Menes was an ancient Egyptian pharaoh of the early dynastic period, credited by classical tradition with having united Upper and Lower Egypt, and as the founder of the first dynasty (Dynasty I).
The identity of Menes is the subject of ongoing debate, although mainstream Egyptological consensus identifies Menes with the protodynastic pharaoh Narmer (most likely) or first dynasty Hor-Aha. Both pharaohs are credited with the unification of Egypt, to different degrees by various authorities.
The commonly used Menes derives from Manetho, an Egyptian historian and priest who lived during the Ptolemaic period. Manetho used the name in the form Μήνης (transliterated: Mênês). An alternative Greek form, Μιν (transliterated: Min), was cited by the 5th-century BCE historian Herodotus, a variant no longer considered the result of contamination from the name of the god Min.
The Egyptian form, Meni, is taken from the Turin and Abydos king lists (dated Dynasty XIX).
The name, Menes, means "He who endures", which, Edwards (1971) suggests, may have been coined as "a mere descriptive epithet denoting a semi-legendary hero whose name had been lost". Rather than a particular person, the name may conceal collectively the protodynastic pharaohs Ka, Scorpion and Narmer.
Narmer and Menes
The almost complete absence of any mention of Menes in the archaeological record, and the comparative wealth of evidence of Narmer, a protodynastic figure credited by posterity and in the archaeological record with a firm claim to the unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, has given rise to a theory identifying Menes with Narmer.
The chief archaeological reference to Menes is an ivory label from Naqada which shows the royal Horus-name Aha (the pharaoh Hor-Aha) next to a building, within which is the royal nebty-name mn, generally taken to be Menes. From this, various theories on the nature of the building (a funerary booth or a shrine), the meaning of the word mn (a name or the verb endures) and the relationship between Hor-Aha and Menes (as one person or as successive pharaohs) have arisen.
The Turin and Abydos king lists, generally accepted to be correct, list the nebty-names of the pharaohs, not their Horus-names, and are vital to the potential reconciliation of the various records: the nebty-names of the king lists, the Horus-names of the archaeological record and the number of pharaohs in Dynasty I according to Manetho and other historical sources.
Petrie first attempted this task, associating Iti with Djer as the third pharaoh of Dynasty I, Teti (Turin) (or another Iti (Abydos)) with Hor-Aha as second pharaoh, and Menes (a nebty-name) with Narmer (a Horus-name) as first pharaoh of Dynasty I. Lloyd (1994) finds this succession "extremely probable", and Cervelló-Autuori (2003) categorically states that "Menes is Narmer and the First Dynasty begins with him". However, Seidlmayer (2004) states that it is "a fairly safe inference" that Menes was Hor-Aha.
Modern consensus dates the era of Menes or the start of the first dynasty between c. 3100–3050 BC; some academic literature uses c. 3000 BC.
By 500 BC mythical and exaggerated claims had made Menes a cultural hero, and most of what is know of him comes from a much later time.
Ancient tradition ascribed to Menes the honor of having united Upper and Lower Egypt into a single kingdom, and becoming the first pharaoh of Dynasty I.
However, his name does not appear on extant pieces of the Royal Annals (Cairo Stone and Palermo Stone), which is a now-fragmentary king's list that was carved onto a stela during the Fifth dynasty. He typically appears in later sources as the first human ruler of Egypt, directly inheriting the throne from the god Horus. He also appears in other, much later, king's lists, always as the first human pharaoh of Egypt. Menes also appears in demotic novels of the Graeco-Roman Period, demonstrating that, even that late, he was regarded as important figure.
Menes was seen as a founding figure for much of the history of Ancient Egypt, similar to Romulus in Ancient Rome.
Manetho records that Menes "led the army across the frontier and won great glory".
Manetho associates the city of Thinis with the first dynasties (Dynasty I and Dynasty II) and, in particular, Menes, a "Thinite" or native of Thinis. Herodotus contradicts Manetho in stating that Menes founded the city of Memphis as his capital after diverting the course of the River Nile through the construction of a dyke. Manetho ascribes the building of Memphis to Menes' son, Athothis, and calls no pharaohs earlier than Dynasty III "Memphite".
Diodorus Siculus stated that Menes had introduced the worship of the gods and the practice of sacrifice as well as a more elegant and luxurious style of living. For this latter invention, Menes' memory was dishonoured by the Dynasty XXIV pharaoh Tefnakht, and Plutarch mentions a pillar at Thebes on which was inscribed an imprecation against Menes as the introducer of luxury.
In Pliny's account, Menes was credited with being the inventor of writing in Egypt.
Diodorus Siculus recorded a story of Menes, related by the priests of the crocodile-god Sobek at Crocodilopolis, in which the pharaoh Menes, attacked by his own dogs while out hunting, fled across Lake Moeris on the back of a crocodile and, in thanks, founded the city of Crocodilopolis.
Faber (1816), taking the word campsa to mean either crocodile or ark and preferring the latter, identifies Menes with Noah and the entire story as a deluge myth.
Edwards (1974) states that "the legend, which is obviously filled with anachronisms, is patently devoid of historical value", but Maspero (1910), while acknowledging the possibility that traditions relating to other kings may have become mixed up with this story, dismisses the suggestions of some commentators that the story should be transferred to the Dynasty XII pharaoh Amenemhat III and sees no reason to doubt that Diodorus did not correctly record a tradition of Menes.
According to Manetho, Menes reigned for 62 years and was killed by a hippopotamus.
Some scholars assert that the name of the king Minos who ruled in ancient Crete, (Minoan civilization) is derived from Menes just as the names Tsar and Kaiser are derived from Caesar.
In popular culture
Alexander Dow (1735/6–79), a Scottish orientalist and playwright, wrote the tragedy Sethona, set in ancient Egypt. The lead part of Menes is described in the dramatis personæ as "next male-heir to the crown" now worn by Seraphis, and was played by Samuel Reddish in a 1774 production by David Garrick at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.