Full details of books referred to in shortened form will be found in the Selected Bibliography.


1 Although Herodotus wrote his book when Egypt was living under Persian rule, he is able to provide us with a wealth of data relevant to the preceding dynastic age. His observations, together with those of other visitors to Egypt – principally the historian Diodorus Siculus and the geographer Strabo – have proved a useful source of facts which would otherwise have been lost. However, it is wise to treat all such sources with a degree of caution. Herodotus was not a particularly discriminating observer, and at all times he placed a great deal of trust in the reported tales of others. Indeed, there is actually no direct proof that Herodotus ever visited Egypt, and some of the more obvious omissions from his text, such as his relatively short account of Thebes, have led several authorities to suggest that his guide may have been based on the reported observations of others. As Strabo himself stated: ‘Both Herodotus and others talk much nonsense [about Egypt], adding to their account marvellous tales, to give as it were, a kind of rhythm to relish.’

2 This quotation now has a slightly ironic quality as the once substantial temple has almost completely disappeared.

3 The problem has been compounded by the reluctance of many egyptologists to examine and record domestic sites while impressive temples and tombs remain to be uncovered. All too often important finds have been equated with spectacular or valuable finds, and the best-known egyptologists are generally those who have had the luck to uncover burials rich in gold.

4 Kahun was built as a temporary town lying at the mouth of the Faiyum and was occupied for about one hundred years during the construction of the pyramid of the Middle Kingdom Pharaoh Senwosret II. It was subsequently abandoned. The village at Amarna (ancient Akhetaten) was occupied for approximately twenty years by the workmen employed to build the capital city of the New Kingdom Pharaoh Akhenaten. In contrast, the village of Deir el-Medina, nestling in a valley of the Theban hills opposite modern Luxor, had a continuous occupation of over 400 years. This site has provided us with a veritable treasury of information on the daily lives of the ordinary people associated with the excavation and decoration of the royal tombs in the nearby Valleys of the Kings and Queens. For a detailed review of life in these and other model communities, consult Kemp (1989).

Chapter 1 Images of Women

1 Until relatively recently this potentially fertile field of research has been relegated to the background of archaeological and historical studies which have tended to concentrate on the élite and spectacular at the expense of the more mundane. Unhappily, the spectacular is usually associated with male achievements; it is almost invariably the more down-to-earth which is most relevant to women’s studies. It is, of course, not only women who have suffered in this way. Our knowledge of all societies is based far more on the atypical actions of the most prominent citizens than on the daily labours of the masses, and the lives of large groups of men have also been ignored in our reconstruction of the past. While spectacular burials and impressive monuments still attract universal interest, there is now a growing demand for information about the more basic details of ordinary life. It is also recognized that the painstaking excavation of a domestic site, or even a rubbish dump, can provide a wealth of information which may not be as intrinsically valuable as a spectacular treasure-trove of gold artefacts but which may be equally important for our understanding of the past.

2 These tombs do not necessarily demonstrate that the queens of Egypt were economically powerful in their own right. On the contrary, it is obvious that the Old and Middle Kingdom queens’ pyramid and mastaba tombs were built as subsidiaries to the far larger pyramid complex of the king. Although the New Kingdom queens were important enough to be accorded an individual and expensive funeral, their high status was clearly a direct result of their marriage.

3 Most societies which normally expect their females to adopt a non-aggressive role do generally approve of their women fighting at times of national or local emergency. Petrie, W.F.M. (1897), Deshasheh, Egypt Exploration Society, London.

4 Following this reasoning, potentially threatening subsidiary figures included in tomb scenes, together with animal- and human-like hieroglyphs included in the commentary, were often depicted either without their legs or cut in half at the waist. This deliberate disablement was seen as a wise precaution, preventing the otherwise dangerous images from coming alive and menacing the principal occupant of the tomb.

5 Harris, J.E. & Wente, E.F. (1980), An X-Ray Analysis of the Royal Mummies, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

6 Heqanakht was the priest of the funerary cult of the Vizier Ipi, based at Thebes. He lived during the early part of the Middle Kingdom, when Egypt was still suffering from the disruption of the anarchic First Intermediate Period, and was often forced to make business trips to the north of the country. While away from home he wrote a series of letters in which he attempted to impose long-distance control over both his local business interests and the behaviour of his quarrelsome and discontented family. These letters were preserved by their recipients, and eventually found their way into the shaft of a secondary grave dug into the courtyard of Ipi’s tomb. The letters of Heqanakht have been published in translation by James (1962).

7 Christie, A. (1945), Death Comes as the End, Collins, Glasgow.

8 It is this type of bias in the written record which has led some feminist historians to suggest that a clear distinction should be drawn between ‘History’, the recorded past written with an upper-case letter H, and ‘history’, the actual and complete past, recorded or not, written with a lower-case letter h. All men and women have played an equal role in the development of ‘history’, while ‘History’ was often made by an exceptional, educated and privileged male élite. Those interested in the use of this convention should consult Lerner, G. (1986), The Creation of Patriarchy, Oxford University Press: 4.

9 Abana, or Ibana, is the mother of Ahmose.

10 The Late Period ‘autobiography’ of the Lady Taimhotep, written by her husband after her death, is an exception to this general rule. An excerpt from this autobiography is quoted at the very end of Chapter 8 in this book.

11 English translations of the medical papyri are included in the selected bibliography at the back of this book.

12 Greek and Roman fiction always held a more ambivalent attitude towards women, and the scheming female was a standard character in classical literature.

13 Egypt received a variety of cultural influences from her neighbours, and it would be both interesting and informative to give some consideration to the prevailing social customs of all these states. Unfortunately, although women’s studies are rapidly becoming an acceptable aspect of Near Eastern archaeology, there are still relatively few publications dealing with the women of the Near East; this lack of accessible information is particularly striking when compared to the attention which has been focused on the women of the classical world. Lesko (1987, ed.) has attempted to redress this problem and provides a useful bibliography for those interested in Near Eastern women’s studies.

14 It would be a mistake to interpret the laws of Hammurabi too literally, as they appear to have been written as a guide to good behaviour rather than as a strict rule. We know that some women did conduct legal transactions on their own behalf, and wealthy widows were able to exercise a considerable degree of control over their private lives. Nevertheless, the rules do give a good indication of the values of society, and of the legal position of women within the community.

15 For a concise discussion of the role of women in the classical world, consult Clark (1989).

16 Frazer, J.G. (1914), The Golden Bough, Part 4, Vol 2, London.

17 A matriarchy involves the dominance of the female line, with all property rights being controlled by women and transmitted from mother to daughter. It is now recognized that there has never been a true matriarchy anywhere in the world. The possibility that a matrilineal system may have existed in Egypt has more validity, but such a system would not necessarily explain the equal legal rights of women. Under a matrilineal system inheritance rights and kinship allegiance pass via the mother from mother’s brother to mother’s son, with the sister–brother relationship proving stronger than the wife–husband bond. Males, however, still exert the ultimate control over their society and females are no more equal than their sisters living under a patriarchal regime. The often-cited tomb of Paheri, which includes texts tracing the descent of the deceased along the female line, does not support the theory of a matrilineal society; Paheri was simply obeying human nature by listing out the more important branch of his family in preference to his less-exalted paternal line.

18 The case of Mose is discussed in detail in James (1984).

19 For further references on this subject consult Pestman, P.W. (1961), Marriage and Matrimonial Property in Ancient Egypt, E.J. Brill, Leiden.

20 Gardiner, A. (1945), Adoption Extraordinary, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 26: 23–9.

Chapter 2 Married Bliss

1 Quoted in Lindsay, J. (1963), Daily Life in Roman Egypt, Frederick Muller Ltd, London: 17.

2 Women often have a depressed level of fertility for the first year or two following the onset of menstruation, but early teenage pregnancies must still have been a common occurrence.

3 This suggestion is based on the translation of a text concerning the division of the property of the workman Nekhmin. One very important but broken sentence reads ‘While she was eating her… with Nekhmin.’ For philological reasons, the missing word has been tentatively identified as salt. The woman referred to is Merut, Nekhmin’s second wife, and it has been suggested that this line indicates that the couple were not merely living together but were formally married. This theory is discussed further in Janssen, J.J. (1974), An allusion to an Egyptian wedding ceremony?, Goettinger Miszellen, 10: 25–8.

4 For further references on this subject consult Pestman, P.W. (1961), Marriage and Matrimonial Property in Ancient Egypt, E.J. Brill, Leiden.

5 This theory is discussed in far more detail in Ward, W.A. (1986), Essays on Feminine Titles of the Middle Kingdom and Related Subjects, Beirut. See also Ward, W.A. (1983), Reflections on some Egyptian terms presumed to mean ‘harem, harem-woman, concubine’, Berytus Archaeological Studies, 31: 67–74.

6 See Janssen, J.J. (1988), Marriage problems and public relations (P.B.M. 10416), in Pyramid Studies and other essays presented to I.E.S. Edwards, Baines J. et al (eds.), Egypt Exploration Society, London: 134–7. Suggestions that this attempted assault may have actually represented an ancient Egyptian Skimmington, as described in Hardy’s classic novel The Mayor of Casterbridge, are disproved in this article.

7 Translated by Burford (1976); quoted by Miles (Miles, R. (1988), The Women’s History of the World, Paladin, London: 247), who discusses other instances where dung has been used as a contraceptive. Watterson (1991, p. 88) suggests that crocodile excrement soaked in sour milk, a contraceptive pessary recommended by the Kahun Medical Papyrus, may have had a weak acidic effect similar to that produced by the sponge soaked in vinegar which was a standard means of birth control in western Europe at the turn of this century, and which is still used by Egyptian peasants today.

8 This excerpt from the New Kingdom instructions of Scribe Any has often been compared with the comments of a modern Egyptian villager, recorded by Winifred Blackman in 1927:

My wife is good, and I am pleased with her, but she must remain there [pointing downward]. My mother is up there [pointing upward]. Did she not carry me for nine months [pressing his hands on his stomach]? Did she not endure pain to give me birth, and did she not feed me from her breast? How could I not love her? My wife may change and lose her love for me. My mother is always the same; her love for me cannot change.

9 Mammisi were small temples attached to a major temple, built to commemorate the birth of the god of the main temple. They are invariably decorated with scenes showing the birth of the god.

10 Baines, J. (1985), Egyptian Twins, Orientalia, 54: 461–82.

11 For further details concerning childhood in pharaonic Egypt, consult Janssen R.M. & Janssen J.J. (1990), Growing up in Ancient Egypt, The Rubicon Press, London.

Chapter 3 Mistress of the House

1 Hori’s expanding and contracting household is illustrated diagrammatically in Kemp (1989), 157–8.

2 For a review of all aspects of Egyptian laundry practices consult Hall, R.M. (1986), Egyptian Textiles, Shire Egyptology, Shire Publications, Aylesbury.

3 For further references to the foods enjoyed by the ancient Egyptians see Darby, W.J., Ghaliongui, P. & Grivetti, L. (1977), Food: the gift of Osiris, Academic Press, London; Wilson, H. (1988), Egyptian Food and Drink, Shire Egyptology, Shire Publications, Aylesbury.

4 Emery, W.B. (1962), A Funerary Repast in an Egyptian Tomb of the Archaic Period, Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Osten, Leiden.

5 The downside of pig consumption is of course the danger of human parasitical infestation resulting from eating undercooked pork. For a fascinating discussion of the domestic pig as a free-range scavenger in urban Egypt consult Miller, R.L. (1990), Hogs and Hygiene, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 76: 125–40. This article provides a wealth of unexpected data, ranging from the percentage of serious injuries caused by free-range pigs in New Guinea, to the rituals of modern rubbish collection by the zabbalin of present-day Cairo.

6 It is of course equally valid to observe that it is far easier to depict someone pouring out a drink than it is to show a noble eating a goose in a dignified manner.

7 For additional references to wine and beer consumption consult Lesko, L.H. (1977), King Tut’s Wine Cellar, B.C. Scribe Publications, California.

Chapter 4 Work and Play

1 Those scenes which depict women in association with writing equipment should, however, be approached with a degree of caution as their interpretation may be open to a certain amount of doubt. One famous Old Kingdom tomb scene, for example, shows the Princess Idut sailing on the Nile with a writing kit by her side, suggesting that this lady took a great deal of pride in her scholastic ability. We now know that the principal figure in this scene was originally intended to be a man – a 5th Dynasty (male) vizier called Ihui – and that the presence of the writing equipment may well be a form of ancient typographic error, unconnected with the princess herself.

2 Janssen, J.J. (1986), A Notable Lady, Wepwawet 12: 30–31.

3 For a detailed discussion of female titles in the Old and Middle Kingdoms, consult Fischer, H.G. (1976), Varia, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

4 At least one woman, the Old Kingdom Lady Peshet, is known to have held the title of ‘Chief of the Lady Physicians’, suggesting that at this time there may have been a guild of professional female doctors, or perhaps a guild of female doctors who specialized in attending to women. However, Peshet was a member of a priestly family and her son Akhethope, who bore the title of ‘Overseer of the Ka priests of the Mother of the King’, ultimately inherited his mother’s title of physician, indicating that this is more likely to have been a purely honorary accolade. We have no other information concerning the work of Egyptian female doctors.

5 Although the gods and goddesses were usually served by priests of the same sex the chief local priest of each cult was usually a man and, of course, the male king was the supreme priest of all cults male and female.

6 There is no doubt that the title of vizier is accorded to Nebet and not her husband Huy. However, Huy is given the title of ‘Overseer of the Pyramid City’, which is normally a part of the vizier’s title during the Old Kingdom, and it seems likely that it was actually Huy who acted as vizier on his wife’s behalf. In his review of the evidence concerning this unusual lady, Fischer, H.G. (1976), Varia, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has concluded that Nebet’s title was almost certainly an honorary one, designed to enhance the status of a relatively low-born woman who married well and eventually became the grandmother of a king of Egypt.

7 Ward, W.A. (1984), The case of Mrs Tchat and her sons at Beni Hassan, Goettinger Miszellen 71: 51–9.

8 For a guide to Egyptian music and musicians, consult Manniche, L. (1991), Music and Musicians in Ancient Egypt, British Museum Publications, London.

9 Penelope, the faithful wife of the absent Odysseus who spent her days working at the loom while awaiting her husband’s return, was performing a socially approved female task intended to emphasize her virtuous wifely behaviour.

10 James (1984): 175–7 gives full details of the case of the missing servant girl.

11 Experts are still divided over the extent that slavery was practised in ancient Egypt, as it is now very difficult for us to distinguish between those whom we would class as slaves and those who are merely servants. Certainly, the pyramidal structure of Egyptian society combined with the well-developed system of corvée labour to make slaves peripheral to the Egyptian economy. The most complete discussion of this question is given in Bakir, A.M. (1952), Slavery in Pharaonic Egypt, Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, Cairo.

12 For further details of dynastic pricing, consult Janssen, J.J. (1975), Commodity Prices from the Ramessid Period, Brill, Leiden.

13 Janssen, R.M. & Janssen, J.J. (1989), Egyptian Household Animals, Shire Publications, Aylesbury.

Chapter 5 Good Grooming

1 For a review of the evidence for male circumcision in Ancient Egypt consult Janssen, R.M. & Janssen, J.J. (1990), Growing Up in Ancient Egypt, The Rubicon Press, London.

2 Where it has become accepted practice, female circumcision is usually explained as a necessity both to prevent the girl’s sexual organs from growing like those of a man and to decrease her sexual appetites by reducing her chance of achieving orgasm; all available evidence indicates that ancient Egyptian women were expected to get as much enjoyment out of their love lives as their male partners, suggesting that there may have been no perceived need for female circumcision.

3 For further details of wig manufacture consult Cox, J.S. (1977), The Construction of an Ancient Egyptian Wig, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 63: 67–70. It would appear that not even the best of the Egyptian wigs were as natural-looking as the somewhat idealized tomb paintings would suggest.

4 Riefsthal, E. (1952), An Ancient Egyptian Hairdresser, Bulletin of the Brooklyn Museum 13.4: 7–16; (1956), Two Hairdressers of the 11th Dynasty, Journal of Near Eastern Studies 15: 10–17.

5 Keimer, L. (1948), Remarques sur le Tatouage dans L’Egypte Ancienne, Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale, Cairo.

6 For a review of all aspects of Egyptian textile manufacture see Hall, R.M. (1986), Egyptian Textiles, Shire Egyptology, Shire Publications, Aylesbury. The changing styles in women’s garments are detailed in Riefsthal, E. & Chapman, S. (1970), A Note on Ancient Fashions, Bulletin of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston 68: 244–59.

7 At least some of the dresses which have been recovered from tombs seem to have been designed exclusively as grave-goods, as they were both too long and too narrow to actually fit the occupant of the tomb. This tradition of providing the deceased with garments may be compared with the provision of specific tomb-jewellery which is mentioned later in this chapter; magical intervention would ensure that both dresses and jewellery would become fully functional in the Afterlife. For details of actual recovered garments and interesting comments on the role of the sleeve in Egyptian clothing consult Hall, R.M. (1981), Two linen dresses from the 5th Dynasty site of Deshasheh, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 67: 168–71; Hall, R.M. and Pedrini, L. (1984), A pleated linen dress from a Sixth Dynasty tomb at Gebelein, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 70: 136–9.

8 For further information concerning the oracle of Amenhotep I at work see McDowell, A.G. (1990), Jurisdiction in the Workmen’s Community of Deir el-Medina, Nederlands Instituut Voor Het Nabije Oosten, Leiden.

9 Where the gold contains a high proportion of silver it forms the valuable alloy electrum, a metal which can often be mistaken for silver and one which was very much prized by the Egyptian jewellers.

Chapter 6 The Royal Harem

1 The correct interpretation of terms commonly translated as ‘harem’ or ‘royal harem’ has been discussed in detail in Ward, W.A. (1983), Reflections on some Egyptian terms presumed to mean ‘harem, harem-woman, concubine’, Berytus Archaeological Studies, 31: 67–74.

2 In sharp contrast, the contemporary tombs of the nobles buried at Sakkara were also surrounded by neat rows of subsidiary inhumations but these graves were reserved for craftsmen and minor administrators who were far less intimately connected with the occupants of the main tomb.

3 Emery, W.B. (1954), Great Tombs of the First Dynasty, Vol 2, Egypt Exploration Society, London: 142.

4 For a detailed and poignant description of the excavation of the Royal Cemetery, consult Woolley, L. (1934), Ur Excavations, Vol 2, The Royal Cemetery, The Trustees of the British Museum, London.

5 Consult Ward, W.A. (1983), Reflections on some Egyptian terms presumed to mean ‘harem, harem-woman, concubine’, Berytus Archaeological Studies, 31.

6 There is no record of an actual title of secondary wife being used, but it is clear that these foreign princesses – who, with one exception, were not accorded the superior rank of ‘King’s Great Wife’ – were not classed as simple concubines of the king.

7 Commemorative scarabs recording lengthy hieroglyphic texts were a standard means of publicizing important events during the reign of Amenhotep III such as royal marriages, major hunting expeditions and even the building of a large pleasure lake for Queen Tiy.

8 We know that the Hittite queen of Ramesses II and her retinue lived for at least some of the time at Mer-Wer, as her personal laundry list was found by Professor Petrie during the excavation of the site.

9 The body of Ramesses III does not show any signs of a violent assault but poison, supposedly a woman’s weapon, would of course have left no mark.

10 The cartouche is a hieroglyphic symbol used to indicate a royal name from the early Old Kingdom onwards. It consists of an oval-shaped loop representing a double thickness of rope drawn around the name, with the ends of the ‘rope’ tied to form a straight line at the base of the oval. Two of the names of the king, the throne-name and the birth-name, were invariably written within a cartouche.

11 The question of the changing role of the Egyptian queen-consort, including a scholarly register of titles and epithets of royal women, has been discussed in Troy, L. (1986), Patterns of Queenship in Ancient Egyptian Myth and History, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Uppsala.

12 There is evidence to suggest that as many as six remarkable women (Meryt-Neith, Nitocris, Sobeknofru, Hatchepsut, Nefertiti and Twosret) were able to take the throne of Egypt and rule in their own right as queen regnant or queen-consort. The detailed evidence relating to these atypical reigns is considered in Chapter 7.

13 Scenes showing these ladies visiting a farm and drinking fresh milk while the cow and her calf stand watching are perhaps more likely to represent imagined events in the bucolic Afterlife than royal day-to-day happenings.

14 For a learned discussion of the arguments for and against the ‘heiress-princess’ theory of inherited Egyptian kingship, including an extensive bibliography of relevant references, consult Robin, G. (1983), A Critical Examination of the Theory that the Right to the Throne of Ancient Egypt Passed Through the Female Line in the 18th Dynasty, Goettinger Miszellen, Heft 62: 67–77.

Chapter 7 Female Kings

1 Maat was personified in the form of a goddess of the same name. This goddess, the daughter of Re, wore a distinctive headdress consisting of a single tall ostrich feather held in place by a golden fillet. She was closely associated with truth and the administration of justice.

2 This discrimination against female succession is at least partially explained in European royalty by the desire to maintain a pure patrilineal descent. However, this solution is not particularly applicable to Egypt where at various times the pharaoh actually nominated a totally unrelated successor, apparently preferring to pick the best man for the job rather than relying on family ties.

3 The notorious Queen Cleopatra VII, the last Egyptian monarch, reigned during the Graeco-Roman period which followed the Dynastic era, and therefore falls outside the scope of this book.

4 An alternative interpretation of these early royal graves suggests that each king built himself one tomb at Abydos, the royal cemetery of their southern homeland. In this case the larger Sakkara tombs must have belonged to the highest-ranking courtiers and priests. Unfortunately, this does not explain the presence of the solar boats at Sakkara; with the exception of Meryt-Neith, these boats were provided for the use of kings only.

5 The text of this announcement, preserved in Hatchepsut’s magnificent mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri, is almost identical to the Middle Kingdom co-regency decree of Amenemhat III and Senwosret III, and is presumably a straight copy. By replicating an existing text Hatchepsut would have been seen to be reinforcing the strength of her message, confirming a direct link not only with her royal father but also with the earlier kings of the 12th Dynasty. This continuous aspect of kingship was very important to the Egyptians as it indicated the presence of maat in the land.

6 For further references to Senenmut, consult Dorman, P.F. (1988), The Monuments of Senenmut, Kegan Paul, London.

Chapter 8 Religious Life and Death

1 Juvenal, Satire 15, quoted in translation in Lindsay, J. (1963), Daily Life in Roman Egypt, Frederick Muller Ltd, London: 113.

2 The New Kingdom Tale of the Destruction of Mankind tells how Re decided to eliminate all human life as the people were plotting against him. He created the ‘Eye of Re’, Sekhmet, who started the slaughter, but later repented of his hasty actions. In order to prevent Sekhmet from carrying out a wholesale massacre he mixed red ochre into beer; the goddess, thinking that the red liquid was blood, drank it and became too inebriated to continue her mission of death.

3 For further references to domestic religion consult: Pinch, G. (1983), Childbirth and Female Figurines at Deir el-Medina and el-Amarna, Orientalia 52: 405–14; Kemp, B.J. (1979), Wall Paintings from the Workmen’s Village at el-Amarna, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 65: 52–3.

4 Meskhenet’s unusual headdress, which is bound to her head by a circlet, has also been interpreted as two long palm shoots with curved tips.

5 Budge, W. (1910), Book of the Dead, Text II, Kegan Paul, London.

6 Ayrton, E.R. (1909), Untitled report in F.LI. Griffith (ed.), Egypt Exploration Fund Archaeological Report 1908–1909, Egypt Exploration Fund, London: 3.

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