MARRIAGE IN ANCIENT EGYPT
Marriage was the normal and most desirable state for Ancient Egyptians of both genders and all social classes. Athenian men evinced little respect or affection for women and delayed marriage until well into their thirties, but most Egyptian men were eager to follow the advice of the wisdom literature urging them to take a wife while still young so they could found a household and raise a family. Most men were married by the age of twenty to girls who might have been as young as fifteen. There was an age difference, but usually not more than two or three years.
One of the more curious mysteries in that civilization is the complete absence of information on the act of getting married. Legal papyri always identified a woman as the “wife of …” and there are many documents attesting to a couple’s divorce. Weddings in Ptolemaic Egypt were often accompanied by very elaborate parties, but there is nary a word from the Pharaonic period about a marriage ceremony. We may assume that there was a moment before which a couple was not married and after which they were married, but we have no clear evidence to tell us what happened.
The Marriage Stele of Ramses II says, “Then his Majesty saw that she was beautiful of face and like a goddess. It was a great mysterious, wonderful and fortunate affair.” This has been taken as proof by a small handful of scholars that some sort of ceremony was required to make a marriage, but most would argue that the “affair” in question was nothing more than the initial meeting of the king and his future wife. Egyptians loved a party and it is hard to imagine them ignoring such an obvious excuse, but not only is their no evidence of a ceremony, there is no evidence of a celebration either.
It would appear that a woman was considered to have married if she took her belongings from her parents’ house and moved them and herself into the home of a man who was not already married to someone else. There are records of parents using the occasion to transfer property to the bride or the groom but there are no other signs of anything approaching a ceremony or a party.
Athenian men disliked women and put off marriage as long as possible. They gave in out of a sense of civic responsibility and a desire to produce a legal and socially acceptable heir. Romans expected to marry first and come to love later. Egyptian men thought very highly of women and embraced the idea of marriage and seem to have regarded love as an essential part of it. Love poems attest to very strong feelings of affection and attraction in couples that appear to be unmarried. We have no way of knowing how many fell in love first and married second or how many married first, but it would seem that the ideal, at least in the literature, was that romantic love came first.
That still leaves the question, did girls need permission to get married. In theory, at least, Ancient Greek and Roman women needed their guardian’s approval in order to marry. The evidence for Egypt is hazy. The hairdresser of Thutmosis III recorded on a statuette, now in the Louvre, that he had freed his slave and given her in marriage to his niece. A Twentieth Dynasty woman, having adopted the three children of her female slave, accepted her younger brother as husband of one of those offspring.. In the Late Period, a suitor was told by a girl’s father, “Her time has not yet come; become a priest and I will give her to you.” The record shows that the couple did indeed marry a year later. As you can see, the evidence is slim, indeed, since two of the cases involved an emancipated slave and one concerned an underage child. All three cases might well be subject to regulations beyond those involved in a normal marriage. Onchsheshonqy wrote, “Chose a prudent husband for your daughter; do not choose a rich one for her. ” Herodotus wrote that no one wants to give their daughters in marriage to a swineherd. The remark was meant as a comment on the low social standing of those who care for pigs, but there is the implication that parents had a choice in the matter. Since girls usually married at a young age it is likely that they were very much influenced by their parents’ wishes.
While we really do not know what the law had to say in the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms when a girl and her parents disagreed on her choice of mate, the situation became abundantly clear in the reign of Amasis, in the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. From that point on marriage deeds involve only the husband and the wife. When parents are mentioned it is for purposes of identification only. In the Ptolemaic period, when Greek and Egyptian laws existed side by side, we regularly find documents where women with Greek names are marrying with the permission of a guardian, but women with Egyptian names continued to marry on their own.
If a man and a woman over the age of consent, not already married to someone else, and no more closely related than first cousins, lived together in the same house, they were considered to be married, without the need for any legal registration. Just as the state did not get involved in marriage, it showed no interest in who got divorced. Either party could initiate a divorce and the reasons, if any, for the marital breakdown were irrelevant. Written divorce agreements do exist, and it is possible that a woman seeking to remarry would need to show such a document to her future husband before he would allow her to move in with him. Divorce was simple enough, but the division of assets presented the real problem. The ex-wife was entitled to take whatever personal items she brought with her---clothing, jewelry, cook-ware, etc.---and, of course, married women always retained separate ownership of land, buildings, slaves, etc. that they possessed before the marriage. What happened to divorced women who lacked such income producing property? They must have been the majority, but we do not know. There are hints that ex-husbands had to continue providing support until remarriage, but in the absence of that they would presumably have had to rely on family.
Scholars have long relied on surviving marriage contracts for help in getting information on Egyptian marital law. Such contracts undoubtedly tell us what was legal, but too often they have been used to draw blanket conclusions, overlooking the possibility that such contracts were drawn up expressly to alter what would normally have happened. Who needs an expensive, written document, if both parties are going to follow the normal course of events anyway? Think what a distorted view of Twenty-First century marriage would emerge if a thousand years in the future scholars had to rely on the so-called pre-nuptial agreements entered into when a very wealthy person marries a very poor one.
With that caveat in mind, let us look now at the marriage contracts. While there is considerable variety in the specifics, the contracts fall into two general types. In the first, the man gives a sum of money so that the woman will become his wife. It is possible that the practice is a holdover from the old days of “bride price” when a man had to compensate his wife’s father for the loss of his daughter’s labor, but a more likely explanation is a simple symbol of serious intent. The value is given and received as a sign that the parties are serious about entering into an agreement. The size of the payment varies from a low of a half deben of copper (about a quarter the cost of a pair of sandals) to a high of 2 silver deben (about the value of a female slave)
While the latter is more than a token (equivalent perhaps to the purchase value today of one or two major appliances: stove, refrigerator, washing machine, etc.) these payments are not very much when you consider that only the wealthiest members of society would bother with such contracts in the first place. If the woman decides to divorce him, she must return the money. If he wishes to divorce her, he must give that amount again as a fine. Even at 2 silver deben the sum of money is too small to be a deterrent to divorce or to provide the woman with the means to support herself, thus reinforcing the idea that the payment is nothing more than a sign of legal certainty, particularly since, as noted above, there was no ceremony or registry to confirm that a marriage or divorce had taken place.
In the second type it is the woman who makes a payment to the husband for the purchase of a “Maintenance Contract”. He spells out in detail the amount he must spend on her food and clothing and guarantees her a place to live. All of the worldly goods of the husband serve as surety for this promise. Any time she wants to leave she may do so, requiring him to either return her money or continue to support her. Sometimes there is an out for the husband if she commits adultery, but usually these contracts require him to continue supporting her even if he wants a divorce.
In these Maintenance Contracts the husband pledges his entire property as a guarantee he will keep his promise, but in some cases he goes one step further and gives all of his assets to his wife. Under Egyptian law two documents were required to complete a sale. He gives his wife the first, ensuring that he cannot sell or give away his wealth to anyone else, but the sale does not become complete until he signs the second document saying that he no longer has an interest in the property in question. The end result is the same whether he pledges his wealth or gives it away. In both cases he continues to administer the property as before: he just can’t dispose of it without first getting her permission.
Marriage contracts invariably contained a list of “the goods of a woman” that the wife brought with her to the marital home. These items were very personal---clothing, jewelry, utensils etc.---the sorts of thing that would get mixed in with the miscellany that is found in every home. Each item was valued and the husband promised to return them or their value if she should decide to leave.
Some marriage contracts contained a clause binding the husband to distribute, at death, some or all of his property in a certain way. The commitment did not usually survive a divorce that had been initiated by the wife, but it could impose serious financial hardship on a husband who wanted to get rid of one wife and marry another. The following are examples:
1. You are the sharer with my children already born and sill to be born in all that I possess and that I shall acquire.
2. The children which you will bear to me are the sharers with my children in all that I possess and that I shall acquire
3. One third of all that I possess and shall acquire belongs to you for the children you bear to me.
4. The children which you will bear to me are the masters of all and everything that I possess and that I shall acquire.
These marriage contracts placed far more restriction on the behavior of the husband than they did on the wife. Even without a contract, women had the legal ability to leave anytime they wanted, and were free to take their personal belongings with them. She would give up her right to be supported or to inherit, but that would have happened with or without a contract, and presumably she would not leave of her own accord anyway, unless she had some place to go.
It was the husband who lost his rights and freedom when he signed. Without the contract he could divorce her and marry someone else. There are hints that Egyptian law required husbands to support divorced wives until they remarried, but there is no definitive proof. Many of the marriage contracts not only mandated continuous support, but also required the husband to divide his entire estate among the children of a wife even if he had divorced her.
Unfortunately there is little or no information available to tell us why one husband was left free to divorce a wife with no financial penalty and another committed himself to divide everything he had on the day of the wedding and everything he might subsequently acquire amongst the children of a particular wife. It should be noted, however, that many, if not most, of the surviving contracts were signed many years after the wedding and the birth of children. It is quite possible, then, that what appears to be a marriage contract is actually the means by which the husband obligates his estate to continue supporting his wife after he dies.
What happens to a man’s property after he dies? The law was quite clear on one point: an heir was obliged to provide an appropriate burial. There is enough evidence to tell us what else was normal, but not enough to tell us what the law required. We certainly have wills that clearly deviate from the norm, but the following is what was most likely:
1. The wife received one third of her husband’s estate.
2. When she died her third would be divided equally among the children she had by that husband.
3. The balance of the husband’s estate was divided among all the children he sired, whether by this wife or another.
An interesting look at the human side of marriage can be found in a letter written by a desperate husband to his deceased wife. He believed she was tormenting him from the grave and he wanted her to stop. He describes all the ways he was a good husband to her. He also describes the deeds of a bad husband that he did not do.
What have I ever done against you? I took you as my wife when I was a young man. We stayed together through all the different offices I held. I did not repudiate you or injure your heart. I filled all kinds of important offices for the Pharaoh---Life, Prosperity, Health!---without repudiating you. Everything I got was at your feet. Did I not receive it on your behalf?
But behold, you do not leave my heart in peace…I did not make you suffer pain in all I did with you as your master. You did not find me while I deceived you like a peasant entering into another house…When they placed me in the post where I am now and I was in a situation in which I could not go out according to my habit, I did what somebody like me does…concerning your oil, bread and clothes. It was brought to you. I did not let it be brought to another place…
Behold, you do not know the good I did to you. I write you in order to make you see what you are doing. When you were ill I got the chief physician and he treated you and he did everything of which you said: do it…
Behold I have lived alone for three years without entering a house although it is not suitable that such a one is compelled to do that. Behold I have done it for your sake….The women in the house, I had no intercourse with any of them.
Ancient Egyptian marriage was a social and economic arrangement, not a legal one. At least in theory, a woman needed her parent’s permission to marry until the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty. In the Ptolemaic Period a quarter of all marriages were between full or step siblings. Beyond these three points Ancient Egyptian marriage does not seem to have been very dissimilar to that in most English speaking countries today. The following indicates the norm, but it should be remembered that there were always exceptions.
1. Marriages were monogamous.
2. People married within their social class, and except in the Ptolemaic Period they married someone unrelated or no more closely related than cousin.
3. Men and women retained separate ownership of any property they brought into the marriage.
4. Either party could initiate a divorce. No reason need be given.
5. A wife was generally entitled to a third of her husband’s property when he died. Beyond that, men and women generally divided their estate among their children.