The office of king was central to the existence of the state of Egypt. The king was a point of contact between the divine and human worlds, and was responsible for governing the country in a manner that would uphold Ma’at (a complex idea encompassing truth, justice and the correct order of all things).
The members of the extended royal family were defined in terms of their relationship to the king. In the early dynastic period and the Old Kingdom, many of the members of the royal family held positions of power within the government and bureaucracy of Egypt. After the Old Kingdom, there seems to have been a separation of roles with the official positions going to members of the nobility. There were a few notable exceptions to this rule, such as the role of God’s wife of Amun.
Throughout most of Egyptian history the royal family were only rarely referenced on monuments and official sources. The most visible members of the royal family were the Egyptian Queens (the principal wives of the king and his mother), while much of his extended family faded into relative obscurity. One notable exception to this is the reign of Akhenaten, who was regularly depicted with his family.
There is little doubt that by the New Kingdom the king had more than one wife. Before this, it is not entirely clear whether the Egyptian kings were polygamous. The “harem” of Montuhotep II exemplifies the problem. It contains tombs for at least eight women, who are referred to as the wives of the king. However, it is also possible that only one of them was actually his wife. The others may have been priestesses of Hathor with whom he was married for cultic purposes, and one was his mother. None of these other women are referred to as members of the two institutions generally associated with the royal harem – the Ipet Nesu or Per Khener. Depictions with sensual overtones from Medinet Habu may also have cultic purposes. The young women shown with the king are labelled as Mesu Nesu (King’s Children), but, as we have seen, labels can be deceptive.
The term Ipet Nesu first appears in the Old Kingdom. It may refer to a collective of Egyptian Queens, royal children and non-royal children, but some scholars have suggested it may actually mean “accounting office” or “assembly”. The term Per Khener seems to refer to an institution housing women, or an institution engaged in business, but can also refer to a group of musicians. It may also have simply meant “in the service of the king”.
Many of the members of his extended family are referred to as “Members of the Royal Harem”, but the term harem is actually rather unhelpful, as it conjures up visions of a group of women herded together for the gratification of the king, when it actually seems to have been a collection of women and children along with the officials instructed to look after them. Texts referring to these institutions suggest that they were also engaged in producing textiles and perhaps also acting in ritual processions and making music.
The title Hekret Nesu is sometimes translated as “Royal Ornament” and has been taken as a reference to a concubine or mistress of the king. Yet, many of the holders of this title were actually the wives of high officials with no sexual connection with the king. Another possible translation is “Acquaintance of the King”. There are also numerous people referred to as khered en kap (“Child of the Kap”) some of whom were the offspring of the king, but others were noble children or the children of foreign vassals educated alongside the children of the king.
Strangely, the earliest example of the title Sa Nesu (“King’s Son”) is from the second dynasty. It is a rather complicated term which only sometimes refers to the biological son of the king.
The title Sa Nesu was granted to a number of non-royal persons, in particular the Viceroy of Kush, even though they were not actually the son of the king. From the New Kingdom, things become a little clearer as a new title Sa Nesu en Kush (“King’s Son of Kush”) was used to refer to the Viceroy of Kush without indicating any family relationship with the king. Sometimes the situation is clarified by the use of the extended title Sa Nesu en Khetef (“King’s son of his body”), but that could also mean the grandson of the king and occasionally referred to persons not actually related to the king.
The title Sa Nesu Semsu (“King’s eldest son”) could refer to the heir of the king. During the Old Kingdom it was sometimes granted as an honorific title, but by the New Kingdom it seems to actually refer to the eldest son of the king. This could be further emphasised by the additional title Sa Nesu Tepy (“First King’s Son”).
Unfortunately, this second title could also refer to the son of the king who was the head of the army or to the deceased elder brother of the crown prince.
The title Iry Pat is often mistranslated as “Hereditary Prince” (like its feminine counterpart Iryt Pat, a title sometimes used by Egyptian Queens). As ever, it is not as simple as that. From the middle of the 18th dynasty of the New Kingdom it seems to refer to a person acting in the interests of the king, but not necessarily their son. For example, Horemheb used this title as the heir of Ay even though they were not related by blood (although they may have been related by marriage).
During the Third Intermediate Period, the title of King’s son included the name of their father, which does make it a little clearer. This was perhaps in part because the royal names had become so formulaic and repetitive that even the ancient Egyptians were having trouble keeping track of who was who. There are also, rather confusingly, a significant number of people with the title King’s Son of Ramesses – but no pharaoh named Ramesses during that period! It is likely that this was either a religious title referring to the mortuary cult of Ramesses II or III, or it simply signified the holder had Ramesside blood, but we cannot be sure.
The position and importance of the son of a king varied over time. In the Old Kingdom, the extended family of the king held most of the high positions of authority in the Egyptian bureaucracy, so even a minor king’s son might hold a position of some power. As time went on, the noble class took over these roles and the family of the king was to some degree pushed out of the limelight. While the eldest son and heir obviously held a degree of power, and in some cases shared a co-regency with his father, younger sons would most likely end up in the army or acting as a governor. After the Old Kingdom, we know very little about the sons of the pharaoh – with a few notable exceptions such as the sons of Ramesses II.
The title Sat Nesu (King’s Daughter) is much less complicated in application. Some women took the extensions en Khetef (“of his body”) and we do see reference to elder and first daughters, but there is little doubt that the holders of these titles were either the daughters or granddaughters of kings.
Some women confirmed as King’s Daughter went on to become the King’s Wife or even King’s Great Wife, but we don’t know for sure what this entailed. In at least one case, Bintanath the daughter and wife of Ramessess II, there was a child born following the marriage. As it seems rather unlikely the king would allow another man to have a child with his wife this would seem to prove the marriage was consummated. This was certainly not the norm, for Egyptian society, but may have been seen as another way in which the king was more like the gods (many of whom were in brother-sister pairings) than ordinary people.
This has been explained away by some Egyptologists uncomfortable with the idea of such incestuous relationships as being because kingship was passed down through the female line i.e. “the heiress theory”. However, not all kings married royal women and numerous temple scenes of divine births suggest that the king looked to a divine father and earthly mother for his legitimacy.
The daughters of a king who did not go on to become the wife or mother of a king joined minor sons in slipping into obscurity. An exception to this are the daughters of Akhenaten and Nefertiti, who were often depicted with their mother and father. It is likely that minor daughters were brought up in the harem, where they probably had religious duties and helped in the production of textiles. There is some evidence that after the New Kingdom they were dissuaded from marrying, as this could result in troublesome contenders to the throne.
The title of King’s Brother is unknown until it was used in relation to Tjahapimu, the father of Nakhthorheb during the Late Period. However, Senet Nesu (King’s Sister) was used occasionally during the Middle Kingdom, and then a little more often during the New Kingdom. It seems to occur most often where either the woman in question was the sister-wife of the king, or where the woman was married to a foreign dignitary as part of an alliance or treaty. It seems also to refer to the sister of the current kings, rather than to an earlier king.
During the 25th Dynasty a new title, Senet Hemet (Sister Wife) was adopted. This fell out of use during the Later Period, but was readopted during the Ptolemaic Period when it was sometimes used even where there the husband and wife were not in fact siblings.
The title King’s Father is, unsurprisingly, absent as the father of the king would generally be a king. However, the title It Netjer (God’s Father) does present us with some problems, as the god in question could be the king.
During the Old Kingdom, the title seems to refer to the father-in-law of the king. In the Middle Kingdom there are at least two instances where it refers to the non-royal father of a king – Montuhotep I (the ancestor and founder of the 11th Dynasty) and Haankhef (father to Sobekhotep III and Neferhotep I). It is also used for Intef III when he is in the company of his co-regent son Montuhotep II.
It does not appear to refer to the actual father of the king in later periods, with the single exception of Seti I the father Ramesses I. Instead, during the New Kingdom, God’s Father had become a priestly title or a title given to either a royal tutor or the father-in-law of the king. One of the most famous holders of this office was Ay, who later went on to become Pharaoh.
- Dodson, A and Hilton, D. (2004) The Complete Royal Families of Ancient Egypt
- Graves-Brown, Carolyn (2010) Dancing for Hathor
- Rice, Michael (1999) Who’s Who in Ancient Egypt
- Robins, Gae (1993) Women in Ancient Egypt
- Van De Mieroop, Marc (1999) A History of Ancient Egypt
- Wilkinson, Toby (1999) Early Dynastic Egypt
- Wilkinson, Toby (2010) The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt
Copyright J Hill 2017