Dancing for Hathor

Published in History Today

Dancing For Hathor: Women in Ancient Egypt
Carolyn Graves-Brown
Continuum   241pp   £20
ISBN 978 1847250544

The Classical historian Herodotus writing in the fifth century BC marvelled at the behaviour of the Egyptians who ‘in their manners and customs seem to have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind. For instance, women attend the market and are employed in trade while men stay at home and weave ... Men carry loads on their heads while women carry them on their shoulders. Women urinate standing up, men sitting down ...’

Almost 25 centuries after Herodotus, historians remain fascinated by Egypt’s remarkable females. Some are attracted to the elite: queens Nefertiti and Cleopatra are tolerably familiar to us through a succession of recent biographies, so that today their names convey a frisson of glamour and romance. But these comparatively well-documented women are the exception rather than the rule.

What of the unglamorous majority; the women who, illiterate and preoccupied with mundane tasks, lived sheltered lives in Egypt’s now vanished hamlets and towns? Most of these women remain invisible. The few who are seen are glimpsed only through the writings, art and architecture of men.

Everyone in Ancient Egypt was expected to marry. Time and time again artists depict the ideal family of husband, wife and one or more children. It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of this economic unit. The Egyptians inhabited a harsh environment, threatened not by extremes of climate but by disease, the risks of childbirth and accident. Denied any form of official welfare, they pinned their hopes on the family who would not only care for them in life, but who would ensure that the correct offerings were made after death. To remain unmarried was simply not an option.

From the very beginnings of the dynastic age it had been accepted that women should take responsibility for the home and the family – food preparation, clothing, cleaning and brewing were women’s duties – while men interfaced with the non-domestic world. Surviving Egyptian art reinforces this stereotype. While upper-class women are depicted as pale and thin, their menfolk are robust and tanned. Yet the seemingly passive wives often appear to be offering their husbands physical support; they are shown with their right arms placed protectively around the man’s shoulder or waist. Clearly, there is more to these women than meets the eye.

In fact Egyptian women were luckier than many in the ancient world, enjoying rights that many western societies have only recently achieved. They were entitled to own property, could take paid work and could testify as witnesses before the court. However, it would be a mistake to imagine that all Egyptian women could act as they pleased. The right to own property meant very little to the vast majority who were too poor to own anything much. The right to work did not carry with it an entitlement to a career; it simply meant that women were able to supplement the family income by working at a level appropriate to their station in life. And all the legal rights in the world could not free married women from the burden of repeated, health-threatening pregnancies.

In Dancing for Hathor Carolyn Graves-Brown ambitiously sets out to write a book that will appeal to the general reader while including contemporary scholarly research in Egyptology. She writes with an obvious enthusiasm for her subject and the anthropological approach that she applies to the women of prehistoric and predynastic Egypt is particularly welcome. Given the vast time span of almost 5,000 years, and the extensive and disparate amount of evidence that she reviews, it is perhaps not surprising that she concentrates on some periods at the expense of others. However, her stated aim is to write a book that will ‘encourage debate’ and I have no doubt that she has achieved this ambition.

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