2/15 Old Kingdom Pharaohs, and their Wives

Some elements of Egyptian iconography are so laden with specific, symbolic meaning that we literally read them; as with hieroglyphics, even in fully visual monuments, the line between image and text can sometimes blur. But at other times, how we interpret images may reveal more about us than it does about the images themselves.

Here are the images we’ll be looking at.


Model Exam Answer:

Compare the merits of the “heiress” interpretation of the statue of Menkaure & Queen and the “mother goddess” interpretation of the Venus of Willendorf. Which (if any) do you find more persuasive and why?

The heiress interpretation of the statue of Menkaure & Queen states that the power in Ancient Egypt descended through the mother’s side of the family. They were the ones who legitimized the pharaohship of a man through their marriage to that man, who was most likely a relative. This is seen in this statue as the queen is “presenting” the new pharaoh to the world, indicating his legitimacy. The mother goddess interpretation of the Venus of Willendorf came about by feminists in the 1970s that wanted to celebrate these women that were central to society. Instead of immediately going to the fertility route, they believed that this statue was a way of celebrating the women that were central to society — they ran the world, not the men. However, I find that this interpretation may have been a way of supporting the feminist agenda in the 1970s. When comparing the two figures, it is important to note HOW these two theories came about. With the Venus of Willendorf, I find it particularly interesting that this mother goddess interpretation came about when the feminists needed it — it was a new way of imagining the world in a way that supported their anti-war, anti-Vietnam, pro-modern, pro-feminist agenda. This interpretation made them seem less crazy when they said that maybe women should run the world… because they did it in the past (*show the Venus of Willendorf*). On the other side, the article does not really discuss how the heiress interpretation came about, but I find it more convincing because they supported this theory with formal evidence. They noted that she stands in a more naturalistic way, with her right arm reaching around his waist and her left arm bent a the elbow holding his left hand. She isn’t as exaggerated or stylized as the male, and her frontward stride is less than the pharaohs. The article notes that the fact that she isn’t so rigid as the male does not necessarily indicate that she is of an inferior rank — she is a person of almost a more important role in society as she presents this pharaoh to the world. Her post nearly identically imitates goddess Hathor, showing this link between the two. If she had been “inferior” as the dutiful wife, would they really portray her similar to a goddesss? All of this formal evidence points to this heiress theory, and it convinces me more so than the Venus of Willendorf. 

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