Ancient History & Civilisation





Someone, I think it was Dr. Margaret Murray, once said that a country’s state of civilization could be judged by the position of its women. The higher the culture, the more honored were its female members.

Much as I would like to support this admirable idea, I am afraid that it falls apart at the first critical prod. To take a single example: the outburst of creative genius that took place in Periclean Athens puts that culture high up on any list of great civilizations, and in no ancient culture, perhaps, have women been held so cheap as they were in the age of Sophocles, Socrates, and Phidias. The rule was not even “Kinder, Küchen, und Kirche,” for women were not encouraged to hang around the temples.

If you look up “Women of Ancient Egypt” in any bibliography, you will find hundreds of articles, dozens of books and dissertations, and at least two exhibition catalog—all of them dated within the past forty years. Admittedly my memory isn’t what it once was, but I cannot recall a single book devoted to the subject before 1960. What prompted this sudden outburst of interest? The women’s movement; not only the insistence on curricula that focused on female activities and accomplishments, but the increasing number of women professors and museum curators.

Some people feel that a separate field of women’s studies is unfair. There isn’t any corresponding field of men’s studies, is there?

No, there isn’t, and for a very good reason. Scholarly disciplines and studies have always focused on the accomplishments of men. This was certainly true of the early days of Egyptology. The assumption, not surprising in male Victorian scholars, that ancient Egyptian women were completely illiterate, subservient, and powerless (except for a few bizarre and perverse females like Hatshepsut) has been challenged and found to be inaccurate.

Naturally, there is a great deal of disagreement even among women scholars about the position of women in ancient Egypt. Some insist that women’s roles were limited; others point out the relative freedom they enjoyed. In a way this is like saying a glass is half empty or half full. I belong to the half-full school. Compared to the women of classical Greece or of Victorian En gland, Egyptian females weren’t bad off.

Admittedly, their career opportunities were limited. We know which sex did what from several sources: tomb inscriptions that mention the occupation of the owner, the charming servant statues that show people engaged in various jobs around the estate, and the reliefs and paintings that do the same. None of them depict women painting tombs or making furniture or engaging in any of the other crafts; there were even professional male bakers and brewers, though it’s a safe assumption that lower-class women performed these chores for their own families.

The scribal professions required literacy, and it is unlikely that many women learned to read or write. I believe some of them did, not in school, but from private tutors or family members. Letters from women may have been dictated to professional scribes, but we have two “scribal palettes” that belonged to females. They were princesses, and Amarna princessess at that, but I can think of no reason why the girls would own such a thing unless they knew how to use it.

A few occupations seem to have been restricted to women. The professional mourners who followed the mummy to the tomb, weeping long strings of tears and tearing their garments, were female, and in some cases they were accompanied by a little girl apprentice, carrying on as dramatically as her elders. For obvious reasons, the occupation of wet nurse was also strictly female. It could be a position of some importance if the infant happened to be royal, and it rated a special title. Whether such nurses were resorted to only in cases of the mother’s death or inability to supply infant nourishment, or whether upper-class women preferred not to nurse their own children, we don’t know.

Women were also weavers, supplying their own house holds and entitled to use the excess fabric for purposes of barter. Each temple had its corps of women attendants. The commonest title of the temple women was “Singer” they formed a choir of musicians and dancers, who performed for the god’s amusement.

Female singers, dancers, and musicians are depicted entertaining guests at private banquets. The girls—most of whom were young and pretty—may not have been professionals who worked for pay; they may have been house hold servants or slaves. In one story, however, a group of itinerant female musicians is mentioned in such a way as to suggest that they were familiar figures.

There are some examples of women holding high position. We know of female treasurers and officials, and even a vizier—the highest position under the king. One woman held the fascinating title of “Overseer of Doctors.” Were these women doctors? Was she a practicing physician? Nobody knows for sure. The rarity of such titles indicates that they were exceptions to the general rule of male domination of the professions and crafts, but that they occurred at all is another “half-full” sign. How many women presidents of the United States have there been?

Sometimes a woman might serve as her husband’s surrogate when he was absent, and I feel quite certain that a lady of strong character could extend her influence over her husband’s business. But, for the most part, woman’s place was in the home.

If you are a man of standing, you should establish your house hold and love your wife at home, as is proper. Fill her belly and clothe her back; ointment is the prescription for her body. Make her heart glad as long as you live—she is a profitable field for her lord. You should not judge her, or let her gain control…. Let her heart be soothed through what may accrue to you; it means keeping her long in your house.

That’s the way to treat a wife, according to Ptahhotep, the Old Kingdom sage who left a book of advice for posterity. We can hardly picture him offering to wade across a river filled with crocodiles for his lady’s sake, or sinking into a decline when she went to spend a week with her parents. Ptahhotep wrote during the Old Kingdom, and the love songs come from a period a thousand years later, but I suspect that the difference in tone is not the result of cultural change but of the change from romantic love to practical marriage. The words of a later sage, more nearly contemporary with the love songs, are more sentimental, but no more romantic:

When you are a young man and take yourself a wife and are-settled in your house, remember how your mother gave birth to you, and all her raising of you besides. Do not let her blame you, so that she lifts her hands to god and he hears her lamentations…. Do not supervise your wife in her house if you know that she is capable; don’t say to her, “Where is it? Get it for us!” when she has [already] put it in the [most] useful place. Watch and be silent, so that you may recognize her talents.

The last sentences imply a high degree of sensitivity on the wise old gentleman’s part; few men realize how annoying it is to be “heckled” about details of house hold management!

If there is no romance in Ptahhotep, there is another element which is very pleasant. Although the husband should be the master, his supremacy should be established by fairness and consideration, not by brute force. One has the feeling that the sage would have considered wife-beating too crude even to mention, although it may have occurred. There is a suavity and subtlety about many aspects of Egyptian culture, including the relations between man and wife—not the tortuous subtlety which Westerners consider typical of the Near East, but sophistication, even refinement.

Victorian scholars, who began the modern study of Egyptology, often read their own prejudices into the interpretation of those customs. Polygamy, concubinage, and harems were favorite topics; the Victorians, whose private activities weren’t nearly as proper as their public images, enjoyed feeling morally superior to the heathen savages who practiced these perversions, even as they took a prurient interest in discussing them. More recent scholarship has shed a different light on these customs.

It seems likely that polygamy was not as common as was once believed. A man might have several wives, but did he have them serially or simultaneously? Death or divorce could open up the position to another lady. The word that is usually translated as “concubine” may mean something quite different from our modern notion of that term. Here again the evidence is confusing because the Egyptians didn’t bother to explain what they meant.

The word “hemet” means wife. So, at some periods, did the word “senet,” which also means sister. We think that the designation of the first or chief wife was “lady (or mistress) of the house.” (In the days of door-to-door salesmen, they used to inquire after me with that title, and I was always tempted to greet one of them in Egyptian.) But the words translated as “wife” and “concubine” are occasionally used interchangeably, so what does that mean? Most probably that the “concubine” wasn’t a “love-slave,” but a woman who had status of some kind.

As for “harem,” it should probably be read as “women’s quarters.” There was no seclusion of the female, no veils, no eunuchs. Some houses didn’t have separate areas for women; some did; but the dwellers therein were free to come and go as they liked. Kings certainly did have multiple wives and large numbers of women hanging around the palace—palaces, rather, since a responsible monarch traveled a lot and he may have kept a separate entourage in various places.

We know very little about the ceremony of marriage, but most authorities agree that it was unimpressive, if indeed it existed. Evidently a man simply built a house and invited a woman to share it; when she moved in, the couple was considered to be married. Some sort of legal settlement may have been drawn up, but there are no traces of religious rites. Marriage was not for eternity. We cannot unequivocally state what the grounds for divorce might have been; by the Late Period, from which most of the documents relating to this subject come, simple incompatability might do the job. “If I repudiate you, if I take a dislike to you and want someone else….”

There was one serious crime against marriage—infidelity. As I mentioned earlier, the Egyptians seem to have been amiably broad-minded (or indifferent) about premarital sex, but several stories suggest that adultery, for the wife at least, was a dangerous game. There is one such story about a great magician and his faithless wife. The lady must have been sorely tempted to take chances with a man of her husband’s profession; of course, the seer found out what she was up to. Her lover was given to a crocodile that, presumably, did something unpleasant to him. By the king’s command, the wife was burned alive. In another story the erring wife—who was not guilty of actual adultery, but only of aspiring to it—was killed by her husband and thrown to the dogs.

The literature unfortunately gives us no examples of what happened to unfaithful husbands, but it is evident that promiscuity, before and after marriage, was frowned upon. We have already noted the punishment of the lover of the magician’s wife. The Wisdom Literature does not neglect the subject. Says Ptahhotep: “If you want to make friendship last, in a house to which you have access as son, brother, or friend…beware of approaching the women…. Do not do it…it really is an abomination.” A later sage, Ani, warns: “Be on guard against a woman from abroad, one who is not known in her town. Do not stare at her when she passes by; do not ‘know’ her—a deep water, whose windings one does not know, a woman who is far away from her husband…. It is a great crime, [deserving] of death.”

Even so, adultery was a private misdemeanor, not a state crime. Some marriage settlements deprive a woman of her property rights if she is caught carrying on with a man other than her husband, and there is a rather entertaining piece of advice in one of the so-called Wisdom Texts for a man who may be tempted to stray: “He who makes love to a married woman is killed on her doorstep” (presumably by the cuckolded husband). The sage does not recommend that the husband take this drastic revenge; instead, “if you find your wife with her lover, get yourself a bride to suit you.” So the horrendous fates may have been purely for literary effect.

The greatest complication about divorce, what ever the grounds, had to do with property, and it is in this area that the Egyptian woman was far ahead of her time. The marriage settlements that have survived indicate that she controlled her own possessions, those acquired by inheritance or by her own diligence, and that in the case of divorce she was entitled to a percentage of the assets that had been acquired by the couple. Divorce involved certain financial penalties, depending on which party inititated it. Happily married men might settle property on their wives, and women could pass their property on to anyone they liked. One irritated old lady disinherited several of her children because they hadn’t taken proper care of her.

The importance of a woman’s ability to own property can hardly be overstated. Financial independence is, and has always been, the foundation on which all other rights of women must be based, and it was a right not obtained by married women in En gland and America—those great democracies—until the late nineteenth century A.D.

One wonders how many happy, in de pen dent spinsters there were in ancient Egypt…. Well, probably not many. Marriage was the desired goal of both men and women, and usually a man and wife expected to live together in “the West” just as they lived together in life. Some of the tomb statues which show husband and wife seated side by side, facing eternity with smiling faces and arms embracing one another, are attractive testimonials to the fact that affection did not always end with death or marriage.

Women were equal to men in their chance of immortality too, and that was a very important “right” to an Egyptian. Like her husband and father, a woman could become an Osiris, receive offerings, and even furnish a tomb. Usually a wife shared her husband’s “House of Eternity,” but there are a number of tombs, not all of them royal, designed solely for women, and hundreds of women’s coffins, ushebtis, “Books of the Dead,” and other funerary equipment. Oddly enough, the husband almost never appears in his wife’s tomb, and in some male tombs the wife is replaced by the chap’s mother. It will not surprise you to hear that Egyptologists are still arguing about the reasons.

A woman gained additional prestige when she became a mother. Sons were supposed to honor and care for their mothers, and the tomb inscriptions of the late Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period, which listed the writer’s claims to virtue, commonly mentioned that he was loved by his mother. Strangely enough, none of these inscriptions mentions the wife. A man is praised and loved by his parents, children, and brothers and sisters, but never, so far as I know, by his wife. It is an unexpected omission, and one whose implications, if any, are difficult to explain.

We have seen what the rights of women were. What were their obligations? “To be a fertile field for their lords” for one thing—to present them with children, preferably sons. Although other duties are seldom specifically named, naturally a wife was expected to tend to her husband’s comfort, prepare his food, keep his house and clothing in order, and be a good mother to his children. If her husband was a farmer she helped in the fields; wives of officials and “businessmen” often managed their husbands’ affairs when the men had to leave home temporarily. In the humbler house holds women were kept busy grinding grain, baking bread and brewing beer, weaving and making clothing. However, nobody expected them to fix electrical appliances, unstop a drain, discuss politics, drive a car, or be an expert on dietetics, child psychology, interior decoration, bridge, and educational theory.

One of the truisms about ancient Egypt that everybody seems to believe is that brother-sister marriages were practiced. I am generally suspicious of truisms, and it was with great plea sure that I found that this one is indeed suspect. Some years ago the assumption was reexamined by Jaroslav imageerny; his name deserves mention not only because he was willing to challenge a long-held generalization, but because he had the patience to plow through hundreds of inscriptions looking for examples. The job was made even more difficult because of the Egyptians’ vagueness about relationships. The most misleading of their habits, which may have led to the formation of the brother-sister theory in the first place, was that they did not always use “sister” in its literal meaning. By the Eighteenth Dynasty, if not before, it had come to mean “wife” as well, and in the love poems it is a synonym for “beloved.” The only way we can be sure that man and wife are also brother and sister is when the parents of both are named. This ideal case does not occur very often. Still, imageerny found enough examples to make a good sampling, and the results were startling. His Middle Kingdom examples produced several possible cases of brother-sister marriage; but one of these depends on the assumption that “sister” was not used to mean “wife” before the Eighteenth Dynasty. The other cases are those of a man and wife who had mothers with the same name—a name which was very common during the period. imageerny found no cases of brother-sister marriage in the Eighteenth Dynasty. We cannot conclude from this that they did not occur, since we do not have enough data to check every known Egyptian marriage. But if marriages between siblings were legal, they were very uncommon—which is in direct opposition to the popular theory.

Commoners, then, usually didn’t marry their sisters. Kings certainly did—not always, but often. Why?


Another of those once-popular theories that is now discredited concerns the role of the queen in the inheritance of the throne. The traditional theory argued that the queen could not reign, but that the right to reign could only be obtained through marriage with an “heiress” princess.

You will still find this explanation repeated in some books written about Egypt. So wide was its acceptance that it is almost impossible to find out how it ever began. Certainly by the 1890s, when Sir James Frazer was compiling The Golden Bough, he wrote that “Mr. William Petrie assured me that all Egyptologists accepted the doctrine of royal descent through the female.”

Sir James was interested because he and other anthropologists had just discovered the primitive matriarchy. The idea was that most, if not all, societies were originally ruled by women. The mother goddess, symbol of fertility, was the top deity, and the mother was the head of the family, possibly even of the tribe. All this happened in the dawn of history, before written records; by the time the great civilizations arose men had rebelled and taken over. But traces of the old order of things survived in religious practices, inheritance, kinship terms, and so on.

At first glance this theory seems reasonable. The physical relationship between mother and child is obvious, but the father’s role may be obscure. In the early part of the twentieth century A.D. there were tribes in Australia who did not know anything about the male role in conception. Babies were brought by spirits. Europeans found this naive doctrine highly amusing, and Frazer tells one pathetic story about an Australian whose wife had just borne a child after he had been away from home for a year. He couldn’t understand why the Europeans for whom he worked kept snickering.

In all fairness, we must admit that the paternal role in conception is not the sort of conclusion that leaps to mind on the basis of the evidence. Some married women never conceive, and some girls who deny all contact with men do. The time between conception and parturition is great; it is five months before the embryo shows signs of life, and “quickening” might be the first indication a neolithic female had of her pregnancy. There would be no reason to connect conception with intercourse any more than with eating, sleeping, or planting taro; and, in fact, it is a wonder that so many people did eventually figure out the connection, without any knowledge of the physiological processes involved. We need not strain our credulity too much to admit that possibly primitive man did not know who his father was.

But it is a long jump from such an admission—which is not based on any concrete evidence from prehistoric cultures—to a conclusion that such cultures were matriarchies. Even if a man only knew his mother, he would not necessarily want to make her chief. Physical and political power do not need to be related to genealogy.

The brutal truth is that men have always been stronger than women. In primitive times, before agriculture, men were the hunters, who produced the food on which the very existence of the family or tribe depended. Childbearing, in such cultures, was not an asset to a female, but a positive handicap. For several months each year she was slow on her feet, sluggish, and clumsy. The baby picked its own time to be born—as it still does—and this might be a very inconvenient time: on the march, during a war, or right in the middle of the harvest. Admitting that primitive women may have been tougher than their spoiled modern descendants and took little time out to bear the child, they had to take some time; we can fancy the skin-clad husband stamping up and down as the tribe gets farther ahead, looking impatiently at the sun moving up the sky and yelling to his mate to hurry up! Childbirth is also a perilous time. The mortality rate may not have been as high in Neanderthal times as it was in eighteenth-century Europe, when ignorant physicians brought the germs of puerperal fever into the wards from the dissecting room, but childbirth has always had risks, and in the days before antisepsis and surgery a lot of women died. I may be prejudiced, but it seems to me that a pregnant chief would not be an asset to any tribe, particularly a tribe of wandering hunters.

It might be postulated that women only came into their own with the advent of agriculture. The first farmers might have been female, and some bright Neolithic husband might have seen the connection between the fertility of the earth and that of his wife. This could conceivably lead to a deification, if not of women, of the female principle. But the oldest statues which have been thought to be those of a mother goddess come from Paleolithic, not Neolithic, levels; so we get back to the caveman, leaning over his wife, his eyes misted and his mouth trembling, as she smiles up at him and presents him with his son….

No, it won’t do. Let us leave this fooling and say simply that anthropologists no longer accept the blanket theory of primitive matriarchies. So we can’t quote the general thesis to support what looks like a survival of matriarchal conditions in Egypt.

In fact, when we examine the evidence from Egypt we find that the theory of inheritance through the female can only be supported by a series of unreasonable exceptions and explanations. The heiress must, by necessity, have been the daughter of a king and the previous heiress, who ought logically to have been the king’s chief wife.

If these assumptions are correct (and nobody can prove they are), the theory simply doesn’t work. There are too many exceptions. I will not weary the reader by detailing them, but if he knows anything about Egyptian history he can probably think of a few exceptions himself. (Tiye and Nefertiti, the mother and wife of Akhenaton, are conspicuous examples of great king’s wives who were not king’s daughters.) One or two exceptions may prove the rule, but too many exceptions mean that we need a new rule.

Like, for instance, what? I believe I can claim to be one of the first who questioned the conventional heiress theory; now that it has been dismissed in toto by the majority of scholars, natural perversity leads me to think there may be something to it after all.

Just kidding. However, it is simply not true that royal women had no claim whatsoever to the throne. The number of ruling queens is proof of that. Here’s a trick question for you Egyptology buffs. How many reigning queens were there? Cleopatra, of course; everybody knows about her. But who else?

If you believe you know, you are smarter than I am. Hatshepsut is another indubitable example; we’ll get to her in due course. However, at least five other women are contenders for that distinction. One trouble is that we know very little about some of the ladies. A First Dynasty queen had two big fancy tombs. Is that evidence of in de pendent reign? Another queen-king is known only from Greek sources, and they repeat improbable legends along with possible facts. If the Greeks can be believed, this woman, Nitokris, was the last “king” of the Old Kingdom before it broke up into anarchy. Well, said male scholars of the not-too-distant past, no wonder chaos promptly ensued! Another reigning queen, Sobekneferu, was the last ruler of the Middle Kingdom. Well, no wonder…! As Sir Alan Gardiner remarked, “So abnormal a situation contained the seeds of disaster.” Sobekneferu is actually the first indisputable example of a queen-king, but we know almost nothing about her.

How many does that make? Five, if you include Nitokris and the First Dynasty queen, which I wouldn’t—not enough evidence. Then there was Nefertiti. Maybe. The argument as to whether she was her husband’s co-regent and identical with a seemingly male ruler named Smenkhkare still rages, and although I have strong opinions on the subject this is not the place to discuss them.

I’ll get to the last example, Tausert, later.

Some queens may have acted as regent for infant sons, but that in itself is another indication that royal women had a certain status. Some cultures would insist on a male regent, the child’s uncle or other kin. The inheritance of the throne in ancient Egypt can be explained by the simplest notion of royal succession—that the king was succeeded by the oldest surviving son of his chief wife. If the chief wife bore only daughters, the son of a secondary wife was next in line. If a king died without male issue of any kind, he might have designated a successor, or, particularly in cases of sudden death, the throne would be up for grabs by the strongest or most influential of his courtiers, some of whom might be distant relatives of the royal house. In many cases the designated heir ended up marrying a king’s daughter. It may not have been necessary for him to do so in order to claim the throne, but it apparently struck a lot of people as a good idea, supposing such a lady was available.

A particularly interesting case is that of Ankhesenamon, the widow of Tutankhamon, who died, poor boy, before he was twenty. Two small fetuses were buried in his tomb—both girls, both premature, both suffering, according to the latest diagnosis, from spina bifida. There is no doubt that Tutankhamon died without a male heir. His widow said so, flat out, when she took the incredible step of writing a letter to a foreign ruler asking for one of his sons to become her husband and king of Egypt.

It’s one of the most fascinating, mysterious, and—of course—hotly debated issues in Egyptian history. The Egyptians and the Hittites had had a number of run-ins; both were competing for control of the Syrian city-states. Why would this girl—she was only a few years older than her husband—write to an enemy of Egypt offering the throne to his son? What made her believe she could get away with it?

She didn’t get away with it. The Hittite prince died, or was killed, on his way to Egypt, or maybe after he arrived there, and Tutankhamon’s successor was an elderly official, and Ankhesenamon is never heard of again—except on one interesting object: a ring bezel, where her name and that of Tutankhamon’s successor, Ay, appear side by side. Does this indicate he married her? If he did, he dumped her for another queen almost at once.

I feel sure the reader gets the point of this somewhat elongated digression. Ankhesenamon was the last survivor of the Amarna royal house. In lieu of male heirs, did she and her supporters believe she had a claim that could be passed on through marriage? It certainly appears that way, and the fact that Ay apparently felt it necessary to marry her substantiates the idea.

Incidentally, you will find some scholars who claim the Egyptian queen in question was not Ankhsenamon, but her mother, Nefertiti. The confusion arises in part from the fact that the only record of this transaction is in the Hittite annals, and that the Hittite versions of Egyptian names are open to question. Not in my mind, however.

At all periods the queens of Egypt were the First Ladies of the land. In the First Dynasty there were tombs as big and elaborate as those of the kings of that distant period which were designed for the royal wives. The pyramid builders made little pyramids for their queens—and the relative sizes of the monuments suggest that, however important the queen might be with regard to other women, by that time she was distinctly smaller than the king. The queen’s titles of this period are indicative of high rank and power; one of them is almost impossible to translate literally, but a reasonable compromise between sense and grammar might go like this: “She for Whom Anything She Says Is Done.” Impressive, if true!

Though kings might have, and clearly did have, a number of wives, one of them was preeminent. By the Eighteenth Dynasty she held the title which is translated “Great Royal Wife,” or “King’s Great Wife.” It is, perhaps coincidentally, at this period that we see an increase in the prominence of the queen. The royal women of the Theban house that united Egypt after the Hyksos invasion must have been remarkable individuals; they were cherished by their husbands and sons, and even grandsons, and they sometimes exercised real power.

The rise of the royal women culminated in Hatshepsut, the female king, who mounted the throne beside her young nephew and wielded the scepters for over twenty years. Although she may have begun as regent for a youthful heir, Thutmose III was, at the very least, in his late twenties before he took over as sole monarch. It is hard to see such a vigorous man—one of Egypt’s great warrior kings—putting up with the dominance of his aunt all those years; in theory they may have been co-rulers, but Thutmose was definitely Number Two. (Bear in mind that the Egyptians didn’t think of people as adolescents or teenagers; when a boy reached puberty he was a man, and ready for adult responsibilities.) Hatshepsut’s violation of tradition lay in the fact that she ruled, not as a queen, but as a king. Obviously the reigning monarch of Egypt had to be male; the titles, laudatory inscriptions, and ceremonies were all designed for men, and they were so deeply rooted in tradition and dogma that it was easier for a woman to change her sex—ritually speaking—than change the titles. There are a number of theories as to how Hatshepsut managed to hang on to power with a young, virile, adult, male heir on the scene, but at the very least her success indicates that a woman could rule Egypt, under certain conditions.

A century later Amenhotep III married a commoner—at least she wasn’t a king’s daughter—and his attitude toward Tiye deserves the word “uxorious.” Letters from foreign potentates during this period make it clear that Tiye had a hand, potent if unofficial, in affairs of state, and she ruled supreme in the harem, taking precedence over kings’ daughters and noblewomen. Her son, Akhenaton, not only continued to pay her homage but raised his own wife to a high position. Nefertiti was so beautiful, if we can believe the evidence of the statues which have come down to us, that Akhenaton’s infatuation is understandable; but by the same evidence, Tiye was no beauty. Maybe she had “it,” or “sex appeal,” or the Egyptian equivalent. This interpretation is not accepted by the majority of Egyptologists, who want to find “logical” reasons for people’s actions; they explain Tiye’s power by making her a member of an influential noble family. It’s a reasonable theory, but the proof is, to say the least, tenuous.

As I mentioned, Nefertiti is believed by some to have assumed kingly titles. She certainly acted like a king in a number of ways; there are even reliefs showing her bashing a captive over the head in conventional pharaonic style. That has to mean something, but don’t ask me what. The jury is still out on the question of Nefertiti’s kingship.

After the Amarna heresy, the queen’s role became less active, except for another woman, Tausert, who sometimes has the title of “King.” She ruled during the Nineteenth Dynasty, at a time of dynastic and political confusion. We know very little about Tausert; the only point of interest is that she probably was not a king’s daughter. Some Egyptologists proceed, blandly, to remark that Tausert must have been the heiress, because she took the throne. This is one of those nasty circular arguments; Tausert’s case is one of several that cast doubt on the theory of the heiress queen. If Tausert was not of royal birth, her assumption of the throne is quite remarkable, since she had no hereditary claim to partially balance the handicap of her sex. But don’t ask me how she did it, because I don’t know.

During the late dynasties, certain royal women acquired a new position which probably implied a certain degree of political power. This position was signified by the title of “God’s Wife,” which was originally a religious title belonging to queens of the New Kingdom. Presumably it referred to the intimate relations of the queen with the god Amon, who was the real father of her royal son. The later princesses who held the same title may also have been brides of Amon-Re, but they did not present him with offspring. They lived in Thebes, where they assumed some of the powers of the high priests of Amon. Since the capital of Egypt during this period was in the Delta, the king thus secured a valuable viceroy in the south—all the more valuable because she could rule as his representative, but never as pharaoh. The God’s Wife, also known as “the Adorer of the God” and “the God’s Hand,” may or may not have been celibate, but the office was passed on by adoption, not by birth. When a new king ascended the throne he sent his daughter to Thebes, where she was adopted by the current God’s Wife, whom, in due time, she succeeded.

The God’s Wife may have gained her title because of her relationship to Amon, but the title of “God’s Mother,” which the queen occasionally bore, probably refers to the divine king. The king was a god in several senses; he was not only Horus himself, he was also the son of Re and, later, the son of Amon. The Egyptians were not worried by such apparent contradictions. Re and Amon might be regarded as manifestations of the same supernatural force, and Amon was certainly the king’s divine father; two separate sets of reliefs make his paternity very clear. Although the god came to visit the queen in the form of her mortal husband, he was careful to announce his true identity, which naturally pleased her very much.

Queen or commoner, the Egyptian woman had a relatively pleasant life. Even in our “civilized” modern world, many women in many countries have fewer rights. The Egyptians were a “civilized” people in the looser meaning of that much abused word—urbane, amiable, fair-minded. We need not explain why they were nice to their wives; indeed—if I may be permitted some slight feminine bias—we ought to explain why other people are not nice to theirs. The notion of the primitive matriarchy seems to have blossomed in the depths of the nineteenth century, when women were described as sexless angels and treated like feebleminded children; perhaps this theory was the only way in which the bearded scholars of Victorian En gland could account for the peculiar customs they observed in other, inferior cultures.

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