Hatshepsut: Appropriating Male Symbols of Power, a.k.a. Rocking a Beard Where Needed
Hi everyone. Jessa here, after a loooooong hiatus. Apologies! To make it up to you, I wrote an entry about a kick-ass Egyptian lady–one of my childhood heroes. Enjoy!
Hatshepsut isn’t technically a woman that’s been lost to the historical record. In fact, she is actually pretty famous (and a bit infamous) in the field of Egyptology (and in the minds of Egypt-obsessed preteens, as I can well attest). Hatshepsut was not only the daughter and wife and widow of Pharaohs, but ruled Egypt as Pharaoh in her own right for two decades. She one of the most successful pharaohs of the 18th Dynasty, even if she was the last. In her consolidation of power, Hatshepsut used both masculine- and feminine-coded symbols of power in an attempt to secure her throne and legacy.
To try to keep this post to a manageable length I won’t go too much in depth simply recounting the life of Hatshepsut. (See the links at the bottom–most of them are worth the read.) She assumed the throne upon the death of her husband (and brother, as was occasionally the Egyptian way) Thutmose II. At first, she was simply the regent of Thutmose III (son of of her husband from a different wife), but she didn’t stay that way for long. Soon Hatshepsut was ruling as pharaoh in her own right. The 21 years of Hatshepsut’s reign were marked by military victory, economic prosperity, and a very prolific period of construction. She was one of the most successful pharaohs of her dynasty, and years after her death her successor tried to erase her from public memory by destroying many of the statue and carvings she had built.
The sensational part of Hatshepsut’s reign (for me) was her rampant appropriation of male symbols of power. In some statues, she is pictured wearing not only the pharaoh’s crown but also the fake beard, something that, to us at least, comes off as pretty masculine. (It goes a bit beyond my expertise to interpret fake beards from an Egyptian perspective, but I’d be willing to bet ancient Egyptians though of beards–even fake ones–as a mostly-dude thing, too.)
This fact is what many people writing about Hatshepsut, especially outside of academia, have seized upon. And it’s true–Hatshepsut used these male-gendered symbols as the traditional symbols of power that they were, and yet, at the same time, she did not always feel the need to hide or suppress her femininity as a ruler. All of Hatshepsut’s regal names reflect feminine endings, and some statues, such as the one pictured at the top of the post, are obviously feminine representations. In addition, one of Hatshepsut’s regnal names seems to identify her with the goddess Maat, daughter of Ra, and provides an example of the way that she used her femininity to associate her that much more directly with the symbolic source of divine power.
Despite her successful reign, years after her death her successor, Thutmose III, had her likenesses and cartouches struck from many of the temples and monuments she had constructed. Given Hatshepsut’s provocative use of gender, when she was rediscovered by Egyptologists in the 19th century, many assumed it was an attempt to erase her destabilizing influence from the Egyptian social scene (read: gender relations) and reinforce male pharaonic power.
It’s certainly a dynamic, persuasive story, whether you’re looking for examples of women overstepping the “natural” bounds of propriety (Victorian Egyptologists) or looking for an ancient heroine to be outraged for (preteen Jessa). However, there is evidence that Thutmose III’s actions were motivated by other factors that complicate the simple “woman-wears-beard-and-gets-erased” narrative. In addition to being a woman, Hatshepsut was the last pharaoh of her dynasty with no direct descendants, and the line of succession after her was cloudy at best. The theory that genealogical tensions and legitimacy claims were the root or, at the very least, a factor of her erasure is pretty persuasive, in my opinion.
Caveats and all, I love Hatshepsut’s story. I love her moxie and her intelligence and her drive. Hatshepsut ruled (pun mostly not intended). She didn’t always rule like a woman, and she didn’t always rule like a man. She saw gendered symbols of power for what they were–useful symbols of power, and she exploited them like a pro.