King Catfish, Also Called Narmer
By Marie Parsons
The unification of Egypt at the end of the Predynastic period took place in two stages: spread of a uniform material culture, as evidenced by the diffusion of products characteristic of the Naqada culture, centered around the city of Naqada, also called Nubt, and the establishment of unified political control. Later Egyptian tradition contains references to the existence of separate northern and southern kingdoms, perhaps at Buto in the Delta and Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt, respectively.
Hierakonpolis has been producing much evidence of its being an important center. It was a major urbanized center of the Naqada culture and a residence of powerful Upper Egyptian chiefs. The two-sided Narmer palette, for example, is interpreted as being a thanks-offering for the successful definitive victory of the southern over the northern kingdoms.
King Narmer is thought to have reigned c. 3150 BCE as first king of the 1st dynasty (and/or last king of the 0 dynasty) of a unified ancient Egypt. The rebus of his name as shown on his palette and on other inscriptions is composed of a chisel, thought to be read mr, above a catfish, thought to be read as n'r. King Narmer, or Catfish as he could also be called, appears thus on seal impressions from the 1st Dynasty tombs of King Den (tomb) and King Ka (Tomb) at Abydos (where we believe he may have himself built a tomb), and also at Tell Ibrahmin Awad. Narmers name and that of his possible predecessor Scorpion have also been found on pottery vessels from the site of Minshat Abu Omar in the eastern Delta. The name of Narmer also occurs in Hierakonpolis on objects in addition to the Palette and Macehead such as potsherds etc.
Narmer's importance as the probable unifier of Lower and Upper Egypt is indicated primarily by the Palette and the Macehead which are attributed to him. His name-rebus appear on both. But his power in the region must have extended further, since Egyptian sherds inscribed with Narmer's name have also been found and in southern Palestine.
The Narmer Palette was discovered by J.E.Quibell at Hierakonpolis in 1897-98. The obverse is divided into three registers, uppermost of which gives his name in a serekh flanked by human-faced bovines. The second register shows Narmer wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt smiting an enemy. The third register shows dead, nude enemies. On the reverse the upper register showing his name-serekh is repeated. The second register shows Narmer now wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, inspecting rows of nude, decapitated enemies. The third register shows a man mastering serpent-necked lions, and the fourth register shows a bull destroying a town and trampling a dead enemy.
Narmer may have considered Buto as the central capital of the Delta he had just conquered. On his palette is a hieroglyphic group that could be read as Ta Mehu, the later name for the Delta region. Since Narmer is shown with the Red Crown he was thus the first to ascribe this Crown to the entire Delta and thus Lower Egypt. He may have transferred the Red Crown from Nubt/Naqada to represent the entirety of Lower Egypt.
The Narmer macehead, also discovered at Hierakonpolis, has had three interpretations. Petrie's theory, also held by later scholars, was that the mace head depicted the political marriage of Nithotep, princess of the north, with Narmer. Other scholars feel the macehead depicts a celebration by Narmer of his conquest of the north, while still others regard the macehead as commemorating a Sed-festival of the king. Nithoteps grave has been found at Naqada, with Narmers name as well as with King Ahas name. Nithotep thus is linked with two kings as wife and mother.
Most recently, new studies of the images on the macehead put forth the theory that the scenes are not primarily commemorative but are simply pictorial versions of year-names. The focus of the scene is the king's figure, seen sitting robed in a long cloak enthroned under a canopy on a high dais, wearing the Red Crown and holding a flail. The enclosure within which he sits can be interpreted as a shrine or temple. He is attended by minor figures of fan-bearers, bodyguards, with long quarterstaves and an official who may be either vizier or heir-apparent. In front of Narmer three men run a race towards him, while above them stands four men carrying standards. Facing the king is a cloaked and beardless figure, over whom is a simple enclosure in which stands a cow and calf (a nome sign).
The running figures may represent Muu dancers, long associated with Buto, presenting a welcome to the new lord of the Delta. The seated figure facing Narmer may be the chief of Buto rather than a princess of the Delta.
Beneath these figures are symbols of numbers. The numbers have been recently interpreted to indicate 400,000 cattle, 1,422,000 small animals, and 120,000 men (not women and children, only males.) This would have provided for a total human population of the Delta of perhaps 600,000.
The macehead then commemorates the completion of the conquest of Lower Egypt, not with a royal dynastic marriage etc, but perhaps, with the first Appearance of the King of Lower Egypt, by an actual census of the Delta people, similar to and a precursor of the census taken by William the Conqueror after he won England.
Some scholars speculate that Menes and Narmer may be the same person. Menes is the Greek form of the name of the legendary first human king of Egypt as given by Manetho, the historian living in Hellenistic times who constructed one form of King Lists.
Jar-sealings found by Petrie at Abydos associate the "mn" glyph, the gaming board, from which Menes apparently receives his name, with Narmer. Narmer was shown in a serekh and Meni was shown in an unenclosed space, like a son and heir.
Hor-Aha, the first king of the 1st Dynasty and thus Narmers probable successor and possibly his son by Queen Nithotep, perhaps took the second royal name of Men, which means "established", thus being the origin of the name Menes.
Evidence indicating all this is an ivory label from the tomb of Queen Nithotep at Naqada. It shows the name Hor-Aha, and the name Men, in front of it.
Sources: The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, Egypt Before the Pharaohs by Michael Rice, Journal of the ARCE, 1990, Narmer: First King of Upper and Lower Egypt, a Reconsideration of His Palette and Macehead, Abstract by Frank Yurco, published in JSSEA #XXV, and Early Egypt: Rise of Civilisation in the Nile Valley by A.J. Spencer