Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power: An Unlikely Story

In ancient Egypt, it was uncommon for a woman to hold significant power. Although there were a few royal women during the 18th dynasty, such as Queen Ahhotep, who was Ahmose’s mother and regent, who held a military and protective role in Egypt, and Tetisheri, who was the grandmother of Ahmose and has a shrine in Abydos with Ahmose’s complex, most Egyptian women did not hold any substantial role. However, in the 18th dynasty one women held a powerful role and was able to gain a considerable amount of power and a significant amount of support in a short period of time. Hatshepsut was the daughter of King Thutmose I and was married to her half-brother, Thutmose II, a concubine’s son. With Thutmose II, she had her own daughter, Nefrure (Cooney, 3). There were indeed female pharaohs before Hatshepsut; however, none of the reigns of the earlier female rulers lasted as long as that of Hatshepsut, and none of their legacies were as noteworthy as that of Hatshepsut. Although there is evidence in the types of strategies used by Hatshepsut to gain power, it is unclear whether the use of religion or gender played a stronger role in garnering support from the people.

Role of Religion in Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power

Similar to other leaders of Egypt, Hateshepsut’s role in power began with her role in religion. She initially was the “God’s wife of Amen” who was required to fulfill certain religious obligations, such as awakening Amen in the morning and giving offerings (Cooney, 7). Being the God’s wife of Amen was an influential role in Egypt due to how important Amen was to the people. Amen was the god who created all beings and after whom all other gods were made. There were many temples dedicated to Amen at the time and if Hatshepsut did not fulfill her role as the God’s wife, all “creation would stop” (Cooney, 14). Although Hatshepsut did not initially become a pharaoh, she assisted her husband in making many decisions regarding Egypt, such as “which families to avoid, and how to make his mark as a monarch” (Cooney, 6). Due to prior experience in roles such as being an advisor to her husband and being one of main priestesses in Egypt, Hatshepsut was aware of the significance of religion on the daily lives of the people. In order to be accepted as a king, she had to prove why she was chosen for the role through religion. As a result, Hatshepsut made many temples. She linked temple-building to “marking herself as the chosen one” (Cooney, 148). By building many temples, mostly out of stone, Hatshepsut was able to connect herself to the gods by proving her devotion. In ancient Egypt, people believed that by continuously worshipping the gods through temple building, giving offerings, and performing rituals to ensure the gods are satisfied, they would be protected so no evil could approach them. One of the major roles of the Pharaoh was to have a strong, deep connection to the gods in order to protect all people under the Pharaoh from harm. In addition, Hatshepsut claimed to have been “the daughter of Amun-Re” who was sent specifically from the gods “as [a] guardian of Egypt, [and] protector of nobles and commoners” (Lichteim, 26). Thus, in order to protect the people, temple building in addition to restoration of older temples was essential to show the people that the gods were content with her role as leader.  In addition, Hatshepsut was able to gain access and acceptance to kingship by building a funerary temple and depicting herself as “an external Osiris king after death” (Cooney ,166). Osiris is the god of the underworld, who helps pharaohs cross from the life on earth to the afterlife. By presenting herself as Osiris, Hatshepsut indicates that she herself is a god and will live among the gods after death.

Image of a statue of seated Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut is depicted in  male attire but feminine body shape. Image via Metropolitan Museum 

Role of Gender in Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power

In addition to ensuring the people accepted her from a religious point of view, Hatshepsut also had to ensure the people would take her seriously as their ruler. In order to prove herself, Hatshepsut had to find ways for people to look towards her as a real, true king; one who was chosen by the gods to deliver messages to the people. To be taken seriously, Hatshepsut had to portray herself as a man. She claimed to be as “mighty [as] the son of Nut” and “rule [the] land like the son of Isis” indicating that she indeed will fulfill her duties as a man, not a woman (Lichteim, 28). In ancient Egypt, people believed that men were more powerful than women due to the man’s ability to produce seed from which new life is born and being able to protect one’s family from outsiders. In addition, Hatshepsut states that she “[wore] the red crown” in addition to the “white crown”, which are parts of the outfit of the male pharaoh (Lichteim, 28). Hatshepsut understood the realities of being accepted as a king – realties that included being unable to change kingship to follow her gender by birth and instead forced to change her gender in order to conform to Egyptian thought of kingship. In addition to the clothing and ruling style being similar to that of a male ruler, Hatshepsut’s statues also became more male over time, eventually coming to the point where all her statues were masculine. Initially, the statues of Hatshepsut included “some masculine elements to her feminine figures” (Cooney, 154). However, over time the statues began “including a stronger chin, nose, and brow” in addition to having skin that was painted “both a yellow and red pigment”, highlighting the transformation into solely masculine features on the statues (Cooney, 155). The reason for the transformation was to ensure the people did not view Hatshepsut as having any of the weaknesses associated with women at the time.  In psychology, there exists the concept of the repetition principle, which states that if something is repeatedly seen or heard, it becomes more accepted and persuasive. By only having masculine statues, people would be able to forget that Hatshepsut was a woman and solely view her as a man, thus taking her seriously as a ruler.

Image of  a kneeling statue of Hatshepsut. Hatshepsut is depicted in male attire as well as male body.  Image via Metropolitan Museum

Role of the Sed Festival in Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power

Lastly, Hatshepsut was able to use the Sed festival as a way to link her rule to that of her fathers in addition to linking her to the religion. The Sed Festival took place after “thirty years of continuous rule” although Hatshepsut had only ruled for fifteen as a reagent and king (Cooney, 159).  In total, however, including the rule of her father, husband, and Thutmose III, it did indeed make up thirty years of continuous rule. It required years of planning and preparation in order to create new temple structures, monumental stone architecture, and obelisks. It was a way for kings to renew their perspectives on their rule and start over. Through the festival, Hatshepsut created stories about her birth, one in which she was born from the union of the god Amen-Re and her mother, Ahmes (Cooney, 163). Through this birth, Hatshepsut was able to show that she contained the “royal spirit” right “from her first moment of existence in her mother’s womb” due to having a father who was a god (Cooney, 163). As a result, Hatshepsut could validate her rule with the support of the gods, by claiming she was destined for rule since conception. In addition, she showed that “[her father’s] successes were hers as well” which “designat[ed] her as his true heir” (Cooney, 161). Hatshepsut was able to use this jubilee to remind people that she was a descendant of a king, which authorized her power. It was the first time that Hatshepsut claimed to be the rightful descendant, the true son, of her father. She also took the opportunity to display herself “as a father figure to Thutmose III” (Cooney 162). By presenting herself in such a manner and reminding the people of her evident male lineage, she was able to “remake her public image” as that of a male and allow people to forget the image of her as a woman (Cooney, 162).


Image of the Temple of Hatshepsut (in 1912) at Deir el Bahri. Image via Metropolitan Museum

As seen, both gender and religion play a larger role in assisting Hatshepsut gain significant power in Egypt. Many times, both factors overlap in their effects, as seen in the Sed Festival. Gender and religion were also required in combination for Hatshepsut to gain enough momentum and support to leave her legacy. To distinguish which one is stronger in assisting Hatshepsut establish herself is own is difficult and nearly impossible. Religion played a critical role in the everyday lives of people, in which gender roles were firmly established. Similarly, within gender roles there were crucial religious obligations of each sex.  Hatshepsut was able to use both factors efficiently and effectively to garner strength for her reign and leave a legacy unlike any before. A legacy that continued well beyond her reign and is still spoken about today.