Egypt, Pharaonic

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Egypt, Pharaonic

The Egyptian pharaonic or dynastic age stretched from the unification of the country in approximately 3100 bce to the death of Cleopatra VII in 30 bce. This lengthy period is conventionally broken down into times of strong rule (the Old, Middle, and New Kingdoms, the Late Period, and the Ptolemaic Period) interrupted by times of fragmented and foreign rule (the First, Second, and Third Intermediate Periods). These Kingdoms and Periods are further subdivided into dynasties of connected, but not necessarily blood-related, rulers. Pharaonic Egypt retained a remarkable cultural consistency with little expectation of social mobility. For more than three thousand years, Egyptian women were raised to follow in their mothers' footsteps while Egyptian men were trained to work alongside their fathers.


All Egyptians, even the deities, were expected to marry and produce children. Yet there are few textual references to weddings, and no evidence at all for a formal religious or civil ceremony. It seems that a marriage was effectively sealed when the couple, the bride probably thirteen or fourteen years old and the groom slightly older, started to live together. At this time the woman assumed the wife's title "Mistress of the House." Most couples married within their own social class, with cousin-cousin or uncle-niece marriages being common. Only Egypt's kings were polygynous, marrying one principal wife (the queen consort) plus many secondary wives who lived with their children in harem palaces away from the court. In ancient Egypt, all royal titles expressed a relationship to the semidivine king. A princess was therefore a "King's Daughter" and a dowager queen a "King's Mother," while a queen was simply a "King's Wife"; a woman who was, or who had been, married to a king. The latter title encompassed the queen consort—the wife who played an important role in state ritual and whose son would succeed to the throne—plus all the secondary harem wives. As the pharaonic age progressed, in order to distinguish her from the growing number of lesser queens, the queen consort acquired an increasing number of titles and regalia.

Egypt's kings frequently made incestuous marriages, although these were not obligatory. Egyptologists no longer accept the "heiress theory" that Egyptian kingship was inherited through the female line. Many kings married their sisters or half-sisters, but only two kings (the long-lived New Kingdom monarchs Amenhotep III [r. c. 1391–1353 bce] and Ramesses II [r. c. 1290–1224 bce) are known to have married their daughters.

Legally, women shared the same rights as men. They were allowed to own and inherit property and could bear witness in a court of law. They could live alone and, if widowed or divorced, could raise their children without the need for a male guardian. They could deputize for an absent husband in business matters, and many women ran their own small businesses, offering services and food surpluses to their neighbors. But within the marriage there was always a traditional division of labor. The man was regarded as the head of the household, and he was expected to interface with the outside world by working outside the home. To symbolize this responsibility, men were traditionally depicted in art as red or brown skinned while women, who took responsibility for all internal, domestic matters, were shown with paler, untanned skins. Women could work outside the home, either in a paid or a voluntary capacity, but their domestic duties always took precedence. This concentration of the domestic sphere means that women are not particularly well represented in either the textual or the archaeological sources that tend to reflect the lives and official activities of elite and educated men.


Children of either sex were very much welcomed, although sons conveyed greater status. Not only would children care for their parents in old age, they would ensure that they received the correct funerary rituals and the offerings that would guarantee continued life beyond death. Childlessness was considered a tragedy, and the medical papyri included prescriptions intended to detect whether a woman was capable of bearing a child alongside advice on contraception and breastfeeding. Male infertility was an unknown concept. Those who could not have children of their own could consider adoption; some of Egypt's most successful kings, including the New Kingdom monarchs Tuthmosis I (r. c. 1504–1492 bce) Horemheb (r. c. 1319–1307 bce) and Ramesses I (r. c. 1307–1306 bce) were adopted into the royal family.

There are few references to the private, female dominated rite of childbirth in the written and artistic records. Mothers prepared to give birth by removing their clothing and untying their hair, with loose hair symbolizing a loss of control. The few surviving childbirth scenes show mothers in specially constructed tents or birthing bowers. If all went well the mother squatted on a set of birthing bricks (indeed, this was the hieroglyph for giving birth), and a healthy child was delivered into the arms of the local midwife who crouched before her and who cut the umbilical cord with a sharp obsidian knife. If things went badly, there was very little that the midwife could do to help, and several female mummies show evidence of death during childbirth. Spells, charms, and amulets of the pregnant hippopotamus goddess Taweret and the dwarf demi-god Bes might be used to protect both mother and unborn child. During the Middle Kingdom, midwives carried curved batons carved out of hippopotamus teeth. These have no obvious practical purpose, but Egyptologists have speculated that they may have been used to draw a magic circle around the vulnerable mother.

Most mothers breastfed for up to three years, but royal women used wet-nurses, employing high ranking wives for this most important of positions. The children of the royal wet-nurses were educated in the schools attached to the royal harem, and were considered to have a particularly close bond with the royal family. Less than ten percent of Egypt's population could read and write, almost all of them elite males. The vast majority of girls were educated at home where they learned domestic skills from their female relations. But the New Kingdom Theban workmen's village of Deir el-Medina has yielded an eclectic collection of informal written documents—personal scribbles, letters, and laundry lists—that suggest that some non-elite women could read basic signs.


Polytheistic Egypt respected many goddesses, with Hathor and Isis being the most prominent. Hathor, the cow-headed daughter of the sun god, was the patron of music, motherhood, and drunkenness, and was worshipped from prehistoric times until the end of the pharaonic age. But as the dynasties progressed the cult of the goddess Isis started to displace that of Hathor. Isis would outlive the last of the pharaohs to become a prominent deity in the Roman Empire. There were many myths associated with Isis, who was revered as a wise woman, healer, and magician. The story of Isis and her husband-brother Osiris allows modern readers an insight into contemporary Egyptian attitudes to women. It tells how, when Osiris had been murdered and dismembered by his brother Seth, Isis was able to use her magic to restore his body and bring him back to a semblance of life. Nine months later Isis gave birth to a son, Horus. As Osiris retreated to rule the land of the dead, Isis protected Horus until he was old enough to claim his birthright. Isis's actions show her to be an ideal wife. Not only is she capable of bearing a son, she is able to use her wits to deputize for her husband and protect her child.


The ideal succession saw the Egyptian crown pass from father to a son born to the queen consort. If the queen consort had been unable to supply an heir, a successor was sought in the royal harem. Occasionally it was necessary for a queen to rule as temporary regent for a young son. By the Ptolemaic Period (304–30 bce) ideas of kingship had undergone a subtle change, and several of the Ptolemaic queens, including Egypt's last queen, Cleopatra VII, experienced periods of independent rule.

On at least three occasions a woman took the throne as queen regnant. These women classified themselves as kings, underwent the full coronation ritual, and used the full king's titulary. Sobeknofru (r. c. 1767–1783 bce) ruled Egypt briefly at the end of the Twelfth Dynasty at time when there was no eligible male successor. Tawosret (r. c. 1198–1196 bce) enjoyed an undistinguished two-year reign at the end of the Nineteenth Dynasty. Best known of all the female pharaohs is the Eighteenth Dynasty King Hatshepsut (r. c. 1473–1458 bce). Her reign was a time of peace and prosperity, with significant international trade and a major building program that included work on the Karnak temple of Amen and Hatshepsut's Deir el-Bahari mortuary temple. Hatshepsut's artists struggled with the artistic convention which decreed that kings should be depicted as young, strong men; after a brief period where she was depicted with a female body in men's clothing and regalia, Hatshepsut was officially depicted as a male king.

see also Cleopatra.


Capel, Anne K., and Glenn E. Markoe, eds. 1996. Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt. New York: Hudson Hill Press.

Manniche, Lise. 1987. Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Robins, Gay. 1993. Women in Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Tyldesley, Joyce A. 1994. Daughters of Isis: Women in Ancient Egypt. London: Viking.

Tyldesley, Joyce A. 2006. Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra. London: Thames & Hudson.

Watterson, Barbara. 1991. Women in Ancient Egypt. New York: St. Martin's Press.

                                         Joyce A. Tyldesley