Binge drinking and equal rights in Ancient Egypt


Egyptian beauty: Nefertiti, as portrayed in the Channel 4 programme Nefertiti and the Lost Dynasty

A woman in Ancient Egypt spent a lot of time with a broom in her hand because it’s a country with a lot of sand. Constant sweeping wasn’t the worst of it, though, because the ubiquity of sand meant she probably had rotten teeth, too.

Not only did sand get into food, but the Egyptians also added a little as an abrasive to help the process of grinding grain for flour to make bread. The grit in the bread cut people’s gums, causing gum disease and eventually tooth decay and loss, so most people had bad or missing teeth.

This is one of the many unexpected details in Barbara Watterson’s survey of Ancient Egyptian women’s lives from contemporary inscriptions and papyrus writings. Teeth apart though, Egyptian women in the 3,000 years leading up to the birth of Christ are revealed to have enjoyed higher status and better lives than many of their counterparts in the ancient world.

They were accorded the same legal rights as men of the same class, and inheritance was matrilineal, meaning property passed through the female line from mother to daughter. Upon marriage a woman kept her own property - something that didn’t happen in England until the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act - and she could leave her property to whomever she wished.


...Cleopatra's age when she came to the throne in 51BC. She was one of only three women to be Egypt's sole ruler

This gave women a certain amount of independence, but they were still frozen out from public office, with men running the country and civil service. As in most early societies, a woman’s role was mainly domestic. Most of the population were peasants, and women were occupied by preparing food, cleaning, brewing beer (a constant task, as the water was undrinkable and the beer went flat quickly and had to be brewed every other day), child care, weaving clothes and washing them in the Nile (without detergent, by pounding them with a stone) and helping out with the harvest.

The only professions open to women were the priesthood, midwifery, music and dancing. Although prostitution seems to have been rare, at one time something that sounds suspiciously like lap-dancing existed, where a performer wore nothing but a thong round her hips decorated with small beads that tinkled seductively as she swayed her hips.

This may have been less racy than it sounds, since all women went bare-breasted anyway, wearing just a long, usually white, linen skirt, cotton then being unknown in a country now famous for it. There was no lipstick, but women used kohl to draw lines around their eyes to make them appear big and attractive. Both sexes wore wigs - made from human hair if you were well off or plant fibre if you weren’t. People favoured short hair to keep them cool indoors, but wore wigs outside to protect them from the fierce sun.

At banquets it was customary to place a cone of solid perfumed oil on each guest’s head which, as the evening drew on, melted in the heat and dripped down, causing the guest to smell pleasant.

Such feasts must have been lively affairs, as binge drinking was de rigueur. Ancient Egyptians drank to get drunk and no shame was attached to it. One inscription has a servant saying to his mistress: ‘Drink this my lady and get drunk’, and she replying: ‘I shall love to be drunk.’

All this drinking seems not to have led to adultery, which was uncommon. Although marriages were arranged, usually for a girl when she was around the age of 12, to a boy of about 15, they were not necessarily loveless, and a rich romantic literature survives, with many love poems.

The main purpose of marriage was to produce heirs. A fertility test involved sitting over a mixture of beer and dates - if you vomited, you would conceive; if you didn’t, you wouldn’t. The number of vomits predicted the number of children.

If you didn’t want to conceive, a popular contraceptive was crocodile dung soaked in sour milk inserted into the vagina - not as crazy as it sounds, because sour milk is a weak acid, so the effect is not unlike a sponge soaked in vinegar which is still used as a contraceptive in Egypt today.

Although Egyptologist Barbara Watterson writes with the intellectual rigour of an academic, with her eye for the quirky, the only dry thing you’ll find here is her wit.