Marriage and Divorce in Ancient Egypt

Papyrus Documents discovered at Thebes by the Eckley B. Coxe Jr. Expedition to Egypt.

By: Nathaniel Reich

Originally Published in 1924

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There existed not only in our present day, but also in ancient times, many examples of confirmed bachelors.

Such an arch bachelor was Hekeyeb. He lived near Assuan in Egypt about 1880 B. c. He quite frankly confesses in a hieroglyphic inscription in a tomb near Assuan about as follows:

“I spent my childhood and youth, I lived at my ease, I enjoyed pleasant hours with women. My house was beloved better than any of my equals. I made myself a tomb, my sarcophagus was painted with things choice and beautiful.”

Hekeyeb

After these confessions Hekeyeb seems to have died an old bachelor.

But, as of today, bachelorhood was in the Orient almost always a shame, and therefore the regular custom was to get married, and to have children was believed a blessing everywhere as it is shown in the Bible already at the creation of mankind and by the blessing of Abraham.

But in Abraham’s day they were accustomed to marry by making legal stipulations, as we can see in the law code of his contemporary Hammurabi. The latter says, now 4000 years ago, that if somebody should take a wife without signing an agreement with her, then this woman would be “no wife.” And such has been the custom almost all the time during these four millennia in many parts of the Near East.

The Aramaic papyri of Assuan show that also in the Persian age of the fifth century B. C. the Jews were used to making contracts or stipulations about the marriage.

The Syrian-Roman Law Code shows the same custom for Old Syria.

There are two main points in such a stipulation: First, the confirmation of the marriage; second, the consequences of the marriage for both parties in respect to the wife and to the children. This was important, as in those times of polygamy, the children of an illegitimate wife did not have always the same rights as the children of a wife who was legally married and had a contract in her hands. Quite otherwise was true in the ancient Roman law: “Consensus facit nuptias,” i. e. that the simple agreement (between the two parties) makes the marriage.

For instance, in the Bible, Abraham dismisses the children of his illegitimate wives with some presents only during his lifetime, but Isaac, the son of his legitimate wife Sarah, inherits all his father’s property. Later on, during the second century A. D., we see even established the legal maxim: “The wife has a marriage contract, the concubine has none,” but subsequently commentators make the law less stringent. Moreover, if the wife loses the contract, she must not live with her husband till she gets it renewed.

The bridal gift or woman’s compensation which is mentioned in these contracts is also a custom in the use of all these ancient peoples: the Egyptians, Babylonians, Hebrews, Persians, Arabs. It has its reason in its origin. The most highly developed peoples have this institution, as this ordinance is the remainder of a time in which the women were bought for money or other presents or services. The prince Shechem offers such a present to Jacob, the father of Dinah, in the Bible. Also Jacob serves seven years for Leah and Rachel each. It is the compensation for the change from maidenhood to wife.

The wife’s servants remained her own property. A good example is Muhammad’s wife Khadija.

In a later period is the bridal gift not actually paid but is only mentioned in the contract. Just previous to the age of Muhammad, for instance, the bridal gift is among the Arabs not any longer the “purchase-money” to her father but a “gift to the bride”; then, if the bride excused him from paying this money, it was not necessary to pay it.

It was also customary for the bride’s father to give her a dowry in the ancient Orient. This Seriqtum of the Codex Hammurabi, consisted of money, slaves, clothing, land or cattle. The daughter of the Jewish colonist in South Egypt of the Persian period gets household furniture, clothing and money. King Solomon receives from the Pharaoh, his father-in-law, a whole city. Sarah, Rachel and Leah obtain slaves from their parents who are their own during their married life.

In Babylonia as in Egypt, the wife was with regard to her property, quite independent of her husband. The women of the Hebrews, Arabs and Persians had, like those of Egypt and Babylonia, almost equal rights with the men in many respects. They had also the right to make treaties without the “tutor” or “κύριος.”

This little outline in regard to the marriage customs in the Near East in ancient times is necessary, if we want to get a better understanding of the marriage customs in Ancient Egypt in particular, and especially the marriage contracts of the collection of Demotic Papyri in the University Museum discovered at Thebes by the Eckley B. Coxe Expedition in 1922.

I give in translation three examples of these papyri.

I.

A. The Date, 263 B.C.

In the month Epep of the year 21 of the Pharaoh Ptolemaios, son of Ptolemaios, and of his son Ptolemaios; whilst Pelops, son of Alexander, is the priest of Alexander (the Great) and of the brother-gods; whilst Mnesistrate, the daughter of Theisarkhos, is the Bearer of the golden basket before Arsinoe the brother-loving.

B. The Parties.

The shrine-opener of (the god) Ammon of Opi in the west of Ne (by the name of) Paret son of Efow, his mother being Taret

hath declared

unto the woman Tneferteu, daughter of Useruer, her mother being Tybe:

C. The Stipulations.

  1. I have made thee wife.
  2. I have given to thee one silverpiece, i. e. 5 staters, i. e. 1 silverpiece again, as thy bridal gift.
  3. And I will give to thee 4 measures of wheat daily, their half 2 measures of wheat, i. e. 4 measures of wheat again daily, 6 kiti, i. e. 3 staters, 1. e. 6 kiti, again, for thy clothing yearly, one bin-measure of oil each month, i. e. 12 hin-measures yearly, (worth) ½ kiti, i. e. ¼ staters, i. e. ½ kiti again, each month for thy food and clothing.
  4. And I will give it to thee each day, each month and each year.
  5. Thou hast the right to take surety for the arrears of thy food and clothing which shall be owing from me, and I will give them to thee.
  6. If I abandon thee as wife, and hate thee and love another woman than thee, I will give thee 5 silverpieces, i. e. 25 staters, i. e. 5 silverpieces again besides this 1 silverpiece, i. e. 5 staters, i. e. 1 silverpiece again which is written above, that I have given to thee as thy bridal gift, making in all six silverpieces, i. e. 30 staters, i. e. 6 silverpieces again.
  7. And I will give to thee the half of all of everything that belongeth to me, and that I shall acquire from to-day onward.
  8. Without any patent or any word on earth being adduced against thee.

D. The Notary.

Wrote it: (the notary) Esmin, son of Phib.

E. The Greek Docket.

  1. Ετους xβ μn(vos) Λωιου ιθΑιγυπτιων
  2. ζε ετους κα μη(νος) ΕπειΦ ιβ
  3. εν Διοσπει τηι μεγαληιπεπτωκεν
  4. εις κιβωτονεχρηματισεν
  5. Ασκληπιαςης
  6. αντιγραΦευς
  7. τελωνης Ερμιας.
  1. Year 22 month Loios 19th,
  2. but of the Egyptians year 21 month Epep 12th
  3. in Diospolis Magna ( =Thebes);
  4. has been thrown into the box;
  5. has been paid. Asklepiades,
  6. Antigrapheus.
  7. Tax-farmer Hermias.

The text above is written by the tax-office. It is the receipt for the presentation in the tax-office (=”thrown into the [tax-] box”) and for the pay, signed by the Antigrapheus who was the officer of governmental supervision for the tax-farmer Hermias who had rented the taxes from the state.

On the back are the signatures of 16 witnesses in their own handwriting.

The contract above gives the impression that the husband could get easily a divorce from his wife and send her away then, and the position of the woman seems to be without any right. But this is not the case. The woman had the same right against her husband, as we can see below. It depended simply on the kind of contract.

We notice in our above contract a man draws up a marriage contract with a woman, to protect her economically. But the equal rights of the woman’s position in Ancient Egypt may be shown by the fact that there exist marriage contracts which are not rendered by the man to the woman, but by the woman to the man.

The woman could also divorce her husband and send him away. The situation in Ancient Egypt was, in fact, so that the financially stronger party rendered the financially weaker party the contract to protect him or her. However, in the most cases, the woman was the economically weaker party, of course.

In case of divorce the stronger party had to pay, to provide the financially weaker party. The papyrus collection of the University Museum contains a divorce, of which I give a translation, as follows:

II.

A. The Date, 283 B.C.

In the month Tobi of the year three of the Pharaoh Ptolemaios son of Ptolemaios.

B. The Parties.

The shrine-opener of (the god) Ammon of Opi in the west of Ne (by the name of) Amenhotep son of Pathowt, his mother being Tameti

hath declared

unto the woman Tahapi daughter of Pekrur, her mother being Tausir:

C. The Stipulations.

  1. I have abandoned thee as wife, I am removed from thee in regard of the rights of a wife.
  2. I have said unto thee: “Make for thyself a husband.”
  3. I shall not be able to stand before thee in any house to which thou shalt go to make for thyself a husband there.
  4. I have no claim on earth against thee on account of a wife from to-day onward, instantly, without delay, without a blow.

D. The Notary.

Wrote it: (the notary) Twet son of Esmin.

On the back are the signatures of four witnesses.

Divorces were not rare in Ancient Egypt. The most interesting of all divorces, hitherto found, are of three brothers who lived at the beginning of the fifth century B. c. in the times of King Darius I. It seems that they “belonged to a very inconstant family.”

But to understand the whole situation and the legal relations between husband and wife on the one hand, and the rights of the parents toward their children and reciprocally on the other hand, I do not know a better and nicer example than the part of the beautiful romance of the adventures of the eldest son of the famous Pharaoh Rameses II, the supposed Pharaoh of the oppression of the children of Israel. I showed already at another place 14 years ago how wonderful the composition of this masterpiece of the world’s literature is. In the culminating point of the story the Ancient Egyptians themselves gave us, in telling us this tale, involuntarily the best description of all the legal situations and relations mentioned above, and throw the best possible sidelight on all the points of the questions which are interesting in respect of the marriage in all its consequences of rights and of property.

The son of Rameses II, the Sethon-priest Khamuas, was great magician. He has a romantic adventure with a beautiful priestess, Tabubue, who wants to win the prince and to cause him to marry her. However, as Khamuas is married already and has children, and as he loves his wife and children too, we can observe how the priestess attempts to remove these obstacles.

Khamuas accepts the invitation to her beautifully furnished house in Ankhtaui. She flirts coquettishly with Khamuas inflaming his love for her to a greater and greater extent. Thus Tabubue gets Khamuas at first “to make a writing (notary’s contract) of maintenance and a compensation in money with regard to everything and all goods that belong to him, all.” The reference here is to a valuation of property and an agreement to compensate for the dowry, etc., in case the parties separated. Then, flirting again, she increases his love and succeeds in causing him to have his children brought and to sign under the deed, because Tabubue does not want to “allow the children of Khamuas to quarrel with Tabubue’s children concerning the goods” later on. But all that is not sufficient for her, and she requests him to have his children slain to avoid quarrels between Khamuas’s and Tabubue’s children, and he fulfills her desire.

After that Khamuas awakened, it was a dream only and he gets the news: “Go thou to Memphis (at home). Thy children, they are alive, they are standing in their due order before Pharaoh . . . .” etc

This part of the story explains everything. We understand also the usual high number of witnesses (usually 4 or 8 or 12 or even 16 and more). The Ancient Egyptians were very fond of quarreling. On this account it was necessary carefully to keep the contracts. They often attempted to disregard a contract and went to the judge and sometimes were not afraid to lie if they could gain some profit by it. Tabubue was afraid of a similar attempt on the part of the children of the prince Khamuas for the future. Therefore she tries to sever the Gordian knot by killing his children.

Even by such dreadful conditions all these contracts are so well preserved which we find, because the ancient owners of the contracts had to keep them carefully to avoid themselves troubles in case the other party wanted to annoy them.

And now we shall fully understand the other marriage contract which differs in several paragraphs from these of the contract translated above. It is also in the collection of the University Museum. The translation runs, as follows.

III.

A. The Date, 225 B.C.

In the month Pamenhotp of the year 24 of the Pharaoh Ptolomaios son of Ptolomaios, and Arsinoe the brother-loving; whilst Alkhetos son of Yasias is the priest of Alexandros and the fraternal gods and the beneficent gods; whilst Timonasse daughter of Zoilos is the Bearer of the golden basket before Arsinoe the brother-loving.

B. The Parties.

The shrine-opener of (the god) .Ammon of Opi in the west of Ne (by the name of) Pekhot son of Panefer, his mother being Tkalhib

hath declared

unto the woman Tybe daughter of Zeho, her mother being Taamun:

C. The Stipulations.

  1. I have made thee wife.
  2. I have given to thee one silverpiece, i. e. 5 staters, i. e. 1 silverpiece again, as thy bridal gift.
  3. And I will give to thee 6 measures of wheat, their half (would be) 3 measures of wheat, i. e. 6 measures of wheat again daily, 2 hin-measures of oil monthly, i. e. 24 hin-measures of oil yearly, (making in all) one silverpiece plus 2 kiti, i. e. 6 staters, i. e. I silverpiece+2 kiti again, for one year for thy food and clothing yearly.
  4. And I will give it to thee each year.
  5. Thou hast the right to take surety for the arrears of thy food and clothing which shall be owing from me, and I will give them to thee.
  6. Thy eldest son, my eldest son amongst the children that thou shalt bear to me is the owner of all of everything that belongs to me and that I shall acquire.
  7. If I abandon thee as wife, and hate thee and love another woman than thee, I will give thee 5 silverpieces, i. e. 25 staters, i. e. 5 silverpieces again, besides this one silverpiece which is mentioned above, that I have given to thee as thy bridal gift, making in all six silverpieces, i. e. 30 staters, i. e. six silverpieces again.
  8. And the shrine-opener of Ammon of Opi in the west of Ne (by the name of) Panefer son of Zeho, his mother being Tabe, his father, saith :

    “Receive the document from the hand of Pekhot son of Panefer, my eldest son who is mentioned above, to cause him to act according to each word which is written above. My heart agreeth to it.”

  9. Without any patent or any word being adduced against thee.

D. The Notary.

Wrote it: (the notary) Herieu son of Harsiese.

On the back are the signatures of 16 witnesses.

The section 6 in this contract which was not stipulated in the first translated marriage contract but which is very usual in such contracts was the real reason that, in the above mentioned Khamuas romance, Tabubue desires from Khamuas the agreement of his children. In this paragraph the husband obliged himself that “thy and my eldest son is the owner of all of everything that belongs to me and that I shall acquire.” Tabubue was, of course, afraid that the first wife had got a similar contract from the prince Khamuas. That means that firstly the eldest son is the heir and in case of his death his remaining eldest brother, and not the children of Tabubue.

The other interesting point in this contract is that the father of the bridegroom agrees solemnly to the promises of his son. The cause is here that the real owner of all the promised goods in the contract is not the bridegroom but his father. Therefore it would be possible that, in the future, the father could cause difficulties. To avoid that, the father has officially to agree in the contract “that his heart is satisfied with it.”

The Ancient Egyptians were cautious.
NOTE.—The measure, hin used in these documents is ⅞ of a pint. It is the same as the measure hin of the Israelites mentioned in the Bible, as for instance Numbers xv, 4.

Cite This Article

Reich, Nathaniel. "Marriage and Divorce in Ancient Egypt." The Museum Journal XV, no. 1 (March, 1924): 50-57. Accessed February 20, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/1195/


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