The writings of Herodotus
concerning Ancient Egypt
contain a great deal of information about the particulars of Egyptian society
, and religion
. There is, however, a great deal of information that can be gained from looking at what the writings suggest about Herodotus of Harlicannassus
himself, as well as his Greek culture
. The topics which Herodotus chose to focuse on reveal that he was concerned with both the strangeness of Egyptian culture, as well as the insights into Greek culture that an understanding of the religion and history of Egypt could bring. The methods that Herodotus used to present the material he gathered range from simple listing of information, to in-depth analysis
. The topics which Herodotus chose to analyze, and the way he analyzed them, indicate that he was very confident of his own opinions and held little respect for the theories of others.
One of the most remarkable sections of Herodotus's writings on the subject of ancient Egypt consist of the variety of differences that he discovered between Greek and Egyptian culture.
Concerning Egypt itself I shall extend my remarks to a great length, because there is no country that possesses so many wonders, nor any that has such a number of works which defy description. Not only is the climate different from that of the rest of the world, and the river unlike any other rivers, but the people also, in most of their manners and customs, exactly the reverse the common practice of mankind.
The last part of Herodotus's statement does reveal some kind of superiority complex
in relation to his Greek culture. It would seem that, from Herodotus's perspective, Greek cultures are predominant in the world, and that the Egyptians, being fewer in number, are somehow deviant from humanity's norm. Of course, this may have been a perfectly acceptable statement at the time of writing, since much of the Mediterannean
world was dominated by Greek or Greek-similar cultures. Herodotus's statement also suggests that he never considered the possibility that Egyptians may have had the exact same sentiment about Greek culture.
The large number of differences between the two cultures that Herodotus lists displays Herodotus's deep interest in the strangeness of ancient Egypt. The way that this interest manifested itself in his writings suggests that Herodotus wasn't very interested in any in-depth study of these cultural differences, but that his primary objective was getting across to his Greek audience that the Egyptians were of an extremely alien culture. The lack of depth in this particular topic suggests that Herodotus was more interested in provoking curiosity and playing up the many differences between the two cultures than providing useful background information or analysis. The method of presentation which Herodotus chooses to outline the differences between the Greek and Egyptian cultures contrasts sharply with his detailed discussions of the Nile river
or the relationship between Greek and Egyptian religion or history.
The section in Herodotus's history of Egypt concerning the Nile river contains what is probably his deepest analysis of anything in Egypt. Herodotus explains the various exotic properties of the Nile, how it rises and falls with the seasons, and how the areas surrounding the river are inundated
and later cultivated. However, in his discussion of the cause of the Nile's "special virtue", Herodotus displays a somewhat abrasive
attitude towards the opinions of his fellow Greeks.
Some of the Greeks, however, wishing to get a reptuation for cleverness, have offfered explanations of the phenomena of the river, for which they have accounted in three different ways. Two of these I do not think it worth while to speak of, further than simply to mention what the are. One pretends that the Etesian winds cause...
This passage, in which Herodotus begins his analysis of the cause of the inundation
of the Nile, displays the lack of respect Herodotus has for those who have opinions differing from his own. The fact that Herodotus began by denegrating these other Greeks by suggesting they were merely interested in getting a reputation for being clever may be more readily applied to Herodotus himself; he is apparently not satisfied to simply logically refute these other opinions, and must attack these individuals in a slightly humorous fashion. This is displayed also in the beginning of his analysis of the first opposing Nile river
theory, in which he began with "One pretends" for possible humor at the expense of the Greek whose theory he was demeaning. Furthermore, Herodotus seems to become very wrapped up in his lengthy dissection of the different ideas, and proceeds to actually speaks of the different explanations at length, contrary to what he stated in the above passage. It is not without a small amount of irony that after thoroughly refuting the other three major theories as to the cause of the Nile's rise and fall the theory that Herodotus himself proposes, that the sun is responsible for attracting and repelling water, is possibly the furthest from the truth.
Another subject which Herodotus focused on in his history of ancient Egypt was the construction of the great pyramids
. The pyramids
are certainly one of the wonders to which Herodotus referred to in this history's opening lines. The discussion Herodotus gives surrounding the pyramids serves his intent of instilling a sense of awe and curiosity among his Greek audience, as well as giving some detailed analysis and discussion of the history behind the wonder.
The pyramid was built in steps, battlement-wise, as it is called, or, according to others, altar-wise. After laying the stones for the base, they raised the remaining stones to their places by means of machines formed of short wooden planks. The first machine raised them from the ground to the top of the first step. On this there was another machine, which received the stone upon its arrival, and conveyed it to the second step, whence a third machine advanced it still higher.
The sort of writing that is found in this particular section of Herodotus's history is much more of the style that one might expect to find in a modern history text. There are fewer statements of opinion, something which Herodotus tends to inject at various points of his writing, and more actual information on the way things were. This particular type of historical writing lends itself better to informing future readers about the subject of the history, and is less revealing about the circumstances surrounding the writer himself. The reason why Herodotus chose to switch his style for his discussion of the pyramids is unclear, though it may be that he had no opposing theories to contest as there was with the cause of the Nile river's inundation cycle
One of the main sources of interest for Herodotus in Egypt was the insights that Egypt could bring to Greek history
and religion. The questions which Herodotus asked and explored in history make it clear that he saw the Egyptian world as playing a part in the ancient history that shaped early Greece.
The Egyptian priests, in answer to my inquiries on the subject of Helen, informed me of the following particulars. When Alexander had carried off Helen from Sparta, he took ship and sailed homewards. On his way across the Aegean a gale arose, which drove him from his course and took him down to the sea of Egypt.
The value of Herodotus's history of ancient Egypt is clear in the way he has apparently filled in gaps in Greece's understanding of their own history. Helen was one of the key figures in the heroic legends of ages past, and played an enormous part in the Trojan War
, which was a pivotal moment in Greek history. By discovering new information about what she and other figures of historical significance experienced, Herodotus has nearly added a new chapter to the ancient Greek epics such as the Illiad or the Oddyssey
. The section in which Herodotus describes the adventures of Alexander and Helen is also remarkable in that the writer concludes with a sentence stating "Such, at least, is my view of the matter....", indicating a certain amount of humility which sharply contrasts with his vicious dissection of the theories he disagreed with regarding the phenomena of the Nile river. The cause of this change of tone may be due to the fact that the history that Herodotus was dealing with in regards to Helen was somewhat sacred to him and his fellow Greeks, so he would not want to appear disrespectful in any way. There was probably no such inhibition when sparring with his fellow Greeks on the trivialties of a strange river in a backwards, foreign land