When Akhenaten, (also known as Amenhotep IV) came to the throne in 1353 B.C., he and Nefertiti possessed power and wealth which equaled that of Akhenaten’s parents. Like his father, Akhenaten gave his wife more authority than most Egyptian queens.
By virtue of her physical appearance, Nefertiti gained her husband’s admiration and, through him, greater influence. Nefertiti’s literate contemporaries failed to comment on her appearance, but the meaning of her name as well as Akhenaten’s obvious devotion to her confirm that she possessed unparalleled beauty. Her beauty was acknowledged during her lifetime through her name, which means “A Beautiful Woman has Come.” The emphasis which Akhenaten placed on her beauty gave Nefertiti a unique role in public life which she later used to gain religious and political power.
Akhenaten eliminated the Egyptian the other Egyptian gods and goddesses and commanded that the people worship only the sun god Aten. Since the female goddesses were no longer worshiped, the country had no female idol for its women to emulate or goddess to ensure the country’s prosperity. Nefertiti’s beauty, however, provided a solution. In the absence of female goddesses, the queen’s role took on a special significance. The king and queen formed a semi-divine triad with Aten like that of the creator god, his son, and his wife Tefnut. Tradition dictated that the pharaoh would be semi-divine, but Nefertiti’s beauty and Akhenaten’s devotion to her ensured her goddess-like status as well. In fact, Pharaoh Akhenaten and his consort were so god-like that they determined how the Aten was to be worshiped. A study of the ancient illustrations of Nefertiti and Akhenaten reveals that only they could worship the Aten directly and their subjects worshiped their god through the royal couple. Prayers from commoners and even officials to the Aten were addressed to the king and queen. For example, a burial petition of temple official named Panehesy requested the following from Nefertiti: “‘May she grant the entrance of favor and the exit of love, and a happy recollection in the presence of the king, and that thy name be welcome in the mouth of the companions.’” Nefertiti’s beauty led to Akhenaten’s devotion to her, and that devotion gave her power in the Aten religion.
Nefertiti attained other privileges in the state religion. Traditionally, women could serve as priestesses to female goddesses, but only male pharaohs could make offerings to the gods. Nefertiti, however, performed the religious duties from which other queens were barred. The Aten’s temple in Amarna holds traditional scenes of the king offering to the god, yet in one building the queen raises her hands in offering with only her eldest daughter in attendance. The act of offering to the Aten was an honor, but Egyptologists believe that Nefertiti may have presided over religious ceremonies as well. Each day at Amarna three ceremonies were held for the Aten at sunrise, noon, and at sunset. Nefertiti likely performed the sunset ceremony, reciting the Hymn to the Aten which her husband composed. The religious power granted to Nefertiti came as a result of her goddess-like status.
As her reign continued, Nefertiti used her beauty to achieve political power as well as religious power. Several ancient stelae depict Nefertiti performing a typically kingly act—slaying Egypt’s enemies. In one scene, Nefertiti wears only a long skirt and a blue crown while a female enemy kneels beneath her raised right arm. Nefertiti dons a king’s attire of skirt and a version of the king’s blue war crown. The artisans’ portrayals of Nefertiti in these smiting scenes suggest that she acquired great political influence. Nefertiti’s power undoubtedly came from her close relationship with her husband. These works must have received his approval. In his devotion to her beauty and his need for a female goddess, Akhenaten enhanced her political power.