The Women of Ancient Egypt Were All About Prenups

Illustration for article titled The Women of Ancient Egypt Were All About Prenups

Couples in ancient Egypt had the legal right to draw up pre or postnuptial agreements—before or during their marriage—to ensure that wives would get a decent-to-hefty financial payout if the relationship failed. Praise be to Isis, goddess of womanhood, marriage, and getting your ass paid.

The legal documents—created with the cooperation of the husband, the wife, a number of witnesses, and a scribe who could convert the couple’s agreement into legal language—were often several feet long. If a party wanted to break the contract, they’d have to appear in court.

One such document, eight feet long and written in demotic script, hangs at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. As Cara Giaimo at Atlas Obscura describes it:

The 2,480-year-old marital document...was made to ensure that if the union between the signers didn’t work out, the wife would be adequately provided for. Her compensation would include “1.2 pieces of silver and 36 bags of grain every year for the rest of her life,” says Dr. Emily Teeter, an Egyptologist at the Institute.

“Most people have no idea that women in ancient Egypt had the same legal rights as men,” says Teeter. Egyptian women, no matter their marital status, could enter into contracts, sue and be sued, and serve on juries and as witnesses. They could acquire and own property (and fairly often, they did: a fragment of papyrus from 1147 B.C, denoting thousands of land holdings names women as the owners of about 10 percent of the properties listed).


Contracts like these, according to professor Janet H. Johnson at the University of Chicago, “were extremely advantageous to the wife.”

Unlike marriage contracts in contemporaneous cultures, they were purely economic, promising not eternal faithfulness or mutual responsibility but cold, hard cash.

Women could also, Giaimo notes, file for divorce.

None of this is to say that ancient Egypt was a paradise of equal opportunity. Typically, women were still reliant on their husbands for social status. Privilege and independence, much like today, were intrinsically linked to socio-economics, affording wealthier women greater freedom than women who were poor.


But the fact that they had legal means to protect themselves is both exciting and a good lesson to all of us. Protect your assets, plan for the future, and get everything in writing... like an Egyptian.

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Image via the AP.

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And this is why Egyptology is amazing.

Yeah, okay. Seriously, one of my favourite true stories from ancient Egypt is that of an old lady named Naunakhte who drew up a will in about 1147 BCE. We know about this because she lived in Deir el-Medina, the village built for the workmen (and their families) who created the tombs in the Valley of the Kings and the tombs of the high officials and priests in ancient Thebes, and the written archive from Deir el-Medina is so extensive that it’s possible to create family trees over the years and follow what was going on in the community, which is a fantastic glimpse into the everyday life of this highly unusual little corner of ancient Egypt. (Interestingly, a lot of the documents are legal, and loads of them are civil court proceedings. Reading what people were taking each other to court for is like reading the transcript of an ancient Egyptian episode of Jeremy Kyle. It’s epic.)

Anyway, Naunakhte: having reached a grand old age, Naunakhte states that she has decided to draw up this will in front of multiple witnesses so that she can arrange how her property will be divided between her children after her death. If I recally correctly, she states that she has eight children (and they’re all listed), who she raised to adulthood, and took good care of, making sure they were fed and clothed and had a roof over their head. But, she says, even though she took good care of all of her children when they needed her, not all of them have taken good care of her in her old age when she could have used a little help. So the three children who have not helped their mother in her old age are disinherited, and her property is divided among the five who have looked after her.

I love Naunakhte. My grandmother has the same problem with not all of her kids looking after her, even though she’s ninety-two and lives on her own, and I often think of Naunakhte disinheriting her kids when my uncles are colossal fuckups when it comes to their mother and it gives me rage. Families, guys. People never change.