Daughters of Isis – Joyce Tyldesley

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Histories of women usually bring with them histories of women’s world and women’s work, in other words, the daily life of a culture. This look at ancient Egyptian women is no different. British archaeologist and researcher Tyldesley illuminates women’s positions as cooks, washerwomen, dancers, mourners, weavers, priestesses, mothers, wives and —on very rare occasions— pharaohs. Tyldesley doesn’t try to simplify a subject complicated by linguistic subtleties, lack of archaeological evidence, ancient propaganda and the orientalist mythology of seething harems that early excavators imposed on ambiguous digs. What she does, and does well, is give an idea of what evidence is available and, in accessible, slyly cheery prose, recreate how women (and men) shopped, dressed and ate (“the menus of the poor and less enterprising usually involved a fairly dull and rather flatulent rotation of bread, onions, lettuce, radish and pulses”). Most intriguing, though, are Tyldesley’s all-too-brief initial observations of the standing of Egyptian women. For all its emphasis on tradition, Egypt differed from much of the worst of Graeco-Roman paternalism: women were important factors in a child’s heredity, not just passive bearers of men’s genetics; they could own property; make legally binding contracts; sue; and, most amazingly, live alone.

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