During the New Kingdom period, the most famous of the God's Wives was the female pharaoh Hatshepsut BCE but there were many other women to hold the office before and after her. Women could be scribes and also priests, usually of a cult with a feminine deity. The priests of Isis, for example, were female and male, while cults with a male deity usually had only male priests as in the case of Amun.
The high prestige of the God's Wife of Amun is another example of the balance observed by the ancient Egyptians in that the position of the High Priest of Amun was balanced by an equally powerful female. It must be noted that the designation 'cult' in describing ancient Egyptian religion does not carry the same meaning it does in the modern day. A cult in ancient Egypt would be the equivalent of a sect in modern religion.
It is also important to recognize that there were no religious services as one would observe them in the present. People interacted with their deities most completely at festivals where women regularly played important roles such as the two virgins who would perform The Lamentations of Isis and Nephthys at the festivals of Osiris.
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Priests maintained the temples and cared for the statue of the god, and the people visited the temple to ask for help on various matters, repay debts, give thanks, and seek counsel on problems, decisions, and dream interpretation. Dreams were considered portals to the afterlife, planes on which the gods and the dead could communicate with the living; they did not always do so plainly, however.
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Skilled interpreters were required to understand the symbols in the dream and what they meant. Egyptologist Rosalie David comments on this:. In the Deir el-Medina texts, there are references to 'wise women' and the role they played in predicting future events and their causation. It has been suggested that such seers may have been a regular aspect of practical religion in the New Kingdom and possibly even earlier. These wise women were adept at interpreting dreams and being able to predict the future. The only extant accounts of dreams and their interpretation come from men, Hor of Sebennytos and Ptolemaios, son of Glaukius, both c.
David continues, "Some temples were reknowned as centres of dream incubation where the petitioner could pass the night in a special building and communicate with the gods or deceased relatives in order to gain insight into the future" The most famous of these was attached to the Temple of Hathor at Dendera where the clergy was largely female.
The clergy of ancient Egypt enjoyed great respect and a comfortable living. History from the Early Dynastic Period in Egypt c. In order to become a priest, one had to first be a scribe, which required years of dedicated study.
Women's bodies change with work trends
Once a woman became a scribe she could enter the priesthood, go into teaching, or become a physician. Female doctors were highly respected in ancient Egypt, and the medical school in Alexandria was attended by students from many other countries. The Greek physician Agnodice, denied an education in medicine in Athens because of her sex, studied in Egypt c. As the course of study to become a scribe was long and hard, however, not many people - men or women - chose to pursue it.
Women, therefore, were regularly employed as weavers, bakers, brewers, sandal-makers, basket weavers, cooks, waitresses, or as a "Mistress of the House," which today would be an estate owner. When a woman's husband died, or when they divorced, a woman could keep the home and run it as she liked. This aspect of gender equality is almost astounding when one compares it with women's rights over just the past years.
A widow living in America in the early 19th century CE, for example, did not have any rights in home ownership and had to depend on a male relative's intercession to keep her home after the death or departure of her husband. In ancient Egypt, a woman could decide for herself how she would make money and keep her estate in order.
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Scholar James C. Thompson writes:. There were many ways in which a 'Mistress of the House" could supplement her income. Some had small vegetable gardens. Many made clothing. One document shows an enterprising woman purchasing a slave for deben. She paid half in clothing and borrowed the rest from her neighbors. It is likely the woman expected to be able to repay the loan by renting out the slave. Indeed, we have a receipt showing that one woman received several garments, a bull, and sixteen goats as payment for 27 days work by her slave.
Those who could not raise the money on their own sometimes joined with neighbors to buy a slave.
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Women were often part of such a consortium. We know that a woman could inherit and operate a large, wealthy estate.
Women in Ancient Egypt
A man who owned such an estate would hire a male scribe to manage it and it would seem reasonable that an heiress would do the same thing. We have little evidence of elite women with paying jobs whether full or part time. Especially talented women could also find work as concubines.
A concubine was not simply a woman who was used for sex but needed to be accomplished in music , conversation, weaving, sewing, fashion, culture, religion, and the arts.
This is not to say, however, that their physical appearance did not matter. A request for forty concubines from Amenhotep III c. Amenhotep III writes:. Behold, I have sent you Hanya, the commissioner of the archers, with merchandise in order to have beautiful concubines, i. Silver , gold , garments, all sort of precious stones, chairs of ebony, as well as all good things, worth deben. In total: forty concubines - the price of every concubine is forty of silver.
Therefore, send very beautiful concubines without blemish. Lewis, These concubines would have been kept by the pharaoh as part of his harem and, in the case of Amenhotep III, very well kept as his palace at Malkata was among the most opulent in Egypt's history. The king was considered deserving of many women as long as he remained faithful in caring for his Great Wife but, for most of the Egyptians, marriage was monogamous and for life.
As noted above by Watterson, women were considered legally capable in every aspect of their lives and did not require the supervision, consultation, or approval of a man in order to pursue any course of action. This paradigm applied to marriage and sex as well as any other area of one's life.
Women could marry anyone they chose to, marriages were not arranged by the males of the family, and they could divorce when they pleased. There was no stigma attached to divorce even though a life-long marriage was always regarded as preferable. Brier and Hobbs comment on this:. Whether rich or poor, any free person had the right to the joys of marriage.
Marriage was not a religious matter in Egypt - no ceremony involving a priest took place - but simply a social convention that required an agreement, which is to say a contract, negotiated by the suitor on the family of his prospective wife. The agreement involved an exchange of objects of value on both sides. The suitor offered a sum called the "virginity gift" when appropriate, to compensate the bride for what she would lose, indicating that in ancient times virginity was prized in female brides.
The gift did not apply in the case of second marriages, of course, but a "gift to the bride" would be made even in that case. Product Description Holly Wagner believes it is no accident that you and I are alive and on the earth at this time in history…what an awesome privilege it is. Additional Information Contributor s Holly Wagner About the Contributor s Holly WagnerHolly Wagner is a popular conference speaker known for her challenging, humorous style of addressing real-life issues.
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