on 25 December 2010
"Daughters of Isis" is a book about everything you ever wanted to know about ancient Egyptian women, but were too prudish to ask!
Joyce Tyldesley has written an excellent overview of the subject. Her book is directed at a general audience and hence relatively easy to read, but could be used by serious students as well. It's packed with information about the daily life of women in ancient Egypt, but also contain more general information about ancient Egyptian society. No detail is too insignificant: we learn about Egyptian eating habits, women's clothes and jewellery, wigs and the art of brewing Nubian beer. Unfortunately, the author can neither confirm nor deny the curious claim by Herodotus that female Egyptians urinated in standing position, while male Egyptians did it sitting down! Of course, the book also deals with more important (?) matters, such as the careers of the few women who managed to become pharaohs.
What strikes the modern reader most is the sexually liberated atmosphere of Pharaonic Egypt, sometimes bordering the decadent. Premarital sexual relations were not prohibited for either sex, Egyptian women could marry foreigners, both incest and polygamy were practiced, foreign slaves were sometimes married to daughters of their masters, and public nudity or half-nudity (even for women) were acceptable in certain contexts. Naturally, prostitution was rampant. Even the gods of the Egyptian religion were seen as sexual creatures. Homosexuality seems to have been one of the few sexual practices that were frowned upon.
Interestingly, however, adultery was severely punished. This strikes the modern observer as somewhat inconsistent, especially given that divorce was relatively easy to obtain and premarital sex wasn't prohibited. But then, what civilization isn't contradictory?
Another striking trait of ancient Egypt is the relatively large freedom enjoyed by the women. They could divorce their husbands, own and inherit property, didn't need a male guardian, and had the right to take legal action. Much of the local trade and barter was carried out by women, and Tyldesley also suggests that divorced women got custody of their children. If the house was owned by the wife, the husband had to move out in case of divorce! While Egypt was overall a patriarchal society, the women nevertheless enjoyed a degree of freedom unknown in Rome, Greece or the Near East. Incidentally, "Daughters of Isis" mentions the Greek and Roman periods in Egyptian history mostly in passing, so there is nothing about Cleopatra in this book.
Of course, one should bear in mind that the freedom and influence of women would have been relative to their rank. Peasants of both sexes were subject to heavy taxation and forced labour, and it's safe to assume that the position of female slaves or prostitutes was even worse. Upper class women could become supervisors, priestesses and (if exceptionally lucky) queens, and therefore had more absolute freedom than those lower down on the social scale. (In Greece, even upper class women were oppressed.)
The obvious question is: why did Egyptian women enjoy an amount of freedom unknown elsewhere during Antiquity? The author cannot really answer this, since she rejects the existence of an ancient matriarchy. Nor does she believe that matrilinearity implies female power. Tyldesley is therefore forced to see the relative freedom of ancient Egyptian women as an "innovation" or "concession", and rather unconvincingly connects it to the abundant agricultural resources and the rigid caste system. A more reasonable explanation would be that Egyptian society was indeed a survival of more matrilinear models which did imply female power. Other African societies seem to have combined hierarchic class structures with a large influence for women. Perhaps the African roots of ancient Egypt can explain its curious gender roles?
Despite this obvious shortcoming, I nevertheless recommend this book to everyone interested in ancient Egypt. As already mentioned, it's relatively easy to read, deals with pretty much everything, and describes a society more women-friendly than "the glory that was Greece" or "the grandeur that was Rome". Not to mention the Book of Leviticus...
on 16 October 2010
Tyldesley's book is the perfect mid-range level for the amateur academic. Referring to material and theories that are more in-depth than the casual reader might expect, yet covering the topic in a reasonably broad manner without the lengthy exploration of detailed obscure evidence that a specialised professional academic might expect from the literature, "Daughters of Isis" is perfect for the beginner or undergraduate with existing partial or broad knowledge seeking to learn more about Egyptology, feminist theory within archaeology, or both.
The book begins by covering the geographical and historical background, an introduction which sets the scene for the explored topic of the book, which was both useful and accessible. The meat of the book then begins by studying the images of women in Ancient Egypt. This is perhaps the obvious place to start as the surviving images are where we can draw much of our clues about the lives of Egyptian women. This is followed with chapters examining women's roles as wives, mothers, and work both running the household and seeking employment outside of it. After a brief look at the importance of grooming for both female and male genders in Ancient Egypt, Tyldesley finishes with an exploration of the lives of higher-ranking women in society, and some of the more notable Queens Consort and Regnant. It would have perhaps been better from a story-telling point of view to place these chapters on individuals first in the book, as they are more engaging and tell more of a story than the chapter on how we can interpret the roles of Egyptian women from the surviving images - some readers may find it a little difficult to get into the book due to the dryness of the first chapter.
All round, a good read for student academics or those with an existing interest in ancient Egypt. Not the most gripping read in the world, but informative and educational. Overall a good read.
One of the many books I've read by Joyce A. Tyldesley over the last 15 months.
I class myself to be very lucky as I've been to the "Land of the Pharaohs" back in the 1990's and seen their great temples and places of worship. If you have ever been able to go there you'll know what I mean about them being an advanced civilisation with everything they built and what tool they had to use to do it with. I'm studying Egyptology with Exeter University and I'm in my second year.
It's a great book for people who just want to learn about great Ancient Egyptian women and their everyday life, and how they had equality between the sexes. Also great for anyone who is interested in studying this Egyptology.
Well done Joyce, I love your books keep up the fantastic work. :-)