Toby Wilkinson

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  • 8/13/2019 Toby Wilkinson


    Egypt Exploration Society

    What a King Is This: Narmer and the Concept of the RulerAuthor(s): Toby A. H. WilkinsonReviewed work(s):Source: The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Vol. 86 (2000), pp. 23-32Published by: Egypt Exploration SocietyStable URL:

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  • 8/13/2019 Toby Wilkinson




    By TOBY A. H. WILKINSONNarmer, the best-attested Egyptian king from the period of state formation, reigned at a time of great social andpolitical change, a time when the modes of self-expression and the mechanisms of rule employed by the govern-ing elite were undergoingrapidand radical reformulation. In other words, Narmerpresidedover a crucial transitionin the concept of the ruler. His reign displays certain features characteristicof Egypt's prehistoric past, but alsosome early examples of the new forms that were to distinguish pharaonic civilisation. A recognition of this di-chotomy brings new insights into the meaning of Narmer's name, the artistic significance of his famous palette,and the identification of the early royal tombs at Abydos.AT the heart of ancient Egyptian civilisation lies the institution of kingship.1 The spectacu-lar achievements of pharaonicEgypt would have been impossible, even unimaginable,withoutthedriving orce of ideology;and that deologycentredon the roleof theking.Thecreationandpromulgationof the institutionof kingship,a conceptso resonant hat it sur-vived for three thousandyears,must rankas the supremeaccomplishment f Egypt's earlyrulers.2Recentyearshavewitnessedthepublicationof numerousstudiesconcerning he forma-tiveperiodof Egyptiancivilisation, hePredynasticoEarlyDynastictransition, lso knownas the era of stateformation.3 thas become increasinglyapparenthatthe institution, de-ology and iconographyof kingshipwere not inventedovernight,at the beginningof theFirstDynasty.Rather, hey evolved over a long periodof time,4beginningas earlyas theNaqadaI Period.5At the end of thePredynasticPeriod,theconceptof the rulerunderwenta radicalreformulation.This was partof a broaderphenomenonof social and politicalchange thataccompanied he birth of the nation state.Among the various rulersattestedduring hisperiod,one standsout:Narmer,whomtheEgyptiansof the FirstDynastyseemtohaveregarded s afounder-figure,6nd whose famousceremonialpaletteservestodayasan icon of early Egypt (fig. 1).Because Narmer'sreignis betterattested han those of his immediatepredecessors7 or,indeed,his immediatesuccessors),it providesa fascinatingwindow on the world of therulingelite as they moved to consolidate their controlof the embryonic Egyptianstate.Narmer's eignillustrates hismomentof historyparticularlywell. Itdisplaysfeatureschar-

    * The author s grateful o MargaretSerpicoand to the two JEAreferees for suggesting improvements o this article.1D. O'Connorand D. Silverman eds),AncientEgyptianKingship ProblemederAgyptologie9; Leiden, 1995).2T. A. H. Wilkinson,Early Dynastic Egypt(London, 1999),183-229.3E.g. A. PerezLargacha,El Nacimentodel Estado en Egipto(Madrid,1993);T. A. H.Wilkinson,State Formation nEgypt.Chronology ndSociety(Oxford, 1996);B. Adamsand K. M. Cialowicz,ProtodynasticEgypt(PrincesRisborough,1997).4 J. Baines, 'Originsof EgyptianKingship', n O'ConnorandSilverman eds),AncientEgyptianKingship,95-156.5 See below,n. 38.6Wilkinson,EarlyDynasticEgypt,66.7 Ibid. 69.

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    FIG. 1. The NarmerPalette (after B. J. Kemp, Ancient Egypt.Anatomyof a Civilization(London, 1989), fig. 12).acteristic both of the prehistoricway of life from which Egypt was emerging,and of thedynasticcivilisation of Egypt'sfuture.An examinationof these featureshelps us to under-stand theprocess by which the conceptof the rulerwas recast at the beginningof the FirstDynasty.Theprocessis mostclearlymanifest n threeaspectsof elite culture:royalnames,royalart,and the royaltomb.

    Royal namesIt is clearthatroyalnames are of greatimportance or understandinghe ideological con-cernsandemphasesof theEgyptian ulingelite. Names in ancientEgyptwerefull of meaning,royalnamesespecially so. Wemay assume that the primarynameadoptedby the king foruse on his monuments,his Horusname, carriedgreat symbolic weight. It expressedthepowermanifest ntheking's personas theearthly ncarnation f thesupremecelestialdeity.Yet, when it comes to the name of Narmer,all attemptsat readingor translationseem tofail.8 The combinationof catfish (which had the readingn'r = nar) + chisel (mr = mer;Gardiner ign-listU23) makes no grammatical ense according o currentunderstanding fthe Egyptian anguage.Thereare furtherproblemsconcerningbothelements of the name.Althoughthe word n'r is attestedin Old Egyptian,9there remains some uncertaintysur-

    8Cf. T. A. H. Wilkinson,'A New Kingin theWesternDesert',JEA81 (1995), 205-10, n. 38.9D.Wentworthhompson,OnEgyptian ish-names sedbyGreekWriters',EA14(1928),22-33,esp.28.

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    NARMERAND THE CONCEPT OF THE RULERrounding hereadingof the catfishsign in theveryearlieststagesof theEgyptianscript.Asfor the chisel sign, its morecommonphoneticvalue in hieroglyphicwas ,b rather hanmr.A further omplicationarises when one considers hatthis secondelementin thewritingofNarmer'sname was more often than not omitted.Clearly,the catfish alone was deemedadequateo write heking'sname.'0 f anyconclusioncanbe drawn rom a studyof Narmer'sname, it is surelythat the reading'Narmer' s erroneous.What, then, does the name sig-nify?A royalname was nothingless thana concise theologicalstatement,expressingthe na-ture of the relationshipbetween the king and the gods. The primarysourceof the king'sauthoritywas theideologythatcasthimasgod on earth.Hence,it is in theideologyof royalpower-and in the associated iconography-that we may find clues to the meaningofNarmer'sname. The aggressive,controllingpowerof wild animals s a common themeinthe elite artof the latePredynasticPeriod. Severalfamousexamplesof carved, voryknife-handlesdepictordered egistersof wildanimals,lleachlinecomprisinganimalsof a distinctspecies, dominatedby a 'controlling'animalof a differentspecies.12Significantly, hese'controlling'animals ncludefish: on the bottomregisterof theBrooklynknife-handle flatside)an unidentified ish controlsa line of oryx;13 n thecorresponding egisterof the Pitt-Riversknife-handle,a catfish controlsa line of ratels.'4Within hebelief-systemof the latePredynasticPeriod,the catfish was evidentlyviewed as a symbolof dominationand con-trol,anideal motif with which to associate theking.15The direct associationof controlling,wild animaland royal ruler is seen in other latePredynastic ontexts. Oneof thetworock-cut nscriptionsat GebelSheikhSuleiman, n theSecond Cataract egionof LowerNubia,shows an outsize scorpionpresidingover a sceneof militaryconquest.16The scorpionclearlyrepresents he victoriouspowerof the (Egyp-tian)ruler.A similarrole maybe attributed o the scorpionmotif which appears n frontofthe king on the ScorpionMacehead.Indeed,the scorpionin this contextis perhapsmorelikely to be an expressionof royal powerrather hana 'name'in the modem sense of thatterm.'7TheScorpionMaceheadmay, n thisway, provideaparallel orthe 'name'of Narmer(andthere aregood stylistic reasons for placingthe ScorpionMacehead and the reign ofNarmer eryclose intime).Sinceattemptso 'read' he nameof Narmerhaveproved ruitless,it maywell be that t is not a 'name'atall,but rathera symbolicassociationof thekingwiththe controlling animalforce representedby the catfish. The 'name'of Narmerseems tofit verywell withinthe ideology andiconographyof late Predynastickingship,a stratumof thought which identified the king with the dominant forces of the wild (see alsobelow).

    10S. Quirke,WhoWere he Pharaohs?(London, 1990), photograph n p. 44.11K. M. Cialowicz, 'Lacomposition,le sens et la symboliquedes scenes zoomorphespredynastiques n relief. Lesmanchesde couteaux',in R. FriedmanandB. Adams(eds), TheFollowersof Horus.StudiesDedicated to MichaelAllenHoffman Oxford, 1992), 247-58.12B. Kemp, 'The Colossi from the EarlyShrine atCoptosin Egypt', CAJ 10 (2000), fig. 14.13Cialowicz,in Friedmanand Adams(eds), The Followersof Horus,fig. 1.14Ibid.,fig. 3.15The catfishevidentlysurvived ntotheearlyFirstDynastyas a powerfulculticsymbol,as it appearsn a processionof cultobjectsbeing presentedoKing Djeron awooden abelfromSaqqara:W. B. Emery,ArchaicEgypt Harmondsworth,1961),59, fig. 21.16W.Needler, 'A Rock-drawingon Gebel Sheikh Suleiman(nearWadiHalfa)Showinga Scorpionand HumanFig-ures',JARCE6 (1967), 87-92.17Cf. the comments of J. MalekandW.Forman, n the Shadowof thePyramids Norman,1986),29.

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  • 8/13/2019 Toby Wilkinson