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Women in Ancient Egypt

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Women in Ancient Egypt

In the ancient world, Egypt stood out as a land where women were treated differently.
...but for the Egyptians themselves, in most of their manners and customs, it was exactly the reverse to the common practices of mankind. For example, the women attend the markets and trade, while the men sit at home and weave at the loom... The women likewise carry burdens upon their shoulders while the men carry them upon their heads... Sons need not support their parents unless they chose, but daughters must, whether they chose to or not.

- Herodotus

In Egypt, women were much more free than their counterparts in other lands... though they were not equal with men, both men and women in Egypt accepted that everyone had their roles in ma'at (the natural order of the universe)... and that the roles of men and women were different.

Women in Egyptian Art

From the formal paintings on tombs, the Egyptian stereotype of a woman was that of wife and mother, the husband being the head of the household. She worked indoors (mostly), out of the Egyptian sun, so her skin was lighter than that of her male counterparts. (When she died, she was painted green, as were the men, being the colour of rebirth).

Women were seen to be slim and beautiful, even though a fat stomach in men equated with wealth and power (the rich could afford to eat more than the poor!) Noble women did not work in these paintings, but women are seen to be dancers, musicians, acrobats, prostitutes, maids, kitchen staff, field workers and much, much more.





Sculpture, unlike painting, usually only showed noble or influential people. When women were in a sculpture, they were usually part of a husband-and-wife or family group, with the wife physically supporting her husband with an arm around his shoulder. In the sculptures of a pharaoh and his wife, she was normally on a smaller scale, indicating the pharaoh's godly aspect - the wife being only human. (Normal sculptures had the husband and wife in proportion to each other). Women only sculptures are very rare.

Women in Writing

Ancient Egyptian letters, though, show the more human side of Egypt. There were love letters, poetry, private law cases and personal letters between friends and family members. Ostraca (pottery chips) were used as note pads by the Egyptians, showing their thoughts and messages to themselves. Not surprisingly, ancient Egyptian relationships were about the same as today - they loved and hated, they held hands to show affection and love, they had romantic moments and bitter fights, they gossiped and chatted, just as we do today. (Note, though, that the Egyptians were big on double entendres and were not prudish, as we westerners tend to be today. 'Unseemly' things have been left out or ignored, at times, in translation. For example, the sun god Ra masturbated, and his semen turned into his children, Shu and Tefnut!) But one must remember that the writings were written by men, as women were illiterate, so many topics that would have only been of interest to women are absent from Egyptian writings.

As an interesting side note, one ancient poem showed that, just as today, women had to put up with men perving at them:

She makes all men turn their necks
to look at her.
One looks at her passing by,
this one, the unique one.

Medical writings, though, tell us the sort of problems Egyptian women faced. Ailments, symptoms and suggestions for cures for women were all recorded by the ancient Egyptian doctors. The modern study of the mummies also show these problems, and more general things about her. She was relatively short with dark hair and eyes, and light brown skin. She lived to approximately forty years, if she survived past childhood and pregnancy. Life was hard on both women and men. Most advice, though, was a mixture of ancient medicine and magic spells - scientific knowledge combined with superstition! It was believed that every medical problem (not caused by an accident) was the result of demons or parasitic worms. The way they dealt with that was to alleviate the symptoms, and use spells to get rid of the cause. It's not surprising that the life expectancy of the ancient Egyptian was pretty low!

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02 - 10- 01
By Caroline Seawright

Interesting Articles Main Women in Ancient Egypt