By Robert Garland, Ph.D., Colgate University
Ancient Egyptians cared deeply about family, but marriage was a personal choice decided by the couple who wanted to get married. Polygamy and even adultery were acceptable for men, and, ironically, women were treated respectfully.
It might seem that in an ancient conservative society like Egypt, marriage was also a forced decision, made by the family for the young generation. However, the reality lies in the ruins of Deir el-Medina, claiming otherwise. Deir el-Medina was a workers’ village located in the Valley of the Kings and flourished during the New Kingdom. Young men chose their partners, and after agreeing on a ‘marriage’, they would inform their parents and close friends of the decision.
The concept of marriage did exist, but in the Afro-Asiatic language spoken at the time, there is no equivalent for the verb ‘to marry’. However, the decision was strongly respected, and even divorce was possible.
Learn More about being Egyptian.
How a Man Chose His Wife
The typical age for men to get married was about 20. The girl chosen was usually noticeably younger: maybe 12 or 13. He might have met her in the fields, the market, or simply on the streets. In any case, love was a valued emotion, and Egyptian poetry is a witness. After a few times of meeting, the man proposed and the girl agreed to marry him. They might not have necessarily been in love, but no one forced them into anything either.
Egyptian Marriage Ceremony
Evidence suggests no official marriage ceremony. When a couple decided to start a life together and announced it to their parents and friends, they simply started living together. However, there was a contract involving the transfer of property, which made both of them financially obligated to one another.
Divorce was also common, though not preferred. In case of a divorce, the wife was entitled to one-third of the marital property. Still, some men just pushed the wife out of the house with no respect for the rules and contracts. Nonetheless, ancient Egypt was no exception to the goal of marriage: offspring.
This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Having Children in Ancient Egypt
Having six or seven children was the norm, but having ten or more was not rare either. The ideal situation was that the wife would get pregnant a short while after the couple was married. Children were strongly desired, but there is no evidence that having a boy was preferred to a girl. If the wife did not get pregnant after a while, there were some solutions.
Learn More about living in Hellenistic Egypt.
Solutions for Pregnancy Problems
The first solution was to buy a magic spell. Magic had a significant role in Egypt and was believed to solve many problems, including pregnancy difficulties. Besides, the woman could pray at the shrine of Hathor. Hathor was a cow-headed goddess, closely associated with women and fertility. Offerings made to this goddess were usually in the form of female sexual organs, female breasts, and penises. However, if the goddess could not do anything, the couple could adopt children.
The last way, not normally preferred by the wife, was to buy a slave girl. In such situations, the aim of purchase was expressed, and the slave girl knew she was bought for pregnancy. There was always the chance that the wife could get jealous of the slave girl. If one of the methods worked, did all the newborns survive?
Infant Mortality and Contraception Methods
Some of the children were stillborn or died within a few months after birth. The reason for the high infant mortality was not only diseases but also snakes and scorpions. When the couple decided they had had enough children, they tried methods of contraception.
The most common way was for the wife to cover her vagina with crocodile dung. Contraception was not the only accepted right of Egyptian women.
Rights of an Egyptian Woman
An Egyptian woman had the right to inherit, bequeath, own land, and operate her own business. She could bring a lawsuit, serve on a jury, or testify in a trial. Further, she could work on the land, sell goods in the market, and weave cloth professionally. However, she did not have a real role in public life.
Wives were treated with respect and entitled nebet per which meant ‘ruler or mistress or lady of the house’. However, the respect did not equal faithfulness, and a man could have more than one wife. It was mainly aristocratic behavior, and normal people could not afford it.
After death, the married couple would share a tomb to live in eternity together as well. Thus, marriage in ancient Egypt was the foundation of the most important thing in life: family.
Common Questions about Marriage in Ancient Egypt
According to evidence from Deir el-Medina, an ancient Egyptian city, polygamy was common for men, but not financially efficient. Thus, men could have more than one wife, but normally those from the higher social class could afford it.
As marriage in ancient Egypt was not arranged by the families, usually a man of around 20 years of age would choose his partner and start living with her. Sometimes, the bride could be as young as a 13-year-old who had recently started menstruation.
Marriage in ancient Egypt was not arranged by the bride’s and the groom’s families. Instead, the couple decided to live together and inform their parents of their decision. There was no ‘marriage contract’, but there was a contract for the transfer of property.
Divorce was also common, and one-third of the property and wealth gained after the marriage had to be given to the woman.