Meret-Neith – The first female pharaoh?

This week I am taking us all right back to the time of the unification of Egypt when the ancient Egypt that we think of was in its infancy. Only three women are definitely known to have ruled Dynastic Egypt as kings each taking the throne. Three other women have acted as queen regents although the evidence for their reigns is patchy. Nonetheless, the earliest putative queen regent is the subject of this week’s blog Queen Meret-Neith.  

Narmer Palette [Two Sides]
Figure 1: The Narmer Palette showing the first king of Egypt King Narmer https://www.worldhistory.org/Narmer/

The unification of Egypt and its First Dynasty

In order to understand the world that Meret-Neith was raised in, we have to understand the wider context of the newly unified ancient Egypt. Before the establishment of the 1st Dynasty, there were the prehistoric cultures of Upper Egypt corresponded to the cultural phases Naqada I, Naqada II and Naqada II[1]. During Naqada II statelets were gradually forming along the Nile Valley with Naqada III we see the consolidation of these statelets into regional kingdoms[2]. The man who is believed to be the first ruler of Egypt would be Narmer. The Narmer Pallet is a chevron shield-shaped pallet that shows Narmer conquering his enemies and uniting Upper and Lower Egypt and features some of the earliest hieroglyphs[3](Figure 1).  

From Daughter to Ruler

Evidence of Meret-Neith is predominantly known from her funerary monuments at Saqqara and Abydos, something I will explain a little bit later on. First, let’s have a look at her family and how she went from daughter to ruler.

Figure 2: Large dish with the list of the kings from Khasety up to Qaa (middle -end of the 1st dynasty). Cairo: Egyptian Museum, JdE 88345. With the double falcons circled.
Jean-Pierre Pätznick, ‘Meret-Neith: in the Footsteps of the First Woman Pharaoh in History ‘ in Tomorad, M. and Popielska-Grzybowska, J., 2017. Egypt 2015: Perspectives of Research Proceedings of the Seventh European Conference of Egyptologists. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp.289-306. Page 301

Meret-Neith was married to the fourth king of the 1st dynasty Djet and is probably the daughter of King Djer the previous king. The death of the king was a time fraught with doubt, worry and insecurity – especially when you considered that kingship was a fairly new idea. The early kings of Egypt decided to cement their rule by an ‘obvious and unmistakable monumentally’[4]. Another way these kings refined their power was with human sacrifices of both elite members of the court and those who served them. This served to eliminate those of elite society who could threaten the line of succession. In general, ancient Egyptian institutions are cautious and seem to have made sense to the first wielders of divine kingship to dispose of all internal threats to the throne once the next king had been chosen[5]. Sacrificial burials like these were abandoned with the end of the first dynasty. Cooney writes evocatively of the terrors and grief that Meret-Neith would have been feeling and seeing with her father dead and how she was spared the fate of her mother and other prominent members of her family[6].  From early in its history a clear image of kingship emerges. Identified with the god Horus these rulers were living gods who would steer the nation and rule over prosperous times. But sometimes these men did not rule for long and that seems to be the case when it comes to Djet, the assumed husband of Meret-Neith, as his reign appears to be only 12 years. As a result, it appears that Meret-Neith stepped into the fray and became ruler to protect the appointed heir who was too young to rule.

Figure 3: The funerary stela of Meret-Neith. Jean-Pierre Pätznick, ‘Meret-Neith: in the Footsteps of the First Woman Pharaoh in History ‘ in Tomorad, M. and Popielska-Grzybowska, J., 2017. Egypt 2015: Perspectives of Research Proceedings of the Seventh European Conference of Egyptologists. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp.289-306. Page 291

Evidence for her rule

It would appear that there would have been nobody more primed for this position as she was the king’s wife, queen royal mother and regent for her young son who took the name Oudou-in-Hor[7]. Then with the death of her son, perhaps in an effort to avoid infighting, she chose a younger successor closest in the royal branch to her. Then it is believed she took matters into her own hands and so she became the first female pharaoh of history, but without bearing a Horus name the royal title ‘nsw bity’ that translates to King of Upper and Lower Egypt[8]. This name she created is par to the evidence for her rule.

Figure 4: The funerary stela of Djet presumed husband of Meret-Neith
Musée du Louvre, Département des Antiquités égyptiennes, E 11007 – https://collections.louvre.fr/ark:/53355/cl010012035https://collections.louvre.fr/CGU

Instead, Meret-Neith seems to have created her own title, which I think is a bit of a power move in my mind. Her new title read as the Two Falcons or Two Horuses. This title use of two might be a shrewd move on the part of Meret-Neith wanting to mirror the titles of kings as The Lord of Two Lands and the Two Gods perhaps in memory of her deified husband and son[9]. This double falcon title is included in royal king lists furthering the idea she ruled (Figure 2).

Figure 5:The baboon statue of the Hedj-Wr of Meret-Neith- you can see her name inscribed on the baboon’s chest.
Jean-Pierre Pätznick, ‘Meret-Neith: in the Footsteps of the First Woman Pharaoh in History ‘ in Tomorad, M. and Popielska-Grzybowska, J., 2017. Egypt 2015: Perspectives of Research Proceedings of the Seventh European Conference of Egyptologists. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp.289-306. Page 297

This new title is not the only evidence we have for Meret-Neith being a standalone ruler. The archaeological evidence for her points to her standing as more than just a consort/queen. Upon excavating her tomb Flinders Petrie believed he had found another pharaoh’s tomb as he continued to explore the burials of previous early kings at the royal necropolis of Abydos. In the process he recovered a large carved funerary stela bearing the name Meryt-Neith and although it lacked the Horus name was unquestionably accepted as a male king’s funerary stela (Figure 3)[10]. This funerary stela showed the name Meret-Neith enclosed within a Serekh. A Serekh is the name of a hieroglyphic symbol in the shape of a rectangle, representing the façade of the king’s palace inside the serekh, a number of hieroglyphs spell out the Horus name of the king[11].   A similar funerary steal belonging to King Djet, presumed husband of Meret-Neith, was found at his Abydos tomb. This difference from Meret-Neith is the rendering of a Horus mounted on the top of the serekh hieroglyph (Figure 4). However, it was only later when the feminine ’t’ ending was read and so the name shifted from male to female. Also at her Abydos monument, she was worshipped as a venerable ancestor ‘Great White’, which put Meret-Neith within the ‘ntr.w’ defied kings realm[12]. A granite statue of a large seated baboon engraved with her name as the baboon represented the great White a privilege not given to a woman before as the baboon is a male form and so furthers the idea, that she was considered a full sovereign during her lifetime[13](Figure 5). In addition, another ‘kingly’ feature this time at her tomb at Saqqara (S3505) is the burial of a boat grave located 13metres to the north of the tomb roughly parallel with the north façade of the superstructure[14]. The purpose of boat burials allowed these boats to function as a funerary bark so that her spirit could rise and be transported to the northern part of the sky where the stars never go out and among the deified kings and gods[15]. The mere fact that Meret-Neith has two funerary monuments is of note. The custom of building two tombs one in Lower Egypt close to the capital of the newly unified state and one in Upper Egypt, the homeland of the ruling dynasty was particular to the early kings of Egypt. To date, Meryt-Neith is the only woman to be afforded this honour.   

I hope you have enjoyed this look at the early history of ancient Egypt and a woman that wielded considerable power during her lifetime. I will leave you to decide if she ruled alone but she definitely paved the way for those who ruled later than her.

References


[1] Dodson, A. and Hilton, D., 2004. The complete royal families of Ancient Egypt. London; Thames & Hudson. Page 44

[2] Dodson, A. and Hilton, D., 2004. The complete royal families of Ancient Egypt. London; Thames & Hudson. Page 44

[3] https://www.worldhistory.org/Narmer/

[4] Cooney, K., 2020. When women ruled the world. Washington: National Geographic. Page 35

[5] Cooney, K., 2020. When women ruled the world. Washington: National Geographic. Page 35

[6] Cooney, K., 2020. When women ruled the world. Washington: National Geographic. Page 35

[7] Jean-Pierre Pätznick, ‘Meret-Neith: in the Footsteps of the First Woman Pharaoh in History ‘ in Tomorad, M. and Popielska-Grzybowska, J., 2017. Egypt 2015: Perspectives of Research Proceedings of the Seventh European Conference of Egyptologists. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp.289-306. Page 303

[8] Jean-Pierre Pätznick, ‘Meret-Neith: in the Footsteps of the First Woman Pharaoh in History ‘ in Tomorad, M. and Popielska-Grzybowska, J., 2017. Egypt 2015: Perspectives of Research Proceedings of the Seventh European Conference of Egyptologists. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp.289-306. Page 303

[9] Jean-Pierre Pätznick, ‘Meret-Neith: in the Footsteps of the First Woman Pharaoh in History ‘ in Tomorad, M. and Popielska-Grzybowska, J., 2017. Egypt 2015: Perspectives of Research Proceedings of the Seventh European Conference of Egyptologists. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp.289-306. Page 303

[10] Tyldesley, J., 2005. Daughters of Isis. London [etc.]: Penguin Books. Page 215

[11] http://www.globalegyptianmuseum.org/glossary.aspx?id=341

[12] Jean-Pierre Pätznick, ‘Meret-Neith: in the Footsteps of the First Woman Pharaoh in History ‘ in Tomorad, M. and Popielska-Grzybowska, J., 2017. Egypt 2015: Perspectives of Research Proceedings of the Seventh European Conference of Egyptologists. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp.289-306. Page 303

[13] Jean-Pierre Pätznick, Meret-Neith: in the Footsteps of the First Woman Pharaoh in History Page 297

[14] Emery, W., James, T. and Klasens, A., 1954. Excavations at Saqqara Great Tombs of the First Dynasty II. Cairo: Government Press. Page 138

[15] Jean-Pierre Pätznick, ‘Meret-Neith: in the Footsteps of the First Woman Pharaoh in History ‘ in Tomorad, M. and Popielska-Grzybowska, J., 2017. Egypt 2015: Perspectives of Research Proceedings of the Seventh European Conference of Egyptologists. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp.289-306. Page 303

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