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Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Warrior queens, beautiful princesses and gentle Hathor: various aspects of women in ancient Egypt

With Mothers’ Day coming up, and of course International Women's Day, I thought it might be fun to take a quick peak at the varied ways in which women, human and divine, were depicted in ancient Egypt, specifically warrior queens, beautiful princesses, and gentle Hathor types. And before we get onto the Egyptological bit, we do have stuff in our shop which would make perfect gifts for any of these types

There do seem to have been stereotypes, such as the gentle Bastet vs aggressive Sekhmet trope. And, generally, it seems as though women were expected to be meek and gentle. But things are totally two sided.

While women did not enter the army, at times queens do seem to have been buried in ways suggesting warrior attributes. First there is the possible warrior queen, Ahhotep II. Her tomb was discovered in 1859 at Dra Abu el-Naga, Thebes and her coffin bears the title ‘King’s Wife’. Ahhotep II was buried with a dagger and battle axe, as well as three golden fly pendants. You can see a picture of that here, it is from the Wikimedia page about the lady. Such pendants were given as awards for military valour, because good warriors were like flies - persistent, impossible to ward off and numerous! Although the dagger and battle-axe found in the tomb are usually associated with her, they do not actually bear her name and since the Dra Abu el-Naga tomb was not her original burial place, it is possible that the objects belong to another person altogether. The axehead shows Ahmose smiting his enemies. However, the golden fly jewellery was closely associated with the queen, as the pendants were found inside her coffin. Unfortunately, we don't have any golden fly ancient Egyptian necklaces in the Centre, but you can get a replica from our shop!

Another Ahhotep, Ahhotep I, is also credited with aggression. She was the mother of Ahmose, honoured in a stela at Karnak as ‘one who pulled Egypt together, having cared for its army, having guarded it, having brought back those who fled, gathering up its deserters, having quieted the South, subduing those who defy her’.

These two Ahhoteps were queens in that they were royal women. They did not however, rule in their own right as kings did. In ancient Egypt only a few women reigned in the way king’s did, and these include Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut and Cleopatra VII.

Queens ruling in their own right were endorsed as real kings partly through use of the warrior image since the king is shown as engaged in warfare in order to maintain cosmic order. Thus, the king’s title ‘Lord of Doing Things’, occurs on many items of warfare in Tutankhamun’s tomb. The feminine version of the title is used by only two women, both of whom ruled as kings, Sobekneferu and Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut herself took part in at least two military campaigns, but whether or not she led from the front, as kings claim to have done, is unknown.

In contrast we have the beautiful princess trope. Georgia Xekalaki, in particular, has written about the role of princesses in ancient Egypt. Of course there role changes over time; but, as one might expect, the role of the princess was usually a ritual one, and often to support and revive the king through her youthful beauty. So for example, In the Twelfth Dynasty Tale of Sinuhe, they are said to welcome the hero with their sistra. On depictions of New Kingdom sed festivals, festivals of royal revival, the royal daughters appear in processions carrying sistra. The named daughters of Rameses II are shown in the Great Temple of Abu Simbel shaking sistra.

In popular literature, the most famous royal daughters are those of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. They are shown in Amarna art as childlike (even when the date of the works suggests they must have been adults). Sometimes they are shown playing musical instruments. It seems that in private tombs daughters were sometimes shown in a similar way, reviving guests and their parents and funerary parties. They play musical instruments and serve wine. The picture of the rig bezel on the right shows a young woman playing a lute. The bezel is from Amarna and may well have been connected with festivals of revival.

There is also the gentle Hathor trope. Hathor was, for most of Egyptian history, the most important goddess, with more temples built to her than any other deity. Because of her gentle nature she is sometimes depicted as a cow, and no, cows did not have the same metaphoric values in ancient Egypt as they do today! Cows were considered loving, gentle creatures. Hathor was also a goddess of minerals and the eastern desert, she was linked to other worlds and associated with music and dance. She was even a goddess of drunkenness. Here you can another object from the Egypt Centre's collection, it is part of a sistrum, the two sides are shown. A sistrum was a kind of rattle. It shows the goddess Hathor; but look carefully at her ears. They are cow's ears showing her cow-like attributes.

There is also a story which suggests that although goddesses might seem one-sided, their nature could change. The story of the quarrel between Hathor and her father, and her later return, exemplifies this. There are several versions of the story.

An early version of this myth is extant on the Book of the Heavenly Cow, which first appears, though in incomplete form, on the outermost of the four gilded shrines of Tutankhamun. The story, called ‘The Destruction of Humanity’, goes that, in times past, a golden age existed when humans and gods existed under Re, and night and death did not exist. Humanity plots against Re and the god sends his daughter, the Eye in the form of Hathor, to kill them all. ‘Hathor, the Eye of the Sun, went into the desert transformed into the raging lioness Sekhmet, the powerful one. There she began slaying humanity for the evil they had done’. She goes on the rampage wading in their blood. Re changes his mind, but no one knows how to stop the furious goddess, so he orders 7,000 jars of beer to be made and coloured with ochre. Thinking that this is blood, the goddess drinks, and then in a drunken stupor, becomes happy and pacified, with all thought of killing forgotten. Once again, she is the beautiful and gentle Hathor. Her return to Egypt is celebrated by song and dance and drinking. Re returns to the sky on the back of the heavenly cow and institutes the netherworld as a dwelling for the dead.

There are several variations to this myth: in one version Hathor becomes cross with Re and that is why she storms off to Nubia. Thoth has to coax her back by telling her stories. She bathes in the Nile, which becomes red with her anger, and then she becomes peaceful and happy. In other variations, it is Tefnut who goes to Nubia and Shu who brings her back.

So then there are at least three different types of women which we can see through ancient Egyptian literature and archaeology.


Xekelaki, G. 2007. ‘The Procession of Royal Daughters In Medinet Habu and their Ritualistic Role: Originas and Evolution.’ In Proceedings of the Ninth International Congress of Egyptologists. Grenoble, 6-12 septembre 2004. II edited by J-C. Goyon and C. Cardin, C. Leuven, Paris and Dudley MA: Uitgeverij Peeters, 1961–1965.

Xekelaki, G. and el-Khodary, R. 2011. ‘The Cultic Role of Nefertari and the Children of Ramesses II.’ In Ramesside Studies in Honour of K.A. Kitchen edited by M. Collier and S. Snape. Bolton: Rutherford Press Ltd., 561-571.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Marble Footprint. Guest blog by a child volunteer

Marble Footprint

I like this object because it is interesting seeing a person’s footprint from ancient Egypt (and it reminds me of bigfoot).  The footprint was used to make sure that the owner stayed in the presence of the gods.  People gave personal gifts to the gods through a worshipper at the temple, wanting to secure benefits.  Different types of votive offerings were used.  They were objects which represented the real things.  For example, people give stelae, figures of cows and cats, models of ears and eyes, fertility figurines and jewellery.


Hywel Protheroe Jones

Hywel has been a volunteer with the Egypt Centre since 2007, initially as one of our young volunteers (who are aged 10-18) and more recently as an adult volunteer. He wrote this when he was a child volunteer.

For more information on this object click here.    

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Gruesome rites? Book of the Dead Fragment.

I thought in this blog I would concentrate on what is going on in the illustrations to this piece of the Book of the Dead. And, if anyone has any comments please feel free to let us know. Part of the reason for my doing this blog is so I can learn (as well as letting you know about our collection).

First some background. This particular piece is Late Dynastic-Ptolemaic. It was sold to Henry Wellcome in Sotheby's sale of 1932 and is now catalogued in the Egypt Centre as W867. It is a papyrus sheet from the Book of the Dead. This particular piece depicts the hymn to the rising sun, Chapter 15 of the Book of the Dead. The scroll belonged to Ankh-Hapi, son of Pa-Khered-en-Min and Ta-di-Aset. Other pieces of the book are in the British Museum (EA9946) and two other pieces are known from elsewhere (Hurst 1997, 14-16). It has been published by Kate Bosse-Griffiths in ZAS 123 (1996) p97-102.

And now to the illustration along the top.

It shows a funeral ceremony in front of the tomb, a vignette which usually illustrates Chapter 1 in the New Kingdom but which by the Late Dynastic and Ptolemaic Period can be used to illustrate chapters 1-15. Anubis (or a priest wearing an Anubis mask) appears on this scene, together with the sacrifice of a bull, the implements used in the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, and an adze being used in the ceremony, etc. Anubis/priest with Anubis mask is shown propping up the coffin of the deceased in front of a lamenting woman and a priest who is purifying.

The mummy would be propped up in front of a stela in the courtyard of the tomb and exposed to the rays of the sun. It has been suggested that the setting up of the mummy ‘before Re’ took place at midday (Assmann 2005, 318; Taylor 2010, 88), though as this illustrates a hymn to the rising sun, perhaps the ceremony took place in the morning. The courtyard of the tomb would have been symbolically in the east. The practice of setting up the mummy in the courtyard to receive the rays of the sun, in front of stelae, probably with solar hymns thereon, gained popularity from the New Kingdom (Assmann 2005, 320). Re can be seen enthroned on the far left. The presentation of the mummy before Re mirrored the mythical judgement before the enthroned god which is shown, for example, on the coffin of Iwesemhesetmut in the Egypt Centre (in fact on this coffin it is shown twice, as a judgement by Osiris, and a judgement by Re). The pointed roof of the tomb which is shown in front of Re and his offering table actually went out of favour during the Ramesside Period, though would have been understood in later times as a tomb.

The figure holding up the mummy may be either mythically understood as Anubis, or as an actual priest in an Anubis mask. Anubis masks have been found, making the latter interpretation seem more likely. One is now held in Harrogate Museum (HARGM10686 02). Another is in the Roemer Pelizaeus- Museum, Hildesheim (1585). Additionally, at Dendera is a depiction of a procession of priests. One is shown wearing a mask (that it is a mask seems to be the case from the way it is shown as transparent, see Mariette IV, pl. 31).

The rite of placing the mummy in the sun, purifying it and performing the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony, is described in TT23 (Assmann 2005, 323–324). The Opening of the Mouth Ceremony ensured that the deceased was able to act after death.

To the right of the priest forming the opening of the mouth ritual is a priest wearing a headdress of two ostrich feathers. He is the lector priest. From the Third Intermediate Period the lector priest was sometimes shown with such a headdress and was thus sometimes called a ‘wing-wearer’ (Greek-pterophorus). Lector priests were responsible for chanting or reading from sacred texts and sometimes acted as oracles for the people.

To the far right is a dreadful scene, an essential part of the Opening of the Mouth ritual. A foreleg of a still living calf is chopped off, witnessed by its mourning mother. The leg is presented to the deceased while still warm (Assmann 2005, 324-329). Both the leg and the mourning cow were important in ensuring that the deceased was reborn. In some texts, it is suggested that the calf represents the god Seth who must be punished so that eternal life is possible.


Assmann, J. 2005. Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. Translated from the German by David Lorton. Ithica and London: Cornell University Press.

Hurst, N. A Passion for the past. Historic Collections from Egypt and the Levant. Cambridge (Mass,).

Mariette, A. 1871. Dendérah: description générale du grand temple de cette ville (Vol. 4): Plates, Paris.

Müller-Roth, M. and Weber, F. 2012. Pretty Good Privacy. In Lucarelli, R., Müller-Roth, M. and Wüthrich, A. Herausgehen am Tage. Gesammelte Schriften zum altägyptischen Totenbuch, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitx,  113-134.

Taylor, J.H. 2010 (ed.) Journey through the afterlife. Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead. British Museum Press.