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HATSHEPSUT: WICKED STEPMOTHER OR JOAN OF ARC?

By Peter F. Dorman, Associate Professor of Egyptology
The Oriental Institute, and the
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 168, Winter 2001, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)


It is almost inevitable that historians, using the model of the brothers Grimm, have cast Queen Hatshepsut in the role of the wicked stepmother to the young King Tuthmose III; however difficult it is to assess the character of ancient royalty from the distant perspective of thirty-four centuries, half of the label is accurate: she was indeed his stepmother. The wickedness also seems to make perfect sense, in view of Hatshepsut's unprecedented act of apparent usurpation in donning the regalia of male pharaoh and stepping into the role of senior coregent while Tuthmose himself was too young to protest. For her presumption - and supposedly as an act of long-nurtured revenge - Hatshepsut was to pay the posthumous price of having her royal monuments attacked, with her kingly name and figure banished from her public memorials and from later king lists.

This is the kind of tale that makes history and its major figures come to life for the modern reader. Alas, while this scenario provides a stimulating read, new facts have come to light in the last fifteen years which suggest that the real story is at once more prosaic and more complicated. However appealing the "wicked stepmother" may be as the antagonist in western folk literature, Hatshepsut cannot play this role for us in the history of the Eighteenth Dynasty. Two general phenomena have been lately re-examined, resulting in a major shift in our perception of her role as "king" of Egypt: first, the so-called persecution of her memory following her death, and, second, the way in which she acquired royal regalia and titles in the early years of Tuthmose III.

It is beyond question that it was Tuthmose III who initiated the program to efface and recarve Hatshepsut's monuments after she died in his twenty-second regnal year, clearly at a time when he was fully capable of exercising the mantle of power alone. His agency in this act outwardly seems to reflect some personal motive toward his elder relative, as historians once claimed. And it is the widespread and systematic destruction of her cartouches and image - rather than any evidence drawn from the time they shared on the throne of Egypt - that have long sustained the belief that Tuthmose acted out of revenge.

If this motive is given credence, however, the belated timing of Hatshepsut's posthumous persecution is distinctly odd. The date of her delayed dishonoring can be determined at a single location in the heart of Karnak temple. Within a suite of chambers that Hatshepsut had built at the entrance to the innermost series of sanctuaries of Karnak, Tuthmose undertook a remodeling of sorts that involved the erection of a room detailing his military campaigns, beginning in regnal year 22 and extending to year 42. The room, referred to as the Hall of Annals, enclosed a granite shrine for the portable bark of Amun. When Auguste Mariette undertook initial clearances at Karnak in the mid-nineteenth century, he discovered that immediately behind one wall of the Hall of Annals stood the carved and painted reliefs of the original Hatshepsut suite; Tuthmose III had simply cladded these earlier walls with fresh sandstone and carved his campaign annals on them from scratch. But at the time they had been covered over, the Hatshepsut scenes were in the very process of being revised, as on all her other major monuments - but here the process had been abruptly suspended.

The manner of revision is clearly shown by the broad chisel strokes used to take down the bulk of the low raised relief on the walls of Hatshepsut's suite, as well as by the smaller strokes left by subsequent leveling chisels to prepare the surface for smoothing and eventual recutting (fig. 1). It seems clear that the Hall of Annals, enclosing the Amun bark sanctuary, and containing a careful recounting of twenty years of royal campaigning, was built and decorated no earlier than year 42 of Tuthmose III - at least twenty years after Hatshepsut's death. Such a late persecution does not easily support the idea of personal and long-anticipated revenge on the part of the younger king against his stepmother, whatever the degree of her wickedness. Vengeance will not easily abide a delay of two decades. What then prompted the late revision of Hatshepsut's memory?

Scholarly interest has now focused on the early reign of Tuthmose III and the deliberate way in which Hatshepsut set about acquiring pharaonic titles and dignity. As a result, her erstwhile role as ruthless usurper of the Egyptian throne is being thoroughly reinterpreted.

As the chief queen of Tuthmose II and holder of the foremost female religious office of god's wife of Amun, Hatshepsut in her earliest portrayals was depicted in the typical costume of the royal consort, wearing a long dress and adorned with the vulture headdress or plumed platform crown. During the reign of her husband, there is of course no hint of the change in her status that was to come. Tuthmose II might have reigned for only four years, or up to fourteen years; but in any case his death was doubtless unforeseen, leaving as eldest heir a son who might have been no older than a nursling. Tuthmose III was not of "full" royal blood, as his mother was a minor queen by the name of Isis. His subsequent reign of more than fifty-three years argues for a very tender age at accession. This fateful historical transition is described in the Theban tomb of the architect Ineni as follows:

(Tuthmose II) ascended to heaven and united with the gods, while his son stood in his place as king of the two lands, having assumed rulership over the throne of the one who begat him, and while his sister, the god's wife Hatshepsut, was conducting the affairs of the country, the two lands being in her care. With Egypt in obeisance she is served, the beneficent divine seed who has come forth before him, the prowrope of Upper Egypt and mooring post of the southerners.

Ineni's inscription - whose lifetime straddled the reigns of several of the Tuthmoside kings - is remarkable for one glaring omission: nowhere is the name of the new king mentioned, but only the female who had stepped into the role of regent for him, a woman who was perhaps twenty or twenty-five years his senior. Nor is Hatshepsut alluded to by her title of chief queen, but rather by her primary religious office, "god's wife," which at this time had considerable religious and economic influence in the city of Thebes. Ineni's text reflects an awareness of a very specific historical moment and perhaps a particular devotion to the elder members of the royal family as well.

Not everyone was hesitant to use the name of the young ruler: just seven months into the reign, a visitor at Djoser's Step Pyramid at Saqqara scrawled an ink graffito on the walls and dated it to year 1 of "Menkheperra," the coronation name of Tuthmose III. Hatshepsut is not mentioned, and surely in ordinary documents of the time the scribes and administrative offices continued to observe the time-honored rule of dating according to the nominal king.

The earliest monumental dedication of the new reign can be found at the Nubian temple of Semna. In year 2, Tuthmose III ordered the renewal of dedicatory offerings in honor of Dedwen, one of the local gods of Nubia, as well as the deified King Sesostris III and his Queen Meretseger. The text of Tuthmose's decree is inscribed on the eastern exterior wall, so the decoration of the temple is clearly dated to his early years. But there is one curiosity on the exterior western wall, where Tuthmose III appears with Dedwen in the central relief. Toward the south end of the wall, in a relief that has been largely erased, Hatshepsut was originally shown being presented to Sesostris III by the goddess Satet. Identified by her ordinary queenly titulary, Hatshepsut was clearly portrayed in a position supportive of the young king, in the sort of context that one would expect for the donor of a temple (fig. 2). One must wonder again at the young age of Tuthmose III in his second regnal year and surmise that the Semna temple dedication was probably instigated by his elder advisors, and perhaps by the queen regent herself.

In another early (although undated) document of the reign, Hatshepsut appears in a rock-cut graffito with her household steward, Senenmut, who carved the small scene in commemoration of his commission to obtain a pair of obelisks from the granite quarries at Aswan (fig. 3). According to the text, this commission was effected "through the power of her majesty," and the lady in question is portrayed in her queenly garb, with the double-plumed crown worn by chief queens and the piriform mace wielded by the god's wives of Amun. Her titles, again, are just queenly, but Senenmut describes his mistress as "one to whom Ra has actually given the kingship." Do we detect a streak of sycophancy here, or a hint of the truth?

Regnal year 5 is well attested for Tuthmose III. There are two stelae from Sinai that are dated to the young ruler, and in each case he is portrayed as sole king. It is difficult to be sure if the absence of Hatshepsut is a significant phenomenon, or whether toward the frontiers of the country, away from the Theban capital, the nominal king simply received his due recognition. Also in year 5 a new Egyptian vizier was appointed, Useramun, who was confirmed in the office of his father by royal decree of Tuthmose III. This signal event is commemorated in Useramun's tomb as well as on a papyrus, which provides us the exact date of the appointment and which is couched more as a literary composition than as an administrative document. And therein lies the problem in interpreting whether Tuthmose III was acting as an independent ruler in his fifth year: both the tomb inscription and papyrus are retrospective documents, composed during his later sole reign, long after the events of year 5 transpired, and doubtless couched to extol his personal virtues and wisdom. And yet, if Tuthmose acceded to the throne as a very young child, the appointment of a new vizier in year 5 was very likely a decision made by more experienced adults.

Hatshepsut at this time seems to have been flirting with kingly protocol, perhaps to reflect the nature and the necessity of her duties. The next step in her progression to the throne may be seen in the tomb of one Ahmose-Pennekhbet, from the town of Elkab just south of Thebes, an official who belonged to a family that provided a series of guardians or tutors for the royal offspring of the Theban dynasty. In his tomb biography, Ahmose-Pennekhbet lists a string of five kingly names, from Ahmose down through Tuthmose III, all whom he proudly served, ending his account with these words:

I attained a good old age while I was a king's man, being in the favor of their majesties, my love being in the palace, l.p.h. For me the god's wife repeated favors, the king's great wife Maatkara, justified; I brought up her eldest daughter, the princess Neferura, justified, while she was (still) a child at the breast.

While Tuthmose III is mentioned prominently in the text as the scion of several kings, Hatshepsut is referred to not by her personal name, but by a cartouche bearing one of the earliest instances of what would become her coronation name: Maatkara. And yet it is paired only with the titles of chief queen and god's wife, explainable - perhaps - by Ahmose-Pennekhbet's personal link to the dynasty as guardian to the Princess Neferura.

And a further development is evident on a stela dedicated at the temple of Hathor at Serabit el-Khadim in Sinai, on which Hatshepsut, attended by two officials, stands in front of the goddess and is dressed in the standard garb of the chief queen: a long gown, a vulture headdress, and the platform crown supporting two tall plumes (fig. 4). The scene accords perfectly with the ordinary iconography of a chief queen and a god's wife of Amun, and yet in front of the queen, her personal name, "Hatshepsut-united with Amun," is augmented with "Maatkara." Both cartouches (positioned, oddly, in reverse order to what would normally be expected) are preceded by the title "king of Upper and Lower Egypt."

During the initial years of the new reign, Hatshepsut as queen regent was clearly experimenting not only with alterations to her formal titulary, but with different ways of depicting herself. One version is evident on a block discovered at Karnak in the 1930s by the French excavator Henri Chevrier. Carved of hard limestone, the block belongs to a dismantled shrine of which only fragments are extant. The scene on this block is virtually intact: Hatshepsut is depicted offering wine to Amun-Ra, a ceremony traditionally reserved for the king, who was normally the chief officiant in all rituals in the presence of divinity (fig. 5). Her personal name is not used at all; she is instead called by the quintessential title of all Egyptian rulers, "king of Upper and Lower Egypt," as well as "mis[tress of the two la]nds, Maatkara." She also bears on her head the tall atef-crown that associates male kings with the sun god. But her clothing is otherwise perfectly feminine, with her long gown hugging her ankles and her feet set close together. Ancient observers must have found this a remarkably odd combination of costume and protocol.

Nor, apparently, was Hatshepsut entirely satisfied with this strange conglomeration. Another refinement was pursued at the temple of Buhen in Nubia, dedicated to a local form of the falcon-headed Horus. Buhen was built and decorated jointly by Tuthmose III and Hatshepsut, fairly early in the reign, but Hatshepsut was not content with peripheral mention, as at the nearby temple of Semna. She and Tuthmose III alternate in the sanctuary reliefs, each taking their turn in presenting offerings, Hatshepsut having equal share in the daily ritual. Although the upper walls at Buhen have vanished (and although the scenes were all thoroughly recut during the later days of her dishonoring) the original traces of the pertinent scenes reveal that Hatshepsut, however she may have been adorned and titled, was portrayed in typically male stance, with her feet in a striding pose - but still wearing the long female gown, which here seems to have acquired a spandex elasticity (fig. 6). The temple of Buhen also reveals to us that during this long experimentation with her titles, royal names, regalia, costume, and pose, Hatshepsut actively honored the memory of her deceased husband, Tuthmose II, who appears on the central axis in the innermost sanctuary, face to face with Horus of Buhen himself.

It is generally agreed that, by year 7 of Tuthmose III, Hatshepsut had adopted her ultimate public guise: she would henceforth be shown as a male king - wearing crowns and clothing typical of male pharaohs, and performing all the rituals required of them - and nonetheless be consistently referred to in the accompanying texts by feminine pronouns. This final transformation was accompanied by a shift in ideology as well. Although it was suitable for Hatshepsut to act as ward and regent for her young nephew during the years of his minority by virtue of her status as the widowed queen of his father, Tuthmose II, her acquisition of kingly titles could not be justified through a marriage alliance. Hatshepsut therefore turned to her own father, Tuthmose I, as the source and justification of her kingship. A series of propagandizing scenes at her great mortuary temple at Deir el-Bahri loudly proclaims her descent from one of the great conqueror kings of Egypt. First, in the purely mythical setting of the "divine birth reliefs," her mother, Queen Ahmose, is impregnated by the god Amun disguised as Tuthmose I, and the infant Hatshepsut is then acclaimed by a convocation of gods. Second, during her girlhood, Tuthmose I presents his daughter to his own court as his successor on the throne - an event we can be sure never took place. And third, during the reign of a king who can only be her father, the god Amun himself selects Hatshepsut and delivers an oracle, proclaiming her to be his personal choice as future king.

Such "facts," of course, flew in the face of recent history. Even her own contemporaries recognized that Hatshepsut had spent years as the chief queen of Tuthmose II and that her royal monuments were forced to ignore this inconvenient interlude. But her mortuary temple was never intended as an historical record of her reign, only as an ideological memorial. Even before she formally assumed full pharaonic titulary, the rock-cut cenotaph of Senenmut at Gebel Silsila gives us an initial hint of her ultimate intentions. On the lintel of the entrance portal, her ties to Tuthmose II have already been severed; she is named not as queen, but as potential heir to the throne: "Live, the king's firstborn daughter, Hatshepsut, may she live, beloved of Amun, lord of the thrones of the two lands, king of the gods" (fig. 7). Thus her claim to the throne as a male-portrayed pharaoh derived from the most conservative basis one could imagine: she was the eldest surviving heir of Tuthmose I.

he motives for her gradual assumption of kingly power (and depiction) remain largely unknown. In view of the many intermediate iconographic stages Hatshepsut tried out over such a protracted period of time, it is hardly accurate to describe her actions as a usurpation or a power grab, with or without the help of a meddlesome coterie of supporters. Both Ineni's biography and Senenmut's graffito indicate that Hatshepsut was the effective ruler of Egypt from the death of her husband. The question was not the wielding of power but how to represent it in a public context.

It is not impossible that Hatshepsut's experimentation with iconography was prompted by the necessity of effective rule during a prolonged regency, and that the strictures of functioning solely as a queen were inconsistent with that role. Her fictive claim to the throne through her father, Tuthmose I, served to grant her a certain legitimacy, but might also have proved ideologically problematic to her male successors. On the one hand, her self-portrayal as a male king may have served to guarantee the stability of an infant heir during the years following his accession, and to make possible the military conquests and domestic prosperity that would follow in his later years, for which history would long remember him. On the other hand, the revision of Hatshepsut's monuments, which took place at least twenty years after her death, reflects a changed attitude toward her unorthodox public image, but not necessarily a personal condemnation of the queen herself.

Whether Hatshepsut can truly be characterized as an ancient Joan of Arc for Tuthmose III - or whether such a comparison does not bear up under close scrutiny - is a moot point. The truth possibly lies somewhere in between the two very inconsistent images of a wicked stepmother and a savior of the dynastic line.

Peter F. Dorman is Associate Professor of Egyptology at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. He was Field Director of the Epigraphic Survey from 1989 to 1997.

Revised: April 28, 2011

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