Cobras, cats, and vultures are among the most popular animals depicted in ancient Egyptian art, but the humble catfish once dominated the iconography of the civilization by the Nile. Common to every continent except Antarctica, catfish are the most diverse group of fish on earth. The 2,000 to 3,000 species have some remarkable characteristics, so it is little wonder they attracted the attention of the Egyptians, one of the most animal-conscious ancient cultures.
Named for its feline-like whiskers, called barbels, a catfish has finely honed senses that allow it to survive and find food in murky, muddy waters. One family of catfish has a respiratory system that allows it to use atmospheric oxygen. This is most spectacularly employed by the walking catfish (Clarias batrachus), familiar today as an invasive species in Florida, which uses its fins to waddle over land.
The ancient Egyptians had intimate knowledge of the several species of catfish that they observed among the rich life of the Nile River. Individual species are often clearly identifiable in Egyptian art and iconography.
Egyptians attributed rich symbolic and mythological roles to the catfish. The upside-down catfish (Synodontis batensoda), for example, was imbued with symbolic importance. Its “flipped” orientation allows it to position its mouth close to the water’s surface, from where it appears to be swimming upside down. Belly-up on the surface, it appeared dead but was clearly alive, suggesting powers of regeneration.
Amulets of these creatures have been found throughout Old and Middle Kingdom sites in Egypt. These objects, it was believed, prevented drowning and were worn as necklaces or as hair ornaments. One gold pendant from the early second millennium B.C. is so naturalistic, it can be easily identified as the upside-down catfish.
Catfish for kings
Most of the animals associated with ancient Egypt were popular in the iconography of the New Kingdom (1539-1075 B.C.). The humble catfish was an icon thousands of years before then, during the Middle and Old Kingdoms and even the Predynastic Period.
The catfish’s use as icon can be traced back to one of the oldest Egyptian artifacts, the Narmer Palette. Around 3000 B.C., Narmer is said to have led Upper Egypt in its conquest of Lower Egypt, thereby uniting the land and founding Egypt’s 1st dynasty. The palette depicts Narmer striking down an enemy with a mace; archaeologists know the victorious figure is Narmer because his name appears above him. It consists of two hieroglyphs: n’r (catfish) and mr (chisel).
In their names, pharaohs would attempt to align themselves with the kind of wild animals that would command respect. “The aggressive, controlling power of wild animals is a common theme in elite of the late Predynastic Period,” wrote Egyptologist Toby A.H. Wilkinson. “Within the belief-system of the late Predynastic Period, the catfish was evidently viewed as a symbol of domination and control, an ideal motif with which to associate the king.”
Catfish were depicted on several significant tomb reliefs from this early period. One of the most well known is the mastaba of Ty, a 5th-dynasty noble whose tomb in Saqqara features several friezes of catfish and fishermen. Another example is the mastaba of Kagemni, vizier to the 6th-dynasty king Teti, at Saqqara. A relief in this tomb depicts a fishing scene in which men in papyrus skiffs appear to be pursuing fish of different types, including whiskery catfish.
Many species of catfish live in the Nile. The one on the Narmer Palette has been identified as belonging to the genus Heterobranchus. Another type of catfish, Malapterurus electricus, the electric catfish, was, very literally, a source of shock and awe to Egyptians: Its maximum charge of 350 volts can stun prey and deter predators, and deliver a nonlethal but painful shock to humans. Its representation on Old Kingdom reliefs of fishermen are the world’s earliest known depictions of these creatures.
The catfish’s ability to navigate the murky bottom of the Nile seemed to give it magical qualities. The Egyptians believed that the catfish could guide the solar bark that bore the sun disk through the darkness of the underworld. Since the underworld was conceived of as a watery realm, the catfish could continue to protect people after death as well as in life.