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In both ancient Egypt and ancient Mesopotamia, we can find many similarities and differences between their cultures. The laws of the two varied quite a bit, their literature was relatively similar, and the way women were viewed in their respective societies drastically contrast one another.
The laws of Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt were both performed and established in different ways. Egyptian law was less rigid than law in Mesopotamia, having laws written after each pharaoh came into power. The main stipulation was that the laws followed the teachings and ideals of the goddess Ma’at but the interpretation and implementation was left up to the pharaoh. Law was usually “an aspect of administration, making any official a possible adjudicant: it was not separated off with its own exclusively judicial officials and its own exclusively judicial buildings – no judges and no courts. Officials judged cases; no ancient Egyptian individuals are known whose only official capacity was to hear legal cases. The same groups of individuals might regularly meet to consider a range of administrative and legal cases (Egyptian ‘council’), but no special space or building seems to have been set aside for this. A board of officials (Egyptian DADAt) might be set up for particular short-term tasks, by royal commission, and such a task might be the judgement of an important legal case, but it might also be the successful management of a project such as a quarrying expedition.” Law seemed to be more of an additional task for the government than its own dedicated branch. The decrees of the pharaoh were used along with precedents from previous rulings of law and most trials were a case by case basis. Mesopotamians took a different approach with their legal system. Laws were codified so that crimes and their respective punishments were well known by everyone. At the time this system was seen as fair as were the punishments, with the most famous adage of Hammurabi’s legal code being, “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.” commonly used as the proverb “an eye for an eye”. There was an elected council of elders called the assembly that would be the ones to judge the cases. They would use the codified law to assign punishments and perform trials in a fair and even way. The assembly was also responsible for telling the king if any new laws he attempts to pass would be unfair or if the law would be offensive to the gods. Not only did they help decide the law, but they even made laws that the gods had to follow such as how they should behave and which gods were allowed to marry each other. The punishments for most laws involved an equal retribution but being put to death was often more common than not. 26 of the laws in Hammurabi’s code directly mention being “put to death’ and 8 mention a body part, such as a tongue, hands, or even breasts being cut off.
Mesopotamia and Egypt both had developed their own pictographic alphabets, Egypt having hieroglyphs and Mesopotamia using the more abstract cuneiform. Mesopotamian writings were usually done on a clay tablet which was then hardened while Egyptian writings were carved into monument and temple walls or were written on papyrus paper. The function of their writings seems to have been quite similar with the most important use being for administrative and record keeping purposes. Historical records aside from the names of kings or pharaohs, as seen on the Palermo stone, weren’t common in the earlier stages of these civilizations but became more common as the societies progressed. Poems like the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh and the Egyptian Hymns to the Nile and Aten were also common forms of literature. For religious uses, Mesopotamians mostly used writings to record prayers and religious ceremonies while in Egypt it was common to record spells for protection or for use in the afterlife as seen in the Book of the Dead. Egyptian Hieroglyphs were used in a more literal way with drawings used to describe what was written and lettering used for names. An example of this can be seen in the False Door of Kaitep, it is described as “the lower part of a false door with five vertical lines of text on the central and four side-panels, containing the name and titles of Kaitep. On the outer panels on both sides are representations of the deceased supporting himself on his staff.”
Women in Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt were treated very differently than each other, with Egypt being a more egalitarian society and Mesopotamia treating women more like property of their husbands or fathers. In Egypt, women and men were held in the same regard legally. Most rights that applied to men also extended to the women. Women were allowed to own property and could obtain her own livestock, goods, slaves, servants, and make their own money outside of the home. They could also make contracts or sue in regard to her property, her marriage, and her job. The most common jobs that women took on were weavers, hair specialists, writers, dancers, songstresses, musicians, treasurers, priestesses, and in the case of a woman named Nebet of the Old Kingdom, vizier to the pharaoh. An example of this equality can be seen, “in one case where a woman named Iry-nefret was charged with illegally using silver and a tomb belonging to a woman named Bak-Mut to help pay for the purchase of a servant-girl. Iry-nefret was brought to court and told in her own words how she acquired the girl, listing all the items which she gave the merchant as price for the girl and identifying the individuals from whom she bought some of the items used in this purchase. She had to swear an oath before the judges in the names of the god Amon and the Ruler. The judges then had the complainant produce witnesses (three men and three women) who would attest that she had used stolen property to purchase the girl. The end of the papyrus recording the court case is lost, but it is clear that the woman Iry-nefret acted on her own in purchasing the servant-girl and was held solely liable for her actions while the testimony of both women and men was held by the judges to be equally admissible.” Mesopotamia did not grant such rights to their women. The only women who acted as individuals were ones married to royalty or powerful men. They were seen as their father’s daughter and were married off after hitting puberty in an arranged marriage. After being married off, she would then be regarded as her husband’s wife instead of being an autonomous person. According to an article written by The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago some women were allowed to have some responsibilities stating that, “Most girls were trained from childhood for the traditional roles of wife, mother, and housekeeper. They learned how to grind grain, how to cook and make beverages, especially beer, and how to spin and weave cloth for clothing. If a woman worked outside of her home, her job usually grew out of her household tasks. She might sell the beer she brewed, or even become a tavern keeper. Childbearing and childcare roles led women to become midwives and also to create medicines that prevented pregnancy or produced abortions”.
Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia both had many similarities in their literature but diverged heavily when it came to the place of women in society and their laws and accompanying legal systems.
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