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HERODOTUS ON EGYPT

The Greek historian Herodotus, produced a wonderfully engaging account of his historia (= ‘inquiry’) into the origins and events of conflict between Persia and the Greeks in the early years of the 5th Century BCE, in a book that is also replete with geographical and ethnographical material. He tells us that during the course of this often first-hand research, he visited Egypt, and that one of the places he visited was Saïs, where Plato says Solon heard the Atlantis story. There, Herodotus, who could not speak Egyptian, although he does mention interpreters,[1] says he talked to the scribe who kept the register of the treasures of Athene in the Temple.[2] The historian reports a great deal of interesting information that he gleaned at Saïs, although if the priest told him anything about Atlantis, he didn’t include it. However, his writings about Egypt are important, and frequently enter into discussions about Atlantis. This link takes you a a translation of the relevant material.

 

Solon’s conversations at Saïs in Plato also look rather like Herodotus’ story of the Greek historian Hecataeus of Miletus, who tells some Egyptian priests that was descended from a god in the 16th generation, only to be trumped by an Egyptian genealogy extending for 345 generations.[3] Like many authors on the topic of Atlantis since, Herodotus is keen to stress the antiquity of Egypt and its customs:

 

It would seem, too, that the Egyptians were the first people to establish solemn assemblies, and processions, and services; the Greeks learned all that from them. I consider this proved, because the Egyptian ceremonies are manifestly very ancient, and the Greek are of recent origin.[4]

 

This is, of course, not true, and the reliability of Herodotus in relation to Egypt has been challenged since the time of Thucydides


[1] 2.154. Nither did he speak Persian, although again he refers to interpreters at the Persian court, where there were also Greek officials: 3.38, 3.140.

[2] Herodotus, 2.28.1.

[3] Herodotos 2.143. Cf. Plato, Timaeus 21e ff.

[4] Herodotus, 2.58.1.

Date created: 
Monday, March 6, 2017
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