Written by Kim Armstrong
Throughout the modern era, Hatshepsut, “the King Herself,” has served as a prism through which Egyptologists have reflected their beliefs about sex, gender, and power.
It was one such contradiction that allowed French archaeologist Jean-Francois Champollion, also credited with deciphering the Rosetta Stone, to rediscover the first hints of Hatshepsut’s existence in 1928. While the statues in the inner chambers of Hatshepsut’s Deir el-Bahri temple depicted a pharaoh wearing the striped cobra headdress, false beard and kilt of a king, the inscriptions on the temple walls were decidedly feminine.
Nearly 80 years later in 2007, this linguistic anomaly would lead an Egyptian archaeologist named Zahi Hawass to a mummy on the floor of Hatshepsut’s final resting place in the Valley of the Kings, a necropolis of her own creation. In that time, Egyptologists had come to agree on the broad strokes of her reign.
Born around 1508 BCE to Egypt’s 18th dynasty, Hatshepsut was the eldest daughter of Queen Ahmose and the Pharaoh Thutmose I, a general who married into the royal family after Hatshepsut’s grandfather (or rather his wife) failed to produce a male heir. Hatshepsut was then passed over for the rule in favor of her half-brother and eventual husband, Thutmose II, a pretty
standard move for royalty of the time. In place of the throne, she was granted the position of God’s Wife of Amun, or Amon-re, an honor which allowed her to participate in temple ceremonies alongside the male priesthood as the sun god’s chief consort and to carry out “Amun’s will” by dictating political policy.
Like her mother and grandmother before her, Hatshepsut would then go on to have a daughter, Neferu-Ra, while a minor wife named Isis gave Thutmose II a son, creatively named Thutmose III, shortly before he died in 1479 BCE.
It was then that Hatshepsut became queen regent and, over the course of her 20-year rule, began to bend tradition to suit her needs. Within a period of seven years, Hatshepsut statues and reliefs progressed from depictions of a subordinate queen ruling alongside a child king to that of a full fledged, male pharaoh with Thutmose III, who would have been around 10 by this time, literally below her.
While some have suggested that she even went so far as to changed her name from Hatshepsut, “She is First Among Noble Women,” to the male Hatshepsut, the academic source of this notion is unclear. What is known, however, is that the King Herself had a throne name, Maatkare, or “Truth is the Soul of the Sun God.” This name emphasized the Pharaoh Maatkare Hatshepsut’s connection to one of the many evolutions of Egypt’s sun god (known then as Amun and today as Ra) while referencing a Pharaoh's responsibility to maintain “ma’at,” harmony, through respecting tradition. Hatshepsut worked to assuage any concerns that a female pharaoh would threaten the balance of Egypt not just by presenting as a man, but by doubling down on her connection to the gods.
All pharaohs were considered godly in one way or another, so Hatshepsut had to do one better - while she was not the first or last female ruler of Egypt, she was the only one to claim the throne for herself while a male successor lived. Rather than relying on her position as God’s Wife of Amun to justify her ascent to power, she went back and rewrote history whole cloth.
According to inscriptions from her mortuary temple, Thutmose I had always intended for her to be king, and even lived to attend her coronation, and yet, wasn’t really her father. Instead, as the
story goes, the god Amun had appeared to her mother, Queen Ahmose, and conceived her as demi-goddess, commanding Khnum, the ram-headed god of creation, to “fashion her better than all gods… in her the great dignity [of a] King.”
In carvings, she appears on Khnum’s potter’s wheel as a little boy.
This allowed Hatshepsut to maintain her mother’s royal bloodlines while establishing
herself as both Amun’s daughter and wife, cementing her divine right to rule while eliminating
the need to marry a more corporeal partner that might threaten her claim to power.
It worked. Gold, cedar, and ebony flowed through Egypt during her rule, and the temples, shrines, and obelisks raised in her name were so impressive that later pharaoh’s endeavored to be buried nearby, creating the modern Valley of the Kings. While Thutmose III commanded Egypt’s armies, Hatshepsut is also credited with overseeing a military campaign in Nubia, an effort that could only be launched by a respected king, not a queen regent or king’s wife.
Today, Egyptologists view Hatshepsut as one of the best pharaoh’s of the 18th Dynasty, a 250 year period at the beginning of the New Kingdom era, but she was almost forgotten entirely. After her death in 1456 BCE by natural causes, Thutmose III and his followers made every effort to erase her rule from history. Statues were smashed, inscriptions referring to her as king were chipped away and any monuments that could not be torn down were hidden behind stone walls.
This was, in its time, a somewhat violent act. Ancient Egyptians believed that if a person’s name vanished from Earth, their spirit died with it, hence the pharaoh’s obsession with elaborate tombs and artwork in honor of their own greatness. References to Hatshepsut as queen and a few secluded images of her as king may, therefore, have been preserved to avoid sentencing her to this fate. Alternatively, they may simply have been overlooked.
That’s it. This is what we know about Hatshepsut. She existed, and she used feminine pronouns while presenting herself as a man, at least the very least in her art and monuments, if not in person. The rest of what we “know” about Hatshepsut, about her motives and personality, isn’t based on fact, but on modern interpretations of ancient historical records.
Unsurprisingly, those interpretations haven’t always been kind.
When Hatshepsut’s shattered effigies were first rediscovered in the early 20th century, Egyptologists took Thutmose III’s attack on her legacy as evidence of a tyrant’s cruelty toward her step-son. William Hayes, a curator of Egyptian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1950’s, described her as “the vilest type of usurper,” while others of his time fed rumors that Hatshepsut’s most prominent courier, Senenmut, was both her lover and the brains behind her rule.
Decades later, when Hayes and other “gentlemen scholars of a certain generation” had been replaced by a new wave of academics, many of them women, the narrative around Hatshepsut began to change as well. No longer was she a power hungry villain, but a master strategist and a woman of the people.
“I believe she was very canny and that she knew how to play one person off against the next - without murdering them or getting murdered herself,” Catharine Roehrig, the current curator of Egyptian art at the MET, told National Geographic.
Additionally, inscriptions on Hatshepsut’s monuments make greater use of the “rekhyt,” a marsh bird hieroglyphic representing “the common people,” than any other pharaoh in her dynasty, according to Kenneth Griffin of Swansea University.
“Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who
see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done,” reads one of her obelisks in Karnak.
Despite positioning herself as a demigoddess, inscriptions like this one suggest she was at least as concerned with proving her worth as a pharaoh to the people of Egypt as she was with priesthood. Though her populist leanings may have led to some of her more problematic acts as king - such as tying her rule to the public’s fear that the Hyksos, a Semitic people, would return to Egypt - her interest in the country’s common folk is rather unusual for a ruler of her time.
The length of Thutmose III’s life, and the belated realization that he did not begin his attack on Hatshepsut’s legacy until nearly 20 years after her death has also cast their relationship in a different light. The surest way to secure her claim to the throne would have been to eliminate her step-son completely, and yet he commanded her armies and lived to rule himself.
Rather than seeking revenge on his “wicked stepmother,” Thutmose III rewrote the history of Hatshepsut’s rule to prevent another first born daughter from using that precedent to claim the throne, according to Peter Dorman, president of the American University of Beirut. Regardless of Hatshepsut’s success as pharaoh, hers wasn’t a path that Thutmose III’s would allow another woman to follow. Egypt’s ma’at and its only occasionally broken line of male kings had to be maintained.
Hatshepsut’s transformation from shrew to shrewd pulls back the curtain on how the social biases of historians shape history. Though slavery in Egypt is said to have reached its peak during the New Kingdom era, Hayes saw a “vain, ambitious and unscrupulous” ruler, not because of the king’s policy, but because she was born female. Sexism prevented him from conceiving of her ascent to the throne as anything other than 20 years of power stolen from the “rightful” male heir.
Similarly, while cisgender women of Roehrig’s generation now openly admire Hatshepsut’s accomplishments, the relative absence of queer historians has allowed Egyptologists to cling with almost comical desperation to the idea that she wasn’t trying to
“fool” anyone. To quote Smithsonian Magazine, scholars have long found her choice to present as male in her art, if not in person, a “disconcerting… act of outrageous deception, deviant behavior or both,” a statement familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of transphobia.
“She was not pretending to be a man! She was not cross dressing,” Cathleen Keller, professor of Near Eastern studies at the University of California Berkeley, declared to Smithsonian Magazine.
But who said she was pretending, and how could Keller possibly know? The true motivations of “His Majesty, Herself” are lost to time. Based on the records available to us, it’s simply not possible to know what was in the heart of a pharaoh who ruled over 3,000 years ago. Much like sexism made her the Lady Macbeth of Egypt in the 20th century, cisheterosexism could very well be preventing modern academics from understanding the full picture of who Hatshepsut was.
Cisheterosexual historians have considered everything from a military crisis to a “divine injunction” from Amun himself as the catalyst for Hatshepsut’s transformation, and yet they
continue to dance around the possibility of her queerness because they don’t understand it. So desperate are they to claim her as another straight, cisgender woman just like them, that they
ignore the writing quite literally on the walls.
Support for Hatshepsut’s essential womanhood seems to hinge mainly on the fact that she paired feminine pronouns with male titles in many of her inscriptions. This argument is, of course, based on a simplistic understanding of gender that completely overlooks the existence of genderqueer and other non-binary or third gender people throughout history. It’s also possible that, like many queer people today, Hatshepsut wasn’t free to identity the way she wanted. Maybe it wasn’t safe for Hatshepsut, even as a pharaoh, to use anything other than feminine language - she must have been acutely aware of what rules she could and couldn’t bend to become king of such a rigidly traditional society - or ancient Egyptians’ conceptualization of gender may have been different enough from our own to render such a shift unnecessary.
“She’s like an iceberg,” biographer Joyce Tyldesley told the Smithsonian. “On the surface, we know quite a lot about her. But there’s so much we don’t know.”
And much of what we don’t know about Hatshepsut, we never will.
Much as we can’t say with absolute certainty that the mummy found on the floor of a tomb in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings was once Hatshepsut, “the King Herself,” we can’t be certain that Hatshepsut was queer. Regardless of how she might identify today, however, the
reality remains that she was born female and chose to rule as a king - no female pharaoh before or after her ever felt the need to rule as a man to legitimize their claim.
It’s difficult to deny, at the very least, that Hatshepsut “queered” the concept of kinghood, and her memory serves as a much-needed example of someone who blurred the binary and not only triumphed but made herself a god amongst men. We may never know why Hatshepsut’s heart “turned this way and that” at the thought of how future peoples would perceive her, but so long as her name is carved in stone, the King lives on.
Brown, Chip. “Hatshepsut.” Hatshepsut — National Geographic Magazine, National Geographic,
Apr. 2009, ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/04/hatshepsut/brown-text. Accessed 31 Aug. 2017.
Cannato, Vincent J., et al. “The Woman Who Would Be King.” National Endowment for the Humanities, NEH, Nov. 2005, www.neh.gov/humanities/2005/novemberdecember/feature/the-woman-who-would-be-king. Accessed 31 Aug. 2017.
Mark, Joshua. “Hatshepsut.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, AHE, 19 Oct. 2016, www.ancient.eu/hatshepsut/. Accessed 31 Aug. 2017.
Wilson, Elizabeth. “The Queen Who Would Be King.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Sept. 2006, www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-queen-who-would-be-king-130328511/. Accessed 31 Aug. 2017.