Writings of Dr John Palo

Women of Ancient Egypt 

by Dr. John Palo, D.C., D.A.B.C.O., F.R.C.
Member, International Research Council
Egypt's ancient monuments can give us a false idea about the status of women in Egyptian civilization. After all, they were often portrayed as tiny afterthoughts at the feet of colossal male figures. Nonetheless, the historical facts reveal that women enjoyed high status in ancient Egypt. How can we explain this seeming contradiction?
It might help to keep in mind that throughout much of ancient Egyptian history the pharaoh was considered the direct representative of God. As such, any sculpture of him had to portray him as larger than other mortals--bigger than life. Yet, this sculptural inequity between a huge pharaoh and tiny queen at his feet was the exception rather than the rule. The colossi of Pharaoh Akhnaton, for instance, in the Cairo Museum show no diminutive queen at his feet. In numerous wall reliefs we find him normally slightly taller than his beautiful wife, Queen Nefertiti.
The largest Egyptian statues are of Rameses II at Abu Simbel which show a mini-queen at his feet. Yet, in Queen Nefertari's temple nearby, we see her portrayed in a statue of equal size with that of her husband, Rameses II, and the goddess Hathor. Likewise, a beautiful pair of statues from the Old Kingdom (Fourth Dynasty) of Pharaoh Menkaure and Queen Khamerernebty II depict them side by side and exactly the same size. So, while the pharaoh was looked upon as a god with an appropriately large statue, the queen as "God's Wife" was usually portrayed of equal size. Once we resolve the Pharaoh-equals-God idea, the occasional sculptural inequities no longer completely blind us to the true status of royal and non-royal women in ancient Egypt.

Female Pharaohs
Present research tells us that Egypt had at least five, possibly six, native female pharaohs. Statues and records of these pharaohs are rare. Pharaoh Hatshepsut is the exception. However, during her reign as pharaoh she never had a husband. Thus we have no grand statue of her with a little husband at her feet.
One of two female pharaohs in the Old Kingdom was Pharaoh Nitokerty. She reigned around 2180 B.C., at the end of the Sixth Dynasty. Records show, even as late as the Roman takeover of Egypt, that she was regarded as the bravest and most beautiful woman of her time.
The famous Cleopatra VII, a descendant of the Greek Ptolemaic pharaohs, reigned before and after the time of the Roman conquest of Egypt. At this late time in Egyptian history the building of huge personal statues of the pharaohs was no longer in vogue. We can only speculate, in that clash of Roman and Egyptian cultures, whether Julius Caesar or Marc Antony would have settled for less-than-knee-high statues of themselves at Cleopatra's feet. That is, of course, if Cleopatra had subdued the Romans.

"Daughter of the God"
It is important to keep in mind that from the First Dynasty (about 5000 years ago) the Egyptian royal line of descent was traced through the women. A princess of royal blood was considered a "Daughter of the God." A man of lesser birth who aspired to the throne sought marriage with a royal princess. The royal female descent was looked upon as the God-line. There was a strange offshoot to this idea. Male pharaohs who married someone outside this royal line felt compelled to later marry one of their own daughter-princesses. This, it seems, helped to assure them of the divine character of their position as pharaoh. The marriage was probably all ceremony and involved no incest. In some way this ceremony helped the male pharaoh maintain an appearance of a man-wife association with the female royal bloodline.
There is a more down-to-earth explanation for such royal bloodline marriages. They may have prevented the constant usurpation of the throne.
However intricate we may find pharaonic lineage in ancient Egypt, the fact of female pharaohs speaks well for the position of women in Egypt. After all, in the United States, where the citizens pride themselves in the field of equal human rights, a female president is yet to be elected. But, then, the United States is only 211 years old--making it a child alongside Egypt's 5000 years as a nation.
Yet, we should not overstate the case for equality of the sexes in the position of pharaoh. While ancient Egypt had some female pharaohs, we must admit this position was male oriented. For the most part female Egyptian pharaohs, great as they were, served as interim pharaohs. They often just succeeded their husband or served while a younger brother or son was prepared for the position.

Equal Pay for Equal Work
Once we leave the intricacies of royal male/female relationships, the scale of equality between the sexes become even more balanced. Most non-royal statues show men and women (noble or not noble) of equal size. Herodotus, the Greek "father of history," who traveled to Egypt in the middle of the fifth century, B.C., was surprised at the freedom of Egyptian women. He wrote, "The Egyptians themselves, in their manners and customs, seem to have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind. For instance, women attend market and are employed in trade, while men stay at home and do the weaving." In those times Greek women were very much confined to their homes. On the other hand, Egyptian women had been involved in trade for some 2000 years before Herodotus. And, of equal importance, the men and women of Egypt were paid equally in proportion to the work they performed.
In ancient Egypt it was not uncommon to have women supervisors in commerce and industry. At least one Egyptian woman was recorded as being both a judge and vizier. In religion, as early as the Old Kingdom, many women served as priests. And, the chief priest could be a woman. Both male and female priests received equal pay. Further, there is a record of one woman with the title "Chief of Lady Physicians."

Early Christian Equality
Even as late as early Christianity, Egypt differed from Rome, Greece, Gaul, Asia Minor, and provincial Africa in her attitude towards women's place in Christianity. Clement of Alexandria, an early Egyptian Christian father (and probably a Gnostic initiate), wrote, circa A.D. 180: "Men and women share equally in perfection, and are to receive the same instruction and the same discipline. For the name humanity is common to both men and women; and for us in Christ there is neither male nor female."
Compare that with the words of Tertullian, a contemporary of Clement, whose views reflected those of most orthodox Christians. In a tirade against Gnostic Christians, he exclaimed, "These heretical women--how audacious they are! They have no modesty; they are bold enough to teach, to engage in argument, to enact exorcisms, to undertake cures, and, it may be, even to baptize!" In another attack against a woman teacher who dared to lead a congregation, Tertullian stated that he agreed with the "precepts of ecclesiastical discipline concerning women," i.e., "It is not permitted for a woman to speak in the church, nor is it permitted for her to teach, nor to baptize, nor to offer [the eucharist], nor to claim for herself a share in any masculine function--not to mention any priestly office." Sadly, it is Tertullian's attitude of male domination that still prevails in much of Christianity, as well as Judaism and Islam. The early Egyptian Gnostic Christian views of Clement of Alexandria may yet prove a beacon light for equal sacerdotal rights for women.

Equality Under Law
So, not only did ancient Egypt lead in female assumption of the highest national offices, Egypt also led in the field of female involvement in religion and the work place. In an excellent book, The Remarkable Women of Ancient Egypt, Barbara S. Lesko states, "Four thousand years ago women in the Nile Valley enjoyed more legal rights and privileges than women have in some nations of the world today. Equal pay for equal work is a cry heard now but seems to have been the norm thousands of years ago in Egypt."
Again, let us not be fooled by those huge, eye-catching male pharaoh statues with minuscule queens at their feet. It merely depicts the pharaoh, male or female, as God personified. Aside from this seeming paradox, ancient Egypt was the world leader in equal rights for men and women. Talent and ability, not sex, was the prime key to employment and pay.
Perhaps Ms. Lesko sums it up best: "The Egyptian couple went everywhere together, sharing life's trials and delights as respected and equal citizens in their secular and religious communities, enjoying equality under the law as well. Surely this was one of the glories of Ancient Egypt."
Aldred, Cyril. The Egyptians, New York: Thames & Hudson, 1987.
De Pauw, Cornelius. Philosophical Dissertations on the Egyptians and Chinese, Vol. I. London: T. Chapman, printer, 1795.
Ghalioungui, G.P. & Dawakhly, Z. Health and Healing in Ancient Egypt: A Pictorial Essay. Cairo: The Organization for Authorship and Translation, 1965.
Harris, James E. & Wente, Edward F. An X-Ray Atlas of the Royal Mummies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.
Lesko, Barbara S. The Remarkable Women of Ancient Egypt. Providence, Rhode Island: B.C. Scribe Publications, 1987.
Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House, 1979.
Copyright 1988 Dr. John Palo

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