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Love and Marriage In Ancient Egypt

A detail of Tutankhamun and his wife.

While some elements of marriage in ancient Egypt appear on the surface to be similar to those customs of today, other ancient conventions were radically different. Moreover, surviving accounts of marriage customs in ancient Egypt have failed to provide us with a full picture.

As is the case today Egyptian society, saw marriage as being a lifetime commitment. Despite this convention, divorce in ancient Egypt was comparatively common.

Ancient Egyptian society viewed a stable nuclear family unit as the basis for a stable, harmonious society. While members of the royal family were free to marry whomever they chose, a practice justified in part by the myth of the marriage of divinities such as Nut and Geb her brother or Osiris and his sister Isis ordinary ancient Egyptians were encouraged to marry outside of their bloodlines except in the case of cousins.

Incest was discouraged except amongst the royal family, who could and did wed their brothers and sisters. Expectations of monogamy did not apply to royal marriages where a Pharaoh was expected to have several wives.

Boys were often married by around 15 to 20 years of age, while girls were often married by 12 years of age. By this age, a boy was expected to have learned his father’s trade and developed some mastery of it, while a girl, providing she was not of royal lineage, would have been trained in managing the household, caring for children, elderly family members and their pets.

As the average life expectancy in ancient Egypt was around 30 years, to the ancient Egyptians these marriageable ages may not have been perceived to be as young as they appear to us today.

Facts About Marriage In Ancient Egypt

  • Ancient Egyptian society saw marriage as the preferred state
  • Many marriages were arranged to secure personal advancement and communal stability
  • Romantic love, however, remained an important concept for many couples. Romantic love was a frequent theme for poets, particularly in the New Kingdom period (c. 1570-1069 BCE)
  • Marriage was monogamous, except for the royal family who was allowed multiple wives
  • The only legal documentation required was a marriage contract.
  • Prior to the 26th Dynasty (c.664 to 332 BC) women usually had little or no say in their choice of husbands. The bride’s parents and the groom or his parents decided on the match
  • Incest was prohibited except for royalty
  • Husbands and wives could not be more closely related than cousins
  • Boys were married around 15 to 20 while girls found themselves married as young as 12 years of age, hence, marriage between older men and young girls was rife
  • Early dowries from the husband to his wife’s parents were approximately equivalent to the price of a slave.
  • If a husband divorced his wife, she was automatically entitled to about one-third of his money for spousal support.
  • Despite most marriages being arranged, grave inscriptions, painting, and statues show happy couples.

Marriage And Romantic Love

Numerous ancient Egyptian tomb paintings show affectionate couples, pointing to an appreciation of the concept if romantic love amongst ancient Egyptians. Images of couples touching intimately and caressing their spouse affectionately, smiling happily and offering each other gifts are widespread in tomb art. The Pharaoh Tutankhamun’s tomb is replete with romantic images of he and Queen Ankhesenamun his wife sharing romantic moments.

While the most powerful social drives governing the selection of a life partner appear to have been status, lineage, personal habits and integrity, many couples appear to have sought out romantic love as the basis for their relationships. Husbands and wives actively looked to ensure their spouses were happy as the ancient Egyptians believed their union would extend far beyond the tomb into the afterlife and no ancient Egyptians desired to be locked in an unhappy marriage for all eternity.

Greater emphasis appears to have been placed on the happiness of a woman than that of her male counterpart. A man’s social obligation in marriage was to provide for his wife and to please her, ensuring her happiness. For her part, a wife was expected to manage their shared household ensuring it was clean and tidy and to oversee the smooth running of the home. A wife was also expected to ensure she was well groomed and clean and looked after the children instructing them in good manners. Above all else, a wife was expected to be content. For her husband, this arrangement meant that even if he didn’t passionately love his wife, a husband could be content. These reciprocal bonds allowed the couple to lead lives of balance and harmony in accordance with the overarching ancient Egyptian religious concept of ma’at in preparation for the afterlife.

Surviving poems have come down to us exulting in a heavily idealized version of romantic love. These poems include posthumous odes from a mourning husband to his departed wife. However, romance didn’t always survive beyond the grave. These poetic works also feature desperate entreaties from bereft widowers beseeching their deceased wives to cease tormenting them from the afterlife.

As ancient Egyptian culture accorded wives equal status to that of their husbands, a successful marriage hinged on selecting a congenial and compatible wife as a partner. While the husband was considered to be the masters of their household to be obeyed by both their wives and children, the women of the household were in no way considered to be subservient to their husbands.

Men were abjured from micromanaging their domestic households. The domestic arrangements were the domain of the wife. Assuming she was capably executing her role as a wife she could expect to be left to manage their household.

Chastity prior to marriage was not viewed as being an important pre-requisite for marriage. In fact, ancient Egyptian contains no word for “virgin.” The ancient Egyptians saw sexuality as nothing more than an everyday part of normal life. Unmarried adults were free to engage in affairs and illegitimacy carried no stigma for children. These social norms assisted the ancient Egyptians in ensuring life partners were compatible on multiple levels helping to reduce the instances of divorce.

Ancient Egyptian Marriage Contracts

Unless they were very poor, for ancient Egyptians a marriage typically was accompanied by a contract essentially similar to our current prenuptial agreements. This contract outlined the bride price, which was the amount payable by the family of the groom to the family of the bride in exchange for the honour of marrying the bride. It also laid out the compensation due to the wife should her husband subsequently divorce her.

The marriage contract similarly specified the goods the bride brought to their marriage and which items the bride could take with her should she and her husband divorce. Custody of any children was always awarded to the mother. The children accompanied the mother in the event of a divorce, irrespective of who initiated the divorce. Surviving examples of ancient Egyptian marriage contracts veered towards ensuring the ex-wife was looked after and was not left impoverished and impecunious.

The bride’s father usually drafted the marriage contract. It was formally signed with witnesses present. This marriage contract was binding and was often the sole document needed to establish the legality of a marriage in ancient Egypt.

Gender Roles In Egyptian Marriage

While men and women were largely equal under the law in ancient Egypt, there were gender-specific expectations. It was the obligation of the man in ancient Egyptian society to provide for his wife. When a man married, he was expected to bring to the marriage an established household. There was a strong social convention that men delayed marriage until they had sufficient means to support a household. Extended families rarely cohabited under the same roof. Establishing his own household showed a man was able to provide for a wife and any children that may they had.

The wife usually brought domestic items to the marriage depending on her family’s wealth and status.

An Absence Of Ceremony

The ancient Egyptians valued the concept of marriage. Tomb paintings frequently show couples together. Moreover, archaeologists frequently found pair statues depicting the couple in tombs.

Despite these social conventions, which supported matrimony, the ancient Egyptians did not adopt a formal marriage ceremony as part of their legal process.

After the parents of a couple agreed on a union or the couples themselves decided to marry, they signed a marriage contract then the bride simply moved her belongings into her husband’s home. Once the bride had moved in, the couple were considered married.

Ancient Egypt And Divorce

Divorcing a partner in ancient Egypt was equally as straightforward as the marriage process itself. No complex legal processes were involved. The terms outlining the agreement in the event a marriage was dissolved were clearly detailed in the marriage contract, which surviving sources suggest were largely honoured.

During Egypt’s New Kingdom and Late Period, these marriage contracts evolved and became increasingly complex as divorce seems to have become increasingly codified and Egypt’s central authorities became more involved in divorce proceedings.

Many Egyptian marriage contracts stipulated that a divorced wife was entitled to spousal support until she remarried. Except where a woman inherited wealth, was typically responsible for his wife’s spousal support, regardless of whether children were part of the marriage or not. The wife also retained the dowry paid by the groom or the family of the groom prior to the wedding proceeding.

Ancient Egyptians And Infidelity

Stories and warnings about unfaithful wives are popular topics in ancient Egyptian literature. Tale of Two Brothers, known also as The Fate of an Unfaithful Wife was one of the most popular tales. It tells the story of the brothers Bata and Anpu and Anpu’s wife. The older brother, Anpu lived with his younger brother Bata and his wife. According to the story, one day, when Bata returned from working in the fields looking for more seed to sow, his brother’s wife tries to seduce him. Bata rejected her, promising not to tell anyone about what happened. He then went back to the fields. When Anpu returned home later his wife claimed Bata had attempted to rape her. These lies turn Anpu against Bata.

The story of the unfaithful woman emerged as a popular storyline due to the rich variation in potential outcomes infidelity could trigger. In the story of Anpu and Bata, their relationship between the two brothers is destroyed and the wife is ultimately killed. However, before her death, she causes problems in the brothers’ lives and within the broader community. The Egyptians’ strong stated belief in the ideal of harmony and balance on a social level would have generated significant interest in this storyline amongst ancient audiences.

One of ancient Egypt’s most enduringly popular myths was that of the gods Osiris and Isis and Osiris’ murder at the hand of his brother Set. The story’s most widely copied version sees Set deciding to murder Osiris after his wife Nephthys’ decision to disguise herself as Isis in order to seduce Osiris. The chaos set in motion by Osiris’ murder; set in the context of an unfaithful wife’s action apparently had a powerful impact on ancient audiences. Osiris is seen as blameless in the story as he believed he was sleeping with his wife. As is common in similar morality tales, the blame is laid firmly at the feet of Nephthys the “other woman.”

This view of the danger that could be caused by a wife’s infidelity partially explains Egyptian society’s strong response to instances of infidelity. Social convention placed significant pressure on the wife to be faithful to their husbands. In some instances where the wife wasn’t faithful and it was proven, the wife could be executed, either by being burned at the stake or by stoning. In many instances, the fate of the wife was not in the hands of her husband. A court could overrule a husband wishes and order the wife to be executed.

Marriage In The Afterlife

Ancient Egyptians believed marriages were eternal and extended into the afterlife. The life expectancy for most men was their thirties while women frequently as young as sixteen died in childbirth or otherwise only lived slightly longer than their husbands.

Thus ancient Egyptians emphasised the importance of choosing a congenial partner in life and death. The idea of one day being reunited with one’s partner in the afterlife was believed to be a source of comfort, easing the pain and grief of their passing. The idea of eternal matrimonial bonds spurred couples to do their best to ensure their life on earth was pleasurable, in order to ensure a similar existence in the afterlife.

Tomb inscriptions and paintings show the married couple revelling in each other’s company in the Elysian Field of Reeds indulging in the same activities they engaged in when they were alive. Hence the ancient Egyptian ideal was of a happy, successful marriage that endured for all eternity.

A core aspect of ancient Egyptian religious belief was the concept that following their death, Osiris would judge the purity of their souls. In order to reach the eternal paradise that was the Egyptian Field of Reeds in the afterlife, however, the deceased had to pass a trial by Osiris just Judge of the Dead and the Egyptian Lord of the Underworld in the Hall of Truth. During this trial, the deceased’s heart would be weighed against the feather of truth. If their lives were judged worthy, they embarked on a perilous journey to the Field of Reeds. Here their earthly lives would continue accompanied by all their loved ones and earthly possessions. However, should their heart be judged unworthy, it was thrown to the floor and devoured by “the gobbler” a ravenous beast known as Amenti, a god with a crocodile’s face, leopard front quarters and the back of a rhinoceros.

Consequently, if the deceased spouse had neglected to lead a life of balance and harmony to honour ma’at, then a reunion with their partner may not occur and the deceased could suffer the damning consequences. Numerous inscriptions, poems and documents survive showing a surviving spouse believed their departed partner was wreaking revenge on them from the afterlife.

Reflecting On The Past

The ancient Egyptians loved life and hoped to continue their enjoyable earthly delights in the afterlife. Marriage was one aspect of their daily lives ancient Egyptians expected to enjoy for all eternally providing one lived a virtuous life during one’s time on earth.

Header image courtesy: Scan by Pataki Márta [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

David Rymer BA MBT

David is a freelance writer, non-fiction and fiction author and university lecturer in journalism, marketing and law. He has been based in the Middle East for over a decade travelling extensively in the region, including Egypt indulging in his passion for archaeology. He amuses himself in his down time by writing.

David can be found at @daviddoeswords and www.zaharablu.com

Cite this article

David Rymer BA MBT, "Love and Marriage In Ancient Egypt," Give Me History, May 22, 2019, https://givemehistory.com/love-and-marriage-in-ancient-egypt.

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