|Figure 3. Ostracon no. 50714 in the British Museum.|
"Keep your wife from power, restrain her... In this way you will make her stay in your house."
"Beware the women who is stranger, who is not known in her town. Do not stare at her as she passes by and do not have intercourse with her."
"He who makes love to a woman who has a husband will be killed on her doorstep."
Advice offered to schoolboys by the Old Kingdom scribe Ptahhotep, the New Kingdom scribe Ani and the Late Period scribe Anksheshonq. All three Wisdom Texts are to be found in full translation in Lichtheim, M., 1973-80. Ancient Egyptian Literature 3 Vols. Berkeley.
The Egyptians had neither a civil nor a religious wedding ceremony; men and women who wished to be recognized as a couple simply moved in together.This seemingly casual approach to matrimony, combined with the acceptance of both incest and polygamy, has led many observers to assume that dynastic Egypt was a land of sexual licence and loose morals. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Both incest and polygamy were, until the Graeco-Roman period, restricted to the royal family. While liaisons between single consenting adult were considered matters of little importance to the wider community, a married couple were expected to observe certain moral rules. The wife was expected to remain faithful to her husband, who could then be sure that her children were his own. The husband, in turn, was expected to stay clear of other men's wives although, with prostitutes an ever-present temptation, he was not necessarily expected to remain faithful.
Adultery was a moral outrage that would be dealt with by the individuals or families concerned. A 20th Dynasty letter recovered from the close-knit workmen's community of Deir el-Medina, a town where everybody knew everybody's business, illustrates how this worked. The letter records the misadventures of Nesamenemope, who for many months has been sleeping with a woman who is not his wife. Naturally enough, Nesamenemope's wife's family do not approve of this arrangement. One night they rouse the entire village, and march to the woman's house. 'We are going to beat her, and her family too!' A steward is able to hold back the crowd, and he sends a message to the people. If they are to continue their affraid, Nesamenemope must divorce his wife and set her free to marry another.