Unit 1: Ancient Africa - The Cradle of Civilization
(200,000 B.C. - 476 B.C.)

Unit 1: Class 5: Ancient Nubia/Kush (6,000 B.C. - 320 A.D.) Part 2

“Neither Goddesses Nor Doormats: The Role of Women in Nubia” [Excerpt], by Tara L. Kneller 

Learning Objectives
After completing this lesson, students 
will be able to:

  • Recognize the cultural contributions of Ancient Nubian civilization, including those that predate Ancient Kemet/Egypt, and the Nubian-ruled 25th Dynasty.

  • Identify the Nile Valley region on a map including the Nile River and the major cities and religious sites of Egypt, Nubia, and surrounding African countries.

  • Understand the complex relationship between Nubia and Kemet/Egypt including trade, mutual cultural customs, and conquer.

Goddesses, Queens, and Commoners

Upon close examination of the history and culture of Nubia, it becomes apparent that women played an important role. Unlike the rest of the world at the time, women in Nubia exercised significant control. In the Nubian valley, worship of the queen of all goddesses, Isis, was paramount. From the capital of Meroe, warrior queens fought for the interests of the Nubian/Kushite empire. Throughout history, women were portrayed in Nubian art as the bearers of the offspring of the gods. Today, Nubian women have a much different experience. Nevertheless, Nubian women fulfill a demanding and unique series of roles.

Throughout Egypt and Nubia, the cult of Isis had a tremendous and devoted following. Isis was not only the Egyptian goddess of magical powers; she was the representation of the queen mother. In the most famous fable of the period, Isis roams the world in search of the corpse of her husband Osiris. She returns Osiris to his rightful resting place, only to have Osiris' evil brother Set cut him to pieces and scatter him throughout the land. Isis then takes her son Horus and sets out to find every piece of the corpse so she may tenderly bury it in the hopes that she can resurrect him again. She is successful, and Osiris becomes the god of the underworld.

Although Isis, Osiris, and Horus are then established as a trinity, Isis immediately became the most popular of the three (19). This can be partially attributed to her role as the devoted, untiring, nurturer of the land and culture of Egypt and Nubia.

The Cult of Isis was the strongest religion in Nubia (20). In contrast, the Egyptians worshipped Ra (Re) in larger numbers. Ra was the god of the sun, and distinctly male at that. The worship of Isis began with the Meroitic period and extended into X-Group. Many Nubian rulers of the time were pictured with Isis on their crowns. This was considered a homage to her role as the "Queen of All Gods, Goddesses and Women" (21). Since the ruler was considered to be born of the gods, it was only natural that the mother should be paid such a tribute. Another example of this type of tribute is the amulet of Isis suckling a Queen. With the exception of the Nubian/Kushite Empire, Isis was never shown with a queen (22). This tribute was always given to a male ruler, never a female. However, since both Isis and the Queens played such important roles in Nubia, the exception was made.

Another example of the reverence of Isis was the "co-sponsorship" by Egypt and Nubia of her temple at Philae (23). Here her cult continued, populated largely by Nubians, until the sixth century A.D. (24).

Perhaps as a result of the strong influence of women figures in religion, Nubia and its Kushite rulers gave way to a number of strong queens during its history. Ten sovereign ruling queens are recognized from the period. Additionally, six other queens who ruled with their husbands were considered significant to the history of Nubia (Wenig, 16). Many of these rulers were immortalized in statuary; it was unheard of for non-ruling queens or princesses to be immortalized in art (Wenig, 83). These queens were often portrayed as being very rounded; this portrayal was all part of the queen-mother model (Wenig, 70). These queens were called both gore, meaning ruler, and kandake, meaning queen mother (Wenig, 98). This last term has been corrupted to the English form Candace. Subsequently, there has been much confusion; some Western scholars muddle the actions of queens together under the general name. 

The emergence of the queen as a viable player in the politics of the day has its roots in the earliest Kushite tradition. Kushite rulers married and then passed more royal power into the hands of the queen (Keating, 70). The perfect example of the expanded powers of the queen is Kushite Queen Amanirenas. In 24 B.C., she was threatened by the Roman Empire. 

Homework Assignment
Read/View the Following:

Map of Ancient Nubia and Kemet (Egypt)

Nubia: Ancient Kingdoms of Africa, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (pp. 25-59, 30-40 min)

“Neither Goddesses Nor Doormats: The Role of Women in Nubia” [Excerpt], by Tara L. Kneller (10-15 min)

Amanishakheto: Warrior Queen of Nubia, including video excerpt (15 min)

Supplemental Material


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