THE NARMER PALETTE

by
Francesca Jourdan


This is the translated English version. The original text was written in French for the course at Université du Québec à Montréal, taught by the historian Michel Guay. For other languages, please see the available translations below.
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Around 3000 B.C., Egypt emerged from the twilight of prehistory as one country, united under the single rule of a divine king. Before that, it is generally assumed that the country was divided in two parts : Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. According to an Ancient Egyptian legend, it was an Upper Egyptian king named Menes who first united these "Two Lands". From then on, the Egyptian kings would rule Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt and one of the many names used for the country would be "Two Lands", reflecting the original duality of Egypt. The identification of Menes with one of the archaeologically attested kings of Early Dynastic Egypt has been a matter of debate among Egyptologists for quite a long time and has not yet been resolved. Some identify Menes with Narmer (3300 - 3100 B.C.), others with his probable son, Aha and others yet still see him as a mere legendary figure. The most important document pertaining to the unification of Egypt is the Narmer Palette.

The Narmer Palette, now one of the many exhibits at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, was discovered in 1898 by the archaeologist James E. Quibell in the Upper Egyptian city of Nekhen (today's Hierakonpolis), believed to be the Pre-Dynastic capital of Upper Egypt. Quibell was excavating the royal residences of various early Egyptian kings at Hierakonpolis in Upper Egypt when he discovered that large ceremonial palette of King Narmer with other objects.

The palette, which has a shield-shape, is decorated on both sides. It was once erected for display in the temple of Horus in Nekhen. The Narmer Palette was cut out of one piece of dark-green-coloured schist, approximately 64 cm (or 23 in.) in height and dates to approximately 3200 B.C. It has survived intact. The palette was a votive or gift offering by the King to his "father", the god Amun-Ra. Not only does it hold one of the oldest known specimens of Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic writing, its well-preserved decoration also shows us a chapter of Ancient Egyptian history : the unification of Egypt. This is announced in a very clear and simple way : in the front, the sovereign is wearing the White Crown of Upper Egypt, and in the back, the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. Narmer would then be the first kiing to reign over both lands.

Despite its small size, this document is one of the most important sources informing us about Early Dynastic Egypt. It marked an early example of a prevalent trend in Egyptian art to glorify the king. The message is conveyed not through narrative but through symbolic imagery and relies on some basic artistic conventions. The Egyptians had a marvelous knack for distilling an idea to its purest form in an abstract and powerful way.

The Narmer Palette reveals several important social aspects about how the Egyptians lived and were structured. It reveals the meaning of hierarchy of Egyptian life. It has been suggested that the art, which developed during those years, which showed the king as a distant figure, away from his subjects, was the correct view of the ever-growing power of the king. "L'association d'une élite s'exprime par la concentration des biens. Elle se traduit, dans les structures mentales, par une sorte d'exaltation de la violence qui, loin de traduire simplement des évènements réels, sublime la force et la puissance, trahissant la constitution d'une idéologie dont se générera l'image du pharaon" (Midant-Reynes, 1992).

The Palette also shows their value in recording historical events - with such items of war and political power struggles being 'newsworthy' events. It would be a mistake however, to read the Narmer Palette as a mere tale of conquest. Through military conquests however, Narmer was able to lay the political foundations of the kingship which endured thereafter as long as a king wore the two crowns. The actual finding of a palette proves that the Ancient Egyptians had established a written form of communication, now known as the Egyptian hieroglyphs. The palette was depicted however by Egyptian scribes using a complex combination of ideograms and phonetic signs.

The recto of the Narmer Palette is divided into two scenes.

Above the top scene, the king's name is written inside a serekh (ancestor of the cartouche), flanked on each side by a cow's head, in exactly the same manner as on the back.

The top scene takes up most of the recto of the Narmer Palette. Dominating the scene is a large figure of the king, with a ceremonial beard and wearing the White Crown (which is said to represent Upper Egypt), as well as the symbolic bull's tail. All the important features of the body are present : the whole eye is seen within the profile of the face; shoulders, arms and hips are frontal while the legs and feet are in profile. A solid and static, almost monumental feeling is obtained by having the weight evenly divided on both legs with one leg well in advance of the other. In his right hand the king wields a mace, ready to smash the skull of a kneeling man (possibly a Libyan) whom he holds by the hair with his left hand. The name of this kneeling man (wash) written in hieroglyphs above his head suggests that he may have been important or that it may be referring to a group of people. Above the victim's head and in front of Narmer's face, the falcon Horus of Nekhen - symbol of Egyptian royalty and protector of the king - is sitting upon the plants of a personified papyrus marshland. The papyrus blossom in early hieroglyphs stands for the numeral one thousand - this group therefore means that the king had captured six thousand enemies. This is frequently used to symbolise Lower Egypt. Therefore the meaning of this part of the scene is quite clear : the Upper Egyptian king tramples the Lower Egyptian marshlands. As on the back, Narmer is followed by a smaller person carrying his sandals. He is thus walking on sacred ground and is barefoot out of respect for the gods and goddesses, in order to perform the ritual act of execution. Narmer, in this way, may be dedicating his victim to the gods and goddesses perhaps thanking them for their help in conquering his foes.

Below the feet of the king, below the main scene, are two naked, fallen Deltaic enemies lie helplessly on the ground, and a representation of their walled town. They too confirm the victorious imagery repeated all over the Narmer Palette.

The back of the Narmer Palette is divided into three levels.

Above the top level, the king's name, "Narmer" (n'r - fish, and mr - chisel, which translates into 'Catfish'), is written inside a serekh. This serekh is flanked on each side by a cow's head, possibly a reference to either the goddess Hathor or another named Bat ["it is doubtful that there was even a goddess named Bat, although she may have been a nome deity" (Jonathan Van Lepp, personal communication)], often represented as a cow. If they do represent one, she would be the oldest known goddess of Ancient Egypt. The association of Hathor, usually represented with inwards horns, and as mother of the king is seen in most of the Egyptian art and literature. Its disposition in the upper part of the palette gives it a celestial character and prooves the high esteem of the pharaoh towards her. The Narmer Palette displays the earliest known representation of Hathor with the king.


On the left hand side of the top level, the king, followed by a smaller figure carrying his sandals - known as the Sandal Bearer - is represented wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt. In his left hand, he holds a mace, in the other a flail, symbol of his royalty. His name is repeated just before his face. He is preceded by his vizir, and by a female figure called Tjet, holding a kind of sceptre in her left hand. All the people are represented smaller than the king. The entire procession is walking towards ten decapitated bodies - divided in two rows of five persons each, lying on the ground, with their disembodied heads between their legs.They represent the king's vanquished enemies.

In the central scene, two persons tie together the elongated necks of two feline animals, which could be alluding to panthers, symbol of the eastern and western heavens. The two felines are often interpreted as the two parts of the country tied together, since they simbolise harmony and unity. It is believed that the circular depression created by the curved necks may have used to hold or make cosmetics on the palette - if ever it was really used to handle cosmetics.

In the bottom scene, the Apis bull is represented trampling a scared, naked bearded Deltaic foe. The symbolism of this scene is made clear : the bull represents the king's masculinity and vigorous power, while destroying his enemies with the force of a strong bull. Some later kings would add a title such as "Victorious Bull" to their titulary.

The dominant theme however is the victory of the god incarnate over the forces of evil and chaos. The king's role was that of the preserver of unity of land and to overcome the enemies of Ma'at, goddess of Truth, Order and Justice.

The unification of Egypt was not the work of one single man, but, like most important historical events, a process of time and evolution - of which alliances and marriages were part. Somewhere at the end of the Fourth Millennium B.C., the unification of Upper Egypt became a fact. "Replacée dans cette analyse, l'unification apparaît moins comme une conquête que comme un phénomène d'assimilation du Nord par le Sud; mais dans ce processus la guerre constitue l' une des composantes. Parce qu'elle est valorisante pour le vainqueur, elle sera exaltée plus que tous les autres ingrédients de l'unification ..." (Midant-Reynes, 1992).

The interpretation of the Narmer Palette seems clear : Narmer is represented wearing both Egyptian crowns; he conquers lands and overthrows the enemy. He is inspecting the victims of his war. The Narmer Palette deals with a war, but also dramatically indicates one of the most important events in the history of Ancient Egypt : the unification of the two lands, the first attestation of this event.


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REFERENCES

Midant-Reynes, Béatrix, 1992. Préhistoire de líÉgypte. Des premiers hommes aux premiers pharaons, Paris : Armand Colin Éditeur.

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