The astonishing legal record of a village in ancient Egypt shows that men using their power to hurt women is a tale as old as time.
The sun god Re slowly coasted across the western horizon, descending to the Duat, the Underworld, as he did every night. Last gasps of illumination gilded stone buildings, scattered like a handful of grain about crooked streets. Dozens of men, bronzed skin slick with sweat and smeared with dirt, trickled out from the ragged cliffs looming above the little village. Having labored in the nearby barren valley since sunup, they finally let their shoulders sag with weariness. And a muscular man with a sinister air about him banged frantically on a door.
“I will kill you tonight!” he roared, repeatedly bashing a palm-sized rock against the house of the man who raised him. A gaggle of brawny youths pushed the muscular man back, and he pushed back violently. Before Re returned at dawn, nine men would bear the marks of his fists.
Meet one of ancient Egypt’s greatest recorded villains, a master craftsman named Paneb. He resided in a tiny village, nestled in a desert valley on the west bank of the Nile, across from the major city of Thebes. Called Deir el-Medina in modern Arabic, this town housed the artisans responsible for building and decorating the magnificent pharaohs’ tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Thousands of records from Deir el-Medina — from lists of rations to magical spells — survive, inscribed on papyri and ostraca (stone shards), including a large volume of legal material. These records suggest, according to Professor J. Russell VerSteeg of New England Law Boston, an expert on ancient Egyptian legal history, that the highly-specialized artisans of Deir el-Medina boasted a “relatively high literacy rate and professional status.”
Amidst transactions about renting donkeys and spells warding off nightmares are nestled three sheets of glued-together yellowed papyri. Dubbed Papyrus Salt 124, the document dates to about 1200 B.C.E. and is kept in the British Museum. The papyrus contains a draft of a letter to the vizier Hori, one of the highest political officials in the land, from a Deir el-Medina workman named Amennakht.
Amennakht accused his archrival Paneb of stealing his job, taking goods from the temples and royal tombs, damaging sacred ground, lying under oath, assaulting nine men in one night, borrowing royal workers for his own use, and committing adultery with local housewives.
Even allowing for bias in Amennakht’s complaint, it was a remarkable accusation. It might be the oldest recorded instance of a party lodging accusations of sexual misconduct as grounds for dismissal, meaning that over 3,000 years after it was written, it is relevant like never before. Even more interesting than what’s in the document is what is left out — namely, the question of consent — which raises fascinating questions not just about ancient Egypt but about the modern world as well.
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Amennakht and Paneb’s feud was years in the making. The two were practically related. Artisans of Deir el-Medina worked in two separate work gangs — called the “left side” and the “right side” — each with its own foreman, a prestigious post that was customarily, if not legally, hereditary. In the petition, Amenhotep noted that his brother, Neferhotep — who held the post of foreman of the right side — had raised Paneb from an early age. As the son of a prior foreman and brother of Neferhotep, Amennakht expected to inherit this position upon Neferhotep’s death. But Amennakht alleged that when Neferhotep died suddenly, Paneb gave the vizier five servants to secure himself the job.
The document refers to Neferhotep’s killers as “the enemy,” a phrase some scholars have taken to mean foreign invaders or domestic military forces, but which could also refer to Paneb himself. If he did murder his adoptive father, no one who saw him on the night he attacked Neferhotep’s house would have been surprised.
What caused the dispute is not recorded, but that night, Paneb chased Neferhotep down the street, out for blood. Neferhotep hid out in his house, locking the doors behind him, but Paneb grabbed a rock and bashed them in, declaring, “I will kill him in the night!” before guards were posted in front of Neferhotep’s house. When Neferhotep complained about Paneb’s behavior to another vizier, Paneb received a beating in punishment. In retaliation, Paneb went over his adoptive father’s head, possibly to Pharaoh himself, and arranged for the vizier’s dismissal. Soon after, Neferhotep was dead.
It’s not Amennakht’s implication of murder that is most interesting about his letter, but the inclusion of adultery — and possibly rape — among the litany of accused crimes. Paneb’s own son testified to his father’s debauchery, accusing his father of seducing four married women — including a mother and her daughter.
“I no longer wish to put up with him!” Amennakht quotes Paneb’s son as saying.
In the eyes of the Egyptians, the biggest crime here would have been the disruption of domestic life caused by sexual intervention in a partnership.
“Sexual activity by unmarried individuals (pre-marriage, after divorce or death of one’s partner) was not regulated by society,” writes Janet Johnson, professor of Egyptology at the University of Chicago. “But if a person was married, male or female, they were expected to be faithful to their partner.”
In a society that prized conformity, and allowed little personal self-expression, citizens were expected to conform to their gender roles in life and death. Adultery would have wreaked special havoc in a small, isolated village like Deir el-Medina, in which everyone knew one another and had to work together on a common task.
Along with the accusations of adultery, Amennakht tells the story of a woman named Yeyemwaw, whom Paneb stripped, threw “on top of the wall,” and “violate[d].” Although the language is disturbing, it is not clear whether or not it implies sexual assault. As Pascal Vernus notes in Affairs and Scandals in Ancient Egypt, the verb used means fornication, with no connotation of consent or lack thereof.
In fact, we have no evidence that the ancient Egyptians even had a concept of consent. That does not mean no such idea existed, but no record of it has survived, perhaps because there are, Johnson says, “extremely few documents which can be understood as being written from the woman’s point of view.” The ancient Egyptians rarely wrote down incidences of sexual misconduct. They surely happened, but “no one had an interest in keeping a record of the event and its aftermath,” according to legal historian Andrea McDowell in Village Life in Ancient Egypt.
Those taught to read and write, usually men, became the gatekeepers of written history. Ancient writers would not have recorded every crime, instead whitewashing daily life and constructing a self-portrait of how they wanted to be remembered. It is no coincidence that few instances of sexual misconduct appeared in the historical papyri. The reconstructed picture of ancient Egyptian life is not a complete vision, but a distorted reality put together haphazardly by archaeologists.
By sheer chance, some papyri survived while others did not, and only those that did can inform modern archaeologists. Because the only record of Paneb’s victims did not explicitly address consent, their voices were silenced. That is, unless someone, like Amennakht, had a vested interest in recording another’s misdeeds. Accusing Paneb of sexual crimes implicated Paneb as a danger to social order and “unworthy of this office” of foreman, as Amennakht claimed.
Records from Deir el-Medina are silent on whether Paneb was punished. Eventually, another workman, Aanakht, assumed the role of foreman of the right side of the gang. Later records indicate Paneb’s descendants still worked on the tombs, although none achieved the heights of ancestor’s brief ascent to glory.