Daily Life in Ancient Egypt

Note: Articles originally posted in Panhistoria. Reprinted with permission from Beketaten and Takhaet, who in real life are academic librarians who love ancient Egypt.

The Family


Marriage in Egypt

Author: Beketaten sat Amenhotep
Date: 04-11-05 19:17

Marriage does not seem to have involved any religious or civil ceremony, for there are no records of marriages taking place in temples or government offices. It seems that it was mainly celebrated by the two people living together. Usually the bride moved in with her husband.

The word “hemet” is translated as wife, but we don’t know the real implications of the word. The male counterpart is “hi.” Another word for “wife” is “hebswt,” which may mean “concubine” or “second wife after the first has died.” In some New Kingdom records, the same woman is called “hemet” and “hebswt.”

Age at Marriage
Marriage almost always happened after puberty. For girls, this meant 12 or 13. Another source (Tyldesley) says girls married at 14 and another (Springer) 14 to 15. Almost all Egyptian women were married by their early teens. Women married younger than man did because women tended to die younger as well. For boys, marrying at puberty meant 14. However, since boys also had to show some work ability, they usually waited until they were 15 or older to marry. Or the husband might be 17 to 20, unless he was a widower or divorced (Springer). Ankhsheshonq advised men to marry when they were 20 and had property. Ptahotep said they should marry when they were respectable. In royal marriages, the couple could be younger. For example, Tutankhamen married when he was about 9. Older men who lost their wives sometimes married very young women.

Many feel that most marriages were arranged by the parents. Some (David) say only royal marriages were arranged, although the parents had strong hopes for their children, and older people introduced young people to suitable partners. Only at the end of the dynastic era did the bride and groom negotiate their own marriage. Until the 26th dynasty, there is little evidence that the bride had a choice in the marriage, for the groom asked for permission from the girl’s parents. Negotiations occurred between the groom and the prospective bride’s father, or less commonly, between the bride’s father and the groom’s father. A widow could negotiate for her unmarried girls.

If the parents did choose, they might choose a groom based on the boy’s wealth, or they might pick a relative to keep property in the family. Marriage between first cousins or between uncles and nieces kept the property in the family, which would keep land plots together. Parents also choose someone from the same social class, or someone in the same town as the parents. There were no formal rules against marrying foreigners.

Whatever the role of the parents was, the presence of love poetry suggests boys and girls did fall in love and choose their partner. Love poetry tells the men to love, feed, clothe, and please their wives. Sometimes, suitors would use female go-betweens to approach the girls’ mothers. One of the affectionate phrases Egyptians used was to call their love “brother” or “sister,” but they usually didn’t mean it literally. Many statues show the man and woman in affectionate poses.

There were a variety of gifts given at various times. Gifts were given at the betrothal. In early Egypt, the prospective husband paid an amount to the bride’s father, usually about the cost of a slave. In later times, the father of the bride paid the groom. Also, the suitor gave a “virginity gift” when appropriate, or a “gift to the bride” if it were a second marriage. The family of the bride in turn gave a “gift in order to become a wife.” In many cases, these two gifts were never formally given, because the couple merged the households. However, if the couple divorced, the sides might demand their gift. Tyldesley says the groom was not required to pay a bride price, although in the New Kingdom, he gave a token gift of money or sometimes grain to his wife. The amount could be considerable. Tyledesley says this New Kingdom custom may have started from an earlier one. The father of the bride did give wedding presents and could give subsidies until the couple was established. Towards the end of the dynastic period, these gifts were written down as dowries.

Marriage Contract
Sometimes there was a verbal contract, and sometimes it was written down. The contract could be done before or after the marriage, or even be drawn up after the couple had children. Evidence for written marriage contracts that mention “shep en shemet” the “price for ‘marrying’ a woman,” start after the Third Intermediate Period. They discuss property rights and maintenance during and after the marriage. Most were between the girl’s father and her prospective husband. After the 26th dynasty, some phrases in the contract suggest the bride has some say. Marriage contracts don’t normally mention the age of the participants. The poorer people wouldn’t be able to pay for a scribe and wouldn’t have that many possessions anyway, so they didn’t have written contracts. The contract was given to a third party or kept at a local temple.

A standard marriage contract would include:
The date, figured as the year of the reign of the current king
The names of the husband and wife
The names of the parents of the husband and the wife
The husband’s profession (rarely the wife’s)
The scribe who drew up the document
The name of the witnesses

One Graeco-Roman contract says, “____, son of __________, whose mother is _________ has said to the woman ____, daughter of _____, whose mother is ________: I have made you a married woman. As your woman’s portion, I give you two pieces of silver… If I dismiss you as wife and dislike you and prefer another woman to you as wife, I will give you two pieces of silver in addition to the two pieces of silver mentioned above…and I will give you one third….”

Wedding Day
There is no Egyptian word for “wedding,” and there weren’t special bridal clothes or rings. The bride was given by her father to her groom, but we don’ t know how literal that was. The families carried wedding gifts through the streets from the house of the bride to the new house, and the bride moved her possessions to her husband’s home, which might be in his parent’s house or in a separate house. A man’s house might include female relatives: unmarried sisters, aunts, a mother, or mother-in-law. She took all her possessions, usually described as a bed, clothing, ornaments, mirrors, a musical instrument, and an expensive shawl. She would have worn finery, which could be a long dress or linen tunic, which might have been covered with a bead-net from head to toe. If she owned any gold or lapis lazuli, she probably wore that. She would be accompanied by celebrating friends and relatives. Knowing the love for music, dance, and food, there had to be a banquet. This would announce the marriage to everyone. The couple presided at the banquet and were not the guests of either set of parents. The groom would give his bride a gift, and the bride’s family would give household gifts and food.

Modern Day
The customs of the modern Egyptian countryside might give a clue as to how the courtship might proceed. Boys and girls might get to know each other at temples or feasts. Possibly, the adult daughter could welcome guests who came to visit her parents. A suitor’s parents might visit the prospective woman’s house to get the family approval and reach an agreement, which included the Mahr paid by the suitor to the woman’s family, and the Shabka or jewelry gift given by the suitor to the fiancée. When the two parties agree, they set a time for an engagement party, which was decorated with flowers and lights. The groom also gave the Shabka at this time. When the new house was ready, the date of the wedding party was decided. The night before the wedding day, the relatives and friends celebrated “henna night,” where the women went to the bride’s house and the men wnet to the groom’s house. The women danced and sang all night while they colored the bride’s hands and feet with henna. The men danced and sang all night at the groom’s house. The next day, they signed the marriage contract. After sunset, the couple wore their best clothes and jewelry, and the party started. The bride went to her new house with a music band, and people sang and danced all night. In the morning, the wife’s mother and her sisters visited the bride and gave her food, while she gave them sweets and fruits.

Having many children was a major purpose of marriage. Sometimes a contract would stipulate a trial marriage for a year to see if there would be children. Childlessness was a major tragedy.

Either side could start the divorce. Commons reasons the man gave included inability to bear children, especially sons, wanting to marry someone else, or that the woman stopped pleasing him. The woman might start a divorce because of mental or physical cruelty, or for adultery. If the man started the divorce, he forfeited the bridal gift or dowry and sometimes had to pay twice that. If the women started it, she had to return half the bridal gift. Either way, the husband had to support his wife, usually with one third of his earnings, unless she remarried. This was especially true if she was not the reason for the divorce. Still, since few Egyptians lived beyond their forties, most marriages ended in death. Women died in childbirth, men in war, and everyone in accidents and through disease. But while they were married, the hope is that they were happy.


Andrews, Mark. (1999-2005). Marriage in Ancient Egypt. Tour Egypt Feature. InterCity Oz. http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/marriage.htm

Brier, Bob, and Hoyt Hobbs. (1999). Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Westport, Connecticutt: Greenwood Press.

Bunson, Margaret. (1991). “Marriage.” A Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press.

David, Rosalie. (1998). Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press.

Macdonald, Fiona. (1999). Women in Ancient Egypt. New York: Peter Bedrick Books.

Manning, Ruth. (2003). Ancient Egyptian Women. Chicago: Reed Educational & Professional Publishing.

Negm, Ahmed. Egyptian Marriage Customs of the Past and Present. http://www.zawaj.com/weddingways/egypt_customs.html

Springer, Ilene. (1996). The Egyptian Bride. Tour Egypt. InterCity Oz.

Tyldesley, Joyce. (1994). Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt. New York: Penguin Books.

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Childbirth and Children in Kemet

Author: Takhaet sat Mentuhotep
Date: 04-25-05 22:38

Having children was one of the main purposes of marriage, and children were considered a blessing. Women with many children were seen as attractive and successful, and they earned security in their marriage through having children. Mothers had an important place in society and were shown in honored places in the tombs of their husbands and sons. A man’s mother might be shown alongside his wife in a man’s tomb, while the father was not. A man’s maternal (not paternal) grandfather was the protector of the boys. Both the man and the woman needed many children to be approved of in society. Children supported their parents in old age and were called “the staff of old age” because of this. Sons were preferred because they could better support their parents, and the oldest son carried out the funerary provisioning for his dead parents. Unlike the Greeks, however, Egyptians never exposed female babies or sickly male babies.

Even in modern Egypt, great men have many sons, and a woman who isn’t pregnant less than a year into her marriage is the subject of gossip and speculation. Parents stress their parenthood by calling themselves “abu” or “father of” their eldest son, or “om” or “mother of” their eldest son. Childless women might be called “om el-ghayib” or “mother of the absent one.”

Those wanting to conceive ate lots of lettuce because it was associated with fertility. Egyptian lettuce grew straight and oozed out a milky-white liquid when pressed. While some papyri recommended lettuce for male impotence, later experts like Pliny and Hippocrates disagreed. Infertility was usually blamed on the woman, and men might divorce their wives so that they could find someone who was fertile. Others who did not conceive adopted orphans or the child of poorer relatives.

There were tests for fertility, pregnancy, and for determining the sex of the child. One famous test comes from two papyri, the Berlin and Carlsberg VIII. They tell a woman to pour her urine over two bags, one of sprouting emmer wheat and one of barley. If neither bag sprouted, the woman was not pregnant. If the barley grew quickly, the child would be male, and if the emmer grew, the child would be female. It is known that there are hormonal changes present in the urine. People in the late 20th century have tried this test. When the woman was pregnant, over half the bags had some growth. However, 30% of the non-pregnant women also caused the grains to sprout. Predicting the gender was correct seven times and incorrect 16 times. Egyptians probably picked the two grains because the word for barley, “it” is masculine, and the word for emmer “bdt” is feminine.

During pregnancy, a woman often ate special foods so that the baby would be healthy. Probably like many cultures, including that of modern Egypt, people believed the unborn child was affected by the food the mother ate and the things she saw. If the mother often saw a beautiful face, the child would be beautiful.

Having children was a dangerous business for both the child and the mother. Some say that there was one death for every two to three births. Others say that one in five babies and children may have died from fever and diseases. Despite the high rate of infant mortality, Egyptians had on average four to six children, and some even had from 10 to 15. Others say that Egyptians had about five children living to adolescence, with 3-4 others dying earlier. Records at Deir el-Medina suggest having over four living children was unusual, and that women gave birth on average to five children. If a girl married shortly after puberty, bore her first child at age 12-15, and had a child every year, she might have four or five children by the time she died, for the average lifespan for a woman was 18-20 years. However, many women lived longer. The lack of hygiene led to mothers and babies dying of gastric disorders, diarrhea, and dysentery. Many women died of uterine hemorrhage and puerperal sepsis. While it is impossible to guess the rate of death, it may have been similar to rural England from the 16th to 18th century, where 25 mothers died for every 1000 baptisms.

Since this was such a dangerous time for mother and child, they turned to their gods. Medicine was of little help. They gave votive offerings. Pregnant women wore an amulet of Taweret around their neck. Taweret, a pregnant hippo, was a favorite amulet as the chief goddess of pregnancy, childbirth and breast-feeding. After giving birth, they put on one with Bes, who was thought to destroy any evil around the mother and child. When the child was born, the mother might tie amulets to each part of the child’s body, and there was a different god for each part of the body. Protective spells could be written on papyrus, rolled up, and put in a pendant around the child’s neck. Other charms included the frog goddess Hekat. Khnum was thought to give health to newborn babies. Women often called on Thoth for help and felt he would write the future of the child on the birthing-bricks. The seven Hathors were thought to hover around the child’s cradle and announced the child’s destiny. The birthing stool was personified as Meskhenet, who also protected the newborn baby.

Women delivered their babies in a special place, like the cool roof of a house, or in a structure of papyrus stalk columns decorated with vines. Women had a mattress, headrest, mat, cushion, and a stool. No men helped at delivery, only women. While wealthier women had servants and nurses, peasant women called in two women from their household, or called in some neighbors. We do not know any words for midwife, although there were women who acted as untrained midwives, who learned from experience. Women had their babies while kneeling, sitting on their heels, or on a delivery stool or bricks. “On the bricks” was an ancient term for giving birth. In modern Egypt, female relatives often sit around the woman giving birth, groaning and shrieking in sympathy for her. In the Westcar papyrus, when the child was born, the midwife washed the baby and then cut the umbilical cord. However, she probably didn’t wash her hands or the instrument first.

If a baby was sickly and in danger of dying, it was thought that if the child cried “hii” it would live, but if it cried “mbi” it would die. If the child made a sound like a creaking pine tree, or turned its face down, it would die.

Because of the high death rate, new babies were given names as soon as they were born so that they would be able to survive in the underworld. Names were an essential part of a person. Many Egyptians liked to put their children under the sponsorship of a god. Some wanted to indicate a god’s pleasure, so they named their child Amenhotep, Khnumhotep, Ptahhotep, etc. Other names could be short or could be complete phrases.

After the child was named, the parents registered the child with the authorities. Births, marriages, and deaths may have been recorded because of inheritance and taxation issues. Witnesses gave their names, the names of their parents, and their occupation. The Westcar Papyrus says the woman purified herself for 14 days after the birth.

Egyptians used wet nurses when the mother died in childbirth, or when the mother was unable to nurse the child. Upper classes also used wet nurses simply because they could. Poorer women could hire themselves out as wet nurses for the rich. The wet nurse had a great influence on the child, and in the New Kingdom, many high officials married royal wet-nurses and mentioned this in their tombs.

Babies were carried by their mothers in a sling around their necks. The mother or the wet nurse would nurse the baby for three years. Clay equivalents of bottles have been found. Women cared for children in their infancy, and larger households had special women’s quarters where the mother lived with her children. The household might also include unmarried sisters and widowed mothers. Very young children went naked or wore a girdle around their waist. From at least the Old Kingdom onward, children up to the age of 10 or more wore their hair in a braided plait as a sidelock.

Infancy ended at age four, and children began helping their families by age 5. Poorer children ran errands, fed animals, sowed seed, and fetched food for workers. Older girls helped in the kitchen and baked bread. All older children helped care for their younger brothers and sisters.

Still children were able to play, and girls and boys played separately from an early age. Toys included wooden balls and little clay animals. Children danced, wrestled, raced, and played tug-of-war. They had boats, balls, and figures of animals. However, the figurines could also be misidentified and actually have ritual significance. They had pets, including birds or dogs.

Rich children might be taught how to manage property and estates. Usually, boys were trained to follow the profession of their father, and upper-class boys went to scribal school and learned how to serve in the temple. Boys might stay in school as boarders until they were 16, when they learned a craft. Only those meant for the priesthood or civil administration might stay longer in school. Royal children were taught by a tutor in the palace, and noble boys might be taught along with the royal boys.

Rich girls did not go to school, but they were trained in cooking and weaving cloth. They helped around the house and looked after younger brothers and sisters. In the new Kingdom, girls served in the temples as musicians and dancers.

Childhood was brief, especially for girls. Girls married at 13 to 14 and boys at 20, and they started the cycle all over again.


Brier, Bob, and Hoyt Hobbs. (1999). Daily Life of the Ancient Egyptians. Westport, Connecticutt: Greenwood Press.

Bunson, Margaret. (1991). “on the bricks.” A Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press.

David, Rosalie. (1998). Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press.
Macdonald, Fiona. (1999). Women in Ancient Egypt. New York: Peter Bedrick Books.

Manning, Ruth. (2003). Ancient Egyptian Women. People in the Past series. Chicago, Illinois: Reed Educational and Professional Publishing.

Parsons, Marie. (1999-2003). Children and Children in Ancient Egypt. Tour Egypt Feature. InterCity Oz, Inc. http://www.touregypt.net/featurestories/mothers.htm

Shaw, Ian, and Paul Nicholson. (1995, 2003). “children.” The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. New York: Harry N Abrams, Inc.

Tyldesley, Joyce. (1994). Daughters of Isis: Women in Ancient Egypt. New York: Penguin Books, Ltd.

Watterson, Barbara. (1991). Women in Ancient Egypt. Phoenix Mill-Thrupps-Stroud-Gloucestershire, UK: Alan Sutton Publishing Limited.

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