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"The Narmer Palette: A New Interpretation"

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 23, 2014 12:35 pm    Post subject: "The Narmer Palette: A New Interpretation" Reply with quote

"The Narmer Palette: A New Interpretation" is the title of an essay by David O'Connor in the 2011 book "Before the Pyramids the Origins of Egyptian Civilization" published by the Oriental Institute Chicago and, as the name suggests, proposes a new contextual framework for reading the palette. Scholars have been divided regarding the historical, or lack off, content in the scenes depicted. Some think the scenes relate to historical events (e.g. unification of the two lands) whilst others think they may relate more generally to monarchical rule and power.

The author points out that the mythical Serpopard creatures on Narmer are found on some earlier palettes and have their antecedents in Mesopotamia. That the king is shown barefoot, suggestive of sacred ground, may allude to a divine realm which is parallel to, or above, the events shown (recalling that cow goddesses overlook the scene as well). He describes the sharp separation of order and chaos (called Maat and Isfet in later Egyptian usage) and the apotropaic or protective nature of the imagery. In another aspect the symbolism emphasizes the anarchic energy of Isfet (containing the potential of life) which had to be actualized and harnessed to sustain the cosmos.

He describes how the smiting scene (which has simpler antecedents and is repeatedly used thereafter right through until the Roman period) is just one of a number of depictions on the palette which are also used throughout Egyptian history and what we understand about their later use validates for the author their use in interpreting the contents of the earlier Narmer palette.

Diana Patch has pointed out that the costume the King is wearing as he approaches the decapitated corpses is very rarely depicted by the Egyptians. In combination with other symbols David O'Conner writes that "these elements in their totality symbolize the daily (re-)birth of the sun god Re; Re is not definitely attested at this time, but he or another form of the sun god are likely referred to here." He points out that the Red Crown the king is wearing is also a symbol of sunrise and alludes (through the color of blood and the dawn sky) to the daily battles that that had to be fought, and the enemies of Re who had to be slain, in order ensure the Sun's daily rebirth in the morning sky, commemorating the original creation of the cosmos as well as sustaining it.

Re is described as "eating" his defeated foes in later texts and this, along with the other symbolism used on the palette, leads him to conclude: "Thus, I would suggest that here in this scene Narmer, via his crown and costume, is assuming the identity of one of Re’s divine defenders, and perhaps, at another level, of Re himself, in the context of a royal ceremonial which is seen as analogous to and supportive of these cosmos-shaking and shaping events. This in turn suggests the slaughtered men represent Re’s defeated enemies, laid out neatly as prepared foods for his consumption. Their appearance in fact evokes later descriptions of these maltreated foes, who are described as beheaded, and bled-dry as a result, or as beheaded fish.."

The author thinks that the contents of the palette may therefore have ceremonial and cosmological significance rather than be simply a depiction of an historical event.

My comments:
I don't think a cosmological interpretation excludes history in that the events of one dimension could be viewed as spilling over into another (a form of "as above, so below") and the unification of the two lands (as some interpret the scene) is projected onto, and integrated with, creation itself. Troy (1994) concisely summarizes the Ancient Egyptian "First Times" theology in its solar aspect as being "The appearance of the sun god, and the solar disk, in the created world" as introducing "the possibility of a repeated creation patterned on the First Time. The mechanism is the same, interaction of complementary dualities, with the imagery underlying the interrelationship between creation and recreation." (Cosmos, June 1994, p.21) Though it's from a much, much later period the well known text that describes Egypt as being "the temple of the world" I think is echoed in earlier sentiments that modern people might describe as xenophobic but for Egyptians was a divine reality, i.e. that Egypt was not only the gift of the Nile in a physical sense but was a manifestation of the divine in the spiritual sphere, so whilst the smiting scenes may indeed have had primarily a cosmological significance, it was one that they may have felt was reflected in a key historical event in Egyptian history.

The apotropaic function of such scenes is also paralleled by their psychological function (when they appear on steles) in not only trying to frighten through dramatic imagery potential enemies ("shock and awe") but reassuring their own people that in a hostile world that order would triumph over chaos. There was no United Nations assembly in the ancient times to settle disputes in a violent world and there was no hiding behind sanitized news broadcasts that shelter us from the blood and gore that is at the receiving end of carpet bombing, drone strikes or car bombs.

David O'Conner’s essay gave me new insights into the symbolism that may be employed in Narmer’s palette and it stands in sharp contrast to the crude and one sided explanation of such scenes given by Toby Wilkinson in his book "The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt". His explanation seem designed to evoke disgust in the modern reader but one wonders what the Ancient Egyptians would think of us and what goes on in our world?

Around the time I was reading David O’Conner’s essay a news story broke in my country about how the bodies of aborted children were being used to heat hospitals and I couldn't help compare this with the two tiny still born babies who were wrapped as mummies, given the name Osiris, and found in the tomb of their presumed father King Tutankhamen. Diodorus Siculus described how the Egyptians made mothers who were found to have killed their own babies wear the corpse around their necks for three days as punishment. They were also noted for rescuing baby girls exposed by the Romans and Greeks and one wonders how they would view things which are taken as being "normal" in our modern "civilized" world.
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 26, 2014 6:20 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Iker, your reviews are really worth reading and helpful. Too bad they probably disappear over time in the depths of the forum.

Question @ Kevin : Would it be possible to set up a kind of subfolder "Reviews"? There we could collect book reviews to find them quickly when needed - for example, as a buying decision.

Greetings, Lutz.
Ägyptologie - Forum (German)
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