Powerful women have dotted the pages of our history books since humans began chiseling symbols into rocks. These ladies have stirred our imaginations and inspired our ire as tragic heroes and vile villains, with stories of their own to tell…
Growing up reading fantasy novels snuck off my dad’s bookshelves; novels full of muscled heroes on adventures that took them to far-away places, I loved more than a few of those books and brawny male characters. And yet, I found myself fascinated by the sword wielding, bronze-bra wearing, spiked and braided female characters standing next to the heroes on the covers of some of those old books. What about those women? The ones left behind, the love interests, the fierce battle companions? What were their stories?
While reading about Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurt’s Mara of Acoma—a series about a woman who finds herself the Ruling Lady of Acoma after the death of her father and brother—or Edgar Rice Burrough’s Dejah Thoris—John Carter’s love interest, and a woman surviving in the wastelands of Mars—what I didn’t yet know was that these fantasy characters: the queens, ruling ladies, and women warriors, weren’t just works of fiction. They had been inspired by some of the most powerful women in history…
In a time when most women came to power because they were holding the throne for an heir too young to take over or as a co-ruler with their brother or husband (often the same man), Queen Hatshepsut’s story is one entirely of her own making. She was the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt, and only the second historically confirmed female pharaoh. Her story is one of power (and holding onto that power), chock full of ambition, deceit, lust, and revenge.
Her name may not be as well-known as some of the Egyptian Queens to come, yet she ruled for 21 years on her own after the death of her husband (and half-brother) and kicked off Egypt’s Golden Age.
One of the great builders of history, Queen Hatshepsut demanded she be depicted with bulging muscles, wearing a pharaoh’s beard and traditional men’s clothing, proving her status to her people as not just a queen, but a pharaoh. This was especially controversial in a time when pharaohs weren’t just considered rulers, they were thought of as gods.
As powerful and loved as she came to be by her people, her name has nearly been lost beneath the shifting sands along the Nile. In Egyptian culture it used to be said: you never die if your name survives. After her death, when her stepson, Thutmos III, who’s claim to the throne she had usurped, finally came to power, he set about smashing her statues, gouging out the eyes in her depictions, and otherwise lopping off heads, destroying features, and very nearly chiseling her name—and memory—from existence.
Coming to power in the 14th Century B.C., Neferneferuaten or Nefertiti, is a character shrouded in mystery. Known for her beauty, Nefertiti was one of the most powerful women to have ever ruled; her name even means “a beautiful woman has come”. She ruled with her husband, Pharoah Akhenaten, and together they made history by banishing the many gods their people worshipped and establishing in their place a new religion—the cult of Aten—in reverence of a single sun god.
In a twist on the common power-struggle trope, her husband, as stated in Nefertiti Biography, “Went to great lengths to display her as an equal. In several reliefs, she’s shown wearing the crown of a pharaoh or smiting her enemies in battle.”
Despite this great power, Nefertiti disappears from all depictions after 12 years. Why?
“Some scholars believe she died, while others speculate she was elevated to the status of co-regent—equal in power to the pharaoh—and began to dress herself as a man. Other theories suggest she became known as Pharaoh Smenkhkare, ruling Egypt after her husband’s death, or that she was exiled when the worship of the deity Amen-Ra came back into vogue.”
Whatever the truth, to this day, where she’s buried, and the reason for her disappearance are still unknown.
Immortalized by Shakespeare and Elizabeth Taylor, we’re more familiar with the story of Cleopatra—a woman who came to power in Egypt, Cyrene, and Cyprus; the seductress of two roman Emperors; and the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty. She began her reign co-ruling with her husband (and brother), Ptolemy XIII, until his death. That’s when Cleopatra took over and things got, well … complicated.
As a young woman, Cleopatra’s husband/brother, and his advisor, sent her into a three-year-long exile in an attempt to break the too-independent girl. It didn’t work, and like any badass character in fiction with seemingly insurmountable obstacles thrown at them, Cleopatra overcame. She used her time in exile to study, learn, and grow stronger. When she came back, she was ready to rule and never let such a thing happen to her again. After the death of Ptolemy XIII in 47 B.C., she even went so far as having her younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, killed rather than allow him to take the throne.
Cleopatra is unique from the other queens in that she never acted or dressed as a male pharaoh. Instead, she used her feminine strengths to conquer, make alliances, and rule Egypt. And we know her for it, four thousand years after her death.
The great characters of history are remembered for their larger-than-life personalities and for shaping history with their momentous deeds. Those are the things that have continued to live on thousands of years after their deaths. These characters wait for us: the next writer, the next reader, to come along, newly imagine them and then place them back onto the pages … of our next favorite fiction novel.