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Book Review: Women in Ancient Egypt

Robins, Women in Ancient Egypt

Robins, Gay

1993 Women in Ancient Egypt. Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts.

Chapter one explains the importance of royal women in ancient Egypt and queen ship. However, the first topic viewed in this chapter is about kings and kingship.  At first, male gods were in charge of the lands but later on human kings started to govern Egypt and they acted as a ‘mediator’ between the divine worlds and earth so they were responsible for humans and the universe (Robins 1993: 21). The divinity of queenship section explains how royal women, since early times were defined from their relationship to the king through titles like: ‘kings wife/principal wife’, ‘kings mother’ or ‘king’s daughter’ (Robins 1993:23). This section then questions the divinity of being a queen, since being a king is known as divine since early ancient Egypt. One-way to approach this question Robins suggests; do queens in ancient Egypt wear the insignia? Robins (1993: 23) then refers to queens specifically by “king’s mother” or “king’s principal wife”, who wore vulture headdresses, which was originally worn by the vulture goddess, Nekhbet, known from the Old Kingdom. The items of queenly insignia that are mentioned in the book are all divinely originated, then transferred to royal context, which made the queens who wore them seem divine, just as their kings. The origins of kings’ wives of non-royal birth section show no evidence of how the king chose his non-royal wives; this may suggest that maybe the king did not have a sister to marry. By the New Kingdom, the kings’ were polygamous and this introduced the title ‘king’s principal wife’, which singles out one wife from a number of wives (Robins 1993:27). Along with brother-sister marriage, father-daughter marriage was also arranged within ancient Egypt.

Joining the kings’ marriage to Egyptian women, he also included diplomatic marriage to foreign princesses to make alliance with residing countries. There were two types of Egyptian diplomatic marriages, the one in which the father of the bride is of equal rank or when the father of the bride is a vassal to the king and addressing him as ‘lord’ (Robins 1993:30). Although, royal children were rarely mentioned or even documented in most of the dynasties’ texts, some of them were lucky enough to be included in rituals, but a majority of them were not mentioned.  Lastly, Chapter one explains the institution of the ‘harim’, which is an independent institution where the ‘king’s mother’, ‘king’s principal wife’ and sometimes maybe even the king would reside, this establishment is endowed with cattle and is administered by a whole level of male officials. Some kings even made ‘harims’ just for the ‘king’s principal wife’ to reside in and her entourage or even for extra wives with whom he had gotten bored , in which to live and produce textiles.

Chapter two is about, Queens, their power, and the assumption of kingship. The concept of queenship is complementary with kingship; one does not exist without the other. Royal women were important ritually, but most of the time Queens were not given much power, even of being ‘king’s principal wife’ or ‘king’s mother’. Even so, queens were given their own estates and male officials to be loyal to them.  An example of a queen who exercised real power was Ahhotep II; she might have been queen regent for the young King Ahmose when he conquered Nubia and drove the Hyksos out of Egypt. Hatshepsut gained her prominence after her husband, Thutmose II, died. As Thutmose III was a boy, Hatshepsut was acting as a regent and was controlling the affairs of the land (Robins 1993:42). Hatshepsut made many kingly prerogatives during her reign, like having a pair of obelisks quarried and set up for her at Karnak, or having herself depicted in ceremonial scenes on a building in Karnak (Robins 1993:46). However, as Thutmose III got older, Hatshepsut’s reign was starting to look vague, but luckily there was a system in Ancient Egypt that two kings may rule at the same time, and Hatshepsut kept her role as king. Moreover, Hatshepsut was the only female ruler who ruled during the middle of a flourishing dynasty, and ruled for more that seven years. Other female kings like Nefrusobk and Nitiqret were reigning at the end of their dynasties and when their family had used them as a last resort as they came to the end of their fortunes. Robins (1993:55) then concludes that women like Ahmose and Hatshepsut were strong-minded individuals and although the divine offices were not opened up to women, royal women were still important in Ancient Egypt because they brought potential heirs to the throne.

Chapter three focuses on defining marriage in Ancient Egypt. One important level of social organization in Ancient Egypt was the concept of family groups, of one man, his wife and his children (Robins 1993:56). There are a few unusual cases that occurred in ancient Egypt involving family group. One can be of adoption of a son for an heir, an economic arrangement marriage, and lastly when a father gives up his daughter to marry another man (Robins 1993:59). There are also evidences of marriage contracts since the seventh century BC all the way to the Late and Ptolemaic Periods. These marriage contracts are basically made so that if the woman gets divorced she will not be left with nothing, or if the man wants to leave the woman she receives money or land in return, unless the woman has been unfaithful. Divorce was not uncommon in ancient Egypt; there could have been many reasons for a couple to get divorced. But two main reasons that Robins (1993:62) suggests are if the woman is in infertile or infidelity. From about 500 BC there are accounted evidence that women were about to initiate divorces from their husbands; this suggests that men were becoming unfaithful as well. Most likely male infertility was not known or explained in Ancient Egypt, so in most cases women may have been blamed for being infertile when in reality it may have been the man. There was no proscription about being polygamous in Ancient Egypt, even though men were usually monogamous. So if one was basically able to afford more than one wife, then one can have them. Most of the women were already able to work and make enough money with textile or cloth work to reimburse themselves in their marriages; so multiple marriages were not hard to keep (Robins 1993:64). It is unfortunate to discuss how men were able to have sexual affairs outside of their marriage and it was not allowed for women to commit adultery. With this is mind, the men knew that married women were off limits. There were various Ancient Egyptian texts that explain if ‘a man has a sexual relationship with another man’s women ‘ then he will be killed (Robins 1993: 70). Robins (1993:74) then explains that being married was a natural state for people in ancient Egyptian times, but there is nothing to show how they chose their partners, except that close kin marriages were to keep property and land in the family.

The main purpose of marriage for Ancient Egyptians (in chapter four) is to produce children and sustain a family; this made fertility of the biggest importance to families in Ancient Egypt. Thus infertility is a main explanation for many divorces during this time. At sites such as Dier El Medina there are to have been domestic shrines of fertility gods like: Taweret, Hathor and Bes. These are only a few of the many fertility and childbirth deities and figurines that occupied ancient Egyptian homes (Robins 1993:75). An answer to childlessness was adoption; many couples who were not able to have children bought them off of slaves or owned slaves. Like modern times, when a woman did not get her ‘purification period, there was a sign of conception (Robins 1993:78). They then did a series of random tests that could show is she really was pregnant, like the color of her skin and the size of her breasts and even through her urine samples (Robins 1993:79). In childbirth, women were usually squatting on two large bricks, with one person behind her and one person in front of her. Since childbirth mortality was high, Ancient Egyptians did a series of different seals and spells to protect the baby and mother during childbirth. Children usually suckled on their mother for no longer than three years; some elite peoples were able to provide wet nurses for their baby. Usually Royal families were the ones who hired wet nurses for their infants, but soon elite peoples started doing this to show their high statuses.

Chapter five shows how the family and the household of elite and the middle class families lived during Ancient Egypt. The plans for both the elite and the middle class households were similar, except the elite houses were larger. They each had central areas (reception) and surrounding rooms that could have been the kitchens and storage rooms, as well as another central section with surrounding rooms for the bedrooms. The housing provided by the state were very close to each other and were provided with a slave. They were rectangular with two main sections and two sections within the main sections. These workplace homes were owned by the state and housed only for state workers (Robins 1993:94,95). It was ideal for a man to bear many children with his wife in Ancient Egyptian times. So the typical household could conclude: the husband, his wife, his children and maybe the females mother and sisters, considering if the females father had died (Robins 1993:99). The ‘mistress of the house’ makes sure that all of the duties (mainly food production) are being done and in some cases she does most duties herself. Some household duties could be childbearing, food supply of wheat and barley, baking, weaving, brewing of beer (male servants), or business transactions (Robins 1993: 101, 102). The business transactions are when the women are producing foods or textiles or even clothing in their home and exchange it in their markets for other products of servants (Robins 1993:103,104). The lower class had the small illiterate professions, which made up a majority of the population. This class was unable to leave written records, because they were not able to write; they were not able to get an education. Robins and other authors had to rely on how the elite saw the non-elites. The lower class men worked in the fields (fisherman etc.) and most of the lower class women worked in the fields as well or did weaving and childbearing. They bore a lot of children so that they had free agriculture labor and so that some would be alive (high infant mortality rate) to take care of them when they are old (Robins 1993:110).

Chapter six deals with what women do outside of the home. Since women were responsible for controlling the household, then they were allowed to leave the home. Though, women were not allowed in the bureaucratic structure, they were not sent to school and left with no chance of literacy, unless the mother was literate and taught her female children. Thus in elite families, since women had no hope for bureaucratic positions, at least they were able to write letters to each other or read and copy literacy books (Robins 1993:113). The work that women did in ancient Egypt surprisingly did not depend on the status of her husband. During the Old Kingdom women actually were able to hold administrative positions, like in private homes, but this soon disappeared during the Middle and New Kingdoms; all levels of society eventually became male dominant. But of course women were still called upon to do state labor with the men; there are also various evidences that there was a division of labor based on gender in Ancient Egypt.

Chapter seven deals with the economic and legal position of women. Robins explains how women along with men can own land, dispose of it, exchange it and sell it (1993:136). Not only could women do their own economic transactions, but they could initiate lawsuits and even own their own slave’s; they were treated equal to men with punishment and seen as equal in the court system (Robins 1993: 129-137). Another way that a woman can gain property was to inherit it from her father, unless it was in a state property. For example: if the father worked at Dier El Medina and left the house to his daughter, then her husband would be in charge/own the house; but any other storage room or extra rooms made by her father by his own hand would be labeled hers by law (Robins 1993:134). Fathers usually made extra rooms of storage or huts so in this case if the husband leaves the daughter, then she has someplace to live and not become homeless. The most common type of lawsuit was usually for debt collecting, of financial equals or poorer. There were never any lawsuits of poor people suing elite people.

Chapter eight is about women in temple ritual.  There is evidence that in the Old Kingdom, women had potential and important roles in temple rituals and that a large number of high-class women were priestesses of Hathor (Robins 1993:142). But there was still a male dominancy in ritual and the high administration in the Hathor cult. Outside of the Hathor cult, the amount of women actually in position in other rituals drops to a handful, nor did we ever find women lector priests, the ones that read the ritual from a papyrus roll; this may have been from the women’s lack of being able to read (Robins 1993:144). By the Eighteenth Dynasty women held no positions at all in cults or rituals and the closest that they could get to working in a temple would to be as a musician. Female musicians carry a loop sistrum frequently and hold the sistrum by the loop and shake it; this sistrum is a rattle sacred to Hathor, used to pacify deities and goddesses when shaken (Robins 1993:145). Robins also explains that musicians also carried a beaded necklace called a menit, that was also sacred to Hathor, this was used In temple rituals as well (1993: 146). From the Old Kingdom you can find troupes of women called ‘musical troupes’, they are attached to religious and secular institutions and are made up of two rows, which have five female dancers and three women clapping (Robins 1993:148). Parts of the function of ‘god’s wife’ was to play her sistrum before her god to pacify him and avert his anger elsewhere so and also use ‘god’s hand’ to keep fertility from flagging in the universe (Robins 1993:156).

Chapter nine is the chapter on personal religion and death. Robins says that temple cult is the state religion the people of Ancient Egypt were not forced to go to these temples or become part of a state cult, although they did go and leave offerings to deities at these temples often (1993:157-160). Since the Middle Kingdom any person could set up votive stelaes and statutes in temple precincts in order to establish a connecting between the deity/temple and the individuals (Robins 1993:157). Women and men could both erect votive stelaes, as long as they could afford it, since mostly men are the ones bringing in high incomes, the male votive stelaes outnumbered the women. Thus, the votive stelae and figurines found could be told who made them by the dominance of sex that the piece has, sometimes one find’s stelae’s called ‘mistress of the house’ or ‘musician’ (Robins 1993:159). Though when women do have their own stelae, their husbands mostly accompany them. This is due to the two basic rules of decorum. The first rule is that the owner of the monument must be occupy the primary place, and second, women with only a few exceptions can take a subordinate position in relation to their husbands (Robins 1993:159). Moreover, if the owner of the monument is a woman then the primary place is hers, her husband cannot be shown because he would be forced to appear in the secondary position (Robins 1993:159). It is known that women are not barred from dedicating votives to male deities, but they frequently prefer female deities like: Hathor, Isis, Mut, the snake goddess Meresger and Renenutet; there is always a tendency of gender distinction especially in honoring deities (Robins 1993:160). Burial for women is the same for men (for scribal classes), they share the same after life for men, but men get a tomb chapel and women cannot (Robins 1993:164). Once the burial was done, there was a funerary cult for the deceased one made in front of the temple tomb or false doors, false doors are where the living and the dead could meet (Robins 1993:169). Since women and men were somewhat equalized in funerary actions, then by no means does the female not get the same after-life as the male.

Chapter ten is on the images of women in literature and art. Since scribal men in all of the surviving texts wrote more scripts, this is the only viewpoint we have of women. Therefore, at least we can see how men perceived women and women’s place in society through the male scribal class. Literary texts that perceive images of women are known as the ‘wisdom texts’, ‘Instructions of Any’ and the ‘Instructions of Ptahhotep’. The ‘wisdom texts’ gives advice to young scribes on how to treat their mothers, sisters and wives, and also how to comport themselves in society, the ‘Instructions of Any’ texts reveals that women are in charge of the household and the “Instructions of Ptahhotep’ cautions the reader against approaching women from other households (Robins 1993:176, 177). All of this literary evidence suggests that men had a dual perception of women, one of honoring them and the other of being cautious of the ones who want to approach them.

The representation of female and male figurines in Ancient Egyptian art was basically idealistic. The ideal form for women was characterized by a slim and slender figure with youthful beauty; they did not show how pregnancy or the spreading waistline of childbearing could change a figure as part of an image (Robins 1993:180). Although men were also shown with a slim and youthful figure, they did add rolls of fat and big muscular breasts to the elite and official ideals. The women did not get this because they could not work for the government. Also other distinctions between male and female figures was the body proportions (Robins 1993:180, 181). From the Old Kingdom women wore tight sheath dresses that are lower than their breasts and showed their figures, but later was changed to loose rectangle clothing along with the men’s costumes in the Middle Kingdom (Robins 1993:181-183). The motif of the naked adolescent girl was a female image ( in tomb temples) that was shown to represent dancers, musicians and servant girls; it also decorated ritual spoons (Robins 1993: 185). Moreover, chapter ten explains the differences on how women were perceived in literary texts and within arts during Ancient Egyptian times, and how men were given difference in looks even for figurines, when women where not.

I really enjoyed this book. There was many disappointing information to read on how little women were given authorities to many different things, with a few exceptions, but in all it was a good read. The author presented the information well; he was able to link many examples into his presentations and images that he used. This book did not have any argument to any other information because it was just a lot of information on how women were perceived and what they were able to do during the Ancient Egyptian times. But for soundness in explaining both the views of women and men, and even though there was a lack of lower class information due to their illiteracy, Robins was sound in his arguments. It explains a lot about the customs of Ancient Egypt and really gave me a good insight on what our next topics may be in class, for women. The general readability was fine, it was not a boring read, and will not make you fall asleep. Therefore, I would recommend this book for anyone to do their own book review on it, if interested in women specifically.

Monica Rios (Undergraduate at the University of Texas-Pan American)

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