A Tale of Two Stories:

Mythological Texts as a Source on Ancient Egyptian Gender Roles

Ann Macy Roth

ISAW Visiting Research Scholar

Bata and Osiris, the heroes of two very well known ancient Egyptian stories, have often been compared, and the similarity of some episodes in their lives has been noted. What has not been properly understood, however, is the degree to which the stories themselves are structurally identical, differing only in the gender of the characters who play the two secondary roles in the stories. The recognition of this circumstance means that the two stories can be compared, which clarifies the episodes that are essential and those that are inessential additions. More importantly, however, the results can be used to examine the assumptions the Egyptians made about gender. When are male and female characters able to do the same things, and when must the story be twisted to prevent characters from acting in ways that are inappropriate to their gender?

Ann Macy Roth earned her doctorate in Egyptology from the University of Chicago in 1985 and has since held positions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the University of California, Berkeley, Howard University, and New York University, where she has taught in the Departments of Art History and Hebrew & Judaic Studies since 2003. Her interests and approaches to her field are broad and varied, ranging from primarily text-based inquiries (for example, Egyptian Phyles in the Old Kingdom: The Evolution of a System of Social Organization, published in 1991 and her work on birth metaphors in the Opening of the Mouth ritual, published in JEA in 1992, 1993, and 2002), to archaeological studies, primarily interpretations of spatial organization in cemeteries (The Cemetery of Palace Attendants, 1995, and JARCE 1988 and 1993), to a wide range of art historical topics, mostly dealing with Old Kingdom tomb chapel decoration. Though her work focuses primarily on the earliest periods of ancient Egyptian culture, she has also published studies and taught courses dealing with the entire span of pharaonic history.

During her Visiting Research Fellowship at ISAW in Fall 2019, Roth will focus on the question of ancient Egyptian gender roles, approached through textual, archaeological, and art historical sources. She hopes to complete a longstanding book project on the subject, arguing the hypothesis that the unusual Egyptian agricultural system, based on an annual flood, led to fundamental ideas and assumptions about fertility, and about therefore gender relations, that were quite unusual in the ancient world. In addition to their manifestations in Egyptian cultural production, these views on fertility and gender explain many of the curious anomalies that have so often been noted by modern scholars as well as ancient observers in ancient Egyptian society.

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