09 September 2007

Hatshepsut Meets Judy Chicago

Not exactly hot-off-the-press news, but unbeknown enough to me to put Sassanian Stuff aside for a bit: the show Pharaohs, Queens, and Goddesses is now on at the Brooklyn Museum (extended to January 20, 2008). This exhibition is dedicated to powerful females from Egyptian history. It's a little cheeky to imply female Pharaohs in the plural, for there was, as far as I know, only King Hatshepsut (ruled ca. 1473-1458 BC) .

But why quibble.

There were other female regents who ruled in all but name.

The central object of the exhibition is this unisex granite head. I say 'unisex' because the Brooklyn website correctly captions it as "Head of Hatshepsut or Thutmose III ", so it's either the female 'King' or her nephew who ruled after her. That's what happens when you have no word but 'Pharaoh' -- so she is confusingly 'His Majesty' -- and no ruler iconography except male.

Hatshepsut is featured in Brooklyn "alongside other women and goddesses from Egyptian history, including queens Cleopatra, Nefertiti, and Tiye and the goddesses Sakhmet, Mut, Neith, Wadjet, Bastet, Satis, and Nephthys."

Now I will quibble. Where is Hathor?

Hathor was not only one of the most important divinities of Egypt and 'Chieftainess of Thebes', but also a goddess revered by Hatshepsut. In some ways, we can say, Hatshepsut identified herself with this great goddess. The carnelian Hathor-head amulet on the right is inscribed with Hatshepsut's name. [Come to think of it, this amulet is in the Brooklyn Museum ... so Hathor must have quietly slipped away from their press release. Perhaps I shouldn't be quibbling after all. ]

Hatshepsut dedicated a beautiful little chapel to Hathor as part of her mortuary temple at Deir el Bahri ( south end of the middle terrace). The chapel's inner courtyard is supported by round columns with Hathor-head capitals (pictured above left), probably the earliest example of this form, which then sweeps north and south and soon will be found in all parts of Egypt. The female head with cow ears is topped with a crown and the curved sides ending in spirals are suggestive of cow horns.

The chapel also preserves painted reliefs of Hathor as the divine cow, protecting and nurturing Hatshepsut. The wall relief below shows the goddess licking the hand of Pharaoh Hatshepsut, who is sitting on the throne clad in male royal dress.

During Hatshepsut's reign, this chapel was a focus for popular religion, where women often left offerings in the hope of conceiving a child. Male and female devotees alike flocked to her shrine to beg for her favours. On the way they bought from a hawker at some roadside booth a string of beads or a little pottery cow to offer with their prayers, and others carried blue faience platters of fruit or flowers.

Archaeologists found countless symbols of Hathor everywhere in the area: The ground was literally sown with such such offerings. Sometimes she was the cow carved on plaques of limestone, copper, or faience; or again she was represented by the primitive symbol of a post with a woman's head atop which gave the inspiration for the Hathor-head columns of her temples. She was a protectress, and tablets engraved with a pair of eyes or ears would assure her seeing and hear a supplicant:

Tell your requests to the Cow of Gold, to the Lady of Happiness...may she give us excellent children, happiness, and a good husband...If cakes are placed before her, she will not be angry.

Breads and cakes are piled high for the gods and goddesses to feast on, as another wall relief from Hatshepsut's great temple shows.

Divine Hatshepsut (as Pharaoh, she too was a god) enjoyed a good nosh.

The Queen's plate is disappointingly empty on Judy Chicago's monumental 'The Dinner Party', the centerpiece around which Pharaohs, Queens, and Goddesses is organized. An icon of 1970s feminist art, The Dinner Party is a massive ceremonial banquet, arranged on a triangular table with 39 place settings, each in honour of an important woman from history or mythology. The settings consist of embroidered runners, gold chalices and utensils, and china-painted porcelain plates with raised central motifs that are based on vulvar and butterfly forms in styles supposedly linked to the individual women.

I don't know what this vulvar pattern has to do with Hatshepsut -- she's not just Every Woman -- but I'm glad to see her at the feast (Hathor was not invited to dine; instead, she is one of the 999 entries written on the floor. Beware, Judy Chicago: Hathor gets angry if left unfed).

Chicago has this to say about the piece: "Because we are denied knowledge of our history, we are deprived of standing upon each other's shoulders and building upon each other's hard earned accomplishments. Instead we are condemned to repeat what others have done before us and thus we continually reinvent the wheel. The goal of The Dinner Party is to break this cycle."'

Bravo! Or, rather, Brava!

Chicago's gallery describes The Dinner Party as 'seminal', and you can't say fairer than that.

I'll be in New York next week and will certainly make it up to Brooklyn. If for no better reason than to search out Zenobia, also relegated to the floor; true, inscribed in gold, but not where an Empress should be. Perhaps I'll drop some blue faience grapes on Hatshepsut's plate....

Next, right back to Sassanian Stuff.


  1. Anonymous14/9/07 03:34

    Better read up on Egyptian history, you don't know it very well.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    It would be helpful if you could be more specific about your objection(s). Then I could either justify what I said, or correct it.

    Thanks in advance,


  3. I would love to see that exhibit. While I never saw the installation, my mother scored both volumes of the catalog to The Dinner Party (how, I'm not sure) and I read those front to back all through my childhood. We can quibble with the representations on the plates, 30 years later, but the influence of that work on girls like me back then was huge. It literally opened the world to me in a way late-70s TV and film and popular books simply could not.

    Enjoying your blog. I've always been a "fan" of Zenobia and I look forward to reading your book! Keep up the great work!


  4. Thanks KBS,

    You're quite right, too: I should have put 'The Dinner Party' more into the context of its time. I am going to see it next week and do expect to be impressed.



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