Merneith, Egyptian Pharaoh:  a brief philosophical speculation on prehistory…. vulva & phallus


by LJ Frank

This is a speculative piece about Ancient Egypt and humans, female, and male – a philosophical approach to metaphors such as vulva, and phallus, and creation itself.

Prehistory intrigues and arouses the imagination. Examples include, but not limited to, Steven Mithen’s The Prehistory of the Mind, Timothy Taylor’s Prehistory of Sex, Donald B. Redford’s Egypt, Canaan, and Israel in Ancient Times, Bersossos and Menetho, Native Traditions in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, translated by Gerald P. Verbrugghe and John M. Wickersham…and a lengthy bibliography, that also includes a prehistory of the vulva and phallus…the more the reading, the more the questions began to stack up like stones in a pyramid.  In other words, I found myself returning to the foundation with artifacts uncovered in two different burial sites (royal tombs) in Egypt, past research involving the content of the ancient Library of Alexandria and the question of beginnings and meanings. Bits and pieces from archaeology to anthropology, writings, and so forth consumes passion but hard answers are complicated. So, the speculation.

The prehistory of the vulva (paleolithic stone carvings) and the phallus (accentuated later than the vulva in carvings) is fascinating, and not just from a biological and artistic perspective, but philosophical, social-religious-cultural-fetish, and political textures but deeply primitive stirrings evoked through architecture, sculpture, and language both in oral tradition and hieroglyphics inscribed in stone and on papyrus. The breath of the human experience provokes both the inquirer and the questions that dare to be asked.

In his work titled Egyptian Religion, the German scholar, Siegfried Morenz, wrote about how religion evolved over the centuries in ancient Egypt and its affect and linkage to Egyptian rulers. Egyptian civilization was derived from its religious beliefs within ancient tribes in Africa. That is, religious belief was an anchor root of Egyptian culture affecting the textures of everyday existence including perception of afterlife.

In ancient texts besides the motifs, stone tablets, and hieroglyphics that described the exchange of goods we find that beliefs based on endless centuries of questions inherently understood that in the very beginning the earth and “heavens” were shapeless, without form, as was the Creator.

Humans evolved and developed from the earliest primitive nomadic tribes with an understanding that in the beginning – nature, earth, and the universe were without form or shape and that all shape and form came into being only within those first moments after the creator became “form”.  Man, invented words that served as metaphors, and symbols of various deities derived from the natural world. It was an animistic interpretation that led man eventually to move away from those animalistic creatures and behavior to be rebirthed into a higher human form.

The Chaldean priest and “historian” Berossos, of which only fragments of his Babylonian History remain, perhaps lost, burned, or misplaced though once located in the Library of Alexandria, and interestingly was acknowledged by the brilliant Hypatia of Alexandria who was aware of it as her remarks noted a depth of understanding of Babylonia myth. The history may not have been copied as it didn’t meet the Greek standards of the time. But Berossos was not interested in Greek standards or preconceived notions about history, He saw myth, and the philosophy of existence intertwined and spoke of people’s animalistic passions a few hundred thousand year previous. Berossos was from a different religious school of thought. It must be remembered that many writings were destroyed over the centuries when not parallel or supportive of a given standard or set of beliefs different from the new ruler. It was about control.

Religion in ancient Babylonia, Canaan, and Egypt for example are not necessarily comparable or to be judged by another cultural standard. The people of the Old Kingdom / First Dynasty of Egypt didn’t think of themselves as ancient, but “modern” during the time in which they lived. Their myths and stories have a quality with truths embedded within a given story. That’s part of the allegorical nature of religion.

Religious belief was woven into the fabric of all aspects of Egyptian life from language to medicine (especially herbal), to the design of pottery to places of worship and altars. Each object and room contained a “myth”. The Egyptian culture was not the only culture that viewed religion as intrinsic to their civilization but the purposes it served was a basis for their unresolved patriarchal and obscure African tribal matriarchal leanings with woman as mother, and the vulva that represented birth, rebirth, and regeneration.  The phallus was part of an “insertive power” metaphor. The womb and the vulva were more powerful metaphors than the phallus and can be traced through prehistoric and primitive anthropological artifacts over tens of thousands of years with beginnings traceable in such places as Nubia – parts of Sudan and southern Egypt.

Merneith’s was of Nubian heritage with presence, wit, beauty, and intelligence, who appreciated the symbolic nature of the mother earth (goddess) and the power of the vulva and was in position to achieve a ruler position (Queen) and for a brief period as pharaoh. (Her royal tombs are located at Abydos and Saqqara.)

The influence of religious symbolism in Egypt’s Old Kingdom with its African/Egyptian tribal heritage was a significant factor in her rule even as she knowingly adopted and adapted to the partially rooted patriarchal (phallic) structures and dress of her time. Clothing can betray social ambivalence depending on what was available and necessary to a ruler.  Ruler like symbols of leadership and or acquiescence to those symbols to effectuate their roles was significant.  

From a philosophical perspective Merneith was a woman of the moment and able to adapt and maneuver through the internal power struggles between the symbolism of the vulva and the phallus. The physical presence as represented by the vulva in sculpture and hieroglyphics not only represented her womanhood/fertility, birth process, but also the meaning of rebirth, regeneration in how a ruler is perceived and accepted. The emerging skills and craftsmanship of the day added to both progress and conflict. Anthropologically, religion tempered behavior in relation to technological development.

People have, as a result of their animistic heritage and religious beliefs dating back hundreds of thousands of years, a genetically inherent disposition towards magic, skin touch/fetish, mutilation, and sexual relationships…. where emotions and personal philosophy are outstripped by human inventions. Thus, adaptive behavior is survival.

Mernieth’s stature and the fact that she had a son and husband who was a ruler revealed the nature of her social position.  She prevailed as Queen and pharaoh.  Subsequent civil strife and warring factions may have destroyed and blurred many of her past accomplishments for political purposes. History was and is revised and rewritten by those who have a stake in their strategic positioning.

The rebirth of social political positioning that Merneith brought was the result of the awareness that without woman Man would not exist. That was an African (Nubian)-Egyptian tribal influence. Conflict of rule was not unusual. Codes and polices were and would be developed. Laws began to be codified as Egypt emerged from the Neolithic age. The Creator of the Egyptian of the Old Kingdom began transitioning beyond the phallus and vulva images as they became complicated metaphors.

As language developed, ideas became more provocative as woman offered (birthed) opportunity and fresh practical insights, the strands of which are in tribal religions found in an African – Egyptian tapestry. It was during these times and centuries leading up to it the invention of names for deities for the sake of approachability and accessibility and also control.

The name “God” is a more accessible name (Martin Buber’s I and Thou) and less ominous on some level, than Moses later description of God’s words being “I am that I am” or, ehyeh ‘ăšer ‘ehyeh (?) that has a Paleolithic sound to it. The language we use becomes, in a sense, the architecture of our life. The ancient Egyptians understood and appreciated the profound correlation between physical architecture, mental architecture, medicine, and language in writing and speech.

The act of to know feeds into itself. The healthy conscience attempts to discern through language in all its forms – the truth. The truth changes on a given subject with greater knowledge. For example, within the scope of Gnosticism is the concept of the cup or vulva and the staff or phallus and the utterances of a prophet who notes that when the person realizes that if the man becomes a woman and a woman a man then they shall achieve the provocative truth of human beginnings and enter “God’s” grace/kingdom.

The prehistory of the human mind and behavior leading up to what we consider history is engaging. What triggered or stimulated the primitive consciousness and conscience other than experience of the natural world and the first utterances that served as a basis for language itself? The ancient night sky, fire, flora, and fauna must have haunted Man’s evolving consciousness and conscience.

And consciousness and conscience were and are embedded in our genes and as a variation on Voltaire’s Candide, a “garden to cultivate”. To survive was to question, imagine, believe, and still doubt within the context of passion / compassion, but for some rulers their doubts had to be kept private…. all of that was something of which Merneith was well aware.