Our knowledge of anything at all from the earliest periods of Egyptian history is pretty fragmentary and pieced together like a jigsaw (with most of the pieces missing). But by the chance vagaries of what has survived and been rediscovered the kings of the 1st Dynasty are actually pretty securely ordered and named. The consensus is that the eight kings were: Narmer, Aha (also known as Hor-Aha), Djer, Djet, Den, Anedjib, Semerkhet and Qaa. In addition in the version of this list found as a seal impression in Den’s tomb was the King’s Mother Merneith – so who was she, and how come she’s ended up in such a high status position?
The name Merneith means “beloved of Neith” – that’s generally how it’s spelt in English but there are another couple of forms you might see: Mer(t)neith (because the word mer should have a feminine -t ending even though it’s not written with one) and Meryetneith A (the A reflects the fact that there’s another later Meryetneith). The name of the goddess Neith was a frequent component of the names of elite women of the 1st Dynasty royal court – other examples are Neithhotep (probable wife of Narmer and mother of Aha) and Herneith (probable wife of Djet), as well as many women in subsidiary burials around the tombs of the 1st Dynasty kings. Merneith’s known titles were King’s Mother (which is self-explanatory, and in Egyptian is mwt-nsw) and Foremost of Women (which is a standard queen’s title in the 1st Dynasty, ḫnty).
As with all people from the deep past our knowledge of her relationships is pretty slim – to continue my metaphor it’s pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle with almost all of the pieces missing. It’s pretty certain that the King she was Mother of was Den, number five in our list of eight 1st Dynasty kings. Some of the evidence includes large numbers of seal impressions naming Den which were found in her tomb and a partial name of Den’s mother on the Palermo Stone (a fragment of the annals of the Egyptian kings dating to the 5th Dynasty and recording years back to the 1st Dynasty) is consistent with how her name is written.
As well as objects and seal impressions naming Den two other kings are named in Merneith’s tomb – Djer and Djet – implying some kind of relationship to them. Given she’s the mother of Den, it seems plausible that she was therefore the wife of Djet, Den’s immediate predecessor as inheritance of the throne in Ancient Egypt is ideologically focused on a father to son transition (recapitulating the (eventual) succession of Horus to Osiris’s throne with each generation of kings). There is no direct evidence of her relationship with the other king, Djer – it could be something as general as being a high status member of the court, or it could be that she has objects with his name on because she was his (presumed) son’s wife. Or possibly she was his daughter – as I said, there’s no direct evidence for this, but it certainly wouldn’t be unusual for a royal woman to be daughter, wife and mother of three generations of kings in Ancient Egypt.
Outside of Abydos Merneith is pretty ephemeral, if that evidence was all we had to go on then she’d be a small footnote. But she’s pretty solidly established as a real historical person from evidence at Abydos, which includes her own tomb. She was buried in the Early Dynastic Period cemetery at Abydos called Umm el-Qa’ab and her tomb is designated Tomb Y by the archaeologists who’ve excavated it. Initially it was thought to be the tomb of a king. It has features like those of the 1st Dynasty kings – including the size and layout as well as the position in this cemetery. There are two large stelae outside bearing her name, as there are for the kings. Merneith, as with most of the 1st Dynasty kings, also had a large funerary enclosure situated nearer to the cultivated zone – the purpose of these is unclear. There is also possibly a second tomb for her at Saqqara – but the identification of Mastaba S3503 as her tomb is not secure and may be the tomb of a high official associated with her time period (in fact there’s significant disagreement as to whether 1st Dynasty kings did have secondary tombs at Saqqara or not).
And this/these tomb(s) and the funerary enclosure also have a surrounding ring of subsidiary burials – a common feature of the kingly tombs of this dynasty. These were probably sacrificed retainers, forming the entourage of the main tomb owner in the afterlife – some examples have the same roof covering the main grave and the subsidiary ones, which makes it clear that everyone was buried in one go. What’s not entirely clear is whether these people were executed or committed suicide (although this may be a moot point, as the individuals concerned probably didn’t have much choice in their selection even if they handled their deaths themselves). This idea of taking your court or servants with you when you die is pretty shocking to modern eyes, but it’s not actually that unusual – examples come from widely separated places and times, for instance a burial of a nomad leader and 5 of his women from the 1st Century CE at Tillya Tepe (in modern Afghanistan) or of a king and four Furen (meaning “wife” or “lady”) and seven servants from the 2nd Century BCE in the kingdom of Nanyue (in the south of modern China).
But “not unusual” doesn’t mean anyone was likely to be totally blasé about it, and that (as well as taking it with them when they went) is probably part of the point. That amount of death, of willing (as far as one can tell) sacrifice, of expenditure of resources (they had their own coffins, that’s a lot of wood in a country where wood is scarce) – that would make a statement about the power of the king, both the deceased one and his successor, that you would not forget in a hurry. The individuals who died were quite high status, and so those of the elite who watched at the funerary rituals would know their survival rested in the hands of the king. Those who buried the bodies and dug the graves would carry back to their communities along the Nile an over-awed impression of a king who ruled over life and death. It’s also a very useful way to “clean house” at a difficult time for any hereditary power structure. Which is a particularly gruesome example of the Ancient Egyptians combining practicality with display and concern for their afterlife. The transition from old king to new king must’ve been particularly fraught at a time when the idea of a king of united Egypt was still pretty new. And as I said when I was talking about Shu – the mythology of Ancient Egypt is anxious about these transition points. Having the threats amongst the elite – the other sons, the uncles, and so on – accompany the deceased king on his journey to the afterlife would help ensure a smooth transition.
The evidence from the tomb at Abydos makes it clear that this woman Merneith was almost, but not quite a king. For instance whilst there are those two impressive stelae with her name on outside her tomb, the name itself is not written within a serekh as that of a king would be. Her tomb(s) and funerary enclosure are surrounded by secondary burials, which is again a sign of high almost kingly status – but not as many and not as high status individuals, so she’s not as high status as her near contemporaries the other kings buried in this cemetery. And she gets missed out of later king lists, like that from the tomb of Qaa.
Almost, but not quite a king – so what was she? Her probable husband Djet, Den’s predecessor as king, doesn’t seem to’ve reigned all that long. Although I’ll caveat this immediately by noting that Toby Wilkinson glosses this “short” reign as being “probably less than 20 years” and Kara Cooney suggests a reign of 10 years, so clearly we mustn’t over-interpret short! One piece of evidence for this is the career of a high official called Amka (traced through seal impressions with his name and titles on) which begins in the reign of Djer (Djet’s predecessor), and ends early in the reign of Den. So Djet’s reign was short enough to fit into the latter part of the working life of Amka, after he reached a fairly senior status. This short reign, and Merneith being almost a king, means that it seems most plausible that Merneith ruled as regent for her son Den who was presumably too young to rule himself when Djet died.
You’d think this would be a dangerously unstable situation, just ripe for an internal or external strongman to take advantage of and put himself on the throne – but this doesn’t seem to’ve been the case. If there were wobbles, they’ve left no trace. The geography of the Nile Valley made external threats to stability like a foreign warlord sweeping in to kill a mother & child and seize the throne much less likely – Egypt was relatively isolated at this time and had defined natural boundaries that would provide an obstacle. Not like the situation in Mesopotamia, for instance. So external threats were less of a problem than one might think – and internal ones could be partially neutralised by choosing those to accompany the deceased king to the afterlife with care. Whilst Djet, Den’s predecessor, had fewer retainers buried with him than his own predecessor did it was still over 300 people and those that were chosen included more men, and men with higher status titles too.
There were, as well, ideological and mythological justifications for women protecting the rights of their sons from the dangers of their uncles – that’s the fundamental basis of the Osiris mythology after all. Of course saying this could be putting the cart before the horse, as the Early Dynastic Egyptians haven’t left us any mythological texts so it could be that the mythology grows up after and around this regency – certainly Osiris doesn’t appear in Egyptian culture till much later. But nonetheless if you don’t have to worry about external threats, it is a politically stable solution – unlike one of the boy’s uncles Merneith only had power in the child’s name and so had nothing to gain by murdering him and taking the throne herself. So she was a safe focal point for anyone who wanted to maintain the established order of things. Which is a very Egyptian thing to want to do – change for the sake of change was not part of their attitude to the world, maintenance of ma’at would mean ensuring there was a smooth transition to the new king. And if his mother as a regent was the price of that then so be it.
And it worked, as far as we can tell. Even the relatively small number of retainers buried with Merneith tends to suggest stability – no need for a big display of power when dear old Mum died, it was clear who was in charge and that he was staying there.
This makes Merneith the first woman who we are fairly certain held the reins of power in Ancient Egypt. Reigning in her son’s name, true, but reigning nonetheless – and recognised as holding this status by her contemporaries, as seen in her kingly tomb and Den’s seal that lists her with the kings. She might not quite be the actual first woman – there is a tantalising hint Neithhotep before her may’ve held power in some sense, as there are clay seals with her name written within a serekh (with Neith on top instead of Horus, tho). But there’s no evidence what this actually meant in practice at the time, so Merneith is our known first. And sadly, written back out of history by her descendants fairly quickly as is often the way with women in history – by only a very few generations later in the reign of Qaa she’s not mentioned in the list of kings, demoted back to the status of any other mother of a king.
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