Ancient Egypt has fascinated for centuries, it’s home to some of the most awe inspiring monuments, and has been ruled by some of history’s more famous rulers and as such has inspired writers of both fact and fiction. Part of its draw for those interested in women’s history is its uniqueness as Kara Cooney writes, “Ancient Egypt is an anomaly as the only land that consistently called upon the rule of women to keep its regime in working order…”. The first of these was Merneith, considered the third ruler of the first dynasty, she ruled from c 3000-2980 BC, acting as regent for her son King Den. Before looking at Merneith’s life and legacy, this post is going to look at why Egyptian history can be difficult to trace and the lives of women in Ancient Egypt.
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The history of ancient Egypt is full of gaps, and there is much we don’t know. One of the biggest complications is dating important events from the period. The ancient Egyptians did not use a standardised chronology as in other places, instead they used the length of their pharaohs’ reigns as a way of telling the year. As the lists of kings were written on papyrus and stone there is no telling how many have been damaged or stolen by grave robbers. The lists that have survived may be incomplete with some names having been omitted or removed by those who came after them, this is especially true in the cases of female rulers. Further complications in tracing the period come from a lack of written sources from before c.3100 BC when hieroglyphics became popular. Whilst archaeology has provided us many insights into the period, the destruction and looting of sites by grave robbers and untainted excavators means there are gaps. Another issue for archaeologists is that many buildings have not survived because they were constructed from materials such as sun-dried bricks, river mud and chaff or plaster and reed which do not survive the test of time.
Despite the gaps there are some things we do know, we know the diet of the average Egyptian was made up of bread and beer, and that these were so important that they were reflected in their prayers. For the upper classes meat, fish, onions, and imported wine were also available. Furthermore, we know that the ancient Egyptians had a fondness for board games, house pets, and as Martian Phillips writes, “…women enjoyed more freedom in ancient Egypt than they did in any other civilizations, in many cases for thousands of years to come…”
Egyptian men and women had the same rights under the law, and unlike women in Ancient Greece, Egyptian women were considered ‘legally capable’ and as such were allowed to execute wills, witness legal documents, bring action in court and even adopt children in their own name. All landed property was passed through the female line from mother to daughter, Egyptologist Barbara Watterson suggests this may have been because, “… maternity is a matter of fact, paternity a matter of opinion.” As such they could sell it if they wished. Furthermore, Egyptian women could marry whomever they wanted and couples also entered into “…prenuptial agreements which favoured the woman.” Whilst long-term marriages were considered favourable, the women of ancient Egypt were able to divorce their husbands safe in the knowledge there was no stigma attached to it. They would be given custody of children and unless the home was owned by the husband’s family, it remained with her. If a husband initiated divorce, “…he lost all right to sue for the gifts and had to pay a certain sum in alimony to his ex-wife until she either remarried or requested he stop payment.”
Access to birth control and abortions was available to all women, no matter their relationship status, and whilst virginity might have been prized by men initiating marriage, “A woman’s sexual experience before marriage was not a matter of great concern.” From reliefs, painting, poetry and writings that survive most Egytian marriages were born of mutual love and enjoyed by both parties, “the Egyptians took great joy in the simplest aspects of life and one did not have to be royalty to enjoy the company of one’s lover, wife, family, or friends.”
Outside the house, women could choose from a number of jobs, from priest for a feminie deity, such as Isis, teaching, or even medicine, female doctors were highly respected in ancient Egypt, and the medical school in Alexandria was attended by students from other countries. They could also find work as a concubine, for this she would have to be not only attractive, but “..accomplished in music, conversation, weaving, sewing, fashion, culture, religion, and the arts.” Most significantly, the Egyptain political system allowed women to rule.
Egyptians kings were divine, “The first kingship passed from the god Osiris to his son Horus, making each Egyptian king the living manifestation of the falcon God Horus…” As such the lineage was meant to pass from father to son forever, when this was impossible because the incoming king was too young to rule alone a female relative would rule in his name.
“Egyptologists call this the regency system, and the ruling woman a regent… Egyptians never formalised the position with a title but used in unerringly to maintain dynastic succession without a break in the line or an invitation to conflict between men.”
When the king was of age the woman would willingly step back and hand the reins over to her son. Female relatives were chosen because they were considered less likely to try and take power for themselves and therefore, posed no threat to the king, as Kara Cooney writes, “The queen’s power didn’t compete with the patriarchy but rather supported it, providing it with strong foundations.”
The first such regent queen was Merneith.
Merneith’s name means ‘the beloved Neith’, she was probably the granddaughter of King Aha, the first ruler of the dynasty, who was succeeded by his son and her father King Djer. We don’t know who her mother was, but we can surmise that she would have been one of Djer’s favourite courtwives and as such was likely from a wealthy family. Merneith probably grew up in the main royal palace at the extravagant palace at Memphis or one similar which is gone today. As royalty she would have lived a comfortable life, dressed in linen of highest thread count, worn jewels, anointed herself with frankincense and myrrh and probably wore crushed malachites of a rich dark green around her eyes.
After her father’s death, Merneith joined the harmen of her (possibly) half brother Djet. As with many of the figures from this period, we know little of King Djet including his cause of death. What we do know, however, is that it came before his sons were old enough to rule, “…creating Egypts first documented succession crisis.” The boy chosen was Merneith’s son Den, we don’t know how he was selected, some suggest it was because of Merneith, who was “…high-ranked and presumably educated and strong-willed mother: a woman the elites could all agree on to take the reins of Egypt’s leadership, if only temporarily, while Den grew into a man.” Making her the first regent queen.
The evidence for her rule is circumstantial, just as it was for those who came after her; “The Egyptians, it seems, never wanted to directly state that the king’s mother was calling the shots.” Her name is not included in the king lists from the New Kingdom. What we do know comes from the archaeological finds in the royal burial complexes in Abydos and Saqqara, this however, is not conclusive as it is made up of a “…jumble of architectural funerary evidence, punctuated by hieroglyphic inscriptions…” some of which are indecipherable because hieroglyphics were still in the early stages of development in dynasty one.
Her first task as regent was to bury her husband, King Djet, which would mean selecting those who would be sacrificed to go with him into the afterlife and to “…prove to her people that her young son could sit on his throne unaccosted, safe, and empowered.” The Dynasty 1 kings reified their power through human sacrifice. At the funeral for her father between 600 and 1000 people were believed to have been sacrificed, 85% of which were women, Merneith would have been witness to the deaths, and Kara Cooney even suggests that her own mother might have been one of those selected;
“Perhaps Merneith herself helped to bury her mother, sitting vigil over the body while it was washed and wrapped, lovingly laying the corpse into the resting place provided, making sure the proper grave goods were put in place.”
If her earlier experience impacted her, we don’t know, but as a woman she could not afford to show any weakness. Merneith selected a lower number of victims, but they were of a higher status, and a higher percentage of those chosen were men. Amongst those chosen were a number of females accompanied by a child, these were likely rival wives and their sons, Den’s brothers, who could have been chosen as king instead. It also offered a way to remove those who posed a risk to her son and his claim to the throne as King Djer had multiple wives and therefore, multiple sons some of which might have been older than Den, who were only passed over because they were born to ‘lesser wives’. Furthemore, it gave her a way to show her strength and warn anyone who might have been considering opposing her that she was not to be crossed. She would have also had the knowledge that, had another boy been chosen she might have been one of those chosen to accompany her husband into the afterlife.
Merneith’s rule probably lasted between six and eight years until her son turned 16 or 17 and assumed control. Although it is likely that she expected influence on her son until she died. As the King’s Mother, she would have been an essential courtier even after her son researched maturity, she would have been responsible for keeping the king’s harem full, watching over the nursery of royal children, and keeping a careful eye on the goings-on at court. It would have been up to her to select the best people to serve her son. Whilst the Palermo Stone king list mentions King Den and various achievements it does not record when Merneith died. Although she had stepped back, she retained enough authority to;
“…order the ultimate extravagance for herself, this tomb—a display of power so great that it was reserved only for god-kings, confounding the archaeologists who found it 5,000 years later.”
When her tomb at Abydos was first discovered by Flinders Petrie in 1900, it was initially believed to belong to an unknown pharaoh because of its size and nature. When it was excavated archaeologists found, it contained a “…large underground chamber, lined with mud bricks, which was surrounded by rows of small satellite burials, with at least 40 subsidiary graves for servants.” Servants were buried with the pharaoh to assist the ruler in the afterlife and was a consistent practice in the tombs of the early first dynasty pharaohs. It was also unique, as all other tombs in the area are for males and she is buried close to Djet and Den.
Inside her tomb, archaeologists found her name accompanied by the title “King’s Mother”, on seals. Whilst her body would have been carefully prepared and laid at the central chamber of her tomb, lined entirely with precious imported wooden planks, no trace of it remains. The mudbrick chambers which surrounded her were filled with grave goods, including pottery vessels once filled with;
Honey and other foodstuffs
Not all of the items in her tomb bore her name, instead they had the name of her son, as he was the one to allow her the honor of burial in the royal necropolis. Her second tomb at Saqqara contained just a few dozen sacrificial graves and a sun-boat to allow her spirit to travel with the sun god Ra after death, a privilege which was normally reserved for kings.
Ancient Egyptian women had more freedoms and rights than their counterparts around the world, even by today’s standard there are countries around the world where women have less freedoms, it is just a shame that so many of their stories have been lost. Thankfully we know Merneith existed even if we know so few details about her and her life. From what we do know, we can surmise that she was intelligent, and unflinching in her dedication to her son, just as many queens who came after her. Although her position was never formalized, those that came after her would have their power regonsied.