Horemheb the Usurper: Magical Potency and the Rough Road to the Throne—Part I
Usurpation of monuments and funerary goods occurred over much of ancient Egyptian history. Quite a few Pharaohs and nobles indulged in this practice—and far from our modern notion of greedy monarchs attempting to appropriate the edifices of predecessors or recycling their burial equipment for personal glory; more often than not, there were religious and reverential reasons for doing so. But there was one ruler, Akhenaten, whose building works no one wanted to lay claim to after his passing; or so we have been led to believe. Yet, an intriguing object in the Cairo Museum attributed to both the Heretic and his intolerant successor, Horemheb, raises substantial doubt about whether the appropriation of the former’s monuments was considered anathema or not.
The four ornate gold coffinettes that held the embalmed royal viscera of Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Palimpsest inscriptions present on the insides of these objects reveal the name, Neferneferuaten; making it a clear case of usurpation from a female predecessor. Egyptian Museum, Cairo. (Mark Fischer / flickr)
The Many Shades of Usurpation
Concrete instances of kings who hoped to acquire or take upon themselves the spiritual mantle of their more illustrious predecessors by means of what is termed “reverential usurpation” abound in the annals of Egyptian history. The favorite choice of Ramesses II was the massive structures of Amenhotep III and his own father Seti I, over whose names he carved his own. Compared to other sovereigns, Ramesses had greater opportunity to usurp a larger number of buildings owing to the phenomenal length of his reign. But in order to thwart the attempts of their successors to alter texts, the ones who followed Ramesses the Great, especially Ramesses III, ensured that cartouches bearing his name were carved deep into the walls of his temples and palaces at Medinet Habu. We even have evidence of entire sepulcher’s that were taken over for use by successors, as was the case with Ramesses V.
The texts beside this scene of Pharaoh Ramesses III smiting his enemies are carved deep into the wall to avoid usurpation at a later date. Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III. Medinet Habu.
With regard to examples of recycled grave objects, we need look no further than the boy-king Tutankhamun’s tomb which contained an estimated eighty percent or more core burial equipment re-purposed from his predecessors, Akhenaten and Ankhkheperure. Renowned Amarna expert, Dr Nicholas Reeves, explains, “Several objects from the tomb had demonstrably been intended for use by earlier kings; and, although the original ownership of many of these appropriated pieces cannot always be established, a good number had clearly been designed for Akhenaten or for his coregent and probable successor, the enigmatic Smenkhkare.”
Was the golden mask found on the mummy of Tutankhamun originally prepared for a female pharaoh who preceded him? Based on studies conducted by Dr Nicholas Reeves and Marc Gabolde on the object; the answer is a resounding “Yes”.
For Egyptologists, the process of use and reuse is not entirely unfamiliar: indeed, it was destined to be repeated three centuries later when the Valley of the Kings itself was dismantled, the royal mummies cached, and a selection of their tomb contents taken over for the burials of the 21st Dynasty kings at Tanis. “Although the dismantling of one’s forebears’ tombs and the re-employment of second hand burial equipment seems a rather grotesque concept, it was clearly common in ancient Egypt. During the Third Intermediate Period, at the time of the great caches, the motivation varied. It is clear that the Egyptians considered certain items of funerary equipment to be imbued with a magical potency which could be transferred to its new owner,” reveals Dr Reeves.
It wasn’t mere mortals, but even the gods fell into the “usurper” bracket at times, informs Toby Wilkinson, “The rise of Osiris from obscure beginnings to universal god of the dead lay at the heart of the new religious order. As he became venerated throughout the length and breadth of Egypt, Osiris eclipsed a host of other, more ancient funerary deities, assimilating their attributes and usurping their temples.”
When he assumed the throne, Pharaoh Horemheb lost no time in dismantling the Amarna religious apparatus; and with it, the memory of those who were involved in the promotion of Atenism. An image of Tutankhamun, with cartouches usurped by Horemheb, on the inner face of the west gateway into the Colonnade Hall of Luxor Temple.
Aye, a Major Stumbling Block
All it took was a mere four years following the demise of Tutankhamun for the ambitious Generalissimo and erstwhile Crown Prince, Horemheb, to bring the curtains down on the glorious two-and-a-half centuries’ old Thutmosid dynasty that had enjoyed unprecedented power and had gifted Egypt her Golden Age. But the road to the throne had been no cakewalk for Horemheb. The old family retainer, Aye, was a stumbling block to his dreams. But given the prevalent cauldron of confusion that existed at that time, we are as yet unsure about the true roles essayed by the few individuals of whom we are aware. For instance, we have the influential figure, Aye, who hailed from the Upper Egyptian town of Akhmim (Khent-min) and is believed to have been the son of the resourceful Yuya — which if true, made him the brother of the powerful Queen Tiye.
These fragmentary scenes, originally from the second courtyard of his Saqqaran tomb, show King Horemheb being awarded the Gold of Honor by Tutankhamun for his military prowess. Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden.
Aye held important titles including Grand Vizier and ‘It-netjer’ (Father of the God); just as his putative father did. In such a scenario, Aye was Akhenaten’s uncle and his tutor, like Yuya had been to Amenhotep III. Scholars opine that the enhanced status of “fan-bearer” accorded to Aye during the reign of Akhenaten was due in no small measure to the fact that his wife, Tiy, served as Queen Nefertiti’s wet-nurse. “There are specialists who argue in favor of his being linked by blood to the ruling family as well, although there is no hint of this in the texts and representations of the spacious tomb he commissioned as a commoner at Amarna,” notes Dr Marianne Eaton-Krauss.
Limestone or calcite head of a statuette, possibly Pharaoh Aye – believed by some to have been Nefertiti’s father. The royal uraeus would have probably been added after completion. Egyptian Museum, Cairo.
So if Aye too was of common stock like him, what then made it difficult for Horemheb to realize his desire to become king; and what was the clinching factor that enabled the aged vizier to steal a march? Based on extant evidence, Dr Otto Schaden offers proof that Aye was in fact the regent of Tutankhamun, since on a gold foil from KV58 he was shown standing in front of Tutankhamun striking an enemy. “There are some other scraps of gold leaf with titles from KV 58, which have been attributed to Aye. The inscriptions seem to show Aye’s titles just before he was elevated to king: “Hereditary noble, count, [Seal bearer] of the king of Lower Egypt. . . . (god’s) father, fan bearer (on the right of the king). . . . vizier, one who does the truth, priest of Maat, one who unites the god’s hand. . . .” The other inscription reads: “Hereditary noble, count. . . . Great. . . . of [His] Majesty. . . .” reveals Dr Schaden.
The author gratefully acknowledges Leena Pekkalainen for sharing her painting of Tutankhamun’s mask, and also for reproducing a sketch of the cartouche.
Top Image: A limestone sculpture from the Temple of Amun in Thebes depicts Horemheb standing beside the state god; design by Anand Balaji (Photo credit: Leena Pekkalainen); Deriv.
By Anand Balaji
Independent researcher and playwright, Anand Balaji, is an Ancient Origins guest writer and author of Sands of Amarna: End of Akhenaten.
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