The priests read out from a papyrus scroll the names of three-hundred and thirty kings. In all these generations there were eighteen Ethiopians and one Egyptian woman; the rest were Egyptian men. The woman’s name was Nitocris… They said that she avenged her brother. The Egyptians had killed him when he was their king and then given the kingship to her, so she slaughtered many Egyptians by a trick to avenge him. She had an underground chamber built and invited those Egyptians whom she knew to be most guilty of her brother’s death on the pretense of an inaugural feast, although she was actually planning something else. As they were feasting, she had the river let in to flood the chamber through a great hidden channel.
– Herodotus, Histories 2.100
My own translation
Like Herodotus’ other stories about Egypt, this shows an interesting mix of actual historical knowledge with folklore, probably both Egyptian and Greek.
It is very difficult to verify the number of kings Herodotus’ interviewees listed for him. Earlier Egyptian records of kings have survived only in very fragmentary forms and later writings about Egyptian history, even those by Egyptians, tended to rely on Herodotus. When Egyptian dynasties recorded the reigns of their kings, they had as much incentive as an other politicians to exaggerate some things and erase others. When Herodotus was traveling in Egypt, the country was under Persian rule and not particularly happy about it. The priests that Herodotus talked to had their own reasons to encourage a certain view of Egyptian history.
Nevertheless, in rough terms, 330 is a reasonable estimate of the number of kings who had ruled in Egypt over 3,000 years. The priests’ count also includes a number of “Ethiopian” kings, who correspond to the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, when Egypt was conquered and ruled by Nubians for about a hundred years between the mid-eighth and mid-seventh centuries BCE.
That leaves Nitocris herself. The name may be a garbled form of a very early king who had otherwise been forgotten about by Herodotus’ time. We now know from ancient inscriptions that more than one woman ruled Egypt, whether as regents for their sons or as pharaoh themselves. The most famous of these female pharaohs is Hatshepsut, who ruled from 1478 to 1458 BCE, just over a thousand years before Herodotus visited Egypt. The “underground chamber” mentioned in the story may be a distorted recollection of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, which was built partially into the side of a cliff and which is surrounded by the underground tombs of later pharaohs who chose to be buried at the same site (now known as the Valley of the Kings).
Hatshepsut’s successor, Thuthmosis III, had her name stricken from monuments and her public statues destroyed—not necessarily out of any personal animosity, but simply because the existence of a female predecessor may have threatened the legitimacy of his own and his descendants’ reign. The erasure of her public memory, though, may have opened room for some of the more outlandish and dramatic elements of her legend to grow (and may explain the loss of her name).
At the same time, the themes of family chaos, murder, and revenge that run through this story are very much in tune with Greek mythology. Whether Herodotus invented them or the priests enlivened the tale, they seem calculated to appeal to a Greek audience. There may well be some of both: the priests may have adapted their native oral tradition to better suit their Greek interviewer, while Herodotus may have amplified the familiar elements of the story as he retold the story for his Greek readers.
It may best for us to see the story of Nitocris as a kind of collaborative Greco-Egyptian historical fiction.
Image: Portrait statue of Hatshepsut, photograph by Rob Koopman via Wikimedia (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden; granite; c. 1450 BCE)
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.