Tapputi – c. 2000 BCE – Babylonian Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia, Sumer


Tapputi, a perfumer, is not only the first known female chemist, but the first chemist of any gender known to history. Her title, Belatekallium, meant female overseer, which tells us that she worked at the royal palace in Mesopotamia.

The making of perfume or aromata was an important industry in ancient Mesopotamian life. The preparation of the materials was extensive and highly technical.

We know of Tapputi from a cuneiform tablet which bears her name as well as her own recipe for a perfume which describes using oil, flowers, myrrh and calamus to be distilled and filtered with water. This also is the first known reference to a still.

Full text:

If you prepare flowers, oil and calamus as a salve, and you have tested the flowers; you set up… a distillatory. You put good potable water [into a hairu pot]. You heat tabilu and put it in. You put 1 qa haminu, 1 qa iaruttu, 1 qa of good, filtered myhrr into the hairu put. Your standard in this is the water taken and divided. You operate at the end of the day and in the evening. It remains overnight. It becomes steeped.

"Illustration Acorus calamus0" by www.biolib.de. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Illustration_Acorus_calamus0.jpg#/media/File:Illustration_Acorus_calamus0.jpg

“Illustration Acorus calamus” by http://www.biolib.de. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

You filter this solution… with a filter cloth into a hirsu pot at dawn, on the rising of the sun, you clarify from this hirsu pot into another hirsu pot. You discard the residue. You use 3 qa of purified Cyperus in the solution with the aromatics. Discard the inferior material. You put 3 qa myrrh, 2 qa pressed and filtered calamus in the solution with these aromatics… 1 ½ pure gullu… two beakers… small beakers… you filter… kanaktu in a sieve. You decant the oil in the hairu pout… in the solution [you rub that which was with the solution overnight] [you examine] the comminuted material. You remove [its bad part]. You filter this solution which [you clarified into a distillatory] … 3 qa… [you throw]… balsam into this solution in [a hirsu pot]. [you kindle a fire]. When the solution is heated for admixture, [you pour in the oil]. You agitate with a stirrer. [When the oil, solution, and aromatics] continue to dissolve, [you raise] the fire… you cover the distillatory on top. [you cool] with [water]. When the sun rises,[you prepare] a [container for] the oil, solution and aromatics.

You allow the fire under the distillatory to die down. You remove the distilled and sublimed substances from [the trough of the distillatory].

When the sun [rises],[if] they continue to dissolve in one another and [the fire rises], you cover the [top] of the distillatory. You cool. You prepare a flask for the calamus oil. You put a filter cloth over the flask. You remove the dregs and residue left in the distillatory.

This is the preparation of flowers, oil and calamus for [salve] for the king according to the recipe of Tapputi-Belatekallium, the perfumer.


  • Early Arabic Pharmacology – Martin Levy
  • Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic 

On Wikipedia:


Enheduanna – 2285 – 2250 BCE – City of Ur, Sumer

Mesopotamia, Sumer

This city – may it be sundered by An!

May it be cursed by Enlil!

May its plaintive child not be placated by his mother!

Oh lady, the (harp of) mourning is placed on the ground.

One had verily beached your ship of mourning on a hostile shore.

At the sound of my sacred song they are ready to die.


These are the fierce and powerful words of the world’s first known author – Enheduanna from the City of Ur, in ancient Sumer. This remarkable woman was at once princess, priestess and poet.

The daughter of Sargon the Great, Enheduanna was given the office of High Priestess of Ur in a political move which would unite Sargon’s territories. She took the name ‘En’, meaning High Priestess, becoming En-hedu-anna – High Priestess, Adornment of An (the Sumerian sky god). She dedicated her life and her work to the goddess Inanna, whom the majority of her hymns refer to.

Not only was Enheduanna writing at the very beginning of literature itself, she is the first author to put her name to her work and to write in the first person. Enheduanna’s work is full of details not only of her life but, vividly, her own personality. When a rival faction expelled her from the City during her brother’s reign, Enheduanna used her poetry to curse her enemies and call upon her patron Inanna for justice:

At your battle-cry, my lady, the foreign lands bow low.

When humanity comes before you in awed silence at the terrifying radiance and tempest, you grasp the most terrible of all the divine powers.

Because of you, the threshold of tears is opened, and people walk along the path of the house of great lamentations.

In the van of battle, all is struck down before you. With your strength, my lady, teeth can crush flint.

You charge forward like a charging storm. You roar with the roaring storm, you continually thunder with Iškur.

You spread exhaustion with the stormwinds, while your own feet remain tireless.

With the lamenting balaĝ drum a lament is struck up.

From the Penn Museum collections

Disk of Enheduanna – From the Penn Museum collections

Enheduanna set the standard in all three of her roles, as not only were her hymns recalled centuries after her death, but each subsequent king’s daughter was awarded the role of High Priestess of Ur, guaranteeing these women a place of political influence. We know that Enheduanna would have approved of this, as she herself advocated the education of women:

‘The true woman who possesses exceeding wisdom, She consults [employs] a tablet of lapis lazuli.

She gives advice to all lands… She measures off the heavens, She places the measuring-cords on the earth.’ 


  • Iškur – Sumerian storm god


On Wikipedia:

Peseshet – c.2500 BCE – Sais, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt

‘I have come from the school of medicine at Heliopolis, and have studied at the woman’s school at Sais, where the divine mothers have taught me how to cure diseases…’


Like her countrywoman and predecessor Merit-Ptah, Peseshet was a woman working in the medical profession. We know of Peseshet from her personal stela found in the tomb of her son, Ahkhethetep, which calls her ‘Lady Overseer of the Female Physicians’.

It is believed that ‘female physician’ means midwife, as there is no Egyptian word for midwifery. During Pesehet’s time there was a medical school at Sais which educated female students of gynecology and obstetrics. It is not a stretch to assume that this is where Peseshet herself worked and taught.


Stele/Stela – Funeral slab inscribed with a person’s name.


Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic

Disease and Medicine in World HistorySheldon J. Watts 

On Wikipedia

Puabi – c.2600 BCE – The City of Ur, Sumer

Mesopotamia, Sumer

Puabi of Ur

Between 1922 and 1934, renowned British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley was working on the most important dig of his career. The excavation project took place in southern Iraq, which was once the heart of ancient Mesopotamia and the cradle of civilisation.

Under the blazing heat of the desert, Woolley worked in the ruins of the Sumerian City state of Ur. There he would uncover every archaeologists’ fantasy; a previously untouched tomb, the likes of which had not been seen since the treasures of Tutankhamun.

An artists' impression of a Sumerian woman's beauty regime

An artists’ impression of a Sumerian woman’s beauty regime

The tomb of Puabi had not been disturbed like so many others nearby, and so still contained everything she had been buried with – a fortune.

It was clear that Puabi had been an extremely wealthy woman in life. There were piles of gold jewellery, elaborate gold leaf headdresses, beads of carnelian and lapis lazuli, rings, earrings, golden dinnerwear, a beautiful silver plated lyre, jewelled hairpins, bracelets and pots of cosmetics.

On top of this, Puabi had been buried with no less than fifty-two attendants; ritual sacrifices to serve her in the afterlife, each dressed as elaborately as their mistress.

Today, Puabi’s headdress is an iconic and visceral connection to the lady herself. It would have been supported by a very large, black wool wig, giving us a clear idea of how Puabi looked when she was alive – dressed in the height of Sumerian fashion.

Puabi was approximately forty when she died and a Semitic Akkadian rather than a native Sumerian. Other than these sparse facts, we know very little about who Puabi was. Her cylinder seal tells us that her title was Puabi Nin – which might mean she was either a Priestess or a Queen.

A headdress from the tombs of Ur on display at the British Museum (taken by me)

A headdress from the tombs of Ur on display at the British Museum

What is interesting about Puabi’s seal is that it does not refer to any man. Usually we would expect to find reference to a woman’s father or husband in burials from this time.

The absence of male presence indicates that whoever Puabi was, she had wealth and status in her own right.


  • A cylinder seal is a small round cylinder, typically about one inch in legnth, engraved with written characters or figurative scenes or both, used to roll an impression onto a surface – usually wet clay. This acted as a signature for high status people.
  • Some sources refer to Puabi as Shub-Ad based on an earlier mistranslation.
  • I am very grateful to Leonard Woolley’s wife, Katherine Woolley, who is responsible for creating the model head of Puabi which served as the inspiration for my embroidered portrait.


The cylinder seal of Puabi at the British Museum

Penn Museum – Dressing Queen Puabi (with video)

Ur of the Chaldees – Sir Leonard Woolley

On Wikipedia:

Other media:

The Take Back Halloween Project has an excellent page on dressing up as Puabi!

Mother’s Day Special – Notable Mothers in History

Mothers Day

In honour of Mother’s day, Rebel Women is paying tribute to some notable women in history who were also mothers, beginning with…

Mother Lü – Mother of a Revolution

Mother Lü (sometimes Lü Mu) was a noblewoman in Han dynasty China. At the time, a politician called Wang Mang usurped the imperial throne, implementing a number of unpopular policies. In 14 AD, Mother Lü’s son, Lü Yu, was executed for a minor offence. Mother Lü vowed revenge – and she meant business.


The wealthy lady recruited peasants, purchased weapons and other supplies and mounted a rebellion. Her army of several thousand was the first uprising in Chinese history to be led by a woman. Appointing herself General, Mother Lü led the rebels to storm the capital, capturing and beheading the magistrate who had executed her son.

Mother Lü died of an illness shortly after her successes, but her spirit lived on. The forces she had amassed went on to become known as ‘The Red Eyebrow Rebellion’ and ultimately overthrew Wang Mang’s regime.


Josephine Baker – Mother of the Rainbow Tribe

Josephine Baker was an all round remarkable woman. She was fluent in French and English, a member of the French Resistance, a Civil Rights Activist and the first black woman to star in a major motion picture. Best known as a singer and performer, Baker also adopted twelve children from different racial backgrounds, calling them her ‘Rainbow Tribe’.


She ensconced her diverse family in a castle, Chateau des Milandes, where she hoped to demonstrate that ‘children of different ethnicities and religions could still be brothers.  Josephine Baker’s children were French born, Moroccan, Finnish, Japanese, Korean, Colombian, Algerian, Israeli and Venezuelan. She invited people to visit the children and see them playing together at home. She dressed them differently according to their nationality and raised them with different religions.

“She was a great artist, and she was our mother. Mother’s make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect.” – Akio Baker

There have been many criticisms of Baker’s Rainbow Tribe, even from her own sons who described her as possessive and controlling. It is interesting to compare her actions to today’s celebrity adoption stories.


Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones – Grandmother of all Agitators

Mother Jones was a labour leader, children’s rights activist and agitator once called ‘the most dangerous woman in America’. Her life was blighted by tragedy – in the 1860’s her husband and four children died of yellow fever and in 1871 her dress shop was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. Mary poured her grief into her work, becoming an organiser for the United Mine Workers Union.220px-Mother_Jones_1902-11-04

A highly effective campaigner, she organised the wives of workers into a militia, leading them as they weilded brooms and beat tin pans shouting ‘Join the Union!’ By the age of 60, she had earned the title ‘Mother Jones’. She worked tirelessly on the behalf of child workers, gathering a ‘Children’s Crusade’ in 1903, marching to President Roosevelt’s hometown, kids in tow, aiming to improve working conditions and end child labour in mills and mines.

Arrested and imprisoned a number of times, Mother Jones was once called ‘the grandmother of all agitators’ by the US Senate floor. She replied:

“I hope I live long enough to be the great-grandmother of all agitators!”


Sacagawea – Pioneer Mother

A heroine of American history, Sacagawea was a Shoshone woman who worked as a translator on the Lewis and Clarke expedition exploring thousands of miles of the United states – with a newborn baby strapped to her back.


Sacagawea was kidnapped and sold into marriage in her early teens. When she and her husband were asked to travel with Lewis and Clarke she was already pregnant. Her son, Jean Baptiste, was born at the beginning of the journey at Fort Mandan.

The young woman acted as an interpreter and diplomat for the group. She was able to speak with the native people they encountered and was also a reassuring sight – the expedition found that if they traveled with a woman and infant they were perceived as friendly and non-threatening. After the expedition, Lewis and Clark had grown so fond of her son that they made provisions for his education and upbringing.


The Lewis and Clark Expedition on Wikipedia

Sacagawea on Wikipedia

Margaret Beaufort – Mother of the Tudor Dynasty

The ultimate Matriarch, Margaret Beaufort demanded and commanded respect.


She gave birth to her first and only son, Henry Tudor, at the age of thirteen, already a widow. Margaret lived during a very tempestuous time in English history and as the daughter of a noble house soon became a key figure in the Wars of the Roses. Cunning and ambitious, Beaufort joined forces with dowager queen Elizabeth Woodville, plotting to have Henry married to Elizabeth of York, Woodville’s daughter, thus creating a powerful alliance which attracted both Yorkist and Lancastrian support. This eventually resulted in Henry Tudor taking the throne.

Beaufort continued to exercise considerable influence over court politics and her son’s leadership. She was referred to as ‘My Lady the king’s Mother’ and Henry’s first parliament recognised her right to hold property independently from her husband – which other married women could not do. Later Margaret was given the power to administer justice in northern England.


Margaret Beaufort on Wikipedia 

Merit-Ptah – c.2700 BCE – Memphis, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt


Over five thousand years before Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman to obtain a degree in medicine, there was Merit-Ptah – chief court physician.

Merit-Ptah (beloved of Ptah – the creator god) is identified as a ‘Chief Physician’ in a hieroglyphic carving near the pyramid of Saqqara, in the old Egyptian kingdom’s capital of Memphis. Hers is the first woman’s name in history associated with medicine and science.

As a Swnwt (doctor), she was a highly skilled and educated person. Egyptian medical knowledge was the envy of the ancient world; even the Greek writer Homer said:

“the Egyptians are more skilled at medicine than any other art”

An Egyptian Swnwt might specialise in dentistry, proctology, ophthalmology or gastroenterology and will have taken part in a number of religious and magical rites.

In ancient Egypt, healing practices were associated with religious ritual and though we do not know Merit-Ptah’s specialism, we know that her son went on to become High Priest of Memphis.

Even today, Merit-Ptah continues to remain relevant in scientific fields – she has a crater on Venus named after her!


Article in the New Scientist 19th February 1987 

Women in Leadership: Contextual Dynamics and Boundaries – Karin Klenke

On Wikipedia:

Merneith – c.2946 – 2916 BCE – Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt


It is the thirtieth century before the common era (BCE). The pyramids have not yet been built. The pharaohs of the first Egyptian dynasty are buried in Abydos, the capital of Upper Egypt.

Around 2916 BCE, a ruler dies there. A royal funeral is held, complete with the traditional solar boat to carry the soul safely to the afterlife; food and wine for the journey; and forty human sacrifices. There can be no doubt that a powerful person is being buried today. This is the tomb of queen Merneith.

Over 5000 years later, in 1900, archaeologist William Petrie discovers the tomb, which he believes must belong to a lost pharaoh. There is no record of this king in any of the new kingdom texts, and there is no name inside the tomb itself. This royal burial is a mystery.


Merneith’s funeral stele (source)

The smattering of archaeological clues left behind include various seal impressions and inscribed bowls linking the tomb with known pharaohs Djer, Djet and Den, all of whom are buried nearby. Just one sealing from the Saqqara cemetery provides the name of the mystery occupant; a woman – Merneith.

Merneith (whose name means beloved of the goddess Neith) was indeed a royal woman and while she was not a pharaoh in her own right, she is an extremely likely candidate for the first queen regent in history. Buried alongside her son, Den, and her brother-husband, Djet, Merneith remains the only consort afforded the honour of a burial among kings.

After king Djet (who may have been her brother or her husband, or both) died, it is believed than her son Den was only a small boy, too young to rule so that Merneith served as regent until he was old enough to take the throne.

Merneith’s regency sets a precedent for king’s wives rather than king’s fathers or brothers to wield power in the absence of a husband or son. A possible reason for this is that a mother would be considered the most trustworthy when it came to working on behalf of her child and that being of royal blood and having grown up in the political atmosphere of the royal court, she would also be the best equipped.

Though Merneith does not appear on the new kingdom’s ‘king list’, her name is present on a seal found in the tomb of Den. This seal includes Merneith on the list of first dynasty kings as the only woman noted; ‘King’s Mother, Merneith’. Her inclusion on this list demonstrates how seriously her position was taken by the early Egyptians. It is also a mark of the respect her son had for her.


  • Neith was a powerful early Egyptian goddess of creation, warfare and hunting.
  • The ancient Egyptians had no taboo around incest, but instead considered inter-family marriage a viable way to continue the royal bloodline. Kings often had a number of wives, though only one was the Great Royal Wife.

In fiction:

The Dagger of Isis by Lester Picker fictionalises the life and times of Merneith (called Meryt-Neith in the novel)


Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra – Joyce Tyldesley

Tausret: Forgotten Queen and Pharaoh of Egypt – Richard H. Wilkinson

Early Dynastic Egypt – Toby A.H. Wilkinson

Information on the Abydos tombs

On Wikipedia: