What is the relationship between marriage, reproduction, and female power in Ancient Greece and Egypt?

Author: Charlotte Allan

Sub-editor: Maija Drezins

Though unique to each ancient society, the relationship between marriage, reproduction, and female power coincides strongly in ancient Greece and Egypt, highlighting the “sociocultural differences,” present in these diverse societies. Despite these differences, it becomes clear that female status and agency is strongly determined by their roles as wives and mothers, illustrating a shared connection between women in various ancient societies. Examining female domestic power and agency, it can be argued that Egyptian women experienced more sexual freedom than Greek women, who “were excluded from the public sphere.” Labelling Greek women as part of the “oikos,” meant her power was largely subordinated. However, as seen in ancient literary sources, pregnant women were often acknowledged for the hardship that they had undergone during gestation, resulting in limited forms of power. Furthermore, in relation to Egyptian women, it becomes explicit that they had levels of pre-existing agency removed when they became pregnant. Similarly, in ancient Greece, marriage was characterised as a practical business arrangement, and men had a large amount of control over what happened during and after pregnancy, thus diminishing a Greek woman’s political and economic power in antiquity. The relationship between marriage, reproduction, and female power can also be conveyed through religious forms of power. While in Egypt childbirth was sacred, there was also a strong association between reproduction and men, focusing upon the importance of semen. Additionally, in ancient Greece, there was a gynocentric model of fertility throughout the city-states, and activities such as chanting to goddesses equated to feminine power. However, evidence of rituals such as the public display of unmarried girls, subverts this agency. Ultimately, this essay will demonstrate the strong relationship between marriage, reproduction, and female power throughout ancient Greece and Egypt, arguing their differences and similarities across space and time.

Women in Egypt experienced more sexual freedom than Greek women, thus positioning them as having a stronger sense of agency in the domestic sphere. Marriage in Egypt was a “private affair,” and was not as heavily implicated with a religious or political contract like it was in ancient Greece. The construct of virginity was also not an essential element of an Egyptian marriage, which allowed Egyptian women to have a sense of power and agency over their bodies and intimate desires. As a result, roles in ancient Egypt between men and women were more equal, with ancient literary sources, such as those by Herodotus, outlining the ordinary practices of men and women throughout an Egyptian society. For example, Herodotus describes how in Egypt:

“The women buy and sell, the men abide at home and weave. Men carry burdens on their heads, women on their shoulders. Women make water standing, men sitting.”

Demonstrated through Herodotus’ observations of non-traditional male and female life in ancient Egypt, it can be suggested through considerations such as male weaving that the status between men and women was more equal than those in other ancient societies. This observation highlights how traditional feminine domestic roles such as weaving were also performed by men in Egypt, ascribing a sense of power to married women residing in Egypt. Furthermore, statues such as ‘Nyakauinpu and his wife, Hemetradjet’ from the Old Kingdom (2700-2200 BCE), depict the married couple as equals, presenting each figure at a similar height, thus reinforcing observations made by Herodotus surrounding the balanced marital relationship (Fig. 1). Building on this, Hemetradjet’s “sheath dress functioned to emphasise the sexuality of the female body… draw[ing] attention to her round belly and full thighs.” Serving as a symbolic embodiment of fertility, this statue reinforces the strong relationship between marriage, reproduction, and power for ancient Egyptian women.

Figure 1:
Statue of Nyakauinpu and his wife Hemetradjet, from Old Kingdom, ca. 2477-2466 BCE. From Varadharajulu 2020.

Conversely, a woman’s purpose in ancient Greece was to produce heirs for her husband, serving as part of the Greek household oikos. For example, in Classical Greece, there was pressure put upon a woman to produce several children as her husband could face harsh penalties if this was not accomplished. If a wife had a childless family and died, “her dowry was to be returned to her family,” largely impacting her husband’s honour and pride. This example demonstrates a lack of agency towards an ancient Greek woman’s individual identity, preventing her ownership of her body and marital status. Furthermore, sections of The Hippocratic Corpus further reinforce an ancient Greek woman’s subordinate role within society, outlining the differences between male and female sperm. Explaining that if “both partners produce a stronger sperm, than a male is the result, whereas if they produce a weak form, then the female is the result,” females are stereotypically characterised as weaker and therefore inferior to men even from conception. Moreover, in the Corpus, blame is also placed upon a woman if she does not orgasm or feel the same sense of pleasure as a man. Stating that her lack of “pleasure terminates along with that of the man,” misconception is highlighted as the result. Unsurprisingly, scholars such as Edward M. Harris, have noted that “a woman’s thwarted desire as the cause of trouble is also a powerful theme in [Greek] tragedy,” thus demonstrating the blame placed upon a woman for not being able to conceive and limiting her sense of agency. In contrast to this lack of agency, there are also some references to the physical sacrifices that women must endure during childbirth, offering small amounts of power in a domestic setting. For example, Hippocrates’ Diseases of Women outlines that:

“In fact, it requires careful attention and much skill to carry a child to full term, to nourish it properly in the womb, and to bring it forth at the time of birth without injury to herself.”

This acknowledgement of the difficulties of childbirth provides ancient Greek women with a glimmer of domestic power, thus recognising their efforts in undergoing these traditional domestic duties.

Additionally, ancient Egyptian women had pre-existing forms of political power and economic agency removed when they fell pregnant. As mentioned earlier, within a married relationship, the legal status of women in Egypt was similar to that of a man, which allowed them to participate in activities such as buying and selling property, thus exercising their economic power in society. As Egypt “functioned as a theocratic monarchy,” the political power of the state was solely focussed upon the King and the royal family. This meant that it was difficult for any ordinary citizen to gain an advantage over the royal family, meaning that political power tended to be more evenly dispersed among the people. For example, the political and economic power of an ordinary Egyptian woman can be depicted through the statuette of Mut/Nekhbet dating to the Third Intermediate Period (1070-664 BC). Inscribed upon the statue of the mother goddess (Fig. 2), reads “ace excellently for our daughter… let her seize this property and kill anyone who will trespass against her!” This example reflects the political and economic power of an ordinary Egyptian woman, stating that it is so immense that she may ‘kill’ to assert it. However, this available power changes drastically when a woman falls pregnant. In the Teaching of Ptahotep, an ancient guide designed to teach the youth how to live a good life, it is stated that one should:

“Love your wife within reckoning.
Fill her belly, clothe her back,
It is a field of benefit for its lord.
Distance her from power, restrain her.”

Ultimately labelling women as fertile ‘fields’ of benefit for her husband, this document indicates that women are only useful for their child-bearing abilities, thus subverting the level of political and economic power she can access while pregnant. Moreover, Ptahhotep also encourages men to distance their wives from power by restraining them, hence clearly illustrating the relationship between pregnancy and a lack of political and economic power.

Figure 2:
Statuette of Mut or Nekhbet, from Third Intermediate Period, ca. 1070-664 B.C. From The Metropolitan Museum Online Database.

Similarly in ancient Greece, female political and economic agency was also heavily impacted by the notion of marriage and pregnancy. Within antiquity, “marriage was viewed as a practical business arrangement, not a love match,” and a Greek woman’s father and husband had the final say. Unlike in Egypt, there was also an expectation that a Greek woman was a virgin before marriage, devoting herself fully to her husband and his demand for offspring. This relationship is reinforced by The Hippocratic Corpus through cures suggesting that “if they have intercourse with men their health is better.” Using this example, the Corpus attempts to justify a woman’s subordinate role in ancient Greek society, encouraging her role as a childbearing domestic mother and stripping her from any political and economic power. Furthermore, it is highlighted that the only cure to virgin “visions” is to “cohabit with a man” and become pregnant. Attempting to push women into the traditional role of motherhood and marriage from a young age, Hippocrates evokes fear in younger women who are menstruating, arguing that a lack of blood flow will result in “insanity and madness,” thus serving as a warning for women to obey these roles. Moreover, the names chosen for baby girls were commonly “feminine forms of male names, or names embodying male military virtues.” This trend began from birth, characterising women as the property of men and limiting their political and economic power.

The relationship between marriage, reproduction, and female power is also demonstrated in the religious sphere. In ancient Egypt, childbirth was considered to be an “act of the gods,” and there were many magical objects used that were believed to physically support a woman during birth. For example, ancient Egyptian birth bricks were used during the birthing process to enable an Egyptian woman to deliver her baby in an effective squatting position (Fig. 3). Strongly associating the status of a pregnant woman with powerful female deities, such as Hathor, these bricks functioned as both practical and religious objects, demonstrating a distinct relationship between women’s reproduction and religiously acquired power. For example, a birth brick found in South Abydos by archaeologist Joe Wegner conveys the divine maternal status of a pregnant woman within ancient Egypt. Intentionally painting the mother’s hair blue, a common “symbol of godliness in Egyptian art,” associated her with the power of Hathor, who is also depicted with blue hair. This association identifies reproduction as a divine and sacred act (Fig. 4). It can also be noted that the son’s hair is black, separating the mother’s divine status from that of an ordinary human, thus reinforcing her religious autonomy. On the other hand, there was also a tendency in ancient Egypt to label fertility as a predominantly male process, as outlined in Akhenaton’s Hymn to the Aten. For example, the hymn paints the Aten as the one who has “placed the seed in woman, and made sperm into man,” largely characterising conception as a male process and diminishing religious power acquired by pregnant females.

Figure 3:
An ancient Egyptian magical birth brick, 1750-1700 BCE. From Penn Museum 2006.

Built upon a gynocentric model of fertility, marriage and reproduction in an ancient Greek society also impacted a woman’s ability to exercise religious power. For example, one of the many ways in which women could express religious power was through the act of ritual begging and chanting songs to induce “easy labor among newly married women.” Socially banding women together in a religious context, this practice evoked deities to assist in childbearing, thus reinforcing feminine forms of agency by collectively assisting birth efforts. Outlined in the Hymn to Artemis, Callimachus highlights Artemis as an important figure in the process of childbirth upon the Island of Delos, claiming that “Artemis goes down to the town… vex[ing] the sharp pangs of childbirth.” Furthermore, examples of “begging priestesses” serving Athena by “shaking her aegis,” highlight the power of Athena as a “mother goddess,” demonstrating how Greek women could embody the divinity of certain goddesses and exercise certain religious powers by this chanting. However, this religious power is largely subverted when considering the religious rituals of unmarried women, and their public display. For women of Classical Athens, the Brauronia was a festival held every four years in worship of Artemis Brauronia and featured rituals such as the Arkteia for young girls to participate in.  The Arkteia (playing the bear), required young teenage girls “to act out their wildness in running and dancing,” and imitate the movements of a bear. This served to teach girls that they were “inherently wild and uncivilised,” and must undergo a process of domestication later in their married lives. Furthermore, Plutarch discusses the public display of unmarried women on the island of Ceos, highlighting that “it was a custom for the maidens to go to the public shrine and spend the day together, and their suitors watched their sports and dances.” Through this act of public display, it can be suggested that marriage and reproduction in ancient Greece had both an empowering and limiting effect on female power.

Figure 4:
A painted reconstruction of an ancient Egyptian magical birth brick, 1750-1700 BCE. From Penn Museum 2006.

Ultimately, the relationship between marriage, reproduction, and female power throughout ancient Greece and Egypt largely intersect. While unique to each society, it can be argued that the ability to exercise agency is strongly dependent on a woman’s role within society, whether that be as a wife or a mother. Investigating domestic, political, and religious spheres, it becomes clear that instances of female power are subjective and are always likely to vary.

Image Credits: A painted reconstruction of an Ancient Egyptian magical birth brick, 1750-1700 BCE. In Wegner, Josef. “The Magical Birth Brick.” Expedition Magazine 48, no.2 (2006). https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-magical-birth-brick/.

Bibliography:

List of Figures:

Figure 1: Statue of Nyakauinpu and his wife Hemetradjet, ca. 2477-2466 BCE. In Varadharajulu, Sara Divija. “The Burden of a Child: Examining the Effects of Pregnancy on Women’s Power in Ancient Egypt and Greece.” International Social Science Review 96, no.4 (November 2020): 1-17. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=bth&AN=148176420&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Figure 2: Statue of Mut or Nekhbet. 56.137. The Metropolitan Museum Database. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/550784.

Figure 3: An Ancient Egyptian magical birth brick, 1750-1700 BCE. In Wegner, Josef. “The Magical Birth Brick.” Expedition Magazine 48, no.2 (2006). https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-magical-birth-brick/.

Figure 4: A painted reconstruction of an Ancient Egyptian magical birth brick, 1750-1700 BCE. In Wegner, Josef. “The Magical Birth Brick.” Expedition Magazine 48, no.2 (2006). https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-magical-birth-brick/.

Primary Sources:

Callimachus, Lycophron, Aratus. Hymns and Epigrams. Lycophron: Alexandra. Aratus: Phaenomena. Translated by A. W. Mair, G. R. Mair. Loeb Classical Library 129. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1921.

Herodotus. The Persian Wars, Volume I: Books 1-2. Translated by A. D. Godley. Loeb Classical Library 117. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920.

Hesiod. The Shield. Catalogue of Women. Other Fragments. Edited and translated by Glenn W. Most. Loeb Classical Library 503. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018.

Hippocrates. Diseases of Women. Trans. Ann Ellis Hanson. 1996. Unpublished.

Lefkowitz, Mary R., and Maureen B. Fant. ‘Hippocratic Corpus, Selections (from IX. Medicine and Anatomy)’. In Women’s Life in Greece & Rome: A Source Book in Translation, 2ns ed., 230-32, 242-43. London: Duckworth, 1992. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=cat00006a&AN=melb.b.b1770362&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Plutarch. Moralia, Volume III: Sayings of Kings and Commanders. Sayings of Romans. Sayings of Spartans. The Ancient Customs of the Spartans. Sayings of Spartan Women. Bravery of Women. Translated by Frank Cole Babbitt. Loeb Classical Library 245. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931.

Simpson, William K. “The Hymn to the Aten.” In The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, and Poetry, 29. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003.

Statue of Mut or Nekhbet. 56.137. The Metropolitan Museum Database. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/550784.

Teaching of Ptahotep. London, UK: University College London, 2003. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums-static/digitalegypt/literature/ptahhotep.html.

Secondary Sources:

Chamberlain, Geoffrey. “Childbirth in Ancient Egypt.” Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health 124, no.6 (2004): 284-85. doi: 10.1177/146642400412400618.

Demand, Nancy. “The Lives of Greek Women.” In Birth, Death, and Motherhood in Classical Greece, 1-14. Baltimore: John Hopkin’s University Press, 1994.

Dillon, Matthew. “From Adolescent Girl to Woman, Wife and Mother.” In Girls and Women in Classical Greek Religion, 211-33. London; New York: Routledge, 2002.

Goff, Barbara E. “Ritual Management of Desire: The Reproduction of Sexuality.” In Citizen Bacchae: women’s ritual practice in Ancient Greece, 80-105. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Haimov-Kochman, Ronit, Yael Sciaky-Tamir, and Arye Hurwitz. “Reproduction concepts and practices in Ancient Egypt mirrored by modern medicine.” European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 123, no.1 (Jan 2005): 4-8. doi: 10.1016/j.ejpgrb.2005.03.022

Harris, Edward. M. “‘Yes’ and ‘No’ in Women’s Desire.” In Sex in Antiquity: exploring gender and sexuality in the ancient world, 298-306. Oxfordshire; New York : Routledge, 2014.

Robertson, Noel. “Greek Ritual Begging in Aid of Women’s Fertility and Childbirth.” Transactions of the American Philological Association 113 (1974): 143-64. doi: 10.2307/284008.

Varadharajulu, Sara Divija. “The Burden of a Child: Examining the Effects of Pregnancy on Women’s Power in Ancient Egypt and Greece.” International Social Science Review 96, no.4 (November 2020): 1-17. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=sso&db=bth&AN=148176420&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Wegner, Josef. “The Magical Birth Brick.” Expedition Magazine 48, no.2 (2006). https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-magical-birth-brick/

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