James C. Thompson
This tomb painting illustrating the reunion of a husband and wife in the after-life
shows the very real affection that was considered the norm in Ancient
It was taken for granted in the ancient world that the head of the house was the man. The true meaning of this fact for women varied considerably from one place and time to another, and the impact was much greater if the law drew a distinction between a man and a woman. Marriage and offspring were always considered desirable, but in some societies wives were simply domestic servants and offspring acquired importance only when they grew up. Undoubtedly there were a number of very strong willed women who disregarded custom and ruled their families with the sheer force of their personalities, but they were the exception.
Egyptian women were fortunate in two important ways:
Athenian men married out of a sense of civic duty and put off the fateful day until the age of 30 or more, at which time they married girls of half their age whose youth made them more easily controlled. In contrast, Ancient Egyptian men and women valued and enjoyed each other's company. Love and affection were thought to be important, and marriage was the natural state for people of all classes.
It is interesting to note, however, that there is no record anywhere of an actual marriage ceremony. We have records of divorce, we know that adultery (defined as sexual relations with a married woman---not a married man) was forbidden, and it is clear that everyone knew who was married to whom. Some scholars believe that the absence of any information on an actual marriage ceremony is merely a fluke in the historical record. Others argue that there was in fact no ceremony: a couple were considered married when they began to live together, calling to mind the modern North American concept of 'common-law marriage'.
A small handful of documents mention a man giving permission for a marriage,
but all are sufficiently ambiguous to leave open the question of whether or not
a father's permission was necessary as it was in other societies of the time.
The earliest known Egyptian marriage contract dates from the Seventh Century
BCE, long after the end of the
Kings, particularly those in the
For a more detailed article on this topic see Marriage
in Ancient Egypt
MISTRESS OF THE HOUSE
Marriage was the natural state for Egyptians of both genders, and the most
common title for non-royal women was "mistress of the house". There
is little doubt that in
Houses varied considerably in size, but they were all made of mud brick with a flat, thatched roof. Summer days were very hot and winter nights very cold, so the houses were designed with the climate in mind. Since the rooms in the center of the house provided the best protection from the heat that was where the living room was located. Depending on the size of this room, wooden pillars might be put in the center to help support the roof which was high enough to allow an open window along the length of the north wall to let in light and a cooling north breeze. A stone hearth on the floor would allow for a fire to produce heat on cold evenings. The combination of window and fire place would have made this the most comfortable room in the house. Niches were cut into the walls for religious items and for lamps. Behind the living room would be the master bedroom and kitchen. Beneath the kitchen most houses had a basement that could be used for storage.
The state provided a block of houses for the tomb workers on the outskirts
of the city of
It should be noted here that except in the largest homes of the very wealthy it was gender and marital status, not rank, that determined where in the house you slept. The harem was simply the room in the house occupied by the unmarried women. This could have included the mother, or even grandmother, of the householder or 'mistress of the house' as well as any unattached female servants or slaves.
CLICK ON THE FOLLOWING FOR INFORMATION ON THE LIVES OF WOMEN IN SPECIFIC AREAS OF THE ANCIENT WORLD