The Morality of Sibling Marriages in Ancient Egypt

Immoral is…”conflicting with generally or traditionally held moral principles.”

– Merriam-webster.

As the “generally/traditionally held moral principles” are dependent upon time and place, we might say that what may actually be considered immoral in one place at a given time, may have been or could be moral in another place or at a different time.

Automatically then, we begin to understand and appreciate a lot of ancient mores that flummox us. For instance, the Ancient Egyptian practice of marriages within the family. We call these marriages incestuous today, but two thousand years ago, in Ancient Egypt, this word didn’t exist. They used the terms brother and husband, and sister and wife, interchangeably.

While laws, moral standards, and traditions are temporary and change with time and place, human nature has by and far remained unchanged, which is why it helps us understand the practices of other cultures. Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that humans are motivated by need, desire, even greed.

Morality is Temporal.

Imagine the Ancient Egyptian Royalty trying to keep the crown in the family. Imagine a pharaoh reflecting upon keeping it all. Some for his own afterlife that his tomb would be filled with, and the remaining for his children’s earthly life by letting them inherit the crown. A pharaoh would have either sons or daughters or both. If his son married his daughter, the bloodline of a child resulting from such a union would be possess pure royal blood.

Now imagine another pharaoh, an old sonless one. His wives (sisters and other women he married to gain political mileage,) haven’t been able to give him a son. However, his consistent efforts have resulted in him siring half-a-dozen daughters. Now, with his queens past their prime, to keep the bloodline pure, he must beget a son from one of his daughters. Being the divine ruler of Egypt, whatever he does or says is law, norm, and standard; and so in his day and time, his marrying his daughters would be construed moral.

A couple of other examples to substantiate the point.

Morality is Cultural.

But time isn’t the only factor that defines morality. While in most western societies, if a young unmarried woman makes love to a man, she isn’t considered immoral; in almost all eastern societies, this action of hers would be considered immoral. In some societies, a woman who has lost her virginity before marriage might find it difficult to find a husband, and her family might even be ostracized for her actions. This is why honor-killing, the deplorable practice of killing a girl who has either married or eloped with a boy not approved by the community, still continues in some countries.

Perhaps there isn’t a need to go that far. In certain modern societies, a woman who wears an off-shoulder dress is considered to possess loose morals, in some others, a woman might not even allow an unrelated man to see her face, for it isn’t sanctioned by either the religion or by the local norms.

For the royals of Ancient Egypt, sibling-marriages were sanctioned by tradition and hence in those times, they were not immoral. However, there were times when Pharaohs married their own daughters in the hope of begetting a son (Pharaoh Amenhotep III, Pharaoh Akhenaten.) While these marriages may have been accepted because of the Pharaoh’s divinity (which the Egyptians were just beginning to question during this time,) they were definitely not the norm.  

Religion and tradition still sanction consanguineous relationships through marriages between first cousins, with girl’s maternal uncles, etc. and these relationships are considered completely moral by those who practice them. There are men and women living in today’s world, who despite knowing the ills of inbreeding. continue to support such alliances in the name of tradition.

To sum this up, we cannot judge the morality of a five thousand year old civilization, which was just beginning to establish its social structures, against the moral benchmarks of today.

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