Thursday, September 22, 2016

Short Story: ‘The Story of Egypt’ - A look At A Gender-Bending Society Where Women Could Rule

Joann Fletcher, the author of “The Story of Egypt,” has an unusual academic specialty: “world mummification and funerary archaeology.” No doubt her area of expertise partly explains why her book focuses so heavily on ancient monuments and archaeological matters at the expense of anecdotal history and general observations about society and culture.

Nonetheless, “The Story of Egypt” is, for all its dryly factual tone, passionately revisionist throughout. Fletcher repeatedly presents evidence that a woman could become a full-fledged pharaoh by succeeding a husband or ruling in conjunction with one. Among earlier historians, the cross-dressing Hatshepsut was regarded as a shocking anomaly when she assumed the kingship, but Fletcher shows that sexual identity, at least among the ancient Egyptian ruling class, was as fluid as it is becoming in our own 21st century. For example, Nefertiti — whose sculptured face is one of the most recognizable icons of antiquity — was also regarded as a true pharaoh and not just a consort to her husband, Akhenaten. Royal women were sometimes even represented with fake beards and male accoutrements.

Consider, too, that “The Sayings of Ptahhotep” — a self-help manual of moral philosophy as well as the earliest book to survive from antiquity — sternly advises its readers “not to have sex with a lady-boy.” Such a stricture usually indicates a widespread practice. Even the pharaoh Pepi II, despite three sister-wives, apparently preferred clandestine evenings with his general, Sasanet. To me, most shocking of all is the fate of the beautiful Nitocris.

As some readers will know, Tennessee Williams’s first published work — it appeared in Weird Tales magazine when he was 16 — was titled “The Vengeance of Nitocris” and retells the clever way its romantic heroine destroys the people who had literally torn her beloved brother to pieces. In fact, Fletcher tells us, new archaeological evidence proves Nitocris to have been a man, although mistakenly “considered female for the last two and a half thousand years.” Similarly, the Sphinx was also long regarded as female — I certainly always believed the ­eerie monument to be so — but initially it bore the face of the male pharaoh Khafra.

While Fletcher’s subtitle declares that Egypt’s was “the civilization that shaped the world,” her book doesn’t really make that case. But, amid the dry wadis of data, one does find all kinds of neat details: “The Stone Circle of Nabta Playa is a far smaller version of Stonehenge. But at more than 2,000 years older, it is the world’s oldest known calendar.” The average life span in those days was a shockingly brief 35 years. Egypt’s first known cat was “buried with its male owner at Mostagedda around 4000 BC.” The legendary King Narmer has traditionally been credited with uniting Egypt’s northern half with its southern “to create the world’s first nation state.”

His consort Neithhotep is the first named woman in history. Narmer apparently met his death by, of all things, being carried off by a hippopotamus. Fletcher notes, “while this may simply be a euphemism for the forces of chaos the hippo represented, it may possibly have been a historical fact.”…. READ MORE.

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