A system of kinship is a universal feature in human societies, but because the European kinship system is for us self-evident, it may be difficult for us to understand that people living in other times and cultures may have a different understanding of kinship and a different attitude toward their relatives. The ancient Egyptians, for example, had no word for “parents,” but this does not mean that they had no concept of parents. The designation and categorization of relatives are culturally coined. Moreover, in most cultures there are differences between the “terms of address” used in speaking to relatives, and the “terms of reference” used in speaking about them. There are various systems of kinship (though these are always bilateral, from an individual's point of view), and various rules of descent, which affiliate an individual at birth with a certain group of relatives while others are excluded. Terms of kinship are always connected with certain distinct patterns of social relations and behavior, but to detect these patterns in Egypt's societies through its long history is very difficult, simply because we cannot ask the people. We can, however, describe the distinctive ways in which the ancient Egyptians designated their relatives. Their terms of kinship are modeled in a symmetrically ordered bilateral system. Neither the gender nor the age of an individual played a role in the way he or she designated degrees of kinship.

Basic Kinship Terms.

The core of Egyptian kinship terminology is a group of four elementary roots: Jtj, mwt, zʒ/zʒ.t (in the New Kingdom often replaced by šrj/šrj.t “little one”), and sn/sn.t denoting the relationships of “father,” “mother,” “son/daughter,” and “brother/sister,” respectively. Note that the terms for male and female (lineal) descendants and (lateral) siblings are built from the same two roots, differentiated only grammatically by the feminine gender ending -t (translated literally, the Egyptian word for “daughter” is “female son,” and for “sister,” “female brother”). In addition to these six basic terms, there were four more terms for relations by marriage (affinals): šm and šm.t, “parents-in-law” (and, reciprocally, son/daughter-in-law?); ḥm.t, “wife, woman”; and hʒjj, “husband, man.” These terms were used to describe the basic relationships, built around the individual's “family of orientation” in which he or she was born, and the “family of procreation,” which is established when an individual marries.

Use of the Kinship Terms and System.

There were two ways to describe further degrees of relationship. The first involved adding the basic terms to compound and descriptive kinship terms. By this means, even the most remote degrees of relationship could be described precisely from the point of view of an individual (usually labeled “Ego” in kinship charts drawn by anthropologists). For example, zʒ sn.t=f means “son of his (Ego's) sister,” equal to the Western system's “nephew”; zʒ nj sn.t nj.t mwt nj.t mwt=f means “son of the sister of the mother of Ego's mother,” or “son of his mother's aunt”; and zʒ.t nj.t sn.t nj.t ḥm.t=f means “daughter of Ego's wife's sister.” This is an excellent way to speak referentially about kin relations, but it seems rather impractical for addressing a relative.

The second way to describe degrees of kinship was to use the six basic terms with extended meanings. Scholars have detected the range of these extended meanings by checking ancient Egyptian genealogies on more than two thousand Middle Kingdom stelae. If, for example, a woman is labeled “daughter” by a man (Ego) while her mother's name is different from the name of Ego's wife but is exactly the name of another daughter (whose mother is Ego's wife!), this may be taken as proof that zʒ.t “daughter” could also be used for the relationship of “daughter's daughter,” that is, “granddaughter.”

Accordingly, the extended meanings of basic kinship terms can be established as follows:

  • mwt = mother, grandmother (etc.), mother-in-law
  • jt = father, grandfather (etc.), father-in-law
  • = son, grandson, great-grandson (etc.), son-in-law
  • zʒ.t = daughter, granddaughter (etc.), daughter-in-law
  • sn = brother, uncle (father's/mother's brother), cousin (father's/mother's brother's/sister's son), nephew (brother's/sister's son), brother-in-law
  • sn.t = sister, aunt (father's/mother's sister), cousin (father's/mother's brother's/sister's daughter), niece (brother's/sister's daughter), sister-in-law

The patterns are quite simple and clear: lineal ascendants can be called “father” and “mother” like parents, and lineal descendents could be designated like children. Collateral relatives in descending or ascending generations (children of siblings, siblings of parents, children of parents' siblings, siblings of the wife, and consorts of the siblings) are designated like siblings. The term sn/sn.t is a classificatory term and polysemic by extension (like “uncle” and “aunt” in English), designating siblings (and their children), uncles/aunts, and cousins. But unlike “Hawaiian” (classificatory) systems of kinship, which generally tend to merge relations on the same generational level (father=uncle, brother=cousin), the Egyptian system clearly separates lineal and collateral relatives in ascending and descending generations. Accordingly, the Egyptian terminology belongs to the same group of descriptive kinship systems as European systems. All degrees of relation are named bilaterally without differentiating the father's or mother's side; moreover there existed kin groups on one's father's and one's mother's side in regard to whom one had certain rules of behavior, rights, and obligations. The individual was a member of an extended family and a specific kindred via patrilineal and matrilineal lines. In ethnographic terms, the ancient Egyptians had a bilateral cognatic kinship system.

The elementary kinship terms were used alone and in compounds from the end of the Old Kingdom, and the origins of the system are lost in the mists of history. There is no sign of a change in terminology from the Old to the Middle Kingdom, and the system continued into the New Kingdom. The main new feature, from the mid-eighteenth dynasty, was the extension of the designation sn/sn.t “brother/sister” to married couples, perhaps echoing the rather frequent dynastic brother-sister marriages in the family of King Ahmose at the beginning of the New Kingdom. The marriage relationship thus turned into a fictive blood relationship, incorporating the consort into the group of sn(.t)-relatives.

In historical times there existed no lineages with unilineal descent, or clans in the narrow sense of the term (and of course no tribes), but only cognatic descent groups and extended families. There are no traces of matriarchy—not even signs of matrilineal descent—but there is ample evidence for patriarchy and patrilineal rules of inheritance from Old Kingdom times. A person could also inherit property from his mother's side, and he could have certain obligations to his mother's family.

Terms for Kin Groups and Social Groups Not Based on Kinship.

From the Old Kingdom there were extended family households with the family of the master of the house as the core, and including such relatives as aunts or children's families, as well as servants. But there were many more social groups recognized beyond the core and extended family. The individual was part of manifold interwoven hierarchical networks consisting of relatives, friends, superiors, and—at least for some—inferiors. Accordingly, there existed a number of designations for social groups, which are recorded since the First Intermediate Period (the Old Kingdom is not very informative on kinship matters).

Exclusively used for kin groupings is mhwt, meaning “sib, clan” in a broader sense—the “family” beyond the core family. These are groups of families and of relatives who are more or less closely tied through common male or female relatives or ancestors (e.g., the “Ahmose and Ahmose-Nofretari clan” at the end of the seventeenth dynasty and early in the eighteenth). Mhwt is first mentioned in Papyrus Brooklyn 351446 from the time of Amenemhat III and is common until Coptic times.

The famous letters written by Hekanakhte early in the twelfth dynasty mention the ẖrjw-people, “relatives (like aunts or uncles) living in an extended family household,” a term commonly used for a social kin-tied group below the level of mhwt. It is possible that in large elite house-holds the dependents were part of the ẖrjw. They were fed by the head of the family but were also liable for punishable offences he committed.

Hʒw are “relatives” in general, or kindred, and this term is rather frequent through all periods. The earliest records are in the tomb of Shemai and Idi at Kom el-Koffar near Coptos (eighth dynasty) and on a ninth dynasty stela (now in Kraków) of a man working at Edfu who speaks about his benefits for his hʒw-relatives in the time of famine. Hʒw-relatives could inherit a man's property and took part in his funeral ceremonies.

Not exclusively designating kin groups were the following five terms.

  • ʒbwt, “domestic group, extended family,” consists of relatives on the father's and the mother's side, parents, siblings, and children, perhaps excluding the wife and her relatives, but including servants; the term is recorded only in juridical documents of the late sixth dynasty and apparently went out of usage after that.
  • Whjjt, “village community,” or a group of families living at a certain place, is recorded from the beginning of the twelfth dynasty.
  • Hnw, “tenants, co-residents, adherents,” comprises all members of an extended household, regardless of kin ties. Autobiographical inscriptions state that a child and a widow have no hnw-people for their sustenance and protection, because they do not have a household of their own.
  • Wḥḏwt “herd, horde, troop, gang” is a social group bound together by a common place of work (e.g., the employees of the temple of Osiris at Abydos) or a common idea (e.g., the followers of the gods Horus or Seth).
  • H̱t, “group, corporation,” is a term with very similar meaning but much older. It is first used for the heavenly corporation (i.e., the stars) of gods, deceased humans—of which the King became a member (or head) after death, according to names of royal funeral endowments from the first and second dynasties, such as “Horus is the first of the corporation” (King Den) or “Horus is the star of the corporation” (King Enedjib). Later, the meaning of the term shifts to “generation,” that is, “group of the same age, sharing the same social rights and obligations.”

It should be emphasized that some of this last set of terms seem not to be very distinctive in meaning and merge into one another. This is due to the fact that we have no ancient definition of even one of the terms, and they seem to have been used rather loosely and not very systematically throughout Egyptian history.

Attitudes Concerning Relatives, Kinship, and Society.

A man's wife and her relatives were his affinals and a kind of foreign element in his household. The head of the family did not belong to the kin group of his wife and could not dispose of their property. Only the children linked father and mother by blood with each other's relatives, and the individual belonged to the group of relatives (the “house”) of his father and to that of his mother as well. There was a strong emphasis on patrilineal descent. Some professions tended to be transmitted from father to son—for example, priestly offices or handicrafts.

No rules for marriage preference can be found in the written record, nor is there evidence for special roles of cross-cousins or the mother's brother, as in many other societies. Yet autobiographical inscriptions throughout Egyptian history show the special care of a man for his parents and siblings, and stress the relationship between father and son.

Wedding ceremonies seem not to have been considered worth recording. We know that there was serial monogamy, and because of a high rate of female mortality in childbirth, some men seem to have had several spouses. Therefore, many men—from the twelfth dynasty to the early eighteenth, at least—preferred maternal filiation for the sake of differentiating among half-siblings and legitimizing their claims to inheritance from their mothers as well as fathers. The pharaohs—and, following their example, some members of the elite—were polygamists throughout Egyptian history. Men were seriously warned in literary teachings against adultery with married women. The crime was punished juridically with the death penalty for both the man and the woman, according to Papyrus Westcar and the Instructions of Anii; and it was prescribed ethically by society because it affected the rights and interests of the deceived husband. The woman's own rights were not considered, and rape seems not to have been a culpable crime. Women were revered as wives and mothers, but a young unmarried woman was metaphorically equated with a wild lioness who is dangerous to men and has to be tamed—psychological judgments typical of an androcentric society.

Ancient Egyptian society was not preferentially stratified by kinship from the Old Kingdom onward. Social hierarchy and order were determined by rank and status, not by kinship. Kinship played its role underneath a visible overlay of court etiquette and ideology, governmental acts, and administration. Only when royalty and the court center were in trouble, and in times of conflict such as the First and Second Intermediate and the Late period, did kinship and kin-groups move into the realm of such written records as autobiographies. The core family of a couple and their (unmarried) children seems to have played a main and independent role, thrusting kin-groups and relatives more and more into the background. In the autobiographies, kinfolk are always the object of a man's concern, not a group that could help him. But, of course, they played a role, and nepotism found its way into the record during all periods. The remembrance and funeral cult for ancestors typically seems not to have survived more than three or four generations, but for the New Kingdom we have some evidence that the family (of the elite at least) gathered at the family tomb on certain festival days to celebrate together with their ancestors.



  • Bell, Lanny. “Family Priorities and Social Status: Preliminary Remarks on the Ancient Egyptian Kinship System.” In Sixth International Congress of Egyptology. Abstracts of Papers, pp. 96–97. Turin, 1991. Only an abstract.
  • Bierbrier, Morris L. “Terms of Relationship at Deir el-Medina.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 66 (1980), 100–107.
  • Feucht, Erika. Das Kind im alten Ägypten. Die Stellung des Kindes in Familie and Gesellschaft nach altägyptischen Texten und Darstellungen. Frankfurt and New York, 1995.
  • Fitzenreiter, Martin. “Zum Ahnenkult in Ägypten.” In Göttinger Miszellen 143 (1994), 51–72. On ancient egyptian attitudes towards ancestors and the role of ancestor worship.
  • Fitzenreiter, Martin. “Totenverehrung und soziale Repräsentation im thebanischen Beamtengrab der 18. Dynastie.” In Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur 22 (1995), 95–130. On ancestor worship and the development of theban tombs.
  • Franke, Detlef. Altägyptische Verwandtschaftsbezeichnungen im Mittleren Reich. Hamburger Ägyptologische Studien, 3. Hamberg, 1983. The basic reference work on the ancient Egyptian terminology of kinship and kingroups was a Ph.D. thesis in German (see review by Gay Robins in Bibliotheca Orientalis 41 (1984), 602–606).
  • Franke, Detlef. “Verwandtschaftsbezeichnungen.” In Lexikon der Ägyptologie, 6: 1032–1036. More recent recapitulation, with new literature.
  • Robins, Gay. “The Relationships Specified by Egyptian Kinship Terms of the Middle and New Kingdoms.” Chronique d'Égypte 54.108 (1979), 197–217. Study of kinship terms, not reliable in every aspect concerning the extended meanings.
  • Whale, Sheila. The Family in the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt: A Study of Representation of the Family in Private Tombs. Australian Centre for Egyptology Studies, 1. Sydney, 1989.
  • Willems, Harco. “A Description of Egyptian Kinship Terminology of the Middle Kingdom c. 2000–1650 B.C.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-. Land- en Volkenkunde 139 (1983), 152–168. Good and reliable overview, in English.

Detlef Franke