Starting in 3150 B.C. and lasting until 30 B.C., ancient Egypt was one of the most powerful civilizations in history. Much of what we know of its culture today has been discovered through the monuments and artifacts that have been recovered from archaeological sites. And one particularly significant cultural symbol studied by scientists in ancient Egyptian art is the catfish.
Although depictions of cobras, cats, and vultures are some of the most well-known animals associated with ancient Egyptian art, the catfish once took over this civilization's iconography. Ancient Egyptians attached many mythological and symbolic meanings to these creatures. For example, the symbolic significance of the catfish swimming upside-down gives the impression of being dead while actually being alive. In this depiction, the upside-down position, with the fish's mouth is located near the surface of the water, signifies powers of regeneration.
Over the years, scientists have found several representations of the catfish throughout Old and Middle Kingdom sites in Egypt. Amulets of catfish were believed to prevent drowning, and were worn by ancient Egyptians as necklaces or even hair ornaments. One of the earliest uses of this animal as a powerful icon has its roots in the Narmer Palette, one of the oldest ancient Egyptian artifacts. Narmer, an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh of the Early Dynastic period, is believed to have been guided by the palette in his conquest of Lower Egypt, after which the first dynasty was founded. The palette shows Narmer attacking an enemy using a weapon, and above him, a drawing of a catfish can be seen. Egyptologist Toby A.H. Wilkinson explains, “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.” This is a common theme found in ancient Egyptian art, in which pharaohs would align themselves with animals that were considered sacred and powerful.
Since the ancient Egyptian civilization was located by the Nile River, its people made close observations of the creatures that lived in the area. Because of the catfish's ability to swim near the dark bottom of the Nile, ancient Egyptians attributed magical characteristics to the animal. They believed it could guide the solar barques used by the sun god Ra through the darkness that dominated the underworld. This led the ancient Egyptians to believe that the catfish could protect and guide people even after death.