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Book Two


Cambyses becomes king of the Persian Empire (530-522 BC). His invasion of Egypt leads Hdt. into Egyptian ethnography (1). How the Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichus (c. 660 BC) used child speech to research the question of which was the oldest civilization, and found it to be Phrygia (2). Hdt. got this information from the priests of Hephaestus (Ptah) in Memphis; they told him much else about Egyptian gods which he declines to relate (3). Remarks on the Egyptian calendar, which Hdt. finds more efficient than the Greek one. Egyptian innovations in religion, architecture, and sculpture (4). Evidence for the theory that much of Egypt was once under water (5). Geography and topography of Egypt (6-9). Further proof for the alluvial land theory; the size of the Nile and the nature of the Red Sea (10-11). A further proof: the soil of Egypt (12). Another proof: the banks of the Nile are higher today than they were long ago (13). The importance of the flooding of the Nile for Egyptian agriculture (14). "The Ionians" (i.e. Anaximander or Hecataeus) defined Egypt as only the Nile delta; but Hdt. argues that the race of Egyptians is much older than the Nile delta, which is recent alluvial deposit. The division of the entire world by the Ionians into Europe, Asia, and Libya is therefore inadequate (15-16). Egypt is really bigger than just the Nile delta, and it should be classed as a fourth land mass (17). Hdt.'s view of Egypt's extent is confirmed by the oracle of Ammon, which enforces abstention from beef upon all peoples in the Nile area (18).

The Mysteries of the Nile

Why does the Nile rise and fall in a regular seasonal pattern (19)? Hdt. knows three theories about this. He quickly rejects the first two, which are (a) that the flooding is caused by the Etesian winds, and (b) that infusions of water from the river called Ocean are responsible (20-21). He also rejects the third theory, that the flooding is caused by melting snow. In Hdt.'s opinion the river called Ocean is a poetic fiction (22-23). His own belief is that the changing proximity of the sun to Egypt can explain the flood patterns (24-27). What are the sources of the Nile? One priest's theory is rejected (28). Travelling down the Nile one reaches the island of Tachompso, and then the city of Meroe (29). The story of how the Egyptians known as Asmacks, or "Deserters", came to settle among the Ethiopians (30). The travelogue of the Nile concludes; after four months' journey there is nothing but desert (31). The Nile sources question resumes. Etearchus, King of the Ammonians, tells the story of some people who were abducted by African pygmies and taken to a town far to the west of Ammon. Etearchus believes that a river flowing by this town is the source of the Nile (32). Hdt., who thought the Nile flowed west (instead of south) from Syene, endorses this view (33-34).

Customs of the Egyptians

The Egyptian customs of shopping, weaving, relieving themselves, and the division of male/female religious rôles are the reverse of other nations' (35). The same is true of their hair, grain, foreskins, and use of letters (35). Egyptians, especially priests, are very concerned with cleanliness; the priests are fed beef, goose, and wine but may not eat fish or beans (37). Method of the priests for determining whether a bull is ritually pure for sacrifice (38). The sacrificial procedures, including how the Egyptians use the bull's head as a pharmakos, or ritual scapegoat (39). The chief female deity of the Egyptians is honored with bull sacrifices (40). The Egyptians sacrifice only bulls, never cows, which are sacred to Isis. There is an elaborate burial ritual for dead cattle (41). Why do the Egyptians of Thebes sacrifice goats instead of rams? Because Zeus Ammon once disguised himself as a ram to meet with Heracles (42).

The Egyptian Foundations of Greek Religion

Heracles is originally an Egyptian god and part of their pantheon of twelve, not a Greek hero (43). Hdt.'s researches on Heracles took him to Phoenician Tyre and to Thasos, where he was able to confirm that Heracles qua Olympian god predates Heracles qua Greek hero (44). Why do the Egyptians of Mendes not sacrifice goats? Because they regard Pan as a major deity. At Mendes Hdt. observed ritual sex between a woman and a goat (46). Pigs and swineherds are unclean for the Egyptians, for reasons Hdt. declines to give; but they do sacrifice pigs to the Moon and also to Dionysus (47). The Egyptians carry images with movable phalluses in their processions for Dionysus, rather than just phalluses as the Greeks do (48). The phallic procession for Dionysus was introduced to Greece by Melampus via Cadmus and Phoenician Tyre (49). Most Greek gods are borrowed from Egypt; exceptions are Poseidon, the Dioscuri, Hera, Hestia, Themis, the Graces and the Nereids. Poseidon is of Libyan origin (50). The Herms, statues with erect phalluses, were introduced to Greece by the Pelasgians. The Pelasgians introduced the "names" (i.e. the functions) of the Greek gods from Egypt as well (51-52). The Greek gods are relatively recent. Their pantheon was shaped by Homer and Hesiod, whom Hdt. dates not earlier than 850-825 BC (53). The Egyptians say that the oracles at Dodona and at Ammon were first staffed by priestesses kidnaped from Egyptian Thebes (54). But the priestesses at Ammon say that their oracle and the one at Dodona were founded on instructions from a black dove which flew there from Thebes (55). Hdt. explains that the second story is merely a distorted version of the first one: the Pelasgians called the Egyptian woman a dove because of her strange speech, and black because of her ethnicity (56-57). The Egyptians originated Greek divination and religious assemblies. List of Egyptian festivals at various cities (58-59). The procession and festival in honor of Artemis at Bubastis (60). The ritual laments at the festival of Isis at Busiris (61). The festival of lamps for Athena at Saïs (62). The mock battle at the festival of the war god at Papremis (63). The Egyptians also originated the Greek custom of ritual cleansing before entering a sacred precinct after having sex (64).

Correcting Homer: Paris and Helen in Egypt

The Egyptian priests say Paris and Helen were blown off course on their way to Troy and shipwrecked near a shrine of Heracles in Egypt. The servants of Paris took refuge at the shrine and denounced him as a rapist to the local Egyptian official, Thonis. Thonis had Paris arrested and brought before King Proteus at Memphis (113-14). Proteus conducted an investigation and pronounced Alexander guilty; he kept Helen in Egypt and sent Paris home (115). Citations of Homer prove that he was aware of this version (116). This incidentally also proves that the Cypria, a poem of the Epic Cycle, is not by Homer (117). All this leads Hdt. to ask the Egyptian priests whether in their opinion the Trojan War really happened. Menelaus himself told their predecessors that it did, but that the Greeks only learned the truth, that Helen was in Egypt, after the fall of Troy (118). Menelaus went to Memphis to retrieve Helen and was well received by Proteus; but he later fled Egypt in disgrace after sacrificing two children to allay contrary winds (119). Hdt. believes this version and supports it with an argument from probability: if the Trojans had had Helen, they would surely have given her back rather than allow their entire city to be destroyed (120).

Conclusion of the Ethnography of Egypt

The social classes of Egypt (164). Provinces of the warrior class of the Hermotybies (165). Provinces of the warrior class of the Calasiries (166). Does the higher social status of warriors over tradesmen among the Greeks also come from Egypt (167)? Privileges shown to the warrior classes by the Egyptians (168). Amasis (King of Egypt, c. 569-525) overthrows Apries and allows him to be executed by the Egyptians. The tombs of the two kings at Saïs (169). The tomb of Osiris at Saïs (170). The Mysteries of Osiris on the lake at Saïs are comparable to those for Demeter at Eleusis in Attica; but Hdt. will not describe either (171). Amasis convinces the Egyptians to accept his rule by tricking them into worshipping a statue made from a chamber-pot; this illustrates that great things may come from humble origins, just as Amasis does (172). The daily routine of Amasis: work in the morning, party the rest of the day. Amasis defends this lifestyle to his friends (173). Why Amasis favored some oracular shrines over others: the favored ones had rightly convicted him of thievery before he became king (174). Architectural marvels commissioned by Amasis; colossal sculptures of Hephaestus at Saïs and Memphis (175-76). Egypt prospers under Amasis. His law, that every man must declare to the authorities what he does for a living, was adopted by Solon (177). The philhellenic nature of Amasis is shown by the Greek colony at Naukratis in Egypt, and by the various Greek sanctuaries he allowed in the country (178). Naukratis used to be the only port by which one could legally enter the Nile (179). Amasis contributes to the rebuilding of the temple of Apollo at Delphi (180). Amasis makes an alliance with the Greek colony of Cyrene in Libya, and marries a woman from the royal family of Cyrene. How her prayers resolved their difficulties in the bedroom (181). Objects dedicated by Amasis are still to be seen at Cyrene, Samos, and Lindus (182).

Hum 110 | Reed Classics | Reed Library | Reed | Perseus