Merneith: The First Queen of Egypt?
With considerable attention lavished upon the Eighteenth Dynasty, popular TV documentaries, and with a much-visited Mortuary Temple at Deir el-Bahri, many people are aware that the female ruler Hatshepsut reigned as “King” and Pharaoh during the New Kingdom. Many people also know that Queen Cleopatra (Cleopatra VII Philopator) ruled Egypt as her monarch. Less well known is that other Ptolemaic royal ladies such as Berenice IV Epiphaneia also ruled as the monarch of Egypt. There is evidence, too, in the New Kingdom of a possible female monarch at the end of the Amarna period and Queen Tausret’s reign concluded the Nineteenth Dynasty.
Hatshepsut and Cleopatra were therefore far from being the only women to rule Egypt. Nor was Hatshepsut the first. Queen [Regnant] Sobekneferu was the last monarch of the Twelth Dynasty and is perhaps the first queen whom we can be totally certain was regnant, reigning hundreds of years before Hatshepsut. A woman may however have achieved the accolade of first Queen of Egypt a millennium before Sobekneferu – Queen Merneith during the First Dynasty in the 29th century BCE.
I refuse to style her “king”, just as it feels disrespectful to say that Hatshepsut was a “king”. Merneith and Hatshepsut were queens and monarchs, just like Her Britannic Majesty Queen Elizabeth II: the correct English term for a female ruling monarch is “queen” (or “queen regnant”) and not “king”. In the interests of brevity and clarity, for a queen regnant I shall below use the term “queen” as a parallel to the term “king”. References to a “queen consort” or “regent” will be explicit in those terms. “Monarch” means either a king or queen.
The First Dynasty
The First Dynasty was ushered in by King Aha, the first of the Thinite kings. “Thinite” meaning from the city of This, near Abydos. This Archaic Period is not fully documented but the succession of monarchs for the vast majority of the period is clear, subject to questions about the status of female rulers:
- King Narmer
- (Queen Neithhotep?)
- King Aha
- King Djer
- King Djet
- Queen Merneith?
- King Den
- King Anedjib
- King Semerkhet
- King Qaa
- Various ephemeral kings or usurpers
Some people place Narmer as the last king of Dynasty O; others see Narmer and Aha as the same person; I believe that Narmer was the first king of the First Dynasty and united the Two Lands of Upper and Lower Egypt. Aha expanded the frontiers of the new Egypt further and consolidated its geo-political status. There then followed a period of prosperity as the throne passed from Djer, to Djet and then to Den. It seems likely that along the way two women also held power, Merneith and Neithhotep, the subjects of this article. Many texts see King Qaa as the last monarch of the First Dynasty but archaeological evidence is growing of a number of kings with short reigns at the end of the First Dynasty, perhaps even overlapping with the start of the Second Dynasty (Phizackerley, Monarchs). Wikinson ponders whether they might have been usurpers. The Palermo stone also records that the annual inundations at the start of the Second Dynasty were relatively low suggesting at best that the dynasty ended in what today we might call an economic depression and at worst a period of political and potentially social turbulence.
Our picture then is that Merneith lived during salad days, perhaps the first such period in the history of an united Egypt.
Our knowledge of daily life in the First Dynasty is however woefully incomplete, although finds from the tombs demonstrate the sophistication of the pottery. Everyday finds such as combs also hint at comfortable domesticity for the nobility. Crucially though written records are very sparse. Moreover, we know essentially nothing of the spoken language. It seems likely, based on modern comparisons, that there were at least strong regional accents, maybe dialects. Certainly by the Twelfth Dynasty we know from Heqanakht’s letters (O’Neill) that there were regional dialects and we might suppose, at this earlier period, even stronger regional variation. Although the rule of Egypt was united, what this meant to the everyday man and woman is therefore uncertain. The First Dynasty tombs at Saqqara and Umm el Qaab / Abydos indicate that two centres were important to the royal family – Memphis (for Saqqara) and This (for Abydos) but whether somebody like Queen Merneith travelled outside this area into the far south or. The geographical extent of Egypt during this period is likewise uncertain.
The Tombs of Merneith
In many books, Merneith is associated with two large tomb complexes: Tomb Y at Umm el Qaab, Abydos, and Mastaba 3503 at Saqqara. More recent scholarly thought is that the First Dynasty Saqqara mastabas are tombs for elite individuals other than the monarch, perhaps (see Morris) queens consort, princes and other members of the royal family too important to commit to a commoners grave, while reserving burial at Umm el-Qaab for monarchs. We therefore do not need to concern ourselves in this article with Saqqara Mastaba 3503 other than to note that Emery (who excavated at Saqqara) says of jar-sealings found at Saqqara, “one apparently bearing her [Merneith] name in a serekh surmounted by the crossed arrows if Nit [Neith], similar to the sealings of Neithotep from Naqada.” This serekh is the first piece of evidence that Merneith might have reigned as queen. Today the mastaba is usually identified with Sheshemka, an official from the reign of Merneith, although whether Sheshemka is a given name or a title is unclear.
Umm el Qaab was the royal burial ground at Abydos since predynastic times. With a name meaning “Mother of Pots”, the area today is littered with potshards. Émile Amélineau was responsible for the discovery and initial excavation of many neighbouring First Dynasty Tombs. Petrie was scathing about Amélineau’s ill-discipline in the royal cemetery, saying:
During four years there had been the scandal of Amelineau’s work at the Royal Tombs of Abydos. He had been given a concession to work there for five years; no plans were kept (a few incorrect ones were made later), there was no record of where things were found, no useful publication. He boasted that he had reduced to chips the pieces of stone vases which he did not care to remove, and burnt up the remains of the woodwork of the 1st dynasty in his kitchen.
One persistent, if apparently unproven, rumour is that Amélineau smashed pots to preserve the uniqueness of those he presented and sold to European museums and collectors. It is therefore perhaps fortunate that his excavation of many tombs was hurried and slapdash, overlooking some key finds, and that he failed to discover Merneith’s tomb. Even more fortunate for posterity, if not Amélineau’s reputation, is that he was followed in the field by the meticulous Flinders Petrie who published detailed accounts. Petrie did find Merneith’s large tomb, now labelled Tomb Y. It is likely, however, that most, perhaps all of the tombs, had been robbed within a few hundred years, or even decades, of their original burial. This seems to have been the fate of Merneith’s tomb which was also set on fire at some point.
The subterranean Tomb Y was rectangular, like the other tombs in the royal cemetery, and was centred around a burial chamber with a wooden floor, overlaid with mud plaster, and a ceiling of wooden beams, surrounded by eight smaller chambers for the storage of grave goods. The wooden floor had been burnt. Petire notes that evidence in the neighbouring tombs of other kings points to the burning being much later than the burial because the floors and lower walls are not charred; however Merneith’s tomb is an exception to the rule and the floor was burned at some point. Petrie notes also that few of the wooden and ivory objects show any sign of burning, disproving any suggestion that burning was a part of the funerary rites. The central chamber of Merneith’s tomb was 30’ long and 21’ (about 6½m) wide. The walls of the central chamber remained true to vertical and parallel to within 1” over their 9’ height. The surrounding walls are then between 48” – 51” (almost 4m) thick The roof was supported by great wooden beams placed on brick pilasters. Petrie states that post holes are an unusual feature for a tomb of this vintage, and posts may have been abandoned in favour of the pilasters before the roof was added. He believes that these great cross beams were probably covered in wooden boards and palm-leaf matting and then buried beneath several feet of sand. Perhaps the supply of great beams could not be guaranteed and posts and pilasters were fallbacks to enable the use of beams of lesser length or strength. Interestingly Petrie also reports that the floors of First Dynasty tombs comprised a lower level of beams overlain with wooden floorboards in an arrangement which would not seem too out of place today. This was sealed by a layer of mud plaster. He proposes that such floors are an imitation of those that probably graced the palace. There are no signs of a superstructure, which is a typical of the First Dynasty tombs at Umm el Qaab, but is uncharacteristic of other tombs of the period. David O’Connor, who has directed recent excavations at Abydos, says that there is evidence that a small earthern mound, possibly equating to the Primeval Mound of Egyptian mythology, placed over the First Dynasty tombs. Petrie recounts sand rather than earth within the decayed remains of the tombs when he excavated and, whereas O’Connor appeals to mysticism, the prosaic Petrie wonders whether the tombs, once buried, were even visible in the landscape.
Two stelae associated with the tomb were found. One is badly worn and fragmentary. The other stele, which is much better preserved, is now in the Egyptian Museum, Cairo (CM JE 34450). Her name is shown without a serekh on either. The original locations of stelae is uncertain. It is possible they were placed within the chamber but alternatively one, or both, might have served as a grave marker.
Queen Merneith, “Beloved of Neith”
Merneith’s name is now generally ascribed the meaning “Beloved of [or by] Neith”. Writing in 1961, Emery instead transliterates her name as Meryet-nit with a meaning of “Nit [Neith] is victorious”. If consulting references, be aware that Merneith’s name is sometimes alternatively transliterated as Mernit, Mereneith, Meryneith, Meryetneith or even Neith-meryt.
In comparison with many other royals of the First Dynasty, Queen Merneith is placed solidly in the archaeological record because of the references to her at Saqqara and within other tombs at Umm el Qaa. As mentioned, a stele now in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and dedicated to Queen Merneith was found in the burial chamber, the text of which forms the core of her known biography. No sealings bearing the name of Merneith were found in her tomb, although many bore the name of Den. However, although her name appears in some lists alongside other First Dynasty kings, it is not associated with the Horus falcon of kingship. The best example is a seal in Abydos Tomb T, that of her presumed son King Horus Den, which lists the kings Narmer, Aha, Djer, Djet, Den and anomalously finishes with Merneith, prefixing her name with a Nekbhet vulture instead of the Horus falcon of the male monarchs. Like the Horus falcon, the Nekhbet vulture is another bird closely associated with royalty. Wilkinson records recent discovery of a necropolis sealing from the tomb of Den identifying Merneith as “King’s mother, Merneith”. Care has to be taken not to read too much into the discovery within Den’s tomb as Petrie’s records suggest that some small items have migrated been neighbouring tombs which have been rifled repeatedly over the millennia. As explained below there is also a thought that Merneith had a daughter with the identical name.
The sequence of her name after that of her presumed son Horus Den on the list from his is not explained in any of the main references I have consulted. The anomaly might be explained in a number of ways: a lower placement for women than men, ranking regents after kings (if she was a regent), or maybe she was not Den’s mother?
The name Merneith is also included in the Palermo stone king list (Pirelli), where Tyldesley says that she is described not as King but King’s Mother. Other king lists, such as that in the tomb of King Horus Qa’a omit her name entirely. However, revisionism in kings lists to remove mention of unfashionable monarchs is common throughout the dynastic period and does not necessarily suggest that Merneith was not a monarch, especially as even the Palermo stone king list was compiled hundreds of years after her death.
On balance it is therefore generally assumed that she was widowed young and served as regent for her son. An alternative theory might be that she assumed the temporal duties of monarch but was unable, as a woman, to fulfil the religious and godly functions of a Horus-king. This theory would also explain the size of her tomb and why she is associated with the royal Nekbhet rather than a Horus falcon.
Gruesomely, some scholars also suspect that some of the graves surrounding Merneith’s mastaba were filled by some of the queen’s retainers who were killed (or committed suicide) after their mistress’s death. There is no dismemberment and so strangulation or poison are the suspected agents. At first glance this is prima facie evidence that Merenith was monarch – for whom else would retainers lay down their lives? Yet, the modern re-attribution of Mastaba 3503 at Saqqara, with its boat pit and 22 sacrifical burials, from Merneith to Sheshemka, proves that elite individuals other than the monarch could command such loyalty. With such evidence against Merneith’s monarchy, some sources see royal succession passing directly from King Horus Djet to King Horus Den, for example Adrian Dodson and Dyan Hilton in The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt.
In practice, there is little hard evidence of Merneith’s ancestry, although most scholars believe Merneith to be the daughter of King Horus Djer and Queen Herneith. A seal in the tomb of King Horus Den suggests that the lady “beloved of Neith” is both the half-sister and wife of King Horus Djet. It is not apparently universally accepted that the reference is to Queen Merneith but this is the lineage favoured by Dodson and Hilton in The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt, showing Den as the son of Merneith and her half-brother Djet, albeit with the doubt signified by adding a question mark to the marriage line in the family tree. An alternative is proposed in Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt, where Joyce Tyldesley considers that Queen Herneith might have been the mother of King Horus Den. The picture is further muddied by reference to a lady Ahaneith in stele UC 14268 (in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology), found in King Horus Djet’s tomb, leading some to consider that she too may have been wife of Djet and a queen consort. Emery is specific in his disagreement, saying also that any references to Den in Merneith’s tomb are intrusive. All we know is that a First Dynasty Merneith was mother of some king.
“The Other Boleyn Girl”
As I write this, there has been confusion over the identification of a tomb belonging to one Nebamun. It was initially assumed by some to be the missing tomb of the Nebamun whence magnificent reliefs were removed, which are now on display in the British Museum. The new tomb is in fact associated with a different Nebamun. Matching the correct site or object with the correct person a common problem within Egyptology, where many people had the same names, and maybe the Nordic tradition of styling people as “son of” or “daughter of” may remove some of the confusion.
In this context, Queen Merneith ought not be confused with her daughter Merneith who, as consort of King Horus Den, might also be styled Queen Merneith. At least it is generally assumed that the two ladies are distinct.
Neith, “the terrifying one” (Wilkinson), was at that time the Goddess of War of Lower Egypt and some see the stem of Merneith’s name as indicating that she was born in the Delta region. This seems to me questionable logic. If Herneith was indeed Merneith’s mother, and the other Merneith her daughter, it seems more likely that the stem of the name was passed filially from mother to daughter, and it was fashionable for women’s names to incorporate a “neith” syllable. While Herneith (or her mother or grandmother if the name chain did not start with her) might be associated with the Delta, there seems scant evidence to suggest that the name indicates that the two Merneiths were born in the Delta. Indeed, if Merneith is the daughter of the Thinite queen, Queen Herneith, a birth in This near Abydos seems more likely.
The First Queen of Egypt?
It is tempting to conclude that Merneith, if she did rule as monarch and not as regent, must have been the first Queen of Egypt. Although Egypt had only been united three or four generations previously, Merneith may not, however, have been the first queen of Egypt. The evidence suggests that King Narmer was married to a Queen Neithhotep, and that she outlived her husband. Some believe she then served as regent. Neithhotep’s name also appears in a serekh and it is possible that she sat upon the throne of in her own right as Queen of Egypt. Whether Merneith or Neithhotep was in fact the first Queen of Egypt does not, for me, take away from the lifetime of Merneith, although personally I see her as her a true pioneer.
Many commentators believe that Merneith was in fact only a regent for her son and never Queen of Egypt. For me this argument fails immediately because it imports the later concept of regency into the First Dynasty without any direct evidence for doing so. Moreover when approached in modern terms we are tempted to see matters only in a secular context. Although the nuances of Egyptian theology are poorly understood at such an early date, the use of Horus names suggests that the king was even at this early date strongly associated with the god, Horus and may already have come to be regarded as the earthly manifestation of Horus. While Merneith might have exercised the secular prerogatives of kingship, as a woman she could not fulfil the Horus (male) aspects of the role of God-King. Lex parsimoniae suggests this difference in her divine status is sufficient to explain any variation in the styling of her name compared with other First Dynasty monarchs and that explicit evidence should be required to import the notion of regency. Writing about England’s Mediaeval Queens Consort, Lisa Hilton demonstrates forcibly how, during that more recent and better recorded period, the nature of queenship varied over the decades, and from reign to reign. The case for regency is often made by comparison between Merneith and other First Dynasty reigns and, it seems to me, assumes a rather static institution of monarchy. My observation is that the key to an enduring dynasty is the ability of ruling monarchs and their consorts to reinvent monarchy constantly according to the specific needs of their generation. I therefore am not persuaded that comparison with other First Dynasty reigns can establish evidence for regency when a dynamic institution of monarchy seems, to me at least, the simpler explanation for any differences.
By the time of Queen Cleopatra, Egypt had become somewhat decadent. While Hatshepsut may have schemed her way to the throne, she also reigned at a time of relative stability during the mid Eighteenth Dynasty. The First Dynasty in contrast was still carving out a place for itself, with military border clashes and campaign. Egypt was newly united and the monarchical succession was generally patrilineal. Into this milieu stepped Merneith. Whether she ruled merely as regent for her son, or as monarch in her own right, her achievement seems more remarkable to me than that of either the more famous Hatshepsut or Cleopatra. The omission of her name from later kings lists suggests to me that her reign was seen as exceptional and perhaps had come to be seen as an unlikely story by the time the king lists were compiled.
Merneith was buried with the panoply reserved for kings in the burial ground at Umm el Qaab which was otherwise reserved for monarchs. Her retainers probably followed her into the afterlife, perhaps as part of a mass funeral. Animals and foodstuffs were provided in abundance. Her name was, if only rarely, shown with a serekh. If she was only a regent, then clearly her tenure must have been a remarkable one to gain the perquisites of kingship for her afterlife, if not for her earthly life. Although, the evidence suggests to me that she did reign as Queen of Egypt in her own right, perhaps the debate about regency is sterile and involves concepts alien to her contemporaries. Perhaps, for them, there was no meaningful difference between a queen regnant and a regent, although there may have been a different between a king (or queen) and a semi-divine Horus-king.
It is always tempting to see ancient societies as less enlightened than our own. It is salutary to consider that at least one woman, and possibly two, reached the pinnacle of Egyptian society during the First Dynasty. We will never know whether she was a good or kindly woman but she was manifestly exceptional.
Emery and Petrie excavated and their volumes, as primary sources, have been preferred. Likewise Toby Wilkinson’s Early Dynastic Egypt is quite excellent and includes some subsequent archaeology. Outside of these core texts, there is a lot of contradiction (and therefore some inaccuracies) among the various books on the subject
Abydos. Egypt’s First Pharaohs and the Cult of Osiris, Thames and Hudson 2009 and 2011, Thames and Hudson 2009 and 2011
Abydos – Umm el-Qaab, Web, Deutsches Archäologisches Institut
http://www.dainst.org/en/project/abydos?ft=all (retrieved 22 November 2012)
Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt, 2006, Joyce Tyldesley
The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt, 2004 , Adrian Dodson and Dyan Hilton
Early Dynastic Egypt, Toby Wilkinson
Encyclopaedia of Ancient Egypt (Revised Edition), 2002, Margaret Bunson
On the Ownership of the Saqqara Mastabas and the Allotment of Political and Ideological Power at the Dawn of the State; Morris, Ellen F; published in The Archaeology and Art of Ancient Egypt, Essays in Honor [sic] of David B O’Connor, Annales du Service des Antiquités de L’Égypte, Cashier No 36, Volume II, available at http://www.academia.edu/239622/On_the_ownership_of_the_Saqqara_mastabas_and_the_allotment_of_political_and_ideological_power_at_the_dawn_of_the_state
Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York, 2010, Lisa Hilton
Revisiting Heqanakht, Barbara O’Neill, Egyptological Magazine 10th December 2012
The Oxford Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, 2000, edited by Ian Shaw
The Queens of Ancient Egypt, 2008 , Rosanna Pirelli
The Royal Tombs of the First Dynasty, 1900, W.M. Flinders Petrie