26 May 2008

Families & Children: Egyptian Marriage

By Jean Adams

The ancient Egyptians held marriage sacred. The family was broken down into roles that each would play in order for things to run smoothly. The father would work all day while, in smaller households, the mother was in charge of all things pertaining to the house. Cooking, cleaning and watching the children were all her responsibilities. Egyptians took mates in what most often appears to be lifelong, monogamous relationships.

Marriage and a close family played an integral role Egyptian life. A bride would be young, about 14 or 15, and her husband could be anywhere from 17 to 20--older if he was divorced or a widower. The ancient Egyptians were encouraged to marry young, considering that the life span was relatively short.

Many marriages were arranged with parental consent, as they have been in all societies, especially among the upper classes. But the abundance of love poetry between young people signifies that many couples did fall in love and choose each other as mates. Women played a large role in arranging a marriage. A suitor sometimes used a female go-between to approach the girl's mother--not her father.

It's interesting that one of the most affectionate titles you could call your love was "brother" or "sister". This had nothing to do with sibling relations, but led many archaeologists and scholars to assume, wrongly, that most ancient Egyptians married their siblings. This usually occurred only among royalty--and was not common.

Nofret (left) and Rahotep, together again in my upcoming book, ETERNAL HEARTS.

The day of the marriage was simple. The bride merely moved her belongings into the home of her husband. He might be living alone or with his parents. The bride wore a long dress or tunic made of linen, which was probably covered with bead-net. If she owned any gold, silver or lapis lazuli, she would adorn herself with those. There was no official ceremony, but knowing how much the ancient Egyptians loved music, dance and food, there were usually family celebrations in honor of the couple.

Museums are full of statues and paintings showing husbands and wives with their arms around each other, holding hands or offering each other flowers or food. Love and affection was indeed a part of the Egyptian marriage, and the Egyptian bride could expect to be loved and respected by her husband.

Most marriages had a contract drawn up between the two parties. Marriage settlements were drawn up between a woman's father and her prospective husband, although many times the woman herself was part of the contract. The sole purpose of the contract was to establish the rights of both parties to maintenance and possessions during the marriage and after divorce, if it should occur.

A standard marriage contract that has been found among the numerous records left by the ancient Egyptians. It contained:

-- date (the year of the reign of the ruling monarch)
-- contractors (future husband and wife)
-- names of both sets of parents.
-- husband's profession
-- scribe who drew up the contract
-- names of witnesses

The finished document was given to a third party for safekeeping or kept among the records of the local temple.

A man could marry as soon as he was physically mature and had reached a point in his chosen career that ensured his ability to provide for his wife and for the children they could expect. Most Egyptians were content to have only one wife. Marriage was an expensive matter for the man, and the whole contract provided such far-reaching safeguards for the material rights of wives and children that most men could only afford one wife at a time.

Marriages were mostly between people of the same social class, but there seems to have been little regard given to race or even nationality. It was not unusual for a northern Egyptian to marry a Nubian, or someone even from another country.

If the marriage ended in divorce, the rights of the wife were equally protected. Generally, she was entitled to support from her husband, especially if she was rejected by him through no fault of her own. The amount might equal one third of the settlement or even more. If the bride ended up committing adultery (which was extremely frowned upon for both men and women), she still had certain rights to maintenance from her former husband. Monogamy, except for some of the higher classes and royalty, seemed to be the rule for most ancient Egyptian couples.

Marriages between kin were familiar among the common folk. Step-brothers and sisters married, as did uncles and nieces quite frequently, and cousins still more so. Between very close blood-relations, however, it was rare among ordinary people.

The tradition of brother/sister or father/daughter marriages was mostly confined to royalty. In tales from Egyptian mythology, gods marriage between brothers and sisters and fathers and daughters were common from the earliest periods, so Egyptian kings may have felt that it was a royal thing to do. However, there are also theories that brother/sister marriages may also have strengthened the king's claim to rule.

Divorce was as easily initiated as marriage. Divorce could be brought about by either party; it was a private matter and the government took no interest in it.
The most common reasons for a husband to divorce his wife included the inability to bear children, especially a son; the desire to marry someone else or that she simply stopped pleasing him. A woman could divorce her husband for mental or physical cruelty or adultery. In some cases, if the woman chose to divorce, she forfeited her right to communal property.

But there are many indications that husbands and wives in ancient Egypt were often happy and in love. There are many touching portraits and statues of families including spouses and their children that reveal marital delight and warmth within the family.