Abstract: Barge of Heaven: Cleopatra the Goddess


For Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, a yearning after immortality is the last of her many and varied carnal desires, as she abandons physical pleasures for her final self-presentation as eternal queen, her final reality in reunion with Antony. The historical Cleopatra VII, as a prominent political figure, likewise developed multiple personae to enable positive interactions with a range of audiences in the ancient Mediterranean. Her deployment of divine identities, far from the hubristic posturing of an arrogant egomaniac, sent important messages to different groups, asserting her legitimate imperial authority and structuring her engagement with major powerbrokers in Egypt, securing her realm through ritual means. She used the titles of “New Goddess” and “New Isis” to reassert dynastic claims in the Eastern Mediterranean and to present herself as an accessible and familiar agent of power, to be revered and trusted as a source of support and aid. Her notorious meeting with Antony took place aboard the barque of Isis, a venue deliberately arranged as a public demonstration of the nature of Cleopatra’s leadership. In Upper Egypt, Cleopatra acted as Thea Philopatora, the Father-Loving Goddess, reinforcing connections established by her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, that bound her reign to elites outside the pockets of Graeco-Macedonian settlement. Cleopatra was especially concerned with the area around Thebes, a long-term node of Egyptian power and a previous focal point for resistance to the Ptolemies. Cleopatra became a highly visible participant in ancient religious traditions, such as the installation of a new Buchis bull at the Temple of Mentu in Hermonthis, when the queen herself escorted the new bovine incarnation of the god to his new home, transported with all due panoply on the barque of Amun. She also continued royal sponsorship of construction in major sanctuaries of the Thebaid, including Edfu and Dendera, where she was represented, in text, image, space and movement, performing the function of the divine ruler in Egyptian cosmology and as an agent and earthly version of Hathor, moving via ritual barge between the two sanctuaries as part of the annual Festival of Reunion. It is in this context that we should interpret the Nile cruise undertaken in 47 BCE with Julius Caesar. This was not simply a luxurious pleasure excursion, a holiday outing in sunny Egypt, but a sacred procession featuring the new divinity, queen and goddess, partner and chosen of gods.

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