Women's Role in Ancient Egypt Society

Ancient Egypt Woman

 The woman in ancient Egypt was acknowledged to be one of the strangest phenomena in a land of exotic and unusual customs, where the king lived as a god, the gods took the form of animals and the entire population appeared obsessed with death.

Her distinctive exotic beauty, coupled with fantastic rumours of lax Egyptian morals and wanton Egyptian females, simply added to their fascination and served as an inspiration to the authors and poets of Greece and Rome.

It is this rather decadent image of Egyptian womanhood which has been perpetuated by more modern authors from Shakespeare onwards, so that even today the names of Nefertiti and Cleopatra conjure up a vision of the ultimate femme fatale.

Ancient Egypt Woman
Ancient Egypt Woman

The woman in ancient Egypt did not take part in any activities that involved wielding blades, such as reaping the harvest, presumably because this would threaten male dominance, the blade being both a direct weapon for attack and a metaphor for masculine sexuality. Futhermore, she was generally excluded from washing clothes, because crocodiles threatened the riverbanks.

Apart from these two barriers to hard labour, women took part in backbreaking chores. These chores could involve grinding of grain for flour, pressing fermented loaves in sieves for the mash to make beer, and weaving textiles in the dim halls in which estates had their clothes produced the ancient feature nearest to modern industrial conditions.

The woman in ancient Egypt enjoyed legal and economical equality with men. Nevertheless, she never enjoyed social equality with men, and this is most evident in the rules of kingship; only men could be king, perhaps theoretically because the king acted as sun-god on earth and the sun is male in the Egyptian language.

Following from this rule, so strong that even queens ruling Egypt claimed to be not queen but king, royal power could not be delegated to women, and so men held all positions in the administration and in the temple hierarchies; after the Old Kingdom the only titles held by women concern the musical accompaniments to temple rituals.

Exclusion from state office also meant exclusion from the considerable resources that supported each state office, and this would have left most women in a secondary economic position.

In view of the unfavourable circumstances it is perhaps surprising that the woman in ancient Egypt retained equality in law, so that a wife could divorce a husband as easily as he might divorce her. 

Egyptian Tales

The following Egyptian tales were produced by Eric Eldred for the Project Gutenberg. This preface, the Egyptian tales and the remarks are provided by the courtesy of Project Gutenberg and are presented as is.
  • Translated from the papyri
  • Edited by W. M. Flinders Petrie, Hon. D.C.L.

Egyptian Tales

As the scope of the first series of these Tales seems to have been somewhat overlooked, a few words of introduction may not be out of place before this second volume. It seems that any simple form of fiction is supposed to be a "fairy tale:" which implies that it has to do with an impossible world of imaginary beings. Now the Egyptian Tales are exactly the opposite of this, they relate the doings and the thoughts of men and women who are human--sometimes "very human," as Mr. Balfour said. 

Whatever there is of supernatural elements is a very part of the beliefs and motives of the people whose lives are here pictured. But most of what is here might happen in some corner of our own country today, where ancient beliefs may have a home. So far, then, from being fairy tales there is not a single being that could be termed a fairy in the whole of them.

Another notion that seems to be about is that the only possible object of reading any form of fiction is for pure amusement, to fill an idle hour and be forgotten and if these tales are not as amusing as some jester of today, then the idler says, Away with them as a failure! For such a person, who only looks to have the tedium of a vacuous mind relieved, these tales are not in the least intended. But the real and genuine charm of all fiction is that of enabling the reader to place himself in the mental position of, another, to see with the eyes, to feel with the thoughts, to reason with the mind, of a wholly different being.

All the greatest work has this charm. It may be to place the reader in new mental positions, or in a different level of the society that he already knows, either higher or lower; or it may be to make alive to him a society of a different land or age. Whether he read "Treasure Island" or "Plain Tales from the Hills," "The Scarlet Letter," "Old Mortality," or "Hypatia," it is the transplanting of the reader into a new life, the doubling of his mental experience, that is the very power of fiction.

The same interest attaches to these tales. In place of regarding Egyptians only as the builders of pyramids and the makers of mummies, we here see the men and women as they lived, their passions, their foibles, their beliefs, and their follies. The old refugee Sanehat craving to be buried with his ancestors in the blessed land, the enterprise and success of the Doomed Prince, the sweetness of Bata, the misfortunes of Ahura, these all live before us, and we can for a brief half hour share the feelings and see with the eyes of those who ruled the world when it was young. This is the real value of these tales, and the power which still belongs to the oldest literature in the world. 

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