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Friday, June 09, 2017

HERODOTUS The History (Book 2)

In Book 2 Herodotus takes us on a travel tour of Egypt.  This may seem like a diversion from his topic of the great wars between the Greeks and the Persians, but it’s a pleasant diversion.  And it’s actually on topic because it’s an exploration of: (1) how the Greeks became Greek, and (2) the tools of history which Herodotus was just beginning to develop.  History is, of course, the study of the past.  And Herodotus begins Book 2 by noting that “The Egyptians… believed themselves to be the most ancient of mankind.”  Who better to tell about the past than “the most ancient of mankind.”  Whether this is actually true is debatable.  But there’s no denying the antiquity of the Egyptians.  They were an ancient people even to the ancient Greeks.  And the Egyptians were exceptionally skilled in many areas, including history.  Herodotus says “The Heliopolitans have the reputation of being the best skilled in history of all the Egyptians.”  Compare this to his fellow Greeks.  Herodotus thinks “The Greeks tell many tales without due investigation… it seems that such a story proves the Greeks to be utterly ignorant of the character and customs of the people.”  Herodotus personally went on a tour of Egypt to conduct his own historical research.  What he found was amazing.  After talking to people who actually lived there he concluded: “What they said of their country seemed to me very reasonable.”  Let’s start with geography.  Herodotus believes location made the Egyptian people who they were; specifically, Egypt itself was a gift of the Nile River.  Herodotus records that “At present, it must be confessed, they obtain the fruits of the field with less trouble than any other people in the world, since they have no need to break up the ground with the plough, nor to use the hoe, nor to do any of the work which the rest of mankind find necessary if they are to get a crop.”  This may not be literally true but it does show how the flooding of the Nile gave the Egyptians enough leisure time to pursue other activities.  And they had many, many other activities.  Herodotus goes into great detail about their customs.  He talks about their markets and business practices, where they eat their food, what the duties of the priests are, how Egyptians support their parents, how they wear their hair, and a long section on their pets and how they generally treated animals.  Herodotus tells how Egyptians felt about the cat, the crocodile, the hippopotamus, the mythical phoenix, and various snakes.  That all sounds interesting but what does it have to do with the Greek and Persian wars?  It turns out that Greece was heavily influenced by the Egyptians.  Take religion for example.  Herodotus believes “Almost all the names of the gods came from Greece into Egypt.  My inquiries prove that they were all derived from a foreign source, and my opinion is that Egypt furnished the greater number.”  He goes on to say that “Whence the gods severally sprang, whether or no they had all existed from eternity, what forms they bore; these are questions of which the Greeks knew nothing until the other day, so to speak.”  In fact, the Egyptians seemed to know more about the Trojan War than the Greeks themselves did.  Herodotus comes to the conclusion (based on his Egyptians sources) that the Trojans didn’t give Helen back to the Greeks because the Trojans didn’t have her.  Paris had taken her to Egypt, not toTroy.  Take another example, the great Greek lawgiver Solon.  Herodotus says it was the Egyptian ruler, Amasis, who “established the law that every Egyptian should appear once a year before the governor of his canton, and show his means of living; or failing to do so, and to prove that he got an honest livelihood, should be put to death.  Solon the Athenian borrowed this law from the Egyptians, and imposed it on his countrymen, who have observed it ever since.  It is indeed an excellent custom.”  Greek culture was not just an extension of Egyptian culture but Herodotus shows that the Greeks did borrow many things from Egypt; just as the Romans borrowed from the Greeks, the British from the Romans, and Americans from the British.


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