The attempt to erase a powerful female ruler from ancient history could be seen as a gendered attack or a personal one, nobody knows for sure but one thing that stands out clearly from Hatshepsut’s story is that the society has always been afraid of powerful women and till date women in politics have a certain image that they can’t shake. Either they are too aggressive or too soft. This constant judgement of women leaders is a reminiscence of the history we come from.
If you look up the words “Damnatio Memoriae”, you’ll find a definition saying- it’s a modern Latin phrase which means “condemnation of memory”. It can be explained alongside a fascinating tale, all the way from ancient Egypt.
About 3,500 years ago in ancient Egypt, a noble pharaoh was attacked in the afterlife. It was Hatshepsut, an 18th dynasty ruler. But why and how was she attacked? That is where the phrase Damnatio Memoriae comes in.
“According to ancient Egyptian beliefs, for one to stay in the afterlife eternally their name has to be said out loud in the living world. It would be considered a great crime to erase someone’s name from history because that will affect them in their afterlife,” says Dr Christopher Mark Hale, an archaeology professor at Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities.
The question remains, why was she attacked in the first place? To answer that, we need to look back in time. The year was 1479 BC and Egypt had just lost its ruler, King Thutmose II. As per the traditional line of succession, the King’s son Thutmose III was supposed to wear the crown, but he was an infant when the ruler died. Queen Hatshepsut, first wife and sister of the deceased King and stepmother and aunt to the to-be King.
Hatshepsut was put in power as mother regent in the absence of the King till Thutmose III comes of age. This was a turning point in history as Hatshepsut claimed full power of the thrown and announced herself as the Pharaoh, an honour that was saved only for the male members of the dynasty.
“She is by no means the first female pharaoh, but she is one of the most successful ones. She did not launch any massive military campaign like her father, but she did start a lot of building programs. Under her rule Egypt saw a lot of temples being built across the land,” Professor Hale adds.
The reason behind her name trying to be erased from history remains a mystery till date. “We don’t know for sure what happened there. It was her son Thutmose III who launched a campaign to erase her and his successors followed the trend. Some believe it was a personal grudge the King had against his mother, who was thought to have stolen his throne, but that seems unlikely as he launched the campaign towards the end of his rule, which is a long time to hold a grudge,” says Dr Aishwarya Subramanian, a professor at Jindal Global Law School.
Even today we don’t have the answers or evidence to prove anything for sure and that is the allure of this story. Though there are multiple narratives around her story and most of them focus on her gender.
A pharaoh was considered to be the living embodiment of the male god Horus and a woman ruler would have made a lot of people angry. Her story also has a male counterpart in it. Senenmut, her minister and an architect, was speculated to be her lover and the source of her true power as it was believed he helped her become a successful ruler.
While one narrative paints her as a plotting and power-hungry stepmother, others portray her to be a strong female ruler who made her place in history owing to her honest work. “There are some very misogynistic readings to her story and that comes because of ancient and current biases. As we say that, we also must acknowledge that even though ancient Egypt was fairly progressive and women did hold power, it was still a patriarchal civilisation. Her story, whatever it is, was and is still seen with a patriarchal lens and so is decoded with those gender norms in mind,” says Professor Hale.
Women till date are seen with suspicion for their ambition for power. If not that then they are labelled too soft for any kind of tough decision. “She is too emotional”, “She is abrasive”, “She doesn’t look like a president” are just some statements that have been made about women who try to secure a position of power. We see this trend everywhere. The dichotomy of expectations of how an ideal woman is supposed to act is as regressive of a notion as it gets.
“We think of powerful women as these neutral figures. We are constantly interrogating them, as women, as people, as their role in society, in ways that we will not do for their male counterparts. On the other hand, we tend to valorise a lot of women just by the virtue of them being a woman. The polarization of these two thought processes is what the problem is,” Dr Subramanian added.
Recently, Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate for the US 2020 election, had a debate with Mike Pence, the current vice-president and the Republican nominee for the upcoming elections. The hype and reportage surrounding this debate is a clear example of how women, even in 2020 are viewed in political positions. An article by POLITICO puts across this incident well.
Women have always had to fight to get power in society. Be it ancient Egypt or 2020, gendered narrative about a successful leader will always exist.
Edited by Himanya Chadha and Jasmine Singh