Several Egyptian papyri contain fragments of seven related tales woven around historical figures of the seventh century BC, when Egypt was part of the Assyrian Empire. The tales, written in demotic (popular, nonhieroglyphic) script, mention the current Assyrian king, Essarhad-don (680-669 BC), and Inaros I, who led an Egyptian revolt against Assyria, in about 665 BC. This was a period when several Egyptian princes jockeyed for dominance. Only three of the tales have been translated. One story, “Egyptians and Amazons,” tells how Serpot, queen of the Amazons, fought and fell in love with Pedikhons, an Egyptian prince.14
Sadly, the papyrus that tells this tale “is in tatters, with less than half of the text preserved,” and it is missing the beginning and ending.15 Nevertheless, enough survives of this unexpected narrative of an Amazon queen in Egypt to enable us to follow the story line.
Prince Pedikhons has invaded Serpot’s “land of women” in the territory of Khor. Khor was the old Egyptian word for Assyria or Syria (which
FiG. 23.1. Section of the tattered “Egyptians and Amazons” papyrus with tale of the Amazon Queen Serpot and Prince Pedikhons. Photo Austrian National Library, Vienna.
Included Palestine and bordered on Egypt). Pedikhons’s large army of Assyrians and Egyptians sets up camp near the stronghold of Serpot, the Amazon “pharaoh.” (The title has a feminine ending.) Even though she rules a Mesopotamian land, Serpot’s name is Egyptian; it means “Blue Lotus.” Serpot summons her council of women to her tent and prays to the Egyptian gods Isis and Osiris for help. She sends her young aide-decamp, Ashteshyt, to spy on the enemy camp. Ashteshyt’s name is not Egyptian, but thus far the foreign origin and meaning of her name have mystified Egyptologists. (I will have more to say about her below.)
Because she is dressed as a male, Ashteshyt is able to infiltrate the army and reports back to Serpot, who devises a strategy. Serpot marshals an army of women from throughout her land. She reviews her assembled forces, exhorting them to repel the invaders. Some are mounted, and others drive chariots; all wear breastplates and some don helmets decorated with bulls’ faces. (This detail recalls the helmets with bull’s ears and horns worn by Amazons in Greek vase paintings of the sixth century BC, and by some tribes in Xerxes’s Persian army of the fifth century BC.)16
Taking the offensive, Serpot leads a charge on Prince Pedikhons’s army. The women “call out curses and taunts in the language of warriors” as they inflict heavy casualties. The slaughter is likened to an eagle ravaging a flock of birds. Pedikhons vows to turn the tables the next day, challenging Serpot to single combat. At daybreak, he dons his armor and takes up his scimitar and lances and appears alone on the battlefield “roaring like a lion, like a bull bursting with strength.” Ashteshyt, the young spy, offers to do battle with “this evil serpent of an Egyptian,” but Serpot insists on the honor. Putting on her armor and taking up her weapons, the Amazon queen goes out to meet Pedikhons. They struggle all day, “cursing and taunting each other,” the blows of their weapons “resounding on their ornate shields.” Rushing and feinting, they “attack like panthers; they fight as though death was greater than life itself. Neither gives way” even though the light is fading. Finally Serpot calls out to Pedikhons, “My brother, the sun has set, we can fight again tomorrow.” She suggests they rest. He agrees, “One cannot fight in the dark.”
Scholars can just make out sporadic words on the ragged papyrus indicating that the conversation is taking on a friendlier tone. Declaring an armistice, they sit down to talk. “My brother Pedikhons, why have you [come] here to [the land of women].? . . . fate. . . combat. . . if you wish. . . between us. . . she laughed.” Settling down to rest, Pedik-hons removes his armor. Serpot suddenly “did not know where she was [because of] the great desire that had entered [into her].” She removes her armor too. Looking at her, Prince Pedikhons also loses all sense of his surroundings, and says, “My sister Serpot. . .” Here the text trails off.
When it resumes, Serpot and Pedikhons are discussing their dilemma of duty versus love. They return to their own camps for the night. At dawn, they put on their armor. This time the two armies clash, but somehow peace is declared, and Serpot and Pedikhons continue their conversation. Pedikhons asks many questions about the land of women and praises Serpot’s wisdom. A tent is set up for the lovers and both armies join the big celebration of their alliance. During the revelries, however, an “army from India” suddenly appears and Pedikhons’s army suffers a severe blow. Serpot rushes to the rescue, taking the lead because she is experienced in combating the Indians. The fragmentary state of the papyrus cuts off the rest of the story, but the outcome is that Serpot and Pedikhons defeat the enemy together.17
Like Hippolyte of Greek myth, Serpot defends her land from foreign invaders. Some scholars hear echoes of the Greek myth of Penthe-silea and Achilles, but the tale of Queen Serpot differs markedly and has more in common with other non-Greek stories of women warriors with happier endings. Serpot and Prince Pedikhons are so well matched that neither can win. Instead of a typical Greek zero-sum game with only one victor (the male), the ending fulfills the dream of rapprochement only gestured at in the Greek myths of Atalanta, Hippolyte, An-tiope, and Penthesilea but fully realized in stories of the Caucasus, Azerbaijan, Media, Persia, and other cultures that could envision gender parity in love and war. Scholars note that the idea of female “pharaohs” was a familiar concept in Egypt, which had seen several female rulers since the Sixth Dynasty, ca. 2300 BC.18 The story of Serpot and Pedik-hons bears an uncanny resemblance to the Caucasian tale of the Amazon queen and the Circassian leader who interrupt their battle on the steppes for a tete-a-tete in a tent between their armies (Chapter 22). In both of those tales, what began as a life-and-death struggle ends in mutual respect, love, and an alliance.