02. Ancient Mediterranean, Art & Humanities

#13. Palette of King Narmer. Predynastic Egypt. c. 3000–2920 BCE. Greywacke.

#13. Palette of King Narmer. Predynastic Egypt. c. 3000–2920 BCE. Greywacke.

Little geography recap before I discuss this piece: Lower Egypt is in the North and Upper Egypt is in the South. The Nile River flows “backwards” thereby confusing the heck out of everyone.

Read more: Student Series! Cities of Shifting Sands


Art Historical Background

Now onto the Palette of King Narmer! There is so much symbolism going on in this piece. The Narmer Palette demonstrates the early notions of power and authority in Ancient Egypt, a concept in art that continues right up to the end of the Egyptian Empire.
In addition to its historical context and intricate content I will breakdown below, I also like to address the fact that the object is self is ceremonial. A “palette” is a stone slab with a circular indentation. Palettes were traditionally used to crush kohl to make the iconic black eyeliner that Egyptians wore which was a protection against the sun’s harsh rays. I like to point this out because ceremonial objects, such as crowns, swords, scepters, books, etc., change their form with the civilization that reveres the object in accordance to their history and culture.

By the way, there are always at least 10 girls in my Humanities class who write blog posts on makeup in Ancient Egypt

Narmer is credited with the unification of Lower and Upper Egypt, an act with is directly illustrated in the Palette of King Narmer. I am going to address the most important symbols splitting it up by sides and registers.

Read more: Ancient Egypt Posts


Back Side, Top Registers

  • At the top are two cows, identified as the goddess Hathor or a precursor to Hathor (the divine mother of all Egyptian kings).
  • In between the cow heads are hieroglyphs of Narmer’s name (catfish = nar + chisel = mer).
  • Dominating the scene is an overly sized man wielding a mace about to strike a man held my his hair, presumably symbolic of Narmer’s enemies; the large man wears the white crown of Upper Egypt (which looks like a bowling pin).
  • Above the kneeling victim is a falcon, typically identified as Horus (protector of the kings).
  • The falcon Horus is sitting on papyrus plants, 6 of them to be exact; this matters because papyrus reeds symbolized the number 1,000. Thereby saying that Narmer haa “conquered 6,000 men.”
  • Lower Egypt is said to have a lot of marshlands where papyrus grows, so it can be assumed that the 6,000 conquered is discussing the fact that Narmer “subdued Lower Egypt” under his control.
  • There is also another little dude behind Narmer carrying sandals, since Narmer is barefoot it can be assumed they are Narmer’s sandals. The act Narmer is performing is a sacrifice for the gods, therefore sacred, so he takes his sandals off out of respect.


Back Side, Lower Register

  • These naked men are typically read as fallen Egyptian enemies & I like to point out that Narmer is literally walking on their graves.
  • The little square in the upper left can be read as a representation of their walled town.


Front Side, Top Register:

  • At the top are two cows, identified as the goddess Hathor or a precursor to Hathor (the divine mother of all Egyptian kings).
  • In between the cow heads are hieroglyphs of Narmer’s name (catfish = nar + chisel = mer).
  • Sandal Bearer all the way to the left holding the king’s sandals (like the front), the king is shown much larger than everyone else (hieratic scale showing importance). This time the king is wearing the crown of Lower Egypt.
  • The procession in front of the king walks towards 10 decapitated bodies with their heads between their legs, the message here is quite obvious.


Front Side: Middle Register

  • These two intertwined mythical feline animals is an analogies of the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt; the harmony and unity of coming together (really the only non-violent part of the palette).
  • Conveniently their intertwined necks also make a depression that would have been the location to crush the khol as discussed above.


Front Side, Lower Register

  • The bull dominating the scene can be interpreted as Namer destroying his enemies (an allegory also used to describe Gilgamesh interestingly enough…)


Next Time: #14. Statues of votive figures, from the square Temple at Eshnunna (modern Tell Asmar, Iraq). Sumerian. c. 2700 BCE. Gypsum inlaid with shell and black limestone.

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