Date: Thu, 19 Jan 1995 13:05:01 -0500
Sender: H-NET List for World History <H-WORLD@msu.edu>
Subject: Selection of Pharaohs
From: Pier M. Larson <PML9@psuvm.psu.edu>, Penn State University
In the middle of a lecture about ancient Egypt yesterday one of my students raised his hand and asked me how the next Pharaoh was selected. Beyond the obvious range of politics and power, does anyone out there know of any conventions or procedures which were common or even sometimes used to guide in the selection of successor Pharaohs in a single dynasty, or was there no uniformity in procedure and expectation across dynasties at all?
(I'm not on your list but this query was forwarded by a friend.)
The principal means of selecting an Egyptian king was that the eldest son of the dead king became the next king, just as in modern western monarchies. If the king had no son, a younger brother, or the husband of a daughter or sister was often chosen. (Or, more accurately, a powerful person at court married himself to the sister or daughter of the previous king to justify a fait accompli.) The daughter herself usually could became a king only if her husband died and she was regent for a young son (or if she had been, and he, too, died). This seems to have been the basic pattern.
You will find in older books the theory of the so-called "heiress princess," which argued that the throne was passed through the female line. (This is supposed to explain why so many kings married their sisters, and was based on the supposition of a "primitive matriarchy" in Egypt.) The theory seems first to have been contested in a dissertation by Barbara Mertz (a.k.a. Elizabeth Peters - the author of the popular mystery stories), and has recently been abandoned by lots of other people. The main argument against it has been that there are simply too many exceptions - kings who didn't need legitimization often didn't marry their sisters. In addition, one might adduce the myth "The Contendings of Horus and Seth," a court battle for the throne of Egypt, where the son and brother fight it out for the throne: physical strength, service to the gods, and (mainly) relationship to the previous king are argued; wives are not mentioned. (Interestingly, the Napatan kings of Nubia, just to the south of Egypt, seem to have had a brother-brother-nephew succession pattern, which has certain political advantages.)
Ann Macy Roth
Visiting Assistant Professor of Egyptology
I am an amateur in such things, and so I wonder if you wouldn't mind reflecting on the proposition that ancient "Kemet" was a society of diverse cultural influences, so that there was both patrilineal and matrilineal precedents to follow for royal succession.
The reason I wonder about this is that ancient Kemet seems to have been open to influences from both north and south. In the South there may have been pronounced matriarchical inheritance traditions, as later manifested itself the kandake system of Meroe.
Based on world history as a whole, I have come to associate the importance of the female line with with pastoral societies and therefore see the Semitic patriarchal tradition as probably a misleading exception. I know this is a novel view, but it seems there is much to support it.
But the issue is not Meroe, but whether assuming the coexistence of two opposite succession tradtions in Kemet might not better accord with the evidence than trying to prove that either one was always followed? Ancient Kemet strikes me as a culturally complex society, not at all homogeneous.
ZOC (V2.01) under OS/2 2.11
The problem with the matriarchal tradition, as I said, is that there is no evidence for it at all. Yours is not a new approach - it is the parallel upon which the "heiress princess" theory is based. But there is simply no case in which a matriarchial transmission of the throne is required to explain the evidence, and, as I also said, the myth which seems to be a pattern for acquiring kingship makes no mention of the new king's wife as a justification for his right to the throne. (His mother is mentioned a lot, however; and the importance of the king's mother seems usually to exceed that of his queen. But that doesn't mean that she is why he has got the throne - her importance seems a result, not a cause.)
(P.S. I'm not on the history list, so if you want to reply, you'll have to send me a copy directly.)