Egypt's first pharaohs loved catfish—and worshipped them

This humble Nile River resident may not leap to mind as one of ancient Egypt's sacred animals, but the catfish's stubborn resilience and illusive power over death were once cherished.

By Elisa Cartel
Published 21 Feb 2022, 10:24 GMT
Upside-down catfish
Crafted around 1878-1749 B.C., an exquisite golden pendant depicting an upside-down catfish was a popular charm in ancient Egypt. Believed to ward off drowning, it is now housed at the Royal Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.
Photograph by Bridgeman, ACI

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.

(Felines reigned supreme in Bubastis, the ancient Egypt city sacred to cats.)

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.

(From cats to cows to crocodiles, ancient Egyptians worshipped many animal gods.)

The catfish’s use as icon can be traced back to one of the oldest Egyptian artefacts, 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).

An illustration of the Narmer Palette, a circa 3100 B.C. artifact housed at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, celebrates the might of its namesake, the first pharaoh of Egypt. Above the figure of Narmer is his royal name, spelled with the hieroglyphs for catfish and chisel. The same combination appears on the reverse side as well.
Photograph by Alamy, ACI

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.

(This ancient Egyptian 'funeral home' in Saqqara was a one-stop shop for the afterlife.)

Fishy symbols

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.

Barbeled catfish swim under a boat made of papyrus reeds in this 6th-dynasty relief from the Mastaba of Kagemni at Saqqara. It's estimated to be from the late third millennium B.C.
Photograph by Akg, Album

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 disc 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.

(Napoleon's military defeat in Egypt yielded a victory for history.)

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