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.

The Trial of the Heart: Initial Thoughts on the Egyptian Book of the Dead

REL_Plate-19-web

The Papyrus of Ani, famously called the “Egyptian Book of the Dead”, is a funerary hieroglyphic scroll totaling approximately 78 feet in length. Estimates of its origin come from the New Kingdom of Egypt circa 1250 BC. It is currently held at the British Museum.

The Book of the Dead is a book of the afterlife. Rather than forming the ground for a theological body of work, it is merely a text to help the deceased pass into the next life. The text relies as much on images, or semiotics, as it does on hieroglyphic text. The edition used here was translated by Dr. Raymond O. Faulkner et al., and the numbering was designated by Richard Lepsius in 1842. The collected texts are called The Papyrus of Ani: Royal Scribe of the Divine Offerings of All the Gods.

The text opens with an Introductory Hymn to the Sun-God Re. It is scribed in the third person, mentioning two times “he said,” presumably referring to Ani, who is deceased. It addresses Khepri, creator of the gods, who rises and shines on the back of his mother, the sky, before sinking behind Manu, the mountain. The speaker implores that all beings worship Re, including fellow gods, so that he may vanquish his rebel serpent-foe. The speaker then requests that he see the sun-disk and behold the moon, that his soul be free to go where it pleases, that his name be called out, be given offerings like the followers of Horus, that a place be made ‘in the solar bark on the day when the god ferries across,’ and most importantly that he be received into the presence of Osiris in the Land of Vindication. It is dedicated to the ka of Ani. In order to distinguish the ka from more contemporary and sophisticated theological presumptions, we must remind ourselves that the ka is part of the five sides of the soul in ancient Egypt, ka the vital life-giving essence.

Plate 2 presents an Introductory Hymn to Osiris, god of the underworld or Duat. Ani and Tutu requests for bread and offerings from Heliopolis, with his toes firmly planted in the Field of Reeds.

300px-Bookdead

Plate 3 is the critical moment where Ani’s heart, which he calls his ka, is weighed by the Keeper of the Balance. He asks that his heart be truthful in the presence of the god. Thoth, the judge of truth claims “I have judged the heart of the deceased, and his soul stands as a witness for him. His deeds are righteous in the great balance, and no sin has been found in him. He did not diminish the offerings in the temples, he did not destroy what had been made, he did not go about with deceitful speech while he was on earth.” They are located in Hermopolis and the Great Ennead (nine of the Enneads surround the text) agrees with Thoth so that Ammit (“she who swallows the dead”) will have no claim to him, and that he will be given land in the land of offerings, like the Followers of Horus. Horus then takes Ani to Osiris, and Ani addresses Osiris as Lord of the West. Osiris is also referred to as the Lord of Eternity. What does it mean for Ani’s heart to be weighed by Thoth against the feather of truth? What does it reveal about the political relationship that exists between the gods and human beings in the Egyptian world? In this vitally important scene, Ani pleads not with the gods, but rather he seeks out ways to pacify his heart of any wrongdoing, the scene is fundamentally a trial. If Ani is found to be blameless, his life after death begins.

Ani is approved to proceed and is brought by Horus to his father, Osiris Winnefer. Following this moment, there are a series of incantations while the god answers questions to the listener who repeatedly asks “What is it” and “What does it mean?” Even in death, the Egyptian inquiry continues. Next there are a series of recitations that must be said once one approaches seven gates and purification spells are given to present the dead, that he or she may go forth into day without evil.

Ani’s mouth must be given to him, he must be given magic, and his heart must be presented to him so that he may enter into the realm of the gods. The reader is given spells for transforming into a swallow, a falcon of gold, a divine falcon, a snake, a crocodile, Ptah, soul of Atum, Benu-bird, a heron, a lotus, and finally into “a god and giving light and darkness.” Osiris is identified as foremost of the Westerners.

Ani rows on the waterways to the Field of Reeds. A praise of Osiris is given as a kind of sweet honey to compel the god to allow safe passage for Ani. We are not given the results of Ani’s quest, only the potential for a human being’s capacity to influence and persuade the gods to continue living in the next life.

Ultimately, the Book of the Dead is a wishful action from the human being to the god. The Egyptians, unlike the Israelites, have a point of equality with the gods -every trial is predicated on a common ground of agreement. The Egyptians do not live in fear and trembling before the gods, instead they are able to compel the gods, through the words of the hymns listed in the Book of the Dead. Unlike the Israelites, both the Egyptians and the and the Greeks are water faring groups. Their lives are safer, similar to the gods -protected from evil but not necessarily from suffering. While the God of the Israelites tests the Israelites, the gods of the Egyptians give trials. Humans beings can implore the Egyptian gods. YHWH demands obedience, while the Egyptian gods demand justification. Therefore, the Egyptian relationship with the gods is closer to one of friendship, perhaps even kinship.


For this reading I used the masterful pictographic edition translated by Ogden Goelet and Raymond Faulkner.