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But notwithstanding the high respect paid to Egyptian women, and the undoubted fact that they were largely engaged in commerce and agriculture, there are many things to prove that they had not such unlimited ascendency as to reverse the usual order of things, by governing their husbands, and compelling them to do the work within doors.
The honorable office of the priesthood was entirely confined to the men, both in the temples of the goddesses and the gods. The mercantile caravans, going through rude and warlike places, could not have been composed of women. In one of the ancient Egyptian mausoleums have been found paintings in bass-relief, representing men planning furniture, hewing blocks of wood, pressing out skins of wine or oil, ploughing, hoeing, and bringing in asses laden with corn to be stored in the magazines; there is likewise a group of boatmen quarrelling, and a band of musicians playing on the harp, the flute, and a species of clarionet. The only women introduced are a group of dancing WOI (1811.
Nymphodorus remarks that Sesostris obliged the men to employ themselves in feminine occupations, because his subjects were becoming very numerous, and he wished to weaken their characters, in order to prevent revolt. In opposition to those writers, who attribute such unlimited freedom and influence to the Egyptian women, some have asserted that they were kept constantly shut up, and their feet cramped, according to the present custom of the
It is probable that these contradictory accounts refer to different parts of Egypt; for the various districts differed so much in their customs, that what was worshipped in one was despised and abhorred in another. The superstitions of the Egyptians formed a singular contrast with their scientific knowledge. They held many animals in religious veneration; such as the ibis, the crocodile, the cat, and the dog. If a cat happened to die, the whole family shaved their eyebrows in token of sorrow; and on the death of a dog, they shaved the brows and the head. Maximus Tyrius tells the story of an Egyptian woman, who brought up a young crocodile. “Her countrymen esteemed her particularly fortunate, and considered her the nurse of a deity. The woman had a son about the same age with the crocodile, and they grew up and played together. When the animal became large and strong, it devoured the child. The woman exulted in the death of her son, and considered his fate as blessed in the extreme, in thus becoming the victim of their domestic god.” The ancient Egyptians believed the Nile would not overflow and fertilize their country, unless an annual sacrifice were offered to the deity of the river. For this reason, they every year, on the twelfth of their month Baomi, (corresponding to our June.) threw into the Nile a beautiful maiden, superbly ornamented. When Amru conquered Egypt, he abolished this cruel custom. The Egyptians were fond of religious festivals, which they celebrated with music, dancing, feasting, and pompous processions. The women on these occasions were usually decorated with garlands, and carried in their hands symbols of the deity they worshipped. Herodotus, speaking of the famous festival of Isis, at Bubastis, says, “During the passage, the women strike their tabors, accompanied by the men playing on flutes.” Yet some writers have affirmed that the Egyptians did not allow women to learn music, lest it should relax the vigor of their minds. This might be true of some districts in Egypt; but it is more probable that public exhibitions of music were considered beneath the dignity of any but hired performers, as public dancing is still considered in many parts of the world. The Egyptians, in common with other ancient nations, sanctioned great immodesty at their religious festivals; particularly those of Isis and Bacchus. We have no means of ascertaining how far this tended to corrupt the manners of their women. Among people of rank, birthdays were kept with great gayety and splendor. They were accustomed to seat a veiled skeleton at their tables, decorated with a garland of dark-colored flowers; this was intended to remind the guests that death was with them, even in the midst of feasting and joy. The common tendency to invest women with supernatural powers seems to have existed in Egypt. We are told that Athyrte, daughter of Sesostris, encouraged her father to undertake the conquest of the
world, in consequence of her divinations, dreams in the temples, and prodigies she had seen in the air. Though women were not admitted to the order of hereditary priesthood, they were from time immemorial selected to perform certain sacred offices in the Egyptian temples. It was the duty of these consecrated maidens to gather flowers for the altars, to feed the sacred birds, and daily to fill the vases with pure fresh water from the Nile. The moon was worshipped in Egypt as a goddess, under the name of Isis; and it is supposed that these maidens performed certain mystic dances in her temple, as the devedassees of Hindostan now do in the temples of Brama. On these solemn occasions, the Egyptian girls wore small metallic mirrors under the left breast. The origin of the custom is unknown; some have supposed it was done that they might at every movement of their companions behold the reflected image of Isis. Notwithstanding the prevalence of strange superstitions, it is generally supposed that the knowledge of one God, and of the immortality of the soul, were taught by Egyptian priests; and that these truths, carried into Greece, were concealed and preserved in the Eleusinian mysteries. The early Christians were surprised at the frequent appearance of a cross among the hieroglyphics of Egypt; some converted priests explained the mystery, by saying it had always been considered a symbol of life to come. The ancient Egyptians were scrupulously neat. They bathed frequently, and washed their garments often. It was their custom to drink from brazen goblets, which were cleansed every day. In making bread, they kneaded the dough with their feet. When a person of distinction died, it was customary for the females of the family to disfigure their heads and faces with dirt, and run about with their garments in disorder, beating themselves and making loud lamentations. This custom, so common among ancient nations, still prevails in many parts of the East. - t There was a library at Thebes; and Homer was accused of stealing the Iliad and Odyssey from a similar establishment at Memphis. Though this accusation bears internal evidence of falsehood, it indicates the very ancient date of civilization and literature in Egypt. That this taste continued down to comparatively modern times appears from the celebrated Alexandrian library, established by the Ptolemies. The number of volumes is said to have almost equalled the largest library of recent times, and most of them were written in letters of gold. Since the ancient Egyptian women were allowed in all other respects such a remarkable degree of equality with the men, it is reasonable to conjecture that they shared with them in literary acquirements.