This week I visited the Brooklyn Museum and made sure to stop into the new section set up in the Egyptian collection. It’s called A Woman’s Afterlife: Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt. The exhibit is really small, consisting of fewer than 30 objects that don’t really do much to explicate the theory of what Egyptians believed about the condition for a woman’s rebirth stated thus:
The ancient Egyptians believed that to make rebirth possible for a deceased woman, she briefly had to turn into a man. Guided by new research inspired in part by feminist scholarship, the exhibition A Woman’s Afterlife: Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt tells this remarkable story of gender transformation in the ancient world, exploring the differences between male and female access to the afterlife.
Egyptian medicine taught that a woman, once in her tomb, faced a biological barrier to rebirth. Because the ancient Egyptians believed that in human reproduction it was the man who created the fetus, transferring it to the woman during intercourse, rebirth was impossible for a woman alone. To overcome this perceived problem, a priest magically transformed a woman’s mummy into a man long enough to create a fetus. This required representing a woman with red skin on her coffin—the color normally assigned to a man—and reciting spells that addressed the woman with masculine pronouns, spells also recorded graphically on the coffin. A woman later returned to her original female state and incubated herself for rebirth into the afterlife as a woman.
Though I don’t find the use of red paint alone compelling enough to buy into the theory of a woman needing to become a man after death to be reborn as a women, I do find the idea fascinating in light of our own tradition.
We’re all familiar with the original genocidal plot against the Jews when they were enslaved in Egypt. The plan was to kill all the baby boys and leave only the females. Now this has been explained as an assumption of patrilineal descent. If the child follows the father’s status, no Jewish males as fathers means no more Jews. However, this is even more significant in light of the theory that is advanced in this exhibit. Egyptian thought was that the woman’s role in carrying the fetus is completely passive, and that the father is the only one credited with its formation. In their view, it’s not merely a choice of patrilineal over matrilineal because you have to choose one for your society. They really thought that a child sired by an Egyptian man would be wholly Egyptian.
Clearly, though, they were wrong, not just in terms of biology, but in terms of the life force of the people. As Chazal tell us, B’zchus nashim tzidkanyios nigalu avothenu m’Mitzrayim. [The merit of the rightous women is what engendered our ancestors redemption from Egypt.]