Renata Schiavo, Leiden University

Ghosts and ancestors in a gender perspective

In an impressive number of apotropaic documents, male and female deceased are often associated. In fact, they are listed in pairs (Ӡḫ/Ӡḫ.t, mwt/mwt.t, etc.) in order to strike as many preternatural enemies as possible. Thus, at first sight, it could seem that a distinction based on gender did not play an active role in religious beliefs related to ghosts and ancestors. However, an in-depth analysis of the so-called letters to the dead could highlight some interesting aspects. These peculiar documents were mainly written to obtain the help of the ancestors in order to solve existential crises. However, a restricted number of letters was written to appease the anger of malevolent spirits, and it is surely significant that in most cases this latter type of document was sent to female deceased. The transformation of an ancestor into a malevolent spirit could be related to several causes, predominantly the transgression of a complex pact of mutual aid between the living and the dead. For the “male-sphere”, the rules of this alliance were strongly influenced by a specific code of conduct with clear connections with the Loyalist Instructions, whereas, for the relationship between the living and the female deceased other factors, which played a relevant role, may be recognized. Most importantly, the connection of women within the sphere of procreation and her social role as wife and mother.

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