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Dissertation Proposals

Continuity and Change of Reproductive Beliefs and Practices in Egypt from Ancient to Modern Times

A Dissertation Proposal Presented to The Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations by Nicole B. Hansen
© 1999 All Rights Reserved
The Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
The University of Chicago
Approved * 18 March 1999

Table of Contents


To what extent can the folklore of modern Egypt be traced back across the centuries to pharaonic times? This question has never been adequately answered before, to a great extent because the disciplines involved in the study of the history and culture of Egypt are traditionally defined by religions, languages and rulers, with a focus on one time period-pharaonic, Graeco-Roman, Christian, Islamic or modern. Although their expertise may be limited to one chronological period, scholars have often made varying and sometimes conflicting assumptions about the continuity and change of Egyptian culture between time periods with which they are familiar and those which they know very little. For instance, after presenting a single paragraph of supporting arguments, Kemp, whose specialty is the New Kingdom, concluded, "Three great infusions of outside culture, Hellenistic Greek, Christian, Arab-effectively destroyed the indigenous Nile Valley culture of ancient times, sometimes by a process of gradual modification, sometimes by deliberate attack."1 An Egyptian priest who worked among the peasants for many years painted a very different picture, stating that the Egyptians had "changed their masters, their religion, their language and their crops, but not their way of life. From the beginning of the Old Kingdom to the climax of the Ptolemaic period the Egyptian people preserved and maintained themselves. Possessed in turn by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, French and English, they remained unchanged. Even today the fellahin play no part in the Egyptian renaissance or the movement for progress."2 In spite of the existence of these strongly differing opinions, no one has carried out a systematic in-depth study of evidence from all time periods of Egyptian history to test the validity of these various contradictory assumptions.


In my dissertation, I will evaluate these assumptions from a diachronic perspective using the human reproductive cycle as a case study. For the purpose of my dissertation, the reproductive cycle includes the subjects of conception, infertility, impotency, abortion, the birth process itself, nursing and neonatal care. They are ideal subjects by which to examine the issues of continuity and change because reproduction is an event which affects every human being, either as a newborn, a mother, or a father, and because women in Egypt, the major players in the reproductive cycle, have been suggested to be more informed about folk traditions than men.3 I will trace the development of beliefs and practices in each of the previously mentioned subjects as systems over time, determine what types of features exhibit continuity or change, and identify the contributing factors. The geographic focus of my research will be on Egypt and Nubia, as these two areas have long shared many cultural traits and a geography dominated by the Nile. When selecting specific subjects to examine for continuity and change, my focus will be limited to topics for which there is evidence in both of two groups of sources which for the most part attract the attention of two mutually exclusive groups of scholars. The first group comprises Coptic texts and archaeological sites and earlier Egyptian texts and archaeological material, as well as Greek texts from Egypt. The second includes sources in the Arabic language, ethnographic material, and a limited amount of Hebrew material dating to the Islamic period. This will limit the scope of material to be covered to a manageable corpus, while the overlap between Coptic, Greek and Arabic material for several centuries will allow me to answer more fully the questions which I will pose in the dissertation.


Continuities of ancient Egyptian culture were first noted by the first modern decipherer of the hieroglyphic writing system, Champollion, who was able to identify hieroglyphic signs by comparison with objects still used in 19th century Egypt.
4 However, E.B. Tylor was the first to articulate the anthropological concept of "survivals" (which he defined as anachronistic processes, customs and opinions which remained from an earlier time period in an otherwise changed, more-civilized society) in 1871.5 The "doctrine of survivals" already began to come under attack as early as 1890,6 and was dealt an almost stifling blow by Malinowski’s functionalism. Malinowski argued that survivals were not useless artifacts of a bygone age, but rather had survived because they had acquired a new function in modern society, and therefore they should be studied in their present context without reference to the past.7 As a consequence, the concept of survivals has been abandoned by most anthropologists, but early 20th century ethnographers and Egyptologists adopted the theory, and the concept has in a Tylorian sense survived, continuing to underlie virtually all of the research concerned with explaining the origins of modern folklore in the Nile Valley up to the most current publications.8

Because Egypt has an uniquely long historical tradition, the doctrine of survivals has been applied to Egyptian material quite frequently, and in ways different from those in other fields, and is thus worthy of discussion.9 The most well-known of the authors who wrote about Egyptian survivals is Winifred Blackman, the anthropologist sister of Egyptologist Aylward Blackman. She viewed the traditions she collected as survivals from ancient times which were restricted to the peasantry; her work continues to be quoted as the authority on the subject today.10 Some Egyptian doctors trained in biomedicine have also seen the folk medical treatments of their Egyptian patients, particularly those associated with reproduction, as survivals of ancient treatments perpetuated by ignorant folk medical practitioners,11 and some have seen the study of survivals as a means of eliminating those that are harmful.12 Other Egyptian authors have turned the concept of survivals around and often looked to them as a source of pride linking them with their glorious pharaonic past. The phenomenon of using survivals to support claims about ethnic identity is not unique to Egypt, and has been reported in Greece.13 For some, survivals are a sign that Egyptians have preserved a distinctive national identity in spite of over two millennia of foreign rule,14 while some Copts see survivals as proof of their playing a unique role as inheritors of ancient Egyptian civilization and descendents of the pharaohs.15

I will explore these paradoxes in perceptions of survivals in the first chapter of my dissertation. I will also identify the types of beliefs and practices that have been called survivals, the subgroups of Egyptian society with whom scholars of Egypt have often associated them (for example: Copts, the fellahin and women), the regions where they have been believed to be more prevalent (such as Upper Egypt), the inferences drawn from survivals, and how these inferences have been put to use. In particular, I will place my emphasis on previous studies of survivals which have particular relevance to the reproductive cycle.

The theory of survivals was long ago abandoned by anthropologists because it has a number of weaknesses. Many authors have identified certain beliefs and practices that are uniquely Egyptian as survivals from pharaonic times when there is no surviving evidence for pharaonic antecedents, or they have cited evidence that displays a superficial similarity at best, or focused on one, sometimes insignificant, detail.16 In my dissertation, I will review the works of these authors to determine the validity of their arguments.

While the concept of survivals has survived in the works of those whose primary interest is in the past, in the ethnomedical literature of Egypt, past medical systems have been ignored and a functionalist approach has generally prevailed. This approach has come under criticism itself recently because unlike many other cultures studied by medical anthropologists, Egypt has an abundance of additional sources which allow for in-depth diachronic investigation. As Inhorn and Lane have pointed out: "Through examination of historical sources, it becomes apparent-and strikingly so-that many of the traditional medical practices observed in the Middle East today have not arisen, sui generis, in response to the biological, psychological, or social needs of isolated communities existing in historical vacuums. Rather, they are extant manifestations of events occurring, in some cases, thousands of years before and often involving the forces of imperialism-both political and medical-which have operated in the Middle East over several millennia. Indeed, in rural Egypt…many of the currently held beliefs and practices surrounding health and illness can be traced to medical traditions that date back to pharaonic times…"17 In an anthropological study of beliefs and practices associated with infertility in the urban milieu of Alexandria, Inhorn also briefly reviewed the historical antecedents of the material she collected, while recognizing that it is equally important to pay attention to change in medical systems as it is to note continuity.18 My dissertation will expand the depth and breadth of this historical investigation greatly.


The methodology I will develop to explore these issues will not overemphasize survivals at the expense of the many developments that have occurred over the millennia, nor will I use a functionalist approach. Rather, I will focus on continuity and change within systems of belief and practice as a whole. Such an approach has been underutilized in the analysis of Egypt’s folkloric traditions and has rarely been adopted in the past, a notable exception being Shukri’s dissertation on the continuity and change of death rituals in Egypt.19 As her study covered only the time period from the present back to the 14th century, my study will be the first to take this approach back to ancient times.

Ethnoarchaeology uses the more complete details obtained from ethnographic work to gain insights into earlier cultures. Such an approach has been used recently in Egypt on several occasions to reconstruct the methods used in the ancient production of things like food, beverages, stone tools, and glass.20 However, I would argue that it is much easier and more reliable to apply such methods to technical processes which have a foundation in chemical and physiological realities than to the interpretations of medical symptoms and illness causation, which although biologically based, are often culturally specific.21 Therefore, I do not intend use the ethnographic evidence to "fill in the gaps" where evidence is lacking in the historical record, as has been done recently in a study of childbirth in Greece.22 Instead, I will use the material as a baseline for comparison with earlier evidence.

Another caveat that I will observe is the fact that the evidence for the existence of a belief or practice in 2,500 B.C. and then again in 1999 A.D. does not necessarily imply continuity over 4,500 years. Instead, I will focus on topics for which there is also evidence from the intervening time periods to determine whether similarities are due to a direct or indirect line of transmission, or whether they may be simply cases of "spontaneous regeneration".23 This will also require that I investigate the possibility of both oral and written transmission.24 I would tentatively suggest that written transmission will perhaps be most easily identified in collections of medical and magical texts copied and/or translated from earlier versions, while oral transmission may be inferred in literary and historical accounts of reproduction-related activities of individuals who were most likely illiterate.

In addition, when looking at the much more abundant evidence from modern times, I will place more weight on beliefs and practices that are more widely reported. I also will compare the Egyptian traditions with those of neighboring geographic areas in the Eastern Mediterranean and non-Nilotic regions of the Sudan to determine if they are unique to Egypt as has been suggested by Robins,25 keeping in mind that ethnographers’ interest could skew the sample, that the pervasiveness of a belief or practice does not necessarily mean it is older, and that the relative lack of studies of folk medicine in other parts of the Middle East can make Egyptian practices look unique when they actually may not be.26

In the second part of my dissertation I will examine in depth several beliefs and practices associated with reproduction by combining these diverse methodological approaches. The topics which I will ultimately select for treatment will include ones for which the evidence is most abundant. These will certainly include, but not be limited to, two areas which have to date formed the focus of my research, infertility and male impotence. Also, I will explore topics which have previously been the subject of much speculation, such as the protective and naming ritual which takes place seven days after the birth of the child and which has often been claimed to be ancient in origin, without much supporting evidence having been offered.27


The sources I will need to consult to successfully complete my dissertation come from a number of different disciplines, time periods, and even languages.28 From ancient times, we possess medical, magical, religious, and literary texts,29 as well as archaeological and artistic evidence. Greek gynecological papyri are also of importance because the texts and ideas they contained often were translated into Arabic,30 while Greek magical texts, some of which have ancient Egyptian underpinnings,31 most likely influenced the Arabic texts as well.32 Coptic medical, magical and religious texts are an important source of evidence because they were written in the latest stage of the ancient Egyptian language but often were composed after the arrival of Islam and the Arabic language in Egypt, and therefore are a plausible source of transmission of ancient ideas to later Arabic sources.33

A number of medieval Arabic erotic manuals also contain numerous medical recipes from the folk tradition to treat a variety of reproductive problems.34 These texts are important because they are more reflective of Egyptian popular traditions than are classical Arabic medical works, which are often heavily influenced by Greek antecedents. The position in the chain of transmission of a Hebrew gynecological text from the Geniza collection which has been suggested to have parallels with Arabic texts from Egypt will also be explored.35 The writings of European travelers may also be of some use.36 Moreover, the current interest in the study of women and health-related issues in Egypt means there is an extensive folkloric and medical anthropological literature concerned with reproduction. Older ethnographic literature written by foreigners about Egypt is of some use, but the work is often unsystematic, anecdotal, and often does not use the native Egyptian Arabic terms of beliefs and practices that are necessary for comparative work. Egyptian scholars do use these terms, much of their work only being available in Egypt. During visits to Egypt and through my readings, I have identified a number of sources which I will need to consult. These include unpublished M.A. and Ph.D. theses from Egyptian universities.37 Moreover, libraries such as those at the Folklore Institute, USAID, and the Population Council, and WHO in Alexandria house published and unpublished reports and studies that contain pertinent information. Dar al-Kutub has manuscripts that may serve as primary sources.38 In addition, I plan to examine relevant artifacts in museums such as the Cairo Museum, Alexandria Museum, Ethnographic Museum and the soon-to-be opened medical museum.


My focus on continuity and change will allow me to address two fundamental questions in the final section of my dissertation: What types of beliefs and practices are most likely to be conserved and which are more likely to undergo transformation? And what factors have contributed to the continuity or brought about the change? Two theories have been suggested previously to explain continuity. The first saw the continuation of ancient beliefs and practices as a conscious attempt to maintain an Egyptian identity in the face of European colonialism.39 The second saw the continuities as resulting from the peculiar geography of the Nile Valley.40 I will evaluate these hypotheses in light of the evidence I will have presented in the previous section. I will also consider other material and intellectual influences that might have contributed to continuity and change, in particular the two which have been used most often used as markers of change in Egyptian history-religion and language-as well as technology, economics, politics, education, etc.41 I will also consider whether continuity or change is more prevalent in any particular region or among any certain group of society.


The methodology I will develop to explore these issues will be one that can also be applied to future research in this area. The results of my analysis will be significant because they will open up to debate whether or not our discrete disciplinary divisions based on chronological time periods are the most suitable framework in which to study Egyptian social history.


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*In accordance with the rules of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of the University of Chicago this dissertation proposal was approved by the dissertation committee and successfully defended at a public hearing. The members of the committee are:

  • Robert Ritner (chair)
  • Janet Johnson
  • Farouk Mustafa
  • Marcia Inhorn (Emory University)
This document was published on-line for the first time on 26 May 1999, courtesy of the Oriental Institute Research Archives. The only changes from the version approved by the Faculty of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations include minor editorial corrections, normalization of the typographical presentation of ancient names, and some small changes to accommodate the HTML encoding. HTML encoding was done by Charles E. Jones. [Return to text]

1 Kemp 1991. [Return to text]

2 Ayrout 1968. [Return to text]

3 Fernea and Fernea 1972. [Return to text]

4 Champollion 1836-41. [Return to text]

5 Tylor 1889. [Return to text]

6 Stocking 1995. [Return to text]

7 Malinowski 1944. [Return to text]

8 Eisa 1998. [Return to text]

9 For a discussion of how the concept has been applied in other fields, and an excellent critique of the doctrine, see Hodgen 1936.. [Return to text]

10 Blackman 1922; Blackman 1925; Blackman 1926a; Blackman 1926b; Blackman 1927; Blackman and Blackman 1935. There are no grounds for doubting the accuracy of the folkloric material she collected, in spite of recent aspersions cast on her work by Hart 1994.. [Return to text]

11 Ghalioungui 1969; Ghalioungui 1977; Ghalioungui and Guindi 1965-6; Sobhy 1950; Sobhy 1937-38; Sobhy 1952.. [Return to text]

12 Haikal 1988. [Return to text]

13 Danforth 1984. [Return to text]

14 Hassan 1936; Sabry 1979. [Return to text]

15 Sobhy 1938. [Return to text]

16 This is quite common among aficionados of the doctrine. Hodgen 1936. [Return to text]

17 Inhorn Millar and Lane 1988. [Return to text]

18 Inhorn 1994. [Return to text]

19 Shukri 1979. [Return to text]

20 Just one example is Ikram 1995.. [Return to text]

21 Kleinman 1974-75. [Return to text]

22 Demand 1994. [Return to text]

23 Blum and Blum 1970. [Return to text]

24 Silla 1996. [Return to text]

25 Robins 1997. [Return to text]

26 Pillsbury 1978. [Return to text]

27 Habib 1994. [Return to text]

28 Kákosy 1994; Shukri 1979. [Return to text]

29 The medical texts include the following: Breasted 1930; Edwards 1960; Erichsen 1954; Erman 1901; Gardiner 1935; Gardiner 1955; Griffith 1898; Iversen 1939; Tait 1977; Wreszinski 1909; Wreszinski 1912; Wreszinski 1913.. [Return to text]

30 Marganne 1994. [Return to text]

31 Ritner 1995. [Return to text]

32 Hansen forthcoming. [Return to text]

33 The Coptic texts include the following: .Bilabel and Grohmann 1934; Chassinat 1921; Chassinat 1955; Crum 1922; Kropp 1931; Stefanski 1939; Worrell 1935.. [Return to text]

34 Bouhdiba 1985; Musallam 1981. [Return to text]

35 Schäfer and Shaked 1994. [Return to text]

36 Shukri 1979. [Return to text]

37 Abu Kurayshah 1994. [Return to text]

38 Hamarneh 1967. [Return to text]

39 Sabry 1979. [Return to text]

40 Naguib 1993. [Return to text]

41 Similar questions were asked by Shukri 1979.. [Return to text]

Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations

Revised: June 21, 2010

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