Sunday, March 3, 2024

Was sibling marriage really a royal tradition in ancient Egypt?

The article entitled Last Stone Age hunter-gatherers avoided inbreeding:
made me curious about the development of sibling marriage within the royal families of Egypt if strategies to avoid inbreeding appears to have developed as far back as the Stone Age.

Image: Beautiful bust of a Lagid queen, either Cleopatra II or Cleopatra III, with the braids characteristic of Isis and the headband of royal status now in the collection of The Louvre courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.

So I asked Gemini about this phenomena.
Mary: "When did sibling marriages begin between members of Egypt's royal families?"
Gemini: "While there's documented evidence of sibling marriage among Egyptian royalty, pinpointing an exact date for its beginning is challenging. Here's a breakdown of what we know:

"Evidence exists: We have historical records and depictions suggesting instances of sibling marriage among pharaohs and their kin.
Not consistent: This practice wasn't consistent throughout Egyptian history. It occurred more frequently during specific periods like the 18th and 19th dynasties (roughly 1570-1070 BC).
Uncertainties: Determining the exact nature of some relationships is difficult due to changes in language usage over time. For example, the term "sister" could sometimes refer to a wife or lover during the New Kingdom."
I'm always a stickler for details so I began to ask Gemini about the practice of sibling marriage within specific historical periods and learned it is thought sibling marriage may have been practiced in a limited way during the Old Kingdom period but more frequently during the New Kingdom period.
Gemini:"There is some evidence of sibling marriage among Egyptian royalty during the Old Kingdom (2686 - 2181 BC):
Pharaoh Khufu: The builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza, Khufu, is believed to have married his half-sister, Meritites. This belief is based on interpretations of inscriptions and titles used for Meritites, though some debate exists around the exact nature of their relationship.
Pharaoh Khafre: Khufu's son, Khafre, who built the second-largest pyramid at Giza, also has some evidence suggesting marriage to his sister, Khamerernebty I. However, similar to Khufu and Meritites, the specific details of their relationship remain debated by scholars.
It's important to note:
Compared to later periods like the New Kingdom, sibling marriage seems to be less frequent during the Old Kingdom.
While the existing evidence points towards the possibility of sibling marriages, conclusive proof for all cases is often lacking. Additionally, due to the complexities of ancient Egyptian language and interpretations, debates and uncertainties still surround specific relationships.
The evidence for sibling marriage within the Egyptian royal family during the Middle Kingdom (2055 - 1650 BC) is scarcer and less conclusive compared to other periods like the New Kingdom.
Here's why:
Limited evidence: Unlike the Old and New Kingdoms, where documented instances of sibling marriage exist among pharaohs, no clear-cut proof of such marriages has been found for the Middle Kingdom.
Debated interpretations: Some scholars, based on specific genealogies and interpretations of titles, suggest the possibility of marriages between siblings or half-siblings during this period. However, these interpretations face significant challenges and are not widely accepted by the Egyptological community.
Alternative explanations: The use of terms like "sister" in ancient Egyptian texts could sometimes have broader meanings beyond the specific biological relationship. This adds to the difficulty of confirming the exact nature of relationships based solely on titles.
Therefore, while the possibility of isolated cases of sibling marriage during the Middle Kingdom cannot be entirely ruled out, the current evidence doesn't provide convincing or widely accepted proof of such practices within the royal family during that specific period.
Due to ambiguities in interpreting historical records and titles used in ancient Egypt, determining definitively which pharaohs of the New Kingdom (1570-1070 BC) engaged in sibling marriage remains a complex and debated topic among scholars.
Here's why:
Limited evidence: We rely on interpretation of ancient texts and artifacts, which can be incomplete or ambiguous. Terms like "sister" could have broader meanings beyond strict biological relationships.
Differentiation challenges: Distinguishing between biological siblings and individuals considered close relatives or even adopted children based solely on historical titles is challenging.
However, some pharaohs of the New Kingdom are often cited as potentially having married individuals closely related to them:
Thutmose III: Some evidence suggests he might have married his half-sister Hatshepsut, based on titles used and their close working relationship. However, this interpretation is not universally accepted by scholars.
[My clarification: Hatshepsut only served as regent for Thutmose III because she was the queen and half-sister of his father, Thutmose II]
Amenhotep III: He is believed to have married his half-sisters Sitamun and Gilukhepa. [My clarification: But Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) was not an offspring of either of these relationships]
Akhenaten: He is believed to have married his half-sister Kiya. While not definitive, some scholars theorize the surviving daughter from this union, Ankhesenamun, later married Akhenaten's successor, Tutankhamun, who was also likely her half-brother.
It's crucial to remember:
These are not definitive conclusions and remain subjects of ongoing scholarly debates.
Even if these pharaohs married individuals referred to as "sisters," it doesn't guarantee they were biological siblings.
Other pharaohs of the New Kingdom did not engage in sibling marriage.
The Late Period of Egypt (664 - 332 BC) saw a significant increase in the practice of sibling marriage among the royal family compared to earlier periods.** This practice became more frequent and documented compared to the Old and Middle Kingdoms. However, it's crucial to remember several key points:
Not widespread: While more common than in previous periods, sibling marriage was still not the norm within the Late Kingdom royal family. Many pharaohs and members of the royal family married individuals who were not their siblings.
Shifting context: The Late Period also saw the influence and rule of foreign powers like the Persians after 525 BC. This changed the political and cultural landscape of Egypt, potentially influencing the practice of sibling marriage.
Increased documentation: The Late Period has left behind more extensive archives and documents compared to earlier periods. This allows for a better understanding of the practice of sibling marriage during this time.
Here are some examples of documented instances of sibling marriage in the Late Period:
Nectanebo I (380-362 BC): Married his sister or half-sister.
Nectanebo II (360-343 BC): Married his niece.
It's important to note that this is not an exhaustive list and there are other examples. However, it highlights the increased frequency of sibling marriages compared to earlier periods.
Thinking of the periods when Egypt was ruled by the "Sea Peoples" and the Persians, I asked "Did any civilizations of the ancient Levant engage in sibling marriage?"
Gemini: "While there's limited and inconclusive evidence for widespread sibling marriage among major civilizations of the ancient Levant, some information exists regarding specific instances and cultural practices. Here's a breakdown:
Major Civilizations:
Mesopotamia: Evidence for consistent sibling marriage within Mesopotamian royal families, like the Babylonians and Assyrians, is currently lacking. However, there are isolated instances mentioned in some texts, though the exact nature of the relationships and the prevalence of the practice remain unclear.
Canaan: Similar to Mesopotamia, the picture for Canaan is uncertain. Some scholars suggest the possibility of occasional sibling marriage based on interpretations of specific texts and cultural practices, but conclusive proof is absent."
I had also read an article suggesting the ancient Nuragic civilization of Sardinia may have sent raiding parties out that may have been attributed to the Sea Peoples, so I asked about sibling marriage in that culture.
Gemini replied: "Due to the limited and fragmentary nature of the available evidence, conclusive proof of sibling marriage within the Nuragic culture (1800 – 238 BC, Sardinia, Italy) is currently unavailable. Here's a breakdown of the challenges and what we know:
Limited written records: The Nuragic people lacked a writing system, making it difficult to directly document their social customs and marriage practices. This leaves us relying on indirect evidence, like archaeological findings and comparisons with other cultures.
Interpretation difficulties: Even with archaeological findings like burial sites, interpreting familial relationships with certainty is challenging. DNA analysis, which could potentially provide definitive answers, is often not possible due to the degradation of organic materials over time.
Available information:
Indirect evidence: Some scholars have drawn comparisons between the Nuragic culture and other ancient Mediterranean societies, where sibling marriage was practiced in some cases. However, these comparisons are not conclusive and cannot be directly applied to the Nuragic context without further evidence.
Absence of counter-evidence: While there's no concrete proof of sibling marriage, there's also no evidence explicitly prohibiting it. However, this absence of explicit prohibition doesn't necessarily mean it was practiced.
The possibility of sibling marriage within the Nuragic culture cannot be entirely ruled out, but there's currently no definitive evidence to confirm it.
Further research and discoveries are needed to gain a clearer understanding of Nuragic social customs and marriage practices."
So, what about the Persians?
Gemini: "The practice of sibling marriage within the Persian royal line is a complex and debated topic due to various factors:
Evidence suggests:
Existence of the practice: There are documented instances of sibling marriage among members of the Achaemenid dynasty (550-330 BC), which ruled the Persian Empire during its peak.
Zoroastrian context: The religion of Zoroastrianism, which was prominent in ancient Persia, had a concept called xwedodah. This term has been interpreted by some scholars as referring to marriage between close relatives, including siblings, though the precise meaning and historical practice remain controversial.
Challenges in interpretation:
Uncertainties: Determining the exact nature of some relationships based on ancient texts and titles is difficult. For example, the term "sister" could sometimes refer to a wife or lover.
Limited evidence: While some possible instances exist, conclusive proof for all cases is often lacking.
Debates among scholars: The interpretation of xwedodah and its historical practice is heavily debated among scholars, with some arguing it did not necessarily involve sibling marriage.
While there is evidence suggesting the possibility of sibling marriage within the Achaemenid dynasty, the evidence is not definitive and the specific details remain open to interpretation and scholarly debate.
It's crucial to avoid making generalizations and remember that the practice wasn't consistent throughout the history of the Persian Empire.
The practice of sibling marriage was not as widespread in the Persian Empire compared to some other ancient cultures like the Ptolemies in Egypt.
Political considerations also played a role. While some rulers married siblings, others married outside the family for political alliances or other reasons."
So, that brings us to the Ptolemies. First, I asked if the Macedonians of the 4th century BCE practiced sibling marriage?
Gemini: "No, there is no evidence that the Macedonians of the 4th century BCE practiced sibling marriage. This custom was not part of their cultural norms and was actually considered taboo.
Here's why:
Historical accounts: Writings from prominent historians like Plutarch and Arrian, who documented the lives and deeds of figures like Alexander the Great, make no mention of sibling marriage being practiced within the Macedonian royal family or society at large.
Cultural context: The ancient Greeks, of which the Macedonians were a sub-group, generally frowned upon sibling marriage. It was seen as an unnatural and morally reprehensible act.
Macedonian customs: While some practices differed between various Greek city-states, the available evidence suggests that the Macedonians followed the wider Greek cultural norms regarding marriage, which excluded siblings."
So, then I asked, "Did Ptolemy I Soter marry a sibling after becoming the first Ptolemaic pharaoh?"
Gemini responded with: "No, Ptolemy I Soter did not marry a sibling after becoming the first Ptolemaic pharaoh. He had several wives throughout his life, but none of them were his sisters:
Eurydice: His first wife, daughter of the Macedonian regent Antipater.
Artakama: A Persian noblewoman, married on Alexander's orders.
Thaïs: (possibly) His mistress during the life of Alexander.
Berenice I: His final wife, who became his queen and had several children, including Ptolemy II, his successor.
It's important to note that while Ptolemy did not personally engage in sibling marriage, the practice became established later in the Ptolemaic dynasty. Some of his successors, like Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II, did marry siblings, which became a characteristic of the dynasty, though not consistently practiced by all rulers.
So, the practice of sibling marriage within the Ptolemaic dynasty began with Ptolemy II. I then asked, "If sibling marriage was not a common feature of Late Period Egyptian royalty and Ptolemy I Soter did not practice sibling marriage, what could have influenced Ptolemy II to resurrect the practice from the New Kingdom period?"
Gamini: "While it's true that sibling marriage wasn't a major feature of Late Period Egyptian royalty and Ptolemy I Soter didn't participate in it, his son Ptolemy II did marry his sister Arsinoe II. There are several possible influences that might have contributed to this decision:
1. Political Consolidation:
Securing power: By marrying Arsinoe II, Ptolemy II could have aimed to consolidate his power by keeping the royal bloodline and wealth within the immediate family. This could have been particularly relevant if his claim to the throne was contested or if he faced internal opposition.
[Mary's note: Ptolemy II's reign was both contested and fraught with both internal and external opposition. At Ptolemy II's birth, his older half-brother Ptolemy Keraunos, his father's son by a previous marriage to Eurydice, Anitpater's daughter, was the heir presumptive. As Ptolemy II grew older a struggle for the succession developed between them, which culminated in Ptolemy Keraunos' departure from Egypt around 287 BCE. On 28 March 284 BCE, Ptolemy I had Ptolemy II declared king, formally elevating him to the status of co-regent. However, the fall-out from the succession conflict between Ptolemy II and Ptolemy Keraunos continued even after Ptolemy II's accession resulting in Ptolemy II"s execution of two of Ptolemy Keraunos' brothers. Keraunos himself fled to the court of Lysimachus, king of Thrace and western Asia Minor, and husband to Ptolemy II's sister, Arsinoe II. Lysimachus' court was divided on the question of supporting Keraunos. Lysimachus' heir, Agathocles, was married to Keraunos' full sister Lysandra. But, Lysimachus chose to support Ptolemy II and sealed that decision at some point between 284 and 281 BCE by marrying his daughter Arsinoe I to Ptolemy II. Continued conflict over the issue eventually led to the execution of Agathocles and the collapse of Lysimachus' kingdom in 281 BCE. Around 279 BCE, Arsinoe II returned to Egypt, where she clashed with her sister-in-law Arsinoe I. Sometime after 275 BCE, Arsinoe I was charged with conspiracy and exiled to Coptos. Probably in 273/2 BCE, Ptolemy then married his older sister, Arsinoe II."]
Limiting external influence: Marrying outside the family could have introduced new external influences and potential alliances that might have threatened Ptolemy II's control. By marrying his sister, he potentially maintained complete control within the royal family.
2. Continuity with the New Kingdom:
Symbolic gesture: The revival of sibling marriage could have been a deliberate attempt to connect with the legacy of the earlier New Kingdom (1570-1070 BC), a period of significant power and cultural prominence for Egypt. This connection could have served to legitimize Ptolemy II's rule and enhance his prestige.
Religious justification: Some speculate that Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II might have used religious justifications, possibly drawing parallels with myths or deities associated with sibling marriages in the New Kingdom. However, concrete evidence for this is lacking.
3. Personal motivations:
Genuine affection: While less likely considering the political nature of the time, it's possible that Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II genuinely desired to marry each other, regardless of their familial connection. However, due to the paucity of personal records, it's impossible to confirm this definitively.
It's important to remember that determining the exact reasons behind Ptolemy II's decision is difficult due to the limited historical records and the complexities of interpreting past motivations. The factors mentioned above are possible explanations, but they should not be considered definitive or exhaustive."
But sibling marriage was not practiced by all pharaohs after Ptolemy II. Ptolemy III was married to Berenice, the sole child of Ptolemy II's half-brother King Magas of Cyrene. Their son, Ptolemy IV, after a brutal purge of the royal family, ended up marrying his older sister, Arsinoe III,
Ptolemy V broke with tradition and married the daughter of Seleucid king Antiochus III, Ptolemy VI, however, did marry his sister-wife Cleopatra II. Ptolemy VI died on campaign in Syria in 145 BCE. Cleopatra II then agreed to marry her younger brother, Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II Physcon, who ascended the throne at that time. According to Justin, Ptolemy VIII murdered Ptolemy, the surviving son of Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II, but new evidence shows he survived as a potential heir and served as eponymous priest of Alexander the Great in c. 143 BCE; However, he was eliminated by his uncle sometime later Cleopatra II then bore Ptolemy VIII a new heir, Ptolemy Memphites, in c. 143 BCE. When Ptolemy VIII fled Alexandria in 132 BCE, he took Ptolemy Memphites with him to Cyprus. According to Diodorus and Justin, here Ptolemy Memphites was murdered and dismembered on the orders of his father, who sent the remains of the boy to his mother Cleopatra II as a gruesome birthday gift.
Between 142 BCE and 139 BCE Ptolemy VIII married Cleopatra II's younger daughter, his niece Cleopatra III. She quickly produced two sons, the future kings Ptolemy IX Soter and Ptolemy XI Alexander, and three daughters. These developments are assumed to have increased the pre-existing rivalry between Cleopatra II and Ptolemy VIII. Cleopatra II ruled during two different periods alternating with Ptolemy VIII until her ultimate death in 116 BCE. Ptolemy IX, son of Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra III, became the heir apparent after the murder of his half-brother Ptolemy Memphites in 130 BCE, during a civil war between Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra II. On his father's death in 116 BC, he became co-regent with Cleopatra II (until 115 BC) and with his mother, Cleopatra III. He eventually quarreled with his mother and she deposed him and replaced him with his younger brother, Ptolemy X. However, Ptolemy IX succeeded in seizing control of Cyprus. From there he invaded Judaea, but was prevented by Ptolemy X from invading Egypt (103–102 BCE). In 88 BC, the Alexandrians expelled Ptolemy X and restored Ptolemy IX to the throne. Ptolemy IX was briefly married to his sister, Cleopatra IV then another sister, Cleopatra V Selene. Both women survived to marry other Middle Eastern monarchs. Ptolemy XI was ordered by Rome to marry Berenice III, who was his stepmother, cousin, and possible half-sister. Nineteen days after the marriage, Ptolemy murdered his bride for unknown reasons, an unwise move since Berenice was very popular. Ptolemy was soon lynched by the citizens of Alexandria. Cicero and other ancient sources refer to Ptolemy XII as an illegitimate son of Ptolemy IX; Pompeius Trogus called him a "nothos" (bastard), while Pausanias wrote that Ptolemy IX had no legitimate sons at all. Ptolemy XII Auletes married one of his relatives, Cleopatra V, which modern scholarship often interprets as a sister, but Christopher Bennett argues was a daughter of Ptolemy X. These rather hazy incestuous relationships ended of course when both Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV were killed during Cleopatra VII's rise to the throne.
It appears to me that most of what would now be considered incestuous marriages of the Ptolemies were the by-product of political aspirations and power struggles internally within the royal family and externally due to the conflicts of the Diadochi and had little to do with sibling marriages established by any royal ritual in preceding Egyptian dynasties.
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