Menes: Legends Say He United Egypt Under its First Dynasty…But Did He Even Exist?
Much like the ancient Romans had Romulus and Remus to thank for the foundation of their civilization, so too did the ancient Egyptians have a legendary figure that united the Upper and Lower lands – King Menes. And like the Roman brothers, there is much mythology tied into Menes’ story. Controversy also surrounds the king, with scholars questioning if Menes was his real name, or if he even existed.
He Who Endures
Menes appears in several ancient texts. He is the first human king after the divine and demi-god rulers in the Turin Canon and has the first cartouche in the Abydos King List of Seti I. The Ramesseum Min reliefs also name Menes as the first king of Egypt. It’s worth noting that Menes is, however, absent on a seal listing the first six rulers of the First Dynasty that was found at Umm el-Qaab. In fact, nothing that has been found from the time Menes would have lived names him as a king. One explanation is that kings in the Early Dynastic period were identified by a Horus name, not a private name.
The cartouche of Menes on the Abydos King List. (Olaf Tausch/ CC BY 3.0 )
And Menes was a man of many names; Manetho's Chronology from the 3rd century BC names him as Menes, but two Egyptian 19th dynasty king lists write his name as Meni. The Greek historian Herodotus called him Min and he was Manas to another Greek historian - Diodorus Siculus. Jewish historian Josephus gives him yet another name – Minaios.
Many modern scholars suggest that the name Menes, which means “He Who Endures”, may actually be a reference to Menes being a figure that encompassed all the kings that worked to unify Egypt. But not everyone agrees.
Limestone head of a man thought to be the 1st Dynastic King of Egypt, Menes or Narmer. Egyptologist Flinders Petrie believed it was the latter. (O sama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg)/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
Who was King Menes?
There is little that can be said of Menes’ life for certain, however it is generally agreed that if he existed, he was born in either Hierakonpolis (Nekhen) or Thinis and he ruled sometime between about 3000 BC to 3100 BC. Ancient sources also tend to agree that he ruled for more than 60 years.
An ancient Nekhen tomb painting in plaster with barques, staffs, goddesses, and animals - possibly the earliest example. (Francesco Raffaele/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Apart from those aspects of his life, there are many stories that seem to mix fact with myth. Combine that with a lack of archaeological evidence and it is near impossible to ascertain more details of Menes’ life. This had led some to question if he even was a real historical figure, or if King Menes solely acted as a legendary founding father and hero for ancient Egyptians.
I another theory, as others suggest, Menes was the personification of the Naqada III rulers Ka, Scorpion II and Narmer. Narmer in particular has been singled out as the pharaoh who inspired the story of Menes, or who really was Menes. Aha, possibly Narmer’s son and the second dynastic king, has also been proposed as the true identity of Menes due to the appearance of ‘Mn’ (signifying ‘Menes’) in some ancient Egyptian sources beside the names of both men.
Top: The ivory label mentioning Hor-Aha along with the mn sign. ( Public Domain ) Bottom: Reconstruction of the Narmer-Menes Seal impression from Abydos. (Heagy1/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
The well-known Egyptologist Flinders Petrie believed that ‘Menes’ was actually a title, not a personal name, and said Narmer was the first real Egyptian pharaoh. It is true that some of the stories line up. For example, Narmer is also credited with having completed the process of unifying Upper and Lower Egypt. (Although some ancient sources have also credited Aha with this.)
Pharaoh Menes Unifies Egypt
The biggest accomplishment that has been credited to Menes is the unification of Egypt. It has been said that King Menes used both political strategy and force to do so. A possible marriage with a member of the southern royal family has been named as one of the ways he unified Upper and Lower Egypt. And once the lands were joined, policies were put in action to maintain peace and bring order to his realm.
While it sounds great for one king to have managed such an incredible feat, most historians agree that there were probably several rulers who worked over time to eventually reach that goal. Yet the naming of one central figure as having completed the arduous task would have been important to the ancient Egyptians. In this light, Menes acts as a beginning in history for the ancient Egyptians.
The smiting side of the Narmer Palette. ( Public Domain ) Scholars have interpreted this as a representation of the pharaoh conquering Lower Egypt.
Menes’ Other Achievements
Menes has been credited with many other accomplishments in the ancient Egyptian culture, including the introduction of sacrifice and worshipping the gods. It has been said that a ‘Golden Age’ set in after Egypt was unified and that positive period has also been attributed to Menes. For example, Pliny claims Menes introduced papyrus and written script to the ancient Egyptians. And Diodorus Siculus wrote that he was the first Egyptian law-giver. Manetho wrote of Menes as a strong warrior that expanded his kingdom’s borders and then provided a sense of order.
In the Turin Papyrus and also Herodotus’ ‘ History’, Menes is said to have had a dam constructed in the Nile to divert the flow over the land where Memphis lies. He is credited with founding the city and making it luxurious. But a 2012 discovery of a relief describing the visit of a pre-dynastic ruler to Memphis in the early 32nd century BC means that this story is nothing more than a tall tale.
Monuments from the ancient city of Memphis. (Gabriel Indurskis/ CC BY NC 2.0 )
Regardless, Memphis as a capital for Egypt was a good choice. The land around it was fertile and its location was strategic. In that city, Menes allegedly taught the residents to live elegant, luxurious lives – ones that included less work and more time for hobbies, and even beautiful cloths covering couches and tables. For many of Menes’ people, life was good, food was plenty, and peace was prevalent.
A Crocodile and a Hippopotamus – The End of a Legend
No article on Menes would be complete without mention of two tales involving the king and iconic ancient Egyptian animals.
In the first, Menes is given credit for founding the city of Crocodilopolis. All because he rode a crocodile to safety when his hunting dogs turned on him. The king decided a city was a suitable way to honor the animal for saving his life.
Crocodiles of various ages mummified in honor of the crocodile god Sobek. The Crocodile Museum, Aswan. (JMCC1/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
But it is another well-known Egyptian animal that ended that life. Manetho and others write that Menes was either killed or carried off by a hippopotamus. This was considered one of the worst ways to die in ancient Egypt. His tomb lies in Saqqara – Memphis’ necropolis.
View of Saqqara necropolis, including Djoser's step pyramid (center), the Pyramid of Unas (left) and the Pyramid of Userkaf (right). (Hajor/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
Following the tragic event, Djer, Menes’ son, ascended the throne as an infant and his widowed wife, Queen Neithotepe, acted as regent until the child came of age.
Top Image: ‘Egyptian on Chariot in Crossroads of Civilization exhibit at Milwaukee Public Museum’. King Menes is credited with uniting the upper and lower lands of Egypt through both political alliance and military means. Source: JeffChristiansen/ CC BY 2.0
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I am an Egyptian Egyptologist and former head of the dept. of Archaeology. As a historian I believe we cannot afford to ignore any sources. In my experience also oral tradition and things people learn from their ancestors, tend to be based on fact and we discover later that they are true. If the Egyptians say the one who unified Egypt was Mena then history will later show they were right. Notice they still call their country Masr or Misr, one of its most ancient names.