Harem conspiracy

The Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses III was murdered in a conspiracy formed by one of his harem wives that included magicians, physicians, and butlers.

Ramesses III
Metropolitan Museum of Art [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Ramesses III was famous for his battle prowess: he was the one who fought off the Sea Peoples in the Battle of the Delta. Like most pharaohs, he had a lot of wives, and a lot of children. And, in an often-repeated story, the question of who would succeed him was a very important one.

Ramesses III had chosen Amonhirkhopshef, his fifth son, as heir to the throne. You would imagine that the four elder children would be angry about this, but apparently they were all dead by this time. Instead, the anger came from one of Ramesses’ secondary wives, Queen Tiye. She had a son, Pentawer, who was about 18 years old and in her eyes a much better candidate.

Tiye had friends in high places, and began a conspiracy to have Ramesses III murdered and Pentawer elevated in his place. She enlisted many people in the royal palace: cattle overseers, administrators, pantry chiefs, magicians, physicians, and the pharaoh’s butler. Yes, that’s right, the butler did it

The conspiracy was partially successful. Ramesses III was surrounded and (while the court magician apparently chanted magic spells to aid the endeavour) his throat was cut. Is anyone else picturing a Dungeons-and-Dragons style raid? They didn’t get to Amonhirkhopshef in time, though, and the conspirators were caught, put on trial, and executed.

Well, the conspirators of lower rank were executed, and cremated. Under ancient Egyptian belief, cremation would ban them from the afterlife, so it was a very harsh punishment. Pentawer either committed ritual suicide or was executed, but he was allowed to undergo mummification rather than cremation. Amonhirkhopshef rose to the throne as Ramesses IV.

The trial of the harem conspiracy is laid out in the Judicial Papyrus of Turin, now on display in Turin, Italy. It includes the delightful coda that five of the judges in the trial were accused of having a drinking party with the female accused. So we can conclude that Egyptian jurisprudence wasn’t especially prudent.

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