A nobleman had one legal wife who was always Mistress of the House. A wealthy landowner might have concubines, but his wife held a special position and was treated with the utmost deference, and his heirs were her offspring. She shared with him not only his social life but inspections of his estate. In some reliefs a wife is seen clasping her husband round the waist or intimately sharing a repast with him. There was an obvious tenderness in family relations. No marriage contracts are known to exist, not is there any indication of a special ceremony. The marriage probably consisted of the actual transfer of the bride, together with her dowry, to the house of her appointed or approved husband, where his duties towards her are clear: ‘If thou art a successful man establish thy household. Love thy wife in the house as is fitting ... fill her body, clothe her back . . . the recipe for her limbs is ointment. Gladden her heart so long as she liveth . . . she is a profitable field for her lord.’ These are the words of Ptahhotep, sage of the 5th dynasty, who was well advanced in years when he asked his Egyptian pharaoh whether he could instruct his own son and prepare him for the official duties that lay ahead of him.
The Egyptian king consented and the aged vizier, wise from experience and learning, wrote some forty-three paragraphs of random instructions which have come down to us in four copies; three on papyrus and one on a wooden tablet. Half of them covered official dudes and conduct in administrative circles. The other half covered personal character, conduct within the family, the duties of a son towards his father and mother and his behaviour towards friends and neighbours. The first piece of advice Ptahhotep gave to his son was on modesty: ‘Be not proud because of thy learning. Take council with the unlearned as with the learned, for the limit of a craft is not fixed and there is no craftsman whose worth is perfect. Worthy speech is more hidden than a greenstone being found among slave-women at the mill-stone.’
The ancient Egyptian Family relationships and good character were considered of vital importance. The father was the chief authority in a strictly disciplined home. ‘Precious to a man is the virtue of his son, and good character is a thing remembered ... if thou hearkenest to this which I have said to thee, all the fashion of thee will be according to the ancestors. As for the righteousness thereof, it is their worth ... it shall not vanish from the mouths of men, because their maxims are worthy. Every word will be carried on; it shall not perish in this land forever . . .’
Egyptian Tomb inscriptions indicate that youths had great respect for their fathers, and no effort was spared by a loyal son to ensure proper burial for his departed father. The case of Sebni comes to mind. His father was an official in charge of the Southern Gate (near the First Cataract), who was killed while venturing southwards on a trading mission. Sebni unhesitatingly set forth on the same journey in order to recover his father’s body and bring it back to his native land for embalming and burial. Sebni’s tomb at Aswan proudly records his loyal mission. One of the most frequent phrases of piety inscribed in tombs of this period was: ‘I was one beloved of his father, praised of his mother, whom his brothers and sisters loved.’
The ancient Egyptians were discreet on matters of sexual behaviour, and immorality was strongly condemned: ‘Beware,’ warned Ptahhotep, ‘of a woman from abroad, who is not known in her city. Look not upon her when she comes and know her not ... If thou desirest to establish friendship in a Egyptian house or home into which thou enterest . . . beware of approaching women. The place where they are is not seemly and it is not wise to intrude upon them. A thousand men are undone for the enjoyment of a brief moment like a dream . . .’
Concubines were placed in a special category and Ptahhotep told his son that they should be kindly treated; he also warned his son not to have any physical association with boys. As a solution to immorality, early marriages were recommended: a youth was advised to ‘take to himself a wife when he is young that she might give him a son whom he will see a man. Happy is the man who has a large household and who is respected on account of his children.’ Marriages between brothers and sisters were widespread among the pharaohs of the New Kingdom, during the Persian period, among the Ptolemies, and during the Roman occupation. There is, however, no confirmed disclosure of marriage between two children of the same parents in the Egyptian Old Kingdom. The terms ‘brother’ and ‘sister’ were terms of endearment, and even after marriage a husband continued to call his wife sonit (sister), meaning ‘loved one’. Unfortunately ancient Egyptian morality is often judged today by notorious practices found during the later periods of ancient Egyptian history: the Greeks declared that marriages between brothers and sisters were normal practice. However, Cambyses was told by the priests of Egypt that no law permitted it though a pharaoh could do as he wished.
Ptahhotep contrasted the good man with the bad, the wise man with the fool. He balanced desirable behaviour characterised by moderation, reserve, discretion and gentleness against the dangers of undesirable behaviour: excessive pride, boastfulness and avarice. Knowledge and advice was passed from Egyptian father to son:
Greater is the appeal of the gentle than that of the strong.
Never utter words in heat. Let thy mind be deep and thy speech scanty.
The wise man rises early to establish himself, but the fool is in trouble.
When you sit with a glutton eat when his greed has passed; when you drink with a drunkard take when his heart is content.
Report on a thing observed, not heard.
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