Female Leaders, Ancient and Modern: Kara Cooney on Hatshepsut, gender, and power

Throughout history, women in power have been the target of hostility, violence and mistrust. But why? What makes female leadership so objectionable?

Egyptologist Dr. Kara Cooney and Houston native searches for the answer in her new book, The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power. Cooney returns to the Houston Museum of Natural Science Tuesday, Aug. 4 to present a lecture that examines female power and politics throughout the ancient world.

The first great female ruler, the pharaoh Hatshepsut, rose to occupy the throne as a cross-dressing king. Her journey was fraught with political intrigue and maneuvering. It took a trauma or a crisis to spark her ascent, and during her rule, she was surrounded by male advisers. 

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Hatshepsut, the fifth pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty of Egypt, who came to the throne in 1478 BC. Flickr Creative Commons.

“Hatshepsut is a case study for me,” Cooney said. “She was one [incredibly powerful] woman whose circumstances put her into a tenuous and difficult position where it was demanded of her to take on more power. Maybe people pulled strings for her.”

Without men, Cooney said, Hatshepsut never would have been able to achieve her title. In that respect, her story symbolizes the central problem in male-dominated cultures — the suspicion of women’s motives.

“It creates a pattern, bringing up all the other women in power,” Cooney said. People know Cleopatra, whose names rolls off the tongue, but she was ultimately a self-interested and ineffective ruler. “No one knows Hatshepsut. She left her country at the end of her rule better than when she came. We have a hard time with successful females, but we love to talk about their failures.”

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Cooney examines Mayan hieroglyphs. Discovery Communications.

The Egyptians of her time attempted to redact Hatshepsut’s rule as pharaoh from their history. For reasons still under debate, her nephew and successor, sent men with chisels to carve out her images from monuments 20 years after her death.  Egyptologists are attempting to explain whether this act was also a political decision.

“He waited a good two decades before he started to destroy these statues and monuments, but when he did, he went after the statuary with ferocity,” Cooney said. “This doesn’t seem to be an act of hatred; it seemed like more of a calculated act. He doesn’t remove her images as queen. He removed them as king. When she takes the aberrant step forward as a kingly ruler, that didn’t bode well.”

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Cooney peers into the past through human remains. Discovery Communications.

In her book, Cooney attempts to fill in the gaps in Hatshepsut’s history with responsible conjecture. The story isn’t historical fiction, like that of Jean M. Auel, who wrote the Earth’s Children series. Cooney cites Auel’s work as formative to her approach to writing about the past, but The Woman Who Would Be King is more an effort of “archaeo-ontology,” taking educated leaps to theorize about a real person and her ancient society.

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“How would she approach the problems before her? How would she approach getting more power, keeping power, dealing with certain officials? There’s a tremendous amount we don’t know, but she was able to do it somehow,” Cooney said.

“Every human has emotions, desires, wants, dislikes. We’re more alike than dissimilar. Here was a high elite, an educated woman maneuvering within the halls of ancient Egyptian power. We can make reasonable guesses about what she may have done and how she engineered her future. The same way a paleontologist can look at Lucy’s fossils and think about the challenges she had, we can take what we know about our emotions today and come up with some sort of story.”

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Cooney on location in Egypt. Discovery Communications.

Cooney grew up in Houston, where she attended Memorial High School. She presents at HMNS often, preferring informative talks with the public to TV appearances. She produced the Discovery Channel series Out of Egypt, a comparative archaeology series which took her around the world to ask broad questions about society and its link to the distant past. The series is available on Netflix and Amazon. Now, as Associate Professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture at UCLA, she teaches about feminism through the lens of women in power in the ancient world.

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Dr. Kara Cooney, Egyptologist, Associate Professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture at UCLA, and author of The Woman Who Would Be King. Photo by Mikel Healey.

“I tell them in the beginning, ‘Look, I’m not here to write a revisionist feminist history. I’m here to help you see how it’s unfair. I’m here to help you see how we can transcend this,’” Cooney said about her students.

Tickets for her lecture and book signing are available online. Tickets $18, Members $12.

Educator How-to: Make an Anubis mask!

Anubis is the Greek name for the “jackal-headed” god associated with death and the rituals of mummification in Ancient Egypt. Anubis’ color is black, symbolizing rebirth, which parallels the belief that the deceased is, in fact, reborn in the afterlife.

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Ancient Egyptian cartonnage Anubis mask.

Over time, Anubis played several roles in funerary rituals, from protector of the grave to head embalmer, and advocated for the deceased in the Weighing of the Heart ceremony. A mask, like the one pictured below, was worn by the priest performing the Opening of the Mouth ceremony and other funeral rituals.

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Opening of the Mouth Ceremony.

Interestingly, recent genetic research suggests the Egyptian jackal, long thought to be the inspiration for the god Anubis, may not be a jackal at all, but rather an African wolf and a member of the gray wolf family. However, at present, the animal is considered of unresolved taxonomical identity and is presently classified as a golden jackal, despite genetic evidence that suggests otherwise.

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The Egyptian jackal, or perhaps the African wolf.

With the directions below, you can make your own Anubis mask! First, print out these Anubis Templates for the mask and ears and gather the following supplies:

  • Cardstock
  • Cardboard (you can recycle a cereal box for this purpose)
  • Crayons
  • Glue
  • Hole punch
  • Scissors
  • Stapler
  • Elastic string

Cut out the face and ears from the template. Trace the ears onto a piece of cardstock and cut them out carefully. Color the face of Anubis any way you like, using your crayons. When finished, glue the face to the cardboard and cut it out using a pair of sharp scissors. Then use glue or a stapler to attach the ears to the top of the mask. Use the hole punch to make a hole on each side of the mask at its widest point. Finally, tie the ends of a length of elastic string to each of these holes so the mask fits snugly over your face. Now you can legitimately perform the Opening of the Mouth Ceremony yourself!

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Use these designs above for inspiration or invent your own. You learn more about Anubis and other Egyptian gods at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in the Hall of Ancient Egypt.

Cat Imposter: Guess what x-rays reveal about our feline mummy ‘fake-out’

In Cairo, I’m out of touch with what’s shown on TV, but I always know when something about Egypt has been broadcast. On slow news days, Facebook, Twitter, and my work email all light up with inquiries.

In May, there was a mini-boom in Egyptian interest following a BBC programme  on animal mummies. The headlines promised to reveal an ancient ‘scandal’ – who wouldn’t be intrigued by this?

Mummified animals – most typically cats and small birds with beautifully patterned and decorated wrappings sometimes buried in wooden or metal containers – are some of the most recognizably ‘ancient Egyptian’ objects in museums. They encapsulate two of the biggest modern clichés of ancient Egyptian culture: the Egyptians’ love of death, and their weird animal-headed gods. Add to this the fact that a lot of them are small enough to transport easily. No wonder most museums have them on display. And we’re no exception at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

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Animal mummies, statues, and containers, Hall of Ancient Egypt, HMNS.

The ‘scandal’ the BBC referred to was that only a third of the animal mummies studied and scanned by a research project contained the ‘right’ remains at all, with exterior wrapping and interior contents matching up. Another third contained partial remains – body fragments rather than a single intact body – and the last third contained nothing at all inside.

While the study cited is the most recent, and one of the most thorough, investigations into animal mummies, its results are no great surprise. Researchers have long known that the insides of animal mummies can be surprising. Prof. Salima Ikram, touched on this at a recent lecture at HMNS, and an updated edition of her book on the topic is coming out later this summer.

There are some other things that one could say about the ‘scandal’ of the empty mummies, but now I’ve got a question to ask: what’s inside our funny mummy?

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Photo Courtesy Michael C. Carlos Museum

We received this cat mummy on loan from the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University. On the ouside, it’s a fair example of the medium size of cat mummies – which tend to come in small, medium, and large – and has an unusual piece of blue-bordered linen among its wrappings (and a rather disappointed look painted on its face). So far, so good.

When the mummy was x-rayed, however, it became clear that the tidy outside wasn’t matched by a tidy inside. Rather than a cat skeleton, you can see that there’s a large broken bone at the bottom end, and a mass of something at the ‘top’ end.

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© Emory University Hospital, courtesy of the Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University

We’ve got our own ideas about what made up the ‘cat’, but before we reveal them we’d like to open it up and crowd source some identifications. What’s your best guess? Let us know what you think the cat mummy was actually made of and enter it into the comments below.

Editor’s note: Tweet your guess to HMNS or post below, and we’ll mention the winner in Tom’s next blog.

Egyptian Nefertiti replica ends in a bust: ‘Ugly’ statue brews social media storm

A mini controversy has just broken out in social media about a rather ugly new rendering of the famous Nefertiti bust. The original bust, currently on display at the Neues Museum in Berlin, is one of the most iconic pieces of Egyptian art, recognized as easily as King Tut’s gold mask. It was not a surprise, therefore, that Egyptian authorities recently decided to erect a larger-than-life replica of the same bust at the entrance to the city of Samalut, to honor her memory.

This effort ended in – pardon the pun – a bust in its own right. The image, which only bears a very superficial resemblance to the original, has caused a storm in Egyptian social media, attracting worldwide attention. While the original bust is very well known, the story of its discovery is perhaps less well known. Nefertiti’s bust was discovered in the ruined workshop of the sculptor Thutmose on December 6, 1912 by a German archaeological team.

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Presentation of the Nefertiti bust shortly after discovery in 1912. (Left to right: Hermann Ranke, Paul Hollander and Mohammed es-Senussi)

Although the bust is uninscribed, Ludwig Borchardt, the dig director, immediately realized who was represented: the tall blue crown with uraeus serpent must belong to the queen. “No use describing it, you have to see it” he wrote.

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Handwritten note by Ludwig Borchardt on the discovery of the bust. Aside from a quick sketch, it contains the remark “No use describing it, you have to see it.”

The Egyptian government gave the bust, and other finds, to the German expedition at the end of the season, according to a custom of the time, known as “partage.” It was not until ten years later, after World War I, that the bust was put on display in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin. The reaction was immediate: Nefertiti became an icon and the Egyptian government demanded her return, claiming that she had been allowed to leave the country by subterfuge. The matter remains unresolved to this day, and Nefertiti has survived two world wars in Berlin.

Nefertiti was the principal wife of the New Kingdom pharaoh Akhenaten (ca. 1350 – 1335 BC). Akhenaten tried to revolutionize Egypt, outlawing the worship of a host of gods, headed by Amun, the king of the gods. In their place he proposed the worship of the Aten, the sun-disc that gave life to the world. He moved the capital of Egypt from Thebes to a virgin site 250 miles to the north. This new capital he called Akhetaten (“horizon of the sun disc”), the modern site of Tell el-Amarna. Akhenaten’s changes did not find favor, and after his death the site was abandoned by his successor – the more familiar Tutankhamun – as the capital moved back to Thebes. Amun had restored the status quo.

A new religion required a new artistic style to express itself. Set against earlier Egyptian objects, Amarna art can appear more naturalistic, softer and more intimate. Images of Akhenaten, his wife Nefertiti, and their six daughters were the icons of this new creed, and Amarna was filled with sculptor’s workshops producing decoration for the city. The bust of Nefertiti, with its unusual shape, was probably a model used to define and standardize images of the queen.

The latest update on the “controversy” tells us that the Samalut bust is to be replaced with a statue of a peace dove. So all is well that ends well.

The original bust continues to attract huge throngs of tourists in Berlin. A museum quality replica of the same bust, manufactured by highly talented artists at the Neues Museum, has been on display in the Hall of Ancient Egypt at the Houston Museum of Natural Science since 2013. She looks forward to seeing you there.

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Her Majesty awaits your visit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.