Authors: LYNN VOEDISCH
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and
incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination
or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events,
locales, organizations, or persons living or dead, is entirely
coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or
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Copyright © 2011 by Lynn Voedisch
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First Fiction Studio Printing: August 2011
Printed in the United States of America
To my husband, Brad Blumenthal
My deepest thanks go out to all who made this novel possible. To my husband, Brad Blumenthal, who took me to Egypt to research the relics and smell the sweet air of the Nile. To my readers: Virginia Voedisch (copy editor extraordinaire), Carol Luce, Barbara Georgeans and Lorna Collier. And a tip of the hat to Annalouise Larsen who had a look at the first chapter in nascent form. To the members of my writers’ group, who put up with various changes and rewrites: Randy Richardson, Paul Neilan, Kevin Koperski and Gregg Garmisa. To John Anthony West for his knowledge of Egypt and wonderful tour of the country. Plus, a nod to Sohaila Hussein, West’s knowledgeable and gregarious assistant. To Dr. Peter F. Dornan, associate professor of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, for giving me information about the role of the God’s Wife. And to the many anonymous souls on the Internet who answered my questions about the God’s Wife’s role on newsgroups and other online Egypt sites, leading me to academic websites that were full of information I never would have found by myself.
Religion and civic duty in the vast Egyptian civilization were one and the same, and if some of the appointments and duties required by Pharaoh’s law seem absurd to us now, they were taken on with complete earnestness many thousands of years ago. One of these offices was the real job of God’s Wife of Amun. It has a haunting sound and conjures up images of a lonely woman living in a temple, playing handmaiden to an invisible force. However, it was much more than that.
Egyptologists are still learning about this position, which rose up in some dynasties and disappeared from others. It first came to light in the earliest days of the 2,000-year civilization, but it had nowhere near the power and influence that readers will find in the following novel. Girls were chosen from the pharaoh’s family to “marry” the icon of Amun and please him on earth, although how she did this remains a total mystery. Amun, by the way, became the highest of the triad of the most important gods in Thebes or Wast, during the time of the novel. To go into the dizzying number of gods and their relationships would take another book!
The practice of electing a God’s Wife rose again in the 18th Dynasty, where The God’s Wife takes place. My fictional character, the daughter of a fictional pharaoh, takes on all the pomp and power that was afforded a God’s Wife at that time — which was an era when women were growing in influence in Egypt. It was the period of Nefertiti and Hatsepshut, the queen who dressed as a man in her bid to be called a pharaoh. Hatsepshut, too, was a God’s Wife. The role died out again after the 18th Dynasty, only to resurface late in the New Kingdom when the land was invaded by Nubian kings. Women again were empowered.
While we know the God’s Wives were granted large tracts of land and were given livestock (a sign of wealth), it is not certain that they were second only to the Pharaoh in power. However, since the God’s Wife topped the Chief Priest of the temple of Karnak (which was the holiest place of worship in the 18th Dynasty), it would seem no one else could touch her in power. So, I am following the opinion of some Egyptologists and placing her second to the Pharaoh in rank.
The question of virginity is also a cipher. Some say she was pledged only to Amun and, thus, was virginal. Yet, many God’s wives were married, so I am taking the virginal story as a myth.
Dr. Peter Dornan, of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, filled me in on so many things about the God’s Wife. I am in debt to his knowledge. However, he couldn’t say exactly what the priestess did to satisfy the idol. There, he said, I was free to use creative license. So, being a writer, I did.
In Egyptian royalty, pure blood was treasured; thus, incest between members of the royal family was common. Brothers and sisters, half-brothers and half-sisters, uncles and nieces, all kinds of relationships we quail at now, were considered quite normal and even encouraged. It’s obvious to us that this caused all sorts of illnesses and instability that made dynasties fall, but the Egyptians didn’t understand genetics. When in my book you come across a romance that seems incestuous by 21st century standards, try to look at it through ancients’ eyes. To them, it was normal and even favored.
Also, in an effort to get away from Greco-Roman names for places and Gods, I have named things as often as possible in the Egyptian language. Thus, Egypt is Kemet, which means “black land,” named for the rich deposit of earth the Nile left on the land after it overflowed its banks each year. (One has only to visit Egypt once to realize it is nothing more than a green verdant stripe down the middle of red desert on either side. The Nile is life-giving in every way possible.) Wast is the word for Thebes. Eset is Isis. Hor-heb is Horus. Tehuti is Thoth. It becomes easy to pick up the authentic words.
I’ve tried to be accurate in every way, but there is one detail in which I let my fancy take flight. The long row of ram-headed sphinxes leading to Karnak temple had not yet been built in the 18th dynasty; that was the work of a later pharaoh. But they take your breath away when you approach the temple’s front pylons. So, in my fictional world, they appear out of time.
For those who want to delve deeper into Egypt, the role of the God’s Wife of Amun and Egyptian terms, please visit my website at
The other setting in this dual-plot tale is modern day Chicago — beset with magic.
Neferet heard the wail rise into the Nile breeze like an aching, arcing song. She never heard such crying before, so penetrating and haunting the sound. Her heart squeezed.
She slipped inside Karnak temple and plunged straight into jarring chaos. Priests raced from every direction toward the Holy of Holies, the shrine of the great god Amun. Amid the screams and beating of breasts, she stole without a sound, close to the sacred ceremonial chapel. There, at the door, a frantic group of holy men wept over an inert body.
“It’s Maya,” someone said behind her. She turned to look into an old priest’s eyes.
“But how —”
“Strangled right in the chapel of Amun.”
The holiest spot in the temple
. Neferet bit her lip. The door to the Holy of Holies opened only for Maya. Now who would tend to Amun, the most important god in the Pantheon? Amun the mysterious. Amun the unknowable. Who knew what an angry Amun would mean for the nation?
The priests constructed a bier and lifted Maya to their shoulders. The dead young woman looked as if in the midst of a nightmare, for angry bruises marred her slender neck. The priests made their way to the main pylons at the temple entrance, howling as they walked. Neferet followed, no longer safe in her house of worship, her house of employment.
At the temple door, a sentry blew a horn. Citizens stopped in the streets. Merchants interrupted sales of trinkets. Children looked up from their games. A man with a mighty voice called out for all to hear: “The God’s Wife of Amun is dead.”
As Neferet peeked out a window, the silent crowd stood still and began to lose color.
This is fear, when the blood leaves your skin and you stand pale before an advancing threat
At the Pharaoh’s royal garden, a graceful woman appeared on the bridge over the pond of blue lotus blooms and preening ibis. A small fountain dribbled water channeled from the Great River, and all about grew the most elegant plants that a royal gardener could obtain. Lilies and jasmine sweetened the dry air — hot as the breath of a fevered lover. Vines snaked along the bridge railings. Trailing flowers sprang from trellises all about the fecund square. A fish plunked in the lake, a bird reached out his graceful beak, and then there was silence.
Now, at nightfall, the moon didn’t show its face, but Meryt stood in her own aura. Posing erect on the wooden floorboards of the ornate bridge, she looked like the goddess Eset materialized from the air. Neferet gulped and drew in a breath. Her Royal Mother, the Great Wife, Queen of the Two Lands of Kemet. She, who had been a stranger most of Neferet’s young life, was to meet with her own daughter here, in the palace gardens. A rare occurrence indeed. Neferet swallowed her bitterness. The girl stepped out from the shadows and began to go through the low bows, the time-honored movements of devotion. As Neferet kneeled, Meryt held out her hand.
“Stop. You mustn’t be formal with your mother.”
Neferet, who never knew how one behaved with her mother, got to her feet and let her hands drop to her sides. “My lady,” was all she said.
Meryt motioned the girl forward and together they whisked, through the temple garden paths in their fragrant linen dresses. They came upon an old bench, probably there since the garden took root, time out of mind. Meryt moved like a dancer as she gathered together the folds of her near-transparent fabric and set herself upon the polished, silk-smooth wood. She smelled of precious oils and her wig was festooned with elaborate, gilded plaits. Around her throat rested a wide collar of lapis lazuli and carnelian. On her hand, the gold ring of power shone, her cartouche etched into the center. Henna colored her fingernails.
Neferet, wearing nothing more splendid than a sheath and a small pectoral necklace of Hor-heb, the falcon god, glanced through the braids of her hair and sat on the edge of the bench, as far from the imposing figure of the queen as possible.
Her mother scrutinized Neferet’s face, probably comparing it to her own classic visage: high-cheekbones, almond-shaped hazel eyes and lips full and accentuated by more henna artistry.
“My own daughter,” she began, eyes shining in the starlight reflecting off the water. The sky glittered, an ornament over her regal head.
Neferet attempted to smile.
“How many years do you have now, my beloved?” her mother asked, as if addressing a subject at a dinner party.
Is it possible she really doesn’t know?
“Sixteen, counted by the inundation of the Nile and the rising of Eset’s star, Sobet.” Neferet used the priests’ calendar, which was much more exact than the simple lunar calendar of the farmers. She was also showing off the education learned from Karnak’s erudite priests.
“This is fine.” The queen looked away for a second. She inclined her head at the calling cry of an ibis, which had nested for the night. Neferet knew the call of the bird was the voice of the god Tehuti — a good portent. “I come to bestow upon you a great gift,” Meryt continued.
A gift? A toy? A pair of ear studs? Soft leather sandals from the conquered tribes? That’s all she’s ever brought me — trinkets.
“I want you to succeed Maya as the God’s Wife of Amun.”
Neferet’s stomach leapt, and she clamped her jaw to keep from letting out a cry of surprise. The emotion she couldn’t hide; she felt her eyes widen. Meryt offered not just a gift but one of the best prizes in the kingdom. The priests at the school taught their pupils little about the God’s Wives, also called the God’s Adoratrices. Yet, everyone knew the God’s Wife held special power. The Wife was more influential than the high priest and reigned as the most beloved of Amun, the mightiest of the Lord’s manifestations. She could make a man Pharaoh, and people would die for her favor. There was no higher position in Kemet for a woman. Even the Pharaoh’s Great Wife bowed to the God’s Wife.
However, for all its privilege, the job reeked of danger. Politics were rife. Everyone from sweet-talking princes to brutal warriors ached to possess the God’s Wife. Men would fight to keep her as a prize. Maya’s death was just an example of what could go wrong. Had an unworthy man desired the God’s Wife and been rejected? Sometimes, the rebuff was by the Adoratrice herself, but other times, the Grand Vizier, or even the Pharaoh himself, would push away a suitor, but it must be handled with great delicacy. The role of God’s Wife was a position for a woman skilled in diplomacy and manipulation, not a naïve sixteen-year-old temple student. Maya, older and assumed to be wiser, must have made a supreme blunder with her lack of political skills. Of that Neferet felt assured. However, Maya’s case shocked everyone, mainly because of its rarity. One could be silly, vain or even stupid as God’s Wife, but almost never did one suffer death.
“Are you sure?” was all Neferet could manage as she struggled to answer her mother’s offer.
“Oh, yes. I’ve been watching you, making sure you have the temperament and drive.” The way she said “drive” produced a quiver of nervousness in Neferet’s chest, as if there was a bird inside.
What kind of drive is this she speaks of ? Sexual?
Panic welled up in her torso.
Her mother continued, as composed as a statue.
“You see, the God’s Wife must be humble and suited to the gods, but she also must understand nature and magic. And I think you do. You’ve seen how it is used in the temple, and you fathom how to bestow your graces with the wisdom of Ma’at.”
The goddess of truth. But how does she know all this about me?
“Praise Ma’at,” was all Neferet could think to say. “I pray that you are right.”
“This is a responsibility many lesser girls would turn down, you realize.”
Neferet lowered her eyes. Yes, no more flirting with the guard boys
No liaisons with a well-muscled warrior
. I must be pure.
“So, it is settled then. Although you remain my daughter and child of the Pharaoh, the temple also will adopt you as chief priestess and wife of Amun at the next festival of the Great River’s inundation.”
“There’s much to learn, and that’s only a few weeks away, mother.”
“Indeed. If you don’t want to end up like poor Maya, you had better be a quick study. It was a sorry thing to lose her.” Somehow, she didn’t sound heartbroken. Her eyes grew hard, like two diorite stones.
Neferet shivered in spite of the heat, sitting with a mother she never loved, poised to take the most dangerous job in her world.
“Why are you doing that?”
Rebecca stopped cold in the middle of dance class and stared at her ballet teacher, her least favorite instructor in the company school. She had no idea what he was carping about, but his piercing eyes shot straight to her. She shook her head trying to piece together the last few seconds. Where did they go?
“You were grinding your hips like a belly dancer,” Buckley continued, while a few murmurs and giggles peppered through the class. “Was that your idea of a joke?”
“Sir, I don’t remember what I was doing,” Rebecca murmured, looking down at the floorboards. A black hole yawned where her memory belonged. This had been happening with increasing frequency over the last few weeks but often at home. Now it was creeping into her work environment. For a professional dancer at a top-notch company, this was worrisome.
“On autopilot, huh?”
Rebecca shook her head, making her ponytail whip back and forth. What could she say? She couldn’t even describe it to herself.
“Ballet is not about hips,” Buckley said, looking as if he had sipped on vinegar. He turned around and ordered the pianist to play the rehearsal music again. The class, along with Rebecca, moved together in a smooth combination of pliés and swift turns.
She detested this class, but it was a requirement for members of the Waterfront Dance Company. Jazz class would come next, and then she could let loose. She tried to keep her mind on ballet and its intricate body placement to avoid another goof that would set off Buckley’s acerbic comments.
The man has the heart of a pit bull.
The class members turned and leapt across the floor with pointe shoes clattering, until the piano player pounded out the chords for the final adagio. Rebecca followed along, doing everything she could not to stand out. After bowing to the teacher and giving him a polite round of applause, the class bounded into the changing room. Released. But what had she done?
Before Rebecca could ask her classmates what riled Buckley so, an intern popped her head into the throng of chattering women who had pulled off shoes and were massaging their tormented feet. The girl tugged on Rebecca’s arm.
“Rebecca Kirk? Randolph wants to see you.” Electricity shot through Rebecca’s body.
The meeting took up all the time allotted for jazz, but Rebecca didn’t care. As soon as her boss, Randolph Montgomery, artistic director and general manager of the Waterfront Dance Company, waved Rebecca toward the door of his crammed office, she knew the news would delight her. He beamed and offered a sheaf of papers he wanted her to read.
“It’s decided?” Rebecca asked, when Randy handed her the cast list for their next major production. Her name stood at the top.
“You’re due, my dear,” Randy said, showing his over-bleached white teeth. “Helen had her chance with ‘Danse Macabre.’ No star power there. Looks like you and Ricky Ramon will be rehearsing quite a bit.”
This was everything she’d been working for since she stood in that makeshift room with wobbly mirrors in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There were recitals and pulled muscles and fights with her mother for new tights and leotards, arguments over the tuition for dance lessons, a trip to the emergency room for a twisted ankle and the giddy day she first stood on pointe and realized how much it hurt. There was the high school play, which no one from her family had bothered to see, little dance jobs in Iowa City (also ignored by friends and family), now corps work with Waterfront, all in anticipation of landing a leading role. In the end, despite all the naysaying from her relatives, she won the big reward.
She wanted to embrace Randy, but no one ventured that close to him. Reclusive and a bit shy, Randy seldom ever allowed his partner Artie to pat his hand in public. Still, Rebecca wanted to kiss his immaculate cheek, at the risk of mussing his stylish appearance.
He tilted his head to one side as if assessing her looks and smiled.
“Get yourself a tan and I think you’ll be perfect as an Egyptian. Long, black hair, sleek body with legs that don’t stop. Yes, you’ll look stunning in a white linen costume.”
“But isn’t Aïda, well, you know, Nubian?” Rebecca blurted out.
Randy’s expression went blank as a television screen tuned to a channel of static.
“They were black,” she added, in case he wasn’t catching her drift.
“Oh, some people think all the Egyptians were black, and it’s all wrong,” he said, tapping his desk with a pencil. “They were a mixed race. They had genetic heritage from all over the place. Mediterraneans, Semites, Africans above the Sahara ... Anyway, we are a color-blind company. We don’t discriminate. That’s so twentieth century. White, black, blue … who cares?” He threw up his hands.
Rebecca twirled a strand of her hair as she considered the change from tradition. “I guess. Why not?”
“Go on, now, enjoy your freedom for now. Because once the rehearsals start, you belong to us.” Randy’s eyes, usually so piercing, radiated warmth, and Rebecca thanked him about twenty times before she slipped out the door.
She looked at the clock, realizing the work day was over. Full of adrenaline, Rebecca ran straight from her locker to the street. Her insides, her skin, her very soul sent out sparks of delirium. If she were a balloon, it would be bright yellow and would skip over the streetlights and dance on the rooftops before sailing into the clear Chicago sky. She ran across the narrow street, beating out a red light and an angry man in an SUV, and whirled around Jonas, her boyfriend, who had been waiting on the sidewalk. He stared in apparent wonder.
“I got it! I got it!” she said, her words bursting out of her as she continued to spin on the sidewalk.