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The Birth of Propaganda: King Den’s Sandal Label

If a person wanted to hold (or retain) a political role and wanted the masses to hold a particular point of view, how would they go about spreading their message and proving that they are qualified for such a role? Surely, they would want to appear at their best, bringing out all their finest qualities and reminding the masses of their finest achievements. Not just that, they could go the extra mile to re-polish and magnify those qualities by providing fake facts to support those alleged qualities.

Also, once the persona to be presented is decided, how do they deliver that message to the people whom they seek support from in order to keep (or win that) sought-after position? They mobilise all the influencing means within their control to get their message across through different channels; from newspapers & magazines to radio & TV shows.

Furthermore, they may even use religion, knowing how ‘impressionable’ some people can be when it is something that relates to their faith. That is propaganda, which is practically nothing new to us these days with all the competing political parties that are found almost in every nation. What is new to us though is, knowing that the concept of propaganda didn’t just start some years or centuries ago, but it actually existed five thousand years ago!

In 3000 B.C, the pharaohs unified Upper and Lower Egypt. Sometime before that, they considered themselves living gods who were to rule with absolute power. Later however, they started thinking of themselves as representatives of the gods on earth. That is about the time when we can say propaganda actually started. The pharaohs wanted to reinforce their image as prevailing divine rulers.

You might be wondering, “How did they possibly do that when they didn’t have the various forms of media that we have today? Not even a representative with a megaphone to walk around the streets and boast about the ruler-to-be! Not even posters to hang around promoting them!” Well, actually the means they used is pretty much close to the ‘posters’ concept, only it was on a larger scale.

The pharaohs’ propaganda was in the form of hieroglyphic writings and artistically sculptured reliefs on all possible surfaces including papyri, stone tablets, labels, pottery and temple walls to promote a specific ideology. They even used the influential powers of high priests to drive the masses in the desired direction. It can be said that the leading user of such strategies was King Den, the fourth king of the first dynasty. King Den was the first to wear the double crown symbolizing the ruling of both Upper and Lower Egypt and the first to use the title “King of the two lands”. His spacious excavated tomb (made to fit him, his servants and his belongings) in Abydos, Umm al-Qa’ab, was found to contain a vast amount of his possessions including jewellery, weapons, stone vessels, imported pottery and about twenty ebony and ivory plates that recorded major events of the king’s ruling. One of those labels shows clearly the image he wanted to send out to both his people and enemies and that is, the King’s Sandal label.

propaganda - king den's tomb
Tomb of King Den, Abydos, Um el-Qaab (source)
propaganda - King Den's tomb Floor plan
Floor plan of King Den’s tomb (source)

A label is a sort of a modern day card or tag created to be attached on an object. In the first Dynasty, those labels were created with carvings that represented important events marking particular times in a king’s reign. They were attached to oil jars as a way of recording their date of production. King Den’s Sandal label is made from ivory with a hole on the top right-hand corner for attachment. The back of the label has an engraving of a sandal made at the far right denoting that this label was made to be attached to the sandals. On the front side, there is an engraved scene of King Den raising a mace in the face of a subordinate or an enemy.

Like most Egyptian reliefs, the plaque demonstrates an interaction between graphic imagery and hieroglyphic script. There are several inscriptions on the label; the one on the left of King Den’s figure contains the name of Inka, a high official and the one in front of him at the top center which is in a rectangular frame surmounted by the falcon bears King Den’s name.

propaganda - King Den's sandal label
King Den’s Sandal Label (front) (source)

The inscription in the middle is not clearly read but it most likely says “They shall not exist”, referring to the captive. And the inscription on the far right is what tells us about this particular event, for it says “The first occasion of smiting the East”. This phrase, along with the captive’s long locks and pointed beard indicate that he is an enemy of Egypt coming from the East. King Den’s posture says a lot about his character or the character he wanted to convey to the people. His long-limbed body is well proportioned, his heel being raised from the ground, and the angle of his body demonstrate a powerful forward movement. He is wearing a bull’s tail which symbolizes fertility and power. On his head he is wearing an archaic form of a royal head cloth with the head of a royal “uraeus” cobra at his forehead. His clutching the prisoner by the hair with one hand and with the other he holds a mace aimed at the prisoner. The prisoner’s downward orientation defines him as an inferior subordinate. The ground is represented by the gravel-spotted desert which extends upwards on the right into a small hill that symbolizes that this subordinate comes from a foreign Eastern land. His despair is conveyed by both his supplication gesture and his unbalanced posture.

In later periods, sandals were sometimes painted with figures of the enemies to metaphorically represent that the wearer stamps on his enemy with every step. This makes this scene thematically rather relevant for both King Den and the message he wanted to convey to the people.

Many kings succeeding King Den followed that technique of depicting themselves as heroes who have single-handedly overtaken a number of enemies like the limestone relief showing Ramses II grabbing a bunch of prisoners by the hair. This makes their validity rather questionable. It makes us question if those inscribed deeds were truly reflecting real history or if they were simply made to reinforce the King’s position as head of state.

propaganda - Ramses II limestone relief, Memphis, Egypt
Ramses II limestone relief, Memphis Egypt (source)

One might wonder, how can people in the ancient civilizations have the same mentality as people nowadays? True, we are a thousand years apart, but human nature is the same. Power-hungry people may rise in any era. They will all pursue whatever means they can to influence people, including using misleading or untrue information, to make the masses favour that one ruling person (be it an individual or a political party). Time might change, but some people will not. Only the means they use is what changes and evolves, and those means get stronger each day, which makes it even easier to influence people. One can even say that it not just influencing that they do, but more like….brainwashing.

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