The State of Matrimony without the State: New Kingdom Egyptians and Marriage

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By: Grigorios I. Kontopoulos

Marriage is ubiquitous in human societies. But any examination of marriage in ancient Egyptian society requires us to disengage from modern social and theological norms and reconsider the role of the state in aspects of everyday life. Today state interference in our everyday lives is constituted legitimate, but this was not the case in aspects of social life in ancient Egypt such as marriage. In order to define how marriage was perceived in New Kingdom Egypt (ca. 1550-1070 BCE), a different method of interpretation is required.

Katep and Hetepheres, possibly from Giza.

Katep and Hetepheres, possibly from Giza.

The conventional social expectation for men and women in ancient Egypt was marriage. A first glimpse of how marriage was considered in ancient Egypt derives from didactic literature, a genre of instruction literature dating from the Old Kingdom onwards. Although the instructions were written by men, for men, one intriguing conclusion is that readers were advised to get married at a young age and have children. These instructions followed the maxims laid out in an earlier Old Kingdom instruction, such as that of the Fourth Dynasty prince Hordjedef, which indicate the significance of establishing a household through the bonds of marriage.

The Instruction of Hordedef.

The Instruction of Hordedef.

Apart from being an accepted social behavior, marriage was also an indication of social independence for both men and women. For women, the acquisition of social independence was obtained through marriage. The expressions used to describe a woman’s commitment to marriage (“entering the house (ak r pr) of a man”), and terms such as Hmt, (“wife”), in texts from the New Kingdom workmans’ village of Deir el-Medina and elsewhere, suggest that the status other than daughter was achieved by women only through marriage. In addition, marriage was the only way a man would acquire a different status than that of a son.

Through the establishment of his own household a man could become socially independent, take on the role of his father as the head of the house, and have his wife assume the role of the “mistress of the house” (Nbt prt ) – the only one capable of running a household.

Deir el Medina

Deir el Medina

Stele of the ‘mistress of the house’ Bukanefptah

Stele of the ‘mistress of the house’ Bukanefptah

A man without a woman in his house to take care of him was socially unacceptable for the ancient Egyptians, something verging on a state of immorality, and which applied to women even in cases of widowhood. Women must also have had a man in order not to be considered as a suspicious. Remarriage was also the most obvious solution for a woman after the dissolution of marriage by divorce or through widowhood in order to avoid becoming a charity case.

But the purpose of marriage was not only the establishment of a household or the acquisition of social independence. Procreation and childbirth through marriage were vitally important for the ancient Egyptians. Although New Kingdom love songs imply sexual intercourse before marriage, sex within marriage for the sake of procreation was also important, as suggested by instruction literature, artistic evidence from Deir el Medina, and archaeological evidence from houses at that site and from Tell el Amarna.

Above all, marriage in New Kingdom Egypt was a private matter between individuals without any official involvement. It seems that marriage in ancient Egypt did not exist as a legal condition and was simply the entry of one party into the household of the other. There are also no sources connecting marriage with a formal religious ceremony.

But while there was no state interference, evidence indicates that third parties sometimes had to sanction a marriage. For example, in the famous “Adoption Papyrus” the widow Rennefer allowed a marriage between the stable master Padiu and Taiemniut, one of the three children born to a slave girl purchased by Nebnefer, Rennefer’s late husband. Furthermore, evidence from nonliterary texts from Deir el Medina suggest that in most cases the father of the bride was involved in arranging the wedding.

Even diplomatic marriages were fundamentally personal. Several letters from the Amarna archives recorded repeated diplomatic marriages between Egyptians and Hittite royalty. But every time the leadership of the two parties changed, the peace was renewed through marriage, suggesting that the Pharaoh acted as an individual and not as the embodiment of state.

Limestone statue of Horemheb and one of his wives. (British Museum)

Limestone statue of Horemheb and one of his wives. (British Museum)

Limestone statue of a seated couple from the 5th Dynasty. (Wiki Commons)

Limestone statue of a seated couple from the 5th Dynasty. (Wiki Commons)

The New Kingdom evidence suggests a different interpretation of marriage than the one we adopt in Western culture. In our culture, marriage is typically defined as “the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife, in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law.” Moreover, marriage is solemnized through a ceremony that takes place in a religious institution. But marriage in New Kingdom Egypt was something different. It was the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife without any state interference or religious involvement.

Marriage was the socially accepted way of life through which procreation took place; perhaps the most significant aspect of life. But marriage was also an agreement between the groom and the family of the bride, mostly undertaken without her acquiescence. Although the matrimonial contracts dated in the Late Period onwards imply the consensual unity of the two parties under the bonds of marriage, their date says nothing about New Kingdom practices. Finally, marriage in New Kingdom Egypt worked as a means of socialization for both sexes. Through marriage, men and women obtained a different social status that of son or daughter and became social recognized and independent adults. In this way at least marriage then and now are familiar.

Grigorios I. Kontopoulos is a Ph.D Candidate in Egyptology in the Department of Mediterranean Studies, University of the Aegean.

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References used and items for further reading

For Further Reading:

Toivari-Viitala, J. 2001. Women at Deir-el-Medina: A study of the status and roles of the female inhabitants in the workmen’s community during the Ramesside period. Nederlands Instituut Voor Het Nabije Oosten.

Pestman, P.W. 1961. Marriage and matrimonial property in ancient Egypt: A contribution to establishing the legal position of the woman. Brill.

Robins, G. 1993. Women in ancient Egypt. British Museum Press.

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