Love, Sex, and Marriage in Ancient Egypt
This oldest of civilizations could be surprisingly liberal.
Posted October 3, 2017
[Article revised on 25 April 2020.]
Attitudes towards sex, love, and marriage in Ancient Egypt are especially significant, because they are likely to have informed or influenced attitudes and practices in Ancient Israel, and therefore in the Bible, and as far out as Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome.
If modern Western culture had a beginning, then that beginning was in Ancient Egypt.
According to the Book of Exodus, fearing for his position, Pharaoh gave the order for every son born to the Hebrews to be drowned—which is how baby Moses ended up in an ark of bulrushes, to be rescued from the Nile by Pharaoh’s daughter.
The philosopher Thales of Miletus (d. c. 548 BCE), whom Plato 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 travelled to Egypt, and, according to Plutarch, funded his voyage by selling Attic oil to the Egyptians.
We do not have a complete picture of marriage in Ancient Egypt. The period spans almost three thousand years, from 3100 to 332 BCE, and customs, no doubt, varied across the centuries, or even from one ruler to the next.
Interestingly, it seems that men and women were almost equal in status, with women enjoying more rights, such as the right to dispose of property or initiate divorce, than 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 near-equals.
The Egyptians enjoyed sensuous pleasures and, although proper, they were not in the least prudish.
Their myths are full of sexual imagery. They represented the cosmos with Nut, goddess of the night sky, arching herself over 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 no shame or stigma.
The Ebers papyrus, which dates back to the middle of the second millennium BCE, contains a recipe for a contraceptive pessary, failing which it was also possible to contract an abortion.
Adultery on the other hand was 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 otherwise gave little consideration to race or even nationality.
They sometimes married a cousin but, with the notable exception of royals (see below), 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 and were in a position to support a wife and eventual children.
Women usually got married at around 13-years-old, 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 to provide for the woman and any eventual children in the event of a divorce, and any items that she brought into the marriage remained her own.
Marriage may have been marked by a celebration, but there was no wedding ritual as such: When the bride moved her belongings into the groom’s house, they were considered to be married.
Alternatively, couples could elect to enter into a trial marriage of one year, a so-called ‘year of eating’, after which their union could be either confirmed or annulled.
Divorce too was straightforward.
Unlike in Ancient Athens and Ancient Rome, the children of the marriage belonged to the mother and remained with 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 past the peak of her fertility would have struggled to find a new husband.
The Egyptians believed that after dying, they would stand in judgement before the god Osiris, who, they hoped, would grant them safe passage into the Field of Reeds where they would be reunited with the people and possessions that they held dear.
Despite the relative ease of divorce, people worked hard at their marriages, not least because they thought that they would or could last for all eternity—with a departed wife able to torment an inequitable husband from beyond the grave.
Osiris was married to his sister Iris, and royals often followed in that example, partly because they thought of themselves as divine and partly to strengthen the claim of their heirs.
Cleopatra—the lover of Cæsar and, later, 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 more ordinary Egyptians, for whom it was forbidden, pharaohs often took several wives, enabling them to forge or strengthen domestic and foreign 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 BCE, suffered from numerous deformities.
His father was Akhenaten, and his mother one of Akhenaten’s sisters. He took for wife his half-sister Ankhesenamun, daughter of Akhenaten and his Great Royal Wife Nefertiti. Prior to marrying Tutankhamun, Ankhesenamun had been married to Akhenaten her father.
Tutankhamun and Ankhesenamun had two daughters, but both were stillborn—owing, no doubt, to the remarkably high degree of inbreeding.
See my related article, The Oldest Gays in History
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.