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Written evidence for widow and widower in Ancient Egypt

The Ancient Egyptian language includes a verb xAr 'to be widow/widower', and the noun xArt 'widow'; there is not a masculine version *xAr 'widower' in the surviving record.

In one remarkable Ramesside letter, a man writes to his dead wife, reminding her of their love in life (Papyrus Leiden I 371: Gardiner and Sethe 1928: no.6).

Other 'letters to the dead' are written by widows (Gardiner and Sethe 1928: no.5), struggling to protect the rights of their children in inheritance. This could be taken to indicate that widows might be excluded from inheritance; however, the number of legal documents from earlier periods is limited, and factors of age, class and kin would create widely differing experiences of widowhood.

In one Ramesside document, a childless man names his own wife as 'child' in order to ensure that she inherits all his estate, protecting her from the claims of the brothers and sisters of the man after his death (Gardiner 1941).

Such documents with the point of view of the widow are rare; more often she is the object of protection in declarations of good character by elite men:

Such statements are found in hieroglyphic inscriptions from the Old Kingdom to the Late Period (for another example, see line 10 of the stela of Mentuhotep, UC 14333). By implication, she is impoverished, a standardised example of the oppressed.



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