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An Electric Catfish (Malapterurus electricus)

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.

A Drawing of the Front of the Palette of Narmer

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.

A Drawing of theback of the Palette of Narmer

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get my electric catfish theme across, I failed to mention the beauty and intensity of the Palette of Narmer as both a historical document and as a work of art.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.

Osiris, Enthroned, Judging the Dead

Writing about the ancient Egyptian gods of the underworld brings a dilemma:  unlike the Greeks or the Chinese, the Egyptians loved the gods of the dead.  They believed the afterlife would be a delightful paradise where virtuous souls would be free to pursue their favorite pastimes with friends and family for eternity [coincidentally, does this sound familiar to anyone?].  The ruler of the underworld, Osiris, was one of the most cherished Egyptian gods and he has some claims to primacy within their pantheon.  As god of agriculture, Osiris made grain grow after it was planted and he annually brought life to the Nile (upon his death, he gave his fertility to the river—see the story below).  After being killed, he came back to uncanny magical life with even greater power and he offers a doorway to the glories of the next realm.

To the Egyptians, the god of evil and chaos was the slayer of Osiris—his brother Set, the Lord of the Red Desert.  Set was god of the lands beyond the fertile Nile river bed.  He ruled the scorpion-haunted wastes where no crops would grow, where sand storms and flash floods materialized swiftly out of the baking land.  Like many Egyptian gods, Set has the head of an animal, yet scholars are unsure what that animal is: Egyptologists simply refer to it as the Set animal.

What is that thing? A Rabbit? An Aardvark?

He sometimes also appears as a black pig, a crocodile, or a hippopotamus.

Set slew his brother Osiris in order to gain sovereignty over Egypt.  He then cut the body into pieces which he cast far and wide.  Osiris’ dutiful wife, Isis, gathered the pieces (except for one critical piece which had been thrown into the Nile and eaten by a catfish) and magically reassembled them.  Thoth and Anubis then embalmed Osiris who became the deathless ruler of the next realm.  Osiris’ son, the falcon-headed Horus, took vengeance for his father by reclaiming his throne and castrating Set.  Set was exiled into the desert to become the evil god of drought, dryness, and sandstorm.

Set, as envisioned by a contemporary artist (I think he's carrying a mace rather than a spoon, but, who knows, maybe he's about to attack a pasta salad)

Of course all of this is stereotyping—the civilization of ancient Egypt has a long history.  Osiris and Set were venerated by dynasties and political factions which were very different from each other during their 3,600 year run.  All sorts of changes, hybridization, and confusing paradox crept into their tale.  Archeology seems to indicate that Set was the principal deity of the desert people of Upper Egypt (the dry southern uplands).  When these desert warriors conquered all of Egypt, they adapted the gods of fertile Lower Egypt and made their own deity an outcast.  Nevertheless, worship of Set endured throughout dynastic history.  Set was feared by all and held in particular esteem by the desert folk living at the boundaries of agricultural society.

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