Around the middle of the first dynasty, the king Den may have been preceded by Queen Mereneith (Meryneith or Merneith, “beloved of Neith“), considered by some to be the first female ruler of Egypt and possibly the world. However, it is unclear whether she reigned alone for a period or reigned alongside her husband Djet (if he was her husband) and then acted as regent for her son Den. She is named as the King’s Mother on a seal impression created during Den’s reign, but was not recorded on some of the other kings lists.
Manetho does not refer to Mereneith by name, but he does state that there were eight pharaohs in the first dynasty, which is correct if you include Mereneith as a pharaoh. However, it is also possible that he included Narmer in the first dynasty (and not dynasty 0), and so counted eight pharaohs.
A single clay seal seems to depict her name inside a serekh (reserved for the name of a pharaoh) topped with the symbol of Neith. Her name appears on the Palermo Stone without the title “King’s Mother”, but as the fragment is damaged and the name of Djer is also followed by that of his mother it is difficult to draw a firm conclusion from this. She appears with the title “King’s mother” on the kings list from the tomb of her son Den. It is perhaps not surprising that she does not appear on the New Kingdom lists, but there is no mention of her on the kings list found in the tomb of Qa’a.
The most compelling evidence that she was a ruler, rather than just a consort, is her tomb in Abydos (Tomb Y). Because it was constructed on the same scale as the kings of that dynasty and was surrounded by satellite burials for forty servants and the burial of a solar boat, when it was discovered Petrie concluded he had discovered the grave of a pharaoh.
The base of her tomb consisted of a stepped structure concealed within the usual rectangular shape of the Mastaba (a low flat “bench” shaped tomb). This may have been an early fusion of Northern and Southern styles which led to the development of the stepped pyramid complex.
Stone vessels and seal impressions bearing her name, along with a stela on which her name was written in an archaic form using the crossed arrows of the ancient goddess Neith were found. A schist bowl found in her tomb is labelled as “that which is from Mereneith’s treasury”, confirming it was an offering from the royal treasury not her personal property. This would be highly unusual for a person without royal prerogative.
Furthermore, Mereneith had two burial sites. To date, she is the only woman known to have followed this practice which was reserved for the pharaoh. Her Saqqara tomb (3503) which contained the seal with her name in a serekh was also surrounded by the sacrificial burials of servants, each provided with objects symbolising their trade.
- Bard, Kathryn (2008) An introduction to the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt
- Bard, Kathryn (2000) “The Emergence of The Egyptian State”, in The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt Ed I. Shaw
- Bryan, Betsy M (1997) “In Women, good and bad fortune are on earth” pp 25- 46 from Mistress of the House, Mistress of Heaven: Women in Ancient Egypt Ed Anne K. Capel, Glenn Markoe
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- Lehner, Mark (1997) The Complete Pyramids
- Robins, Gae (1993) Women in Ancient Egypt
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Copyright J Hill 2010