (428/427–348/347 BC) regarded as one of the seven sages of Greece, received instruction from Egyptian priests, and, while in Egypt, determined the height of the pyramids by measuring their shadows at the time of day when his own shadow was as long as he was tall. Plato himself traveled to Egypt, and, according to Plutarch, funded his voyage by selling Attic olive oil to the Egyptians. 

We do not have a complete picture of marriage in Ancient Egypt. The period spans almost 3,000 years, from 3,100 BC to 332 BC, and attitudes may have varied quite considerably across the centuries, or even from one ruler to the next. It seems that men and women were almost equal in status, with the women enjoying more rights, such as the right to dispose of property or initiate divorce, than they would have in Ancient Athens or Ancient Rome. In the art of the period, women are often depicted supporting or clasping their husband, and husband and wife referred to each other as 'brother' or 'sister', again, suggesting a relationship of equals or near-equals.

The Egyptians enjoyed sensuous pleasures and, although proper, they were not in the least prudish. Their myths are replete with all kinds of sex. They represented the cosmos with Nut, goddess of the night sky, overarching her ithyphallic (erect) brother Geb, god of the earth. They attached false penises to male mummies and false nipples to female ones, to equip the dead for sex in the afterlife. They did not value chastity, with no word for 'virginity', and illegitimacy carried neither shame nor stigma. The Ebers medical papyrus, which dates back to the middle of the second millennium BC, contains a recipe for a contraceptive pessary, failing which it was possible to contract an abortion. Adultery, on the other hand, was a definite taboo, especially on the part of the wife, and women who strayed out of the marriage bed could be severely punished, including by mutilation, stoning, or burning at the stake.

In general, people sought to marry within their social class but had little regard for race or even nationality. They sometimes married a cousin but, except for royals, steered clear from anything closer than a first cousin. Men usually got married at about 16 to 20 years old, or as soon as they had picked up a trade from which to support a wife and eventual children. Women usually got married at a younger age, at around 13-years-old, or just after puberty, and it was not uncommon for an old man (old by the standards of the day) to marry a pubertal girl. 

Marriage was usually contracted between the groom and the bride’s parents, with the groom or his family offering money or gifts to seal the deal and compensate the bride’s family for the loss of a daughter. An agreement was drawn up at the start of marriage to provide for the woman and eventual children in case of divorce, and the items that a woman brought into marriage remained her own. Marriage may have been marked by a celebration, but there was no wedding ritual as such. As soon as the bride moved her belongings into the groom’s house, they were considered married. In some cases, a couple entered into a trial marriage lasting for one year, a so-called 'year of eating', after which the marriage could be either progressed or annulled.

Divorce was straightforward. Husband or wife could get divorced simply by saying so, even if they had no specific grounds such as adultery or infertility. Unlike in Ancient Athens and Ancient Rome, the children of the marriage belonged to the mother and followed after her. The man paid alimony to the woman, whether or not they had children, until and unless she took another husband. There was no stigma attached to divorce, and divorcees could easily remarry, although such was the emphasis on having children that a woman much beyond the peak of her fertility would have had difficulty in finding a new husband. Despite the relative ease of divorce, people worked hard at their marriages, not least because they believed that it would last for all eternity, with a departed wife able to torment an inequitable husband from beyond the grave. The Egyptians held that, after death, they would stand in judgment before the god Osiris, who, they hoped, would allow them passage into the Field of Reeds where they would be reunited with the people and possessions that they held dear.

Osiris had married his sister Isis, and royals often followed in that example, partly because they thought of themselves as divine and partly to legitimize their succession. Cleopatra the lover of Caesar and Mark Antony married both of her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV. Some pharaohs even married their own daughters, although this may have been an honorary marriage to elevate the status of a princess. Unlike normal Egyptians, for whom it was forbidden, pharaohs often took several wives, enabling them to forge or strengthen domestic and international alliances. That said, one of the wives, often a sister or half-sister, would prime over the others and carry the title of Great Royal Wife. Tutankhamun, who reigned from 1332 to 1323 BC and suffered from numerous deformities, was the son of Akhenaten and one of Akhenaten’s sisters. He took for wife his half-sister Ankhesenamun, daughter of Akhenaten and his Great Royal Wife Nefertiti. Before marrying Tutankhamun, Ankhesenamun had been married to her father Akhenaten. Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun had two daughters, but both were stillborn owing, no doubt, to the high degree of inbreeding.