Incestuous or consanguineous marriages were practiced in Egypt already during the Old Kingdom, from at least c. 2500 B.C., although clear textual evidence appears first 500 years later, with the sibling marriage of Pharaoh Mentuhotep II and Neferu. Consanguineous marriages, being between siblings, mother and son, or father and daughter, were periodically frequently practiced within the royal family, most recognized during the 18th Dynasty. During this time it became common practice also among commoners in marriage, also from the lower classes, to refer to each other as sister and brother. For married lovers to call each other sister and brother was also common in the Persian empire, where it furthermore was legally accepted for close relatives to wed. Thus, it is far surprising to find that it was the Persian people who received most negative attention by the early Christians. Returning to Ancient Egypt, a study has shown that among 500 Egyptian marriages outside the court, 5-6 was between siblings. Although being a low number, it reveals that sibling marriages did exist also among commoners. Naturally, one of the most recognized examples of consanguineous marriages is that between Pharaoh Akhenaten and his daughters and granddaughters. Egyptologists have considered the continued practice of consanguinity during the 18th Dynasty as being a possible factor in the artistic change during Pharaohs Amenhotep III and his son Akhenaten, debating whether the artistic representation of the family and especially the children might be connected to genetic mutations due to inbreeding. An ancient theory suggested that the genetic code was transferred to a child through the mother, thus the family legacy and purity was held by the female family founder. Thus, a future pharaoh consolidated his position to be by marrying the ruling pharaoh’s daughter. However, as much as the theory is discussed, and in many ways connects with male and female royal titles of kinship, many Egyptologists of today dismiss its validity.
|Daughters of Akhenaten, photo taken from ancient history|
|Pharaoh Akhenaten. Photo by Dr. John Ward|
In order to approach an understanding of why ancient Egyptians would marry close relatives, we would like to discuss the ancient marriage practice per se, including laws and the possibility to divorce. In Egypt men and women were regarded mature to marry around the age of 20 years. There are about 90 preserved marriage and divorce contracts, written in Demotic script, preserved from the Late, and Graeco-Roman period. These contracts incorporate all social classes and all Egyptian geographic areas. A contract of marriage was traditionally ruled by a regulated pattern, but each couple could add personal supplementary information. Two types of contract co-existed: in accordance with the first the man paid a ‘bride price’ to his wife to be, while the second meant that the father of the bride paid a dowry to the husband to be. In exchange for the dowry the husband to be should insert in the contract that he promised to financially keep the wife to be, most commonly measured in oil, wheat, wine and money. This type of contracts is common also within Greek and Roman law. All through the ages, up to the 6th century it was most common for the husband to be and the father of the bride to sign the contract, but thereafter it became custom for the wife to be to sign the contract in her own name. These contracts were regularly written in connection with what could be compared with a wedding, but there are other examples of a contract being signed after years of cohabitating partners.
|Man and Woman in Ancient Egypt, photo from women in ancient Egypt|
Let us now proceed to divorces.
”You have made me your wife…If I repudiate you as husband, be it that I hate you, be it that I love another instead of you…”P.Libbey = L. 9
The citation clearly shows that a woman had the same rights as a man in terms of divorce. The cause for divorce was commonly very simple: that either partner grown tired of the other or that either one had found another partner. Thus, their relationships were in many ways similar to those today. Studies reveal that the ancient Egyptians had a divorce quote of 10:82. The procedure of a divorce was generally relatively simple, but it brought with it some financial and practical problems. The dowry or bride price was to be repaid, and house and possessions were to be divided. If the woman brought with her a certain amount of dresses (or similar) it was the man’s responsibility to buy new ones if the amount no longer concurred. In terms of children, the ancient sources are somewhat blurry. Preserved contracts do not show any clear regulations, but instead indicate between the lines which one of the parents was to be responsible for the children’s’ welfare and education. A majority of the sources, however, indicate that it was to be the responsibility of the mother. A woman who was no longer wanted by her husband often moved to either one of her male relatives, frequently a brother who cared for her until the time when she chose to remarry.
Taking into consideration that we speak of the ancients, it might seem as if Egyptian women enjoyed a rather free social position, especially when comparing with contemporary Greece where a woman’s role was socially suppressed. And in comparison with her Greek contemporary, Egyptian women did possess a somewhat forward financial freedom and was entitled to inherit her father or husband, as well as herself being able to put in a testament her own belongings and property. She had equal rights to a man to be in charge of financial affairs.
|Ancient Egyptian women, photo from ancient Egyptian facts|
Returning to the main topic of discussion, what can be said about consanguineous marriages in ancient Greece? Well, in accordance with the ancient sources we know that any marriage between full siblings was considered incestuous, but marriage between half siblings could be accepted if necessary. In accordance with Athenian law a sibling marriage was allowed if the couple shared the same father, but had different mothers. This, obviously, speaks against Aristotle’s theory on the father being the one who produces a child’s genes, and that its mother simply acts as a field in which the man places his genetic seed. This means that a sibling couple, who seemingly was considered as genetic children, had the right to marry. It is also important to recognize that a woman in Classical Athens had very limited possibilities to remarry, thus being able to reproduce with more than one husband. In Sparta, however, it was allowed for a sibling couple to marry if they shared the same mother. In reality, there are very few Greek examples of an actual practice of sibling marriages, or at least preserved sources thereof. However, a question worth asking is if whether such marriages at all would be documented in official records. Concerning regulations of marriages in Athens, the contract was a matter of affair between the father of the bride and husband to be. The contract was always signed by men and the bride to be had nothing to add or oppose. Furthermore, a Greek woman was regarded mature for marriage already in her early teens, frequently with a much older man. At the time of marriage the woman brought with her a dowry, paid by her male guardian, whether that being a father or brother.
|Greek marriage, photo from ancient myths|
Let us then proceed to two individuals whom I have spent many years researching: the Ptolemaic couple Ptolemy II and Arsinoë II Philadelphos. In terms of time we turn to the 3rd century B.C. in the Ptolemaic capital Alexandria.
Arsinoë was used as a human instrument as she sealed a political alliance between two powerful diadoch-rulers by marrying Alexander’s the Great previous general Lysimachus, at the time ruler of Thrace. During her time as a Thracian queen, Arsinoë gave birth to three sons. The Thracian people embraced Queen Arsinoë and preserved coins bring evidence of her already at that time active political role. Lysimachus, 60 years older than Arsinoë, had a son from a previous marriage, Agathocles, whom Arsinoë is said to have tried to seduce. In accordance with the somewhat mythic description, Agathocles declined Arsinoë’s approach, pushing Arsinoë to persuade Lysimachus to kill his own son. The death of Agathocles resulted in heavy confrontations within the Thracian court, indirectly resulting in the death of also Lysimachus, after which Arsinoë was forced into a new political alliance which supposedly would save her political position as a queen. She married her half-brother, Ptolemy Ceraunus, at the time monarch of Macedonia. However, this marriage was doomed to failure, followed by immediate intrigues which resulted in Ceraunus murdering two of Arsinoë’s sons, most likely fearing future struggles for the throne. Arsinoë fled from Ceraunus with her oldest, and only surviving son, via Samothrace, to her motherland, Egypt.
|Lysimachus, King of Thrace, photo from Livius.org|
In Egypt Arsinoë’s full brother, Ptolemy II, ruled, married since some time with Lysimachus’ daughter, Arsinoë I, who soon enough was driven off from the Ptolemaic court during somewhat unclear circumstances. Once Arsinoë I was removed nothing stood in the way for Arsinoë II, who married her brother and entered the political stage as Egypt’s new queen, or as recent studies show, as Female Pharaoh! The couple received the nickname Philadelphos, sibling-lovers, in connection with their marriage. There are various written sources, especially from the Greek islands, indicating that this actually was the time when the couple received their characteristic epithet. The couple married sometime between 276 and 273 B.C. The Greek society is said to have reacted rather strongly against this, in their eyes, immoral and tabooed marriage. However, among the sources preserved today, a majority is of positive and supportive nature. Important to remember is that most preserved texts were written by court poets writing on behalf of the court. Naturally, this has an immediate effect on the character of the preserved sources. Court poet Theocritus describes the marriage in one of his idylls, comparing the couple with the Greek divine couple Zeus and Hera. Another court poet who wrote about the marriage was Callimachus, possibly most famous for being the one who catalogued the great library of Alexandria. Unfortunately his description is rather fragmented, but considering his devotion to the court, his poem should have had a similar character as that of Theocritus, thus supportive. There is, however, evidence suggesting also a negative standpoint. The ancient authors Athenaeus and Plutarch retell a story of how the poet Sotades was sentenced harshly after questioning the motives and character of Ptolemy II. Sotades choice of words in his poem was libelous with a satiric tone. He described the monarch as unmanly and questions Ptolemy’s role as monarch after entering an incestuous marriage. Poets Theocritus and Sotades represent two different reactions to the consanguineous marriage between Ptolemy and Arsinoë. Theocritus raises the couple to the sky by comparing them with the rulers of Mt. Olympus, while Sotades quickly drags them back to earth. Plutarch uses Sotades as a warning example, demonstrating that it is better to remain silent than speaking one’s mind, especially when dealing with monarchs and their court.
Scholars have discussed the nature of the disagreement with the consanguineous marriage of Ptolemy and Arsinoë, whether it was straight against the incestuous form per se, or if it included also the aspect of syncretism, when a Macedonian ruler seemingly follows Egyptian royal customs. Diodorus Siculus describes how the Egyptians married their sisters, and Pausanias makes a note that Ptolemy and Arsinoë followed Egyptian traditions when marrying. Naturally, this should remain a peripheral discussion, since the early Ptolemies actively promoted an assimilation in various aspects. It is difficult to deny the Egyptian cultural influence on the Ptolemaic society when any sailor entering the harbor of Alexandria was greeted by two gigantic statues of a Ptolemaic couple in Egyptian style. Another example of assimilation is Sarapis, a new god created by Ptolemy I based on qualities possessed by a variety of Greek and Egyptian traditional deities. Sarapis, possibly, is the most evident example of active syncretism. However, there are many others too, which either support or argue the negative Greek reactions being aimed at the Ptolemies’ ingratiation to the Egyptian customs. Another aspect necessary of mentioning is the more likely Greek opposition to Arsinoë’s prominent official role. Classical Greeks would never have allowed a woman to be equal her husband, especially when belonging to society’s highest rank. Arsinoë had already possessed a prominent role, as Lysimachus’ wife, and the Greek-Macedonian population would have heard of the consequences thereof as the king was tricked into killing his own son.
There are, however, various factors effecting whether the poets’ descriptions should be regarded general. Around the time of her death (here believed prior to), Arsinoë was deified by her husband-brother in association with the powerful priesthood. Greek and Egyptian sources alike show that the cult of Arsinoë became most popular and long lived. Arsinoë was assimilated with some of the great Egyptian deities, with who depended on location, but with also Greek divinities in Alexandria as well as the Greek mainland and islands. Her name survived in cultic assimilated form of street names in Alexandria, as well as naming the entire nome of Fayyum. Her popularity is not only documented in the official cult, but also in private once, documented throughout the entire Ptolemaic period.
|Arsinoë and Ptolemy II, BM|
Scholars often find difficulties in tracing any reactions to the marriage in Egyptian sources. However, the Mendes stele, which describes the physical death and divine rebirth of not only Arsinoë, but also the Mendesian ram god Banebdjedet, can be advised also in terms of the consanguineous marriage as the main text describes how Osiris protects their royal union. As commonly known among many of you, Osiris was the divine brother of Isis, but also her husband, indeed a prototype for a royal marriage. However, as I have suggested elsewhere, I believe that the divine marriage between Horus and Hathor, the manifestations of which the royal couple were, had more impact on Ptolemy and Arsinoë, at least within Egyptian relief iconography.
|Sarapis, National Museum, Alexandria|
|Sarapis, Bibliotecha Alexandrina, Antiquities Museum|
Turning to the reasoning behind their marriage, it is difficult to answer why an Egyptian monarch of Macedonian lineage choose to marry his full sister when being in complete conflict with Greek traditions of moral and honor. Their personal interests naturally have a certain importance, although rather small considering the bigger picture. Arsinoë had the experience of marrying not only one, but two rulers, thus becoming a queen herself. When she fled an obvious failure in Thrace-Macedonia her status was belittled and damaged. Marrying her full brother, Ptolemy, she could once more assume, and actually raise, her royal status. She was eight years older than her brother, at the time of marriage in her 40’s. A divorced, middle aged woman, who fled from her previous husband, should have had considerable reasons to base her decision on. The question is then whether she actually had a voice of her own in making such a choice. And what advantages did the marriage bring Ptolemy? There could barely have been any physical attraction between the spouses, not only since they were full siblings, but primarily based on Ptolemy’s many mistresses known to the world. In accordance with Greek-Macedonian tradition a marriage was a political and public institution. Another important factor to mention is that Ptolemy, already prior to marrying Arsinoë, instituted an official cult of their parents. Once Ptolemy and Arsinoë married they cemented a royal bloodline as the direct descendants of a deified couple. The step to self deification was not far away, and surely soon thereafter Ptolemy and Arsinoë were declared divine, the theoi Adelphoi – the sibling gods. This apotheosis obviously was part of the court’s public propaganda, while functioning also as a mean of synchronizing with Egyptian traditions, identifying with a traditional pharaoh and his spouse, with a divine lineage, becoming fully divine at the time of physical death.
Arsinoë ruled with her husband and received much greater responsibilities than any Greek woman ever had. A sibling marriage meant that the couple had a deep mutual personal knowledge, whether that signifying trust or disbelief. By marrying his sister Ptolemy could secure the dynastic lineage, further cemented when Arsinoë adopted Ptolemy’s three children by his first wife. The couple had everything to win by entering a marriage. Ptolemy saw himself as the founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty, as his father initially acted as satrap and not ruler per se, and which later Ptolemies honored in relief form, excluding the first Ptolemaic couple. The period prior to Ptolemy II was characterized by eternal battles between Alexander’s former generals. Ptolemy II and Arsinoë both had much to gain by marrying, most probably being based on friendship allowing space and freedom in terms of lovers and concubines. Among the later Ptolemies, seven out of eleven married their sisters. Ptolemy VII was murdered on his wedding day, when he was about to marry his mother, by his uncle who soon thereafter married his sister. The other Ptolemies married their nieces, step-mothers or cousins.
|Ptolemy VIII with his two wives - Cleopatra II and III, mother and daughter, Kom Ombo|
Returning to the religious background for consanguineous marriages, we can use the archetype example of Isis and Osiris, demonstrating moral faithfulness and dedication between spouses: Isis’ eternal love for Osiris, her grief after his death, her patient search for his body, and her devotion in life and death alike. According to Egyptian mythology, Osiris was the first pharaoh, married to his twin-sister Isis. Osiris was worshiped as a fertility god, responsible for mankind’s knowledge of cultivation and reproduction. However, Osiris was forever threatened by his brother, Seth, and with him chaos. The possibly most central theme in the myth is how Seth murders Osiris. It tells how Seth in the shape of a crocodile or hippopotamus drowns Osiris in the Nile. Thereafter he rips the body in pieces, spreading them all over Egypt, symbolically representing the annual harvest of crop. Isis patiently search and found each part of Osiris’ body, using her healing power with the help of other deities in order to revive him long enough to produce an heir to the throne – Horus. Once Osiris had entered the Underworld Anubis helped Isis to embalm and wrap Osiris’ body, thus making Osiris the first mummified pharaoh. Thus, Osiris is often represented in art with white wrappings. Associating themselves with Osiris and Isis, Ptolemy and Arsinoë could legitimate their own son, Ptolemy III Euergetes, the Egyptian throne.
|Ptolemy II with the Osirian family, Philae Temple|
Considering Greek mythology, the most famous consanguineous marriage was between Zeus and Hera. Zeus was the ruler of the divine universe, and just like Osiris, he was a protector of cultivation, thus a fertility god. Hera, his spouse, was his sister, and by marriage the queen of heaven and earth. In spite of his continuous love affairs, she remained faithful to Zeus as his legal wife. Together they gave birth to the divine children Ares, Hephaestus and Hebe, although the ancient sources vary greatly in their testimonies. As well known, one of the myths describes that Hephaestus when he was born was so ugly that Hera through him out from their divine palace, making him forever lame. Suggestively, the myth could be used as a warning example of consanguineous marriages and the genetic mutations it can bring. However, the marriage between Zeus and Hera is far from the only in Greek mythology. The marriage between Uranus and Gaia resulted in twelve titans, three Cyclops and three creatures with a hundred hands. In accordance with Hesiod the Greek divine world is full of consanguineous marriages with children consisting of monsters and deformed creatures, as well as the most gorgeous and divine ones.
|Carracci's Zeus and Hera, image from here|
The origin of ancient myths lies in symbolic tales, allegories, dealing with natural phenomena that were given anthropomorphic and animalistic features. According to Freud, the myth is a reflection of man’s subconscious emotions. Jung developed the theory and claimed that myths represent the different archetypes existing within each human being, such as the Mother. Myths around the world are mostly structured in a most similar hierarchic fashion, whether dealing with Graeco-Egyptian myth, Indo-European myth, or the dogmatic religions of today. The myth has since the very beginning of mankind tried to explain, warn, encourage and describe human behavior. Ancient myths are exciting and interesting to study, especially as there are so many variants of one theme. However, it also makes it more difficult to comprehend fully the structure of ancient ideologies. Ptolemy and Arsinoë used Greek and Egyptian myths to gain strength and moral explanation for their consanguineous marriage. In theory it should have been a marriage based on a socio-political foundation, a decision based on a mutual understanding, and with a religious denotation providing access to the general population in a most active and deliberate propaganda aimed at the entire Ptolemaic Kingdom.