Incest in Ancient Egypt June 29, 2011Posted by Beachcombing in : Ancient , trackback
Incest is a fringe interest in most societies. However, Beachcombing has learnt, on a morning trip to his local library, that there are some curious exceptions: a number of Hawaiian clans, certain tribes in the Solomon Islands and, of course, the most famous of them all, the Egyptian pharaohs.
Now, it is common knowledge among lovers of antiquity that the Egyptian royal line married its own members: a result of divine kingship being passed in a matrilineal fashion, through the woman, but divine kingship being (generally) practised by men.
Typically this involved brothers marrying sisters. So before Cleopatra bedded Caesar and Mark Anthony she was, as Egyptian custom demanded, the paramour of her brothers Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV.
This Egyptian royal tradition of keeping marriage within the family can, of course, be mirrored in other royal lines. The present king of Thailand is the grandson of a brother and sister pairing. And, it was possible to argue – up until the Second World War – that the various royal lines of Europe were in reality a single cankered rose bush. The desire to keep precious royal blood untainted by plebeian Earls and Dukes presumably trumped worries about a murky gene pool.
What is fascinating about Ancient Egypt though is that the tradition went far beyond the royal house. For many years it was argued that this was not in fact the case and that to claim that Egyptian society was incestuous was to misunderstand the Greek and Latin words used to describe family members on the Nile Delta. In short, Classicists blushed imperial purple and moved rapidly on before their snotty students could ask for more. But this attitude has slowly changed and antichisti now spend hours pouring over the details of Egyptian family life in the Roman period. Surviving census parchments from the Egyptian deserts – particularly those relating to Arsinoe – demonstrate that in urban settings between a fifth and a third of married couples were married siblings or half-siblings. Extraordinary numbers.
The Roman Empire was anxious about this custom which is referred to from time to time by the poets and chroniclers of the urbs. After all, incest back in Rome was a death sentence waiting to happen, unless, of course, you were Emperor when it seems – to judge by Suetonius – to have been an occupational hazard. But there was no frontal assault on this Egyptian institution until the third century AD: though there were financial disincentives.
The question that Beach must ask is why did Egypt adopt incest? Why does a society decide to rely on brother-sister marriage on this scale? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
One suggestion is that this was a way of avoiding dowries.
Another school claims that this was an imitation of the wiles of the Egyptian gods. It should be mentioned though that incest figures in many religious traditions (Greek, Roman…) where worshipers would have jumped off cliffs (or been thrown off them) before marrying family members.
Personally, Beach would put money on it being an attempt to copy the royal dynasty. An attempt, in short, by urban sophisticates – remember incest seems to have been most common in the cities – to turn their little Cleopatras and Ptolemys into proper pharaohs: an attempt that hardened into tradition, when it was understood that incest pissed off Greek and Roman invaders.
A morning of reading about incest has not done Beachcombing’s mental health any good. He will now go and have a long hot shower and pretend that it never happened. But before he does one last impression from the three hours he spent trying to hide the pile of books he was reading from passing librarians.
There is, Beach discovered, no impediment among mammals to sex with closely-related family members – cue occasional tabloid stories of biological brothers and sisters separated at birth accidentally dating in later life.
Nature has, however, another mechanism to protect the genetic integrity of a species: most mammals have a natural revulsion – what might be termed the ‘yuk!’ factor – to sexual relations with those they’ve grown up with be they unrelated Kibbutz children or, in most of the world, brothers and sisters.
In this light, it is interesting that the papyrus census returns from Egypt suggest that married brothers and sisters were often of different age-groups – where sexual attraction becomes more credible – and this is also true of some of the instances of pharaonic marriage. Naturally, when dynastic politics was involved desire didn’t figure in calculations. But still, just for the record, poor Ptolemy XIII was twelve when he married his nineteen year old sister Cleopatra and poor, poor Ptolemy XIV was thirteen and Cleo was twenty four when they became an item. Talk about going to bed with the black widow. Though records are lacking the chances are that Cleopatra had poisoned Ptolemy XIV within four years of their union.