A unique queens crown with ancient symbols combined with a new method of studying status in Egyptian reliefs forms the basis for a re-interpretation of historical developments in Egypt in the period following the death of Alexander the Great.
In the thesis ‘The Crown of Arsino II’, Maria Nilsson shows that Cleopatra VII was not the only Ptolemaic female pharaoh Queen Arsino II came first, 200 years earlier. Nilsson argues that Arsino (316-270 BC) should be included in the official pharaonic king list as Ptolemy II’s co-regent; her royal authority should be considered equivalent to Hatshepsut, Tawosret and Amenirdis II, as one of the most important royal women in Egyptian history.
Researchers largely agree on Queen Arsino IIs importance from the day that she was deified. The queen was put on a level with the ancient goddesses Isis and Hathor, and was still respected and honoured 200 years after her death when her better-known descendant Cleopatra wore the same crown. But the reasons behind Arsinos huge influence have been explained in many different ways.
Maria Nilsson, from the University of Gotenburg in Sweden, has studied her historical importance by interpreting the Macedonian queen’s personal crown and its ancient symbols. The crown, which has never been found but is depicted on statues and Egyptian reliefs, was created with the help of the Egyptian priesthood to symbolise the qualities of the queen. In her thesis ‘The crown of Arsino II. The creation and development of an imagery of authority’ (available online here), Nilsson questions the traditional royal line which excludes female regents, and defies some researchers attempts to minimise Arsinos importance while she was still alive.
My conclusion instead is that Arsino was a female pharaoh and high priestess who was equal to and ruled jointly with her brother and husband, and that she was deified during her actual lifetime, says Nilsson. It was this combination of religion and politics that was behind her long-lived influence.
As early as Predynastic times, ancient Egyptian rulers depicted themselves, in line with their gods, wearing different crowns. Six main forms are documented from at least the early dynastic period, and still regularly depicted although elaborated upon in the Ptolemaic and Roman periods; the khepresh (or blue crown), the white crown, the red crown, the double crown, the double feather plume and the atef (or ostrich feather) crown. So far archaeologists have not found any physical royal crowns, and Egyptologists have to make do with studying depictions of the various crowns on tomb paintings and reliefs.
Until the Ptolemaic period, the double crown was the most important and powerful royal crown, rarely receiving any pictorial additions. However, Arsino II’s crown was based on the composition of different pictorial elements; the red crown, ram horns, the double feather plume and the cow horns with solar disc. By wearing a traditional crown, the Ptolemaic queen would have associated herself with the previous pharaonic ruling couples, as well as the divine world of Egypt, but the new composition of elements can be seen as an expression of a more individualistic symbolic approach.
The crown became an ideal tool for communicating individuality and status when all the other elements were fundamentally locked in artistic tradition and strictly regulated, writes Nilsson.
According to Nilsson, the crown was created for the living queen, and reflects the main three aspects of Arsino’s positions her royal position as King of Lower Egypt, high priestess and God’s wife of Amun, and her status of goddess, both during and after her lifetime as thea Philadelphos can be clearly identified in the crown’s iconography. It indicates that she was proclaimed female pharaoh during her lifetime, and that she was regarded the female founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty.
Arsino’s crown can be found in at least 27 variations, and was later worn by Ptolemaic queens Cleopatra III and VII. However, it was not only Cleopatra who wanted to re-use Arsinos important and symbolic crown. Male descendants all named Ptolemy used her crown as a template when creating a new crown which they gave to the goddess Hathor to honour the domestic priesthood and so win its support when Egypt was gripped by civil war.
Evidently, this crown was accepted throughout the ages as an individual attribute of Hathor of Dendera, while the crown of Arsino, in its original form, disappeared with Cleopatra VII, writes Nilsson. The most important conclusion that comes out of this study of the later Hathoric crown is that the Ptolemies found an Egyptian divine couple that could complement their claimed Greek divine ancestry, that Hathor of Dendera and Horus of Edfu signified and personified the male and female side of the Ptolemaic dynasty at the time of the crowns’ introduction.
Nilsson’s thesis is structured around the crown and includes its wider context in the reliefs (with a most fascinating chapter about size and position, relative scaling and the ‘crown line’ (p 343-392), demonstrating that Arsino ‘s crown placed the queen as the most important figure in a majority of scenes) and paves the way for future studies of Egyptian crowns as symbols of power and status for instance the difference between crowns worn by Egyptian woman in their roles as queens and those worn by priestesses.
The creation of Queen Arsinos crown was just the beginning, she says.