The family in Ancient Egypt



While there was a considerable difference in the housing of the upper and lower middle classes, this did not apply to the family. Monogamy was the rule in Ancient Egypt. Only the pharaoh had one or more harems (in later centuries this was also the case with princes and those in the positions of power) but this did not in the least undermine the husband – wife relationship.

All were based on deeply felt family ties, even when paternal authority gave way to an equality of rights and duties of all the members of the family. In fact, in 2700-2500BC when, for the first time in history, the patria potestas and the right of primogeniture were replaced by an equality of all rights, the mother never lost her position of goddess of the hearth, in other words the ‘goddess Isis of the house’, reciprocal affect was reinforced, and ‘the respect for the father’ and the filial affection for the mother were the cardinal virtues which were to remain throughout the centuries to come.

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Aside from individual faults and moral defects which have always characterized humanity, these were the ideals and moral principles shared by all, even by the pharaoh, and which all had to account for when the soul passed judgement in the hereafter, a belief firmly held by all. The husband is reminded:

“if you are wise, remain home, love your wife tenderly, nourish and clothe her well, but also heap caresses on her and comply with her desires. If you turn her away your family will fall apart, instead open your arms, call her, show her all your love”.

In painted scenes, as early as 2400BC, the wife is  always shown next to her husband, with all their children, even when the lord receives his subordinates, when he takes part in feasts and dances, and when he goes fishing with the harpoon along the Nile or hunting in the swamps or at the edge of the desert. The couple are shown playing chess together at the end of the day. Even there were tribal power prevailed and the wife was not as influential, husband and wife were joined by a bond of tender affection and partook of that great love which tied Isis to Osiris. With the revelation of Ankhenten the heights of humanity  were achieved. Together with his family he provided an ideal example, the visible proof of the universal love of Aten located in the family, a divine bond which joined each family to the other and to that of the pharaoh.

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Five hundred years later this sense of spirituality diminished and family unity was primarily matter of economic and opportunistic interests. Marriage became a simple contract between the father of the bride and her future husband and then between the directly interested parties, a preliminary contract in which the clauses for indemnity in case of divorce were also stated. On his part, the husband stated:

“I have taken you as wife, you have brought me a sum of silver, if I leave you and I hate you I will restore this sum to you plus a third of what I will have earned with you”.

The times when the man saw his bride as ‘the fertile field, the blessing of the house’ lie in the past; respect and courtesy remain, but the life-giving love of Isis and Osiris becomes ever harder to understand and impracticable even in the land of Nile.

Seneb's family - Ancient Egypt History

All the paintings of the brief Atonian period show scenes of the ‘heretic pharaoh’s ‘ family life. Over and over he is shown with his wife Nefertiti, the ‘beauty who comes here’, and his daughters (in order of birth: Meritaten, Maketaten, Ankhsenpaaten, Neferaten, Neferre, Setepenre). The dominant figure in art is no longer the pharaoh but the royal couple itself, bearer of the same divinity and bound to their family by continuous affection.

These feelings are evident in the overpowering realism of the new art where they were shown conversing, receiving, playing, on their chariots, adoring the One God, always together. This love propagated to all and when the First Family stepped out on the loggia to dispense gifts, it incarnated the message of divine love of the universal family which joins every creature to God. On the death of its prophet, this universal bond quickly disappeared. The king once more became inaccessible and detached even from the members of his own family. With the first signs of the final collapse, foreign customs and social and religious crises all helped to diminish the family bonds off affection and religion.

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