The Role of the Royal Family in Ancient Egypt

Dr. Aidan Dodson is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Bristol, Bristol, England. He received his Ph.D. in Egyptology from Cambridge University in 1995. Dr. Dodson specializes in Egyptian funerary archaeology and has authored more than 100 articles, and numerous books. His next book, due out on November 1, 2003, is entitled, Pyramids of Ancient Egypt.

Dr. Dodson opened his lecture by noting that we know a rather great deal about the kings of Egypt, but members of the royal family - wives, sons, daughters - have not been nearly as well investigated. They are actually quite interesting characters and some have had some interesting roles to play.

Conception is the logical starting place when talking about royal families. At sites such as Deir el Bahari, the Ramesseum and Luxor temple, we see reliefs depicting the very moment of conception of the god/king. The kings of Egypt were considered to be the physical sons of the chief god of the period - Amun, perhaps Ptah. Their right to succeed to the throne was, however, based on their paternity as son of the reigning king and his queen, or at least one of his wives. Thus Egyptian kings were considered to have three parents, all of whom were necessary to facilitate his right to reign. In her titles, that of King's Mother was, therefore, an important one and the king was considered to have been fathered by both the god and the man who preceded him on the throne.

Some kings, however, were fathered by commoners, whose appellations note King's Father and sometimes God's Father. Some even appended the title of King's Father-In-Law as in the case of Yuya, father of queen Tiye, and father-in-law of Amenhotep III. In at least one case, Tjahepimu, who overthrew his own father, Teo, and put his own son [grandson of Teo] on the throne, Tjehepimu claims the titles of King's Father and King's Brother.

During the Archaic Period, in the 1st Dynasty, the earliest notation for a royal mother is that of Merneith, the queen of Djer and mother of Den, who bore the title of King's Mother. She may have served as regent for her son until he reached his majority. Khentkawes who was the mother of two 5th Dynasty kings of Upper and Lower Egypt, Neferirkare and Sahure, is referred to as well, as King's Mother. We know that she was shown on at least one occasion with a kingly beard and she also may have served as regent or pharaoh at least briefly. At Luxor temple we find a relief entitled the Annunciation of Thoth, which pictures Queen Mutemwiya, mother of Amenhotep III, being led to the birthing chamber and she is called not only King's Mother, but King's Wife as well. The mother of Ramses IX, grandson of Ramses III, used the title, God's Mother.

Royal wives, whether mothers of not, used the title King's Wife from as early as the Old Kingdom, though the information for the early dynasties is sketchy. By the 3rd Dynasty we have a bit more information. One interesting presentation is of King Djoser with a bevy of royal ladies at his feet. By the 4th Dynasty our knowledge increases even more. For example, we know quite a lot about Queen Hetepheres, wife of Snefru and mother of Khufu. Her tomb, found near the Great Pyramid of her son, was richly equipped as befits a royal wife and mother. Khufu was succeeded briefly by his son, Djedefre, who had among the statuary in his funerary enclosure at Abu Roash a statue of his wife - the earliest of a royal wife.

At Giza, there are three subsidiary queen's pyramids east of the Great Pyramid, and two subsidiary pyramids south of the pyramid of Menkaure. The names of the owners of the pyramids of the ladies from Khufu's reign are reasonably well attested, but those from Menkaure's reign are uncertain. The names are known but it is uncertain which pyramid was designated for which lady.

Near the pyramid of 5th Dynasty king, Unas, we have a tomb of the judge Uni. In his tomb is a record of his having been the judge who presided when a king's wife was tried, but unfortunately we have not details of the trial, nor the name of the lady in question.

In the 6th dynasty, during the period of Teti and Pepi I, we begin to know the royal ladies a little better. Iput, wife of Teti and mother of Pepi I, has a well identified pyramid in a separate enclosure north of Teti's pyramid at Saqqara. The tomb was originally constructed as a mastaba, but Pepi I transformed it into a pyramid. He constructed half a dozen small pyramids adjacent to his own, for royal ladies, including one for a wife of his son, Pepi II.

By the Middle Kingdom, most of our knowledge of royal women has come from funerary material, much of it from Deir el Bahri. In the funerary structures of Mentuhotep I were found six royal tombs for royal wives, or would-be royal wives. One, Kawit, had a superb sarcophagus

The most prolific builders of the pyramids for royal ladies were Amenemhat II and Senusret I, at Lisht and Dashur. Unfortunately, we only know the names of a few of them, but their funerary jewelry and other accoutrements are stunning. Also during the Middle Kingdom we see the earliest three-dimensional representation of royal women. The black granite statue of Nofret, who was the chief queen of Senusret II is an excellent example.

In the New Kingdom, information increases substantially. Royal Wife - hmt nsw - is a title that varied over time but had become fairly standard by the New Kingdom. As the New Kingdom progressed we see the appearance, also, of the title Great Royal Wife used to designate the most important of the king's wives. Perhaps the first of the well known royal wives is Ahmose Nefertari, mother of Amenhotep I, who became a deity and is represented frequently at Deir el Medina.

At about this time, also, a new title appear; that of God's Wife which gave standing for royal women in the Amun cult at Karnak.

Early in the 18th Dynasty we see the political role of queens emerging, or at least being attested openly. Hatshepsut, wife of Thutmose II and regent for her nephew Thutmose III, assumed power in her own right for at least 20 years before relinquishing the throne to her nephew. During this period we also see a lot of brother/sister marriages taking place in the royal family tree but they disappear toward the end of the dynasty. Women like Mutemwiya, mother of Amenhotep III, and his great royal wife, Tiye, are nearly as well known as their husbands, and representations of them are more numerous than of any earlier queens.

The prominence of Nefertiti, daughter-in-law of Queen Tiye, and wife of Akhenaten, in cultic roles very like those of her husband is unique. She is shown on his sarcophagus in all the four corners instead of the standard deities, Nepthes, Selket, etc., emphasizing her role in the divine sphere. During this reign we also see a new title, attested for another of Akhenaten's wives, that of Great Beloved Wife, applied to Kiya [possible mother of Tutankhamun].

At the end of the Amarna Period, Mutnodjmet, sister of Nefertiti and wife of Horemheb, emerged as a very prominent woman during a period of great prominence for royal wives.

We can see clearly the standing of royal wives if we look at the statuary in front of the Hathor temple at Abu Simbel. Here we see Nefertari, Great Royal Wife of Ramses II, exactly the same size as the king. Heretofore, wives and children are pictured as very diminutive and usually standing near the feet of the king. Ramses had several Great Royal Wives, Nefertari and Istnofret, who were each succeeded by their own daughters after their deaths. Whether their roles were only cultic or physical as well is unknown. A change in practice emerged when a Hittite princess becomes a King's Great Wife after the death of Istnofret. Heretofore, foreign princesses have been among the king's wives, but none have been elevated to King's Great Wife. Ramses II's reign was also a turning point in the recognition of royal wives and children when he established the Valley of the Queens for the royal family burials. Consistently the wives and daughters now had their own tombs.

At the end of the 19th Dynasty, it is difficult to tell who was doing what to whom! We have attestations of both King's Mother and King's Daughter applied to the same lady, then recut to read King's Wife. It's a bit unclear just what was going on. During the 19th Dynasty and into the 3rd Intermediate Period, the role of the royal wife starts to decline. The Conspiracy Text is about the only exception to a period in which information is very sparse.

During the Ptolemaic period we see all sorts of strange family relationships. Ptolemy VIII is shown with his two royal wives, Cleopatra II and III about whom we will hear more later.

The earliest royal son we know about is Rahotep whose lifelike statue seated next to his wife Nofret, was found in his tomb at Saqqara in the complex of Unas. Paneb is the earliest "prince" definitely known.

In the 4th Dynasty we find Snefru's sons buried at Dashur. Royal sons tended to hold high political and administrative positions in their father's governments. The position of Vizier was almost always held by a son or grandson of the reigning king during the Old Kingdom. Sometimes, King's Son was also an honorific title bestowed on valued courtiers. Natural sons were referred to as King's Son or His Body. At Abu Roash, we find good information about Djedefre's son Setka, where a new form of rock cut tomb was prepared for princes.

After the 4th Dynasty royal sons cease to hold high administrative positions and the number attested greatly reduces. From then until the 19th Dynasty, royal sons are rather wraith-like figures. A few incidents noting royal sons survive, such as a record of Khnumhotep who when on a journey with a prince who later became Amenemhat II. 

In the 13th Dynasty there is an interesting emphasis on genealogy. Many of the kings of this period had no royal blood so those few who did emphasized their royal connections. There are few representations, and those that exist are shown as tiny figures standing between their father's legs.

In the 18th Dynasty royal sons come into their own and they are well attested throughout. There are lots of representations of royal sons at Deir el Medina, at Luxor and Karnak, at the Ramesseum and Medinet Habu, for example. The lack of political posts for princes seems to change and princes start showing up again in important positions in their father's governments. There is also a prominence of royal tutors, often shown with the royal sons on their laps.

We have a good deal of information about royal sons from Amenhotep II's reign, with the Dream Stela at Giza, placed there by Thutmose IV to substantiate his ascendancy to the throne. Djuetymose, oldest son of Amenhotep III and brother of Akenaten was made High Priest of Ptah, as prince regent, and founded the Serapeum of the Apis bulls at Saqqara.

The assent of Ramses I to the throne changed the succession. With Seti I's reign his eldest son, Ramses II, becomes prominent at his father's temple at Abydos. Ramses is shown accompanied by two of his elder sons at a temple in Nubia; a first in Egyptian art. Processions of royal sons at the Ramesseum and at Luxor temple are unprecedented. Ramses seems to revel in celebrating the existence of dozens of sons. Once established, his great imitator, Ramses III, does the same thing at Medinet Habu, as did Herihor when he claimed royal titles.

During the 3rd Intermediate Period, the role of royal sons is to hold key religious offices. After the end of the 23rd dynasty royal sons move into the background again.

Cleopatra VII, during the Ptolemaic Period, produces and presents the last of the royal sons of Egypt, her son by Caesar, Caesarian who is seen with his mother on the back wall of the temple at Dendera.

About royal daughters, there is not much. We have a fair number of names from the 4th Dynasty; Hetepheres II, Meresankh III, etc., but little more. We do know that Old Kingdom princesses often married prominent government officials.

During the Middle Kingdom, we have the names of royal daughters and know were some of their tombs are, but little else. At the end of the 12th Dynasty, an interesting situation that seems to presage the advent of female pharaohs is known. Neferuptah is temporarily buried in her father's pyramid, then moved to one of her own. She bore high titles and her name was written in a cartouche - the first royal woman to have her name in a cartouche - and there is no indication that she was ever a Royal Wife. Amenemhat III had no sons, so may have been thinking of elevating this daughter to the throne, but she died before that could happen. Akhenaten and Nefertiti and their brood presented in loving family tableaus was probably the prototype used by Ramses II when listing his own daughters.

God's Wife of Amun is a subsidiary title that appeared in the 18th Dynasty. Neferure, daughter of Hatshepsut, bore this title. After Neferure the title was taken by royal wives until the daughter of Ramses IV took the role and it transitioned to a position in which the holder had to be a virgin daughter of the king. This position continued through the 3rd Intermediate Period. In addition to this sacred role, we see the marriage of lots of royal daughters to commoners during the 3rd Intermediate Period.

At this point the God's Wife of Amun is eclipsed by the High Priest of Amun who becomes the undisputed head of the cult. The last known God's Wife of Amun is Ankhesneferure. 

Dr. Dodson concluded by stating that he hoped he had provided a reasonable overview of what we think we know about who was prominent and how roles varied throughout Ancient Egypt's history.

Nancy Corbin

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