The Rise of Egypt: Notes on Book II

Book II of Herodotus’s Histories is often called “Euterpe,” named for the muse of the past meaning “rejoicing well” or “delight.”

In beginning to discuss the much envied empire of the Egyptians, Herodotus opens with an account of the Egyptian quest for origins, not merely their own, but rather for all humans. They had believed themselves to be the oldest until king Psammetichos inquired, and went that failed he conducted an experiment and found that the Phrygians were the oldest people. He selected two children to be raised by a shepherd with the flock and not spoken to in order that he might learn which language is most primal. Their first words were beckos meaning “bread” in Phrygian.

Egyptian Customs

Herodotus notes that the Egyptians were first to correctly divide up the year into twelve parts and also name the twelve gods, and are much wiser than the Hellenes in this respect. The first king they knew of was Min (or Menes) and the Nile is the greatest of all rivers. The Egyptian system is superior to the Hellenes in that its cyclical provision of water is beneficial for agriculture, whereas the Hellenes rely on the fruits of Zeus alone. The Egyptians require the least labor of all mankind because the river allows grain to grow without the plow or the hoe. Herodotus searched in vain for an answer as to why the Nile flooded as he traveled along it to the Egyptians and the Ethiopians.

Herodotus provides an extensive overview of Egypt because the “country has more marvels and monuments that defy description than any other” (2.35). Some strange Egyptian customs: they write from right to left in opposition to the Hellenes, the women urinate standing up and the men sitting down, they have two scripts a sacred and a public script (today we acknowledge three), they shave their heads and circumcise their young, they are the “most pious” of all peoples, only men are priests, Herakles is considered one of the twelve of their gods (Herodotus travels to Phoenicia to inquire about the gods).

Herodotus comes to the conclusion that the names of the gods came to Hellas from barbarians, specifically from Egypt. This excludes Poseidon who came from the pious Libyans and the Dioskouroi, the heroes whose origins are unknown. Additionally, that the Pelasgians brought the deities to Hellas. Herodotus says that Homer and Hesiod are the instructors of the Hellenes regarding all things theogony. Herodotus also describes the Egyptian process of embalming, household cats (the Egyptians live among the animals), Nile crocodiles, the myth of the Phoenix, and the ibis or winged serpent. Herodotus discusses incarnation predicated on the belief that the soul is immortal and gets transmuted to different bodies across a 3,000 year span.

Egypt had 330 kings at the time, all of them Egyptian men except 18 Ethiopians and one female, Nitokris, the same ruler of Babylon elsewhere mentioned. Significant rulers he mentions include Sesostris the conqueror of the Scythians who constructed the temples and canals, built by the enslaved multitudes he had conquered, and Herodotus also gave an account of Pheros who cured his blindness, son of Sesostris. The priests of Egypt also knew of Alexandros (Paris) and his abduction of Paris because a strong wind blew him off course to Egypt briefly where his crew turned him in to the king Proteus, the mythical king from Homeric literature. Herodotus defends the assertion that Homer left clues in the Iliad to show that Alexandros and Helen were rerouted through Egypt, but that the Cypria, a poem that detailed the direct flight of Alexandros and Helen from Sparta to Troy, is fallacious -a now lost poem that was once attributed to Homer but later attributed to other poets. He agrees with this notion because if the Trojans did have Helen prior to the war Priam would certainly have returned her to the Achaeans. Herodotus claims that when injustices like Alexandros’s are committed, retribution from the gods is swift. Euripides is said to have agreed with Herodotus with the assertion that Helen remained in Egypt during the war.

Proteus is succeeded by Rhampsinitos, who is succeeded Cheops (builder of the famous pyramid Cheops), succeeded by Chephren, succeeded by the beneficent Mykerinos, succeeded by Asychis -Herodotus estimates the age of Egypt to be 11,340 years old. In the origins, Egypt was ruled by the gods, the last of whom was Horus son of Osiris, the Hellenes call him Apollo.

Herodotus closes Book II with the reign of Amasis who captures Cyprus.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

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