The God’s Wife of Amun was one of the most powerful women in Egypt, controlling large estates, holding vast wealth, and playing a key cultic role at Thebes. After the New Kingdom, the office grew in power, until eventually one God’s Wife became High Priest of Amun, a position traditionally reserved only for men.
‘… appearing in glory with the White Crown, the Chosen one of
Re, who issued from his ﬂesh …’
(wall text describing the God’s Wife of Amun in the Chapel of
Osiris, Ruler of Eternity)
In ancient Egypt, women enjoyed many freedoms that set them apart from women in other ancient societies. Unlike Greek or Persian women, Egyptian women could own their own property, testify at court, inherit and pass their inheritance on to whomever they willed. They could even initiate the dissolution of a marriage at will, and, when divorce occurred, they could take away the property that they’d brought to the marriage.
Most importantly, women were active participants in temple ritual. In the Old Kingdom, the cult of Hathor was populated by high-ranking priestesses, who bore the title of hemt-netjer (God’s Servant) of Hathor. In the New Kingdom, the Shemayet (chantressess) had a similar role in the cult. However, in the New Kingdom, a new position was established that eclipsed these earlier roles in both power and prestige: the God’s Wife of Amun.
The God’s Wife of Amun
Although the first attested ‘god’s wife’ dates to early in the Middle Kingdom, the title does not occur in its complete form – ‘God’s Wife of Amun’ – until the early New Kingdom, when Ahmose, founder of the Eighteenth-Dynasty, bestowed it on his wife Ahmose-Nefertari. Along with this title, Ahmose granted his wife an endowed estate that was strictly associated with the office of God’s Wife. The vast estate ensured complete financial independence to the holder of the office. In the New Kingdom, the title of God’s Wife was most often held by a king’s chief wife or, less frequently, by a king’s daughter.
Towards the end of the New Kingdom, as the authority of the reigning king declined vis-à-vis the rising power of the high priesthood of Amun at Thebes, the office of God’s Wife of Amun was resurrected and the title given to an unmarried daughter of the king. Dispatched from the Delta capital of her father, Isis (daughter of Ramses VI) became the first single God’s Wife of Amun sent to Thebes to oversee her father’s interests there.
Under the Libyan Twenty-Third Dynasty, the political potential of the office was fully realised. In line with the Libyan rulers’ practice of appointing members of their immediate family to key religious positions, Osorkon III installed his daughter Shepenwepet I as God’s Wife of Amun at Thebes. She features prominently in the Chapel of Osiris, Ruler of Eternity, at Karnak and was also the first God’s Wife to have a funerary chapel erected within the temple enclosure at Medinet Habu. Additionally, she assumed the title of ‘(female) Horus’, and several other equally exclusive royal epithets.
The Nubians, quickly recognizing the political potential of the office of God’s Wife, took immediate advantage of the institution to establish their authority over Thebes. Even before completing their invasion of Egypt, they had already installed a Nubian woman, Amenirdis I, as God’s Wife at Thebes. By having Amenirdis I ‘adopted’ into office by Shepenwepet I, the Nubians achieved a smooth transition of power in the Theban area.
Rulers of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty used the office equally effectively. By 656 BCE, Nitocris, daughter of Psamtik I, was the incumbent God’s Wife of Amun. To commemorate his daughter’s installation into office, Psamtik endowed Nitocris with estates in Lower, Middle and Upper Egypt as well as enormous quantities of daily rations. Undoubtedly, Nitocris’ endowment greatly increased the wealth, and consequently the inﬂuence, of the institution. Sixty years later, Ankhnesneferibre, daughter of King Psamtik II of the Twenty-Sixth Dynasty, succeeded Nitocris as God’s Wife of Amun. Arguably the most powerful person in the Theban region at the time, Ankhnesneferibre became the last woman to control the office of God’s Wife of Amun. As ‘heiress apparent’, she had already acquired the title and duties of the High Priest of Amun.
The God’s Wife of Amun as High Priest
In 585 BCE, Ankhnesneferibre became the first Egyptian woman to attain the high distinction of becoming, formally and officially, the High Priest(ess) of Amun. Her assumption of the priesthood represents a clear break from previous Egyptian practice that may be viewed as the culmination of a long, gradual process. It is very possible that Ankhnesneferibre’s appointment to the high priesthood merely gave formal expression to an already existing situation/status quo.
Already in the chapel of Osiris, Ruler of Eternity, the Libyan God’s Wife Shepenwepet I had taken on the primary function of consecrating offerings to the gods. Indeed, she is represented in that chapel fifteen times – surpassing the number of scenes showing her father, the ruling king, or her brother, his co-regent. As King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Osorkon III was theoretically the ultimate high priest of the land. Moreover, Takeloth III, Osorkon’s co-regent, was formally the High Priest of Amun. Yet despite their presence in the chapel, it is Shepenwepet that appears there as the main cultic officiant, a role that was usually performed by the High priest of Amun.
Shepenwepet’s appointment as a God’s Wife was probably intended to fll the gap caused by Takeloth III’s elevation to the Egyptian throne. In the wake of civil war, leaving the high priesthood of Amun with no Theban incumbent may have been a deliberate measure designed to secure the king’s position and protect his throne from the rival claims of powerful, and potentially dangerous, family members. In this way, the office of God’s Wife of Amun may have been reintroduced at this particular point in time so that it could substitute for the office of High Priest of Amun. Rather than appointing a male family member, who could potentially use his position to engender a rival dynasty, a pliable young woman posed little threat. Removing the office from the coffers of the King’s Chief Wife and revamping it so that the title of God’s Wife of Amun went to a loyal royal princess was also a measure designed to keep the Theban priesthood under a tight leash. A Royal Wife needed to be next to her husband, residing with him at his royal residence in the Delta, while a young princess, whose single status ensured her total loyalty to her father, the king, could be sent to Thebes to oversee her father’s interests there. Unable to produce offspring of her own, the God’s Wife could not use her enormous inﬂuence to generate a rival dynastic line.
The increasing religious prominence of the God’s Wives may also be partly attributed to their ethnic background. Scholars have noted the fragmentary nature of Libyan rule and their tendency to divide rule among semi-autonomous fiefdoms. Likewise, the matriarchal tendencies of Egypt’s southern neighbour have also been noted. In a recent study on the queens of Kush, Angelika Lohwasser noted the special status of the ruler’s sister in choosing the rightful successor to the Nubian throne.
Indeed, the power of the God’s Wife of Amun peaked during the tenure of Shepenwepet II, who assumed the strictly royal iconography of the ritual driving of the four calves and the consecration of the meret-chests. Preserved on the walls of Amenirdis’ funerary chapel at Medinet Habu, both rituals were enacted for the benefit of Shepenwepet’s adoptive mother, Amenirdis I. Shepenwepet II is also the God’s Wife seen next to king Taharqo, partnering with him in the rites of the protection of the cenotaph.
The ritualistic elevation of the God’s Wife during the Twenty-fifth Dynasty may be attributed to the somewhat more egalitarian power-sharing model of the Nubian ruling house. In a recent study on the Egyptian term for ‘king’s brother’ (Egyptian sen nesu), Jean Revez demonstrated that, as an official court title, it is virtually non-existent in Egyptian historical documents prior to the Twenty-fifth Dynasty. In Egyptian, the term for brother, sen, may also be translated as ‘companion’, ‘peer’ or ‘equal’. As a group, the ‘king’s brothers’ are regularly attested only during the Twenty-fifth Dynasty. Taharqo’s election decree narrates the election of the king from among a group of his peers.
Called the ‘best among his brothers’, King Taharqo was, in effect, the ‘first among equals’. It was this lateral, more egalitarian mode of rule and power-sharing that allowed Shebitqo to appoint his brother as the army commander-in-chief. Ideally, the king was the commander-in-chief of the Egyptian army. By delegating military leadership to his brother, Shebitqo was relinquishing an aspect of his royal powers. A similar power-sharing model may have applied to the Nubians’ view of temple ritual. Just as the king delegated the army command to a brother, so he also delegated his role in the temple to one of his sisters.
The rise of the priestly powers of the God’s Wife of Amun coincides with a ffty-year gap during which the office of High Priest of Amun remained vacant. Administrative control of the Theban region was shared between the successive high stewards of the estate of the God’s Wife, while army leadership fell into the hands of Taharqo. Furthermore, the religious prominence of the Nubian God’s Wives of Amun eclipses the earliest attested Nubian High priest of Amun, Haremakhet, who was appointed to office by his father King Shabaqo. Neither Haremakhet nor his son Harkhebit, who succeeded him to office, feature prominently in the iconographic and textual record – a strong indication that neither had the civil and military positions occupied by their predecessors.
The Saite kings’ pragmatic approach to kingship and their mode of governance enabled them to take full advantage of the priestly achievements of the Nubian God’s Wives of Amun. Instead of revoking the priestly privileges of the God’s Wife, under Saite rule, the God’s Wife’s priestly duties assumed formal expression. It is the Saites, not the Libyans or the Nubians, who monumentalised the official decrees, installing their royal princesses as God’s Wives of Amun. No such decrees survive for the other God’s Wives. Their formalisation of the God’s Wife’s position is evident in their formal documentation of Nitocris’ appointment through an official, legally binding ‘transfer of title’ document. Similarly, they documented the elevation of Ankhnesneferibre and her acquisition of the titles of High Priest of Amun, even while she was still an ‘heiress apparent’.
The office was abolished when the Persians invaded Egypt in 525 BCE. As a matter of policy, they could not allow an Egyptian to hold a position of supreme power. Likewise, in this instance, they could not pad the hierarchy with one of their own; Achamenid royal princesses were given away in marriage to further their fathers’ political agendas. They were not socialised to become economically independent nor to hold positions of supreme political and religious significance. A Persian woman could not become a God’s Wife of Amun. Ironically, it was its holders’ unprecedented rise that ultimately caused the demise of the office of God’s Wife of Amun.
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