Cleopatra may not have been ancient Egypt's only female pharaoh — Queen Arsinoë II, a woman who competed in and won Olympic events, came first, some 200 years earlier, according to a new study into a unique Egyptian crown.
After analyzing details and symbols of the crown worn by Arsinoë and reinterpreting Egyptian reliefs, Swedish researchers are questioning Egypt's traditional male-dominated royal line. They suggest that Queen Arsinoë II (316-270 B.C.) was the first female pharaoh belonging to Ptolemy's family — the dynasty that ruled Egypt for some 300 years until the Roman conquest of 30 B.C.
While researchers largely agree on Arsinoë's prominence — she was deified during her lifetime and honored for 200 years after her death — the new study suggests she was in fact an Egyptian pharaoh with a role similar to the more famous Hatshepsut and Cleopatra VII.
One of the great women of the ancient world, Arsinoë was the daughter of Ptolemy I (366–283 B.C.), a Macedonian general under Alexander the Great who later became ruler of Egypt and founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty to which Cleopatra belonged.
With a life marked by dynastic murders, intrigue, sex and greed, Arsinoë may have been the most outstanding of Cleopatra's female predecessors.
"She was no ordinary woman. She fought in battles, and even participated in the Olympics, where she won three events for harnessed horses," Maria Nilsson, from the University of Gothenburg, told Discovery News.
Married at the age of 16 to Lysimachus of Thrace, a 60-year-old general of Ptolemy I, Arsinoë earned great wealth and honors during her time in Greece.
When, 18 years later, Lysimachus died, she married her half-brother, Ptolemy Keraunus. The marriage then ended abruptly after Keraunus killed two of Arsinoë's three sons.
Arsinoë then returned to Egypt and married her brother King Ptolemy II, her junior by eight years.
A crown, which has never been found, but is depicted on statues and carved stone reliefs, was created especially for her.
Nilsson analyzed 158 Egyptian relief scenes dating from Arsinoë's lifetime to Emperor Trajan, spanning about 400 years, studying every detail of the crown, including hieroglyphic titles and relief scenes.
She found that the crown differed from the usual Egyptian royal headdress such as the khepresh (or blue crown), the white crown, the red crown, the double crown, the double feather plume and atef (or ostrich feather) crown.
Instead, it was made of four main elements: the red crown, symbolizing the rule of Lower Egypt, the ram horns, connected primarily with the ram god of Egypt, Amon, the cow horns and solar disc, symbolizing the goddess Hathor and the harmony between male and female, and the double feather plume, another important symbol of Amon.
According to Nilsson, these symbols show that Arsinoë's crown was created for a living queen who was supposed to be a high priestess, a goddess and the ruler of Lower Egypt at the same time.
"It means that she was proclaimed female pharaoh during her lifetime. She co-ruled Egypt, as the king of Lower Egypt, with her brother-husband Ptolemy II, king of Upper Egypt," Nilsson said.
Put on a level with the ancient goddesses Isis and Hathor, Arsinoë was considered a god during her lifetime and was honored for 200 years after her death at 45. A special shrine, the Arsinoëion, was built in her honor at Alexandria, and a festival, the Arsinoëia, was created for her.
Found in at least 27 variations, Arsinoë's symbolic crown was later worn by Ptolemaic queens Cleopatra III and Cleopatra VII and also used as a template by several male Ptolemy descendants.
"This profound study opens a new field of research and shows that the other Ptolemaic queens, especially the Cleopatras, tended to imitate Arsinoë II in their iconographic elements," Mona Haggag, professor of classical archaeology at Alexandria University, Egypt, told Discovery News.
According to Carole Gillis, associate professor at the department of archaeology and ancient history at Lund University, Sweden, the study is important as it reveals that the Queen wore the crown in her own lifetime, in public view, with its symbols clearly understandable for everyone.
"This Queen was indeed a living King," Gillis told Discovery News.