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Adult life in ancient Egypt

The life chances of an individual depend on birth (genes; social ties; place; moment in history; social class). Age is the destabilising factor in each biography, undermining the perennial efforts of society to stabilise social relations. If an individual survived birth and childhood, what did adult life offer? What sources do we have for ancient adult lives?


Sources in the archaeological record

In social structure, the neolocal nuclear family seems normative in funerary contexts such as tomb-chapels, burial-chambers, and offering-chapel monuments (parents and children as social unit); however, household listings record more complex units, and both single and multiple burials in the archaeological record also indicate a different relation of individual to society.

In archaeology, 'family' may not be a neutral term for groups of men and women: from human remains, blood group, and in the future perhaps DNA, may offer more objective grounds for interpreting groups of individuals of different ages and sexes as 'families'.

Compare the pages on gender (in written sources with focus on the presence of women in different types of written record)


Sexuality in ancient Egypt

Sexual intercourse between men and women is depicted rarely in ancient Egyptian formal and informal art; written literary and religious sources include comment on the ethics of sexual intercourse, for example in some passages of the Middle Kingdom 'Teaching of Ptahhotep' (warning to men against associating with the women of a host) and in some clauses of the 'negative confession' of New Kingdom funerary manuscripts ('Book of the Dead Chapter 125B').

Sexuality seems not to have defined the individual. Therefore, comments on sexual practices do not therefore correspond categorically to modern definitions or comments on heterosexuality, bisexuality, and homosexuality. References in writing to sexual intercourse between men are as rare as those to sexual intercourse between men and women; the absence of references in writing to sexual intercourse between women reflects the general male bias of the written record. Homosexual intercourse between a king and his general is implied in the fragmentary 'tale of Neferkara and Sasenet', in the description of secret nocturnal visits by the king to the general, detected by the hero of the tale; although the tale is damaged, it reads as if the nocturnal visits are considered illicit. In the Middle and New Kingdom versions of the power struggle between the gods Horus and Seth, one episode involves the seduction of Horus by Seth; the relative age of the partners and the degree of consent cannot easily be determined from the words used.

On the history of sexuality, see the articles by Halperin and Partner in Fay/Pomper/Vann 1998: Halperin argues for social constructivism (sexuality is, like all social features, a construction of the particular society), while Partner aims for more humanity and sensitivity to the individual, between the opposing poles of social constructivism and biological determinism.



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