Historical scenes of sexual equality: must be fiction, or just some ritual

Bolded emphasis mine:

In order to understand their relatively enlightened attitudes toward sexual equality, it is important to realise that the Egyptians viewed their universe as a complete duality of male and female. Giving balance and order to all things was the female deity Maat, symbol of cosmic harmony by whose rules the pharaoh must govern.

The Egyptians recognised female violence in all its forms, their queens even portrayed crushing their enemies, executing prisoners or firing arrows at male opponents as well as the non-royal women who stab and overpower invading soldiers. Although such scenes are often disregarded as illustrating ‘fictional’ or ritual events, the literary and archaeological evidence is less easy to dismiss. Royal women undertake military campaigns whilst others are decorated for their active role in conflict. Women were regarded as sufficiently threatening to be listed as ‘enemies of the state’, and female graves containing weapons are found throughout the three millennia of Egyptian history.

Although by no means a race of Amazons, their ability to exercise varying degrees of power and self-determination was most unusual in the ancient world, which set such great store by male prowess, as if acknowledging the same in women would make them less able to fulfil their expected roles as wife and mother. Indeed, neighbouring countries were clearly shocked by the relative freedom of Egyptian women and, describing how they ‘attended market and took part in trading whereas men sat and home and did the weaving’, the Greek historian Herodotus believed the Egyptians ‘have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind’.

I wonder how long it takes the scholarly consensus to accept the weight of “the literary and archaeological evidence”?

The BBC article has lots more about the ancient Egyptian culture of sexual equality. That their religion was all about male/female deities working equally for cosmic harmony seems to be the key, which merely reinforces feminist theory about the rigidifying effect of patriarchal religions on gender roles.

A culture that flourished for millennia, until the unstoppable hegemony of Rome conquered them, managed to do it without limiting human capacities and abilities to biological essentialism. Fancy that.

Final paragraphs to ponder:

By Graeco-Roman times women’s literacy is relatively common, the mummy of the young woman Hermione inscribed with her profession ‘teacher of Greek grammar’. A brilliant linguist herself, Cleopatra VII endowed the Great Library at Alexandria, the intellectual capital of the ancient world where female lecturers are known to have participated alongside their male colleagues. Yet an equality which had existed for millennia was ended by Christianity – the philosopher Hypatia was brutally murdered by monks in 415 AD as a graphic demonstration of their beliefs.

With the concept that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ remaining largely unquestioned for the next 1,500 years, the relative freedom of ancient Egyptian women was forgotten.

Categories: gender & feminism, history, religion

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7 replies

  1. You know, when I wrote up the only negative review in existence of David McVicar’s production of Handel’s Julius Caesar, I was so frothing at the mouth over the details of the production that I never got to the chewy anthropological/historical center of why it was SO WRONG. Thank you for covering that for me!
    MatildaZQ’s last blog post..Unwitting A-Team, Gustatory Division: Atwood Cafe and TRU

  2. Yes, Hypatia (“Professor of Mathematical Astronomy at the University of Alexandria”) is one of my heroes.
    And great warrior women were not unknown in the Greek world. As you mentioned Herodotus in the context of female warriors, he also noted (with approval, even though she fought against Greece) Artemesia I (of Caria or Helicarnassus, depending on context, the best of the Persian naval commanders, who had the highest price on her head by the Greeks of any Persian, who fought so well at the Battle of Salamis that King Xerces apparently exclaimed “My men have turned into women and my women into men!”
    Then there’s the (?legendary?) Penthesilea in the Iliad, killed by Achilles (who respected her, and killed the guy who outraged her body).
    And if you want full-on shocking violence, I don’t think you can go past Medea, a role model of smarts when young… but a bitch when she got older.
    Dave Bath’s last blog post..Domain-knowledge balance in parliaments

  3. Ah, Joann Fletcher. Banned from ever working in Egypt again for being completely unprofessional. But anyway.
    I wonder how long it takes the scholarly consensus to accept the weight of “the literary and archaeological evidence”?
    I am quite sure it already has — Fletcher is not claiming anything outside the modern academic consensus, that I can see. Certainly it accords with everythting I have been taught. See books on gender, sexuality and Ancient Egypt by Lisa Manniche and Gay Robbins, for instance.
    I don’t think the bolded sentence about representations being “dismissed” as ritualistic is significant in suggesting a bias in the literature against recognising womens’ roles. The fact is, this is a debate that is had about every reprepesentation, of men, women, children, foreigners, cattle counts, dogs that sit under chairs, dogs that sit in front chairs, dogs that wear things around their neck and those that don’t, agriculture scenes, dancing dwarves, war, tax collection, starving herdsmen etc etc etc. What depicts specific events and what is symbolic? What is a mixture? All pharoahs are depicted as smiting enemies and going into battle in an iconic way — see the template of the Narmer Palette. The same images and motifs are used for royalty — including Hatshepsut — in a continuous way for the next 3000 yrs so clearly there is an iconographic component to depictions. Does that mean they don’t also represent real events? If so, to what extent? I don’t know of anyone who says scenes of women are symbolic but scenes of men are realistic, that indeed might be bollocks (*might be.* I’d need to see the evidence, but anyway I’ve never heard of it.) Scholars tend to fall on the symbolicrealistic axis as a whole, regardless of topic and “dismissing” is a pretty predjudicial term for people coming down on the symbolic side.
    I am wary about going to far in saying AE was free of biological essentialism etc etc — men had tombs, women were add ons (in general). Wives/mothers/daughters are almost entirely depicted as smaller (=less important) than the blokes — see for instance this Ann Macy Roth PDF http://www.gizapyramids.org/pdf%20library/roth_okaa_2006.pdf The language is not free of it, there is no word for “queen” only “king’s wife.” I think it’s alot more complex than that article suggests.
    Amanda’s last blog post..There Won’t Be Anymore

  4. Interesting. I’d imagine that feminism probably owes a great deal to the Grecian tradition of philosophising, arguing, and reasoning, but still, interesting.
    In Ovid’s Metamorphoses there is a story of a great boar hunt involving several legendary heroes; the boar is killed by a woman hunter, but the victory is subsequently claimed by one of the male’s present. I’m sure there’s plenty of other examples in ancient literature, too – as Dave B points out.
    TimT’s last blog post..Dangling modifier of the day!

  5. Sorry to be away from the blog most of the last day.

    Ah, Joann Fletcher. Banned from ever working in Egypt again for being completely unprofessional.

    Was she truly unprofessional, or was she just one of those scholars that didn’t get along with that infamous Head of Antiquities guy? (I realise of course that anyone who was truly unprofessional is going to blame it on prejudice of the IHOAG anyway)

    Fletcher is not claiming anything outside the modern academic consensus, that I can see

    My consensus question wasn’t meant to imply that it the picture expressed of gender roles wasn’t already the scholarly consensus, I’m genuinely curious about when some of these aspects of AE society were first brought up and how long it took to become the consensus.

    I am wary about going to far in saying AE was free of biological essentialism etc etc — men had tombs, women were add ons (in general).

    I’d separate a belief in male superiority from a belief in gender essentialism per se: you can still believe that men have higher social status than women without the culture of “women only have domestic roles” and “only men have public roles”, a separation of the public and private spheres which other cultures justified by essentialist arguments.

  6. My impression is she genuinely has a case to answer. There is a lot of byzantine foolishness about the Antiquties Dept but in this case (perhaps uniquely!) I don’t think we can blame them. As far as I know she deliberately mislead the Egyptian members of her team (and the Antiquties Dept which like it or not is the body responsible for Egypt’s heritage and you are there at their invitation, not as some kind of right) about what she was doing and made them look like idiots so she could have her big telly moment. The academics who I’ve heard speak of it take a very dim view, as well.
    I found a book review in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology in which Fletcher makes much the same points but with footnotes so I feel happier about what she says now. 😉 The less direct evidence there is, the longer the bows and the more tempting to run with your biases and in most cases we are dealing with very little evidence.

  7. It does sound like she’s rather a jerk, then. Doesn’t mean she’s wrong of course, but jerks are generally less persuasive, aren’t they?
    I take your point about the lack of evidence generally. I guess we have the dryness of most of Egypt to thank for as much being preserved as there is. Herodotus getting all sniffy about the Egyptians does lend it some credence though. If he’d had exclamation marks at his disposal I imagine this phrase would have looked as follows:

    whereas men sat at home and did the weaving!!!!1!11


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