Goddesses and Sovereignty in 3rd Millennium

Dr. Susan Tower Hollis spoke to the Northern California Chapter of ARCE in November 1997, with 40 members and guests present.

For over a century, Egyptologists have discussed the topic; "What is kingship" as it applies to Ancient Egypt. Did the Egyptian concept of kingship grow out of the climate and geography, or was it accidental? What is known is that the concept changed over time. The place of goddesses in relation to kingship in Ancient Egypt is not much discussed, yet Dr. Hollis feels that "feminine" aspects are incorporated in representations in many ways.

The oldest representations of kingly names, written in a serekh often have the symbols of goddesses such as Neith-hetep and Merytneith above the serekh. Often the serekh of the goddess Neith appears side by side with that of the falcon god, Horus. Later, the Nebty name of the king is associated directly with the goddesses Wadjet and Nekhbet. Nekhbet, "the white one", represented by an Egyptian vulture, is associated with the city of El Kab (ancient Nekhen) and filled a protective role. Fifth dynasty queens began the practice of wearing a vulture headdress representative of the goddess.

Wadjet, the cobra goddess, is associated with the city of Buto. Though she was a protector she had a dangerous aspect as well. She had an additional role as a creation goddess, for she was the sun's eye. Wadjet appears on both the king's uraeus and the queen's diadem. Later both Nekhbet and Wadjet are depicted on diadems, ensuring protection for the wearer and from external forces.

The Narmer Pallet, though typical of a device used for preparing eye paint, was not used as a cosmetic device, but as a celebratory item and may represent an actual event in the king's history - perhaps a victorious act by the king. The cow-headed deity at the top of the pallet represents the goddess, Bat, who was later syncretized with the goddess, Hathor. Bat was clearly important for the king at an early period in some way, as representations also appear on the king's apron.

Predynastic bowls with cows heads from Hierakonpolis lend support to numerous other references to a female goddess with a bovine aspect. The idea of a conquering bull has a long history in Egyptian iconography, but Dr. Hollis suggested that the female bovine iconography seems equally strong.

Dr. Hollis suggested that the figure standing before the king in the upper register of the reverse side of the Narmer Pallet is, in fact a diminutive queen, and noted that the Narmer mace head likewise incorporates this same small queen. Thus, a feminine aspect seems to have been an element of celebrations. Specifically, the king does not operate as an isolated male, but as a male with female aspects.

Also on the reverse of the Narmer Pallete's upper register, above the rows of decapitated bodies of enemies, the Balk of the goddess Neith, patron goddess of the city of Sais, appears. She represents a relationship to royalty, but her relation to kingship is not clear. Her representations attest to a spiritual aspect, as well as her warrior aspect, but, again, neither generally have to do with kingship. The only directly spiritual reference is an inscription that relates to the "Barques of Neith" on an ivory label, dating from the time of King Hor Aha, and associated with the Temple of Neith, perhaps refering to a ceremony or celebration. The decoration of the now lost Tomb 100 at Herakonpolis seems to be celebrating kingship as the goddess Neith, water, and barques are represented and all are important to the king.

Neith is known to be the protector of the red crown, symbol of kingship in Lower Egypt. We don't know how early she became associated with this role, but she definitely filled it by at least the Middle Kingdom. Frequently the king's serekh is next to the symbol for the goddess (shield and crossed arrows). A very early representation of the red crown comes from Naqada, where a cenotaph of one of the most important women of the 1st Dynasty (regnant queen Merneith) was built.

Late in the Old Kingdom the rise of the god Ra and goddess Hathor to popular favor resulted in Neith receding in the background as a powerful deity. Ra was the dominant deity in the 5th Dynasty and Hathor was clearly in ascendancy.

Hathor is an interesting goddess. Her name means "House of Horus", referring to Horus the Elder of the Hierakonpolis ennead who was considered one of the five children of Shu and Tefnut (as opposed to the Heliopolitan ennead in which Shu and Tefnut had only four children). Kings Pepi I and Merenre both carried "Son of Hathor" names in their titulary and the goddess is often represented embracing the king protectively. She is "mother" goddess for the king. Her role with relation to kingship does not stop with the end of the Old Kingdom and she assumes additional aspects. She is referred to as "The Lady of the Stars", "The Mistress of Heaven", "The Golden One", and "The gold that is Hathor"; all names which refer to her relationship with Ra. With Hathor's rise, a pharaonic role for the queen evolved. Thus she played a very important spiritual part in the king's life.

Another sky goddess, Nut, is most prominently mentioned in the Pyramid Texts as she assists the king in moving to the nether world. Nut is also viewed as a "mother" of the king for she facilitates symbolically the rebirth of the king in the nether world. The goddess Isis was the most excellent goddess at one time though her earliest appearances do not exalt her. She appears in funerary iconography, with her sister, Nephthys, as the mother who bears and nurtures the king in the nether world, directly assisting him to life in the nether world by suckling him. Isis appears at the foot of the sarcophagus and Nephthys at the head. The two sisters also assumed the aspect of mourners, related to their roles as wife and sister of the god Osiris who was murdered by his brother, Seth. In this capacity they appear as the two kites whose shrill cries mourn for the deceased king. Slowly Isis' sphere of influence expanded in relation to her roll as the wife of Osiris and mother of Horus. She began to appropriate the insignia of other goddesses, such as Hathor, and gained real prominence in the New Kingdom.

Dr. Hollis summarized by suggesting that the four goddesses who were most important to the role of kingship throughout Ancient Egypt's history were Neith, Hathor, Isis and Nephthys.

  • Nancy Corbin
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