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    • Saite official, c. 570-526 BCE

      Saite official, c. 570-526 BCE

    • Saite official, c. 570-526 BCE

      Saite official, c. 570-526 BCE

[Plato, Timaeus 21e] Critias replied, ‘In Egypt, at the apex of the Delta, where the stream of the River Nile divides, there is an administrative district called the Saïtic. The biggest city of the district, from which King Amasis[1] came, is called Saïs. The founding ancestral goddess of the inhabitants is called Neïth[2] in the Egyptian language; in Greek (according to their account) she’s called Athena: and they like the Athenians very much, and say that they are related to them in some way. Solon said that when he went there on his travels[3] he was very highly honoured by them, [22a] and furthermore, that when he quizzed the priests who were most knowledgeable about ancient times on that topic, he discovered that neither he nor any single other Greek knew practically anything about antiquity. On one occasion, when he wanted to lead them into a dialogue about ancient history, he set out to give an account of the earliest events known here, telling them about Phoroneus, said to be the first man, and Niobe, and he went on to tell the mythical tale of Deucalion [22b] and Pyrrha after the Great Flood, and how they survived it, and to provide a genealogy of their descendants, and by recording the years since the events of which he was speaking, he tried to work out their dates.[4] And Solon said that a really old one of the priests said, ‘Oh Solon, Solon, you Greeks are always children: Greek old men don’t exist.’[5]

We should perhaps imagine the Egyptian priest looking like this bust of a Saite official, which once belonged to a standing figure and was erected in a temple. His facial features represent the artistic ideal of the late 26th Dynasty. Probably from the reign of Amasis II (570-526 BCE). Unknown provenance. British Museum EA 1647).

[1] Amasis II aka Ahmose II was a 26th Dynasty who reigned at Saïs, then the royal capital, from 570 to 526 BC. He was well-disposed to Greeks: see Herodotus 2.162 ff., where he is depicted as shrewd and opportunistic man who both promoted and strictly regulated Greek trade with Egypt. He was on good terms with Polycrates, the Greek tyrant of Samos, and also made donations toward rebuilding the temple at Delphi. Jus six months after his death Egypt was invaded by Cambyses II, the Achaemenid king of Persia. Egypt was under Persian control during Plato’s lifetime, and remained so until it was ‘liberated’ by Alexander the Great in 332 BC.

[2] The divine founding of cities is a significant motif in Plato’s narrative: see Timaeus 23d-e, 24c-d, Critias 109, 111a6 ff. Traditionally Athens was founded by Cerops, a son of the earth with a human body with a serpent’s-tail, who settled the dispute between Athena and Poseidon over the possession of Athens in Athena’s favour. See Kershaw, S., A Brief Guide to the Greek Myths, London: Robinson, 2007, pp. 258 ff.. Some Greek sources (Diodorus 1.29; Schol. ad Arist. Plut. 773) say that Cecrops immigrated into Greece with a group of colonists from Saïs, and Herodotus identified Athena with the Egyptian goddess Neith, who is the patron of the temple at Saïs where the Atlantis story is said to have come from. It is also sometimes suggested that the Athena versus Poseidon conflict is comparable to that between Neïth and Seth in Egyptian mythology.

[3] Herodotus (1.30) mentions Solon’s visit to Amasis, and the activities that Solon supposedly undertakes in Plato’s account (studying the past using Egyptian records that predate the Greek traditions quite considerably) look very much like what Herodotus was doing (2.44 ff., 2.53 ff., 2.100, etc.). C. Gill observes that this is part of Plato’s pastiche of history.

[4] Like the Old Testament, the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the Mesopotamian Epic of Atrahasis, and the mythology of cultures as far afield as North America, Greek mythology has a myth of a Great Flood.

[5] Plato stresses that the type of story being related here is that which a very old man tells to kids. It is also clear why he makes Solon learn his ancient history from the Egyptians: Herodotus says that the Egyptians have existed since the human race came into being (2.15.3), and that those Egyptians who live in the cultivated part of the country are the most learned people of all when it comes to preserving the memory/history of the past, and that none of the people that he questioned was so skilled in history (2.77.1). Critias will claim that the Athenians are the oldest nation on earth, but he will also assert that unlike the Athenians, whose literate population was entirely eradicated at the same time as Atlantis, the Egyptians are the only ones whose culture has been unbroken from the beginning, making them technically the oldest literate nation in the world (Timaeus 22e-23b). Athens has greater antiquity and cultural achievements; Egypt has longer uninterrupted civilisation.

Date created: 
Friday, March 10, 2017
Attribution for this resource:
ATLANTIS AND THE PRIESTS OF SAIS, © Steve Kershaw, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA.