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The Hand of God – Gods Wives of Amun – Ancient Egypt – Karnak Temple Complex

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The “Hand of God” – “God’s Wives of Amun” – Ancient Egypt – Karnak Temple Complex

“I had recently become very interested in the religious role of ‘God’s Wife of Amun’ so I set off for the northern part of Karnak to investigate their shrines. At least this was away from the more crowded areas of the temples, which became more deserted as I walked past the open air museum on the path towards the Temple of Ptah. There are several chapels of the Gods’ Wives on the left hand side of the path, in various states of ruin, but some still had some interesting reliefs.

Path to the shrines at Karnak

During the Late Period the wives of kings are rarely represented, but in Thebes, the female office of the ‘God’s Wife of Amun’, or ‘Divine Adoratrice’ is often seen as supremely important, a figure holding a position of power and wealth even greater than that of the High Priest. The title of ‘God’s Wife’ can be traced right back to the Middle Kingdom, but the office became more prominent at the beginning of the New Kingdom, with Ahmose-Nefertari, wife of Ahmose I, whose donation stele found at Karnak, tells us much about her role. At that time the title was usually given to the wife of the reigning king, her names were written in a cartouche and she was often succeeded by her daughter. Many royal ladies of the New Kingdom were associated with this office, at least nominally, including Queens Hatshepsut, Tiye and Nefertari.

Duties of the God’s Wife were essentially religious, associated with musical ceremonies and titles such as ‘Chantress of the Abode of Amun’, and often with fertility connotations. Her function was to play the part of the consort of the god Amun in religious ceremonies, stressing the belief that kings were conceived from the union between Amun and the Great Royal Wife. The title ‘The Hand of the God’ was also sometimes used when referring to her relationship to Atum in a creation myth – Atum’s hand being regarded as female. The regalia changed through Dynasties XVIII to XX, but usually included the vulture headdress with uraeus and often the shwty plumes, or falcon tail feathers worn by Amun and Min, or sometimes the sundisc and Hathor horns on a modius, a sort of circular crown. In the later new Kingdom a pleated robe with a red sash replaced the earlier slim sheath dress. Her insignia included the sistrum, menat, a variety of musical instruments and the flagellum.

God's Wives Shepenwepet & AmenirdisFrom Dynasty XXI onwards it was always the king’s unmarried daughter or sister who was given the title of ‘God’s Wife’ and the role became increasingly important. Maatkare, daughter of Pinudjem I is depicted as God’s Wife in the Temple of Khonsu at the southern side of Karnak. Her titles were ‘Divine Adoratrice, sole wife of the god’. Henuttawy, daughter of Pinudjem II is also depicted here. It was from this time on that the God’s Wives adopted a coronation name as well as a birth name. During the reigns of the Libyan kings, their sons were given the office of High Priest of Amun and their daughters the title of ‘God’s Wife of Amun’. Some of the daughters of Libyan Chiefs and Egyptian elite were called ‘Chantress of the Inner Abode of Amun’ and presided over a college of priestesses, which seems to have been a kind of upper class convent.

At Karnak, several chapels were dedicated to Osiris and to Amun who was, by the Late Period, associated with him. They were mostly built during the period when Nubian kings ruled at Thebes and were dedicated by the reigning ‘God’s Wives’. The first shrine I came to on the northern path, the chapel of Osiris Neb-ankh (Lord of Life) dating to the Dynasty XXV reign of the Nubian King Shabaka, is in a fairly ruinous condition. Although there is now little remaining of the pylon entrance, courtyard and two inner chambers, the cartouches of Shabaka and the God’s Wife Amenirdis (I) can still be seen on the entrance.

Chapel of AnkhnesneferibreThe second structure here is better preserved with some good reliefs. This is the (earlier) chapel of Ankhnesneferibre who was a daughter of King Psamtik II of the Saite Dynasty XXVI and sister of King Wahibre (Apries). We know from surviving texts that this lady arrived in Thebes at only seven months old (in 595 BC) and was eventually installed as ‘High Priest’ of Amun. The next structure is her later chapel which is larger still and originally had a four-columned hall and a sanctuary at the rear. Parts of the gates survive and reliefs of Ankhnesneferibre before various deities can be clearly seen, including cartouches of Kings Ahmose II and Psamtik III. In one of the reliefs she is followed by her chief steward and fan-bearer who is named here as Sheshonq. There are also some lovely depictions of a lion-headed cobra and a strange underworld deity with two duck’s heads.

Shepenwepet's Chapel of Osiris Neb-ankhNext to Ankhnesneferibre’s chapel is another tiny shrine, also a chapel of Osiris Neb-ankh. This is like a little dolls-house, dedicated by the God’s Wife Shepenwepet (II), a daughter of King Taharqa of Dynasty XXV. Said to be perhaps the smallest religious monument in Egypt with a doorway only a little over a metre high leading to a tiny inner chamber, it is difficult to imagine any ceremony taking place here. There are some superb deeply-carved reliefs inside this little shrine with cartouches of Shepenwepet (II) and her sister the ‘God’s Wife’ Amenirdis, (II) as well as a cartouche inscribed for Osiris Neb-ankh.

Bypassing the Temple of Ptah I walked over to the next Osiris structure, an enigmatic little chapel, now just a small single chamber, dedicated by Amenirdis to Osiris De-ese-hebsed, also dating from Dynasty XXV. There were two God’s Wives named Amenirdis, the first a daughter of King Kashta and the second, who constructed this monument, was daughter of the Nubian King Taharqa. I had already seen the chapels at Medinet Habu belonging to this royal lady. Moving on I passed the scant remains of a Ptolemaic Temple of Osiris, no more than a lintel and two door-jambs.

Temple of Osiris Heka-djetAgainst the eastern enclosure wall is the largest remaining and one of the earliest chapels dedicated by the God’s Wives at Karnak. This is the Temple of Osiris Heka-djet (’Osiris, Ruler of Eternity’) which was built by the Libyan king Osorkon III and his son, the High Priest of Amun, Takelot III of Dynasty XXIII. This structure has high walls and I had to find a guard to let me inside through the locked door. Though there was once an entrance gate and a courtyard, these are now gone and I went straight into the first of three small rooms, the two innermost rooms being the earliest part of the temple. High on one wall there is a lovely relief of Shepenwepet (I) presenting an image of Ma’at to Amun and receiving a menat necklace from the goddess Isis, while her successor, Amenirdis (I), receives an ankh from Amun and Mut. There are some very unusual reliefs in this temple, including the only known depiction of a God’s Wife, Shepenwepet, wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, complete with royal uraeus, normally a strict prerogative of the pharaoh. Another beautiful and unique dual-scene shows the two rulers, Osorkon and his co-regent Takelot, back to back under two ished-trees, while the gods write the kings’ names on the leaves. There is also an unusual series of seven false doors each one carved inside the other. I loved this little temple, it was just a pity that the combination of shadows and shallow reliefs did not offer a good opportunity for photography.”

Reproduced courtesy of with thanks.