Nefertiti

Nefertiti by Winfred Brunton

Arguably, to those who are not very involved in the study of ancient Egypt, Queen Nefertiti is perhaps better known than her husband, the heretic king Akhenaten (Amenhotep IV). It is said that even in the ancient world, her beauty was famous, and her famous statue, found in a sculptor’s workshop, is not only one of the most recognizable icons of ancient Egypt, but also the topic of some modern controversy. She was more than a pretty face however, for she seems to have taken a hitherto unprecedented level of importance in the Amarna period of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty. In artwork, her status is evident and indicates that she had almost as much influence as her husband. For example, she is depicted nearly twice as often in reliefs as her husband, at least during the first five years of his reign. Indeed, she is once even shown in the conventional pose of a pharaoh smiting his (or in this case, her) enemy.
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WIFE OF AMUN

GOD’S
WIFE OF AMUN

 

 

           
This title, applied sporadically in the Middle Kingdom to non-royal
women, became a major honor given only to the wives, mothers, and daughters
of kings in the Eighteenth Dynasty, and celibate daughters of kings in the
Third Intermediate Period.  Although
the same title was used in all three periods, it would probably be best to
treat them separately for what we say about the office in one period may not
apply in the other.  We know
almost nothing about the office in the Middle Kingdom so we will look at the
evidence for the New Kingdom and for the Third Intermediate.

 

NEW
KINGDOM:
  

           
The first of the royal women to bear the title was Ahhotep,
but it was under her daughter, Ahmose-Nefertari, that the office achieved
importance.  King Ahmose made a
deal with the priesthood of Amun whereby his wife and her heirs would hold
the title in perpetuity.  Along
with it came its own estate and officials. 

Amun acquired a great deal of wealth; the king acquired a position of
considerable prestige and power for a queen or princess.

           
An18th
dynasty God’s Wife might have worn priestly garments (short wig, a thin
square of cloth hanging in a knot from the back of the head, and a belted or
unbelted sheath dress) or, the dress and regalia appropriate to her standing
as a royal princess or queen. 

           
From the reign of Hatshepsut there is a scene in which the God’s
Wife participated in temple ritual along with a male priest, a scene in
which she led male priests into the sacred lake for purification and one
where she followed the King into the inner court of the temple. 

So much wealth and prestige was attached to the office that we must
wonder if there was not more to it than the performance of a few rituals. 
There is absolutely no sign of sacred prostitution anywhere in
Ancient Egypt so we can safely assume that despite the title there was
nothing sexual about the office.  The
following have been suggested:

  1. It
    is possible that she was, perhaps through the playing of music, supposed
    to make Amun happy and stimulated enough to carry out the reproductive
    activity necessary for the continued survival of Egypt. 
    This could account for the word wife without involving any sexual
    activity.
  2. The
    Egyptians did see everything in pairs—good and evil, order and chaos,
    day and night, etc.—so that one was never possible without the other. 

    It has been suggested that the God’s Wife could participate in
    worship along side the King as a sort of matching pair. 
    The problem with this suggestion is that the office was not
    always held by a King’s Great Wife and yet the chief queen was a much
    more natural match for a king. 

  3. Others
    have suggested that a fear of the rising power of the Amun priesthood
    existed as early as the end of the Seventeenth and the beginning of the
    Eighteenth Dynasties and that Ahmose hoped that by planting a trusted
    female relative in a position of power at the center of the Amun temple
    he could curb the pretensions of the male priesthood. 
    This argument is strengthened by the fact that throughout the
    Eighteenth Dynasty princesses were forbidden to marry anyone but the
    king himself.  This
    prevented the dispersal of royal wealth and hence of political power. 
    Whatever authority and prestige a royal woman possessed came
    entirely from the King, allowing no one to set up a rival power base
    simply through association with a King’s daughter.

  4. If
    a queen or princess is the wife of Amun then the god might have fathered
    any children she produced.  Pharaohs
    liked to claim that they were sons of the divine. 
    The claim was always made retroactively: after they ascended the
    throne they could point out that their mother had been the wife of the god.

 

THE
THIRD INTERMEDIATE PERIOD

Central
authority broke down once again in the Third Intermediate Period. 
Unlike the first two such periods, fragmentation was not seen as a
particularly bad thing.  The
power and size of each region fluctuated over time and there were moments of
intense rivalry that could include war, but the four-century period was more
stable than one might expect.

Upper
Egypt was essentially a theocracy under the control of the god Amun and his
priests; Lower Egypt (the Delta) was further divided into several
principalities.  For most of the
time all parts of Egypt pretended to accept a single ruler, usually the King
of Tanis, as the supreme Pharaoh, but this individual rarely demanded or
received obedience outside of his own corner of the country. 

Throughout
the Old, Middle and New Kingdoms one of the Pharaoh’s most important jobs
was that of leading the worship of the gods in order to maintain Ma’at. 

By the beginning of the Third Intermediate Period the Amun priesthood
had succeeded in transferring that responsibility to itself, at least in the
area of Upper Egypt.  If the
king was not needed to propitiate the gods, he was certainly not needed to
appoint men to important civic offices like the Vizier, Treasurer, and
Commander of the Army.  At times
a Pharaoh based in Tanis would have his daughter appointed as God’s Wife
of Amun.  By having a celibate
daughter carry out the traditional ceremonies by which the monarch appealed
to the gods to help Egypt, the Pharaoh could pretend to rule the whole
country without the Amun priesthood actually having to give up any real
power, though it is possible there were occasions when the balance shifted
and the God’s Wife actually exercised some genuine authority.

     
Towards the end of this period the kings of Kush controlled the God’s
Wife.  New Kingdom Pharaohs had
taken great pains to control Nubia, but over the course of the 20th

Dynasty Egypt’s physical presence disappeared. 
By the middle of the Eighth Century BCE the roles were
reversed and Nubia controlled Upper Egypt. 
Although the King of Kush called himself the Pharaoh of Egypt, his
authority seldom extended north of Memphis and was often exercised through
the office of God’s Wife of Amun.

           
Throughout the Third Intermediate Period the God’s Wife of Amun was always
celibate; she might have been the daughter of a king or a high priest, but
she was never a king’s wife.  She
was always pictured wearing a queen’s costume and never the dress of a
princess or priestess.  Paintings
show her performing rituals that had hitherto only been carried out by a
Pharaoh: making an offering or libation to a god; being embraced by a god;
receiving the symbols of kingship from a god. 

A relief from North Karnak even shows a God’s Wife celebrating a
Sed Festival, traditionally the thirtieth anniversary of a king’s reign.

 

 

Standing figure of a
22nd Dynasty God’s Wife of Amun. Photo used with the kind
permission of Jon Bodsworth www.egyptarchive.co.uk