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10 Professions Women Worked at in the Ancient World

Updated on May 16, 2015

Women labeling lager bottles in Cheshire, England

Women labeling lager bottles in Cheshire, England
Women labeling lager bottles in Cheshire, England | Source

Prostitution is the first profession (and it is the oldest profession known to the human race) that comes to mind when women and work in the ancient world are mentioned, but there were other jobs women could hold and make a living, regardless if she was married or not. In ancient Rome, women had the privilege of becoming doctors, a field which women could not easily join until the twentieth century. Likewise, women could become mathematicians in ancient Greece, compared to the relatively modern social belief that females can not be good in math. Outside of these now male-dominated professions, women in ancient times still held jobs traditional for their gender.

10. Brewer

Cuneiform tablets found in the region known as Sumeria in the Middle East mention the first brewers were women. Harvesting barley and baking it in small cakes or breads, women would allow it to ferment into a liquid drunk from a cup. The earliest brewery was discovered at Godin Tepe, a settlement in what is now the western region of Iran. Dating between 3500 to 3100 BC, this brewery contained all of the equipment in making beer: barley storage, ovens, and fermentation pots. Women did not just make the beer to be enjoyed by both men and women, however. They also owned and operated beer houses when one could walk in and enjoy a drink after a hard day at work in the fields. The price for a beer was an exchange of barley as a means of replenishing the enjoyed drink.

In Egypt, Tenenit was the goddess of beer, a drink which was often offered as a sacrifice to the deities, especially Hathor. There was even a Sumerian goddess who presided over the making of beer named Ninkasi. But it seems that having one goddess for beer was not enough, for they also had a goddess who presided over the enjoyment of beer, Siduri. Both deities appear in the “Epic of Gilgamesh”, establishing the field of beer-making as a female-dominated profession at the time.

9. Mathematician

Hypatia is not a name as well know as Euclid in the field of mathematics, but she was one of the first women mathematicians in ancient Greece. As the daughter of Theon, one of the last librarians at Alexandria, Egypt, Hypatia certainly had no trouble having access to the finest academic works available to the world at that time. In addition to being a mathematician, she also developed an interest in astronomy, which her father was also educated in, and philosophy. She lived around 370 C.E. in Alexandria, Egypt.

Theano, the wife of Pythagoras, took interest in her husband's work, as any good woman of the ancient world would, and so did his three daughters: Damo, Arignote, and Myia. By 500 B.C., it was not just Pythagoras' family who took the Greek world by storm with women mathematicians: soon there were more female students of math and philosophy who used their talents to teach math to other women. Some of the other women in math include: Periktione, Aesara of Lucania, Kleaechma, and Vavelycha of Argos.

8. Writer

Prior to the invention of paper and the Gutenberg Press, texts were inscribed on clay tablets or papyrus leaves. Sumerian is considered to be the oldest written language in the world, using a cuneiform alphabet. Dating back to the 31st century B.C., Sumerian evolved throughout the next fifteen centuries, remaining a language used primarily by the nobility, the only educated class of Mesopotamia. Women who were of noble lineage had an advantage of being educated, able to read, write letters, and inscribe documents. It was not just Mesopotamia where noble women had the privilege of learning to read and write, for the practice soon spread to Egypt, then throughout the Greek and Roman world.

It was not unusual for a princess had a private tutor, such as Enheduanna, the daughter of the Sumerian King Sargon. She composed several hymns to Inanna, goddess of the underworld when she lived circa 2300 B.C. Sappho was probably the best-known writer and poet, her work being homoerotic in nature. Sulpicia I was a Roman poet who lived around 20 B.C. She wrote six elegies that were sponsored by her mother's brother, Marcus Valerius Messalla. Some of the written works of these women survive today and demonstrate not just the level of education they attained, but also their creativity and devotion to the commonly held religious beliefs of the ancient world.

7. Purple Trader

The purple dye made from the snails of the murex seashell was highly prized in the ancient world. Commonly known as Tyrian purple due to its city of origin, Tyre in modern day Lebanon, the Phoenicians started manufacturing it around 1400 B.C. The color produced from the murex shells was more garnet-purple than a blue-purple. The purple dye was highly in demand by members of the nobility, who were the only ones who could afford it.

Lydia of Thyatira, a woman mentioned in the New Testament, sold purple dyed cloth for a living and made good money at it. She was known for her devotion to God and used her wealth and influence to gain more converts to the new religion of Christianity. Lydia was probably not the only female seller of purple fabric in ancient Greece, for working in fabric was considered common for women of that time period.

6. Doctor

There is evidence that female doctors existed in ancient Egypt during the Old Kingdom as well as ancient Greece and Rome. There were no laws prohibiting women from becoming doctors, and as early as the 4th century B.C, Greek and Roman women who could afford it entered medical schools in the ancient world. Women doctors used and wrote down healing recipes in the ancient world. Herbs were the main source of healing, and could be used as a tea for internal healing, or combined with animal fats for external applications.

One of the first women pathologists who wrote anything down and remained preserved throughout the centuries is Metrodora. A significant portion of her writing is devoted to female conditions, which she traces directly to the womb. A woman by the name of Domnina was a gynecologist as well as general physician. Pantheia of Pergamum was married to a doctor, but she seemed to have her own practice as well. Julia Saturnina was Roman doctor born at Merida Badijoz in modern day Spain during the first century C.E. and specialized in obstretics.

5. Dancer

The history of dance dates back to prehistoric times, when both men and women would take part in ritual dances. Ancient Egypt provides the earliest records of women dancing for entertainment, particularly in troupes. These troupes were called 'khener', and could be rented to provide entertainment for royalty in addition to temple dances. Tombs and other ancient buildings discovered in Egypt depict colorful paintings of women dancers, such as the Tomb of Nebamun which is dated circa 1400 B.C. Egypt was not the only region where women dancers were found. By the 6th and 5th centuries B.C., Greece had its share of women dancers, often depicted in art as they were in Egypt.

Women dancers in Egypt wore colorful costumes, complete with jewelry bearing tiny bells or coins which clinked together as the body moved. Considered to be a precursor to belly dancing, this form of dancing became very popular and was soon imitated throughout the Middle East. The dancers would often work in coffeehouses and restaurants to provide entertainment for men.

4. Midwife

There was no shortage of a demand for midwives in the ancient world. Midwifery was not confined to just one region of the ancient world, but rather spread throughout the globe at the time, whether it was Greece, Celtic Britain, or Asia. Women were trained to be midwives from a family member who was a practicing midwife, or possibly a close neighbor who worked in the field. Female doctors also acted as midwives many times, and accounts of midwiving occur in the writings of Pliny the Elder, Soranus, Celsus and Galen.

Natural methods and folk medicine were used to help ease labor pains as well as the actual birth of babies. Many unusual remedies were used, such as the administration of goose semen mixed with water and drunk by the mother-to-be. Instead of lying down to give birth, there is evidence that women gave birth while kneeling or sitting on another woman's lap. Birthing stools were often used, which were made of wood, and stout in size. It was not until the Middle Ages when midwifing practices were made illegal by the Roman Catholic Church, which at the time resulted in women being persecuted on witchcraft charges.

3. Priestess

With the pantheons of gods and goddesses of ancient lands, there were as many priestesses as there were priests. Priestesess possessed a substantial amount of power and had more social visibility than women of wealth and seclusion. Isis, Hathor, Athena, Demeter, and many other goddesses had women conducting rituals and ceremonies and placing offerings of food and drink upon the sacred altars. Gods like Apollo has priestesses, too, like the Pythia who spoke oracles.

Like priests, women who held the title of priestess also performed weddings, funerals, and spiritual healings. To become a priestess, a woman had to dedicate herself to her beliefs and start at the very bottom of temple duties. She had to rise through the ranks before she could hold the title of priestess, which meant strict self-discipline, and very limited time with family and friends. Being a priestess was a great honor and like any other career, was a calling meant to be fulfilled.

2. Astronomer

Hypatia the mathematician was also an astronomer, born during the late fourth century around 390 C.E. Her father saw to it that she was well educated in math, science, the arts, and philosophy. Having never married nor had children, Hypatia had plenty of time to indulge in intellectual pursuits, teaching both boys and girls the subjects she was familiar with. Aglaonike was another female astronomer, born in Thessaly around the second century B.C. Plutarch wrote about her, as did Apollonius of Rhodes. Aglaonike was able to accurately predict the cycles of the moon's phases, and taught what she knew about astronomy to other women, who were commonly referred to as “witches of Thessaly.”

It seemed natural for women to be knowledgable about the phases of the moon and how it syncs with women's monthly cycles, but such information disturbed the Greek male scientists, perhaps because they considered it to be threatening to their career.

1. Weaver

The first unearthed fabric dates back to 8000 B.C.E. when a burial pouch made of linen and wool was discovered in Phrygia, Turkey. Fabrics dating to this very early period were usually woven by hand, since the first weaving loom was not invented until around 4500 B.C.E. The plant or wool fibers would be washed, spun, and carded for weaving. Both Isis and Nephthys were considered the goddesses of weaving in ancient Egypt, while in Greece, Athena ruled over the activity of fabric making.

Fabrics made of wool, linen, and later on, cotton were woven by women. Many times the flax plants which produced linen, and cotton plants, were also tended to and harvested by women as well as men in ancient Egypt. Women dyed the fabric in vibrant colors, including the royal purple which was a much sought-after color by royalty. Once the fabric was made, it was then sold at the market, ready to be transformed into garments. It was not uncommon for women to sell the fabric to female customers, although there were also men who took part in the fabric selling process.

Women in History: Women of the Middle Ages


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