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The catfish family Malapteruridae, commonly known as the electric catfish consists of about twenty different species of fish indigenous to Africa. Various species range from the Nile basin south deep into tropical Africa. The largest species is Malapterurus electricus which grows to 39 inches long and weighs up to 40 pounds. While most varieties of catfish have electroreceptive sense organs with which to determine the presence and nature of living things in dark and turbid underwater conditions, the electric catfish also possesses an electrogenic organ capable of producing a powerful jolt of electricity (up to 350 volts in some species). This electricity is derived from anterior body musculature which lines the catfish’s body cavity. The shock is powerful enough to knock over a grown man, although it has never been known to be fatal to humans.
Malapterurus electricus was well known to the ancient Egyptians. One of the earliest artifacts to utilize hieroglyphs, the extraordinary Palette of Narmer, depicts the electric catfish in a central location on both sides. The dense siltstone palette dates from 3100 BC and it depicts Egypt’s first pharaoh, King Narmer. On the front of the palette, King Narmer is shown wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt–the desert fastnesses to the south. On the palette’s back he is portrayed walking among beheaded enemies and wearing the red crown of Lower Egypt–the rich delta land of swamps and fertile black earth. The object was found in Nechen, a community which had been inhabited for thousands of years before King Narmer united the two kingdoms. Nechen later became a major center for the worship of Horace, the god of the pharaohs.
Why is the catfish in such a prominent place on the palette? King Narmer’s name was an elision of two hieroglyphs “n’r” and “mr”. N’r stands for catfish, and mr stands for chisel. So the first godking of Egypt was literally named “Catfish-chisel” which is exactly what the symbol on the palette consists of. Here is a longer account of the history and milieu of King Catfish from an Egyptian website (the site calls Nechen by its Greek name of Hierakonpolis).
P.S. In trying to get my electric catfish theme across, I failed to mention the beauty and intensity of the Palette of Narmer as both a historical document and as a work of art. You should check out the link above or Google it.