The Gifts of Isis: Women's Status in Ancient Egypt
A story on a papyrus dating from the 2nd century CE relates that the goddess Isis, bestowing gifts on humanity, gave as much power and honor to women as she did to men. This tale reflects the high status women enjoyed in ancient Egypt. Although they never had the same rights as males, an Egyptian woman could own property in her own name and hold professions that gave her economic freedom from male relatives (women could practice medicine, handle money and make real estate transactions). A wife was entitled to one third of any property that she owned jointly with her husband and, on her death, could will her property to anyone she wished, male or female. Egyptian women were equal in the court system and could act as witnesses, plaintiffs or defendants (as we would understand those terms today). Women were accountable for crimes they committed and would have to stand trial the same as any man.
Married women were known by the title `Mistress of the House’ and most women’s time was spent caring for the home and children. Her responsibilities would include child rearing (unless she was wealthy enough to be able to afford a slave for the purpose) house cleaning, sewing, mending and making clothes, providing meals for the household and managing the accounts. Even so, there is ample evidence of women tending to chores outside of the home such as the care of livestock, the supervision of workers in the fields (even doing field work herself) the maintenance of tools, buying and selling slaves and real estate and taking part in the commerce of the market place (all of these rights and responsibilities, to this extent, the women of Sumeria and Greece never had).
The Egyptian Wisdom Texts admonish husbands to treat their wives well since the balance between the male and the female resulted in harmony (known as ma’at) which was valued by the gods and, especially, the great goddess Ma’at, she of the white feather of Truth. Marriage was considered a pact between a husband and wife for a lifelong commitment of equal partnership and companionship which could only be broken by death (which was the will of the gods, not of the individual marriage partners) although divorce was common in practice. Women were legally protected against abuse from their husbands and, in the documents from a 12th Dynasty lawsuit, a man had to “swear that he would henceforth refrain from beating his wife, on pain of one hundred blows with a cane and the loss of everything he had acquired together with her” (Nardo, 35).
Women, too, were responsible for the happiness of the home, both in life and after death. Women’s prestige was high enough that misfortune falling upon a widower was first attributed to some 'sin' he had hidden from his wife which she, now all-knowing in the Field of Reeds, was punishing him for. In a letter from a widower to his dead wife, found in a tomb from the New Kingdom, the man pleads with the spirit of his wife to leave him alone as he is innocent of any wrong-doing:
"What wicked thing have I done to thee that I should have come to this evil pass? What have I done to thee? But what thou hast done to me is to have laid hands on me although I had nothing wicked to thee. From the time I lived with thee as thy husband down to today, what have I done to thee that I need hide? When thou didst sicken of the illness which thou hadst, I caused a master-physician to be fetched…I spent eight months without eating and drinking like a man. I wept exceedingly together with my household in front of my street-quarter. I gave linen clothes to wrap thee and left no benefit undone that had to be performed for thee. And now, behold, I have spent three years alone without entering into a house, though it is not right that one like me should have to do it. This have I done for thy sake. But, behold, thou dost not know good from bad” (Nardo, 32).
Judgement, in these cases, would be made by a priest who would try to discern whether the spirit of the deceased wife was the cause of the man’s misfortune or if there was some other cause. Interestingly, the ill-fortune a woman might suffer after the death of her husband was first attributed to the possibility she had neglected some important aspect of the funerary rites, then to a possible wrong she had committed against a god but, rarely, to any sin against her husband.
Tombs depict women at various occupations such as singers, musicians, dancers, servants, beer brewers, bakers, professional mourners, priestess and as dutiful wives, daughters and mothers. Women were always shown as youthful with an emphasis on the female form. In tomb paintings a man’s wife, sisters and mother appear to be the same age because depictions of old age in a woman (past child-bearing years) was considered disrespectful to the individual who, after all, would be young and beautiful again after shedding the body and entering the afterlife of the Field of Reeds.
Women in ancient Egypt placed great value on personal appearance, hygiene and grooming. Egyptian women (and men) bathed a number of times a day in a soda-mix with water (the Egyptians had no knowledge of soap). Henna was used to dye the hair, nails and even the body. Unlike other cultures of the time (Greece, for example) women could cut their hair short if they liked and many women shaved their heads and wore wigs. Tomb paintings depict the deceased in the latest fashions in wigs, clothing, and makeup. Cosmetics were not considered a luxury but a necessity for daily life and many examples of makeup, perfume and toiletry items are found in tombs.
Although women in all levels of Egypian society continued to depend largely on the males of the family for sustenance and status, Egyptian women enjoyed greater freedoms and responsibilities than women anywhere else in the known world at that time. The cosmopolitan and cultured manner of Egyptian women is often emphasized in tomb paintings and reliefs and it is worth noting that the famous pharaoh Cleopatra, though Greek, adopted Egyptian ways and was noted for her refinement and charm. Women continued to be highly respected in Egypt and have equal rights with men until the coming of Christianity (which also brought a marked decline in personal hygiene since it was thought that Jesus Christ would return at any moment and so personal appearance was irrelevant and, further, attention to the body was considered vanity) which preached the inferiority of females to males and held up the example of Eve from the biblical Book of Genesis as the duplicitous standard by which all women should be judged. When Islam was brought to Egypt by the conquering Muslim forces, women enjoyed even less freedoms than they had under Christianity and the gifts of the goddess Isis, bestowed equally on men and women, were forgotten.