Friday, August 8, 2014

The First Female Pharaoh Nitocris, H. P. Lovecraft, and the Tennessee Williams Connection

If you like strong women, you have come to the right place. 

The Father of History, Herodotus wrote of a female pharaoh called Nitocris in his histories (which he finished circa 440 BCE) and the story was picked up by Lovecraft and Tennessee Williams four thousand years after her death.  That’s some staying power and some story: murder, revenge, mass killings, and suicide.  Her closest rival in that scenario would be Cleopatra VII and that is two thousand years later.  The pharaoh Nitocris was supposed to have ruled from 2148 to 2144 BCE, the last ruler of the 6th Dynasty and ended up on a barbeque. 

Herodotus says of the Pharaoh Nitocris:  (Book II, 100)  
" ... the name of the woman who reigned was the same as that of the Babylonian queen, namely Nitocris*. Of her [the Egyptian one] they said that, desiring to take vengeance for her brother, whom the Egyptians had slain when he was their king and then, after having slain him, had given his kingdom to her, desiring I say, to take vengeance for him, she destroyed by craft many of the Egyptians.  For she caused to be constructed a very large chamber under ground, and making as though she would  [make a] handsel [of] it, but in her mind devising other things, she invited those of the Egyptians whom she knew to have had most part in the murder, and gave a great banquet.  Then while they were feasting, she let in the river upon them by a secret conduit of large size.  Of her they told no more than this, except that, when this had been accomplished, she threw herself into a room full of [burning] embers, in order that she might escape vengeance."

Now Nitocris may have been the first female Pharaoh, but certainly not the last, click the links to find out more.

The 3rd century BCE Ptolemaic era Egyptian historian, Manetho says of her in his history of Egyptian rulers, Aegyptiaca, “There was a queen Nitôcris, the noblest and loveliest of the women of her time; she had a fair complexion, and is said to have built the third pyramid.”   The Greek version by Eusebius is a bit more expansive, “There was a queen Nitôcris, braver than all the men of her time, the most beautiful of all the women, fair-skinned with red cheeks.  By her, it is said, the third pyramid was reared, with the aspect of a mountain.”  Other versions, such as a Latin Armenian version says about the same, but if they were copying from each other and from the same text, you would expect it.  By those accounts, she was a looker.  There is a  possibility that she appears under other names or honorifics, which is common enough in Egyptian royalty.  Additionally, the Turin Egyptian King List also mentions her as pharaoh on a papyrus fragment, but that is now under question.+  Real or not, Nitocris has survived the centuries to be written about and we’ll just have to wait until the academic heavyweights thrash it out.  In the mean time we have some excellent fiction written in the early 20th century.

Now that we have established a basis for Nitocris by historians, let’s jump forward a few thousand years and on the other side of the planet.  When only 16, budding southern author Tennessee Williams (but born in Columbus, Mississippi, go figure) wrote a historical fiction short story, The Vengeance of Nitocris and it was published in the magazine Weird Tales in August of 1928.  This was his first published story, but not his last.  Tennessee Williams didn’t do much more with his weird fiction writing experience, but instead began writing his own weird tales of the 20th century about his view of America, families, and the south.  
As an aside, Robert E. Howard's story Red Shadows, the story that introduced Solomon Kane, which is the cover story of Weird Tales of the same edition that also had Tennessee William’s The Vengeance of Nitocris story inside.  As you may know, Howard also wrote Lovecraftian types tales.  See my previous blog entry:  The Sixtystone – A Web of Deceit and Illusion. 

H. P. Lovecraft ghostwrote a short story for Harry Houdini, which mentions Nitrocris.   It was originally published under Houdini’s name in Weird Tales in February 1924, as Under the Pyramids (AKA Entombed with the Pharaohs, Imprisoned with the Pharaohs).  But even before that, Lovecraft  had written a short story, The Outsider in 1921, (but published in 1926) with a reference to Nitocris in the story.   This early date shows he was aware of Nitocris  (maybe from Herodotus and possibly even Manetho) and had written about her rather early on and before he wrote Under the Pyramids. 

Part of this story has some synchronicity, with Propnomicon having recently published a blog post based on the story, Entombed with the Pharaohs and me just reading a short bio of Tennessee Williams, which mentions his Nitocris story.  Of course I quickly remembered the Lovecraft story and the Propnomicon blog entry, so it all began to fall together along with a bit remembered bits from Herodotus about Nitocris.  Well the entry just pretty much wrote itself with all the connections and coincidences jelling at once. 

Clearly there is something enticing about the Egyptian Nitocris story, which has kept it in circulation for centuries.  I have to wonder if there is any link between H. Rider Haggard’s novel about another strong beautiful ruler, She A History of Adventure (1886) and the two Nitocris mentioned in Herodotus?  Maybe, but I haven’t found proof of it yet.  Haggard’s first novel, King Soloman’s Mines was an instant hit and created the new fiction genre of the Lost World, but that’s another story for another time.

Bram Stoker (you know Dracula and all that) wrote a story called, The Jewel of Seven Stars (1903), about an attempt to revive an ancient Egyptian female ruler’s mummy (fictional Queen Tera), which makes me wonder if Lovecraft had read it and if the story had had any connection to Stoker possibly reading Herodotus.  I’m sure a Lovecraft scholar out there might know the answer. 

Well we can see that a four thousand year old queen, who may or may not be mythical, can still generate some classic weird fiction stories.  I hope that this blog entry wasn’t too long or too serious, but I felt that the information was far too interesting to leave out of the article.  There are probably some that feel it was too much and other too little information.  But I sincerely hope that it has piqued your interest and you will download some of the cited stories.  Additionally, you prop makers out there ought to be interested in the two historical rulers named Nitocris, the weird fiction stories spawned, and the possible earlier association with H. Rider Haggard’s She, who gained her immortality in flames, rather than killed  For you writers and prop makers, there should be some good ideas in all this.  Good reading to you all.     CoastConFan
* There is another queen called Nitocris (6th century BCE, daughter of Nebuchadnezzer II, who made the Hanging Gardens) and also mentioned by Herodotus, but this other one is Babylonian and 1,500 years later, but just as crafty.  She also had a flair for architecture, especially her tomb.  Go to the bottom of the article to find out about her according to Herodotus (Book II, 185), if you have any interest.  Nebuchadnezzer is also mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible, during the period of the Babylonian Captivity, but you'll have to look that one up yourself.

+ See Kim Ryholt’s article, The Late Old Kingdom in the Turin King-list and the Identity of Nitocris, ZAS 127 (2000) pgs 87-100.  It’s a little involved, but also sheds light on the difficulties in reconstruction of damaged ancient records.  
     Update Dec 2014:  For those of you deeply interested in Egyptology, the New Reconstructed Chronology of Egyptian Kings by M. Christine Tetley (Vols I & II) is available for download at


Download Herodotus’ history in English:
A smaller 1464k text-only version is available for download

Download Mantho’s book of Egypt’s history, Aegyptiaca in English*.html

Article on the Lovecraft/Howard axis

Blog article about archeology in H. P. Lovecraft

Download Tennessee Williams’ story, The Vengeance of Nitocris

Download H. P. Lovecraft’s story, The Outsider  and Imprisoned with the Pharaohs

Download Bram Stoker’s story, Jewel of Seven Stars

Now for a bit of lagniappe, some information on the Babylonian queen Nitocris:   An absolutely outstanding article about the Babylonian Queen Nitocris by Robert Lebling on his blog, A Strange Manuscript  and some obligatory Herodotus.
What Herodotus says this about the Babylonian Queen Nitocris (Book II, 187):  
 "This same queen [Nitocris] also contrived a snare of the following kind: - Over that gate of the city through which the greatest number of people passed she set up for herself a tomb above the very gate itself.  And on the tomb she engraved writing which said thus: "If any of the kings of Babylon who come after me shall be in want of wealth, let him open my tomb and take as much as he desires; but let him not open it for any other cause, if he be not in want; for that will not be well."  This tomb was undisturbed until the kingdom came to Dareios [Darius]; but to Dareios it seemed that it was a monstrous thing not to make any use of this gate, and also, when there was money lying there^, not to take it, considering that the money itself invited him to do so.  Now the reason why he would not make any use of this gate was because the corpse would have been above his head as he drove through.  He then, I say, opened the tomb and found not indeed money but the corpse, with writing which said thus: ‘If thou hadst not been insatiable of wealth and basely covetous, thou wouldest not have opened the resting-places of the dead."
^I’m guessing she was not actually buried with her treasure or that it was pilfered long before Darius shows up.  Her impressive architectural exploits start at 185, but the above concerns the tomb alone.
If you are interested, you can download Herodotus in English:   or

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