Marriage in Egyptian villages was a pretty informal affair. Few legal documents were written concerning marriage, and few texts discuss particulars – unless something goes wrong. The most important aspect of marriage was cohabitation. Early periods of Egyptian history refer to the entering and leaving of houses, while Coptic texts typically refer to spouses ‘sitting’ together.
A particularly unusual document concerning marriage survives from western Thebes, dated probably to the 7th century (it has a date of year 10, which is in reference to a 15-year tax cycle, but no information that allows it to be dated more firmly). It’s not unusual because it mentions marriage, but because of its nature and sheer brevity.
Shenetom, the fisherman, the son of Pcale in Pashme. He divorced (=cast out) his wife, Tegoshe. He married (=took) Teret, the daughter of Comes of Pare. Moreover, he gave his daughter to her son. Indiction year 10.P.Mon.Epiph. 270
The text is clear, recording the divorce and marriage of the fisherman Shenetom, together with the betrothal of his unnamed daughter to the unnamed son of his new wife, Teret. No further details are provided, so why was this note written? It is not a marriage contract, it doesn’t concern a dowry, and it’s not a letter asking for relationship advice. Can we learn anything else about Shenetom’s motives for writing it?
This note is written on the back of another letter, penned by somebody else. That original letter (which has not been properly published) concerns a man and woman. Despite how well-preserved the writing is, only half of the letter survives and so we only get hints about its original nature. A woman is mentioned going to Djeme, the village built within Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Rameses III, and there is mention of ‘his house’, a monastery, and a statement that the writer ‘will not hide him’ (or ‘it’). Are the two texts connected?
The papyrus was found at a hermitage in Thebes, now referred to by the name of its most famous occupant, the monk Apa Epiphanius. Epiphanius – and other senior and well-known monks across Thebes – were often called upon to sort out a range of issues among villagers in the region (including marriage problems and paternity issues). Could the original letter, perhaps issued by Epiphanius himself, have been sent out to discover an issue between a couple? If so, could Shenetom’s note, written on the back of the original letter after it had been torn in half, be the response to the original enquiry? Perhaps Shenetom – originally from north of Thebes (Pashme, in the nome of Coptos) – is the unknown man in the original letter, and the woman his original wife, Tegoshe. In reply to the monk’s letter, Shenetom makes the current situation with his new wife clear. But why mention his children as well? It’s possible that the children were also mentioned in the first letter, in the section that is now lost. This marriage would serve practical concerns, strengthening property ties, for example, even if the situation seems odd to a modern reader.
While we can’t get firm answers to all the questions that this small note throws up, this example shows that looking at more than just a single text in isolation can help bring us closer to reality – and also highlights how much potential even short notes hold!
Provenance: ‘Monastery’ of Apa Epiphanius (Theban Tomb 103).
Date: 7th century (?) CE.
Language: Coptic (Sahidic dialect).
Collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. 14.1.510).
Designation: P.Mon.Epiph. 270 (according to the Checklist of Editions).