Revealing the Identify of the First Female Ruler of Egypt. Hint: It Was NOT Hatshepsut
Today it is known that women appeared on the throne in ancient Egypt more often than many people believed just decades ago. The first known influential queens appeared with the first kings. This was long before the female pharaoh Hatshepsut took the throne. Their lives inspired queens until the fall of the ancient Egyptian civilization.
For a long time, Egyptologists believed that women became leaders a few centuries after the reign of the First Dynasty in ancient Egypt. However, information about powerful female rulers in the first dynasties eventually became a well-known fact. This provides a beautiful tale about strong and authoritative women in ancient Egypt.
Leaders Didn't Have to be Men
It is commonly believed that to become a ruler in Egypt, women had to act like men, or even pretend to be male - as in the case of Queen Hatshepsut who ruled during the 18th dynasty of the New Kingdom Period. However, the women from the first dynasties of Egypt had a different situation. They were mother-queens, rulers, and probably regents too. Although it is impossible to reconstruct all the details about their times, one can suppose that their position in their courts was strong.
Statue of Hatshepsut on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The first known woman who can be considered an important ruler of Egypt was the wife of Narmer – Neithhotep, whose name can be translated as ''[the goddess] Neith is satisfied''. She was buried in Naquada, which suggests that she was a daughter in a long line of local rulers. She is known from the archaeological record. According to Joyce Tyldesley:
“Comparison with the impressive tombs provided for queens Neithhotep and Herneith would suggest that they are not members of the immediate royal family. Nevertheless, they are women considered important enough to merit burial beside their king. This was no insignificant honor, as it offered them the chance to share aspects of the king's divine afterlife.”
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Small piece of ivory, engraved with the name of Queen Neith-hotep of the first dynasty. ( CC BY 2.0 )
“Archaeologists generally agreed that women and the few men represent the king's personal servants, including women who may have been classed as harem wives. Other subsidiary graves included dwarves (a particular court favorite throughout the dynastic age) and favorite hunting dogs who were provided with their own funerary stelae. The fact that the graves were simultaneously sealed suggests that they were meant for courtiers and members of the harem expected or even compelled to die with the king. They were, however, a short-lived, wasteful phenomenon that would be abandoned by the late 2nd Dynasty when the tomb complexes of kings Peribsen and Khasekhemwy were built without any form of subsidiary burial.”
Close-up view of Narmer on the Narmer Palette. ( Public Domain )
Some say that Neithhotep ruled as a regent with her son, who was too young to be a real king, after Narmer died. She paved the way for more important female rulers. The women during the reign of First dynasty were important and wealthy, and their tombs prove their position. Other known names of queens from this period are Benerib, Khenthap, Herneith, and Merneith. The last one of these rose above the others – it is certain she was an Egyptian ruler.
The First Documented Egyptian Female Ruler
Merneith (Meritneith) was a regent or consort. Her name is linked to the goddess Neith and means ''Beloved by Neith''. She ruled Egypt after the death of Djet because their son was too young to rule. She held power until Den was mature enough to become a king. But due to the lack of resources, it cannot be concluded if she was the first or second queen to rule Egypt. If she was the second, her reign is better documented than that of her predecessor.
Tomb stela of Merneith from the Umm el-Qa'ab. ( CC BY 2.0 )
Merneith seems to have been forgotten (intentionally or not) during the New Kingdom period. Her name doesn't appear on the list of rulers, but it was included on the famous Palermo Stone that was created during the Old Kingdom. Her name is also known from a seal discovered in the tomb of her son Den. The seal mentions the names of rulers who were kings of the First Dynasty before him. Apart from Merneith, all the other rulers are definitely male because their names are connected to the god Horus. Only Merneith has a title of the King's Mother.