The ruler of Egypt was usually male; because the succession ideally passed from father to son, kings married to obtain heirs. There were, therefore, within the king's immediate circle a number of royal women, which included his mother, his wives, and his daughters. In addition to their role in producing royal offspring, the king's mother and his principal wife were bearers of divine queenship, which complemented the divine aspect of kingship. In English, “queen” can refer to a queen consort, a queen mother, or a female ruler. Ancient Egyptian has no single term that corresponds to queen in all these meanings, but it does have specific designations for these roles. From the third dynasty the king's consort was called ḥmt nsw (“king's wife”). Because kings were polygynous (having several wives), the more descriptive title ḥmt nsw wrt (“great wife of the king”) was introduced in the later Middle Kingdom to distinguish the principal wife of the king from his secondary wives, who were also called ḥmt nsw. The queen mother was given the title mwt nsw (“king's mother”), attested from as early as the first dynasty. On the rare occasions that female rulers occupied Egypt's throne, they held the same titles and fivefold titulary as male rulers, the only difference being that they often, although by no means always, used feminine grammatical forms. In what follows, the term queen will be used to refer only to a king's principal wife and to a king's mother, but not to secondary wives or female rulers.

The sources available to us for the study of royal women are, in the main, monumental or, less frequently, administrative. Because of their impersonal nature, they tell us little about royal women as individuals, but rather they provide information on their various roles and the concept of queenship. They also show that over the three millennia of recorded ancient Egyptian civilization, there were many changes relating to royal women; for example, in their titles, their insignia, the contexts in which they were depicted, and the way in which they were buried. What follows is, therefore, a broad overview.

The earliest titles for queens of the first dynasty related them to the king in his aspect of Horus or Seth, and titles of this type continued through the Old Kingdom, and occurred sporadically into the New Kingdom as archaisms. During the sixth dynasty the title jrjt-pʿt was added. Although it was to remain part of queens' titularies into the Ptolemaic period, its significance is unclear; it is the feminine form of an important ranking title for male officials. It was rarely used by nonroyal women and when present, usually at the beginning of a long string of titles, it signified that the individual was a queen.

Old Kingdom queens are attested with the titles of priestess of Hathor, of various other deities, and of deceased kings. From the Middle Kingdom onward the commonest titles used by queens were “king's (principal) wife,” “king's mother,” and “king's daughter,” all of which defined their relationship to the current or previous king. Priestly titles that connected the queen to specific cults were rare at that time. Some royal women of the eighteenth dynasty held the title “god's wife of Amun” which signified a priestly role in the cult of Amun-Re at Thebes, but that office was distinct from the role of queen and could also be performed by king's daughters. Other queens' titles, first occurring in the twelfth dynasty but most common from the eighteenth dynasty onward, related the holder to the Two Lands and reflected a common kingly designation: “mistress of the Two Lands,” “lady of the Two Lands,” and “mistress of Upper and Lower Egypt.” During the twenty-first and twenty-second dynasties, queens often bore priestly titles that related them to the cults of various deities, including the goddesses Hathor and Mut and the child god Khons. Ptolemaic-era queens adopted the title ḥqʒt, the female form of ḥqʒ (“ruler”), used by the king and embodied in the ḥqʒ scepter, the crook carried by the king as part of his insignia.

The insignia used by queens increased in complexity with time. The first images of queens are dated to the Old Kingdom. In three-dimensional sculpture, they sat on a special type of “box” throne; however, they do not wear anything that marks them as queens. In the fifth dynasty, queens began wearing a vulture headdress. The body of the bird forms a cap and its wings spread downward against the side of the queen's head; its head and tail stick out in front and behind, respectively. The headdress relates to the Upper Egyptian vulture goddess Nekhbet, and it was clearly meant to associate or even identify the queen with her. Nekhbet formed a close pair with Wadjet, the Lower Egyptian cobra goddess; when Wadjet was shown in human form, she took over Nekhbet's vulture headdress but replaced the vulture head with a cobra's head, or uraeus. This form of headdress is attested for queens of the sixth dynasty, presumably associating them with Wadjet. The uraeus was also worn alone by royal women beginning in the fifth dynasty. In addition to relating them to Wadjet, it mirrored the king's use of a single uraeus and marked the bearer as sharing in the divine nature of the king. Other goddesses adopted the uraeus as well as the vulture headdress, so their general use by queens firmly related the queens to female deities. From the eighteenth dynasty onward, queens were shown with a double uraeus. In some examples, the snakes wear the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt, making it explicit that they refer to Nekhbet and Wadjet. In others, especially during the Amarna period, they wore instead the disk and horns of Hathor, which related to the solar aspect of the uraeus and the dual nature of Hathor as the eye of the sun god Re.

In the thirteenth dynasty, a crown consisting of two tall, straight falcon feathers was first worn by queens, and from the eighteenth dynasty it became one of their most important items of insignia. The two feathers were worn by the male deities Min, Amun, and Montu, and occasionally by some Middle Kingdom kings. Texts equate the double feathers with “the two uraei that were on the head of his father Atum” and with the eyes of the sun god. Since the uraeus was the solar eye, the two feathers embodied a feminine duality that was parallel to the double uraeus. In the reign of Amenhotpe III, the solar aspect of the crown was stressed by the addition of the solar disk and the horns of Hathor, first shown worn by Queen Tiy at the sed-festival, perhaps a corollary of the king's own rejuvenation and solarization. Hathor is one of the goddesses who, as the daughter of Re, represents the duality of the solar eye in its raging and pacified aspects. The combination of the double feathers with the horns and disk remained an item of queenly insignia into the Ptolemaic period. The queen was also represented as carrying the ankh-sign, symbolizing “life.” Life was something that belonged to the deities, which they give to the king. That it was also given to the queen associated her with the king, and it stressed her complementary role.

From the fifth dynasty onward, king's mothers and king's consorts were distinguished by their use of insignia that associated or identified them with various goddesses and the transformational power within them; they were the bearers of divine queenship, and they probably played a ritual role to complement that of the king. In temple decoration, the king was shown interacting with deities on a cosmic stage, an interaction reflected in the performance of ritual within the temple, although on most occasions that ritual was enacted by priests appointed to deputized for the king. In a small minority of temple scenes, the king was accompanied by a queen, perhaps indicating that on some of the occasions, when the king performed the ritual in person, the queen also had a role to play. The king was most likely to conduct ritual at important festivals, and the queen was present at the annual Opet Festival at Thebes, when the divine aspect of the king was renewed. She is also shown in depictions of the Min-festival at Thebes. The only queen shown regularly in temple scenes with the king was Nefertiti, during the atypical Amarna period; her ubiquitous presence may be related to the absence of goddesses at that time. The king's mother had a special status not shared with his consort, and that resulted from her role in the myth of the king's divine birth. When a king came to the throne, this event revealed that his mother—whether the previous king's principal wife or merely a secondary wife—had on the occasion of his conception been impregnated by the god (Amun-)Re.

The equivalence between the king's mother and his principal wife—displayed by their shared titles, insignia, and presence in similar ritual scene types—was not accidental. Together the two women represented the divine mother-consort as embodied in the sky goddess. Through her, the sun god perpetually renewed himself, by impregnating her at night as he set and by being born of her as he rose in the morning. On earth, the king represented the sun god, but when the divine parallel of renewal was transferred to the human sphere, the mother and consort could no longer be physically embodied as a single being; then, the role had to be divided between the king's mother and his principal wife. Secondary wives, by contrast, did not use queenly insignia and titles; nor did they appear in temple scenes, and they seem to have had no ritual role.

Despite their ritual role, it is unclear whether queens had any institutionalized authority in the political system. Individual queens were usually given their own estates together with a staff of male officials, so that they were provided with an independent income and a group of potentially loyal officials to serve their interests. By contrast, most secondary wives together with the royal children were grouped in larger living and administrative units. Without question, royal women had potential access to the highest authority in the land and, even if they had no official authority, probably played an unofficial role through their influence on the king. Queens who acted as regent for a young king would have exercised authority officially on his behalf.

The temptation to manipulate the succession probably always existed, although few traces of such intrigues have survived. For example, a papyrus from the twentieth dynasty reveals a plot to assassinate Ramesses III and replace the legitimate heir by another prince. The prime mover was the prince's mother. If she had been successful, she would have achieved the important position of king's mother, and no doubt she and her son would have rewarded their followers well.

Many kings married their (half-)sisters and had offspring by them. It was once thought that they took this action because the right to the throne passed through the female line although royal power was exercised by the man married to the current royal “heiress”; according to this hypothesis, every king, even if the son of the previous king, had to legitimize his rule by marrying the “heiress,” who was normally his (half-)sister. If this hypothesis were true, it should be possible to trace an unbroken line of kings' consorts in descent from one another; yet such a line does not exist. Further, not all kings married royal women, but no distinction exists between those who did so and those who did not. In other words, the “heiress” hypothesis was not supported by the evidence, so it is necessary to look elsewhere for an explanation of brother-sister marriage among kings. Little evidence exists for such marriages among the king's subjects, while a number of such examples exist for the divine world—presumably, the king would be stressing his divine aspect by taking the divine world as his model.

Some of our evidence concerning queens and other royal women has come from their burials, although not one burial has survived intact and the majority of burials remains unknown. Presumably, the king was responsible for the burial arrangements of his family members. In the Early Dynastic period, some royal women were buried in subsidiary graves that surrounded the king's tomb at Abydos; others, such as Meritneith at Abydos and Hetepwyneith at Naqada, had large, independent tombs. In the Old Kingdom, some queens were provided with burials in mastabas, while others were buried in subsidiary pyramids, a practice that also occurred in the twelfth dynasty. In the New Kingdom, during the eighteenth dynasty, a number of royal women were buried in rock-cut tombs in desert wadis (the so-called southwest valleys) on the western bank of the Nile River at Thebes. Because these tombs were undecorated, and they are all now plundered, the occupant can only be identified if some object or fragment has survived with her name. Such a tomb was prepared for Hatshepsut, wife of Thutmose II and mother of Thutmose III, when she was queen and, probably, also one for her daughter Neferure. Amenhotpe III included in his own tomb, in the Valley of the Kings, rooms for the burials of his principal wife Tiy and his daughter Satamun, whom he married; Akhenaten (Amenhotpe IV) did the same for Nefertiti and his daughter Meketaten in his tomb at Amarna. The Valley of the Queens, most famous for the decorated tomb of Nefertari, the wife of Ramesses II, was used for burials of royal family members—princes as well as women—during the nineteenth and twentieth dynasties. Some New Kingdom royal women were almost certainly buried at sites other than Thebes. The “harem” palace of Miwer, at Medinet el-Ghurob, had an associated cemetery, where most of the royal inhabitants were presumably buried; a tomb belonging to a king's son is known from there, as well as a number of female burials. After the New Kingdom, even less is known of the burials of royal women, although some items of burial equipment exist for several twenty-sixth dynasty queens. Queens of the Ptolemaic era were buried at Alexandria, in Hellenistic-style tombs, but none have survived.

Although kingship was regarded as a male office, and the king was identified with the male god Horus and as the son of the sun god Re and of other deities, nevertheless a few female rulers are known. Since they stand in contrast to the several hundred male kings who ruled during the three millennia of ancient Egypt's recorded history, clearly female rulers were anomalies—it was not the norm for a woman to ascend to the throne.

The historians Herodotus and Manetho, as well as the Turin Canon, all referred to a female ruler called Nitokris in Greek or Nitiqret in Egyptian. Manetho placed her as the last ruler of the sixth dynasty, while the Turin Canon put her after Merenra. She is not known from monuments or contemporary documents. In contrast, the female king Sobekneferu, the last ruler of the twelfth dynasty, is known from a number of contemporary monuments; she is attested with the full fivefold titulary of a king, and a regnal date of Year 3. A fragmentary quartzite statue, now in the Louvre, Paris, shows her in a combination of female dress and male royal costume, wearing the nemes-headdress of a king; she may have been the daughter of Amenemhet III and the consort of Amenemhet IV before becoming the ruler.

Hatshepsut is the female king about whom we know most. She was the daughter of the third king of the eighteenth dynasty, Thutmose I, and of his principal wife Ahmose. Hatshepsut married her half-brother Thutmose II, as his principal wife, and on his death became queen regent for his young son and heir Thutmose III. In that capacity, some of her actions were kingly, such as commissioning a pair of obelisks for the temple of Karnak and having herself represented in temple relief, offering directly to Amun-Re, rather than accompanying a king who performed the ritual. The titles and insignia used by Hatshepsut were, however, related to her roles as king's principal wife and as god's wife in the cult of Amun at Thebes. At some point, at the latest by the seventh year of Thutmose III's reign, she became king and ruled as coregent, adopting a full king's titulary and kingly insignia. A few statues and reliefs show her as king but wearing female dress, yet on the majority of her monuments, her image is that of a male king wearing traditional male dress. Although we do not know what happened to Hatshepsut in the end, by his Year 22, Thutmose III was ruling alone, and Hatshepsut had disappeared from the scene. Although Hatshepsut never ruled alone during her reign, she was clearly the dominant partner in the coregency, which lasted at least fourteen years. She ruled at a time of prosperity and built prolifically for the gods, especially at Thebes, where she constructed her great funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri, with her tomb in the Valley of the Kings. The first depictions of the Opet festival come from her reign, which seems to have been innovative in many ways. After her death, Thutmose III ruled for another three decades. At some point, he ordered Hatshepsut's names and images to be removed from the monuments, and the later temple king lists that relate to rituals for the royal ancestors omitted her name.

At the end of the nineteenth dynasty, Twosret, who had been the consort of Sety II, became queen regent for the young king, Siptah. During that time, she began the construction of a tomb for herself in the Valley of the Kings. On Siptah's death, she became king, presumably with a full kingly titulary, although we do not know her nebty and golden Horus names; she is not well attested as king, and her reign was short, brought to an end with the successful bid for the throne made by Sethnakhte, the first king of the Twentieth Dynasty. Twosret's fate is not known, but Sethnakhte took over her tomb and adapted it for his own burial.

Probably the most famous female ruler of Egypt is Cleopatra VII, the last member of the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty to govern Egypt. Although the Ptolemies were not only Greek by origin but also by culture, they adopted from the Egyptians the custom of royal brother–sister marriage. A number of Ptolemaic queens were very powerful women.

Cleopatra VII was the daughter of Ptolemy XII. In 51 BCE, she succeeded her father together with her brother Ptolemy XIII. For the next twenty years, she ruled Egypt, first with Ptolemy XIII, then with her next brother, Ptolemy XIV, and finally with her son, Ptolemy Caesar (by the Roman emperor Julius Caesar). She was politically ambitious and strove to extend her own influence, and that of Egypt, by associating herself successively with two powerful Roman generals, first Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony; her aim was always to keep Egypt independent of Rome. However, her defeat with Mark Antony at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE, followed by their deaths in 30 BCE, gave Egypt into the hands of Octavian, who became the emperor Augustus.

Little is known about Cleopatra from Egyptian sources, so most of our information comes from Greek and Roman writers who were hostile to her. Clearly, she was an intelligent woman, highly educated in Greek literature, music, and science. She was reputedly good at languages, and she may have been the only Ptolemy who learned to speak Egyptian.

See also AHMOSE-NEFERTARI; CLEOPATRA VII; HATSHEPSUT; NEFERTITI; and SOBEKNEFERU.

Bibliography

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Gay Robins