Ancient Egyptian Society and Family Life

BY | Douglas J. Brewer | Emily Teeter

SESSION 1: Marriage and the Family

The Egyptians appear to have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind. Women attend markets and are employed in trade, while men stay at home and do the weaving! Men in Egypt carry loads on their head, women on their shoulder. Women pass water standing up, men sitting down. To ease themselves, they go indoors, but eat outside on the streets, on the theory that what is unseemly, but necessary, should be done in private, and what is not unseemly should be done openly.

(Herodotus II: 33-37)

The nuclear family was the core of Egyptian society and many of the gods were even arranged into such groupings. There was tremendous pride in one's family, and lineage was traced through both the mother's and father's lines. Respect for one's parents was a cornerstone of morality, and the most fundamental duty of the eldest son (or occasionally daughter) was to care for his parents in their last days and to ensure that they received a proper burial.

Countless genealogical lists indicate how important family ties were, yet Egyptian kinship terms lacked specific words to identify blood relatives beyond the nuclear family. For example, the word used to designate "mother" was also used for "grandmother," and the word for "father" was the same as "grandfather"; likewise, the terms for "son," "grandson," and "nephew" (or "daughter," "granddaughter," and "niece") were identical. "Uncle" and "brother" (or "sister" and "aunt") were also designated by the same word. To make matters even more confusing for modern scholars, the term "sister" was often used for "wife," perhaps an indication of the strength of the bond between spouses.

Once a young man was well into adolescence, it was appropriate for him to seek a partner and begin his own family. Females were probably thought to be ready for marriage after their first menses. The marrying age of males was probably a little older, perhaps 16 to 20 years of age, because they had to become established and be able to support a family.

Virginity was not a necessity for marriage; indeed, premarital sex, or any sex between unmarried people, was socially acceptable. Once married, however, couples were expected to be sexually faithful to each other. Egyptians (except the king) were, in theory, monogamous, and many records indicate that couples expressed true affection for each other. They were highly sensual people, and a major theme of their religion was fertility and procreation. This sensuality is reflected by two New Kingdom love poems: "Your hand is in my hand, my body trembles with joy, my heart is exalted because we walk together," and "She is more beautiful than any other girl, she is like a star rising . . . with beautiful eyes for looking and sweet lips for kissing" (after Lichtheim 1976: 182).

marriage papyrus
Oriental Institute
enlarge Demotic "marriage" papyrus.

Marriage was purely a social arrangement that regulated property. Neither religious nor state doctrines entered into the marriage and, unlike other documents that related to economic matters (such as the so-called "marriage contracts"), marriages themselves were not registered. Apparently once a couple started living together, they were acknowledged to be married. As related in the story of Setne, "I was taken as a wife to the house of Naneferkaptah [that night, and pharaoh] sent me a present of silver and gold . . . He [her husband] slept with me that night and found me pleasing. He slept with me again and again and we loved each other" (Lichtheim 1980: 128).

Compare the legal weight of marriage among the ancient Egyptians with marriage practice in other cultures.

How similar is this ancient concept and construct to contemporary Western notions of marriage?
The ancient Egyptian terms for marriage (meni, "to moor [a boat]," and grg pr, "to found a house") convey the sense that the arrangement was about property. Texts indicate that the groom often gave the bride's family a gift, and he also gave his wife presents. Legal texts indicate that each spouse maintained control of the property that they brought to the marriage, while other property acquired during the union was jointly held. Ideally the new couple lived in their own house, but if that was impossible they would live with one of their parents. Considering the lack of effective contraceptives and the Egyptian's traditional desire to have a large family, most women probably became pregnant shortly after marriage.

Although the institution of marriage was taken seriously, divorce was not uncommon. Either partner could institute divorce for fault (adultery, inability to conceive, or abuse) or no fault (incompatibility). Divorce was, no doubt, a matter of disappointment but certainly not one of disgrace, and it was very common for divorced people to remarry.

Although in theory divorce was an easy matter, in reality it was probably an undertaking complicated enough to motivate couples to stay together, especially when property was involved. When a woman chose to divorce--if the divorce was uncontested--she could leave with what she had brought into the marriage plus a share (about one third to two thirds) of the marital joint property. One text (Ostracon Petrie 18), however, recounts the divorce of a woman who abandoned her sick husband, and in the resulting judgment she was forced to renounce all their joint property. If the husband left the marriage he was liable to a fine or payment of support (analogous to alimony), and in many cases he forfeited his share of the joint property.

Egyptian women had greater freedom of choice and more equality under social and civil law than their contemporaries in Mesopotamia or even the women of the later Greek and Roman civilizations. Her right to initiate divorce was one of the ways in which her full legal rights were manifested. Additionally, women could serve on juries, testify in trials, inherit real estate, and disinherit ungrateful children. It is interesting, however, that in contrast to modern Western societies, gender played an increasingly important role in determining female occupations in the upper classes than in the peasant and working classes. Women of the peasant class worked side by side with men in the fields; in higher levels of society, gender roles were more entrenched, and women were more likely to remain at home while their husbands plied their crafts or worked at civil jobs.

View a timeline of the ancient Egyptian dynasties.

Through most of the Pharaonic Period, men and women inherited equally, and from each parent separately. The eldest son often, but not always, inherited his father's job and position (whether in workshop or temple), but to him also fell the onerous and costly responsibility of his parents' proper burial. Real estate generally was not divided among heirs but was held jointly by the family members. If a family member wished to leave property to a person other than the expected heirs, a document called an imeyt-per ("that which is in the house") would ensure the wishes of the deceased.

SESSION 2: Child-bearing and Family Life

The relationship between coitus and pregnancy was clearly recognized by the ancient Egyptians. For example, the Late Period story of Setna relates, "She lay down beside her husband. She received [the fluid of] conception from him"; and a hymn to Khonsu relates, "the male member to beget; the female womb to conceive and increase generations in Egypt." Although the Egyptians understood the general functions of parts of the reproductive system, the relationships between parts was sometimes unclear. For example, they knew that the testicles were involved in procreation, but they thought the origin of semen was in the bones and that it simply passed through the testicles. Female internal anatomy was understood even less well. Anatomical naivety can be gleaned from the fact that, although the function of the womb was understood, it was erroneously thought to be directly connected to the alimentary canal. Thus, placing a clove of garlic in the vagina was supposed to test for fertility: if garlic could be detected on the breath of a woman then she was fertile; if not, then she was infertile.

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enlarge Images and symbols of fertility were of importance to the ancient Egyptians, as considered in this slideshow.
In Egyptian households of all classes, children of both sexes were valued and wanted (there is no indication that female infanticide was practiced). In addition to fertility tests, tests for pregnancy and the determination of the gender of the child were devised. One test involved watering barley and emmer wheat with the urine of a hopeful mother-to-be. If the barley sprouted, the woman was pregnant with a male child; if the emmer wheat germinated, she was pregnant with a female child. If the urine had no effect, the woman was not pregnant. Though there actually may be some scientific basis for this test--a pregnant woman produces a variety of hormones, some of which can induce early flowering in particular plants--there is no known relationship between these plants and the determination of gender.

The birth of a child was a time of great joy as well as one of serious concern given the high rate of infant mortality and the stress of childbirth on the mother. Childbirth was viewed as a natural phenomenon and not an illness, so assistance in childbirth was usually carried out by a midwife.

Data collected from modern non-industrial societies suggest that infant mortality in ancient Egypt was undoubtedly high. One of the best ways to maintain a healthy infant under the less-than-sanitary conditions that prevailed in ancient times was by breast-feeding. In addition to the transfer of antibodies through mother's milk, breast-feeding also offered protection from food-born diseases. Gastrointestinal disorders are common under poor sanitary conditions, and because infant immunity is reduced during weaning, children's susceptibility to disease increases at this time. Indirect evidence for this occurring in ancient Egypt comes from a number of cemeteries where the childhood death rate peaks at about age four, which correlates with an Egyptian child's introduction to solid foods. Prolonged lactation also offered a number of heath advantages to the mother. Primarily, it reduces the chance of conceiving another child too soon by hormonally suppressing ovulation, which allows the mother more time between pregnancies. The three-year period for suckling a child recommended in the "Instructions of Any" (New Kingdom) therefore struck an unconscious but evolutionarily important balance between the needs of procreation, the health of the mother, and the survival of the newborn child.

Egyptian children who successfully completed their fifth year could generally look forward to a full life, which in peasant society was about thirty-three years for men and twenty-nine years for women, based on skeletal evidence. Textual records indicate that for upper-class males, who were generally better fed and performed less strenuous labor than the lower classes, life expectancy could reach well into the sixties and seventies and sometimes even the eighties and nineties. Upper-class women also looked forward to a longer life than women from the lower classes, but the arduous task of bearing many children resulted in a lower life expectancy compared to their male counterparts.

Dolls and toys indicate that children were allowed ample time to play, but once they matured past infancy (i.e., were weaned) they began training for adulthood. Young girls assisted their mothers with household tasks or worked with them in some capacity in the fields. Other female members of the mother's household would aid in the care of younger siblings. Similarly, young boys followed their fathers into their occupation, first carrying out simple chores, then later working and carrying out more important tasks. Parents also familiarized their children with ideas about the world, their religious outlook, ethical principles, and correct behavior.

The end of childhood appears to have been marked by the onset of menses for girls and the ceremony of circumcision for boys. That circumcision was a ritual transition from boyhood to manhood is indicated by references such as "When I was a boy, before my foreskin was removed from me." As far as is known, in the Pharaonic Period only males were circumcised, but exactly how prevalent circumcision was through society is unclear. Some uncircumcised mummies, including King Ahmose and perhaps King Amunhotep I, indicate that the practice may have not been universal.

Young men did not usually choose their own careers. Herodotus and Diodorus refer explicitly to a hereditary calling in ancient Egypt. This was not a system of rigid inheritance but an endeavor to pass on a father's function to his children. A son was commonly referred to as "the staff of his father's old age," designated to assist the elder in the performance of his duties and finally to succeed him. The need for support in old age and to ensure inheritance made adoption quite common for childless couples; one New Kingdom ostracon relates, "As for him who has no children, he adopts an orphan instead [to] bring him up." There are examples of a man who "adopted" his brother and of a woman named Nau-nakht, who had other children, who adopted and reared the freed children of her female servant because of the kindness that they showed to her.

Seti I
Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, OIM 10507
Seti I and his son, the future Ramesses the Great.
New Kingdom, Dynasty 19, Reign of Seti I, ca. 1291-1279 B.C.
Purchased in Cairo, 1919.

Mythically, kingship was passed from Osiris (the deceased king) to the "Living Horus" (his successor); in actuality, the eldest son of the king normally inherited the office from his father. This stela shows King Seti I (second from left) and his son, later Ramesses II ("The Great"), who stands behind him. Ramesses wears his hair in a side ponytail, a style characteristic of a youth or of a special type of priest, and he carries a slender fan that was a sign of rank.
This relief was probably commissioned by the two priests shown at the right to commemorate their function in the religious cult of the royal family. Showing oneself in the presence of the king was a great honor.
Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, OIM 10589
Djedhor and his daughters.
Reign of Philip Arrhidaeus, ca. 323 B.C. Athribis.
Purchased in Egypt, 1919.

This statue base, which once supported a magical healing statue, was dedicated by a man named Djedhor. He was Chief Guardian of the Sacred Falcon who, according to the hieroglyphic texts on this block, cared for flocks of sacred birds. On one side of the base he appears with his daughters, on the other with his sons, an indication that he revered his daughters as much as his sons which in turn reflects the high status of women in ancient Egypt.

Although peasant children probably never entered any formal schooling, male children of scribes and the higher classes entered school at an early age. (Young girls were not formally schooled, but because some women knew how to read and write they must have had access to a learned family member or a private tutor.) Though we have no information about the location or organization of schools prior to the Middle Kingdom, we can tell that after that time they were attached to some administrative offices, temples (specifically the Ramesseum and the Temple of Mut), and the palace. In addition to "public" schooling, groups of nobles also hired private tutors to teach their children. Because education had not yet established itself as a separate discipline, teachers were drawn from the ranks of experienced or pedagogically gifted scribes who, as part of their duties and to ensure the supply of future scribes, taught either in the classroom or took apprentices in their offices.

Education consisted mainly of endless rote copying and recitation of texts, in order to perfect spelling and orthography. Gesso-covered boards with students' imperfect copies and their master's corrections attest to this type of training. Mathematics was also an important part of the young male's training. In addition, schooling included the memorization of proverbs and myths, by which pupils were educated in social propriety and religious doctrine. Not surprisingly, many of these texts stress how noble (and advantageous) the profession of scribe was: "Be a scribe for he is in control of everything; he who works in writing is not taxed, nor does he have to pay any dues."

Length of schooling differed widely. The high priest Bekenkhonsu recalls that he started school at five and attended four years followed by eleven years' apprenticeship in the stables of King Seti I. At about twenty he was appointed to a low level of the priesthood (wab). In another documented case, one scribe in training was thirty years of age, but this must have been an unusual case.

SESSION 3: Dress and Fashion

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enlarge Nykauinpu and his wife, Hemetradjet.
Ancient Egyptians were extremely interested in fashion and its changes. This seems evident from trends seen in tomb scenes where the costumes and styles of the upper classes were soon copied by the lower classes. The most common fabric for clothing (both women's and men's) was linen. Because linen is very hard to dye, most clothes were off-white, so color was added with heavy beaded collars and other jewelry.

The standard apparel of women from the Old Kingdom into the New Kingdom was the sheath dress, which could be worn strapless or with two broad shoulder straps. Most examples of these dresses reach the ankles. Most sources depict women wearing impossibly tight and impractical dresses, suggesting that the representations are idealized to emphasize the sensuality of the female body.

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D. Brewer and E. Teeter
enlarge Consider the changing styles of dress for women and men.
The most ancient garment worn by men was a kilt that was made of a rectangular piece of linen cloth wrapped rather loosely around the hips, leaving the knees uncovered. As a rule, it was wrapped around the body from right to left so that the edge of the skirt would be in the front. The upper edge was tucked behind the tie, or girdle, that held the kilt together. This garment was the standard male attire for all classes from peasants to royalty, though the quality of the linen and the exact style varied according to one's purchasing power. Some of the fancier, more expensive kilts had bias-cut edges, pleated decorative panels, or fringed edges, and were made of finer, softer linen. By late Dynasty 4 and early Dynasty 5, it became fashionable to wear the kilt longer and wider or to wear it with an inverted box pleat that appeared as an erect triangular front piece. Though styles changed over time, the simple kilt remained the standard garb for scribes, servants, and peasants.

Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, OIM 7189
Ptolemaic-Roman, 2nd century B.C.-2nd century A.D. Fayum, Grave H 17.
Gift of the Egypt Exploration Fund, 1901-2.
In the winter, the middle and upper classes wore a heavy cloak extending from neck to ankle, which could be wrapped around and folded or clasped in front. Depictions of such cloaks extend from Archaic to Ptolemaic times. Although sandals of rush and reeds are known, regardless of the occasion or social class, Egyptians apparently often went barefoot.

During the New Kingdom, when Egypt extended its political influence east into Asia, Egyptian fashion changed radically. With the influx of trade and ideas from the east, fashions became more varied, changed more quickly, and often took on an eastern flavor. Men and women of the upper classes, for example, wore layers of fine, nearly transparent kilts and long- or short sleeved shirts that tied at the neck, or draped themselves in billowing robes of fine linen that extended from neck to ankle and were drawn in at the waist by a sash. The better examples of these garments were heavily pleated, and some were ornamented with colored ball fringe.

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Oriental Institute
enlarge Review the styles and fashions of the ancient Egyptians.
For most of the Pharaonic Period, women wore their hair (or wigs) long and straight; after Dynasty 18 hairstyles became more elaborate. During all periods men wore their hair short, but they also wore wigs, the style befitting the occasion. These wigs were made of human hair or plant fiber. Both genders wore copious amounts of perfumes and cosmetics made of ground minerals and earth pigments. Fashion statements were made with accessories such as jewelry and ribbons. Men also carried staffs that marked status and social class.

SESSION 4: Entertainment

There is much evidence for the leisure activities of the ancient Egyptians. Men engaged in physical sports, such as hunting, fishing, archery, wrestling, boxing, and stick fencing. Long-distance races were organized to demonstrate physical prowess, and both men and women enjoyed swimming. Board games were popular, and games boards were constructed of a number of materials: wood, stone, clay, or simple drawings scratched on the ground. Moves on board games were determined by throw sticks, astragali (animal anklebones), or after the late New Kingdom, cubic dice that were usually marked in the same pattern used today. One of the most common games was senet, which was played on a board of thirty squares divided into three rows of ten squares. Like so many other aspects of Egyptian culture, senet had a religious significance, and the game was likened to passing through the underworld.

snake game
Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, OIM 16950
Snake (Mehen) game.
Egyptian alabaster, pigment.
Old Kingdom, Dynasties 3-6, ca. 2750-2250 B.C.
Purchased in Egypt, 1934.

A game board in the form of a coiled snake was among the earliest Egyptian games. Using a set of lion-shaped and round markers, play started at the snake's tail, which was in the form of a bird's head. The two or four opponents raced each other to the goal located in the snake's head. Mehen was the name of the serpent deity whose coils protected the sun god.
Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, OIM 371
20 square game.
Acacia wood, copper.
New Kingdom, Dynasties 18-19, ca. 1570-1069 B.C. Akhmim?
Purchased in Egypt, 1894-5.

The game of 20 squares was played by two opponents, each of whom had 5 playing pieces. Play began with the pieces placed on the undecorated areas on each side of the board. The players moved down the side squares and up the middle of the board. Plays were determined with throw sticks, dice, or knucklebones. Religious texts indicate that playing the game was likened to passing through the underworld in the quest for eternal rebirth.

The "twenty square game," which originated in Sumer and was known through the entire ancient Near East and Cyprus, was played on a rectangular board divided into three rows of four, twelve, and four squares, respectively. Both senet and twenty squares were played by two opponents. Another ancient game was mehen, played by several players on a round board that looked like a coiled snake. The playing pieces, tiny lions and small balls, were moved from the tail of the snake to the goal on its head. Although this game was played in Egypt only during the Old Kingdom, it continued to be played in Cyprus for another 1,000 years.

game pieces
Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, OIM 9819, 9820
Game markers.
Faience, ivory.
New Kingdom and later, ca. 1300-300 B.C.
Purchased, 1920.
Tomb paintings indicate that banquets were a popular form of relaxation, at least for the upper class. At such events food, alcoholic beverages, music, and dancing were common forms of entertainment. The organization of the tomb scenes may be misleading, it seems that proprieties of the times kept male and female guests seated in separate areas although men and women performed together.

The foundation of all daily or banquet meals, regardless of social class, was the same: bread, beer, and vegetables. The latter included leeks, onions, garlic, a number of pulses (beans, peas, lentils, etc.), and several varieties of melons. Wealthier Egyptians had more opportunities to enjoy red meat, fowl, honey-sweetened cakes and other delicacies. Lower-class Egyptians relied on fish and fowl for most of their meat proteins. The ready availability of wild fish and fowl made them inexpensive, while beef and, to a varying extent, other red meats were expensive and considered by many to be a luxury.

The national drink in ancient Egypt was beer, and all ancient Egyptians--rich and poor, male and female--drank great quantities of it. Wages were paid in grain, which was used to make two staples of the Egyptian diet: bread and beer. Beer was made from barley dough, so bread making and beer making are often shown together. Barley dough destined for beer making was partially baked and then crumbled into a large vat, where it was mixed with water and sometimes sweetened with date juice. This mixture was left to ferment, which it did quickly; the liquid was then strained into a pot that was sealed with a clay stopper. Ancient Egyptian beer had to be drunk soon after it was made because it went flat very quickly. Egyptians made a variety of beers of different strengths. Strength was calculated according to how many standard measures of the liquid was made from one hekat (4.54 liters) of barley; thus, beer of strength two was stronger than beer of strength ten.

Nykauinpu figures
Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
Nykauinpu figures: woman grinding grain (left) and winnower (right).
In addition to beer, wine was also widely drunk. Jar labels with notations that the wine was from the "Vineyard of King Djet" indicate that wine production was well established as early as Dynasty 1. By Dynasty 5 and 6, grapevines and wine production were common motifs in decorated tombs, and records imply that some vineyards produced considerable amounts of wine. One vineyard, for example, is said to have delivered 1,200 jars of good wine and fifty jars of medium-quality wine in one year.

Wines in ancient Egypt, like wines today, were recognized by their vintage, often identified by the name of the village, town, district, or general geographic region where it was produced. At least fourteen different wine-producing areas existed in the Delta alone; although the extent of these regions cannot be defined, their general location can be identified--Upper Egyptian vintages were not as numerous as those of the Delta, but were said to be of excellent quality (e.g., Theban wines were known for their lightness and wholesomeness). Wines were also known to have been produced in the oases.

Wine jar labels normally specified the quality of wine, such as "good wine," "sweet wine," "very very good wine," or the variety, such as pomegranate wine. It is difficult to speculate about the taste of Egyptian wine compared to modern standards. Nevertheless, because of the climate, low acid (sweet) grapes probably predominated, which would have resulted in a sweet rather than dry wine. Alcohol content would have varied considerably from area to area and from vintage to vintage, but generally Egyptian wine would have had a lower alcohol content than modern table wines.

Douglas J. Brewer and Emily Teeter
A woman who over-indulged (Dynasty 19).
It has been suggested that the effects of drinking wine were sometimes enhanced by additives. For example, tomb paintings often depict wine jars wrapped or draped in lotus flowers, suggesting that the Egyptians may have been aware of the narcotic qualities of blue lotus petals when mixed with wine. There is much evidence for the excess consumption of both beer and wine, and King Menkaure (Dynasty 4) and King Amasis (Dynasty 26) figure in tales about drunkenness. Some ancient scenes are quite graphic in their depiction of over-indulgence. For instance, in the tomb of Paheri an elegant lady is shown presenting her empty cup to a servant and saying "give me eighteen measures of wine, behold I should love [to drink] to drunkenness."

Along with eating and drinking went dance and song. Dancing seems to have been a spectator sport in which professionals performed for the guests. As a rule, men danced with men and women with women. Singers, whether soloists or entire choruses accompanied by musical instruments, entertained guests in private homes and in the palace.

Oriental Institute, University of Chicago
Musicians entertain at a banquet (Dynasty 18).
Ancient Egyptians played a variety of musical instruments. Of the wind instruments, one of the oldest was a flute made of reed or wood, and illustrated on Predynastic pieces of broken pottery (i.e., sherds) as well as on a slate palette from Hierakonpolis. By the Old Kingdom, single and double flutes were played. They could be side-blown (much like a modern flute), or end-blown (like a recorder). The flute always remained popular among Egyptians and it has survived to this day as the Arabic nay and uffafa. Also popular during the Old Kingdom were large floor harps and various percussion instruments ranging from bone or ivory clappers to hand-rattles (sistra) and rectangular or round frame drums. Drums of all sizes were played using fingers and hands; sticks or batons were apparently not used.

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enlarge Harpist.
During the New Kingdom, many new instruments were added to the instrumental ensemble, including small shoulder-held harps, trumpets, lutes, oboes, and seven-stringed lyres. Trumpets were generally restricted to the military. Egyptian lutes had a long slender neck and an elongated oval resonating chamber made of wood or tortoise shell (the sound emitted from these instruments would have been something approximating a cross between a mandolin and the American banjo). The cylindrical drum, about 1 meter high with a leather skin laced on at each end, was also popular during the New Kingdom; it was used both by the military and civilian population. The long oboe, played with a double reed, was introduced to Egypt from Asia Minor, and during the Graeco-Roman period, a number of instruments of Greek origin were adopted by the Egyptians, including pan-pipes and a water organ with a keyboard.

Although the sound quality of the ancient instruments can in some cases be recreated, no evidence exists that the Egyptians ever developed a system of musical notation; thus the ancient melodies, rhythms, and keys remain unknown. Some scholars believe, however, that vestiges of the ancient music may be found in the music of the peoples now living in Western Desert oases, and these songs are being scrutinized for their possible origins.

In contrast to the banquets of the rich and the organized meetings of the lower classes, a different type of entertainment was provided by inns and beer houses where drinking often led to singing, dancing, and gaming, and men and women were free to interact with each other. Taverns stayed open late into the night, and patrons drank beer in such quantities that intoxication was not uncommon. In one ancient text a teacher at a school of scribes chastens a student for his night activities: "I have heard that you abandoned writing and that you whirl around in pleasures, that you go from street to street and it reeks of beer. Beer makes him cease being a man. It causes your soul to wander . . . Now you stumble and fall upon your belly, being anointed with dirt" (Caminos 1954: 182).

The streets of larger towns no doubt had a number of "beer halls," and the same text as just quoted refers to the "harlots" who could be found there. Proverbs warning young men to avoid fraternization with "a woman who has no house" indicate that some form of prostitution existed in ancient Egyptian society. For instance, the "Instructions of Ankhsheshenqy" admonish, "He who makes love to a woman of the street will have his purse cut open on its side" (Lichtheim 1980: 176). During the Graeco-Roman period, brothels were known to exist near town harbors and could be identified by an erect phallus over the door, and tax records refer to houses that were leased for the purpose of prostitution. Prostitution was not, however, associated with temples or religious cults in Egypt.


Douglas J. Brewer

Douglas J. Brewer is professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, Urbana, and director of the Spurlock Museum. He has written four books and numerous articles on Egypt, and has spent eighteen years involved in field projects in Egypt, including research on the natural history of the Eastern Desert, the Palaeolithic / Neolithic transition in the Fayum, and excavations concerned with the Predynastic and Dynastic culture of the Nile Valley.


Emily Teeter

Emily Teeter is research associate and curator of ancient Egyptian and Nubian antiquities at the Oriental Institute Museum, University of Chicago. She is the author of a wide variety of books and scholarly articles about Egyptian religion and history, and has participated in expeditions in Giza, Luxor, and Alexandria.

COPYRIGHT This seminar is extracted from Chapter 7 of Egypt and the Egyptians, Cambridge University Press, 2001. Copyright Douglas J. Brewer and Emily Teeter 1999.

(c) 2004 The University of Chicago :: Please direct questions or comments to