Well Behaved Women Don’t Make History

In ancient Egyptian history women received social standings higher than that of any other civilisation preceding modern ages; despite this, the notion of woman ruling the ancient society was still an absurd concept for Egyptians to fathom. Kingship was always considered a male activity; nevertheless, a woman did rise in the ranks and seize power of kingship, her name was Hatshepsut. Though she was not the first Egyptian woman to ascend to this level of power, she was the first to govern in the semblance of a man as shown in the image below sourced from Wikipedia. She also had a substantial reign for a woman ruler, as women typically only acted as regents for young pharaohs who were placed upon the throne too young to rule. Regents ruled for the child until he was old enough to rule, and once the child was mature, they would step down and return to their royal duties assuming their previous title. Hatshepsut initially acted as regent for her stepson Thutmose III until she radically broke her traditional role of queen’s regency and assumed the role of a Pharaoh. With ancient Egyptian ideologies regarding women in mind, it makes us question what motivated Hatshepsut to rule ancient Egypt whilst her stepson watched, and how did she ascend to that level of royal status so efficiently?

Hatshepsut ruling as a man
This is an image of Hatshepsut during her gender transitional period. She has the Pharaoh’s headdress establishing her power as ruler of Egypt and a traditional false beard that all the male rulers incorporate into their self-monuments demonstrating pharaonic power. However, she still maintains large oval eyes and plump lips which are feminine characteristics.

Hatshepsut’s Lineage

Ahmose I (assumed to be Hatshepsut’s grandfather) defeated the Hyksos who had invaded and occupied Lower Egypt during the second intermediate period. His rule initiated the beginning of the New Kingdom and the start of the eighteenth dynasty. When Ahmose I died he passed on kingship to his son Amenhotep who failed to father a succeeding male heir. As a result Thutmose I (an army general) seized kingship by marrying Amenhotep’s sister Nefertiri. Thutmose I fathered three sons and two daughters by his great wife of which only his daughter, Hatshepsut, remained. Thutmose also fathered a son to a minor wife called Thutmose II, and upon his father’s demise adhering to common methods of fortifying royal lineage and strengthening his claim to the crown, he was married to Hatshepsut, his half sister. Thutmose II suffered health issues resulting in a shorter reign leaving only a daughter to his great wife Hatshepsut and a son to a minor wife named Thutmose III. Thutmose II proclaimed his son by his minor wife Thutmose III his heir, however he was a very young boy at the time and Hatshepsut became his regent.

This is an image of Hatshepsut’s Family Tree sourced from a web page entitle ‘The Story of Hatshepsut’, maintained by David Bediz.

The King Herself

Hatshepsut was born into a royal line, and as a result had been placed in a position of power at a young age. She was taught sacred rituals which she performed in the role of the God’s Wife of Amun from the age of roughly nine or ten. In this position she severed as the most powerful priestess in all of Egypt. She had also received her training from Ahmes-Nefertari; an admired royal queen and one of the first royal women to hold the position of the God’s Wife of Amun. Being such an influential religious office, this was Hatshepsut first taste of responsibility. ‘The Woman Who Would Be King’ by Kara Cooney explains “As the eldest child of the highest-ranking wife in the palace, Hatshepsut can be imagined as a serious, quiet child who carefully watched everything that happened around her, attending to the attitudes and postures of her royal mother in court rituals, or to the words spoken by her father when he read incantations on festival days”. It is clear that Hatshepsut was important; she stood at her mother’s side whilst Ahmes (Hatshepsut’s mother) performed sacred rituals honouring the gods; Hatshepsut would’ve studied every syllable so she could soon conduct these rituals herself. She also stood at her father’s side witnessing his performances on days of celebration. She would have observed his movements even inside the palace, possibly hearing his discussion in the throne room and essentially learning the efficient way to govern. Her father was not of royalty when he came into power; this aspect of his rule would’ve allowed Hatshepsut to observe the ways in which her father marshalled ideological concepts to validate and establish his foundations as a respected ruler. Upon her father’s death Hatshepsut was married to Thutmose II. This elevated her political power to King’s Great Wife. In conjunction with Thutmose’s young age and ill health, Ahmes became his regent until he was mature enough to rule and Hatshepsut was forced to exercise her influence over him early in their relationship displaying her power and maturity as queen. Cooney described, “Ahmes could teach Hatshepsut how to curry favour among elite clans at court as well as model the traditions and expectations of the throne too and audience hall”. It is with this knowledge that Hatshepsut learned how to manipulate powerful people in order to persuade them into what she desired. As the King’s Great Wife it was her duty to deliver the King a son in order to continue their royal line. However, she only produced a daughter in the short time she spent with her husband before his untimely death. Nevertheless, her husband did father a son to a minor wife named Thutmose III and he was elected to succeed his father. Hatshepsut was then elevated again to King’s Mother; and because of the boys immaturity she was elected as he regent. To rule whilst her stepson matured. Initially, Hatshepsut acted upon her stepson’s behalf carefully respecting the traditional ancient Egyptian conventions under which previous queens had conducted political affairs whilst young kings grow and mature. Several theories emerged regarding reasoning behind Hatshepsut proclaiming herself King; was she unsatisfied with her power behind the young king, was she doing this out of ambition, was she forced to proclaim herself as King due to unfolding circumstances behind the scenes? Shortly after her proclaimed regency signs emerged that Hatshepsut’s regency wouldn’t resemble a traditional one.

In an ancient world having women at the top of political pyramids was essentially a foreign concept and even when Egyptian culture allowed for an exception in times of ideological, successive or economical crisis, only a handful of women were able to reach this kind of political power and rule Egypt. Egyptian politics and regime was totalitarian; they were a risk adverse society. Risk adverse societies mean that women simply cannot be in a position to be the centre of political power. This was due to religious notions concerning the creation stories and the God Osiris passing his reign of Egypt on to his son Horus outlined in my previous blog post. Following this religious belief it was due to the fact that fathers were to pass on the legacy to their sons, and the onus was upon the man to deliver an heir to keep the dynasty in political power. Because of this tradition women simply didn’t belong in the centre of political control as they could physically foster only one baby a year and could not pass on lineage to their children, as this wasn’t religiously moral. Furthermore, men could potentially have 365 babies a year and had the religious obligation to pass succession down to the strongest son. Kids were also likely to die before the age of five, and with women only capable of producing one a year, a society that is risk adverse and values continuity such as the Ancient Egyptian one would not take it’s chances with betting on women to produce heirs.

Hatshepsut was in a position of successive crisis; she was a King’s daughter, King’s wife and now was to deliver an heir who would succeed his father. She could only produce a female offspring in the time she spent with her Husband Thutmose II and in turn the heir was proclaimed to be Thutmose III; not her biological son, her stepson, however, he was still too young to rule. Egypt valued its stability and continuity regarding the royal family and the dynasty in power at the time. With Egyptian political leaders facing the reality of a two year old, Thutmose III, being inducted to rule they faced the certainty that someone would have to rule for him as regent, making decisions for the King for a timespan of 14 or 15 years; essentially a lifetime when considering ancient Egyptian life expectancy. Regent was an informal title and it was clear that someone had to make decisions for the well being of society. Hatshepsut was appointed this regent, however, some circumstance of which are unknown to us may have occurred resulting in her formally announcing herself as King alongside Thutmose III. The ancient Egyptian sources we have available to us veil any political adversities that Egyptian society may have faced. Was Thutmose III sick? Forcing Hatshepsut to step in as king alongside him incase of an unpredicted death. Was there a challenger who attempted to counterclaim the throne? Forcing her to officially be recognised as king alongside Thutmose III to secure the throne for him. The reasoning behind the assumptions that Hatshepsut wasn’t over ambitious and power hungry is there was no social backlash against her pronouncement to declare herself king. In fact there would’ve been large amounts of support from elite members of society and high-level priests involved with the royal family. There was clearly communal agreement that they could make this kingship work. Hatshepsut was proclaimed king when Thutmose III was nine; however, she always ruled alongside him, never alone. There is an interesting pattern of Egyptian women who were in this central role of power for extended periods of time in that they never ruled without a male accompaniment. She reigned for 22 years with Thutmose III by her side. This can be seen in an image located below retrieved from Wikipedia which demonstrates Hatshepsut as King and Thutmose III by her side. What is interesting is that she is depicted no bigger in form than he was. Egyptian kings who included family members in depictions of themselves would notoriously enlarge their figure to show their superiority and power in comparison to any other member of society. It is clear that Hatshepsut knew that the only reason she was in her political position was because of Thutmose III and that there was no way he could be King without her.

Hatshepsut was a master of manipulation when taking into account the four elements of power one can utilise in order to progress their political authority. She specifically utilised the aspect of an ideological power scheme to appeal to her subjects, as who could disagree with her when she states that the God Amun himself chose her for rule. Cooney outlines this as Hatshepsut proclaimed, “I have made this with a loving heart for my father, Amun, having entered into his initiation of the First Occasion and having experienced his impressive efficacy. I have not been forgetful of any project he has decreed. For my Majesty knows he is divine, and I have done it by his command. He is the one who guides me. I could not have imagined the work without his acting: he is the one who gives the directions.” This was a part of her ideological manipulation and essential justification of her right to rule. She carefully ensured that the God Amun validated every move she made. She was aware that ideological power is best wielded when people strongly believe and support the concept upon which it is based; in this case the God Amun, which she knew that society respected and wouldn’t dare to question. Also, the economic resources Hatshepsut uses to her advantage can be seen as an aspect of this. She was essentially a job creator, and Egyptians that respected stability and continuity valued this. She creates positions for workers to be paid and gives out money where she can in order to maintain kingship. Of course, the people closest to her that she feels she can trust are the ones she appoints to handle the money. This economic expenditure underpins her ideological foundation which safeguards the kingship keeping it in the Thutmosid dynasty in turn fostering dynastic stability.

Hieroglyphs showing Thutmose III on the left and Hatshepsut on the right — Red Chapel, Karnak
Hieroglyphs showing Thutmose III on the left and Hatshepsut on the right — Red Chapel, Karnak

Societies such as ancient Egypt who value continuity and stability in order to be prosperous require the maintenance of power being passed successively to the next generation. The desire to maintain a patriarchal succession is what essentially allows females to come into the centre of political power; as the community would rather have a woman in power as a placeholder for the next rightful king, as opposed to allowing someone who was not selected to succeed the previous king seize control. The motivations for Hatshepsut’s seizing control of Egypt will always be a mystery, however, I strongly disagree with any who proclaim she took the kingship due to greediness. I believe she was strongly supported to do so, and proceeded to do so with some intention other than furthering her political career.