When compared to kings like Thutmose, Hatshepsut, Tutankhamun, or Cleopatra, very little is known about the earliest of Egyptian kings. The hieroglyph signs of their names appear on king-lists, rock-faces, and pottery jars, but the record of their reigns and activities is thus far incomplete. The entries herein do not claim to be all-inclusive. But even this brief picture, whispering their names, seems to return these kings to life.
King Scorpion: This quasi-mysterious chieftain or king in Egypt was popularized in a portion of a recent Mummy movie, and then went on to star in a movie of his own. For that reason alone, he appears here as an indication of the familiar “chasm” between fact, theory, and outright fiction.
During the Predynastic period of Egyptian history, the Upper Egyptian town of Nekhen or Hierakonpolis, dedicated to the ancient god Horus, may have been a center of regional power. There, in the archaeological season of 1897-98, J.E. Quibell and his associate F.W. Green, uncovered a fragmented, and incomplete, macehead. Maceheads are among the earliest symbols of ancient royal power in Egypt, and throughout its Pharaonic history, were included in relief carvings as the weapon used by the king to smite Egypt’s enemies. This macehead is larger in size than the one attributed to King Narmer.
Because of the carvings on the Scorpion macehead, it has been attributed to a chieftain or king, named Scorpion. While even at this early period some kingly names such as those of “Ka” and “Crocodile” appear within a serekh—and the serekh continued to hold the king’s names through the first several recorded dynasties, Scorpion’s name, as indicated by a figure of a scorpion, never appears within a serekh.
The macehead, now in the Ashmolean Museum in Britain, depicts a man wearing the now familiar white crown of Upper Egypt. Clothed in ritual dress, with a bull’s tail hanging from the back of his belt, the chieftain towers over his attendants. He seems to be performing a ceremony using a hoe, perhaps for farming, or breaking ground for a temple or city.
Narmer: According to Manetho, who compiled the dynastic history during the Ptolemaic period of Egypt, King Menes unified Upper and Lower Egypt. It is possible that Narmer and Menes were one and the same, which would make Narmer the first king of Egypt. It may also be possible that Menes and Aha (perhaps the son and heir of Narmer) were one and the same.
Menes is known from the Abydos and Turin king lists, and Narmer’s name appears first on a seal impression that lists the first kings and Meryneith. In addition, an ivory label, found in the Naqada tomb of Queen Neithotep, bears the name Meni, also perhaps indicating Narmer was Menes.
Narmer’s most familiar monuments are a large two-sided palette and a macehead, smaller in size than the one attributed to Scorpion. Both palette and macehead contain Narmer’s name in rebus. The palette rests in the Cairo Museum, while the macehead rests at the Ashmolean at Oxford in the United Kingdom.
The Narmer Palette was discovered by J.E. Quibell at Hierakonpolis in 1897-98. On one-side, it depicts Narmer wearing the white crown of Upper Egypt, smiting an enemy. On the reverse side, he is depicted wearing the Red Crown of Lower Egypt, inspecting rows of decapitated enemies. Since he wears the crowns of each of the Two Lands, this seems to bear out that he reigned over a united Egypt.
The Narmer macehead was also discovered at Hierakonpolis. The scene it depicts has been interpreted in three differing ways. Petrie and others think the scene depicts a political marriage between Neithotep, a princess from Lower Egypt, with Narmer from Upper Egypt. Whatever the circumstance of a royal wedding, Neithotep’s grave was found at Naqada in Upper Egypt. Within it was found an ivory label, which includes the name Aha and Men—father and son, perhaps. Other scholars think the macehead scene depicts a celebration by Narmer of his military conquest of Lower Egypt. The third theory regards the macehead as commemorating a royal jubilee, or Sed-festival. Most recently, new studies of the macehead result in a theory that the scenes are not commemorative of any event, but instead, are simply representations of year-names. The king’s figure sits under a canopy on a high dais. He is robed in a long cloak, holds the flail, and wears the Red Crown. He is attended by fan-bearers, body-guards, and an official who could be a vizier. Three men race towards him, and others above them carry standards. A cloaked figure sits in an enclosure facing the king.
The serekh of Narmer’s name has been found on pottery from the east Delta, carved into the rocks on the trade route from Coptos to Quseir, and in Palestine at several locations. While no specific evidence has been found anywhere of any military action under Narmer, it seems apparent that trade relations continue throughout the region.