Nitocris – Historical & Literary Background

Nitocris – a victim of Mythos Corruption or Nyarlahotep’s malevolent mistress? Image by Shane Teremi.

A great deal of drama in Egypt centers around the resurrection of Queen Nitocris, as Omar al-Shakti’s Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh attempts to launch their own world domination scheme parallel to the apocalyptic Gate Opening. Depending upon your campaign and Investigators, this plot may be contained within the Egyptian chapter, metastasize to other locales or serve as a campaign climax after Investigators derail Nyarlathotep’s plans in China, Australia, and Kenya. Whether or not Nitocris features centrally as a villain within your campaign, you can add depth to your story and her character with some additional information concerning her dark history.

 The Pharaoh Queen, a true historical figure?

A mysterious and legendary figure, Nitocris may have reigned as the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt’s Sixth Dynasty (2345-2181 BCE), and her name can be found in Herodotus’ Histories (430 BCE), as well as in works by Manetho, an Egyptian during the early Hellenistic period (305-30 BCE) who authored the Aegyptiaca (History of Egypt). According to Herodotus, she sought vengeance for the murder of her brother by inviting them to a wild banquet in a remote underground location near the Nile: 

 … [Nitocris] succeeded her brother. He had been the king of Egypt, and he had been put to death by his subjects, who then placed her upon the throne. Determined to avenge his death, she devised a cunning scheme by which she destroyed a vast number of Egyptians. She constructed a spacious underground chamber and, on pretense of inaugurating it, threw a banquet, inviting all those whom she knew to have been responsible for the murder of her brother. Suddenly as they were feasting, she let the river in upon them by means of a large, secret duct. This was all that the priests told of her, except that when she had done this she cast herself into a chamber full of hot ashes, to escape vengeance. (Histories, II.100)

There are no corroborating Egyptian sources for Herodotus’ account. Some believe Nitocris to have served as an interim ruler, following the death or deposition of her brother Merenre Nemtyemsaf II. Manetho describes her as “braver than any man of her time” and an unrivaled beauty. He also erroneously claims she built the “third pyramid” at  Giza, which is attributed by modern historians and archaeologists to pharaoh Menkaure of the Fourth dynasty. Renowned British Egyptologist, Percy Newberry (1869-1949 CE), argues in his 1943 article that this “third pyramid” refers not to Giza, but Saqqara. 

The Step Pyramid at Saqqara – a structure allegedly connected to Nitocris. Image by ER’s Eyes.

 Eratosthenes of Cyrene (276-194 BCE) includes Nitocris in his Theban List of Egyptian Monarchy. Titus Flavius Josephus (37-100 CE), the Romano-Jewish historian, refers to Herodotus’ story in his Antiquities of the Jews and refers to her as Nicaule without questioning the veracity of the earlier account. 

 Despite these written accounts, the name Nitocris does not appear in any native Egyptian inscription, monuments, or tombs. The modern Egyptologist Kim Ryholt considers Nitocris a legendary figure derived from the male pharaoh Neitiqerty Siptah, the successor to Nemtyemsaf II during the transition between the Old Kingdom and First Intermediate Period.

 Microscopic analysis has refuted the prior suggestion that she appeared on a fragment of the Turin King List from the Nineteenth Dynasty as Nitiqreti. Many scholars advance her inclusion on the Turin King list arose from a scribal error concerning the aforementioned last king of the 6th Dynasty, Neitiqerty Siptah. 

 Still, some well-regarded scholars continue to maintain that a competent Nitocris assumed the throne as the first Queen Regnant, by coup or consensus, amidst the crisis and instability resulting from the death of Pepi II at the nadir of the failing Sixth Dynasty. Renowned contemporary Egyptologist, Richard Wilkinson, argues that both the descent and gender of Neitiqerty Siptah cannot be confirmed, and later tradition identifies a Neitiquerty (added ‘u’) as a reigning queen.

 Literary References to Nitocris

 True or not, Herodotus’ tale of the vengeful pharaoh queen has fired the imagination of writers since the turn of the 19th century. A character named Niktoris appears in Boleslaw Prus’ 1895 historical novel, Pharaoh, as the mother of the fictional Ramses XIII.

 In 1906, the British science fiction writer and explorer, George Griffith, wrote The Mummy and Miss Nitocris: A Phantasy of the Fourth Dimension. In this early science fiction work, she appears reincarnated in the body of an Egyptologist’s daughter. Lord Dunsany, a prolific English writer wrote a play, “The Queen’s Enemies”, in 1917 based upon Herodotus’ account of Nitocris’ revenge plot. 

 Nitocris in Lovecraft’s Fiction

 Influenced by works from both Griffith and Dunsany, Lovecraft wrote two stories mentioning Nitocris. The first, “The Outsider”, written in 1921 and eventually published in Weird Tales in 1926 contains the following reference:

 “Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile. I know that light is not for me, save that of the moon over the rock tombs of Neb, nor any gaiety save the unnamed feasts of Nitokris beneath the Great Pyramid; yet in my new wildness and freedom I almost welcome the bitterness of alienage.”

 The other, “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” (or “Under the Pyramids”), developed out of a collaboration with Harry Houdini. Published in 1924, the story details a fictionalized first-person account from Houdini, who must escape from a deep hole beneath the Great Sphinx of Giza following a kidnapping by a strange tour guide. It contains the following reference to Nitocris:

 “Then we saw the vast pyramids at the end of the avenue, ghoulish with a dim atavistical menace which I had not seemed to notice in the daytime. Even the smallest of them held a hint of the ghastly—for was it not in this that they had buried Queen Nitokris alive in the Sixth Dynasty; subtle Queen Nitokris, who once invited all her enemies to a feast in a temple below the Nile, and drowned them by opening the water-gates? I recalled that the Arabs whisper things about Nitokris, and shun the Third Pyramid at certain phases of the moon. It must have been over her that Thomas Moore was brooding when he wrote a thing muttered about by Memphian boatmen—”

 Beneath the pyramids, Houdini discovers Nitokris and her partner Pharaoh Khephren leading a terrifying army of ghouls and delivering offerings to a five-headed, tentacled horror. In Lovecraft’s depiction, the gnawing of subterranean rats has disfigured half of her beautiful face. The Masks of Nyarlathotep draws heavily from this Lovecraft tale for the Egyptian Chapter, and we highly recommend it for inspiration and entertainment. 

 Additional Weird Tales

Of additional note, a young Tennessee Williams wrote “The Vengeance of Nitocris” for Weird Tales in 1928 at the age of 16, which provides a detailed narrative of her revenge plot. This short story is his first published work followed more notably years laters by plays such as The Glass MenagerieA Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

 Brian Lumley, an English horror author known for his work in the Cthulhu Mythos, wrote “The Mirror of Nitocris.” In this tale, he reveals that Nitocris revived the worship of Nyarlathotep, uncovered the Shining Trapezohedron, and possessed a magical mirror, which allows the gazer a window on all space and time, and most likely corresponds to the campaign’s Mirror of Gal. Lovecraft readers will recognize the Shining Trapezohedron as a central artifact from the “Haunter of the Dark” and Robert Bloch’s sequel “The Shadow from the Steeple.”

Historical and Literary Inspiration

The historical controversy and dramatic literary appearances of Nitocris provide ample supplemental information to draw from when incorporating Nitocris into your campaign. Familiarity with her background can help Keepers answer questions from Investigators and provide a degree of period-specific historical accuracy to your Egypt Chapter. We will continue our discussion about Nitocris with suggestions about her appearance, actions, and motivations within Masks of Nyarlathotep based upon this wealth of background material.