Under the Wing of Aset: Chico Scholar Documents Female Leadership Patterns of Ancient Africa

Miriam MaŠt-Ka-Re Monges points out an African sculpture
of Isis given to her by her daughter. (Photo BAS)

The Africans attacked even though they were not as fully equipped as the Romans. They were led in their attack by a woman. Strabo reports that she was "a masculine woman, blind in one eye..."

from Kush: The Jewel of Nubia by Miriam Máat-Ka-Re Monges

Imagine it: you're a foot soldier in the Roman army that for several years has been occupying the border region between Egypt and Kush, a wealthy "king"-dom extending southward up the Nile where, it is reputed, the rulers are often queens. Back home across the Mediterranean, women have very little power, which is, you think, as it should be. After all, didn't Antony's dalliance with a certain Egyptian queen just a few years back lead to his ouster by Augustus? Suddenly, the call to arms. As you take up your position against the enemy, you are surprised to note that a formidable-looking woman is leading the charge against you....

She was fierce, she was black, and she prevailed. Her army of thirty thousand not only beat the Romans, it took captives and plunder. And although her victory was short-lived, she eventually won from Caesar Augustus a treaty that ensured peace between her nation and his and, incredibly, secured the return of tributes previously levied by Rome against Kush. Not bad soldiering for a "one-eyed virago," as the Romans called her. Among the treasures of Kush is a statue of Caesar likely taken in battle by this queen. In his account of the battle, Strabo refers to her as Candace, which is somewhat misleading because there were at least five queens called Candace (or Kandace, pronounced can-DAH-say), a term meaning Queen Mother or Queen Regent. In any case, while her exact identity is still somewhat in doubt, the warring Candace with one eye so impressed Strabo, Pliny, and others that the term itself became known outside Africa.

Miriam Máat-Ka-Re Monges, Sociology and Social Work /Center for Multicultural and Gender Studies, began her research on African queens and female deities while working on her doctoral dissertation at Temple University. Later, at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Monges authored a book about the ancient kingdom of Kush (Kush: The Jewel of Nubia, Africa World Press, 1996) in which she presents several powerful women of African antiquity, including Strabo's Candace. She is currently at work on another book, this one documenting female leadership patterns in classical Africa. She plans to incorporate her research into the series of rites-of-passage workshops for women that she regularly conducts.

"I see this probably being my life's work," Monges said during an interview conducted in her office filled with African icons and memorabilia, some collected on a research trip to Egypt in 1997. This research was made possible by grants from Faculty Development and the School of Graduate, International, and Sponsored Programs. Besides shedding light on a few of history's female leaders, Monges is keenly interested in how they might extend their influence into the present, as agents of personal transformation. "Today we don't have women with the power they had then."

The queen most people have heard of is Hatshepsut, who ruled Kemet (Egypt) one and a half millennia BC. Famous for dressing as a man, even sporting a false beard, Hatshepsut is one of the queens Monges classifies as a political leader. "She was in charge of Karnac, one of the largest religious facilities ever—the Vatican could fit inside it about six or seven times." The five queens known as the Candaces are other political leaders, though, as Monges notes, not without their spiritual aspects. One Candace, Queen Nawidemak, is even portrayed on a pyramid as Osiris—male god—sheltered by the wings of the great goddess Isis. "Perhaps," Monges speculated, "this is because her position as a divine ruler was more important than her gender."
Aset, more commonly known as Isis, spreads her
wings on print brought from Egypt by Monges.

Besides Candace, another title sometimes chosen by queens was "God's Wife of Amun," an office that carried with it the responsibility for both spiritual and material realms. As the overseer of Karnac, one God's Wife during the Twentieth Dynasty was responsible for some sixty-five villages and 433 gardens.

Spiritually, most if not all ancient African roads lead back to Aset (Isis), who had her origin in Nubia, upriver from Egypt, but whose cult was extremely widespread. She and her husband/twin Osar (Osiris), and their child Heru (Horus), the original African holy trinity, were regarded as divine but also as actual persons, the way many Christians view Jesus. One chapter of Aset's story has her ruling the state so well during Osar's absence that Set, the Evil One, is unable to destabilize it. The story is important, said Monges, because it shows "that the sacred stories of the Kemites informed their society that queens could be equally powerful and competent as kings."

The partnership of Aset and Osar served as a potent model for the roles of women and men. Both Kemet and Kush were matriarchal cultures, as was the entire continent at one time, although, as Monges points out in her book, the term has caused much confusion through the years. "The etymology of matriarchy is `arch' meaning principal and `matri' meaning mother. Clearly in Africa, as in no European society, the role of the mother was principal or chief." Monges uses the term to mean "descent traced through matrilineal kinship; a close relationship between mother and child; economic and political power of women." In Kemet and Kush, women, with the exception of Hatshepsut and some of the Candaces, did not rule over men but, rather, shared power with them.

Clearly, the concept of motherhood in classical Africa was broadly construed, not set apart from, or in opposition to, that of worker or public figure. Even a cursory look at the lives of the queens in classical Africa shows how entwined are motherhood and states[wo]manship, the latter a natural extension of the former. Today, though, the people of Africa and everywhere else are generally governed by men whose partners are rarely viewed as equals having vital powers of their own. Partnership-with has given way to power-over in the patrilineal spiritual traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Monges firmly rejects the prem-ise advanced by historian J.J. Bachofen that reduces matriarchy to mere way-station on a road leading inevitably to patriarchy. "Bachofen's theory assumes that humans have progressed from matriarchy to patriarchy, in a kind of universal transition from darkness to light, the reign of women being symbolized by darkness and the reign of men by light. This is a classic case of Eurocentric thinking—the use of dichotomy; hierarchical ranking; the positive valorization of characteristics that most parallel European culture; the demeaning of the place of woman; and finally, the ascription of all of this to the universal proclivity of human beings."

Following Cheikh Anta Diop and other Afrocentric scholars attempting to tell Africa's story from an African rather than a European point of view, Monges has returned to the primary sources, Africans themselves. She re-examines the ancient monuments, texts, and artwork from a matriarchal perspective. Whereas some scholars, William Adams for one, see little evidence that Nubian society was matriarchal and demean the power of African queens by referring to them as "consorts and as dowagers, behind-the-scenes," Monges is uncovering contrary evidence.

The grants she received from CSU, Chico provided for several weeks of research at museums and libraries in Philadelphia and New York prior to her journey up the Nile to Karnac, Abu Simbel, and other sites.

Asked whether she was transformed personally by her research, Monges said, "I felt a connection to the culture and to the people there; I felt a connection to the tombs, the pyramids, the temples. I felt like I was in a state of grace, that I was meant to be there, that I could understand them. And I felt a duty to explain them." Surely Aset, from wherever she is watching, supports her in this work.


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