On Herodotus’ Egypt

The thingy that was set for this assignment was to examine two case studies from Herodotus’ Histories.

On Herodotus’ Egypt

I find it ironic that Henry Ford’s claim on history is debunked thousands of years before he even made it. Ford claimed that the only history that matters is the history that we make today. To me, this seems ridiculous. If the history that we make today does not matter to tomorrow then it seems absurd to say that it is the history that we make today that matters. Nevertheless, Ford was a car manufacturer and someone that can be forgiven for making this kind of a claim. History matters. We as a species could never have made it this far if we had no history on which to build on. Learning from past mistakes is great and all, but using all the knowledge that we have accumulated over the years to work towards a better future is one of the prime reasons why history genuinely matters. Herodotus wrote many wonders about Egypt and many attribute him to be the first historian in the modern sense. He may not have been the first person to commit to an ‘unbiased’ and ‘truthful’ account of what had happened, but he certainly gave us this archaic tradition.

I do not think that Herodotus is deserving of all the praise and glory he is given. I am convinced by the arguments laid forth by Armayor (1978) in Did Herodotus Ever Go to Egypt, in which he calls forth reasons to doubt the truthfulness of his account for Egypt. However, I think that Herodotus really was genuine in his desire to account for what he is told and not necessarily believe it (Hdt, 7.152) because of the inconsistency within his text. It is a very difficult thing to tell a lie (Kornet, 1997) and Herodotus is too consistently inconsistent in his telling of Egypt for it all to be an elaborate story. However, elaboration on such a claim would need to be done by someone far more learned than I, but is in need of further examination as it has dire implications on how much of Ancient Egypt we really knew.

The behaviour of the Nile and the Egyptian’s treatment of animals are two very different topics covered in the same text by Herodotus. These are the topics I will be discussing here. The mere fact that Herodotus speaks of both of them shows us that he wanted to shed light on Egypt using his own account and his own methods. By covering a wide range of aspects he is able to paint a broader picture of Egypt and the Egyptian way of life than he would if he only spoke of one aspect. One of the most admirable features of his work is that he claims to take the objective approach mentioned earlier. After laying out an argument, it is not uncommon to find Herodotus expressing his disbelief in the idea, but the fact that he still states those reports are good reasons for us to take his account as ‘mostly true’. As mentioned above, I do not believe that Herodotus saw as much of Egypt as he claims to have seen, but I am inclined to believe that he was genuine in his attempt to do so. This view implies that Herodotus simply made up a large portion of what he says. What follows then is an account of Herodotus’ Egypt and not a claim of what really happened in his time.

Case study 1: The Source and behaviour of the Nile

Herodotus speaks of a great deal of things in relation to the Nile. From the way in which it assisted the Egyptians’ in trade, to the battles that were fought near it (de Selincourt, 1959). In the passage concerned, he lists three Greek arguments for its origin and why it is that it floods so regularly. The first two theories are rather amusing. The idea that it would be the winds that cause a body of water to rise is understandable by a less scientific people but we must not assume them to be stupid. If they are able to rationalise that two forces acting in opposite directions act upon one another causes resistance and the body of both slows down. Such is the law of friction which our world has always been subject to. If one exhales deeply above a pile of sawdust then they will notice that the dust is moved in the direction of the airflow. This event would have easily been visible to those of Herodotus’ day and before – and the same applies to water.

This can easily be seen if you skate your hand across the water like so many of us used to do as a child. When we do this, we can feel the water pushing back upon the tips of our fingers and we can see the water around our fingers rising above the average height. If some Greeks really did believe that it was the etesian winds which caused the river to rise then they must have had some understanding of the forces of friction and the concept of the air being a substance rather than a lack of anything. In this short passage, without even intending to, Herodotus is able to give us strong insight into the scientific understanding of the era. However, Herodotus rightly dismisses this theory due to his observing (be it through his own eyes or the eyes of an informant) that the Nile floods even without the wind.

The second theory he mentions is slightly less remarkable. The belief that the Nile flows from the sea is an absurd one if it literally assumes the river to flow upstream. However, the idea that the Nile can’t flow north because there is something about the earth that makes rivers flow south is still found to this day. Judging by an overview of questions posted in online forums, there are many that are of the belief that the Nile flows backwards. To me this seems like it is essentially saying the same thing as the Nile flows from the ocean. But I am not willing to say that I fully understand what Herodotus means by this. If we look at the geographical relationship between the Nile we can see that it flows from the high south to the lower north and empties into the Mediterranean. Greece, where said scholars presumably came up with the idea in question, has the Mediterranean at its low south and its rivers flowing from the high North. The rivers that empty into the ocean there are south flowing as are many of the well-known rivers today. It is not uncommon to overgeneralise what we know and say but for me to think ‘because all swans that I have seen are white, swans can only be white’ would be wrong. This is a flaw in human reasoning, and that, I believe, is what has happened here when the claim is made that the Nile flows from the ocean. More south flowing rivers are known and so it is falsely presumed that all rivers flow south.

The last theory which Herodotus mentions, he accepts as plausible but denies as real. The idea that there could be a cold place in a desert such as where Egypt was, is a completely understandable notion. It takes a great stretch of the mind that thousands of years of exploration have taught us that biomes can blend into one another. The idea that there is a great heap of frost in the desert is one that even I refuse to believe. However, knowing how inconceivably long the Nile is I can imagine it extending into a region more tolerable to ice and snow. Herodotus claims to have walked up the Nile to a point where there was nothing but desert (de Selincourt, 1959). This I do not believe he would have done. However, he uses this as the main reason for his refusal to believe that the Nile really does flow from mountains.

If Herodotus wanted to make an historical account of Egypt then why bother to include topics like this? In Croix (1977, p. 138) he mentions that some scholars believe that Herodotus wanted to write a geographical and ethnographical work and much of what we see here agrees with that. On accounting for the Nile and, as we shall soon see, the treatment of animals, Herodotus moves out of the realm of history and more into the realm of anthropology and geography just as he intended.

Case Study 2: Animals in Egypt

Typically, when one thinks of Egypt the first things that come to mind are grand pyramids and Pharaohs who were kings and gods, next is their mighty empire in desert sands. One thinks of the Egypt of today and not of what Egypt would have looked like to those living there at the times. It was still dry and arid but not as harsh as it is today (Shaw, 2004). Having a climate more accepting of life in general made it possible for the limited variety of species to inhabit the Nile along with the Egyptians. I suspect that the climate has a large role to play in the Egyptians’ reverence of animals but that is a topic I shall have to put to the side as it does not greatly affect our purpose here. All we need to conclude from the difference in climate is that life in Egypt was rare, and when something is rare, it is perceived to be valuable. This explains why gold has such a high price and why the Egyptians attributed religious significance to animals like the hawk or the ibis.

In the passage concerned, Herodotus speaks of the reception of the animals and certain laws and customs towards them. He speaks of the significance in Egyptian religion. The most obvious explanation for why they held animals in such high esteem would be the fact that their gods were therianthropic, meaning they had human features as well as animal features — typically animal heads and human torsos (Shaw, 2004). I wish to propose that rarity of animals is also a large part of that reason and perhaps even explains why their deities had animal features.

The rarity of the animals in Egypt and the religious significance they played must have had some connection. We can easily infer this by looking at folklore or even any of the pop-fantasy icons. One need only to scratch the surface of the fantasy genre to know the legendary status attributed to dragons. To take one example, Bethesda’s 2013 game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim; here, dragons are coming back from the dead and it is the role of the player, the Dragonborn, to defeat them and save the world (Bethesda Softworks, 2011). The reception of these mythic beasts in fantasy shows us how a creature that is rare has significant religious importance placed on it. In the case of the aforementioned game, the dragons are prophesised to be the bringers of the end for man (and rightly so) (Bethesda Softworks, 2011). Others in this world, worship these creatures as avatars of the gods or even a god or goddess themselves (Bethesda Softworks, 2011). Many would rightfully argue that this modern rendition of rarity and reverence is based upon tales of old. This supports my view even more. If the connection between reverence and rarity is one that did indeed come from the generations of old, then it is more of a direct link between the rarity of animals in Egypt and their reverence by the Egyptians.

Whether Herodotus used what he knew of Egyptian sculpture and art or whether he inferred the high esteem that the animals were held in from what he had heard from others, he was accurate enough for us to look further into what he reported on. Herodotus reports that cats especially were revered by the Egyptians. In the passage in discussion he speaks of how the Egyptians would try to prevent the cats from jumping into the flames (de Selincourt, 1959). To most readers, this situation would sound bizarre. It certainly would not happen often, and, if at all, the only rational explanation I can think of would be if their kittens were still inside. Had the Egyptians known of this if it were the case then perhaps it may have been them running into the burning houses to save the precious offspring and not the cats. Nevertheless, such an act shows the importance of the cat to the Egyptians.

Elsewhere in book two, he speaks of how the Persians used the Egyptians’ culture against them. By using cats as shields or having pictures of cats on their shields, the Persians manipulated the Egyptians into believing that their own gods were against them harming their enemy as the ‘holy’ animals stood alongside their foe. To an Egyptian, to cause the death of one of these animals was a penalty punishable by death (de Selincourt, 1959).

Most of our knowledge about what Herodotus has said agrees with this. We are unable to confirm the specifics of that which Herodotus wrote about purely due to the lack of archaeological and literary evidence to cross check the claims he makes. Herodotus speaks of a city (Chemmis) that we have not yet found (Armayor, 1978). He claims to have spoken to Graeco-Egyptian priests in fifth century Egypt (Armayor, 1978, p. 66) and elsewhere claims how xenophobic the Egyptians are (de Selincourt, 1959). Neither of these two items help Herodotus’ view. Both are (at a stretch) plausible, but extremely unlikely. Herodotus could have gotten a nobleman’s aid, through bribery perhaps, to translate for him and get more than just a tourists account of what happened. Such a city could have existed in more than just Herodotus’ Egypt only to be uprooted by some other group. Like the repurposing of bricks and stone like we have seen elsewhere in Egypt with Akhenaten’s temple being stripped (Spence, 2011). Or maybe it was even a complete wipe out due to some foreign power that burnt all memory of Chemmis into the winds.

It is a fascinating thing to ponder. All the ‘what ifs and ‘could it bes’. Such a wondrous thing it is that we often forget just how dangerous our assumptions are. The conclusions that we come to from reading Herodotus’ Histories and their implications that we so wish to be correct is a strong enough reason for us to take extreme caution when dealing with Herodotus. His methodologies are inconsistent, we are unable to tell from where he gets his information and just how much of it is built on what he and his audience wanted to hear.

Taken together, the two case studies give us greater insight into the mind-set of Herodotus and his desires to account for Egypt as it was. He is inaccurate in some parts, inconsistent in his telling of others, and spot on in many places. Accounting for the animals of a region and one of the defining geographical features of an area show us that Herodotus really did wish to paint as much of Egypt as he could. I cannot say that we can trust him in all regards but I am convinced that he really was genuine in his attempt to carry out an account of Egypt as he was told and not as he originally believed it to be.



Armayor, O. K., 1978. Did Herodotus Ever Go to Egypt. Journal of American Research Centre in Egypt, Volume 15, pp. 29-73.

Bethesda Softworks, 2011. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Bethesda: Bethesda Game Studios.

Croix, G. E. M. D. S., 1977. Herodotus1. Greece and Rome, 24(2), pp. 130-148.

de Selincourt, A., 1959. The Histories by Herodotus. s.l.:Penguin.

Kornet, A., 1997. Psychology Today. [Online]
Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199705/the-truth-about-lying
[Accessed 7 October 2016].

Shaw, I., 2004. The Oxford History of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Spence, K., 2011. Akhenaten and the Amarna Period. [Online]
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/egyptians/akhenaten_01.shtml
[Accessed 01 September 2016].



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