In Egyptian tradition and iconography, the sphinx would usually take one of three different forms, that of a ram, a hawk, or a human. Human depictions of the sphinx, androsphinxes, were more commonly male than female. However, one of the most important women in history, Hatshepsut, the first recorded female leader of all time was, like other rulers, depicted as a sphinx. The Metropolitan Museum of New York owns two depictions of Hatshepsut, one showing her in customary pharaoh attire, the other depicting her as a sphinx.
Hatshepsut: The WoMan, The Legend
One of the most important women in history, Hatshepsut, the first recorded female leader of all time reigned as the 5th Pharaoah of the 18th Dynasty, for many years. When Hatshepsut’s father, Thutmose I died, she married her younger brother and institutionalized a co-regency, only to shortly after fully appropriate embody the ruler of Egypt. Doing so meant adopting the full regalia of king, and being represented as the male pharaoh’s before her. The Metropolitan Museum of New York owns two depictions of Hatshepsut, one showing her in customary pharaoh attire, the other depicting her as a sphinx.
Hatshepsut’s funerary temple at Deir el-Bahari is her greatest legacy, both form and content, architecturally and historically; many historians have said that there is nothing quite like it. Carvings and wall paintings and sculptures in the mortuary temple depict Hatshepsut with man-like traits and, just like the male pharaohs before her, was depicted as a sphinx in the form of Osiris, the god of the Dead.
In my argument I will explore the male references and androsphinx representations of Hatshepsut in her funerary temples at Deir el-Bahari and what these representations tell us about Hatshepsut’s rise and transition into power, from female, to Pharaoh.
In the sculpture, if Hatshepsut’s oval face, the arch of her eyebrows and eyes, and her shapely hips evoke Hatshepsut’s femininity, then the build of her shoulders, the suggested strength of her arms and hands, and her lack of bosoms refers to the male form. In addition, Hatshepsut’s false beard, crown, and Uraeus, are surely intended as hallmarks of the pharaoh.
Representations of Hatshepsut in feminine garb are much less common than male representations of the mighty ruler, but we have discovered a few.
A headless statue found at her funerary temple in Dair el-Bahari portrays Hatshepsut with a woman’s body and garb, although still wearing the khat headdress of Pharaohs. She wears a pleated kilt with straps. The Isis Knot amulet is visible around her waist. (Dreyfus, 124-125). Her chest is not completely flat, but rather slightly protruding and her abdomen is defined by a smooth curve rather than a harsh line. Her hands are resting flat on her knees. Her wrists are adorned with bracelets and a large necklace adorns her neck. Although the statue is laden with feminine characteristics and attributes, we are still able to identify the edge of the Pharaoh’s traditional head-cloth above her left shoulder.
After the death of Thutmose I, Hatshepsut’s father, Hatshepsut institutionalized a co-regency, and by the 7th year of her stepson Thutmose III’s reign, Hatshepsut was crowned king and fully adopted the role of pharaoh, including wearing the pharaoh’s crown, the oxtail, and the fake beard. Up until this point Hatshepsut had been depicted as a typical queen, with female clothing and female forms. Once she became ‘king’, the depictions and representations of her became masculine rather than feminine. After being crowned, Hatshepsut began to combine female body with male pharaoh regalia, wearing the traditional head-cloth, crown, false beard, and quilt. Hatshepsut was careful to depict herself as what she represented rather than what she was. This is key to understanding Egyptian art and iconography. In choosing to be depicted as a traditional pharaoh, Hatshepsut was making sure that this is how she would be viewed and remembered.
In the image above, the Queen is represented as Osiris with the attributes of the Pharaoh: the double crown, the false beard (prerogative of deified gods and pharaohs). However, her facial features remain feminine: a thin, straight nose, a small mouth, almond-shaped eyes outlined in black kohl that extends to the temples, and thick, well contoured eyebrows. Her skin color is red, as was the custom for men. On this side view we can better notice the blue color of the beard as well as the cord that held the fake beard up to her chin.
In Egyptian iconography, the sphinx is thought to be a symbol of royal power. The small sphinx , which was also found in Hatshepsut’s mortuary temples, is quite original in that the lion’s head is not completely replaced by the head of Hatshepsut, but rather her face is integrated into the body of the lion, accentuating her feline-like characteristics. The sculptor has carved in the features of the queen into the sphinx’s face: almond eyes, arched eyebrows, straight nose, small smiling mouth, and a long fake beard.
It is important to note that the transition from female to Pharaoh was gradual and not direct. Rather than all at once as a man, Hatchepsut progressively dropped her strictly female titles, and representations of Hatchepsut increasingly became more and more masculine.
The circumstances in which Hatshepsut died are somewhat unknown to us. Since her daughter died before her, it was naturally Thumose III, the co-regent, who took replaced her as Pharaoh. It is at this time that many of Hatshepsut’s statues, ceramics, were destroyed, and her inscriptions covered and replaced by those of Thumose III (Strudwick, p.53). In addition, Hatshepsut’s name was removed from the list of pharaohs, as if she had never existed. Thanfully, despite Thumose III’s and certainly many others’ desires to obliterate Hatshepsut from history, her existence and her story have withstood the destructiveness of time, and the fleetingness of life. The gender-bending female ruler that she was and the power that she represented have been unearthed thanks to her mortuary temple.
Hatshepsut: A Female King of Egypt and her Architecture
Bridgewater Review, Vol. 20, Issue 2, Article 7.
Published by Bridgewater State College. December, 2001.
Thebes in Egypt: a guide to the tombs and temples of ancient Luxor
Helen and Nigel Strudwick
The Temples of Karnak and Luxor, pp.44-72
Ithica, NY: Cornell Univ. Press, 1999.
Hatshepsut From Queen to Pharaoh
Written by Renée Dreyfus
Edited by Catharine Hershey Roehrig,
Copyright 2004 The Metropolitant Museum of Art