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Menkaure and His Queen

Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe


A common assumption has been that the queen is Menkaure's wife, and that the position she occupies in the sculpture shows that she is subordinate to the pharaoh. Her more relaxed, naturalistic pose, the fact that her left foot does not extend as far forward as Menkaure's, the less rigid position of her arms, her open hands compared to his clenched fists, are believed to indicate her inferior rank within the rigorously hierarchic social organization of Egypt. Her pose has therefore been interpreted as that of passive, dutiful wife standing supportively next to her powerful husband. Especially recently, this interpretation of the queen has been challenged [see Nancy Luomala's article in the BIBLIOGRAPHY].

The queen's status, and that of all Egyptian women, but especially of those in the royal family, has been a matter of some debate. Women in Egypt seem to have enjoyed the same legal and economic rights as men, a situation which the Greeks, writing about the Egyptians, found very strange.

Herodotus, writing in the 5th century BCE and who had visited Egypt, lists among their contrary customs that "women buy and sell, the men abide at home and weave" (Book II, 35) [see Herodotus in the BIBLIOGRAPHY].

Diodorus of Sicily, who had visited Egypt some time between 60 and 56 BCE, writes that the Egyptians had a law "permitting men to marry their sisters" and adds that "it was ordained that the queen should have greater power and honour than the king and that among private persons the wife should enjoy authority over her husband" (Book I, 27) [see Diodorus of Sicily in the BIBLIOGRAPHY].

Such notions have contributed to the so-called "heiress" theory which argues that the right to the throne in Ancient Egypt was transmitted through the female line. A man, no matter what his status, be he the eldest son of the previous pharaoh or a commoner, became a pharaoh through his relationship to the queen. The pharaohship was legitimised through marriage to the "heiress" who was often the pharaoh's sister or his half-sister. It has been argued, therefore, that Ancient Egypt was a matrilineal society where power resided in the female line.

The queen represented in the statue, therefore, was no mere wife. Her position and gestures should be interpreted not as indicating inferiority and submission, but signalling her legitimization of Menkaure as pharaoh. She is shown in the act of presenting him, indicating to the world that he is the man whom she is identifying and establishing as pharaoh. Her pose, in fact, deliberately imitates that of the goddess Hathor in the triad statues and with whom she is clearly intended to be identified. The statue itself is a representation of this act of confirmation, and perhaps even a record of part of an actual confirmation ceremony.

While anthropologists have had few problems with the "heiress" theory, Egyptologists have been troubled by what they see as a lack of supporting evidence. Arguments against matriliny and the existence of an "heiress" are the apparent lack of a title for such women (none of the recorded titles, such as "principal wife," "king's wife," "king's daughter," "king's sister," "king's mother," "god's wife," or "mother of god," "daughter of the god," appears to specifically define the position), and the fact that there is not a "heiress list", an unbroken line of descent of royal women similar to the "king list" for pharaohs (however, it should be noted with respect to the latter that the surviving king lists, such as the Turin Papyrus, were drawn up in much later periods when a patriarchal bias dominated). Some scholars have rejected the theory outright.

The issue has become politicized in recent years by feminists who believe that denial of the "heiress" theory and the notion that Ancient Egypt was a matrilineal society are prompted by patriarchal thinking which is unwilling to acknolwedge the possibility that women could have played such a powerful role in a well-established, highly-structured, and long-enduring civilization. Some feminists also use the case of Egyptian matrilinearity to support the argument that patriarchy is a relatively recent phenomenon and that women enjoyed a much higher status and played a much greater role in prehistoric societies.

The "heiress" theory was developed partially to explain the phenomenon, noted by Diodorus of Sicily, of brother-sister marriages in Egyptian royal family. This is a sensitive issue because it seems to imply an incestuous relationship. Some scholars believe that this was indeed the case and that royal marriages between brothers and sisters were consummated and children born. Others, however, have argued that the "marriage" was ceremonial and that there is no evidence of sexual relations between the queen and the pharaoh.

Certainly part of the problem from our standpoint is a proper understanding of what constituted "marriage" in Ancient Egypt and what was meant by the term "wife", or "husband." In surviving formal documents and texts there is no mention of any religious or legal ceremony by which a man's relationship with a woman was formalised in marriage in the modern sense of cohabitation and sexual relations. In fact, "to marry" seems to have meant little more than "to enter a household."

Records show that pharaohs had several "wives" of different standing within the royal bloodline. It would appear to be also the case that an heiress-queen could both be "married" to the pharaoh and also be married and have children with another man, a consort-king. The children of the pharaoh and his wives, and the children of heiress-queen and her consort-king, would all refer to the pharaoh as "father" and the heiress-queen as "mother." Evidence of this is the way that the pharaoh is always the "son" of his predecessor, even though there may be no physical link.

I believe the evidence in support of the "heiress" theory outweighs that against it. Once adopted, it can be used to clarify much of the present confusion surrounding royal relationships, inheritance, and pharaonic succession, especially during the period of the Old Kingdom when the great pyramids were built at Giza, and when the statue of Menkaure and his queen was carved.

Power in Ancient Egypt descended through the mother's side of the royal family. The queenship was a mortal manifestation of female power and the feminine prototype, while the pharaoh represented the power of the male and the masculine prototype. The roles of the male pharaoh and the female queen were interpreted as one element in a system of complementary dualities. Many Egyptian stories and folktales revolve around the need to reconcile opposites. It was seen as necessary to maintain a balance between the male and the female. Men are more visible in the historical record because they served as the public manifestation of the power of the (female) throne and as the administrative head of the kingdom.

An heiress-queen may, or may not, be married to the pharaoh. If she was closely related by blood, her "marriage" to the pharaoh was ceremonial. Occasionally, however, she would "marry" and establish as the new pharaoh a man from outside the royal family, which brought about the founding of a new dynasty and introduced new blood into the royal bloodline. Men in the royal family, though, had certain claims to the throne by right of birth and kinship to the heiress-queen who may be their mother, step-mother, sister, half-sister, or niece. But none of the pharaoh's own children would automatically be his "heir." Inheritance resided in the female progeny of the heiress-queen.


Menkaure and His Queen
2548-2530 BCE
4th Dynasty
Height: 4 feet 67/8 inches (139.5 cm)

(Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

Copyright © (text only) 2000
Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe
All rights reserved


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4. Matriliny in Dynasty IV