Female Pharaohs: Khentkaus I & Sobekneferu

Today I want to talk about some women often forgotten about in your ordinary history books, and even some academic books depending on the accessibility to materials. These are some of the precursors to later and more famous female pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, and their names are Khentkawes I and Sobekneferu. Why? Because there is such a thing as being cool before being cool – no offence Nefertiti or Cleo. More importantly, these women actually start defining what the reality of female pharaohs was in a much earlier time period, therefore opening the possibility for further historical revisionism and a better understanding of the role of women in ancient history.

Female Pharaoh: More than a Queen

Manetho, the egyptian advisor of the Ptolemies created the royal dynasty system that we use nowadays. There he named 5 female pharaohs, and it is recorded that these existed as early as the 3rd millennium BC.We reckon that there are at least 7 female pharaohs in the Egyptian record, showing that this wasn’t a title exclusive to men. In fact, Aidan Norrie states that the title of pharaoh unlike in the case of traditional European ruling titles, the term pharaoh didn’t have a specific gender assigned. Unfortunately, the fragmentary evidence for these female rulers is a big hinderance to understand their roles and reigns in comparison to those of their male counterparts. Moreover, Joanne Fletcher is of the opinion that this title of pharaoh when associated with women, has traditionally appeared to be downgraded or dismissed despite the blatant exercise of power that these women had. Often, they are referred to as “queens” when, in fact, they were pharaohs in full right.

How these women came to acquire such a privilege position is still very much contested, but different scholars provide us with insight as to how this might have happened. Kara Cooney in her book When Women Ruled the World: Six Queens of Egypt argues that the Egyptian rule of women was accepted systematically; perhaps by force. She is of the opinion that very few places could rival ancient Egyptian society in terms of female rulership, and that these female rulers of Egypt are just the epitome of female power, suggesting that there were many other positions available in court and society where women could excel, be influential and big contributors: highlighting the religious roles of priestess in particular. Moreover, she presents the idea that Egyptian rule was rather authoritarian and female rule would simply be enforced by the people and accepted if this was the answer to rulership. This is somewhat echoed by Aidan Norries, who states that Egyptian society was still strictly and primordially male and despite these women could rule under the right circumstances, that means the material culture legacy left for them shows depictions that reflect this male traditions, such as the examples of dress and other male attire in their portraits.

Khentkawes I: First Female Pharaoh?

Also known as Khentkaus, there is much debate about regarding her actual title and power, though finally it seems some recent advances are allowing us to cast new light. She was the daughter of the king Menkaure, wife of king Shepseskaf and king Userkaf and she was mother to 2 further rulers. Evidence of her own rulership lies in her own pyramids, according to Ana Tavares who was leading the investigation in 2014 at the ruler’s valley temple. The archaeological remains found there, seem to place her as a pharaoh of the 4th dynasty. This is best represented by her 2 stepped pyramid-masaba in Giza. Egyptologist Miroslav Verner has been a key scholar to frame her as a ruling pharaoh and not just a queen mother, however the depictions used to consolidate this theory are a bit faint and this has caused some doubt on the actual nature of these portrayals. This includes depictions where Khentkhawes appears enthroned, wearing the so-called false beard and traditional female dress, sceptre and royal uraeus cobra at the brow, dating from c2550-2520 BC.

Khentkaus I status as a female pharaoh was already suggested back in 1933 by Selim Hassan when first investigating her pyramid and valley temple. Regardless of the pictorial evidence, it seems certain that she reigned at least on behalf of one of her sons. There is some further controversy regarding this female ruler, due to the appearance of another woman with the same name – Khentkawes II – who appears to be another royal wife, but of the 5th dynasty instead. Both women share the same royal titles and some archaeological evidence have been found in context where it is difficult to ascertain whether this is actually 2 different people or not. The proximity in dates hasn’t helped either as the second Khentkawes is believed to have been alive between2475 and 2445BC, not that long after the first Khentkawes, therefore adding up to the confusion and potential mistaken identity.

Regardless of the fact, Khentkawes II also appears to be a female ruler herself, even if not clear on whether she was also a pharaoh, so perhaps the legacy of the name alone is enough to highlight the importance of either woman for their respective ruling dynasties. Without a doubt, and whether one or two different people, Khentkaus was the most prominent female ruler of the Old Kingdom, even if not received the popularity of the likes of Nefertiti and Nefertari.

Sobekneferu: The Original Female Pharaoh

Sobekneferu was technically the first universally accepted female pharaoh. She was the daughter of Amenemhat III, and was the last ruler of the 12th dynasty, reining from c. 1806 to 1802, nearly a millennium and a half after Khentkaus I. She was the first monarch to have been named after the crocodile deity Sobek, associated with pharaonic power, fertility and with a strong connection to the Nile. Her name alone shows her status and might as pharaoh. Her portraits blend both male and female attributes such as a male kilt cloth over the female dress. The northern sites of Tell El-Dab’a show several representations of her as pharaoh in a similar manner used later on for the depictions of Hatshepsut. She also built various structures Herakleopolis as well as the completed pyramid for her father at Hawara. Though we yet are to find her tomb, it is possible she may have been buried in her own pyramid in Mazghuna near Dashkur, a pharaonic site belonging to roughly the same time period and that remains  anonymous but seems to have relation to Sobekneferu’s father.

The lack of a named tomb makes things tricky for archaeologist to understand her full legacy as a pharaoh. Another contributing factor is the lack of offspring which is what leads to the end of the ruling dynasty and the beginning of the 13th Egyptian dynastic family. However, the inheritance of her divine name is something that would resonate with future pharaohs, therefore suggesting her name was not completely forgotten. It is likely that she would have been source of inspiration for Hatshepsut and Nefertiti. However, Aidan Norrie argues that due to the abundance of evidence in comparison with these other 2, she is often forgotten and overshadowed.

That is all for today folks, but make sure to tune in for more blog posts on diverse history topics. And we hope this has encouraged you to go and look at some other female rulers often not appearing in the most fashionable history books.

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