The Women of Egypt
Amy Vander Molen
Cardinal Stritch University
Western Civilization 1
November 14, 2012
Women are a vital aspect of every society. But, depending on the culture and beliefs of the civilization, the female role can be more or less significant. This paper will examine the lives of the common traditional Egyptian woman as well as some of the royal Egyptian women: Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, and Cleopatra. Furthermore, this paper is going to discuss the differences between the female commoner versus royal women.
The Traditional Ancient Egyptian Woman
The ancient Egyptian society women were not viewed how the rest of the world traditionally viewed women. In ancient Egypt women were seen as near equals to men. They had rights as voters, legal rights, and economic rights. In this time period this near equal rights for women was practically unheard of. In some civilizations women were seen as nearly like property. Often time’s marriage to a woman was arranged by her father and he would often receive payment for his daughters hand in marriage (Tyldesley). During this time period women were primarily restricted to the home to do household work or rear the children. An ancient Egyptian woman was not only allowed to work outside the home but, they were allowed to own their own business and control private property such as land, servants, and livestock. Women who worked outside of the home often labored in housecleaning, the weaving business, or the business of consoling the souls of the sorrowed. Some women were often hired as musicians or dancers as entertainers (Tyldesley). Even with this freedom to work a woman still saw marriage and family as of vital importance. To get married and bare an heir was nearly a duty. In ancient Egypt there was no real word for the term marriage. There was no ceremony and no legal documents, just simply a man and a women were considered to be married when the woman left the safety of her family’s home and began living in a new home with a man (Tyldesley). Women were able to wed at a very young age, most times near the age a girl would start menstruating, around age 14. Unlike other cultures of the time women after being married still retained their independence. She would still retain control of anything she brought into the marriage, especially financially. By marriage she was entitled to two-thirds of her husband’s estate in the circumstance of his death. Egyptian women were also allowed to divorce. When a husband and wife wanted to separate the woman would collect her belongings and return to the home of her father, returning to circumstances before the marriage and relinquishing the marriage (Tyldesley). In ancient Egypt a man could marry multiple wives and often times they could be closely related. For the most part incest was discouraged. Only in the exception of the royals was incest commonly practiced. It was accepted in ensure a royal and pure bloodline within the empire. Multiple wives were common as a result of the importance of sexual intercourse in Egyptian society. Egyptians were intensely concerned with potency and fertility. Pregnancy was vital to becoming a successful woman. To become pregnant would establish a woman as a successful member of the community and be held in high regard by their husbands. However if a woman was unable to produce an heir, often times her husband would marry another or several women to produce a line of offspring suitable to the husband’s desires (Tyldesley). Hatshepsut
Hatshepsut was the older daughter of King Thutmose the first and his consort Ahmose. As it is common with the royals of Egypt she became the wife to her half-brother Thutmose the second. Thutmose the second was early to inherit the throne as his older brothers all had fallen ill and died. Hatshepsut gave birth to a daughter, Neferure, but was not fortunate to birth a son. When Thutmose the second died in approximately 1479 B.C.E; the throne passed to his son Thutmose the third, a son of Thutmose the second and a lesser harem queen, Isis. Thutmose the third was merely an infant and was in no way able to accept the role as king. Hatshepsut stepped in and acted as proxy for the infant king. This action of having a woman act as pharaoh, even in substitution, is against all that is expected for women. Even though women are seen as near equals in the ancient Egyptian society, this action for a woman to take power is completely beyond the norm. This action too many might be seen as inappropriate (Brown, 2009). In the early years as proxy Hatshepsut was an in a nearly complete conservative manner. She was careful to respect the agreements made regarding political affairs while juvenile offspring learned the ropes. As time continued she decided not to just fill the seat as king but, retained the position as king. Hatshepsut had been crowned king and adopted a full royal protocol as king. Hatshepsut and Thutmose the third were considered the co-rulers of Egypt, with the dominant leader being Hatshepsut. She remained as king for 21 years while Thutmose the third remain as second in command. Imagery in history started depicting Hatshepsut no longer like a typical queen rather, often times she was depicted as a male wearing a false beard and a distinctively male figure. She was pictured wearing traditional symbols of office such as a crown, or a kilt. By being depicted as a male pharaoh it was her attempt to be seen as a traditional king, ensuring he ultimate goal to become king (Tyldesley, 2012). Hatshepsut did like all kings do and prepared for her immortalization in history. She prepared for temples to be built in her honor and prepared for ultimate transition for her next life. She embarked on a widespread construction program. She concentrated on the five temples in which she either built or restored large structures to better honor her as pharaoh. Toward the end of her rule as king, Hatshepsut permitted the involvement of Thutmose the third as a prominent and active role in state business. After the death of Hatshepsut, Thutmose the third took up his rightful place as king. He ruled alone as king for 33 years. At the end of his reign, Thutmose the third ordered all of Hatshepsut’s temples be torn down, her memorials vandalized, and her name removed from history as king. It was an effort to eradicate any traces of Hatshepsut's rule as king. The reason for these harsh actions by Thutmose was to ensure that the proper sequence of rule would be from Thutmose the first to his son Thutmose the second and finally to his son Thutmose the third without interruption, especially by a woman. Hatshepsut was nearly erased from history as her actions as pharaoh where not of the norm for Egyptian woman. The future kings were to be Egyptian men who came to power via the proper means and order (Tyldesley, 2012). Nefertiti
Nefertiti is one of the most recognized figures in ancient Egyptian history. Her name meaning, "the beautiful one has come," makes it known of her impeccable beauty however; Nefertiti was far more than just a pretty face. It is theorized by historians that Nefertiti was either an Asian daughter to Tadukhepa, a lesser wife of Amenhotep III, where she was then inherited by Akhenaten upon his father's death; or that she was born in Egypt, a daughter to Tiy (an Egyptian wet nurse for the royal family) and her husband Ay but, was birthed by another of Ay’s wives. Nefertiti was married to Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV) when she was approximately twelve years old. Together they birthed six daughters. They built the city of Amarna and made it the capitol. They created this their new home to practice their religion freely. They worshipped the Aton, the sun's disc, who was said to be Amenhotep III, Akhenaten's late father, incarnate. They themselves were measured as divine beings, along with the Aton. And only through them could the Aton be accessed (Tyldesley, 2012). Nefertiti and Akhenaten were seen as pure equals and she co-regent their people as Queen. This is very uncommon for a woman in Egypt. Yes, Egypt was far more excepting of women however, it has always been that only one shall rule and it was always the male who was to be king. In Akhenaton's fifth year as king, the Aton had developed into Egypt's prevailing national god. People flocked to the capital city Amarna, to practice the teachings of Aton. Here Nefertiti played a central religious role, alongside her husband, serving as the female element in the celestial harmony comprised of the god Aton, King Akhenaton, and his queen. Her sexuality and her fertility indicated that she was considered a living fertility deity (Bailey, 2006). Much like the other relationships between ancient Egyptian couples Nefertiti had to share her husband with several wives. She of course was Akhenaten's foremost wife; she was not the only wife or the only queen. Her greatest enemy of Akhenaten’s other wives was Kiya, a lesser queen who is revealed commonly in history as the "greatly beloved wife" of the pharaoh. It has been theorized that Kiya was mother to Tutankhamun, Akhenaten's only son. Even though Nefertiti had achieved her status as fertile goddess, having six daughters, she found herself in competition as the mother of the king's heir to the throne; Kiya should achieve high level in status. But Kiya soon died and would never reach superiority over Nefertiti (Bailey, 2006). At this point, as high priestess to Amon and her status as high queen, Nefertiti fully encompassed her role as co-ruler. The pair ruled as strong equals for five years until Akhenaten’s death. He was succeeded by Ankkheprure-Smenkhare. It was later discovered that his successor was in fact Nefertiti herself. History became fuzzy as Nefertiti had changed her name several times. Nefertiti was only the second woman to rule as pharaoh in the Eighteenth Dynasty. Nefertiti was tasked with pulling an injured nation that had been ignored while the kingdom focused on its new spiritual importance. Nefertiti ruled alone for only two years. She was succeeded by the young boy prince Tutankhamun, who is one of history’s well known Egyptians (Bailey, 2006). Cleopatra
Daughter of King Ptolemy the twelfth, Cleopatra was known as his most loving daughter. Cleopatra was a highly intellectual, strong-willed, ambitious, and well-educated, but ruthless woman. When Ptolemy the twelfth died in 51 B.C.E., rule then passed to his son, Ptolemy the thirteenth, and daughter, Cleopatra the seventh. Cleopatra, as the older child by eight years became the dominant ruler. She would be the last and final queen of the empire that ruled Egypt. Cleopatra was a descendent of Macedonia and had very little, if any, Egyptian blood lines. Specifically for political reasons, Cleopatra fashioned herself as the new Isis in order to differentiate her from a previous queen, Cleopatra the third (Tyldesley, 2012). The Roman general Julius Caesar traveled to the city of Alexandria in Egypt where he took up residence in the Egyptian palace. Caesar demanded Cleopatra and her younger brother, Ptolemy the thirteenth, be brought to him. Cleopatra and her brother were in the center of a fight for the power of Egypt. She knew, despite the risks, that it was essential that she answer his demand. Cleopatra realized that she was in need of Caesar's support in order for her to regain her throne. Upon the meeting of the two, a romance that is known as one of the world’s greatest love affairs began (Horner, Blue, & Naden, 2002). Cleopatra has most often been pictured as a promiscuous woman who discarded sexual partners like tissue paper. Even with her reputation, she really only had only two significant romantic relationships. One relationship was with Julius Caesar and another with Marc Antony, a young Roman soldier, she later married. Cleopatra was not above using romance to gain what Cleopatra was known to use her beauty and charm to seduce men to gain some sort of advantage to a situation at hand. Egyptian women were sexual by nature and were comfortable using their bodies to achieve another goal. This frankly was common for ancient Egyptian women. It was clear that Cleopatra was not simply playing the seductress for mere entertainment. Rather, Cleopatra was simply power hungry. She craved the power to restore herself and her offspring to their former glory (Horner, Blue, & Naden, 2002). Conclusion
These three women are some of the most well-known women in ancient Egyptian history. In each of the stories of their lives you see the qualities of the average ancient Egyptian woman. These women were strong willed, proud, and powerful. They used their wisdom, their family honor, and their beauty to achieve the best possible life for them and their family. The stories of these women allow us to view into the world of the ancient Egyptian woman.
Bailey, E. (2006). Nefertiti. Nefertiti, 1-3.
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