Hittite Women as Reflected in the Laws of Marriage, Adultery and Rape

Trojan Women: Women’s Roles in Ancient Anatolia and Mycenaean Greece Part IV

You may wish to read the introduction of this series Trojan Women: Women’s Roles in Ancient Anatolia and Mycenaean Greece or Part I What Hittite and Mycenaean Women “Did” or Part II A Woman’s View From the Top: Hittite and Mycenaean Queens or Part III The Hittite Hasawa: Priestess, Therapist, Healer, Diviner, and Midwife

image Man and Woman from an exhibit in Istanbul, prehistoric statuettes, photo by Dick Osseman

Prehistoric statuettes, of man and woman, Istanbul, photo D. Osseman

The Hittite law codes offer more protection for a woman than, if I’m remembering correctly, Victorian England, in the sense that a Hittite woman could both initiate a divorce and keep her inheritance and half her husband’s estate if she divorced. On the other hand, the expressions used in Hittite for marriage—there is no one abstract word for “to marry”—reflect the control men exercised over women, “to take a wife” “to take as his own wife” “to make her your wife.” (Imparati, 572) A woman is never described as “taking a husband.” The laws of adultery and rape present a similarly mixed bag.

Generally, a woman’s marriage was arranged by her parents. The woman’s own agreement to the marriage does not seem to have been required. (Imparati, 572-573) Early on in a girl’s life she might be promised to a particular boy/man. From this stage of “promise,” she was “bound” in the second stage of marriage by the first of two financial transactions. Her groom’s family paid a substantial sum (more or less, depending on the family’s wealth) in the form of a kušata or “bride price”. Then to seal the marriage contract, a woman brought to the deal an iwaru, which literally means “gift” and scholars translate as “dowry.” In this practice the Hittites acted as did other Near Eastern cultures. Unfortunately, no marriage contracts have surfaced yet in Hittite archaeology so we do not know exactly what kinds of arrangements they specified, although we know they must have existed and would had various reciprocal obligations between spouses and have been validated by witnesses and a seal. (Imparati, 573)

image Necklace with gold and cornelian beads Cypriot with Mycenaean influence, ca. 1400-1200 BC in the British Museum

Necklace with gold and cornelian beads Cypriot with Mycenaean influence, ca. 1400-1200 BC in the British Museum


A woman usually went to live in her husband’s house, although Hittite law provides for a kind of adoption of the husband into the wife’s family when his family was too poor to provide a kušata. Since the children of a free man were free, a wealthy slave (yes they did exist a great deal in the ancient world) could thus acquire freedom for his grandchildren through such an adoption/marriage.

image Hittite King and Queen making an offering to the Stormgod photo by Dick Osseman

Hittite King & Queen making offering to Stormgod, photo D. Osseman

Monogamy appears to have been far and away the most common state of marriage. The only regularly polygamous marriages we hear about are in the case of the Hittite king. His first wife had a special status with the others as a species of concubine. Since the Hittite king required prodigious numbers of offspring, both male and female, to govern and militarily protect the empire, as well as to form alliances with other kingdoms, his polygamous marriage status appears to have been a special case for the most part. For those of you who remember that in the Iliad, Priam, the King of Troy, had fifty sons and fifty daughters, this will sound vaguely familiar. In the Iliad, Priam also seems to have only one queen, Hecuba, and she certainly didn’t give birth to one hundred children, so this kind of acceptance of concubine’s children as members of the royal family seems to be reflected in the epic tradition.

Stone relief of children playing (Carcemish 8th cent BC), photo by Dick Osseman

Stone relief of children playing (Carcemish 8th cent BC), photo by Dick Osseman

Hittites adopted a “liberal and pragmatic approach to the institution of marriage” (Bryce, 119). “Divorce was apparently not uncommon, and divorce proceedings could as easily be initiated by a woman as by a man” (Bryce, 119). “It seems that in a divorce between persons of equal status, the couple’s assets were generally divided equally and all the children but one remained with the mother; if the wife was of lesser social status [slave/free], the husband retained the custody of all but one of the couple’s children” (Collins, 24). In addition to the equitable division of assets, the wife had another sizable financial advantage in the case of divorce: She retained both the kušata and the iwaru. Her dowry represented her share of her father’s estate and remained her property throughout her married life and divorce. While married, her husband acted as custodian of the dowry, but it only became his if she died before him, and in this case, it appears it passed to the children, as in Babylonian law. (Bryce, 130)

There were also provisions that a widow be adequately provided for after her husband’s death. Among other things, she had the legal right to disinherit her sons if they failed to take care of her. (Bryce, 132)

There are two key law codes to consider regarding rape and adultery, which in the Hittite mind, appear to be closely tied ideas. Here are the relevant codes:

Clause 197 “The Laws”
If a man seizes a woman in the mountains (and rapes her), the man is guilty and shall die, but if he seizes her in her house, the woman is guilty and shall die. If the woman’s husband catches them (in the act) and kills them, he has committed no offence.

image Reconstructed walls of Hittite palace at Hattusa © Rita1234 Wikimedia Commons

Reconstructed walls of Hittite palace at Hattusa

Clause 198 “The Laws”
If he (the husband) brings them to the palace gate [the royal court] and says: “My wife shall not die,” he can spare his wife’s life, but must also spare the lover. Then he may veil her [his wife]. But if he says, “Both of you shall die”, and they “roll the wheel”. The king may have them both killed or he may spare them.
(Hughes, 190)

In Clause 197, if the sexual encounter occurs in an isolated place where the woman could not call out for help, it is assumed that it is rape and the man is guilty and the penalty is death (Imparati, 574). If, on the other hand, the sexual encounter occurs in the woman’s house (it is probably good not to take these exemplar places too literally), then the law assumes she was committing adultery, not being raped, and for that, she pays with her life.

image The Lion Gate of Hittite palace at Hattusa © 2001 User:China_Crisis Wikimedia Commons

The Lion Gate of Hittite palace at Hattusa

The husband, if he catches a man with his wife, is justified under Hittite law in killing them, but only in the heat of the moment. Clause 198 indicates that if he stops to think about it, he must bring the two before the king for the court’s decision. Interestingly, he cannot request that only one of the adulterers be killed. It’s an all or nothing decision. The king can override the angry husband’s decision and spare both.

As I said, Hittite law is a mixed bag as far as women’s rights. Certainly rapists paid a high penalty for their crime, but we cringe at the idea of defining rape by location. In addition, a married man could have sex with another woman without it being counted as adultery as long as the woman was not married. That is, only a woman was bound in marriage to the one sexual partner. Clearly the Hittites operated under a “double standard” like so many other cultures through time.

Bibliography for this article:

book cover Trevor Bryce Life and Society in the Hittite World
Bryce, Trevor. Life and Society in the Hittite World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.


Collins, Billie Jean. The Hittites and Their World. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007


bookcover image Helen of Troy Bettany Hughes

Hughes, Bettany. Helen of Troy. New York: Knopf, 2005.
Imparati, Fiorella. “Private Life Among the Hittites.” In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, edited by J.M. Sasson, K. Rubison, J. Baines, 571-585. New York: Scribner’s, 1995.


Hittite Women as Reflected in the Laws of Marriage, Adultery and Rape — 15 Comments

  1. These laws about rape are very similar to the ones in Deuteronomy 22, which also had the provisions for the place, and whether the woman could have cried out or not. But like them, it was clear that the laws had been written by men.

    And isn’t this, like the provision for polygamy, all about making sure who the father of the child is?

    And gosh, isn’t this battle over women’s bodies still going on–how many millennia later? Thanks for another great installment!

    • Good observations! The Biblical laws frequently reflect their Near Eastern milieu. I think people sometimes think of the Bible as somehow representing something new and separate in human history when it in fact is very much part of the world out of which it arose–same religious practices, same laws and customs, etc. A good reminder whenever a person is feeling holier than someone else for any reason! I’m not sure polygamy was about making sure who the father was so much as making sure the diplomatic corps, who all had to come from the royal loins so to speak, was large enough. But yes, the battle over women’s bodies carries on. Kind of the core issue in some ways of the Iliad–who gets possession of the girl.

  2. I couldn’t help but compare the image of the king and queen to another image of a royal couple from Mexico in which the Mayan, Lady Xoc, is shown in a blood letting ceremony – very similar profiles. Thanks for another interesting article.

  3. I couldn’t help but compare the image of the king and queen to one of another royal couple from Mexico – Queen Xoc and her King with the Jaguar shield – very similar profiles.

  4. Dear Judith your text on the Hittites are very interesting. I would like to know if a woman became a young widow during those days, do they marry their brother in law?

  5. Dear Muntoh, You are asking a very interesting question. In the Hebrew tradition of the Middle East this is referred to as the Levirate law, as I recall. There are a few indications in the Hittite code that marriage to brothers-in-law was practiced at least sometimes, but they are not completely clear references and we don’t know for sure. This sort of marriage is an interesting side effect of trying to keep the inheritance and children within the male line. It also serves to provide protection for the widow. It seems such a bizarre notion to us, but I think much less so to the ancient world. There’s no indication in the Hittite records of anyone being forced into such marriages, but then the records (at least what I remember of them off the top of my head–I’m away from my library at the moment and can’t do a quick check) are quite scant and ambiguous.

  6. I have found your site (blessed serendipity!) and it is really interesting. If you could read in Spanish (it is not a strange language in Arizona and, well, now we have a lot of web translators), you can find some interesting data about Hittite women and Puduhepa in Marta Ortega’s publications (I think she is the only Spanish researcher on this subjects):

    – M. Ortega. El poder de las mujeres en la realeza hitita en el imperio nuevo: Puduhepa. Barcelona: Mizar, 2009. VI, 104 p. http://www.egiptologia.com/mizar/index.php?route=product/manufacturer&manufacturer_id=242

    – M. Ortega. “Delitos relacionados con la función procreadora femenina en las leyes del Próximo Oriente Antiguo”, en: Violencia deliberada: las raíces de la violencia patriarcal, 2007. p. 71-88 (you can read it in Google books: http://books.google.es/books?hl=es&id=omk9mOub1cEC&q=ortega#v=onepage&q=delitos%20relacionados%20con%20la%20funci%C3%B3n&f=false
    – M. Ortega. “El trabajo femenino en el Próximo Oriente Antiguo del II-I milenios a.C.”. Arenal: revista de historia de las mujeres, 2009. p. 307-330. http://www.ugr.es/~arenal/articulo.php?id=140

  7. I appreciate the links to Marta Ortega’s books. I am writing a mystery about Puduhepa and am always eager to find new sources of scholarly information. Fortunately, my writing critique partner and all around best buddy is fluent in Spanish. She’s been in love with Puduhepa for a while, so I’m sure she can help me.

  8. Pingback: Vayeitzei – 5774 - The Weekly Portion

  9. Lovely article and great photos in pbase as well. Although I live in Ankara I had no chance to see Hittites civilization materials. I personally intend to draw a correlation between modern anatolian alevis and ancient anatolian hittites. And “Ankara june 2011 6950.jpg” tells thousands of comman cultural senses to me as a Turkish.

  10. Ms. Starkston,

    I’ve amassed some materials that speak to the issue of how old ANE peoples thought a girl must be at minimum, to become married and engage in marital relations. I was wondering whether you knew of any Hittite laws or customs that might show any such minimum age or not. Apparently, Bryce, 2002, interprets the silence about homosexuality in Hittite law, as indicating that it was generally allowed. So I have to wonder whether it is a legitimate possibility that the reason the Mosaic law never gives this minimum age is because the Hebrews did not believe sex within adult-child marriages was “sin”, even if they may have thought it “taboo”.

    • I don’t remember any mention of minimum age for marriage in Hittite texts. It doesn’t sound like a concern they include in their law codes, ages in general. I assume you’ve combed carefully through Hittite Laws. The best source I know of is The Laws of the Hittites A Critical Edition Harry Hoffner Jr. Brill 1997
      Documenta et Monumenta Orientis Antiqui (DMOA) Studies in Near Eastern Archaeology and Civilisation Volume XXIII

  11. Thanks for the reply. How would you interpret the silence of ANE texts on the subject of minimum age for girls to be married?

    Does it more imply that they had a set age so definite that nobody thought to mention it?

    Or does it imply that they had no definite minimum age of consent to mention?

    I was surprised to find that the conservative 19th century Christian scholars Keil & Delitzsch admit that 2nd Kings 16 says Ahaz was 11 years old when he fathered Hezekiah, then they cite contemporary evidence that girls as young as 8 could be married in that culture. Apparently, in that ancient Semitic culture, they did not hold the same view of children that we do today:

    “2 Kings 16:1–4. On the time mentioned, “in the seventeenth year of Pekah Ahaz became king” see at 2 Kings 15:32. The datum “twenty years old” is a striking one, even if we compare with it 2 Kings 18:2. As Ahaz reigned only sixteen years, and at his death his son Hezekiah became king at the age of twenty-five years (2 Kings 18:2), Ahaz must have begotten him in the eleventh year of his age. It is true that in southern lands this is neither impossible nor unknown,33 but in the case of the kings of Judah it would be without analogy. The reading found in the LXX, Syr., and Arab. at 2 Chron. 28:1, and also in certain codd., viz., five and twenty instead of twenty, may therefore be a preferable one. According to this, Hezekiah, like Ahaz, was born in his father’s sixteenth year.
    ——33 In the East they marry girls of nine or ten years of age to boys of twelve or thirteen (Volney, Reise, ii. p. 360). Among the Indians husbands of ten years of age and wives of eight are mentioned (Thevenot, Reisen, iii. pp. 100 and 165). In Abyssinia boys of twelve and even ten years old marry (Rüppell, Abessynien, ii. p. 59). Among the Jews in Tiberias, mothers of eleven years of age and fathers of thirteen are not uncommon (Burckh. Syrien, p. 570); and Lynch saw a wife there, who to all appearance was a mere child about ten years of age, who had been married two years already. In the epist. ad N. Carbonelli, from Hieronymi epist. ad Vitalem, 132, and in an ancient glossa, Bochart has also cited examples of one boy of ten years and another of nine, qui nutricem suam gravidavit, together with several other cases of a similar kind from later writers. Cf. Bocharti Opp. i. (Geogr. sacr.) p. 920, ed. Lugd. 1692.
    Keil, C. F., & Delitzsch, F. (2002). Commentary on the Old Testament. (Vol. 3, Page 283-284). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.

    • I have no expertise on this issue that would resolve it. As to all these conclusions about ages from Biblical sources or any other ancient source, that all presumes everyone is being accurate and precise with years, which in my experience isn’t the case. I think you may have to allow for a great deal more fluidity of interpretation that you seem to want. Clearly our modern notions of childhood are radically different than the ancient world’s, but I don’t think anyone in the ancient world kept track of “dates” with enough precision to write laws based on ages or dates. But that’s just a rough sense that I have. Sometimes the questions we want to ask of ancient sources simply aren’t questions/information that would occur in their heads, or hence in their writings.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *