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.
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.
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