Jeremy J. Baer
Ancient Egypt is a source of fascination with the modern West, though most of the interest on a popular level is confined to the iconic temples and funerary monuments synonymous with the Pharaohs. There are endless mass-market coffee table books on the subject, which rarely delve into the more interesting aspects of Egyptian culture. However, one aspect of AE civilization which is receiving more attention is the status of the women. In contrast to patriarchal Greece or Rome, Egypt was somewhat more congenial to the female experience. Joyce Tyldesley takes a scholarly though user friendly look at the subject.
Tyldesley has an honors degree in archaeology from Liverpool University and a doctorate from Oxford. She is now a research fellow at Liverpool University and has written other books on Pharaonic Egypt.
Daughters of Isis is a culture and daily life book on Ancient Egypt, with a focus on the female experience. It is broad enough that even those specifically not interested in women’s studies can find it of worth. For instance, sections on household life, grooming and religion provide a brief overview of the subjects in general before focusing on how these specifically impacted women.
Section 1 is entitled “Images of Women” and discusses the sources of study: primary literature (left by scribes, or by foreign commentators) coupled with what archaeology has revealed as far as material remains and legal records. Section 2 focuses on women as wife and mother. Section 3 shows women within the constraints of household life and domestic duties. Section 4 details livelihoods of women outside the home, as well as their leisure time.
Section 5 discusses grooming and fashion; a fascinating section, even for those who like myself are not especially interested in clothes and hairstyles, past or present. The next section discusses the royal harem, and here it is made clear “harem” simply means the female half of the royal family as opposed to a nest of concubines the term usually implies. Section 7 deals with some of the few known female kings, a fascinating look at ancient history’s most powerful female rulers. The book concludes with a look at Egyptian polytheism, and specifically the household religion of women as it related to pregnancy and birth.
Ancient Egypt can be contrasted to the usual two pillars of Western Civilization – Greece and Rome – in many things, and the status of women was no exception. They held certain legal and social rights that a typical Athenian wife locked away at her corner of the house could only envy. While it is certainly wrong to paint Ancient Egypt as a matriarchy, the evidence suggests that the Celts were not the only ancient people to view women as more than human incubators.
That having been said, though, the chief role of women were as wife and mother. It was in that capacity they were most respected. Other women could find employment as maids and servants, acrobats and dancing girls, and professional mourners. There were of course prostitutes. Scribal education was not given to women, but some females did become supervisors in limited industries. The few royal females who found themselves wearing a crown were certainly an exception in AE history, but they make for interesting studies.
The book is written with a clear prose, making the scholarship accessible to a general audience. There are several color plates, many illustrations, maps, and a historical outline for good measure. Primary sources are quoted liberally – although they are inserted awkwardly in the middle of pages to break up sub chapters. In one case a quote breaks of before finishing, and a brand new page starts. This is the fault of editing, and it ruins what could have been a smooth flow of the book.
In general, however, Daughters of Isis is worth a quick read.