The Shrouded History of Nitocris: Was the Last Pharaoh of the Sixth Dynasty a Woman?
Nitocris is claimed by some sources to have been a female pharaoh of ancient Egypt. However, prior to the Ptolemaic Dynasty, there were few female rulers in the history of ancient Egypt. Many of these women ruled only as regents for their underage sons.
The most famous of these early female rulers is arguably Hatshepsut, a pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. Although she officially ruled jointly with her nephew and step-son, Thutmose III (who was still a child when he ascended the throne), Hatshepsut assumed the title of pharaoh several years into her reign. Despite efforts by her successors to completely erase her from history, there are enough artifacts from her reign to attest to her existence and status.
Unlike Hatshepsut, Nitocris is a much more mysterious figure. Apart from being mentioned by Herodotus and Manetho, there is little else at present that points towards her existence.
The Debated Last Pharaoh of the 6th Dynasty
Nitocris is believed to have lived around the 22nd century BC, which was towards the end of the 6th Dynasty. Some have suggested that Nitocris was the last pharaoh of this dynasty. On a fragment of the Turin King List (known also as the Turin Papyrus and the Turin Royal Canon), there is an unknown pharaoh by the name of Netiqerti, who was the successor of Nemtiemsaf II. It has been speculated that this was Nitocris.
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By comparison, the Abydos King List (known also as the Abydos Table) has Netjerkara occupying the position of Netiqerti. It has been argued that as the name Netjerkara is a male name, it is not possible that Netiqerti and Nitocris were one and the same person.
The Turin King List may have been written as early as during the reign of Ramesses II, or as late as the end of the 20th Dynasty. As for the Abydos King List, it was discovered on a wall of the mortuary temple of Seti I, and was almost certainly written during Seti’s reign. Neither of these sources name Nitocris explicitly, and the only known source regarding Nitocris (which was written by an ancient Egyptian) is Manetho’s Aegyptiaca (‘History of Egypt’).
Drawing of the Turin King list. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Manetho was an Egyptian historian and priest who lived around the 3rd century BC during the reign of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. Compared to the Egyptians who made the Turin King List and Abydos King List, Manetho may be said to be separated from Nitocris by a much larger span of time. Therefore, it is entirely possible that Manetho’s writings regarding Nitocris are less accurate than we desire. For instance, in the Aegyptica (from the ‘Armenian Version of Eusebius’), Manetho wrote that,
There was a queen Nitôcris, the noblest and loveliest of the women of her time; she had a fair complexion, and is said to have built the third pyramid.
In another fragment of the Aegyptica (from George Syncellus, a Byzantine chronicler), the number of years that Nitocris reigned for is also given,
Nitôcris, the noblest and loveliest of the women of her time, of fair complexion, the builder of the third pyramid, reigned for 12 years.
Papyrus Baden 4:59, Verso (fifth century AD..): Suspected partial copy of the Epitome, based on the Aegyptiaca Manetho. ( Public Domain )
Although Manetho recorded that the “third pyramid” was built by Nitocris, it has been established that this monument was built by Menkaura, a pharaoh from the 4th Dynasty. Some have speculated that Manetho had misread Menkara for Menkaura, hence the mistake. This speculation also suggests that Menkara could have been Nitocris’ praenomen or throne name (identified by a cartouche surrounding it, and the ‘sedge and the bee’). This praenomen does appear in the Abydos King List, though after Netjerkara, the other praenomen thought to belong to Nitocris.
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Greywacke statue of Menkaure, Egyptian Museum, Cairo. (CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Apart from that, it seems that nothing more was written by Manetho regarding Nitocris. Thus, even if Manetho was a reliable source regarding Nitocris, there is little that we can find out about Nitocris from him.
Herodotus on Nitocris
By far, the most colorful account of Nitocris comes from the Greek historian Herodotus. Like many of the other fanciful stories found in Herodotus’ work, this one too ought to be taken with a pinch of salt, despite the historian’s claim that this tale was related to him by Egyptian priests. The story of Nitocris in Herodotus’ The Histories goes like this:
The name of the queen was Nitocris – the same as that of the Babylonian queen. They said that she avenged her brother. Despite the fact that he was their king, the Egyptians killed him and then handed the kingdom over to her, but in order to avenge him she killed a lot of them by a trick. What she did was construct a massive underground chamber, and although in reality she had other plans, she claimed to want to hold an inauguration ceremony for it. She invited the Egyptians she knew to have been the ringleaders in her brother’s murder – and there were quite a few of them – to the reception; while they were in the middle of the meal she had the river flood in on them through a large secret passage. That is all the information I was given about Nitocris, except that afterwards she threw herself into a chamber full of ashes, to avoid retribution.
Thus the story of Nitocris remains wrapped in myths and legends, did she really have the role of a 6th dynasty pharaoh? If so, under what praenomen? And, why was she erased?
Featured image: Female Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt. Photo source: QuotesGram
Dollinger, A., 2016. Herodotus on Nitocris. [Online]
Available at: http://www.reshafim.org.il/ad/egypt/herodotus/nitocris.htm
Herodotus, The Histories ,
[Waterfield, R. (trans.), 1998. Herodotus’ The Histories . Oxford: Oxford University Press.]
Jones, A., 2010. Nitocris: Important but Little Known Egyptian Queen. [Online]
Available at: http://www.historicmysteries.com/queen-nitocris/
Lewis, J. J., 2015. Female Pharaohs. [Online]
Available at: http://womenshistory.about.com/od/ancientqueens/ss/Female-Pharaohs.htm#showall
Lundström, P., 2015. Abydos King list. [Online]
Available at: https://pharaoh.se/abydos-king-list
Lundström, P., 2015. The Turin Papyrus king list. [Online]
Available at: https://pharaoh.se/turin-papyrus-king-list
Manetho, History of Egypt [Online]
[Waddell, W. G., (trans.), 1940. Manetho’s History of Egypt , in The Fragments of Manetho ]