The Donation Stele of Pharaoh Ahmose I endowed the office of the God’s Wife of Amun with an estate that consisted of financial income, real estate, her own retinue, and the means to support the entire operation. Called the Per Duat, or, House of the Adoratrice, this estate allowed (at least in theory) the God’s Wife to operate with autonomy from the priesthood and royal house alike.
But in the early part of the New Kingdom the God’s Wife and the Divine Adoratrice were two separate offices within the temple hierarchy at Karnak, which can cause some confusion when exploring the history of these unique institutions. This article will endeavor to disentangle this relationship as we seek to understand what these two offices were and how they came to be merged into a single position, or at least a single career track.
Note: At the end of the last article in this series, The God’s Wives of Amun – Royal Women and Power Politics in the Eighteenth Dynasty, I said that this article would also cover the details of the Donation Stele and exactly what was endowed to the House of the Adoratrice. After some revision it became clear that these were two separate articles. The properties of the House of the Adoratrice will be explored in Part 2: The Demesne of the God’s Wife. This present article will focus on the parallel development of the God’s Wife and the Divine Adoratrice, as well as the House of the Adoratrice as an institution.
At first it seems a little convoluted. During the New Kingdom Period, the God’s Wife (Hemet Netjer) and the Divine Adoratrice (Duat Netjer) were two different positions within the temple hierarchy. But the House of the Adoratrice (Per Duat) was not the estate of the Divine Adoratrice, who had no estate of her own, it was instead the estate of the God’s Wife. That is sort of like calling Buckingham Palace the house of the Prime Minister while only allowing the Queen to live there!
To make matters even more confusing, while the offices of God’s Wife and Divine Adoratrice were two separate offices, they could be held by the same person—sometimes the God’s Wife was also a Divine Adoratrice. At other times she seems to have started off as a Divine Adoratrice, only to become the God’s Wife later, a sort of God’s Wife in-training.
But sense can be made of all of this if we keep in mind that the periods of evolution (and de-evolution) of the offices of God’s Wife and Divine Adoratrice are tied to the changing statuses of women in ancient Egypt. When the social status of women improved, their positions within the ecclesiastical hierarchy became more specialized and empowered. When their status diminished their titles became more generalized and their duties less prestigious.
The House of the Adoratrice and the wealth and influence that came with it was a means for royal women to act with some autonomy and exert some influence over religious and political matters. Women were able to possess property in ancient Egypt, and royal women possessed wealth of their own. And as we shall see, women were able to hold religious offices at different times. But it is not until the God’s Wife of Amun and the House of the Adoratrice that women held both wealth and political and religious power at the same time, independent of the temple and palace.
As later pharaohs attempt to curb this power, the status of the God’s Wife as High Priestess and consort to Amun becomes secondary to her status as the mother and wife of the king. In other words, as the status of women diminishes, the God’s Wife is no longer defined in terms of her office and influence, but rather in terms of her relationship to the pharaoh.
Of course, the story of the God’s Wives of Amun cannot be reduced simply to gender politics, and ultimately the convergence of God’s Wife and Divine Adoratrice into a single office is not a sign of a loss of power, but instead marks a phase when the office becomes second only to the pharaoh. But keeping the subplot of gender politics in mind makes the rest of the story, and the motivations of some of the players, a lot easier to follow.
Holy Women from the Old Kingdom to the New Kingdom
Egyptian temples were not simply religious institutions, they were also the local cultural center, the community college, the office of social services, and the court of law. As such, they employed a very large staff with a wide variety of non-priestly jobs. Written and visual accounts of temple life show that women filled many of these roles from the earliest days of Egypt’s history.
At least as early as the Old Kingdom Period there were women who also held clerical positions within the temples, although usually as priestesses of female deities, particularly Hathor and Neith. Richard H. Wilkinson observes that there were some notable exceptions to this rule—occasionally royal women were known to have held positions as priestesses in temples of Thoth and Ptah and within the funerary cults of kings, and may have performed the same duties as the male priests (P. 93).
Beginning late in the First Intermediate Period and early in the Middle Kingdom Period we begin to see more specialized roles for women in temples. As we discussed in The God’s Wives of Amun – Royal Women and Power Politics in the Eighteenth Dynasty, the Tenth Dynasty saw the emergence of the position of God’s Wife in temples where particular deities were venerated as creator gods. The God’s Wives of this period were non-royal women, which indicates that this improved status reached beyond the royalty, extending at least as far as noblewomen.
Other titles for women within the temple hierarchy begin to appear at this time as well, such as Watcher of the God (Wereshy-Netjer) and wabet, the female counterpart of the wab priests. Wab priests carried out various tasks such as purifications, overseeing the lay-staff, and carrying the ceremonial barque which housed the statue of the god. The wabet priestesses were probably not given this latter task, but would have held influential positions in the middle management of the temple.
But as the Middle Kingdom approaches the Second Intermediate Period, the role of women in religion begins a gradual decline. It would be a mistake to attribute this to general instability, as Egypt remained pretty stable throughout the Twelfth and even Thirteenth Dynasties. But by the middle of the Twelfth Dynasty even the Priestesses of Hathor, an ancient and well-established institution, had practically disappeared.
Wilkinson suggest this may have been due in part to changing attitudes regarding childbirth and menstruation as being “impure,” but notes that it could just as easily reflect general societal changes during that time (p. 93). Either way, the loss of status was reflected in the virtual disappearance of female titles in temple administration during the Second Intermediate Period. Specific titles for women in the temples were largely replaced with the catchall of shemayet—chantress (Wilkinson, pp. 93-4).
The Divine Adoratrice and God’s Wife of Amun in the New Kingdom
With Ahmose I’s restoration (and reformation) of the institution of the God’s Wife at the beginning of the New Kingdom we see a triumphant return of women to professional religious life. This elevation in status again reached beyond royal women and extended to noblewomen. There was an increasing revival of specialized roles for women in temple functions, and one of the new titles was that of Divine Adoratrice. According to Anneke Bart,
The divine adoratrix was a priestess ranking slightly below the God’s Wife and she may have served as a deputy or stand in for the God’s Wife…The position of divine adoratrix could be held by non-royal women as well. (Ancient Egypt: God’s Wife of Amun)
While this may indicate a change in status for upper-class women, it should not be viewed independently as evidence that the lot of women in general had improved. While not necessarily of royal blood, the Divine Adoratrices were high-ranking temple officers and invariably came from influential families usually associated with the temple. An Adoratrice named Seniseneb, for example, was the daughter of Hapuseneb, a High Priest of Amun and vizier of Hatshepsut. Another Eighteenth Dynasty Adoratrice, Maetka, was the wife of the Head Goldsmith of Amun (Bart, God’s Wife of Amun).
Other temples and deities had Divine Adoratrices of their own, also drawn from the ranks of the religious and political nobility. One such noblewoman was Hui, an Adoratrice of the gods Atum and Re (as well as Amun), and the mother of Merytre-Hatshepsut, herself a God’s Wife of Amun and the queen of Thutmose III (Bryan, 2003, p. 6; 2000, p. 248). Another was Tey, who was an Adoratrice of Min and may have been a wife of Pharaoh Ay (Dodson and Hilton, p. 151-3; 157).
During the second half of the Eighteenth Dynasty the pharaohs sought to put limitations on the office of the God’s Wife, most likely in response to Hatshepsut, who had utilized the authority and wealth that came with the position and its estate to support her ascent to pharaohood. By the middle of the Eighteenth Dynasty, pharaohs were choosing their wives outside of the royal line and the position of God’s Wife disappears altogether for several generations.
The absence of [royal] wives might be considered a conscious rejection of the dynastic role played by princesses as queens and ‘god’s wives of Amun’ from the establishment of the dynasty through to the reign of Hatshepsut. Perhaps Thutmose III and Amenhotep II now realized that queens like Hatshepsut, who represented the dynastic family, could be dangerous if they were too wealthy and powerful. (Bryan, 2000, p. 253).
Regardless of what the underlying motivation may have been, the last clearly attested God’s Wife from the Eighteenth Dynasty is Tia’a, the mother of Thutmose IV.
It is unclear if other female positions within the temple hierarchy suffered a comparable loss of prestige, although the position of Divine Adoratrice does seem to have remained active. The aforementioned Adoratrice Maetka held office during the reign of Amenhotep III, even though the office of God’s Wife was apparently vacant. Lacking the power of the God’s Wife, the Adoratrices may have simply not posed enough of a threat to warrant the unwelcome attention of the pharaoh.
The Eighteenth Dynasty comes to a close with the death of Pharaoh Horemheb, who dies without a blood-heir. The throne goes to Horemheb’s vizier, Ramesses I, whose short reign marks the beginning of a new dynasty and what is called the Ramesside Period, which spans the Nineteenth and Twentieth Dynasties. The Nineteenth Dynasty also sees the return of a clearly attested God’s Wife of Amun—Sitre, Ramesses I’s Great Royal Wife and the mother of Pharaoh Seti I. Seti’s own wife and mother of Ramesses II, Mut-Tuya, likewise becomes a God’s Wife of Amun.
The Ramesside Years and the Third Intermediate Period
The offices of God’s Wife and Divine Adoratrice seem to have remained separate institutions throughout the Ramesside Period. Queen Duatentopet, wife of Ramesses IV and mother of Ramesses V, held the title of Adoratrice but is nowhere attributed with the title of God’s Wife. On the other hand, a daughter of Ramesses VI, Iset, is attested as an Adoratrice on a stele from Coptos and as a God’s Wife on a block from the Karnak temple complex (See Bart, God’s Wife of Amun). This seems to indicate that the two offices were still distinct from one another.
Iset was followed as God’s Wife by Tyti, believed to have been the queen of Ramesses X. Tyti did not hold the title of Divine Adoratrice, which also seems to indicate that the two offices had not yet become fused into one. But changes were underway that would once again affect the status of the God’s Wife, and which would eventually lead to a redefinition of the Divine Adoratrice as well.
During the early Nineteenth Dynasty the Ramesside Pharaohs enjoyed a continuation of the stability and prosperity established by the Thutmosid kings of the Eighteenth. But military campaigns, particularly those of Ramesses II, would take their toll on the royal coffers, and midway through the dynasty rivalry between Pharaoh Merneptah’s sons, Amenmesse and Seti II, would have a destabilizing effect on Egyptian politics. The royal intrigues carried over into the Twentieth Dynasty, where drought and famine conspired to make a bad situation intolerable.
The internecine conflict which defined the latter part of the Ramesside Period, along with corruption and a general lack of confidence in royal leadership, brought an end to the New Kingdom. On the death of Ramesses XI the kingdom again fell into factions and Egypt entered its Third Intermediate Period. While not as tumultuous as the previous Intermediate Periods, Egypt at the beginning of the First Millennium BC was a nation divided.
As authority at the capital in Memphis collapsed, a member of one of the powerful noble families of the Delta Region, Smendes, proclaimed a new ruling house. The Twenty-First Dynasty, based at Tanis, would assume control of Lower (northern) Egypt. Meanwhile, the current High Priest of Amun, Pinedjem I, would use the influence of his office to declare himself ruler of Upper (southern) Egypt, establishing a sort of theocracy based at Thebes.
Relations between the two ruling factions were actually highly integrated early in the Third Intermediate Period. Pinedjem I was not entirely without a connection to the previous dynasty, having married a daughter of Pharaoh Ramesses XI named Henuttawy. Smendes I likewise married a daughter of Ramesses XI, Tentamun, making the two kings brothers-in-law via the royal house. Psusennes I, the third pharaoh to sit on the throne at Tanis, was actually the son of the Theban ruler Pinedjem and his wife.
On proclaiming himself Pharaoh of Upper Egypt, Pinedjem I named his daughter, Maatkare, God’s Wife of Amun and Divine Adoratrice. While it is not certain that this was the point where the two offices merged into one, all clearly attested God’s Wives following Maatkare also held the title of Adoratrice. It is also during the tenure of Maatkare that the tradition of the God’s Wife remaining celibate and “adopting” her successor began. Although the God’s Wife and Adoratrice Iset had never married, her successor Tyti did, so celibacy as a requirement does not seem to begin until Maatkare.
The celibacy requirement undoubtedly had religious significance, but very likely served a political purpose as well. As we saw in The Rise of Thebes, The Rise of Amun, one way Ahmose I controlled access to the royal throne was by prohibiting royal princesses from marrying anyone except their brothers, thus preventing anyone from marrying into the line of succession. Celibacy would have certainly achieved the same result. As Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson observe regarding the God’s Wives of this period:
She was barred from marriage, remaining a virgin; therefore she had to adopt the daughter of the next king as heiress to her office. In this way the king sought to ensure that he always held power in Thebes and also prevented elder daughters from aiding rival claimants to the throne. (p. 113)
As mentioned above, another link with the succession of pharaohs was the practice of the God’s Wife adopting a daughter of the future king as her own successor. As with both celibacy and royal intrafamilial marriages (which sounds so much more polite than incest), the practice of adopting the next God’s Wife from within the royal lineage kept power consolidated to the immediate family of the king. These adoptions became increasingly important as having a daughter in the position of God’s Wife of Amun became associated with the king’s legitimacy.
As for the merging of the offices of the Divine Adoratrice and the God’s Wife, one possible explanation is that the adopted successor may have been called the Adoratrice while in a sort of apprenticeship to the current God’s Wife. This would mean that the two positions were not technically the same post, but it would explain why all God’s Wives after Maatkare also held the title of Adoratrice. To explore this possibility, let’s take a brief jump ahead to the Late Kingdom Period.
Synthesis via Adoption? The Late Kingdom Period
Pharaoh Psamtik I, the first king of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, was in many ways the Ahmose of the Late Kingdom Period. He even had a Kamose-like forerunner, Necho I, who is sometimes credited with being the first king of the new dynasty. A delta king from the Saite line of nobles, Psamtik reunited Egypt after the Third Intermediate Period by peacefully reclaiming Thebes and declaring independence from the Assyrians.
Also like Ahmose, Psamtik erected a stele that was similar in function to the Donation Stele, called the Adoption Stele. At the time when Psamtik re-annexed Thebes, a God’s Wife of the previous ruling dynasty named Shepenwepet II was still in office. Complicating matters further, Shepenwepet had already adopted a successor—Amenirdis II—who held the title of Adoratrice apparently as an indicator of her status as the heir apparent to Shepenwepet’s office.
In the Adoption Stele, Psamtik lays out the conditions under which his own daughter, Nitocris, was to be adopted into the line of God’s Wives. Rather than depose Amenirdis, the new pharaoh worked within the existing system to introduce his daughter into the fold.
Now indeed I heard that a king’s daughter is there, the Horus high of crowns, the good god [Pharaoh Taharqa, father of Amenirdis II], true of voice, whom he gave to his sister [God’s Wife Shepenwepet II] to be her eldest daughter [i.e., her adopted heir to the position of God’s Wife] and who is there as Divine Adoratrice. I will not do, namely, what is not to be done, removing an heir from his [in this case “his” refers to the Adoratrice Amenirdis II] throne, since I am a king who loves just order (Ma’at)…Now then I will give her [his daughter, Nitocris] to her [Adoratrice Amenirdis II] as an eldest daughter [i.e., adopted heir] like she was made for the sister of her father [God’s Wife Shepenwepet II]. (Bryan, 2003, p. 8, bracketed statements are my additions)
This is not really as complex as it sounds. When Thebes, previously under the control of the Nubian Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, surrendered to King Psamtik I, there was a Nubian God’s Wife named Shepenwepet already in place. Shepenwepet had already adopted Amenirdis as her heir, and as such, Amenirdis held the title of Divine Adoratrice. When Shepenwepet died or stepped down, Amenirdis would then become God’s Wife, and would then adopt an heir of her own who would become the Divine Adoratrice.
As part of legitimizing his claim as pharaoh, Psamtik wanted to install his own daughter, Nitocris, as the God’s Wife of Amun, but as “a king who loves just order,” he promised in the Adoption Stele to not remove the current God’s Wife or her heir from office, instead offering Nitocris to be adopted by Amenirdis as her own heir and Adoratrice. Thus, the line to God’s Wife becomes Shepenwepet II to Amenirdis II, then Amenirdis II to Nitocris.
One thing that we can draw from all of this is that, at least at the time of the Adoption Stele, it seems that the Divine Adoratrice may have been a title associated with the adopted heir of the current God’s Wife. From this perspective it might be more accurate to say that rather than merging into a single position, the Divine Adoratrice and God’s Wife had been combined into a single career track. But even this would not be entirely correct, as full-fledged God’s Wives were sometimes referred to as the Adoratrice.
Both possibilities are not mutually exclusive—the adopted God’s-Wives-in-training may have been called Adoratrices, and upon becoming full-fledged God’s Wives may have employed both titles interchangeably. What is undeniable is that by the Late Kingdom Period there were no Divine Adoratrices who did not go on to become the God’s Wife. In this sense, the two titles became inseparable, whether synonymous or not.
We can also see from the Adoption Stele that Psamtik understood the significance of having a daughter in the post of God’s Wife. Since the God’s Wife adopted as her successor the daughter of the future king, the lineage of God’s Wives should logically reflect the royal line. Although Psamtik was already king, and had chosen not to usurp the existing line of God’s Wives, he wanted assurances that his daughter would become a God’s Wife of Amun in her turn.
While it could be argued that Psamtik was driven more by the symbolic importance of Nitocris becoming a God’s Wife than by any social status women may have held, he at least respected the office itself, as evidenced by his decision to have his daughter adopted into the line. Rather than “do that which is not to be done,” removing the legitimate claimant to the position of God’s Wife, Psamtik played by the rules.
In the next article, House of the Adoratrice Part 2: Demesne of the God’s Wife, we will take our closest look yet at the Donation Stele as we pay a visit to the Court of Pharaoh Ahmose on the auspicious occasion of the purchase of the office of the Second Priesthood of Amun for his wife, Ahmose-Nefertari, who was already the God’s Wife. We will conduct a detailed inventory of the stele and put the wealth and influence of the House of the Adoratrice into context before looking at each Eighteenth Dynasty God’s Wife of Amun individually.
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 Stds, 2003. Available for download here.
Dodson, Aidan, and Dyan Hilton. The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames & Hudson, 2004.
Shaw, Ian, and Paul T. Nicholson. The Dictionary of Ancient Egypt. London: Harry N. Abrams, 2003.
Wilkinson, Richard H. The Complete Temples of Ancient Egypt. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2000.
Copyright by Keith Payne, 2010. All rights reserved.
Photo “Egypte louvre 011” by Guillaume Blanchard is used in accordance with the Creative Commons 1.0 Generic License. Photo “Pinedjem I – 221511956_38f5635ff2_b” by Lamerie is used in accordance with the Creative Commons 2.0 Generic License. Photos “AhmoseI-StatueHead MetropolitanMuseum” by Keith Schengili-Roberts and “Shepenwepet II” by Néfermaât are used in accordance with the Creative Commons 2.5 Generic License. Photos “Psammetique_Ier_TPabasa” and “Nitocris_Ier_TPabasa” by Neithsabes are in the public domain, as are the illustrations “maatkare 03082480”, “Duatentopet”, and “Henuttawy” by Lepsius Denkmahler. “Adoratrice Seniseneb,” a reproduction of a tomb painting by Norman de Garis Davies, is from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is used in accordance with the Fair Use doctrine—all rights reserved. Photos “Neferetiabet”, “colossal head of Hatshepsut”, “08 Ramesses II and Horus”, “Queen Mut-Tuya”, and “Thutmose iii B” are by Jon Bodsworth and have been kindly released to the public domain.
Tags: Adoption Stele, Ahmose I, Amenirdis II, Amun, Divine Adoratrice, Eighteenth Dynasty, Gods Wife of Amun, Hatshepsut, House of the Adoratrice, Late Kingdom Period, Maatkare, New Kingdom, Nitocris, Pinedjem I, Psamtik I, Ramesside Period, Second Intermediate Period, Shepenwepet II