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Ancient Egypt was divided into two parts: 1) the black lands which compromised the fertile valley of the Nile where almost every Egyptian lived and; 2) the red lands–the burning deserts on both sides of the Nile which were virtually uninhabited but which provided gold, copper, stone, and other precious raw materials vital to Egypt’s interest.  The red lands were divided into the Arabian Desert which stretched away east of the Nile to the Red Sea and the Libyan Desert which lay westward and into the trackless Sahara.  The black lands were also divided in two: Lower Egypt consisted of the lush green swamps of the Delta in the north (this territory runs from the 30th parallel to the Mediterranean); Upper Egypt, stretched from Lower Egypt up through the Nile valley into the higher altitudes (hence the name) and terminated at the southern cataracts where the lands of Nubia began.

Egyptian goddess Wadjet (painting from the tomb of Nefertari, ca 1270 BC)

This is important background information for today’s post which concerns the cobra goddess Wadjet and tomorrow’s post about the three crowns of Egypt.  As you may recall from previous posts about the rainbow serpent and Nuwa, I have an abiding affection for snake gods.   Egypt actually had several snake deities but the most important was Wadjet, the ancient cobra goddess who served as protector and patron deity of Lower Egypt.  Originally Wadjet was a local deity of Per-Wadjet, a venerable city on the Sebennytic arm of the Nile (one of several branches which the Nile takes through the Delta).  Per-Wadjet developed from a truly ancient pre-dynastic city of Deb (which in turn came from a Paleolithic settlement over ten thousand years old) and was the sight of a famous oracle renowned throughout Lower Egypt. The Greeks later christened the city as “Buto” and it has been surmised that Wadjet’s oracle may have played some role in the Greek worship of serpent oracles.


When Menes (whom modern scholars increasingly identify as Narmer, the catfish king) united Upper Egypt with Lower Egypt to become the first pharaoh, the culture of the Lower Egypt was largely subsumed, but Wadjet’s role expanded greatly. Wadjet came to represent all of Lower Egypt.  In such a guise she was one of the deities who protected the monarchy and the pharaoh. The symbol of Wadjet was the uraeus, the stylized upright spitting cobra which Pharaohs wore on their brow. But despite her royal trappings, Wadjet also remained the goddess of women in childbirth, who were under her direct protection.

Amenhotep II wearing the Uraeus (painting, ca. 1400 BC)

Wadjet literally means “the papyrus colored one” or “the green one” which was an appropriate designation for the goddess of the Nile Delta.  Our picture of ancient Egypt is often built around the desert, but the Nile Delta is a wet region today and it was even more so during the age of the pharaohs. Great shallow wetlands were filled with papyrus and reeds, which in turn hosted countless fish and waterfowl.  Crocodiles and hippos flourished there in ancient times (as did poisonous snakes).  As with most Egyptian deities, Wadjet’s form was depicted in many different ways:  sometimes she was a cobra or a snake with a woman’s torso.  Other times she appeared as a woman with a snake’s head, a two-headed snake, or a woman wearing the uraeus.  Wadjet was associated with the Milky Way–the primal serpent.  In later dynasties she was elided with sundry other gods and goddesses most notably the goddess Bast.  Wadjet-Bast was a very fearsome deity combining the attributes of a lion and a cobra!

Wadjet as a lion goddess (Carving, ca. 8th century BC)

Wadjet was not merely a deity of this world. The ancient Egyptians were profoundly interested in their place in the afterlife and Wadjet was of critical importance there. To quote, “In the Book of the Dead, Wadjet protects the souls of the deceased by destroying their enemies in the Underworld.”  An ancient myth about Wadjet shows her foremost as a divine protector. Her sacred city Per Wadjet was the location where Isis gave birth to Horus. Set, the evil god of the red desert sought to destroy mother and child, but Wadjet wove stalks of papyrus into a screen and hid the pair beneath this blind deep in her marshes.

A gold amulet of Wadjet (from Tutankhamun's tomb, ca 1320 BC)

Wadjet had a twin sister, the vulture goddess Nekhbet who was the protector and patron of Upper Egypt and was shown as a white vulture. White vultures were symbolic of purity because ancient Egyptians (incorrectly) believed they were all female and reproduced without males. Nekbeht is a fascinating figure in her own right (but I am writing about snake gods—you can go start your own vulture god blog). The two sister goddesses were symbolic of all of Egypt and they frequently appear together and were worshiped as the “two ladies.” Additionally Wadjet was goddess of the red crown of Lower Egypt and Nekhbet was the goddess of the white crown, but that is a subject for tomorrow.

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.

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