Marriage: Brother and Sister

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Marriage: Brother and Sister

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Kings. Brother-sister marriage was limited to the royal family in most periods of ancient Egyptian history. The king thus imitated the god Osiris, who married his sisters Isis and Nephthys. An explanation provided by early scholars of this practice, that kingship passed through the female line, has been disproved by the Egyptologist Gay Robins. Betsy M. Bryan has suggested that incestuous marriage had the practical value of keeping property within the royal family. The best-known examples of brother-sister marriage were practiced by the Ptolemaic kings. Because these rulers were actually Greek, perhaps they emphasized the imitation of Osiris’s marriages to validate their claims to the Egyptian throne.

NonRoyal Intrafamily Marriage. Though elite members of Egyptian society often married cousins, or their father’s or mother’s siblings, brother-sister marriage was not commonly practiced. Egyptologist Jaroslav Cerny has demonstrated that some of the confusion on this issue stems from terms of endearment used during the New Kingdom (circa 1539-1075 b.c.e.), when lovers sometimes referred to each other as brother or sister. This custom is found even on stelae. Cerny has shown, however, that this practice never occurs in legal documents before the Roman Period (circa 30 b.c.e. and after). Remarkably, Roman census records from the town of Arsinoe in the Faiyum reveal up to 25 percent of marriages were between full brothers and sisters. This rate was not repeated in any other census records from the Roman Period. The reasons for this unusual practice are not understood.

THE STORY OF SETNE KHAEMWAS

[When the steward of the palace came] Pharaoh [said to him]: “Steward, let Ahwere be taken to the house of Nanneferkaptah tonight, and let all sorts of beautiful things be taken with her.”

I was taken as a wife to the house of Nanneferkaptah [that night, and Pharaoh] sent me a present of silver and gold, and all Pharaoh’s household sent me presents. Naneferkaptah made holiday with me, and he entertained all Pharaoh’s household. He slept with me that night and found me [pleasing. He slept with] me again and again, and we lived with each other.

When my time of purification came I made no more purification, [meaning she was pregnant] It was reported to Pharaoh, and his heart was very happy. Pharaoh had many things taken [out of the treasury] and sent me presents of silver, gold, and royal linen, all very beautiful. When my time of bearing came, I bore this boy who is before you, who was named Merib.

Source: Miriam Lichtheim, “Setne Khaemwas and Naneferkaptah,” in Ancient Egyptian Literature, volume 3, edited by Lichtheim (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), p. 128.

ADVICE ON SEXUALITY

The wisdom of the sage Any, Dynasty 18 (circa 1539-1295/1292 b.c.e.), represents widely held views in ancient Egypt.

Beware of a woman who is a stranger,

One not known in her town;

Don’t stare at her when she goes by,

Do not know her carnally.

A deep water whose course is unknown,

Such is a woman away from her husband.

“I am pretty,” she tells you daily,

When she has no witnesses;

She is ready to ensnare you,

A great deadly crime when it is heard.

Source: “The Instructions of Any,” translated by Miriam Lichtheim, in Ancient Egyptian Literature, edited by Lichtheim (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), p. 137.

Sources

Betsy M. Bryan, “The 18th Dynasty before the Amarna Period,” in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt, edited by Ian Shaw (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 218–271.

Jaroslav Cerný, “Consanguineous Marriages in Pharaonic Egypt” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 40 (December 1954): 23-29.

Gay Robins, Women in Ancient Egypt (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993; London: British Museum Press, 1993).