Neithhotep: History, Facts, & Achievements

Ancient Egypt is best known as a civilization that allowed more female members of the royal family to rise to power than any other ancient civilization in the ancient world. One of such women was Neithhotep, the highly influential wife of King Narmer, the Egyptian ruler who unified Upper and Lower Egypt.

Neithhotep of Dynasty 1, if she really reigned as female king, knew she had to keep the dynasty going following the death of her husband. And as progressive as we often describe ancient Egypt, a female ruler in the third millennium BC would undoubtedly have caused some bit of resistance from some sections of the patriarchy. The widowed queen must have called on every bit of courage in her and acted in a politically astute manner in order to keep the reins of power or even act as a placeholder until her son attained the age of maturity. As such, Neithhotep is often considered by historians and archeologists as a real candidate for one of the earliest female kings of ancient Egypt.

In the article below Word History Edu explores the life and achievements of Neithhotep, one of the most influential female figures of the early dynasties of ancient Egypt.

“Neith is content”

Royal family members of the early dynasties of ancient Egypt usually associated themselves with Neith, the Egyptian goddess of war, hunting and creation. Neithhotep was no different. When translated, Neithhotep’s name means “Neith is merciful” or “Neith is content”. The goddess Neith was one of the oldest Egyptian deities.

This ancient Egyptian queen is said to have gone by epithets such as “Foremost of the Women” and “Consort of the Two Ladies”. Those epithets further gives credence to the importance of Neithhotep as well as the kind of dominance she had on the landscape.

Wife of Narmer and mother of Hor-Aha

The commonly accepted view is that Neithhotep was the wife King Narmer, the ruler of a unified Egypt. That will mean that she was the mother of Hor-Aha, Narmer’s successor. This would make Neithhotep the first known ancient Egyptian chief royal wife.

In an attempt to consolidate his reign over the two lands – Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt – that he had just united, King Narmer, founding father of Dynasty 1, is said to have married Neithhotep. Narmer was a powerful lord from Upper Egypt, while Neithhotep was an influential princess from Lower Egypt.

Upon the death of Narmer, Neithhotep most likely stepped into the regency role and ruled on behalf of Hor-Aha, Narmer’s successor. She then nurtured and protected the young pharaoh. The queen regent would have made sure that her son received the best of civil and military education in order to make him an effective king of the land. Her efforts largely contributed in keeping the dynasty going.

It’s also been suggested that Neithhotep may have served as co-ruler during her husband’s later years on the throne. It’s possible she might have continued to rule in her own right after her husband’s death.

The royal serekh that surrounds Neithhotep’s name

Neithhotep's serekh

The presence of serekh of Egyptian kings Narmer and Aha on clay seal impressions in her tomb supports the notion that Queen Neithhotep was related to those two male monarchs. Image: Alabaster fragment with the name of queen Neith-hotep.

We know of Neithhotep’s name due to discoveries made at Naqada, Abydos, and Helwan. The queen’s name appears on clay seal impressions as well as on ivory tags. Her name also appeared as inscriptions on stone bowls. Those items in turn were found in her burial complex and in the tombs of Egyptian kings Hor-Aha and Djer.

For quite a long time, Neithhotep was mistakenly seen in the archeological community as an unknown king. This was due to the double serekh that surrounded her name. The serekh is a rectangular enclosure with the image of Horus usually atop a gated façade of a palace. The early dynasties of ancient Egypt used the serekh to indicate that the name enclosed was a royal name.

In Neithhotep’s case, her double serekh had the goddess Neith’s divine emblem (i.e. crossed arrows) above the gated façade of a palace.

Was Neithhotep an Egyptian ruler in her own right?

Pharaoh Djet

The royal serekh was generally reserved for male monarchs of ancient Egypt. However, Neithhotep and Meritneith are the only two known female Egyptians to have their names names inside a serekh. Image: Serekh of Pharaoh Djet, 1st Dynasty, with his name framed by the royal serekh and flying above it the Horus falcon. Djet was the grandson of Neithhotep.

Due to Neithhotep’s unusually large mastaba, it was erroneously believed that she was a male ruler of Egypt. This erroneous notion was further influenced by the royal serekh that enclosed her name. Kind courtesy to more recent discoveries, we know for a fact that Neithhotep was not a male ruler. She was rather a powerful female figure of the early Egyptian dynasty.

The question that then begs to be answered is: was Neithhotep a female king of Egypt? Her unusually large mastaba and the number of times her name appears on clay seal impressions inside a serekh have led some scholars and Egyptologist to believe that she was indeed a female ruler in her own right. Those honors were usually reserved for male kings of the early dynasties of ancient Egypt. If that were the case, then Neithhotep would be considered the earliest known female ruler in history.

What is more likely is that Neithhotep came to wield such royal power because she was the queen regent during the minority years of her son, Djer. Ancient Egypt had many powerful queen regents, including the likes of Meritneith of the Old Kingdom, that went on to accomplish many things before handing power to their sons. Like Neithhotep, Meritneith, a known queen regent, also had the crossed arrows of the goddess Neith above her serekh.

Notable achievement

Archeologists that argue in favor of the above point make reference to the discovery of the Wadi Ameyra inscriptions at the Sinai Peninsula that suggest Neithhotep ordered a sizable expedition to the Wadi region to mine precious minerals and gather food items. A mere queen consort could did not have that kind of power to arrange for an expedition. In order to do that Neithhotep must have had royal powers. But then again its possible she was operating under the lordship of male ruler, possibly her husband Narmer.

More on Neithhotep

Archeologists and scholars theorize that King Narmer tied the knot with Neithhotep, a royal princess from the region of Naqada, as part of his efforts to unite Lower and Upper Egypt. This would explain why she went by epithets such as “Foremost of Women” and “Consort of the Two Ladies”. Narmer, who is sometimes identified with his successor Hor-Aha, is reasoned to be the first king of the first dynasty

There have been some Egyptologists who place Neithhotep’s reign in the brief interregnum that existed between the reigns of Aha and Djer. As a result, this ancient Egyptian queen might have been the same person as Teti who is listed in the Ramesside king lists. Other Egyptologists beg to differ, stating that the cartouche name Teti rather belongs to King Hor-Aha, whom they describe as the successor of Narmer.

In the 19th century, French archaeologist and mining engineer Jean-Jacques de Morgan made a startling discovery of Queen Neithhotep’s magnificent mastaba (a rectangular burial mound with a flat roof). It’s been suggested that Neithhotep died during the reign of Hor-Aha, hence his building of such an amazing tomb for his mother.

The walls of Neithhotep’s mastaba was made of hardened mudbricks. As a result, the walls could not stand the test of time.

It’s often been stated that Neithhotep was a Lower Egyptian princess; however, the location of her tomb in Naqada, a region on the west bank of the Nile and 20 km north of Luxor (in Upper Egypt), means that she might have had strong roots in Upper Egypt.

One of the reasons why Neithhotep is associated with Lower Egypt is because the goddess Neith was the patron deity of Lower Egypt.

Neithhotep may not have the lofty reputation that powerful female pharaohs – like Cleopatra VII of Ptolemaic Egypt and Hatshepsut of the New Kingdom – have in our modern world; however, her reign and/or regency certainly paved the way for female royals that came after her to rise to a very high rank in a male-dominated world.

There are some Egyptologists that opine that that Neithhotep might have instead been a wife of Hor-Aha, and that she was the mother and co-regent of Djer, Hor-Aha’s successor. This would also explain why most of Neithhotep’s objects were found in the tombs of Aha and Djer. Also, it’s worth pointing that some proponents of this view consider Hor-Aha the first pharaoh of the First Dynasty of Egypt.

Read More: 8 Great Ancient Egyptian Female Rulers

Did you know?

Ancient Egypt was not your typical male-dominated type of ancient world. Not only could women rule in their own right, but they also enjoyed a number of rights, including the right to own property and even seek divorce from their husbands.

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