Genesis of the Pharaohs: Genesis of the ‘Ka’ and Crowns?
by Timothy Kendall, American Archaeologist
In his Genesis of the Pharaohs, Toby Wilkinson shines new light on the Predynastic by demonstrating that the majority of rock drawings in the Eastern Desert of Upper Egypt date to Naqada I (c. 4000–3500 BC). Since the petroglyphs depict wild African fauna, hunters with bows and dogs, and men herding cattle, it is clear that the now nearly lifeless region up to 100 km east of the Nile between Quft and Hierakonpolis was at this time a well-watered, well-populated, game-rich savanna. That the rock artists were not mere isolated pastoralists but also part-time Nile dwellers is evident because their works commonly include boats. This implies that the artists probably moved from river to range in seasonal cycles. Because of this, and the fact that so many of the drawings echo subjects in later Egyptian art, Wilkinson makes a compelling case that the rock artists were the ancestors of the dynastic Egyptians. His conclusion: “the heavy reliance of these people on herding and hunting rather than agriculture suggests that their roots — and indeed the roots of Egyptian civilization — lay not so much along the Nile but in the pre-arid Sahara.”
Although Genesis, in its first chapter, is written in a somewhat off-putting travel-magazine style, it soon changes voice and becomes a serious re-examination of a prehistoric artistic corpus long known but largely neglected by modern scholars. For the serious reader, the book leaves many questions unanswered, but I found many of its insufficiencies more than filled by Wilkinson’s magisterial Early Dynastic Egypt (1999). I thus highly recommend that both books be read together. The author deserves high praise for both of them, and we can only hope that Genesis is his popular prelude to a new volume called Predynastic Egypt. As one who has never worked extensively either in Egypt or with the Predynastic, I presume I was asked to review Genesis because I was identified as someone who might be able to place its conclusions in a wider geographical context that includes the Sudan, where I have worked since 1986. Indeed, as I read the book, two important issues came to mind which the author did not develop, and I thought I would offer my thoughts on these subjects here as addenda to Genesis.
One is the question of the origin of the royal ‘ka’ and the other concerns the origin of the red and white crowns. Wilkinson presents strong evidence that Naqada I was an archetypal representative of the traditional African cattle-culture, a type of society that still exists in a remarkably pure form in the southern Sudan, despite years of civil war. Among Sudanese Nilotes, cattle are raised as symbols of wealth, as the medium for all social transactions (like marriage), and as sources of renewable food (blood and milk). The people rarely kill cattle for meat, which they obtain by hunting wild game. Wilkinson’s overview of the evidence for Naqada I transhumance and cattle burial, coupled with his analysis of the rock art, suggests that Egyptian civilization sprang from a society of broadly similar characteristics. Cows with artificially deformed horns, so common among Nilotes today, are often featured in the early rock art of Egypt and Sudan as well as in Egyptian dynastic art (Kendall 1989, 680–88, fig. 1, 9–12). Even the historic Egyptian symbols of royal office — the crook and the flail — recall a time when the king was seen as the chief herdsman of his people.
Wilkinson draws striking parallels between elements of iconography in the rock art and Egyptian art motifs even two thousand years later in date. From this he concludes not only that these motifs must have had common meanings throughout this time span but also that the rock artists were themselves Egyptians. In one case, I think, we can push Wilkinson’s thesis even farther. Some of the interrelated motifs of the rock art have meanings that in dynastic art were based on word-play. This not only suggests that the words were the same in the early Predynastic but also that the rock artists spoke Egyptian. This can be demonstrated by the apparent petroglyphic allusions to the word ‘ka’, one of the primary concepts of ancient Egyptian civilization.
The rock art commonly portrays a male figure with a pair of plumes on his head, sometimes with a visible or erect phallus. This is obviously the god Min, who in dynastic times was the chief deity of Coptos and had major importance to the Eastern Desert nomads and the desert-crossing ‘Medja’ Nubians as far south as ‘Punt’ (Gundlach 1980; Giuliani in press). In the rock art it is not always clear whether the double-plumed figure represents the god or a human leader (Genesis, figs. 42, 44, pl. 11). The same ambiguity is present in dynastic times, where we find the king often described or represented as the god (Faulkner 1969, 59, 282, 287–8; Habachi 1963, 51–2). In the historic Min cult the god was often merged with his son Horus (i.e. the king) (Gundlach 1980). This tendency to blur the distinction between god and ruler had to do with the Egyptians’ conception of their king as the god’s bodily son and living manifestation. At times, god and king were thought to be merged in one physical being (i.e. the king’s body), which was called the ‘ka’ (Bell 1985; 1997). The ‘ka’ was the king manifested as the god, and vice versa. In Egyptian writing, the ‘ka’ concept was expressed with a hieroglyph showing a pair of upraised arms (Gardiner 1969). But the word ‘ka’, expressed with a bull hieroglyph (Gardiner 1969, E 1, 2), also meant ‘bull’. In this case, the word also implied male sexual power and fertility. In historical times both meanings and both spellings formed puns on each other.
A common feature of Nilotic cattle cultures is the intense relationship formed by men with particular bulls or oxen (Kendall 1989, 681 [refs]). These animals are given their owners’ names and identities to such an extent that they are conceived as alter-egos of their owners. Each man is known as the ‘father’ of his bovine pet, and the pet is his ‘child’ (Kronenberg 1961, 260–61). In the second century BC, Agatharcides recorded that the Trogodytes (descendants of the Medja and ancestors of the modern Sudanese Beja) considered bulls to be their ‘fathers’ (Burstein 1989, 111). The ancient Egyptians would have said that such animals were the ‘kas’ (‘spirit doubles’) of their owners.
As stated above, a Nilote will rarely kill his bovine pet for meat. He will, however, obtain meat for his group by means of hunting expeditions, which he will organize specifically in the name of his favorite beast (Kronenberg 1961, 266–7). This practice makes one think that the hunting scenes depicted in the rock art may have commemorated expeditions held in honour of particular favoured cattle and that the drawings themselves may have been executed as permanent memorials to the animals. Wilkinson (Genesis, p. 101) cites many Predynastic cemeteries in Middle and Upper Egypt in which oxen were specially buried, or buried next to individual humans. This suggests that close man–cattle relationships of the Nilotic variety existed among the early Egyptians and that these relationships may have influenced the way in which people conceived the relationship between god and king. Since the people depended on cattle for the procreation of the herds, the bull may have been widely regarded as a ‘father’, as Agatharcides says of the Trogodytes. Probably for this reason, therefore, the bull became the animal totem of Min, the ‘father’ deity, who may originally have been thought to appear in human form in the person of the living chief or king. Creator and king would have been ‘kas’ (‘spirit doubles’) of each other (= upraised arm hieroglyph); just as they were also ‘kas’ (‘bulls’). In Protodynastic art the king can appear as a bull, or he wears a bull’s tail. Later, of course, kings were routinely called ‘Bull’ as part of their names. Frequently in the rock art the ‘god’ is shown with a bull — either tethering the animal, or riding with it in a boat — and both are accompanied by human figures with their arms upraised. It is difficult not to see this gesture as a form of the ‘ka’ hieroglyph (Fig. 2 and Genesis, figs. 21, 54, 56, pls. 9, 15, 16, 18, 21). To prove this meaning, one need only cite the Kawa inscription of the Kushite king Irikeamanote (late fifth century BC), which describes a parade in which the king follows the bark of Amun as it is carried from the temple. When the king ‘held up his arms in joy’ (i.e. in the ‘ka’ gesture), the crowd shouted in unison, ‘The son is united with his father’ (Eide et al. 1996, 413). The gesture itself may have derived originally from an attempt to imitate with the arms the shape of a favorite bull’s artificially trained horns. This would explain the variety of arm positions seen in Predynastic art: arms up with hands in, arms up with hands out, arms down and forming a circle (Genesis, 100–101, figs. 34, 56). Here one is reminded of Evans-Pritchard’s description of the Nuer (1974): ‘When a Nuer mentions an ox, . . . he speaks with enthusiasm, throwing up his arms to show you how its horns are trained . . . In singing and dancing they call out the names of their oxen and hold their arms in imitation of their horns’. Here a man’s upraised arms imitate the horns of his pet, so that he becomes like his pet, which among the Egyptians would have made him a ‘ka’. Even if this gesture had such meanings in the rock art, it may well have been connected with mourning (Capel & Markoe 1996, 121–2). The figures holding up their arms most often occur with boats, and, as Wilkinson plausibly suggests (Genesis, pp. 148–61), many boat scenes may portray funerals. Perhaps in this context the gesture meant that a deceased chief/king has joined with the god and has become one with him. In historical Egypt, possessing the ‘ka’ (i.e. embodying the god) was a prerequisite of royal legitimacy. The rock art suggests that the concept was already developed among the Naqada I rulers. An immediate predecessor of Narmer even bore the name ‘Ka’ (= upraised arms hieroglyph) (Wilkinson 1999, 57.)
There were quite a few peer interviews about this book. The most interesting was that of Archaeologist Timothy Kendall.
I turn now to the question of the origin of the red and white crowns.
In the Wadi Qash, a branch of the Wadi Hammamat, Wilkinson (Genesis, p. 80) cites two rock drawings of men wearing red crowns, which he dates to Naqada I (c. 3600 BC). These drawings place the red crown earliest in Upper Egypt, just where we would expect to find the white crown — only the white crown is nowhere to be seen at this time. From this it appears that the red crown was initially associated with Upper Egypt — or at least the Wadi Hammamat — and that the white crown was a later arrival from somewhere else. Both the red and white crowns have ungainly shapes, hardly natural as head-wear. The red crown was a low cylindrical hat with a high spike-like pillar at the back, from which a rigid, curling element projected forward. The white crown was very tall and conical, and swelled slightly at the peak to form a knob. Neither form has been satisfactorily explained. What ideas lay behind such crowns? Where and how did they originate, and what did they symbolize? Wilkinson’s book may offer clues. The most distinctive aspect of the red crown is its curled element, which has the same shape as the later coiled ‘rope’ hieroglyph (Gardiner 1969, V 1). One would thus assume that this feature symbolized a rope. This symbol appears again as an element in another hieroglyph, which is the standard of the god Min (Gardiner 1969, O 44). Here the coiled rope appears between a pair of bull horns mounted on the top of an upright post. The combination of motifs — post, bull horns, and rope — seems to evoke the action of tethering a bull, an activity of the Min figure (or his human double) frequently pictured in the rock art (Genesis, figs. 37, 38, 39, 41, 52). The early presence of the red crown in the Wadi Hammamat coupled with its morphological similarity to the Min standard may suggest that the crown, and the kingship it represented, emerged in the Eastern Desert out of the Min cult. Its name (ds&rt: ‘the red one’) may even suggest a relationship with the desert (ds&rt ‘the red land’).
The Min standard with bull horns (also called ‘ka’) usually appears in dynastic art erected in front of a very tall, tubular, phallic-shaped shrine, known as the sh.nt, before which Min stands (Munro 1983, figs.). This structure, described as a ‘primitive tent shrine of the desert’, was either conical or spiked at the top and was usually depicted with a doorway or pylon in its lower half, indicating that it was many times the height of a man. The shrine was supposed to have housed a bull (‘ka’) consecrated to Min, and many scenes from dynastic art depict the raising of such shrines by Nubian men with feathers in their hair (Isler 1991, 158 ff.; Giuliani in press). In some scenes we see that the rope of the Min standard, which coils between the bull horns, is actually attached to the base of the spiked top of the sh.nt just as the curled ‘rope’ element of the red crown emerges from the crown’s spike. In other images, the sh.nt appears with a conical rather than spiked summit, and its peak sometimes terminates in a knob (Isler 1991, 161, fig. 7). In such renderings the sh.nt has an equally strong resemblance to the white crown. This leads us to consider the possibility that both the red and white crowns may have derived from the Min cult but simulated different forms of the sh.nt. (Might the white colour of the ‘white crown’ be related to the white colour of the clothing of Min, as it appears in dynastic art?) Unfortunately, the earliest known depictions of the sh.nt in Egyptian art date from the 6th Dynasty, and nothing like a sh.nt appears in the rock art. It is hard to imagine, however, that such a distinctive shrine would simply be invented in the late Old Kingdom and inserted into a cult already very old. One suspects that the sh.nt may have been there all along but had not been represented.
The origin of the white crown is ambiguous. Its first appearance in Egypt may be a rock drawing in the Wadi Abbad, about 50 km east of Edfu (Genesis, p. 192). Here, a figure wearing a tall crown (without knob) appears seated on a Naqada II-style boat, accompanied by a bull and a figure of Min. The image is apparently two or three centuries later than the earliest images of the red crown. The Wadi Abbad, it should be noted, intersects the Nile near El-Kab and Hierakonpolis. These were the cities of Nekhbet and Horus Nekheny, respectively — the deities of the historic white crown kingship. Oddly, in the famous painted tomb of Hierakonpolis, also Naqada II, there is not one representation of a white crown among the numerous images of the ruler. And on the painted textile from Gebelein the ruler seated in the boat wears only a kind of bowler hat.
(Genesis, pl. 12).
Ironically, the earliest certain images of the white crown come not from Egypt but from Qustul in Lower Nubia, about 300 km up-river from Hierakonpolis. These images occur on two incense burners of uniquely Nubian type, which depict kings seated in archaic high-prowed boats wearing abnormally tall crowns with knobs, accompanied by bulls and Horus falcons (Williams 1980; 1986, pls. 33, 34). They date to about 3300 BC. The same crown then appears not long afterwards in Egypt: on an unprovenienced ivory knife handle in the Metropolitian Museum and, later still, on the Scorpion mace head and Narmer palette (Wilkinson 1999, 194–5). The evidence can be interpreted several ways:
a) the white crown was exclusively Egyptian, and it is Egyptian kings who are represented on the Qustul incense burners;
b) the white crown was used simultaneously by competing rulers in Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia; or
c) the white crown was first used in Nubia and spread northwards.
It was obviously associated with riverine kingship (kings in boats), bulls (the Min cult) and the god Horus. The white crown is usually assumed to be a homegrown Egyptian symbol—badge of the kings of the emergent Upper Egyptian state. They obviously pushed the red-crown wearers into Lower Egypt before the advent of the dynastic era. We need at least to consider the possibility, however, that the white crown might have had a Nubian origin. Varying forms of the shrine of Min, showing their similarities to the red and white crowns. When Egypt conquered the A-Group rulers of Qustul, they may simply have adopted their crown, just as they adopted the red crown to legitimize their claims to the north. This may explain why Ta-Seti (Lower Nubia), from the beginning of dynastic history, was Egypt’s first nome (Baines & Malek 1986, 15).
It may seem surprising, but there is a strong ancient tradition linking the white crown to Upper Nubia. In the first century BC, Diodorus Siculus (3.2.1–3.6) wrote that at the beginning of time the Egyptians and Nubians (‘Aithiopians’) were one people and that Osiris (i.e. their first king) came from ‘Aithiopia’ and colonized Egypt after it was created by the out-flowing Nile. This, he states, explains why Nubian and Egyptian customs are similar and why the kings of both countries wear ‘tall pointed felt hats ending in a knob’ (Eide et al. 1996, 645). This story can be traced back to the early 18th Dynasty, when the Thutmosid pharaohs established their southern cultic frontier at Jebel Barkal, near the Fourth Cataract. This mountain is distinguished by a 75 m high pinnacle, in whose natural shape the Egyptians saw the vague features of a gigantic figure (i.e.Osiris) as well as a rearing uraeus (Nekhbet of el-Kab), both wearing the white crown. Because they also recognized the rock as an erect phallus, they believed they had discovered here the original mound of Creation — a Nubian Heliopolis and Karnak—and the birthplace and residence of the primeval ithyphallic Amun (= Min). Since the mountain lay in the extreme south, they identified its god as the source of the inundation and fertility. Since it was the perceived home of the southern uraeus (a southern el-Kab), they also believed it was the birthplace of the white crown. They thus built here an important coronation complex and Pr-wr (temple of Nekhbet) (Kendall 1997, 168–70; 2002; 2004). They simultaneously built Luxor (‘Southern Sanctuary’) as a Theban manifestation of Jebel Barkal in order to honour the same god and to perform the same coronations locally (Pamminger 1992; Kendall 2004). At the end of the New Kingdom the Amun priesthood at Thebes took away the right of the kings to rule the South. I am presently investigating a hypothesis that this may have been due to the fact that the pharaohs had lost control of Jebel Barkal and had allowed Nubia to become detached from Upper Egypt. The priesthood only willingly restored the white crown to a ruling family in the eighth century BC, when they recognized the Nubian kings of Kush as heirs to the imperial pharaohs by virtue of their renewed control of Jebel Barkal and their ability to reunite it with Karnak. Like the New Kingdom pharaohs, the 25th-Dynasty kings believed that through their control of Jebel Barkal they were heirs to the ‘kingship of Re’. It was this belief that drove the Egyptianizing Meroitic state in the Sudan for the next thousand years. The Jebel Barkal pinnacle is the largest freestanding monolith in the Nile Valley, and to superstitious ancient man its impact on the senses and imagination would have been enormous. When the Egyptians laid eyes on it in the early 18th Dynasty, they thought they had rediscovered the source of the white crown and the home of their first kings. Was this merely contrived history, or was this belief based on some genuine, possibly ancient Nubian tradition?
Surely the Nubians who greeted the Egyptians must have venerated this rock in similar ways, if ethnological parallels can be applied. Many modern animist peoples of the Sudan typically worship large phallic-shaped stones and identify them simultaneously with ancestors and totemic animals and consider them sources of fertility (Bell 1936; Bolton 1936).
Morkot (2000, p. 55) has shown that some Upper and Lower Nubian kings, independent of the pharaohs, were wearing the white crown at the time of the 11th–17th Dynasties. Is it possible that this practice, usually described as ‘emulating the pharaohs’, might actually be a native tradition going back to Qustul? The problem is that we have almost no pre-Egyptian Nubian representational art— or texts. However, a recently discovered Egyptian text from the tomb of Sobeknakht, governor of el-Kab in the late 17th Dynasty, recounts a massive Nubian invasion of Egypt as far north as el-Kab, apparently by the king of Kerma. Might this have been launched to extend that potentate’s ‘white crown’ control over Upper Egypt (Davies 2003)? Is it a coincidence that the territory over which Huy, Viceroy of Kush, later claimed administrative control extended from el-Kab to Jebel Barkal (Davies & Gardiner 1926, 11)?
A prehistoric Sudanese origin for the white crown may sound preposterous, but is it beyond possibility? The most important point made by Wilkinson in Genesis is that the climate in Upper Egypt was much wetter in the early fourth millennium BC. This implies that the farther south one went, the rainfall would have been greater, and the deserts more habitable. Greater rainfall would have meant higher inundations and better seasonal navigation of the Nile. Recent studies indicate that the great wadis of the northern Sudan were all major Nile tributaries at this time (see, for example, Keding in press; Fuller 1998). Communication would have been easier between north and south, which probably accounts for the striking cultural uniformity between Egypt and Nubia at this time (Wilkinson 1999, 176; Wengrow 2003b, 126–35). The similarity of style between the rock drawings of Upper Egypt and northern Sudan implies wide-ranging pastoralist peoples of similar backgrounds (Chittick 1962; Allard-Huard 1993; Paner 2003, 19, pl. 12), who probably all worshipped some form of Min (a god venerated, according to later Egyptian texts, from Upper Egypt to ‘Punt.’). Would it be so difficult to imagine that in the late fifth or early fourth millennium BC local herdsmen venerated the Jebel Barkal pinnacle was worshipped by surrounding herders both as a god’s phallus and as a divine ancestor in stone wearing a strange, very tall pointed headdress? If so, wouldn’t the leaders of these peoples have adopted a similar crown to show their descent from him? If the crown symbolized the god’s phallus, then the wearers of the crown would have been perceived as the bearers of the god’s fertility wherever they went. And if some of them roamed far north from Jebel Barkal—into Lower Nubia — with their herds (see Castiglioni & Castiglioni 2003, pl. XXXI), wouldn’t they have continued to worship the god in his tall sh.nt shrine, which duplicated the form of the mountain’s deified monolith? From there these symbols could have easily passed to the earliest rulers of Egypt.
If it seems improbable that an Egyptian crown would have its prehistoric origins in the Sudan, would it not be just as improbable to find there that an ancient Egyptian royal emblem had survived to modern times as a symbol of high political office? Visiting the Khalifa’s House Museum in Omdurman in January 2004, I saw a glass case containing some of the possessions of the Mahdi’s successor, the Khalifa Abdullahi el-Taishi (died 1899), who would have known nothing of the pharaohs. There, together with his Qur’ans, was his wooden staff: a classic was scepter!
Director, American Section
University of Rome Archaeological Mission,
Jebel Barkal, Sudan
26 Cheshire St
Boston, MA 02130
Writings by Kendall:
Kendall, T., 1989. Ethnoarchaeology in Meroitic studies, in Meroitica 10: Studia Meroitica 1984, eds. S. Donadoni & S. Wenig. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 625–745.
Kendall, T. (ed.), 1997. Kings of the sacred mountain: Napata and the Kushite twenty-fifth dynasty of Egypt, in Sudan: Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile, ed. D. Wildung. New York (NY): Flammarion, 161–71.
Kendall, T.K., 2002. Napatan Temples: a Case Study from Gebel Barkal. The Mythological Nubian Origin of Egyptian Kingship and the Formation of the Napatan State. Tenth International Conference of Nubian Studies. Rome, September 9–14, 2002 (Privately distributed).