This semester, I’m taking a class about women in the ancient and modern Middle East. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been everything but bored. I’ve learned about ancient gender roles and how such roles were challenged when women rulers gained power. Even though the female pharaohs really only gained power at the end of dynasties and/or during times of conflict while the men were fighting, it’s extremely captivating to learn about women in such high power.
Under Egyptian law, women and men had the same legal rights. The average woman’s focus (non-royal) was more traditional, as a wife and mother. In class, we looked at many different kinds of artwork: paintings, sculptures and monuments. The way the pharaoh and queen are depicted is fascinating. There is usually a clear size difference, with the man portrayed as larger, and in some cases, much larger. This doesn’t necessarily mean women have little power/significance, but instead, the man has greater power/significance. The Egyptians idealized their artwork to look the best they could. The pharaoh is shown wearing some kind of kilt and his headdress, representing that he is pharoah above all, and a human embodiment of the deities. The queen is seen in a tight-fitting dress with accessories to represent her higher authority. In some dynasties, like the 18th, we see a blurring of gendered clothing. The way women are portrayed, often with less clothing than the men, isn’t meant to be sexualized. They symbolizes reproduction, fertility and rebirth. The artwork also reflects the religious realm.
From the Egyptian creation story, the divine feminine is presented. Atum, the potential for all life is referred with pronouns: she and he. We see this carry onto Egyptian deities, such as Ma’at, who represents the concept of harmony and balance in all aspects of life; Isis, who represents and means the throne (therefore, every king is derived from Isis herself); and Hathor, who represents the house of Hathor (which is every living king) and a sky deity. Various female pharaohs adopted imagery related to the goddess Hathor, such as wearing cow horns and a sun disk, which could symbolize maternal and celestial aspects. These goddesses personified female principles, and it’s beyond interesting to see how women were incorporated in religious gender roles.
One of my favorite female pharaohs is Hatshepsut. She served as a regent when she married her half-brother, who was too young to rule. Instead of having her husband take the rule and title of pharaoh, she was divinely ordained, claiming to be the predestined heir of her father, daughter of a god. She had an unprecedented assumption of power. She was depicted in art as a man sometimes wearing a false beard and through the use of male symbols of kingship. She assumed a male persona to maintain her grip on power and as a result, became the longest-reigning female pharaoh. Her reign accomplished a lot for Egypt.
You might know other, more famous, female pharaohs, such as Cleopatra I, Cleopatra VII, Nefertiti, and Sobeknefru. There were around a dozen female pharaohs. Arsinoë II was a Ptolemaic queen and co-regent of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of ancient Egypt of Macedonian-Greek descent. She became a goddess with her own temples and offerings and molded cultural culture to advance her ambitions.
I look forward to learning more about ancient women in power, especially during the Ptolemaic dynasty and after. I recommend others to discover all the unique characteristics that the female rulers held in a world traditionally dominated by men.