Narmer: 10 Facts on the First Egyptian Pharaoh

The origins of Egyptian civilization remain obscure. For most of the earliest kings, only their names survived. Here are 10 facts we know about Narmer, the first Egyptian pharaoh.

Jan 18, 2022By Sebastian Maydana, PhD History, MA Archaeological Studies, BA History
king narmer palette statue

 

The Early Dynastic period of Egypt is, despite its importance for the development of Egyptian civilization, still poorly known. Only the names of a few obscure rulers have survived, and what little we know about them we owe to later sources which may not be accurate. However, one name stands out: Narmer. Ancient sources agree that he was the first king, the one to unify Upper and Lower Egypt into one kingdom. Here, we will explore the legacy of history’s first Egyptian pharaoh.

 

10. Narmer Was (Probably) the First Egyptian Pharaoh

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The only known statue of king Narmer, 1st dynasty, via University College in London

 

The main source for early Egyptian kingship is the so-called Palermo Stone, a black granite slab engraved with the names of the kings of Egypt up to the 5th Dynasty. It also contains year by year records of the height of the annual flood, details of festivals held that year, and other important annual events such as wars and constructions. Unfortunately, only a few fragments have survived, and they are currently held in Palermo, Italy, Cairo, Egypt, and London, Britain.

 

The part of the stone where the name of the first king of the 1st Dynasty is inscribed is lost. So is his successor, although it is generally accepted that the first king was Narmer and the second one was Aha. Among Egyptologists, there is consensus that Narmer was the founder of the 1st Dynasty, but discussion arises periodically because, despite this hypothesis being the most likely, there is simply not enough evidence to assert it beyond any doubt.

 

9. His Name Literally Means Chisel-Fish

narmer seal engraving fish hitting enemies
Seal inscription of Narmer as a fish, by Henry Whitehouse, 2002, via Narmer.org

 

Ancient Egyptians had an ideographic writing system, which means pictures can be read both as ideas and as phonemes. The name of Narmer is composed of two ideograms, the catfish (which is read as Nar) and a chisel (Mer). A chisel and a catfish are engraved in the famous Narmer palette, next to the figure of the king, and that is how we can identify him. But in Egypt, the name and the person were one and the same, so in other depictions, such as a cylindrical ivory seal found in Abydos, we can see King Narmer in the form of a catfish fighting the enemies of Egypt. Right below the fish holding a spear, there is a hieroglyph of a chisel, allowing for the identification of the Egyptian pharaoh.

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8. His Body Was Never Found

mastaba tomb metropolitan museum
A reconstructed mastaba tomb from the Old Kingdom, ca. 2381-2323 BCE, via the Metropolitan Museum in New York

 

The location of Narmer’s body has eluded archaeologists for two centuries now. The first Egyptian pharaohs used to build a type of tomb called a mastaba, a mudbrick structure named after the Arabic word for bench. Every king during the Old Kingdom was buried inside a mastaba, until the end of the 3rd Dynasty, when they started building pyramids. So, it was theorized that Narmer was buried in one of the many mastabas in the mastaba fields in Saqqara. But, as there are none that bear the name of Narmer, it was never proven.

 

Later on, Egyptologists discovered a large field of Predynastic and Early Dynastic royal tombs in Umm el-Qaab, a site near Abydos. It was professor Werner Kaiser, of the German Archeological Institute in Cairo, who in 1964 identified the name of Narmer in an inscription found in Umm el-Qaab. However, the site had suffered severe disturbances and tomb-robbing during the past 5,000 years, and artifacts bearing the name of Narmer were found scattered throughout the site, making it impossible to know which one was the precise location of the tomb of Narmer. To this day, archaeologists and Egyptologists disagree on whether Narmer was buried in Saqqara or in Umm el-Qaab, and this question is bound to remain unanswered as long as the body of the Egyptian pharaoh is missing.

 

7. The Greeks Called Him Menes

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Portrait of Herodotus, by Samuel Freeman, 1830, via the British Museum

 

It is by no means a proven fact that Menes and Narmer were the same person. In fact, scholarly opinion seems to be divided on this. The truth is, when the Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt around 445 BCE, he collected the names of the kings from the beginning, and the first of them was Menes. There is no mention of a Narmer in Herodotus’ Histories, so it is only natural to assume Narmer and Menes were the same person. The problem is, Herodotus made his journey into Egypt during the Late Period of Egypt, that is, roughly 2,500 years after Narmer/Menes lived. Furthermore, Egyptian pharaohs assumed many names during their lifetime.

 

The great Egyptologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie claimed that Narmer and Menes were but two different names for the same person. Narmer had been his birth name, and Menes an honorific title. Another ancient historian, Manetho, a Greek-speaking priest who was born in Egypt during Greek rule, wrote his Aegyptiaca (the History of Egypt) in the 3rd century BCE. He claimed Menes was the name of the first Egyptian pharaoh, who supposedly founded the 1st Dynasty after unifying Egypt around 3,200 BCE. Manetho and Herodotus differ on the length of his reign, on the date, and on the names of his successors, but they do agree in that he was the first king and on how he died.

 

6. The First Egyptian Pharaoh Was Killed by a Hippopotamus

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‘William’ the hippopotamus, fayence statue, ca. 1981-1885 BCE, via the Metropolitan Museum in New York

 

Hippopotamuses were, and still are, the most dangerous mammal in the world. Egyptian kings usually depicted themselves fighting these magnificent beasts, in order to prove their worth. Although later pharaohs did not engage in hunts of this kind, it is most probable that the earliest kings did in fact need to go on an actual hunt to prove to their subjects they were worthy of their support and taxes. This is why Manetho’s account of the reign of Menes ends with the statement “He was carried off by a hippopotamus and perished”. To be killed by a worthy beast is no embarrassment for an Egyptian pharaoh. However, Egyptians never spoke, let alone wrote, about their leaders’ ends. So it was only during the Hellenistic Period that a Greek priest could write it down. That is how we know of the death of Narmer.

 

5. He Imposed the Pharaoh’s Fashion

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Detail of sandal bearer from the Narmer palette, 31st century BCE, via Egypt’s Ministry for Tourism and Antiquities

 

Egyptian pharaohs appear in depictions with a number of defining attributes. The uraeus, a golden cobra they wore as a tiara, was a later addition. The red crown of Lower Egypt and the white crown of Upper Egypt were already worn by Predynastic kings of Egypt. But the first one to be portrayed with both crowns (symbolizing the union of the Lower and Upper Egypt) and the rest of these defining royal attributes, was Narmer. In the famous Narmer palette, he is seen wearing the fake bull (later it was a dog’s) tail, which symbolized the strength needed to rule the country of the Nile. He also wears the shendyt, a kind of kilt or loincloth typical of the ruling class.

 

It was the first time a ruler portrayed themselves wearing the royal beard, which every Egyptian pharaoh wore, including the infamous beard of Tutankhamun. Finally, it should be noted that he is seen followed by an official who has the most important task of carrying the pharaoh’s sandals. Egyptian pharaoh’s sandals were the only piece of clothing that separated them from the land of Egypt, and rightly symbolized the union between heaven, the godly world, and earth, the human world. Tutankhamun’s sandals were inscribed with pictures of his enemies, meaning that with every step he was crushing the enemies of Egypt. But it was Narmer who started the fashion of Egyptian pharaohs wearing a special kind of magical sandals.

 

4. Narmer Was a Warrior

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Drawing of the Narmer macehead, by Kathryn Bard, 1992, via Narmer.org

 

Surviving accounts, including Herodotus and Manetho’s, portray Narmer as an expert military chieftain. The kingdoms of Lower and Upper Egypt had been fighting for centuries before Narmer managed to subdue the North (Lower Egypt) and impose his rule over the whole of the Nile Valley. Artifacts such as the Narmer palette, the Narmer macehead (which is a weapon in itself), and a number of inscriptions, seals, and ivory tablets, show him killing enemies without mercy.

 

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Detail of the Narmer Palette, 31st Century BCE, via Wikimedia Commons

 

The Narmer palette shows him grabbing an enemy by their hair and wielding a mace in the other hand, about to strike a final blow. On the other face of the palette, two rows of prisoners have been beheaded and king Narmer walks toward them as part of a victory procession. We have already talked about how he killed enemies in the form of a fish, and according to Manetho he “led the army across the frontier and won great glory”. Egyptologists now think this meant that he reached Palestine, as a number of serekhs with the name of Narmer have been found in southern Israel.

 

3. He Was a Founder Too

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King Scorpion holding a plow, currently at the Ashmolean Museum, London, via Brown University

 

According to Manetho, again, Narmer founded many towns that would later come to be great Egyptian cities, such as Memphis, the first capital of the unified kingdom. He probably founded the city of Hierakonpolis, called Nekhen in Egyptian antiquity, where he instituted the cult of Horus, the first state-wide religious cult. The founding of cities was a crucial part of being an Egyptian pharaoh, and many of the earliest kings were shown proudly wielding the plow, a symbol for city foundation. Ritually, the king would mark the place where a settlement was to be made by drawing a rut in the land close to the River Nile. Then, builders would start setting up the foundations of official buildings such as temples and royal palaces. A granary was also built, in order to hoard the precious grain that could be distributed in the event of a drought or other calamities.

 

2. He Unified the Country

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The back of the Narmer palette, by James Quibell, 1898, via Narmer.org

 

The Narmer palette shows, on its backside, a strange scene involving two long-necked quadrupeds. These are called serpopards by Egyptologists because they are a hybrid between a serpent and a leopard. In this case, two royal officials pull ropes attached to the serpopards’ necks, which are intertwined. This scene is usually interpreted as a metaphor for the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt, the deed Narmer is most famous for. The kingdom of Egypt would stand unified for millennia, with three Intermediate Periods of contested kingship. Not only was it long-lived, but it was also the first state in Africa, and one of the first territorial states in the history of mankind. Narmer was the Egyptian pharaoh responsible for this pivotal event in world history.

 

1. Narmer Was Well Regarded by Later Egyptian Pharaohs

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The ruins of Hierakonpolis, by Baron Dominique-Vivant Denon, 1802, via the Royal Academy of London

 

The Narmer palette, which we have talked about extensively, was found among other important objects in the so-called “Main Deposit” of the Temple of Horus in Nekhen (Hierakonpolis). Its discoverers were James Quibell and Frederick Green, two of the most important early 20th century CE explorers of Egypt. They published their results in 1900, but although they were disciples of Flinders Petrie, their recordings of the dig were not very accurate. Thus, we will never know the exact place where the palette was found. This is important in order to date the Temple, which in any case was built centuries after Narmer lived. The practice of burying votive and ritual objects in the foundations of temples was widely accepted throughout Egyptian history, and the artifacts buried were usually important objects that belonged to previous Egyptian pharaohs who were well-regarded. In this case, the founders of the Temple of Horus believed Narmer to have been the most important Egyptian pharaoh, whose image would protect the Temple and its visitors for centuries to come.



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By Sebastian MaydanaPhD History, MA Archaeological Studies, BA HistorySebastian F. Maydana holds a PhD in History from the University of Buenos Aires, and is an assistant teacher at the Institute of Ancient Near Eastern History (UBA). His main interests are early Egyptian mythology and visual culture, especially petroglyphs and other forms of art. He has participated in fieldwork in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. Sebastian is also interested in the different forms in which myths and symbols from the past are received and repurposed by our modern-age societies, for instance in film and science fiction.