A Woman’s View from the Top: Hittite and Mycenaean Queens

Trojan Women: Women’s Roles in Ancient Anatolia and Mycenaean Greece Part II

You may wish to read the introduction of this series Trojan Women: Women’s Roles in Ancient Anatolia and Mycenaean Greece or Part I What Hittite and Mycenaean Women “Did”

image Queen Helen and Paris oil painting by Guido Reni 1631 photo © Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH Wikimedia Commons

Queen Helen and Paris oil painting by Guido Reni 1631

One way to see how a society views women is to examine its leaders. Are women included and, if they are, to what extent? Both the Hittite and Mycenaean world had powerful queens. I’ll look in particular at Queen Puduhepa and Queen Helen of Sparta (both c. 1250 BC).

 

 

image of Hittite king and queen making an offering to the Stormgod, from a stone relief at Alacahöyük, photo by Dick Osseman

Hittite king and queen making an offering to the Stormgod, from a stone relief at Alacahöyük, photo by Dick Osseman

Hittite queens definitely wielded power in the court. When a Hittite king died, a Hittite queen continued as Tawananna, Great Queen and high priestess of the Hittite realm, which indicates an independent status. The queen was not, however, the primary ruler. Even while she continued as queen, her son or some other male relation took over as king. In an interesting sidelight, this meant that the new king’s wife did not take over as queen until her mother-in-law died. As you can imagine, this did make for some very strained relationships—the echoes of which we hear even through the ancient clay tablets of formal court business (Collins, 101).

image The Queen of the Night Relief The figure could be the goddess Ishtar Mesopotamian goddess of sexual love and war Her bird feet and accompanying owls have suggested to some a connection with Lilitu called Lilith in the Bible Old Babylonian 1800-1750 BC. From southern Iraq. British Museum, London.photo © David Eferro Wikimedia Commons

Relief of Ishtar, goddess of love and war, British Museum

Puduhepa is the Hittite queen we know the most about since she corresponded with Ramesses II, the Pharoah of Egypt, and she made religious declarations, treaties, and judicial decisions which were recorded by scribes. Puduhepa was the wife of Hattusili III. Before her marriage she was a priestess, “a handmaiden of Ishtar.” She was said to be very beautiful, and Hattusili tells us he married her following a vision he had in a dream. Many years into their marriage, Hattusili wrote that the goddess Ishtar blessed them with “the love of husband and wife” (Hughes, 188). Hattusili was frequently sick, and he depended on his strong-willed, highly intelligent wife to help him run the vast Hittite empire (Bryce, 13). He shows every sign of trusting her completely. We do not know if other queens, with less commanding personalities, had quite as much lee-way. Probably not, but they had great independence nonetheless.

Seal Impression of Queen Puduhepa

Seal Impression of Queen Puduhepa

Hittite queens regularly shared seals with their husbands, giving them the right to “sign” official documents and independently conduct the business of the realm. Puduhepa had her own seal. In fact, the stamp seal of Queen Puduhepa can be seen today in the Corum Museum, Turkey. Much as Puduhepa stands out as a distinctive woman, however, she could not have been treated with respect by the Egyptian pharoah and exercised broad political power unless queens generally could do many of the same things she did. Her reign is a window into what a woman at the top could do in the Hittite Empire.

Puduhepa carried on diplomatic correspondence with Egypt on equal terms with the pharoah. She co-signed with her husband the copy of the Egyptian-Hittite treaty that was sent to Egypt (Collins, 100).

image The earliest known international treaty, the Qadesh treaty between the Hittites and Egypt, Hattusili III and Ramesses II co-signed by Queen Puduhepa © Giovanni Dall'Orto Wikimedia Commons

The earliest known international treaty, the Qadesh treaty between the Hittites and Egypt, Hattusili III and Ramesses II co-signed by Queen Puduhepa © Giovanni Dall’Orto Wikimedia Commons

 

image Pharoah Ramesses II fighting from his chariot at the Battle of Qadesh, Wikimedia Commons

Pharoah Ramesses II fighting from his chariot at the Battle of Qadesh

During negotiations with Ramesses II regarding her daughter’s marriage to the pharaoh, she received exact duplicates of the letters he sent to her husband. At one point when she had to delay sending her daughter to him because she found herself short on the needed dowry funds due to a fire in her treasury house, she sent a down-right cranky letter to Ramesses pointing out that he hardly needed the money and should not rush her. Her willingness to call to account Ramesses, clearly one of the most powerful leaders of the world at that point, speaks of her confidence in her position. Here’s an excerpt from her letter:
“Does my brother [i.e. Ramesses] possess nothing at all? Only if the son of the Sun-God, the son of the Storm-God, and the sea have nothing do you have nothing! Yet, my brother, you seek to enrich yourself at my expense. That is worthy neither of your reputation, nor your status.” (Hughes, 189)

Puduhepa adjudicated many challenging legal cases in the place of her husband; one, for example, regarded the ownership of sunken treasure once a ship had been attacked (Hughes, 189). She also ordered a complete reorganization of the Hittite state religion. It’s true that the Hittite pantheon was a mess with thousands of gods, many borrowed from wherever the Hittites happened to have conquered, and lots of “duplicate” gods (note 12 nearly identical ones in the photo below!), but you can imagine how much authority and power a pope would have to have in order to bump a few saints, rename a few others, combine this version of Mary with that one and reject another all together—you get the idea. She was both deeply devout and immensely influential.

image Procession of 12 Hittite Warrior gods, rock relief at Yazilikaya photo © China Crisis Wikimedia Commons

Procession of 12 Hittite Warrior gods, rock relief at Yazilikaya photo © China Crisis Wikimedia Commons

 

I think we can conclude that Hittite queens had significant power in their own right.

On the Mycenaean side, the picture comes to us from radically different sources. Instead of treaties and other official court documents, we have myth and legend, passed on orally through generations until finally written down in epics, plays, and other literature. About Queen Helen of Sparta, we can’t even assert with absolute certainty that she was a real historical character. But for what it’s worth, and I think that’s actually worth a great deal, myth and legend paint a picture of powerful Mycenaean queens also.

bookcover image Helen of Troy Bettany Hughes

Helen of Troy Bettany Hughes

image DVD Helen of Troy Bettany Hughes The person who has made the strongest case for a powerful Bronze Age Helen and her sister Mycenaean queens is Bettany Hughes in her book Helen of Troy and in her PBS documentary on the same topic.
I’ll quote her argument from her book:
“Time and again in literature and myth-stories [of the Mycenaean period] we hear that women are the kingmakers, that the right to monarchy does not pass from husband to son, but from mother to daughter. Men have to win a crown by winning a wife [in athletic/military contests held by the king for his daughter’s hand].
Helen’s half-sister Clytemnestra makes her lover, Aigisthos, king while her husband Agamemnon is overseas, fighting the Trojan War; Pelops (who gave his name to the Peloponnese) becomes King of Elis through his marriage to Hippodamia; Oedipus is crowned the King of Thebes when he marries Queen Jocasta. Even faithful Penelope, left at home by Odysseus, seems to have the prerogative to choose who will be her next king. And, of course, Menelaus becomes King of Sparta when he marries Helen.
Tradition tells us that along with his daughters Helen and Clytemnestra, Tyndareus had two sons—Castor and Pollux. And yet there is no suggestion that either of them will inherit their father’s title when he dies. It is Helen who will become queen and it is only marriage to Helen that will bring regal status and sovereignty over the Spartan territory. We hear from Pausanias, amplifying Homer, that it is not one of Menelaus’ sons, not even his ‘favorite son’, who becomes king of Sparta. Instead it is the children of Helen’s daughter Hermione who succeed to the throne” (Hughes, 78-79).

image Queen Clytemnestra after the murder of Agamemnon, oil painting John Collier 1882 Wikimedia Commons

Queen Clytemnestra after the murder of Agamemnon, oil painting John Collier 1882

 

To sum up Bettany Hughes’s case, rule of Mycenaean kingdoms passed through the women, and the rule was held in their name and through their authority. No wonder Menelaus ran after Helen when Paris took her off to Troy. She was his meal-ticket to power. Without her, he had no formal justification for rule. Hughes shows that this pattern is reflected throughout the mythological record of Mycenaean courts. Another piece in Hughes’s argument for a powerful Helen rests in the treasure she and Paris are said to steal when they run off to Troy. On the eight occasions in Homer when this treasure is mentioned, it is ascribed to Helen not Menelaus. “We hear in Troy that Paris begins to ‘fight Menelaus for Helen’s treasure’. If wealth was the honey-pot which attracted suitors like Menelaus, women like Helen appear to have owned and enjoyed the honey” (Hughes, 80).

image Menelaus intends to strike Helen; struck by her beauty, he drops his swords. A flying Eros and Aphrodite (on the left) watch the scene. Detail of an Attic red-figure crater, ca. 450–440 BC, found in Gnathia (now Egnazia, Italy) © Jastrow Wikimedia Commons

Menelaus intends to strike Helen; struck by her beauty, he drops his sword. Detail of an Attic red-figure crater, ca. 450 BC

 

image Bust of Homer Roman copy of Greek sculpture Museo Nazionale in Napoli, photo Giacomo Brogi Wikimedia Commons

Bust of Homer

It would be more persuasive if the Linear B tablets included the kinds of court documents that we find in the Hittite capital of Hattusa, but they don’t. In the Iliad the kings who have led their warriors to Troy do not seem to need their queens to conduct business, but war until the twenty-first century AD was a decidedly male dominated activity, and perhaps the queens are back home ruling the home front with absolute power of their own. Penelope and Clytemnestra seem to indicate that is the case. It is also true that as the Bronze Age shifts into the Iron Age—that is the age during which Homer actually sang/composed the Iliad—with massive upheavals of peoples throughout the Mediterranean, women lose the power they had. We see this evidence in everything from drinking rituals that shift from centering on women to excluding them (Steel) to loss of property rights. Perhaps Homer is reflecting his Iron Age reality in this case, rather than the earlier period he professes to portray. That is always a sticky issue when trying to use Homer as history—just which historical period might Homer be depicting.

However, I think it’s awfully tricky to explain away all those legends of heroes moving into town to compete for the king’s daughter and ending up king when they win. And then having to leave the kingdom to their daughters. Seems pretty fishy behavior for an entirely patrilineal society. But it isn’t the sort of academic history that scholars find so reassuring for good reasons. Fortunately this isn’t a graduate thesis and we don’t have to decide one way or the other. It’s a pleasure to ponder the possibilities from ancient pages.

Bibliography for this article

book cover Trevor Bryce Life and Society in the Hittite World

Bryce, Trevor. Life and Society in the Hittite World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Collins, Billie Jean. The Hittites and Their World. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2007.

bookcover image Helen of Troy Bettany Hughes

Hughes, Bettany. Helen of Troy. New York: Knopf, 2005.
bookcover image Engendering Aphrodite Women and Society in ancient Cyprus Diane Bolger

Steel, Louise. “Wine, Women and Song: Drinking Ritual in Cyprus” in Engendering Aphrodite: Women and Society in Ancient Cyprus, edited by Diane Bolger and Nancy Serwint. Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research Archaeological Reports, 2002.


Comments

A Woman’s View from the Top: Hittite and Mycenaean Queens — 12 Comments

  1. It is pretty amazing that we can read correspondence between a Hittite queen and the Egyptian pharaoh from the 2nd millennium BC. I also love having the actual peace treaty between the two right there in front of us. Certainly makes history seem a lot more “present.”

  2. Do you think the change from matrilineal societies into patrilineal ones happened quickly once iron weapons were invented and war became the most important activity?

  3. Interesting idea, and I definitely get where it came from. Alas, two points. First, war was amongst the most important activities throughout the Bronze Ages and probably before that. And then there’s that pesky matrilineal society issue. Bettany Hughes makes a case for seeing Mycenaean culture as matrilineal, but her case, as I pointed out, is based entirely on the mythological/legendary tradition, so it may or may not be accurate. On the Hittite side, that is the other side of the Aegean, it is definitely a patrilineal society, with, however, a lot of power in the hands of some highly educated and respected women.
    It is definitely tempting to think that a world run by women would have been a world without war, but then I guess we have to conclude that the world has never been run by women because there has always been war! Or perhaps we women are not that much better at avoiding war then the menfolk. Hard to tell. Certainly some prominent women politicians today seem gun-ho on war in general. I do love to think both about the role of women in history and about today in the light of the past, so I like your question very much. Thanks!

  4. Interesting. But I am not sure of comparing factual evidence from extant Hittite sources and legendary and literary figures from Greek poetry and plays.

  5. Interesting. But I am not sure of comparing factual evidence from extant Hittite sources and legendary and literary figures from Greek poetry and plays. Although Puduhepa was fairly unique, probably because of the mutual love and affection clearly expressed between herself and Hattusili in the joint depictions in reliefs etc., the downside of the Hittite ‘matriarch’ is shown in Suppiluliuma’s second wife, a marriage of political convenience as she was a Babylonian princess. she took as her throne name ‘Queen’ — Tuwanuwa — and was involved in intrigue against her stepson, the Hittite monarch Mursili. She was stripped if iffuces and then banished because she was accused if using witchcraft and if poisoning Mursili’s wife.

    • Yes, you have a point that I’ve pulled from quite disparate and perhaps an unfair variety of sources. Puduhepa clearly had more power than most queens, but she took nothing that wasn’t built into the system. The fact that the Babylonian princess was less successful at deploying her power doesn’t show that women couldn’t have a strong role. Since she was trying to put her own choice on the throne and depose the legitimate king (if I’m remembering correctly?), she was making a most dangerous power play. Puduhepa chose to use her power in more conventional and direct ways that kept her successful for a long time. Obviously her close relationship with her husband helped immensely. She did continue in power after her husband’s death, even when her daughter-in-law felt quite crimped for space with her over-sized mother-in-law still filling the royal shoes, so to speak.

  6. DIfficult to find the beautiful letter that Puduhepa sent to the Egyptian Queen, where she calls her sister and
    speaks so tenderly of their friendship. A very moving moment in history.

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