During the Middle Kingdom Period, having a daughter appointed as a God’s Wife in your local temple meant that you were a member of the upper crust of Egyptian society. But at the dawn of the New Kingdom, Pharaoh Ahmose I drafted a legal contract that made the God’s Wife of Amun arguably the second most powerful person in the kingdom. Before all was said and done, one God’s Wife would use the office to become the most powerful person in the kingdom.
With Amun now the King of the Gods, his earthly consort came into her own wealth and authority in a way that would ultimately shatter the glass ceiling of Egyptian politics, at least for a while…
When studying religious and political institutions in ancient Egypt, very rarely can we point to a specific person, time, and place and say “that is where it all began.” The God’s Wife of Amun is unique in that aspect. True, the genesis of the title and its original purpose are lost in the murky traditions of overlapping and often contradictory provincial religions. And true, we are not 100% certain of who the first royal God’s Wife may have been. But there are some things we do know.
We know, for instance, that the office of God’s Wife of Amun underwent a complete restructuring in the early years of the New Kingdom, when it was endowed with wealth and status that elevated it to one of the most powerful institutions in ancient Egypt. We know the individual who set these changes in motion was none other than Ahmose I, Hero of Thebes and Champion of Amun. And we know that the first person to hold the reinvented office was his queen, Ahmose-Nefertari.
As with both Thebes and Amun, the story of the God’s Wife is a tale of upward mobility. Just as Thebes began as a backwater county seat, and Amun began as an abstract creative principle, the God’s Wife started out as just one character in a cast of many in the creation dramas of Egypt’s temples. But also like her patron city, which rose to become the capital of all Egypt, and her divine consort, who was raised to the status of King of the Gods, the God’s Wife of Amun became the quintessential case study in power politics.
Before we look at what the title of God’s Wife came to entail under the auspices of Pharaoh Ahmose, let’s first look at what it meant in its more humble years. The details are scanty, but there is enough to lay a foundation that will enable us to place her in her historical, religious, and political contexts.
God’s Wives in the Middle Kingdom
The first mention of God’s Wives occurs in the Middle Kingdom Period, particularly in the Tenth and Twelfth Dynasties. Although they were not royal women, having a daughter or wife who was a God’s Wife, Divine Adoratrice, or temple musician or chantresses was a sign of prestige. The daughters of priests, relatives of the royal family, and influential nobles and courtiers were prime candidates for these posts. Offices of this type were often exchanged for favors and were part of the capital with which the temple bartered.
God’s Wives during the Middle Kingdom were an order of priestesses who performed special rites associated with their patron deity’s role in creation. In addition to the God’s Wives of Amun, who was worshipped almost exclusively at Thebes at this time, there were God’s Wives of Ptah, the creator god revered at Memphis, and God’s Wives of Min, also a god of fertility and creation. As with Ptah and Min, Amun was associated mostly with his role as creator during the Middle Kingdom Period, and the God’s Wives were just part of the temple staffs rather than a specific person associated only with the cult of Amun.
Specific details of the God’s Wives duties and functions are practically non-existent, but based on what we know from other aspects of temple liturgy and ritual we can make some pretty informed guesses. Just from her role as the wife of the creator god, we can logically presume that she would have symbolically performed the role of consort in the act of creation. The later God’s Wives of Amun, for example, would dance and play the sistrum before the god’s statue to arouse him to the act of creation.
God’s Wives probably carried out other duties such as singing hymns and presenting food offerings before the god. Chanters and musicians were ubiquitous to religious processions, and God’s Wives undoubtedly participated in these public and private aspects of worship. During the New Kingdom Period the God’s Wife of Amun assumed many of the duties of the High Priest, but there is no evidence to conclude that her station was so elevated during the earlier years.
God’s Wives in the Second Intermediate Period
It is not entirely clear whether or not there were God’s Wives during the Second Intermediate Period, as there are no attestations that date from that time. This was during the era of the Hyksos occupation, and the office may have been altered or phased out in many places. But if it survived anywhere, it would make sense that it would have survived at Thebes, where native Egyptian traditions were maintained by the local nobility. There is some evidence that this may have been the case.
The suggestion that there may have been God’s Wives during the Second Intermediate Period comes from a scene in the tomb of Khabekhnet, a Nineteenth Dynasty artisan who was himself a tomb worker in the Theban Necropolis.
One of the privileges of being a royal tomb worker was that you had the tools and skills to craft for yourself a tomb fit for a king. Khabekhnet left a beautifully decorated tomb in which he pays homage to deceased members of the royal family, who frequently had local cults in which they were revered as gods.
One scene in Khabekhnet’s tomb depicts four royal women whom he calls God’s Wives. One is named Kamose, thought to refer to a known Eighteenth Dynasty God’s Wife named Sitkamose, whom we will examine in depth later in this series. Another name is illegible. But the other two, Sit-ir-bau and Ta-khered-qa, may have lived during the latter years of the Second Intermediate Period, and do not appear on lists of God’s Wives from the Eighteenth Dynasty (See Anneke Bart, Ancient Egypt: God’s Wife of Amun). Could they have been God’s Wives—royal God’s Wives no less—from the Seventeenth Dynasty?
This comes with the caveat that Khabekhnet lived during the reign of Ramesses II, some 250-300 years after the time in question. It was also not unusual for the title of God’s Wife of Amun to be conferred posthumously, although this was typically done by pharaohs and had to do with exalting their mothers and legitimizing their own succession. But this fragment of evidence hints that the office of God’s Wife may have been reformed rather than revived, and keeping the position active may have been another way in which Thebes remained faithful to Amun during the occupation.
Reformation: God’s Wives at the Dawn of the New Kingdom
Beginning with the New Kingdom Period the office of God’s Wife of Amun becomes something entirely different from anything that had ever existed before. Ultimately, her authority will surpass that of the High Priest of Amun (Taylor, p. 338) and will come close to that of the pharaoh himself (p. 360). These particular developments did not occur until the Third Intermediate Period, but even as early as the New Kingdom her power was such that a particularly determined God’s Wife used her influence to actually become a pharaoh. More about her later.
Many lists of God’s Wives of Amun place Ahmose I’s mother, the celebrated Queen Ahhotep I, as the first royal woman to hold the office. But as with Sit-ir-bau and Ta-khered-qa, there is a lack of corroborating evidence from Ahhotep’s lifetime attributing the title to her, which calls into question whether she ever actually held the position. In fact, the only place where she is called a God’s Wife is in the inscriptions on the lid of her coffin.
The first royal woman we can say with near certainty was a God’s Wife of Amun was Ahmose’s queen, Ahmose-Nefertari. With Nefertari we have not only an abundance of attributions from her lifetime, we have the actual legal document that confers upon her the newly reconstituted office and all rights, privileges and properties contained therein. For these details we shall resume with the story of the Hero of Thebes and the founding of the New Kingdom.
Ahmose I: Hero, Champion, and Benefactor
AhmoseOur story picks up after Ahmose I’s defeat of the Hyksos and their allies, and the corralling of the remaining dissidents. As detailed in The Rise of Thebes, The Rise of Amun, Ahmose then began a program of construction and restoration funded by the opening of trade routes with Syria and copper mines in the Sinai, not to mention the gold that came out of Nubia. The newly-founded Eighteenth Dynasty was cash rich and well-placed to repair the misfortunes war had inflicted on Thebes.
The specifics of Ahmose’s reconstruction of Thebes, as well as his investments in the Temple of Amun at Karnak, are provided by three stelae recovered from the temple complex.
The stelae appear to chronicle a devastating flood and Ahmose’s response, although reading between the lines leaves the impression that the flood may have been a cover story to excuse the destitution of the temple following the wars. But flood or no flood, the picture that emerges is one of the Estate of Amun desperate for a benefactor and a pharaoh willing to open the coffers.
The first stele, discovered at the Third Pylon at Karnak, is called the Tempest Stele. It describes a catastrophic storm sent to punish Thebes for her neglect of one of Amun’s major statues, and details Ahmose’s expenditures in repairing the tombs, temples, and pyramids that were damaged.
Based on how the king’s name appears on the stele, it is believed that it dates from before his twenty-second regnal year (Claude Vandersleyden, as cited by The Thera Foundation: “A Storm in Egypt during the Reign of Ahmose”).
It has been proposed that the storm described in the Tempest Stele was the result of a volcanic eruption that destroyed the Aegean island of Thera (also called Santorini), which is believed to have occurred early in Ahmose I’s reign.
Since the stele was erected to commemorate the repairs at Thebes, some time must have elapsed between the storm itself and the erection of the stele upon completion of the repairs. If the storm attested by the stele was caused by the Thera eruption, a date in the reign of Ahmose before year 22 would support the traditional chronology…” (Source)
Another stele, discovered at the Eighth Pylon and which we will call (unofficially!) the Benefactor Stele, dates from the eighteenth year of Ahmose’s reign and again describes the king’s magnanimity regarding the Estate of Amun. Of particular interest is the nature of his gifts, which included items such as gold and silver ritual vessels and jewelry that, on the one hand, would have been important to the functioning of the temple, but on the other hand would have been valuable to support the war effort.
The objects donated by the king to Karnak are the most essential cult furniture, and their dedication may indicate that the temple was utterly without precious metal objects at this point. It is impossible to say whether this would have been due to the action of a great storm, as the king asserts in the Tempest Stele, but temple cult objects…might also have been important financial resources for the Thebans during the arduous years of the Seventeenth Dynasty. (Bryan, 2000, p. 221)
The third stele, also discovered at the base of the Third Pylon, is called the Donation Stele. Again we have an account of the pharaoh’s largess, but this time there is a clearly stated quid pro quo. Ahmose is not just making a donation, he is actually purchasing something, a temple position called the “second priesthood of Amun,” which is to be granted to his wife, Ahmose-Nefertari. The queen had already been installed as the God’s Wife by this time, making this in effect a conjoining of two previously separate offices within the temple hierarchy.
The fact that Ahmose-Nefertari was already the God’s Wife raises its own set of questions, since it is not known when she was conferred the title, only that it was not simultaneous with the creation of the New and Improved God’s Wife, as detailed in the Donation Stele. If Nefertari came to the office completely independent of its amalgamation with the second priesthood of Amun, then there is no reason to presume that she was the first royal woman to hold the title. Perhaps there were God’s Wives during the Second Intermediate Period after all, and Ahmose-Nefertari was simply the next in line.
But the Donation Stele does not just combine two offices, it lays out the schema for a new institution that was a lot more than the sum of its original parts. Recall that Ahmose was the same tactician who defeated the Hyksos by superior planning. He took advantage of the seasonal floods, bypassed the targets that were braced for his attack and seized strategic positions that cut Avaris off from both assistance and escape. If anything, the Donation Stele reflects a similar amount of forethought and nothing, including having the queen already installed as God’s Wife, should be considered superfluous.
From the Law Offices of Ahmose & Co.: The Donation Stele
The Donation Stele describes not only the fusion of the God’s Wife and the second priesthood, it also details the endowment of an estate attached to the new office that was separate and independent of both the Priesthood of Amun and the pharaoh himself.
These assets, called the House, or Estate, of the Adoratrice (not to be confused with the Divine Adoratrice, a distinction which we will explore in the very near future), along with the office itself were the domain of the God’s Wife, to be passed on as she saw fit, to whom she saw fit, without interference. The ancient contract is very clear on this matter:
Done in the presence of [the council?] of the lands of the city and the servants of the temple of Amun. What was said in the majesty of the palace, (life!, prosperity!, health!), in… [saying]: …[I have given] the office of the second priest of Amun to the god’s wife, great royal wife, she united to the beauty of the white crown, Ahmose-Nefertary, may she live!…
I have given to her male and female servants, and four hundred oipe of barley and six arouras of inundated land as an excess over the 1,010 shenau. Her office will be at the value of 600 shenau. The office is completed for her, it being endowed…
Then the majesty of this god said: “I am her protector. A challenge to her shall not occur forever by any king who shall arise in the following of future generations. But only the god’s wife Nefertary. It belongs to her from son to son forever and ever in accordance with her office of god’s wife. There is not one who shall say, ‘Except for me’. There is not another who can speak.” (Bryan, 2003, pp. 3-4)
The final paragraph leaves no doubt as to the intent of the contract—the combined office of God’s Wife and second priesthood belonged to Nefertari and could not be touched by any present or future king, period. To add extra weight, the paragraph comes in the form of an oracle from Amun himself: “Then the majesty of this god said…” The stele also contains a very specific legal proviso which guaranteed her right to name her successor, and that this right would carry over, with all other rights and properties, to that successor.
The clauses pertaining to heirship were drafted under the aegis of a legal device known as imyt per, which was a means of “transferring property outside the normal lines of inheritance” (Bryan, 2003, p. 4). Imty per allowed a benefactor to transfer property while still living or as part of a will, and contained stipulations that nullified traditional inheritance. So instead of following convention and going to her eldest son, all properties of the God’s Wife associated with her title went to a successor of her choosing. Imty per also allowed her to confer her title and properties while she still lived and could personally see her succession through.
At this point it would be fair to ask regarding this unprecedented compact, cui bono? It would be noble to think that after the example set by his own mother, Ahhotep, Matriarch of the Revolution, that Ahmose was merely assuring that there would always be a female sovereign to check the power of kings and priests. Another somewhat less noble but more probable motive was the projection of royal authority into the temple hierarchy that the office provided. But these two motives are not mutually exclusive, as Bryan notes:
The king was able to purchase the second most important priesthood and further endow its title holder in concert with the position of god’s wife. This not only assured the god’s wife direct involvement in the Amun priesthood, but it also guaranteed a similar connection for the king who sponsored the god’s wife. (2003, p. 5)
Ahmose had restored wealth and dignity to the Estate of Amun and in so doing had secured for his dynasty the gratitude of the priesthood and an implicit and explicit covenant with Amun. But the combining of the God’s Wife with the second most powerful office of the temple, the second priesthood, and endowing the new office with an estate which guaranteed independence from priest and potentate alike, assured that at least some royal women would have a voice of their own in how the politics and religion of the New Kingdom unfolded.
Many of Ahmose I’s reforms would be watered down in the coming decades, but his intent was clear—he sought to create a sovereign office for the queen and her heirs which carried its own inherent spiritual and secular leverage. Regardless of ulterior motives, not the least of which were the obvious implications of being able to say that your mother had coupled with the King of the Gods, the liberties bequeathed on the God’s Wife of Amun by the Donation Stele are undeniable.
In the next installment of this series, The House of the Adoratrice: Demesne of the God’s Wife of Amun, we will take a specific look at what properties and privileges the Donation Stele granted to the office of the God’s Wife and how they constituted a sort kingdom within the kingdom. We will also examine what her duties and functions were within the temple, and how these related to another position of power for women within the Estate of Amun, the Divine Adoratrice.
Bart, Anneke. Online: Ancient Egypt: God’s Wife of Amun.
Bryan, Betsy. “The Eighteenth Dynasty before the Amarna Period.” The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. 218-271.
—– “Property and the God’s Wives of Amun.” Paper from the conference “Women and Property,” organized and collected by Deborah Lyons and Raymond Westbrook. Boston: Harvard U, Ctr for Hellenic Std, 2003. Available for download here.
Davis, E.N. Online: The Thera Foundation: A Storm in Egypt during the Reign of Ahmose. 1990.
Taylor, John. “The Third Intermediate Period.” The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000. 330-368.
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2010. All rights reserved.
Images “Min” and “Ptah”, based on originals by Jeff Dahl, and photograph “Twosret” by John D. Croft are used in acordance with the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2. Photograph “Temple Chantresses” by vxla is used in accordance with the Creative Commons 2.0 Generic License. Photo “AhmoseI-StatueHead MetropolitanMuseum” by Keith Schengili-Roberts is used in accordance with the Creative Commons 2.5 Generic License. Photographs “Ahmose Nefertari” and “Medamoud (Medu) Procession” are in the public domain, as is “Four God’s Wives from tomb of Khabekhnet” by Lepsius (See also Anneke Bart, God’s Wife of Amun). Photographs “Gold Bowl”, and “Judgment papyrus of Hunefer” (which was sampled for the “Ahmose & Co.” graphic) are by Jon Bodsworth, who has kindly released them to the public domain. Photo “Tomb scene from Khabekhnet” by Helmut Satzinger is provided courtesy of Lenka and Andy Peacock.
Tags: Ahhotep I, Ahmose I, Ahmose-Nefertari, Amun, Benefactor Stele, Donation Stele, Eighteenth Dynasty, Gods Wife of Amun, House of the Adoratrice, Karnak, Khabekhnet, Middle Kingdom, New Kingdom, Second Intermediate Period, Second Priesthood of Amun, Seventeenth Dynasty, Tempest Stele, Thebes