In learning about Ancient Sparta, most of what is discussed is the lives of the men. Such as the fact that Spartan boys left home at the age of seven to be raised by the State in the agoge (the rigorous education program for all Spartan men). But as the cliche goes, behind every great man is a great woman. And it cannot be ignored that the strong Spartan women were the backbone of the warrior state.
Women in Sparta enjoyed a great deal more rights than their sisters in other Greek territories. They could own property, intermingle with the opposite sex, get an education, exercise and some even competed in the Olympic games (a thing forbidden to most women in Greece).
The elevated status of Spartan women was no accident though. Sparta at its very core was a military state, and just as laws were put in place to ensure the health and fitness of the men, there were also laws that encouraged strength and health of the women. After all, the Spartans believed that strong women produced strong sons and warriors.
SPARTA’S FOCUS ON CULTIVATING WARRIOR CITIZENS
In reading this article, you must disillusion yourself with most of what you learned in the 300 movies. While entertaining, a large part of the movie was completely inaccurate. Sparta was not some model democracy with warriors fighting for freedom. Sparta was a totalitarian, military society where the state ruled almost every aspect of life. And a vast majority of the people living in Sparta were slaves.
By 600 BCE Sparta had conquered her neighbors in the southern half of the Peloponnese. These conquered people were called “Helots,” and forced to do all the agricultural work on land owned by the victors. This made Sparta a self sufficient state, leaving the citizens with more time for physical fitness and training for war. Yet Sparta was a brutal state that depended upon the oppression of the very large slave population to thrive. For every Spartan, there were eight helots.
Not needing to import anything, Sparta isolated itself from the culture of the rest of the world. But they feared the prospect of revolt from their huge slave population, and thus the country became an armed camp.
In order to survive, the state had to ensure that every one Spartan was strong enough to defeat at least eight helots. To that end, Spartans learned from an early age discipline, hardship, and the skills of a soldier. As part of their upbringing, Spartan youths were encouraged to go out into the countryside and kill helots who looked like they might become community leaders.
Since boys left home at an early age, and husbands and fathers spent a great part of their time in military training with other men, the women had much more time and autonomy to themselves than other women in Greece.
YOUTH AND TRAINING FOR LIFE
According to Plutarch’s testimony, Spartans practiced infanticide in order to weed unhealthy children out of their society . If a baby was weak, the Spartans would leave it on a hillside, or it was taken away to become a slave (helot). Infanticide was actually common in most societies up until today, but the Spartans were particularly picky. And it wasn’t just a family matter. The state decided the fate of the child. However, it is unclear whether this practice of infanticide applied just to boys, or boys and girls.
One thing that made Sparta unique among the Greek city-states is that the girl babies were just as well fed as their male counterparts. In Athens, the boys were fed better than the girls. But in Sparta, the strength of women as well as men was of vital importance to the state. So it was encouraged to feed girls enough for them to become big and strong. 
While boys were sent away to the agoge at the age of seven, it is believed that girls stayed home with their mothers. However, according to the writings of Pomeroy, there was some institutionalized education for girls. Girls were educated on and off through different periods of Spartan history. During the Hellenistic period it stopped, and under the Romans it was restored.
Literacy was a skill limited to the elite. Though there is evidence from the classical period that women wrote letters to their sons while they were away in battle.  Women also studied what was called mousike – which was not just music, but dance and poetry . There are surviving statues from the period showing women playing musical instruments.
The spartan exercise regimen for girls was to make them every bit as fit as their brothers. Spartan girls learned how to ride on horseback. Other events for girls included running, wrestling, throwing the discus, and “trials of strength” . It is also possible that girls exercised in the nude in public, just like the men. After all, there is archaic Spartan art that shows girls exercising naked, while this was only true for men in Athens. Women also competed in various festivals, the most prestigious of which was the Heraean Games.
MARRIAGE AND SEX
While I have discussed the freedoms of Spartan women above, it seems likely that Spartan marriages were arranged by the parents with little thought of the preferences of the perspective bride and groom. Yet aside from this detail, women still had more freedom in marriage and sex than most Greek women.
SPARTAN GIRLS MARRIED LATE
The average age of marriage for a Spartan woman was 18. While for other Greek women, the age was around their early teens. Some Spartan women even got married in their early to mid twenties (which was considered very late in the ancient world considering that people didn’t live very long). Because of this, Spartan women were much more mature when they got married, and were more likely to have a greater deal of control over their marriages than women who got married at a younger age.
Spartan women also typically married men who were closer to them in age. Men in their mid twenties or thirties. This might not seem that close in age to us modern folk today. But in the ancient Greek world, it was normal for a 30 year old man to marry a 14 year old girl. This was done so that women had the maximum amount of their breeding years to produce babies. But since the health and strength of the child was a bigger priority in Sparta than the number of children, getting married later made more sense. It is well known today that a woman will have a healthier child in her late teens and twenties, than her early teens, because she has been given more time to finish developing.
Yet despite all their relative freedoms, women in Sparta were still treated like breeding machines by the state. It is said that only a man who died in battle and a woman who died in childbirth would get their names inscribed on their tombstones. 
FEMALE POWER IN MARRIAGE
Many Greeks in other lands thought that Spartan women had too much control over their husbands. Plutarch wrote that “the men of Sparta always obeyed their wives.” Aristotle was even more critical of the influence women had in politics arguing that it was contributing to the downfall of the country. Women did not have a vote in the assembly but seem to have had a lot of influence behind the scene.
ATYPICAL MARRIAGE CUSTOMS
Marriage among the Spartans was different from the rest of Greeks for many reasons. For one, it seemed that there was a great effort to get rid of the practice of giving a dowry. Some say this is because the Spartan state wanted couples to create children on the basis of health and strength, instead of money.
Married life for Spartans was also unique in that it was normal for the husband to spend a good deal of time away from his wife. Men were encouraged to live at the barracks until their 30’s. Until then, husbands and wives could only meet with one another in secret. Also, even in his 30’s, a man would still spend a great deal of time eating and training at the barracks – instead of eating home cooked meals. One outsider who ate with the Spartans at the barracks remarked, “Now I know why Spartan’s don’t fear death.”
A MOST UNUSUAL WEDDING RITUAL
On the night of the wedding, the bride would have her hair cut short, be dressed in a man’s cloak and sandals before being left alone in a dark room, where they would be visited and ritually “captured” by their new husband. Married women were forbidden from wearing their hair long. 
I guess after being around dudes forever, you have to make the transition to females go easier somehow.
WOMEN AND THEIR MULTIPLE LOVERS
In terms of other interesting sexual practices, some historians suggest that the Spartans engaged in polyandry: a practice where women were allowed to have sex with multiple male lovers. It is said that this was permissible because the state was the backbone of social life, not the family. Because of this, it is suggested that the identity of a child’s father was less important than it was in other cultures. Books like Sex Before Dawn even say that polyandry was a normal set up in many tribal cultures, where property was shared, rather than inherited along patrilineal lines. Since Sparta was a military state where property was divided and provided by the state, rather than familial inheritance, strength and health was the focus of sex and childbearing – not marriage and family.
Herodotus says that the bigamy of Anaxandridas II was un-Spartan (Herodotus, Histories, V.40.2) but Polybius wrote that it was common at his time, and a time-honoured practice.(Polybius XII.6b.8) Along with plural marriage, older men seem to have allowed younger, more fit men, to impregnate their wives. Other unmarried or childless men might even request another man’s wife to bear his children if she had previously been a strong child bearer. 
Women were allowed to divorce with little consequences. They did not need to fear losing their home and property, because they lived among the community as equal citizens. They were also not discouraged from remarrying. A Spartan woman was also not forced to relinquish her children, because the identity of the child’s biological father was not vitally important.
Because men spent so much time off at war, or training in the barracks, women were masters of the home. This is why women had social and political power in their communities. Due to this Aristotle was critical of Sparta, claiming that men were ruled by women there, unlike in the rest of Greece. Aristotle, Politics 1269b.
Aristotle also criticized Spartan women for their wealth. He attributed the state’s precipitous fall during his lifetime, from being the master of Greece to a second-rate power in less than 50 years, to the fact that Sparta had become a gynocracy whose women were intemperate and loved luxury. Aristotle, Politics 1269b–1270a.
All Spartan women took advantage of helot labor, so they did not have to spend their time doing the tedious work that most domestic Greek women performed. Therefore, the Spartan women had more time to participate in matters such as governance, agriculture, logistics, fitness, art, music, etc.
But they also spent a lot of time bearing and raising children. Bearing and raising children was considered the most important role for women in Spartan society, equal to male warrior in the Spartan army.
Also, despite the many glowing freedoms of Spartan women compared to women in other provinces, the state still preferred male babies in order to create a large and powerful military force. So women took pride in the warrior sons they birthed and raised. Having a son who died valiantly in battle was a source of great pride for a mother. By contrast however, having a son who was a coward was a source of great despair. The ancient author Aelian claims that women whose sons died as cowards lamented this . By contrast, the female relatives of the Spartans who died heroically in the Battle of Leuctra were said to have walked around in public looking happy. 
When a warrior left for battle his mother would say, “Come home with your shield or upon it.”
The cults for women in ancient Sparta reflected society’s emphasis on their role as child-bearers and raisers. Consequently, cults focused on fertility, health and beauty. I will elaborate on the cults below.
THE CULT EILEITHYIA
(Eleithyiae, Zeus & the birth of Athena | Athenian black-figure kothos C6th B.C.)
Eileithyia was the goddess of childbirth and midwifery. Some say there is a link between this Goddess and early Minoan culture. 19th-century scholars suggested that her name is Greek, from the verb eleutho (ἐλεύθω), “to bring,” the goddess thus being The Bringer.
In the Illiad she is described as following:
- And even as when the sharp dart striketh a woman in travail,  the piercing dart that the Eilithyiae, the goddesses of childbirth, send—even the daughters of Hera that have in their keeping bitter pangs;
- —Iliad 11.269–272
THE CULT OF HELEN
Most people are familiar with the story about Helen of Troy. The face that launched a thousand ships and all that. But much to my surprise upon researching this subject, she was also worshiped in some places as a Goddess. She had a festival at Laconia, the principle region of the Spartan state. (In fact the word “laconic” is derived from laconia, because the Spartans were known to speak in a concise, and to the point manner.) In the cult of Helen, women used objects such as mirrors, eye-liners, combs, and perfume bottles.
FAMOUS WOMEN IN SPARTA
Because of the 300 movies, she is probably the first Spartan woman that most people today are familiar with. She was the wife of King Leonidas I, Cleomenes’ half-brother, who fought and died in the Battle of Thermopylae (that famous battle with Persian King Xerxes) you know..the bald guy in gold underwear who supposedly sounds like a androgynous robot. (Scene in 300 where he becomes a God).
But anyways, Gorgo is one of the few female figures actually named by the Greek historian Herodotus, and was well-known for her political judgment and wisdom.
Arguably, Gorgo’s most significant role occurred prior to the Persian invasion of 480 BC. According to Herodotus’s Histories, Demaratus, then in exile at the Persian court, sent a warning to Sparta about Xerxes’s pending invasion. In order to prevent the message from being intercepted by the Persians or their vassal states, the message was written on a wooden tablet and then covered with wax. The Spartans did not know what to do with the seemingly blank wax-tablet once they received it. Only Queen Gorgo figured out the puzzle. She advised them to clear the wax off the tablet and thus found the secret message. (“Herodotus ”History” [Translated into English]”. Ancienthistory.about.com. 2010-06-15. Retrieved 2011-07-24.)
She was also a Spartan queen. She is most notable for her role in leading Spartan women against Pyrrhus during his siege of Lacedaemon in the 3rd century BC. In the face of the siege, the Spartan council of elders wanted to send the Spartan women off the Crete for their safety. But Arachidamia refused that offer. She entered the council with sword in hand, and contested this proposal, questioning whether the Spartan women were expected to survive the ruin of their own city. (Plutarch, Parallel Lives: Life of Pyrrhus § 27.2)
Instead she led the women into the battle effort. The women helped build a defensive trench, supplied the troops with defensive weapons, refreshment and took care of the wounded.
Cynisca was a Spartan princess and the first woman to win an Olympic victory. She also had a cult in Sparta.
While much of history has concentrated on the role of Spartan men, it cannot be ignored that the Spartan women were a vital part of the warrior society. They raised warriors, and were brave leaders in their communities. They encouraged the men to be brave in battle, while also knowing how to take care of themselves and hold their own.
Life in the Spartan state was very difficult and harsh. So it took a harsh and strong woman, to raise a fierce society.
LINKS ON SPARTA
RELATED METAL GAIA ARTICLES
LONG BORING LIST OF FOOTNOTES
 Pomeroy 2002, pp. 34–35
 Pomeroy 1994, p. 36
 Pomeroy 2002, pp. 27–28
 Pomeroy 2002, p. 8.
 Pomeroy 2002, p. 5
 Hughes 2005, p. 59
 Pomeroy 2002, p. 24
(Plutarch, Life of Lycurgus, 27.3)
(Dillon 2007, p. 151).
 Cartledge 1981, p. 101
 Powell 2001, p. 248.
 Pomeroy 2002, p. 58
 Pomeroy 2002, p. 58.
Pomeroy, Sarah B. (1994), Goddesses, Whores, Wives and Slaves: Women
in Classical Antiquity, London: Pimlico, ISBN 978-0-712-66054-9
Dillon, Matthew (2007), “Were Spartan Women Who Died in Childbirth
Honoured with Grave Inscriptions?”, Hermes 135
Cartledge, Paul (1981), “Spartan Wives: Liberation or License?”, The
Classical Quarterly 31 (1)
Powell, Anton (2001), Athens and Sparta: constructing Greek
political and social history from 478 BC, London: Routledge, ISBN
Rik Garrett‘s “Earth Magic” photo series has recently been collected into a book, and is now for sale here (US) and here (International). “Earth Magic” portrays women in nature, in a raw, but very natural way. The women are one with the landscape of the wood, mysterious weavers of the weird within the forest’s primordial depths.
In the making and binding of the book, Garrett was inspired by the style of the Malleus Maleficarum, which was a sort of pocket-book for witch hunters in the 15th century. Garret’s intent is obviously more positive, but his theme is similar. If you are looking for witches in the forest – this is what they might look like.
Each book contains 13 photos (like the number of members in a coven) and each book is different. The pictures are picked from a pool of 30 total photos and randomized. So even if you buy two books, they will most likely be different.
Here are some photos from the Earth Magic series:
(Historians have assumed this woman was holding a cleaning tool – um she looks more like she’s ready to cut someone’s head off with that thing than polish the floor.)
Cracked isn’t always the most accurate place for news, but the article I posted above makes some good points.
In modern depictions of the past, such as a TV series like Spartacus, we are shown an image of muscular slave men battling each other to death in the gladiatorial arena, while a woman’s maximum participation is cheering from the sidelines or later rewarding one of the gladiators with a blow job.
However, the truth is that female gladiators were quite common in Rome. There were many graves of decorated gladiators that historians assumed to be male, only to be surprised when the bone analysis revealed these warriors to be women – as if the woman just so happened to fall into the wrong grave!
The assumptions don’t just end there. Most heroic warrior figures, such as vikings or samurai are all assumed to be male, and this depiction is the norm in television dramas, comics and movies. Yet in most warrior societies – such as that of the Spartans, the Mongols, the Celts and the Vikings, the art of war was such an important skill that everyone was expected to know what they were doing – including the women. In ancient Celtic societies, there were even fighting schools where female teachers called a BAN-GAISGEDAIG taught boys the art of fighting and love.
In fact, in a DNA analysis of the Japanese battle of Senbon Matsubaru in 1580, 35 of the 105 bodies tested were female. Not to mention that this is only one of several archaeological finds that show a similar story.
Then there is the fact that most ancient societies had goddesses associated with war and death, such as Athena, Freya, Sekhmet, the Morrigan, Brigid and Kali. In fact, some of these named Goddesses were more terrifying than their male counterparts. If the idea of a woman fighting was really so unrealistic to the people of the ancient world, then why were there Goddesses entirely devoted to warfare?
So today’s reality of women in the military or police force actually isn’t anything new. If anything, it is a return to long term historical trends. Look at the fact that more than 30% of the Kurds fighting the ISIS scum are female. When a group of people are in danger, and bodies are needed to fight for survival, women will be among that number. This is why it is unrealistic for people today to think that women don’t need to know anything about fighting or self defense. What society has a better chance of survival – one where only half the population knows how to fight, or one where 100% of the population can kick some ass?
So next time someone complains that the portrayal of women warriors in historical dramas is “not realistic,” remind them that the more historically inaccurate fallacy is one where there are no women warriors at all in societies that prized the art of battle in all aspects of life.
Masha Scream of Arkona (Source)
LINKS OF INTEREST
Article contains some nudity and sexual imagery…you know, the fun stuff.
Do not control your wife in her house,
When you know she is efficient;
Don’t say to her: “Where is it? Get it!”
When she has put it in the right place.
Let your eye observe in silence,
Then you recognize her skill:
It is joy when your hand is with her,
There are many who don’t know this.
~ Advice from the Scribe named “Ani” in New Kingdom Egypt
Would you believe me if I told you that more than a thousand years ago, women in Ancient Egypt enjoyed many of the same rights that women in our current society enjoy today? A woman could own and sell private property, resolve legal settlements, write a contract, initiate a divorce, file lawsuits, have a profession and inherit property (of course these rights also depended on the woman’s social class). I wouldn’t say that Ancient Egyptian women had complete parity to men before the law. Yet they did have many rights that were out of reach for women in neighboring Greece or Rome.
This article will examine what it was like to be a woman in Ancient Egyptian society and the different rights and responsibilities that they had. Most women performed domestic tasks in the home. However, there were female midwives, priestesses, weavers, dancers, musicians and even professional mourners. (Hiring complete strangers to act sad at your relative’s funeral was pretty normal in Ancient Egypt). Also, even though most of the positions of authority were occupied by men, there were a few female pharaohs, such as Cleopatra, Nefertiti and Hatshepsut. It also wasn’t uncommon for a woman to serve as a regent (temporary ruler) when her husband died, until her son was old enough to take over. It was preferred for a woman with the right bloodline to be in power temporarily, than a man with the wrong bloodline.
In Egyptian Mythology, there is also a strong association with Goddesses as protectors. For example, when a body was mummified, the organs were placed into four different jars. Each jar was represented by one of the son’s of Horus, and each of these sons were protected by a different Goddess. If you’re curious about these jars, you can read more about the son’s of Horus here and their corresponding Goddesses.
The most obvious example to start with is Isis. Her name literally means “throne.” She is the symbol of the Pharaoh’s power. Isis was worshiped as the ideal mother and wife, as well as the patroness of nature and magic. She was the friend of slaves and the downtrodden, but also listened to the prayers of the wealthy. In addition to that, she was the protector of the dead and the Goddess of children. Her birth is significant because she was the first daughter of Geb (Father of the Earth) and Nut (Mother of the Sky).
She married her brother Osiris, who was the first son of Geb and Nut. Osiris was the God of the afterlife, vegetation and beer. He was a merciful God of the dead. Osiris’s brother Set grew jealous of his power, cut him into pieces, and scattered the pieces around the land. It was up to Isis to use her restorative magic to find the pieces of Osiris and piece him back together again.
Perhaps this story can serve as a powerful metaphor about love and marriage. At times when you’re falling to pieces, it is up to your significant other to help put you together again. There is also a powerful metaphor in this story about redemption, rebirth and eternal life.
At first, only the pharaoh was associated with the God Osiris in death. Yet eventually, most of the common people in Egypt were allowed to associate themselves with Osiris in death. Osiris and Isis were very popular among the common people of Egypt, because they offered the people a connection to eternal life.
CONNECTIONS BETWEEN ISIS/OSIRIS CULT AND CHRISTIANITY?
There are some theories that the early Christians were influenced by the themes of redemption and eternal life present in the Osiris and Isis myth. Pictures of Isis sucking her son Horus were common in the Roman Empire at the time of Christianity. For example, murals of Isis suckling her son Horus were popular in the Roman empire before the characteristic picture of the Virgin Mary nursing Jesus arose in prominence. Perhaps the former inspired the latter.
The Original Trinity, Brought to You By Egypt (Metal-Gaia)
A MURAL IN THE ROMAN ERA OF ISIS AND HORUS
THE “REGINA CAELI LAETARE”
OTHER POPULAR EGYPTIAN GODDESSES
Bastet: A feline Goddess. The daughter of the sun God Ra. She was worshiped for her protective and maternal nature.
Hathor: A cow Goddess associated with dancing, music and love. She was also known as the “Lady of Heaven.” She protected women during pregnancy, was worshiped as a Goddess of fertility, and was seen as wise and affectionate towards both the living and the dead.
Sekhmet: The lion headed Goddess of war, fire, hunting, wild animals and vengeance. She was called “The Powerful One.” She helped kings defeat their opponents. She was also associated with both disease and health.
Maat: The Goddess of truth, morality, justice, order and harmony. She represented the natural order of the universe. She was typically depicted with an ostrich feather on her head. The weighing of the heart ceremony that took place in the afterlife, which determined whether you were allowed to have eternal life, took place in the Hall of Maat. In Egypt there were 42 laws of Maat that one had to follow in order to enter the afterlife. These were a series of negative confessions, a list of “I didn’t do ____.” Law # 34 interests me because it relates to taking care of the environment: “I have not polluted the water.” Also, another interesting thing to note is that the laws of Maat don’t say much about sexuality, aside from mentioning adultery. This is probably because the Egyptians had a very mature culture when it came to sexuality, which we will discuss more below. A majority of these laws actually relate to emotional control, which is important for living a healthy and virtuous life.
MARRIAGE, FERTILITY AND SEXUALITY
…Revel in pleasure while your life endures
And deck your head with myrrh. Be richly clad
In white and perfumed linen; like the gods
Anointed be; and never weary grow
In eager quest of what your heart desires –
Do as it prompts you…
~ Lay of the Harpist
The Egyptians had a very natural view towards sexuality and the human body that was untainted by guilt. Walking around naked for example was not the taboo that it is today. Though I’m guessing part of this attitude was due to how unbelievable hot Egypt can be. The average temperature of an Egyptian summer is 120 degrees farenheit (48 degrees celsius). Children tended to walk around naked until puberty (about 12 years of age). Women of a lower social status walked around topless and wealthier women wore loose clothing that was sometimes transparent. Female entertainers frequently performed naked.
Egyptians lived in a Sex Positive culture. They did not have the same guilty associations with sex that those of us in the modern world have today. Before marriage, it was not wrong for a woman to take a sexual lover. Knowledge of contraceptives was also commonplace in Ancient Egypt, which probably explains why premarital sex and prostitution weren’t a big deal.
There is also evidence that homosexual sex wasn’t a big deal either. More information on Homosexuality in Ancient Egypt on Metal Gaia
A popular image of prostitution today is a woman sticking out a stilettoed heel and a fishnet clad leg to interest her prospective customers. Ancient Egyptian prostitutes did something similar, they advertised themselves in a blue faience beaded fish-net dress, painted their lips red and tattooed themselves on the breast and thighs. However, the modern idea of prostitute and the Ancient Egyptian one are very different. In the modern world, we typically have a negative association with prostitutes, even if they are high class “escorts” that make thousands an hour sleeping with the wealthiest CEO’s.
An outfit that may have been worn by sex workers. Source for picture
The reason why the modern idea of prostitution can’t compare with Ancient Egyptian sex workers, is because their profession wasn’t tainted by guilt. Many sex workers were associated with Goddesses of fertility and were regarded with respect. Also, it is not certain that all prostitutes slept with people for money. Some were temple prostitutes who had a connection to the divine. Others were entertainers who would dance, play music and perform sexual acts all in one.
There are some theories that men slept with prostitutes before marriage, in order to learn how to please their wives, and that young girls engaged in prostitute related acts, in order to learn about sexuality in marriage. However, these are just theories and we don’t have any real proof for these ideas.
Take a wife while you are young,
that she may make a son for you
while you are youthful.
~ The Egyptian Scribe Ani
A woman generally could get married at any age, and typically married after she started her period around the age of 14 or 15. Men got married when they were around 17 or 20. This may seem very young to the modern person, however we must remember that lifespans were shorter in Ancient Egypt. Documents written in the Ptolemaic Period reveal that the average life expectancy was 58 for women and 54 for men (tour egypt). This doesn’t seem too bad, but we must remember that in the modern developed world, the average person lives to be about 70 or 80, which naturally drags the average age of marriage up to mid 20’s or early 30’s.
Consent from the parents was also needed to get married. This was especially important in the upper classes, since marriage determined the division of property and social status. However, as religious and ceremonial as Egyptian society was, what is surprising to note is that there was no ceremony for marriage: no special dress, no exchange of rings and no exchange of vows. It was a fairly simple affair where the wife moved into the house of her husband. He would either be living alone or with his parents.
While this doesn’t sound very romantic, there is much literature and poetry that suggests that the ideal marriage was filled with affection, love and tenderness.
However, one thing that made the Egyptians much smarter than those of us today, is that they usually drafted up a contract before the marriage about how property would be distributed, and what would happen in the event of divorce. That’s right, they had a prenup power up! This was more relevant to people in the upper classes, who had more property and land to fight over.
A Marriage Contract from 219 BC
“The Blemmyann, born in Egypt, son of Horpais,
whose mother is Wenis, has said to the woman
Tais, daughter of the Khahor, whose mother is
Tairerdjeret: I have made you a married woman.
As your womans portion, I give you two pieces of
silver. If I dismiss you as wife and dislike you and
prefer another woman to you as wife, I will give you
two pieces of silver in addition to the two pieces of
silver mentioned above and I will give you one third
of each and everything that will accrue to you and me.”
Divorce: Divorce was not hard to get. Both a man or a woman could initiate a divorce and write up the divorce contract. Men divorced their wives if they were incapable of baring children – or baring a son. He may also divorce his wife if she stopped pleasing him. A woman could divorce her husband for mental and physical cruelty. In some cases, if a woman initiated divorce, she forfeited her right to communal property. Also, as you can see from the statement above, women got spousal support in the case of a divorce, which was about 1/3 of her ex-husband’s earnings.
However, there were other options if the parents were childless: adoption and polygamy were two. Sometimes men had concubines, and these women did not have the same rights as their wives. However, polygamy was uncommon for most people. It was mainly practiced by the pharaoh so that he could display his virility and sire several children.
Incest: One taboo topic that comes up when talking about Ancient Egypt is that of incest. Incest is another one of those things that was allowed for the Pharaoh, in order to keep the royal bloodline in place, but not commonly practiced among most people.
Adultery: Now, throughout most of this article I’ve waxed on about the sexual openness of Ancient Egyptian society and women’s freedoms. However, adultery was a completely different affair (get it…affair…it’s a pun! okay sorry). While sex before marriage wasn’t a big deal, an extra-marital affair was completely off the table. The bond of trust and fidelity in marriage and family were highly valued by the Ancient Egyptian people, so valued in fact the worst punishment for a woman was death. This was described in the Egyptian Tale of Two Brothers. For a man, on the other hand, the worst thing that could happen to him is that he would be forced into a divorce.
“Come down, placenta, come down! I am Horus who conjures in order that she who is giving birth becomes better than she was, as if she was already delivered. Look, Hathor will lay her hand on her with an amulet of health! I am Horus who saves her!” ~ A Spell for a Healthy Delivery
Fertility was a big deal in Egypt because the child mortality rate was so high. In some Egyptian cemeteries, a third of all the buried were infants. However, this statistic depends on which region of Egypt we are talking about. It’s hard to say exactly why the infant mortality rate was so high, but some historians believe it was due to the common occurrence of infection and the Egyptian diet. Their diet was high in cereal grains and deficient in Iron. Even the wealthy did not eat meat everyday. Many Egyptians used amulets, spells and the protection of the Gods to try and protect their children from death.
However, despite the large infant mortality rate, Egyptians still had large families and showered their children with much affection. It is theorized that the average mother raised 4-6 children. Some families even managed to raise 10-15! Both a woman’s femininity and a man’s masculinity were judged by how many children they could create.
In addition to being obsessed with fertility, Egyptians were also obsessed with life after death. We obviously know this since Egyptian tombs are the richest sources of Ancient Egyptian culture. Children were necessary to perform burial rites for the parents. Which was another incentive for rearing a large brood of children, this increased the likelihood that at least one child would survive long enough to perform a parent’s burial rites.
There’s obviously much more that I could say about this topic, but I’m trying to write an article here about the basics, not a book. One of the great things about Ancient Egypt, is that much of their culture was written down. Unlike many other Pagan societies in the ancient world, the artifacts of their society remained intact. Part of this is because they had some of the most comprehensive burial practices out of any culture in the world. In the tombs of the pharaohs, they recorded the events of his/her life and buried the pharaoh with all the items they used in their day to day life so that they could use these items in the afterlife.
Thanks to these methods of preservation, we have a window into ancient values that Abrahamic Religions tried to erase from the ledger of time. We see a culture that had healthy ideas about gender, the human body and sexuality. We see a culture that valued women as protectors and mothers, and respected them enough to give them legal rights.
As we become a culture more open about sexuality, there is certainly much we could learn from the Ancient people who lived on the Nile. And the great news is that most of it is written down and available to read! So do some internet searches, watch a few documentaries and read some books! Get informed!
There is still much about the Ancient Norse People that we do not know, so much of our current information is an attempt to fill in the gaps (since the Vikings did not write down their history and the Christians destroyed much of their existing culture). History becomes a guessing game where modern day people impose their fantasies and longings upon the past. Some of these fantasies imagine a place where every woman is a blonde haired vixen with a pointy helmet and a chain-mail bra, smashing through the faces of her enemies with sword in hand. Fantasies on the other end of the spectrum paint a picture of a male dominated society where all men fought glorious battles and women existed as mere prizes to be won.
(Very practical battle armor)
The truth is much more nuanced. Not all men fought battles and not all women had a specific “role.”
Interpreting the past is like trying to sketch a picture of the Grand Canyon from space. You’ll never know the complexity of its contours and grooves unless you are in the Canyon itself. The history of the Ancient Norse people is complex. At the highest end you had women who commanded enough respect and honor to act as a link between man and the Gods (they were called Volvas). At the lower end you had captives won in battle (not as common as you might think, given that rape was only mentioned once in the Eddas).
Rather than listen to hype and stereotypes, the most historically accurate thing we can do is to look at the tales from the Eddas and Sagas, Folk Lore and the archaeological remains of skeletons. These sources show us that Norse Women did hold a respect and freedom in the Ancient Pagan world that declined as Europe became more Christian.
In day to day life, most women presided over the farm work, house work, weaving and childcare; they were also shown to do some business and commerce of their own (scales have been found in women’s graves).
However, there were also Female Skalds (Poets), Shield Maidens (female warriors) and Priestesses. Women also had rights that didn’t exist in other parts of Europe (such as the right to divorce their husbands and own land). Typically a male heir inherited the farm, but it wasn’t unheard of for a wealthy widow to take over an estate if her husband died and if she didn’t have grown sons to run the place.
There were also laws that penalized men for violence against women or from giving women unwanted sexual attention. In the case of marriage, most women did not have the right to choose their groom, he was chosen by the family, and the bride was usually married off between the ages of 12 and 15. However, a woman was allowed to call witnesses to divorce her husband for a valid reason: i.e. he couldn’t provide for the family financially or produce children. In the case of divorce, a woman could take back her personal belongings as well as young children (the older children either stayed with the father or mother depending upon the circumstances).
Here is a brief overview of things that you should know about women in Ancient Norse Societies as well as the prominent women in Norse Religion.
Associated with love, beauty, fertility, gold, Seiðr (a typically female sorcery), war and death. She is also the most beautiful of all the Goddesses. Freya rules over the heavenly afterlife field Fólkvangr, and receives half of those who die in battle. The other half go to Odin’s hall Valhalla. She loves music, spring, flowers and is particularly fond of elves. She is the daughter of the Njord (God of the winds, sea and fire) and wife of the mysterious God Odur . Key among her possessions are the Precious Necklace of the Brisings and a cloak of feathers that changes the wearer into a falcon.
Like many of the Norse Gods, Freya is not an extreme of good or evil – rather she is a complex personality. She loves her husband Odur and yet sleeps with four different dwarfs in exchange for the beautiful necklace of the Brisings. Loki, who somehow knows about all scandals, ends up finding a way to reveal Freya’s infidelity to her husband. When Odur finds out, he leaves home and Freya cries tears of gold.
Frigg is the wife of Odin and queen of Asgard. Frigg is a prominent member of the Aesir Gods while Freya is a key member of the Vanir. Frigg is associated with aspects of motherhood and married life. She also has the powers of prophecy, but does not reveal what she knows.
Freya and Frigg are extremely similar. So similar, that some scholars argue that they are both descendants of a singular Germanic Goddess. Both Goddess names are associated with “Friday.” Both Goddesses have the power of divination. Freya’s husband Odur (or Od) is always away on journeys just like Frigg’s Odin. Also, both of these Goddesses have traded sex for jewelry. However, this is just a theory, so it cannot be taken as the final fact on the matter (The Frigg/Freya origin hypothesis).
Sun Goddess, Moon God
The sun from the south, the moon’s companion, her right hand cast about the heavenly horses.The sun knew not where she a dwelling had,the moon know not what power he possessed,the stars knew not where they had a station. (From the poem Voluspa).
In many pagan religions, the Sun is a God and the Moon is a Goddess. Yet in the Ancient Norse Religion, it is the reverse. The Sun Goddess is “Sol” (Old Norse) or “Sunna” (Old High German) and her brother Mani (Old Norse/Icelandic) is the moon. Sol drives the chariot of the sun across the sky each day. She moves very quickly because she is always pursued by the wolf Skoll. Sometimes he gets close enough to take a bite out of her (this is when eclipses happen). In Ragnarok, (the end of the world), Skoll eventually will swallow the sun.
In Norse society it was common for men to travel, whether it be exploring new lands, going viking (pillaging places) or trading. The Norse were renown for their ability as explorers and seafarers. While the men were off traveling, their wives sometimes traveled with them (as in the invasion of Eastern England), but usually stayed at home to supervise the affairs of the farm and the family.
Thus, the mother was a permanent fixture of life for the family: bright, renewing and life giving like the sun. The father was a more transient figure (because of his travels), waning and waxing in appearance like the moon. At least this is a theory that might explain the Goddess Sun/God Moon dynamic. The Sun Goddess and Moon God are similar fixtures in other nomadic cultures (such as the Mongolians for example).
Warrior Women: Shield Maidens and Valkyries
Valkyrie literally means “chooser of the slain.” The Valkyries were sent by Odin to pick up warriors that were slain on the battlefield.
The Love Goddess Freya was considered the greatest of Valkyries. She would ride onto the battlefield in a chariot drawn by two cats and choose half the slain to take back to her home in Fólkvangr. Odin received the other half of warriors in Valhalla.
Shield Maidens, on the other hand, are mortal female warriors. It was a rare opportunity allowed only to women who were exceptionally strong or fierce. In heroic poems some shield maidens have super natural powers, while others are beautiful daughters of kings. Did shield maidens actually exist in real life though? From historical evidence, it appears that they did.
The Historian Saxo gives the following account circa 1200 AD:
“There were once women in Denmark who dressed themselves to look like men and spent almost every minute cultivating soldier’s skills:
They put toughness before allure, aimed at conflicts instead of kisses, tasted blood, not lips, sought the clash of arms rather than the arm’s embrace, fitted to weapons hands which should have been weaving, desired not the couch but the kill, and those they could have appeased with looks they attack with lances”. (Books 1-9) —Saxo Grammaticus, History of the Danes, circa 1200 CE.
When people talk about Norse Mythos, there is much focus on the Warrior Tradition: vikings, battle, Valhalla and so on. Yet there is little talk on the Shamanic aspects of Norse life. The Seiðr is a type of Norse magic that was most commonly performed by women known as (volver). Men also practiced Seiðr sometimes, but they usually brought a social taboo to themselves since Seiðr was considered a feminine activity. (For example, Odin learned how to practice the Seiðr from Freya, but was considered unmanly for doing so.)
The Seiðr was an activity in which the Seidwoman would fall into a trance and a choir of women would invoke the woman’s guardian spirit to come to her aid. In her trance, the Seidwoman could ask the spirits about future events such as the weather, battle, farming etc.
It is hard to be objective about the history of Pagan Europeans because so much information was destroyed when the Christians came to power. Also, many Norse and Celtic peoples kept records orally rather than writing anything down. Therefore, much of their history will be lost forever.
New Technology Corrects Gendered Assumptions
Yet new technology is helping to unearth ancient truths. The study of ancient burial sites is rapidly changing conceptions of the past. Up until recently, archaeologists assumed that any body buried with a sword and shield was male. Likewise, when a skeleton was found with jewelry, it was assumed that the body was female. But new practices in the field of Osteologically (the study of skeletons) have revealed that some of these “male skeletons” were actually female bodies buried with weapons and armor (male skeletons have also been found with female items).
The invasion of Eastern England is a notorious example, where either one half or a third of the invaders were found to be female. One of the female skeletons at this site was found buried with armor and weapons (Invasion of the Viking Women Unearthed).
The Oseberg Burial
The Oseberg burial is the richest viking burial ever found. Two women were buried on the Oseberg ship in 834 AD. One was in her 80’s and the other was in her 50’s. Because of the items on the ship, archaeologists are guessing that the older woman was either a Volva or a Queen. The Volvas were highly respected women in Norse Society who acted as the link between man and the Gods. Sometimes they even knew more than the Gods.
More Information About Ancient Norse Women
This article was my best attempt to give you an overview on the basics you should know about the life of Ancient Norse Women in both the realm of the mundane and the sphere of the mystical. Yet remember, we must have a nuanced approach to history. We cannot use generalizations to color in the pages of the past. The Vikings were an independent people who did not use police, guards or monarchs to run their society (not until the later years of Viking History anyways).
They were a self run Society that was controlled through the mechanism of the family and honor. Many women who couldn’t fight took on the role of instigators, and egged their husbands on to fight important battles that effected the family’s future. In chapter 116 of Brennu-Njáls saga, Hildigunnur incited her uncle Flosi to avenge the killing of her husband Höskuldr by flinging her husband’s bloody cloak onto Flosi’s shoulders. Clotted blood from the cloak rained down on Flosi. He responded, “Cold are the counsels of women.” Flosi later took revenge for Höskuldr’s death by burning Njáll and his family in their home (Hurstwic Society).
Other women took the role of ending fights that went on too long, such as the women who threw clothing onto the weapons of the men fighting in chapter 18 of the Vopnfirðinga Saga.
Unlike today, the individual was not the most important unit of society, it was the extended family. It was expected that both men and women contributed their strengths to the best of their natural abilities to preserve the honor and integrity of their kin. When a woman considered whether it was better to contribute her strengths by defending the family’s honor in battle, or staying home to oversee the farm: family and honor were the ultimate sum of the equation, not personal gain.
Therefore there were generally standards about what men did and what women did that developed over centuries of experience. Yet static laws were allowed to be broken if the exception was more beneficial than the norm. Odin learned the Seiðr (feminine magic) to benefit mankind even if it was taboo, and women occasionally left home to fight on the battlefield if that was the best use for an individual woman’s strength.
Yet it doesn’t matter whether a warrior fights their daily battles with a sword or broomstick, a true hero fights for someone or something – not themselves. Those of us in the modern age could learn a lesson from these Ancient Women.
Check out the link below for more information.
A comprehensive source with numerous links on Ancient Norse Women.