Egypt: Who Was Menes?

Who was Menes?

By Jimmy Dunn

According to ancient sources, Menes was the founder of a unified Egypt, the first king of the 1st Dynasty. Actually, Menes is the Greek form of the name provided by the third century BC Egyptian historian, Manetho. Alternative forms include Min (provided by Herodotus), Minaios (provided by Josephus), and Menas (provided by Diodorus Siculus), and there are other variations as well.

Front view of the Narmer Palette

It seems almost certain that the various Greek forms of the name render the Egyptian name Mni, found in the Abydos and Turin king lists, although the etymology of the name is problematic. Some have proposed a connection with the verb, "to endure", while others wish to connect it with the Egyptian indefinite pronoun mn, meaning "so-and-so", that is, a substitute for a forgotten name. One scholar, James Allen, has sought to link the name Meni with the Egyptian name of the city of Memphis (Mn-nfr), which Menes is said to have founded.

According to Menetho, Menes founded a dynasty of eight kings from this. Manetho gives Menes a reign of about sixty years (sixty-two years according to Africanus, sixty according to Eusebius). His principal achievement is said to have been the foundation of Memphis, on land reclaimed from the Nile by means of the construction of an immense dike. Manetho reports that Menes campaigned abroad, which we now know is very possible. Diodorus Siculus says that he was the first law-giver and that it was he would establish the divine cults in Egypt. He is also said by Pliny to have invented writing, which is highly improbable. Manetho also tells us that Menes was eventually carried off by a hippopotamus.

What seems clear to us is that Menes must have been another name given to one of the better attested kings of the 1st Dynasty, if he indeed was not a legendary figure composed of several of them. Many scholars do believe that he represents a specific king, but who exactly this might be is an argument almost as old as Egyptology itself. Today, the two primary candidates are Narmer and Aha. We are more certain, though not entirely, that these two individuals reigned successively, with Narmer preceding Aha. If Narmer is considered to be Menes, then Aha would be the second ruler of the 1st Dynasty. Otherwise, Narmer would be the last ruler of the Predynastic Period, or as some have suggested, Dynasty 0.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this discussion is to remember that there has been no absolutely conclusive proof that either of these individuals was Menes, even though many scholars will and have voiced absolute opinions, because their absolute opinions are not unified. We do not know with any certainty who Menes actually was, and we may never have the answer to this question. Furthermore, opinions over the years have swung to and fro.

Narmer's claim rests largely on his earlier historical position and on the Narmer Palette, which has been interpreted as showing the king in the act of conquering Lower (Northern) Egypt.

In 1897 J.E. Quibell had been digging at El-Kab, an important site on the east bank some distance to the north of Edfu. Here the local goddess was the vulture Nekhbet who shared with the cobra Wadjet of Buto in the Delta the honor of providing the Pharaoh with his Two-Ladies title. Nekhbet was representative of upper Egypt, while Wadjet that of Lower Egypt. That year, he found little success, but the next, while just across the river at Kom el-Ahmar, he had more luck. This was known to be the ancient Nekhen mentioned in certain Old Kingdom official titles, and the Greek Hierakonpolis on account of the falcon-god Horus who was the principal deity worshipped there. The great prize he found was the famous slate palette of Na'rmer. It needed but little study to recognize in this object an indisputable link between the late predynastic and the earliest dynastic periods. Apparently, though there is some confusion in the published work of Quibell at Hierakonpolis, he also found in the same deposit fragments of a ceremonial mace head belonging to Narmer and some other mace head fragments inscribed with the name of Scorpion, one of Narmer's predecessors.

The size, weight and decoration all suggest that it was a ceremonial palette, rather than an actual cosmetics palette for daily use. The titulary of Horus Narmer appears on both of its relatively flat faces. The top of both sides are decorated in a similar manner. His name is inscribed in the form of a serekh, situated between two bovine heads. It has been suggested that these heads represent cows, and are an early reference to a Hathor-like cult, but they could also easily be bulls heads, certainly symbolic of Egyptian kingship. Nevertheless, they more likely represent a Hathor goddess, who in some mythology was the mother of Horus, the falcon god who was, at least in later times, manifested in the form of the king. .

Rear of Narmer Palette

Front of Narmer palette

Front and Back of the Narmer Palette

On the front side of the palette, just under the king's name, is a scene depicting Narmer wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. He holds a mace in his left hand, while in his right he holds a type of flail. Before him are the symbols for his name, though not written in a serekh. He is followed by a servant who holds his sandals in his left hand and some kind of basket in his other hand. Above the servant is a symbol of unknown meaning.

Just in front of the king walks another figure who may either have long hair or some sort of unknown headdress. He is also accompanied by symbols of unknown meaning. However, a similar individual with the same symbols can also be found on the ceremonial mace-heads of both Narmer and Scorpion, and they have at times been described as perhaps being shaman, or priests, though their appearance would be very atypical of later Egyptian priests.

Preceding all of these figures are four individual who each hold a standard. The standards include some kind of animal skin, a dog (or perhaps a seth-animal), and two falcons. The emblems might either represent the house of Narmer, or perhaps more likely, regions that already belonged to his kingdom.

This procession is approaching, on the right of the scene, ten decapitated corpses who lie on the ground with their heads tossed between their legs. Above these victims is depicted a ship with a harpoon and a falcon in it. These symbols are usually interpreted as the conquered region. If the symbols for the nomes (provinces of ancient Egypt) remained the same over time, then this could be the region of Mareotis, the 7th Lower Egyptian nome. In front of these symbols is also the wing of a door and a sparrow, which are thought to mean "create" or "found". Therefore, one might speculate that Narmer founded a new province from this conquered land.

The central, largest scene on the front of the palette is an interesting one depicting two men tethering the stretched necks of two fabulous animals. The tying together of the necks of the two animals has often been interpreted as the joining of Upper and Lower Egypt, though in fact there is nothing much to indicate that these two animals were symbolic of southern and northern Egypt. This is a unique image in Egyptian art, and one must remember that the taming of wild animals was a traditional symbolic task of the king.

The scene at the bottom of the palette's front face continues the imagery of conquest and victory. A bull, almost certainly a symbol of the king's vigor and strength, tramples a fallen foe and attacks the walls of a city or fortress with its horns. The name of the city or fortress is written within the walls, but unknown to us.

Most of the back side of the palette is taken up by a central scene, finely carved with highly detailed raised relief. It shows the king, who must certainly be Narmer, in the classical pose found throughout Egyptian history of smiting his enemies with a war mace. He wears a short kilt with a dangling animal's tail, and on his head is what appears to be the White Crown of Upper Egypt.

Behind him we once again find a servant who holds the king's sandals in his left hand and a basket (or perhaps water bottle) in his right. We also see that, around his neck, is probably a cylinder seal for the king. Again, there are signs written behind this man's head that may denote his title, but their exact reading and meaning are unclear.. The fact that the king is represented as barefooted and followed by a sandal-bearer may suggest a ritual nature for the scene depicted on the palette.

The enemy is depicted kneeling before the king, naked but for a slight girdle. Behind the enemy are two signs that include a harpoon and perhaps a lake, the meaning of which is also unclear. It is possible that this represents the origin of the enemy, or where the possible underlying battle took place. However, one must also remember that later in Egyptian history, such scenes were highly symbolic, and need not represent a real event.

Above the enemy's head, facing the king, is what most scholars believe to be a personified marshland, with a mans head rising from it. Out of the land, six papyrus plants are growing, indicating that it was marshland, usually identified as the Egyptian Delta by most scholars. A falcon, symbolic of the king, is perched on top of the papyrus plants and appears to draw the breath of life out of the nostrils of the marshland's face.

While the marshland is often mentioned by those who suppose Narmer to be the uniter of Upper and Lower Egypt, and therefore Menes himself, some cautious scholars have also noted that, at this early time, it could in fact be symbolic of any marsh area, such as the Fayoum. However, we might tentatively believe that this was a region of Lower (northern) Egypt, given the symbolism on the front of the palette.

As a side note, in later times, the papyrus plant was used, though drawn somewhat differently than this, to denote the number 1,000. Some believe that the scene on the Narmer palette only mean that the king subdued 6,000 enemies, but this is a rather unlikely interpretation.

Below this central scene at the bottom of the palette lie two enemies, who have probably fallen in battle. To the left of each is a hieroglyphic-like sign. One is a knot, while the other is apparently a wall. Both signs are usually interpreted as names of places that have been overthrown by Narmer, though we have no real idea of what places these might be.

In his book, Egypt of the Pharaohs, Sir Alan Gardiner tells us that the symbolism of this palette is obvious, but unfortunately, a detailed analysis of it shows that, while there may be some evidence indicating a victory of the south over the north, such evidence is at least somewhat murky. Clearly the palette is overall militarily symbolic, and most likely the enemies who Narmer has overcome are from a marshy region. That Narmer wears what appears to be both the Red and White crown are more convincing, but still not altogether conclusive. Some scholars have pointed out that, while the White and Red Crowns were symbolic of Upper and Lower Egypt, respectively, in later times, at this early period one or both of them could have had other importance.

Na'rmer also made his appearance at Umm el-Ka'ab (Qa'ab) at Abydos, together with the other early dynastic rulers (where their tombs are located). The only other remains of him are votive offerings found in the temple of Hierakonpolis.However as a side note, it seems that Narmer's name was recently discovered incised on a piece of an imported Egyptian wine jar in the Nahal Tillah region of southern Israel by the UCSD archaeological research expedition.

Seal of Aha from the Naqada Tomb

Aha's claim as Menes comes mostly from the hieroglyphs (phonetic mn, sometimes referred to as men) associated with his name on various objects. However, it is uncertain whether there exists an unbroken tradition of knowledge on the part of the Egyptians about the foundational king that could connect the name Mni with any historical person.

Yet, it should be noted that fragments of clay jar seals from Abydos, alternating Narmer and the word or name mn, suggests that mn was a leading person and possibly successor to Narmer. We know the name of Hor-Aha, or Aha, the Fighter or Fighting Hawk, by his name sign appearing in a serekh on a potsherd, now in the British Museum, and by an ivory label from the tomb at Naqada of Nithotep (possibly his mother and the wife of King Narmer, or also possibly his own wife). This label also shows the nbty name Mn in front of the serekh. The reading of the hieroglyphic sign of mn on several ivory tablets belonging to King Aha, and on a plate fragment, has prompted speculation that Aha is Menes. Again, however, many scholars also do not accept that mn equates with Menes.

Section of the seal with the Mn that has led many Egyptologists to believe Menes to be one and the same as Aha

Finally, there is various other evidence, some of which suggests that Narmer may have, for the most part, united Egypt, but that it was his son Aha who solidified this union and established Memphis. Other theories also suggest that Narmer and Aha were one and the same person.

In the end, no one knows, but isn't it interesting that such fine points can be argued about a man or men who lived over 5,000 years ago. One must also keep in mind that much of what we know of Menes was recorded over twenty-five hundred years after his death. It is likely, with new discoveries, that we may find out more about these early giants of Egyptian civilization, but then again, we may never fully know who really was, Menes.






Reference Number

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Clayton, Peter A.


Thames and Hudson Ltd

ISBN 0-500-05074-0

History of Ancient Egypt, A

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None Stated

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ISBN 0-19-815034-2