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Propaganda and Performance at the Dawn of the State

Morris, Ellen F.

The notion that pharaoh was absolutely essential to the proper functioning of Egypt’s religious, military, and administrative endeavors existed from its “conception in the egg” in protodynastic times to its slow death under the absentee pharaohs of the Roman period. As it was not uncommon for pharaohs to ascend the throne as “nestlings” or to rule despite crippling disease or extreme old age, this illusion was vulnerable to an easy unmasking. Clearly, the state could function perfectly well with only the pretence of an authority figure at its apex. Further, even in those rare periods when Egypt was politically fragmented, the sun continued to rise and set, and the Nile flooded its banks and fertilized the soil. The question is: how did a small, newly powerful group at the dawn of the state convince the recently conquered population of the Nile Valley that the unapproachable stranger king they promoted was vital to the welfare of the world? Moreover, how did the single office of kingship usurp and maintain a hold over all of the most highly valued sources of social power?

To answer these questions, I will utilize three pioneering articulations of royal ideology as a springboard for a discussion of propaganda and performance (or, perhaps better, propaganda in performance). These three monuments—the Narmer Palette and two impractically large maceheads, dedicated by King Narmer and King Scorpion to the god Horus of Hierakonpolis—are deservedly well known. Perhaps ironically, considering that they predate the Early Dynastic Period, they surpass any extant monuments of that time in their ability to efficiently communicate the various roles of the king at this period and the belief systems that surrounded him. While these objects may have been meant for the eyes of the god, the scenes portrayed upon them, I argue, were dramatic rituals that conveyed in their performance five foundational ideological precepts. These messages, writ large on these three royal monuments, were simultaneously disseminated by other means, and evidently so inculcated the Egyptian worldview that they together constituted a set of truths that remained essentially unquestioned for millennia. Although there were plenty of revolts in ancient Egypt’s history, we know of no revolutions. According to all available records, rebels within Egypt sought to be the king rather than to abolish kingship as an institution. Thus the fatigue of the modern tourist is a direct legacy of the success of Scorpion, Narmer, and the individuals who helped these kings and their successors in forging a new dominant paradigm.

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Also Published In

Experiencing Power, Generating Authority: Cosmos, Politics, and the Ideology of Kingship in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia
University of Pennsylvania Museum Press

More About This Work

Academic Units
Classics and Ancient Studies (Barnard College)
University of Pennsylvania Museum Press
Published Here
June 14, 2018