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il_340x270.521166662_98j8The roots of our third most popular topic go back 5500 years to pre-dynastic Ancient Egypt! In those times, the upper kingdom of Egypt (which spread along the Nile banks in the arid highlands to the south) was an entirely separate civilization from the fertile lower kingdom in the north. Sometime around 3100 the kingdoms were united under one ruler—the first pharaoh. The extremely silly yet very beautiful white crown of Upper Egypt—which looked like a narrow white flower bulb–was combined with the even sillier and even more beautiful red crown of Lower Egypt which looked like a flared cylinder with a spiral bee proboscis sticking out of it. The white crown was (and is?) the sacred emblem of the white vulture goddess Hedjet whereas the red crown was connected with Wadjet the pretty cobra goddess. Together these crowns became the emblem of the god king pharaoh for 3000 years.

The combined white and red crowns of upper and lower Egypt!

The combined white and red crowns of upper and lower Egypt!

You can read all about the crowns and their symbolism in the original post, but perhaps you are asking why I write so much about crowns anyway (my mom, a stalwart free American citizen always wonders about it). I find it fascinating that humans endow so much status and power in individuals. The crowns of emperors, pharaohs, kings, princes, and sundry other royal conquerors/hucksters are the absolute embodiment of this tendency to invest mythical potency and authority in other people. Crowns are ancient storied jeweled symbols of the fact that we think other people are better than us. The sacred headdresses accumulate astonishing histories:  yet, in and of themselves, they are also remarkably absurd.  It boggles the mind that people will do anything just because someone is wearing a cylinder of metal with squiggles or shiny stones upon their head.

Yeah, this makes sense.

Yeah, this makes sense.

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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