Saturday, December 5, 2015

Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney

In the long twisted course of human history it’s rare to come across a woman yielding true power. Even highborn females were generally under the thumb of male relatives and relegated to serve as either prizes of war or political pawns. Cooney has written a fascinating history of the only known female pharaoh, Hatshepset.

Little is known about Hatshepset’s life. Egyptians didn’t record individual thoughts and motives, to them they didn’t matter. Because they “enacted their politics through the rituals of religion, we cannot know exactly where the affairs of government ended and the ideology started.”  Cooney circumvented the lack of information by imbuing the book with a quasi-biographic tone. Historical purists may turn up their noses since the author had no firsthand knowledge of Hatshepset’s beliefs and feelings, but the book doesn’t suffer from the speculation. This is less history than story. Attempting to explain Hatshepset’s motivation and sentiments gives a voice to a fascinating woman long dead who succeeded in a culture and time far different from our own and climbed to a position of power few ever achieved.    

As a teenager Hatshepset’s husband/brother died. With no son to succeed to the throne, she became the regent to the new pharaoh, Thutmose III, infant son of a lesser wife. She was both his stepmother and his aunt. Retaining her role as Egypt’s High Priestess, God’s Wife of Amen, Hatshepset built her political career supported by the Amen priesthood. By the age of twenty she claimed her divine right and formed a co-regency with Thutmose III. A shrewd politician, she eventually used her insights into the political and spiritual life of Egypt to redefine the nature of kingship.  

After Hatshepset’s death, Thutmose III began the long process of asserting his own power and erasing her contributions and even her name from the historical record. Poor Hatshepset. Early Egyptologists took the misogynistic stance that she was “a woman who took what was not hers and got what was coming to her.” In the end, Cooney writes “Hatshepset’s greatest contribution and most daring innovation was her methodical and calculated creation of the only truly successful female kingship in the ancient world.” She managed her rise to power without assassination or a bloody coup and ruled peacefully for many years. That there is so little known of her is more the shame, but in The Woman Who Would Be King, Cooney manages to imbue her story with the dignity it deserves.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for a review.

No comments:

Post a Comment