Hatshepsut (c.1508-1478 BCE) was a pharaoh who assumed the throne of Egypt after the death of Thutmose II, her half-brother and husband. Deploying cross-dressing and transgender identity in the politics of ancient Egypt’s ruling class, Hatshepsut depicted herself as feminine, masculine, and a combination of both. As such, she is an icon in LGBTQ accounts of world history. It is misleading, however, to consider Hatshepsut a transperson in the contemporary sense of the term. Rather, she was a queen who wanted to be pharaoh — a position open only to men — and so became a man in official art, discourse, and politico-religious protocol.
Background: Sexuality and Gender in Ancient Egyptian Myth
Since most records from ancient Egypt are official histories of the pharaohs, inferences about ancient Egyptian sexuality and gender must be understood within a narrow frame exclusive to Egyptian royalty and religion. Men and women were viewed as partners who were not equal, but whose combined strengths were necessary for the proper functioning of the universe. The most powerful deities were male, yet their authority required female support. For example, Isis, sister-wife of Osiris, God of Fertility and the Underworld, bore and protected the falcon-headed Sun God and prototypical pharaoh Horus. Some female deities were presented as less dependent on the consort role, such as the lion-headed protector-warrior Sekhmet and the motherly Hathor, who bore the horns (and sometimes ears) of a cow.
Same-sex eroticism is not apparent in myths about goddesses with goddesses, but can be found in a myth from around 2000 BCE concerning the two gods Seth and Horus, who in competing for the throne, use sex to impugn one another’s reputation as masculine. Because of Horus’s fine buttocks, his uncle, Seth, propositioned him and they agreed to pleasure each other (alternative: Seth forced himself upon Horus). Seth attempted to penetrate Horus anally, but Horus caught Seth’s penis in his hand without Seth’s knowledge. Horus gave Seth’s ejaculated semen to his mother Isis, Seth’s sister, who cast it into a marsh. To punish Seth, Isis masturbated Horus (alternative: obtained Horus’ semen after Horus masturbated), smeared the semen on lettuce, and gave it to Seth to eat. Both gods appeared before the Heavenly Court, where Seth boasted he had penetrated Horus. Each god’s semen was called forth. Seth’s semen answered from the marsh rather than from Horus’s buttocks, and Horus’s sperm, having impregnated Seth’s head, issued from Seth’s forehead in the shape of a golden sun-disc.
This story, in praise of Horus as the rightful ruler and superior to Seth, illustrates an attempt by one male to feminize another through homoerotic behavior. Penetration (in this case, both anal and oral) would feminize the penetrated man and make him unsuitable as a ruler. Gods are not humans, but the implication in the Horus-Seth myth is that shame was inflicted upon the penetrated man for being transformed into a woman, and moreover that women were unfit as rulers.
Avoiding the Feminine in the Afterlife
For the ancient Egyptians, life continued after death, and it was important to compose one’s remains in such a way as to guarantee favorable conditions in the next world. Mummification would take care of the body, but more had to be done. Tombs were designed to protect the body and to create a proper environment for the soul. This was done through spells and wall images showing the soul in an ideal afterlife. As part of afterlife iconography, couples would be portrayed in shared tombs so they could spend eternity together.
A rare example of two men shown in a loving relationship in life and in death illustrates the importance of gender with regard to status. The men, Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep (c. 2600 BCE), were placed together in a tomb decorated with pictures celebrating their love for one another. The close proximity of their bodies in death (and in the wall portraiture, including an image in which their noses touch, the equivalent of a kiss, as they embrace affectionately) would indicate husband and wife had one of them been a woman. But to properly signify heteronormal marriage, one man would have to be shown as womanlike, shaming one or both of the men (as seen in the attempted shaming of Horus by Seth) and potentially undermining their eligibility for a glorious afterlife. Iconographic signs of husband-as-superior and wife-as-supportive are absent from the pictures of the two of them except when they are shown with their wives and children. Because the men are visually represented as identical in height, age, and rank as overseers of the royal manicurists, neither is assigned a definitively inferior role.
Niankhkhnum and Khnumhotep incorporated social standards in their idealized tomb portrayals so that they could live together forever as though married, but without the status differences of husband and wife. Hatshepsut, in order to be seriously considered pharaoh in this life and the next, would have to do something similar: she would have to create idealized images of herself that conformed as much as possible to social expectations, yet ultimately allowed her to do what she wished. She had to portray herself as man and king if she did not want a lesser womanly role in this life and the afterlife.
Hatshepsut as Feminine Daughter, Sister-Wife, and Mother
To appreciate how Hatshepsut made herself a man, it is essential to understand her status as a woman within the politics of sex and gender in ancient Egyptian royalty. Hatshepsut was the only person in the immediate Royal Family to have a direct bloodline to the previous pharaoh, her grandfather (this bloodline was through her mother). Hatshepsut was married to her half-brother, Thutmose II (who did not have royal blood) and held the highest position in the land for a woman: Great Royal Wife.
Such marriages between royal brothers and sisters were not scandalous, perhaps understood within the context of Osiris’ marriage to his sister Isis. The divine pharaoh’s sacred bloodline had to continue in as pure a form as possible. Since Thutmose II did not have a strong royal pedigree, his marriage to Hatshepsut was doubly necessary to ensure the legitimacy of the pharaonic line and to legitimate himself as pharaoh. The royal couple produced only a daughter, Neferure, but Thutmose did sire a son by a lesser wife. Upon the death of Thutmose II, this boy, Thutmose III, was too young to assume the throne, and Hatshepsut became regent.
Female regency had precedence in Egyptian history. Merneith (c. 3000 BCE), Nimaethap (c. 2700 BCE), Sobekneferu (1800 BCE), Warrior-Queen Ahhotep I (c. 1500 BCE), and Hatshepsut’s own great-grandmother, Ahmose-Nefertari, were all queen-regents who temporarily assumed pharaonic authority. Like the position of Great Royal Wife, the position of queen-regent had significant political and spiritual power, but was different in that the regent had no permanent authority. It was understood that the pharaonic status granted to the queen would end once the male heir to the throne reached adulthood. Some queen-regents were deified and even treated with pharaonic honors after their deaths. But none on record prior to Hatshepsut was recognized in life and death as pharaoh. What set Hatshepsut apart from the other queen-regents was that she retained pharaonic status when Thutmose III came of age, and she kept it until her death.
Hatshepsut as Masculine God-King and Divine Son
Hatshepsut defined herself as “Pharaoh’s Firstborn Daughter,” thus basing her authority as coming directly from her father, not from her husband (although in reality, her royal blood came from her mother, Ahmose – “father” may refer to her maternal grandfather or to the Sun God Amun). When her stepson came of age, she continued in authority as his co-regent, but after a few years claimed absolute authority as pharaoh, relegating Thutmose III to second in command in the lesser role of general. While conducting rituals in her role as God-King, Hatshepsut positioned her daughter Neferure in the role of Great Royal Wife.
Hatshepsut changed her own image as well. At first, she had herself depicted in combined masculine and feminine dress, but later was portrayed as a man in pharaonic dress, complete with stylized beard on her chin, female breasts absent. Yet she recorded herself in writing with pronouns and feminine markers that show she was, in fact, a woman-king. In portrayals of Hatshepsut as divine, she tended to identify with the lion-headed warrior-goddess Sekhmet who had a male lion’s mane (there are also images of Hatshepsut as the nurturing cow-goddess Hathor). In a series of pictures illustrating her divine birth, Hatshepsut’s father Amenhotep is actually the Sun God Amun, who impregnates Hatshepsut’s mother by magic. The resulting child is a daughter, yet she appears to be a boy. Other illustrations show Hatshepsut with the gods as one of them.
Memorialized, then Erased
Hatshepsut sought to be immortalized in this world and the next as a great pharaoh. Twenty years after her death, however, her stepson and successor Thutmose III ordered statues of Hatshepsut as pharaoh demolished, and images of her as king chiseled off walls. Images of her as queen were not destroyed. Why Thutmose III did this so many years after Hatshepsut had gone is not known, but it may have been because he wanted to continue the pharaonic line from himself alone. Another possibility is that Thutmose III, as he approached his own death, wanted to be remembered as a strong king in his own right from the time he was eligible to rule, rather than ascending to the throne only after Hatshepsut, the woman who relegated him to second in command, had died.
Although Thutmose destroyed much of the art that Hatshepsut had commissioned in her quest for pharaonic immortality, there are still plenty of statues and pictures of her in museums. Two structures dedicated to her remain near Luxor. The Red Chapel in Karnak, commissioned by Hatshepsut, has been restored, and has scenes depicting her as pharaoh. Some scenes are of Thutmose III, presumably installed after she died.
The largest monument to Hatshepsut is her partially-restored Mortuary Temple at Der el-Bahri. The grand three-terraced structure is built at the base of rocky cliffs. Rows of columns are set symmetrically on either side of two stairs in the middle of the lower terraces, and large mummiform statues of Pharaoh Hatshepsut-as-Osiris, complete with pharaonic beard and the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, are situated in front. Within the temple, scenes from her life (including her miraculous birth) adorn the walls.
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Religions, Pyramids, and Temples of the Land of the Pharaohs. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003.
Tyldesley, Joyce. The Pharaohs. London: Quercus, 2009.