Cleopatra the Alchemist – 3rd Century – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt

 

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We do not know this woman’s real name, as ‘Cleopatra’ is assumed to be a pseudonym for a woman alchemist and philosopher who authored a number of alchemical texts.

She lived in Egypt and is associated with the same school of alchemy as Maria Prophetissima. Like Maria, Cleopatra’s work was concerned mostly with transforming substances through the processes of distillation and sublimation.

Three texts on alchemy are attributed to Cleopatra:

  • Εκ των Κλεοπατρας περι μετρων και σταθμων. (On Weights and Measures)
  • Κλεοπατρης χρυσοποια (Chrysopeoeia of Cleopatra)
  • Διαλογος φιλοσοφων και κλεοπατρας (A Dialogue of Cleopatra and the Philosophers)

The most famous of these texts is the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra which is a sheet of papyrus illustrated with symbols for gold making, assumed to be drawn by Cleopatra herself.

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The drawings include an ouroboros (a snake eating itself), an ancient symbol which represents eternity. The text describes the ouroboros as follows:

“One is the Serpent which has its poison according to two compositions, and One is All and through it is All, and by it is All, and if you have not All, All is Nothing.”

There is also a diagram of a dibikos, (an alchemical tool for distillation) and several images of stars and crescents.


Notes:

Not to be confused with Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Egypt.


References:

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

Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century – Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

On Wikipedia:

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Ahhotep I – c.1560 – 1510 BCE – Thebes, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt

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It is 1563 BCE and Pharaoh Seqenenre Tao has died a violent death. Whether on the battlefield or by assassination, he receives an axe to the head only a few years into his reign. As Pharaoh Kamose is crowned his successor, Tao’s widow and sister takes charge of her children.

Ahhotep I (meaning the Moon is satisfied) was one of the most influential of the Great Royal Wives, the first dominant consort of Egypt. She also bore the titles Associate of the White Crown bearer and King’s Mother. Pharaoh Kamose did not live much longer than his predecessor, and five years after the death of her husband, Ahhotep saw her son Ahmose ascend to the throne along with her daughter, Ahmose Nefertari, who became his wife.

It is likely that Ahmose was very young, and that Ahhotep served as regent for her son during his childhood. It is evident that Ahmose had a great respect for his mother, whom he describes as a powerful woman and fearless leader on a stela in Karnack:

“She is the one who has accomplished the rites and taken care of Egypt… She has looked after her soldiers, she has guarded her, she has brought back her fugitives and collected together her deserters; she has pacified Upper Egypt and expelled her rebels.”

“Ahhotep” via Wikimedia Commons

These statements appear to describe a time at which Ahhotep rallied troops and played some important role in the defense of Thebes – perhaps following the death of her husband.

It is not clear when these events took place, but it is known that she was buried with a ceremonial axe, golden dagger and military medals. These items are unusual in the grave of a queen, and may be there to commemorate Ahhotep’s successful campaign.

Queen Ahhotep is mentioned as living during the reign of Amenhotep I, her grandson, and again during the reign of Thutmose I, her great grandson. This indicates that she lived much longer than many other Egyptians of the time, outliving almost all of her children.


References:

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

Hatshepsut: from Queen to PharaohMetropolitan Museum of Art

Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt – Joyce Tyldesley

On Wikipedia:

Khuwyt – c.1960 BCE – Thebes, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt

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Khuwyt was a musician who lived and worked during the Twelfth Dynasty of Egypt. She is known from a carving in the tomb of a Vizier (court official), where she is portrayed playing a harp and singing. She is identified as ‘Chantress Khuwyt, daughter of Maket’.

Many musicians (though not all) in ancient Egypt were women, and the position was open to people from all walks of life. Khuwyt may have been a noble woman whose father paid for her training, a member of the King’s harem, or even a slave from Nubia.

She likely danced, as well as sang, performing complex acrobatic movements in time to the music. She would have worn a thick black wig over her own hair, and painted her eyelids with kohl. Many musicians and dancers performed nude or wearing very little, but if Khuwyt did wear clothes, she would have dressed in a very thin, almost transparent white dress.

Musicians of Amun, Western Thebes.

Musicians of Amun, Western Thebes.

Music played an important part in ancient Egyptian culture, and musicians attended religious ceremonies as well as parties and festivals.

Music was considered an art form, and so talented musicians were held in high esteem, and in some cases could move up the social scale.


References:

Kelsey Museum page on music in Egypt

Details of the Chapel in which Khuwyt is mentioned

On Wikipedia:

Sobekneferu – c.1806 BCE – Faiyum, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt

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The original Queen of the Nile…

The last pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom, a golden age for Egypt, was Sobekneferu; Egypt’s first known female king. While Merneith had ruled on behalf of her son over a millennium earlier and queens (king’s wives) often had some administrative powers, Sobekneferu is the first woman to rule with the title of Pharaoh (king) in her own right.

She was the daughter of pharaoh Amenemhat III, whose greatest achievement was the construction of a man-made lake in Faiyum. The lake brought prosperity to the area by channelling the floods from the Nile into a reservoir. For this reason Amenemhat became closely associated with the crocodile-headed god of the Nile, Sobek.

A cult of crocodile worshippers developed around Faiyum, leading the Greeks to later name the area Crocodilopolis (Crocodile City).

Sobekneferu means ‘the Beauties of Sobek’ – cementing this family’s close ties with the city.

Amenemhat was succeeded by his son, Amenemhat IV, who was either Sobekneferu’s brother or step-brother. When Amenemhat IV died he left no children to inherit the kingdom, leaving to position open for Sobekneferu.

Unusually, Sobekneferu never took the title ‘King’s Wife’, so was probably not married to Amenemhat IV. There is very little explanation at all for how she rose to power, but there is evidence of a few shrewd political moves on her part.

She consistently emphasised her right to rule by associating herself with her father

Egyptian crocodile head from the Walters Art Museum (source)

rather than her brother, and was likely the reason Amenemhat III was deified (made a god) in Faiyum– being the daughter of a god meant that her right to rule was sacred.

Though she only ruled for four years and died childless, Sobekneferu is included on all later king’s lists in Egypt. This indicates that unlike many other female rulers, later historians considered Sobekneferu a legitimate pharaoh.

See also: Only three other women ruled Egypt as pharaoh’s in their own right. They are Hatshepsut, Tausret and Cleopatra VII.


Notes

The title Queen did not have the meaning it had today, but meant ‘the wife of a king’. There was no specific word for a female ruler in ancient Egypt, so women who did rule, like Sobekneferu and Hatshepsut, took the title of King.


References:

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

Daughters of Isis: Women of Ancient Egypt – Joyce Tyldesley

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…’

Peseshet

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.


Notes:

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


References:

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

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

Ancient Egypt, Egypt

Merit-Ptah

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!


References:

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

Merneith

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.

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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.


Notes:

  • 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)


References:

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: