TRADITIONS

All About the Institution of Marriage in Ancient Egypt

All About the Institution of Marriage in Ancient Egypt

Like most societies, the family was the main nucleus around which ancient Egyptian society was built. Marriage was important and sacred. While sex was an important part of daily life and an essential part of every marriage, it wasn’t the main reason why couples came together to form a family unit.

Read on to find out some of the views about love, sex, and marriage in ancient Egyptian culture

Early Marriages

Unlike many of their neighbours like the Romans or Greek, Egyptian men married quite early. The youthful age was believed to be the peak of virality and Egyptians believed that getting married early would increase the chances of giving birth. While early marriage was a norm in ancient Egyptian society, girls got married even earlier than the men.

Typically a man is expected to take a wife as soon as he is able to make a livelihood (usually around age 16 to 20). For women, on the other hand, it was as soon as the girl attained puberty (usually around age 12 or 13). In fact, there are pieces of evidence that show that marriages for girls in ancient Egypt might have been earlier than that. Even today, many societies still perform marriages between adult men and girls who have not even reached puberty yet.

Multiple Partners

All About the Institution of Marriage in Ancient Egypt

Polygamy was rare in ancient Egypt but it wasn’t non-existent. In fact, the reason for its unpopularity isn’t because it was socially unacceptable. Instead, the reason why only few men took more than one wife was most likely economic. It was important for a man to be able to take care of his household, which means only wealthy men and royals could have as many wives and concubines as they wanted.

It is also likely that a woman was allowed to marry more than one man. While polyandry isn’t permitted in many societies, the ancient Egyptians were liberal when it came to marriages and there is a possibility than polyandry was practiced in some form.

Premarital Sex

Premarital sex was socially accepted in ancient Egyptian society. Unlike many other ancient cultures, virginity at the time of marriage was not taken into consideration since it was normal for young people to have sexual intercourse before being formally married.

In fact,  some ancient Egyptian literature state that it was common practice to meet in what was called “beer houses” to sing, dance and play and where there is abundant booze, sex isn’t always far behind and attendees would frolic with one another in these places. It is also possible that there were prostitutes in these places offering their services for a fee.  

No Elaborate Weddings

All About the Institution of Marriage in Ancient Egypt

Despite the importance of the institution of marriage in Egyptian culture, there is little to no evidence that they held elaborate wedding ceremonies, like other cultures. Couples were simply considered married when they moved in with each other (usually the woman moved into her husband’s house). There was no official registry, but given the religious significance marriage had in ancient Egypt, it is logical to think there might be some religious ceremony or some other sign of endorsement of the union.

Also, one area where Egyptian marriages differed from what one would expect in ancient societies is on the issue of arranged marriage. Contrary to what one would expect, ancient Egyptian marriages were not always arranged. Parents didn’t impose spouses on their children although parental consent and approval were mandatory. People were often allowed to freely choose their own partner, which means love and affection was a huge part of the equation.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rules. For example, royals were known to marry for political affiliations. The rules might be different for women also since early marriages were quite common. In such cases, parents must have played active roles in setting up the marriage. Generally, ancient Egyptians believed in love and affection between lovers as evidenced by many love poems in ancient writings.

Marriage Contracts

All About the Institution of Marriage in Ancient Egypt

While open wedding ceremonies weren’t exactly a thing in ancient Egyptian society, there were still marriage contracts with clauses defining the details of the economics and other aspects of a couple’s relationship. This practice dates back to as early as the eighth century B.C. In many cases, the contracts were not drawn up at the start of the marriage, but written later.

These contracts usually included things that the new bride would be bringing into the home such as personal items like clothes, jewelry and clothing. She had complete autonomy over these items and was allowed to go away with it in case of a divorce. In some cases, the man would pay a sum of money to the bride’s family to seal the contract. There was no fixed cost for this. Also, it seems this wasn’t a rigid rule as there were instances where the opposite is the case and the woman gives money instead of the man.

Temporary marriages were allowed with contracts showing the details of the union, including expiration dates.

The Economics of Marriage in Ancient Egypt

In many cultures from all over the world today, there is a skewed economic pattern. In most cases, the economic responsibility of the marriage is expected to be borne by the man. However, that is usually offset by the fact that some cultures still, unfortunately, practice dowry, wherein the woman’s family gives the man’s family money, property or both. 

However, from studying ancient Egyptian marriage contracts, it seems there was some sort of relative economic equality between couples. It wasn’t uncommon to find cases where a woman donates some amount of money to her new husband.  Both parties were allowed to hold and manage their properties autonomously and unlike many contemporary cultures, the total submission of the woman’s properties to the man wasn’t demanded.

Divorce

It is impossible to discuss marriage without discussing the issue of divorce. Just like modern society divorce was a fairly common phenomenon in ancient Egypt. Spouses were allowed to request for dissolution of their marriage and this could be at the request of either party. This could be caused by various reasons. For example, an ancient Egyptian text spoke of a man who wanted to divorce his wife on claims that she was one-eyed even though they had been married for twenty years. Court proceedings were involved in some cases.  

Although the Egyptians typically kept separate properties during their marriage and each party was entitled to keep his or her belongings owned before the relationship, similar to marriage settlements today, properties acquired during the course of the marriage were shared between the couple. Since divorce was allowed by society, divorced couples were allowed to remarry.