Thoughts on Book 2 of the Histories of Herodotus

Book 2 of the Histories largely concerns itself with Egypt. Herodotus is not just the father of history,* he is also the father of ethnography, and his description of the Egyptians suggests that they often do the opposite of whatever the Greeks do: in Egypt, women pee standing up, men sitting down; Egyptians, “preferring cleanliness to comeliness,” practice circumcision; women go to market and are employed in trade, while men stay home and do the weaving (which they do downwards, not upwards). But the Egyptians are not so odd that they have nothing in common with the Greeks. Although they may not be the oldest people in the world (the pharaoh Psammeticus ran a language deprivation experiment and determined that the Phrygians were older), they are certainly older than the Greeks. And Herodotus, being the lumper that he is, matched up Greek with Egyptian gods – and assumed that the Greeks derived their gods from the older Egyptians. (Elsewhere he suggests that the Greeks learned geometry and other things from the Egyptians as well.)

This is a touchy subject. If modern Europeans looked back on the Greeks with admiration, African scholars, in riposte, idealized the Egyptians. There is nothing essentially wrong with this, but the Herodotean notion of cultural priority was emphasized quite a lot by so-called Afrocentrists, including Marcus Garvey, George James, and Cheikh Anta Diop, and was developed into the charge that the Greeks stole everything from the Egyptians – just as nineteenth-century Europeans colonized Africa and expropriated its resources. (When I lecture on this topic I try to say that it is silly to hold the past hostage to present day concerns. Greeks are not stand-ins for “Europe,” nor is Egypt symbolic of “Africa.” They were different people in a different time, and interacted in various ways that may bear little resemblance to our current age. They should be studied as much as possible on their own terms.)

Herodotus is still our main source for Egypt’s Twenty-Sixth Dynasty (664-525 BC), but not for nothing is he called the “father of lies.” It seems that he can’t resist a good story, and I often get the distinct impression that his informants are pulling his leg, while he earnestly writes down everything they tell him. His theory of Egyptian cultural priority is an example of another characteristic: he often draws logical inferences from the facts as he discovers them, which may not actually be borne out by further investigation. Martin Bernal in Black Athena (1987) suggested that Europeans abandoned Herodotus’s Egyptian theory in the nineteenth century because their racism couldn’t bear the thought that the Greeks weren’t original, but Mary Lefkowitz in Not Out of Africa (1997) points out another reason: the decipherment of hieroglyphics in the 1830s meant that we no longer solely dependent on Herodotus for our information on ancient Egypt. As a consequence, we started to discover just how original the Greeks really were, and how Herodotus was simply wrong on this count.

*Patrick Wadden of Belmont Abbey College noted that Herodotus’s extensive discussion of the geography of Egypt, and how it has changed over time, is a topic that historians have only recently returned to.

The Sea Peoples

Eric Cline, author of 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed has penned an interesting post on the mysterious Sea Peoples, who are mentioned in Egyptian sources as attacking the delta near the end of the New Kingdom period.

The simple answer is that there is no simple answer. It remains an archaeological mystery that is the subject of much debate even today, more than 150 years after the discussions first began. But it’s a fascinating story with lots of twists and turns, right up to the present day.

It begins with the early French Egyptologist Gaston Maspero, who suggested in the 1860s and 1870s that a group of marauding invaders whom he called the Sea Peoples were responsible for bringing the Late Bronze Age to an end shortly after 1200 BCE. He based this on a number of Egyptian inscriptions, especially those on the walls of Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of Ramses III, which is near the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.

By about 1900, this hypothesis had become so solidified that Egyptologists and other archaeologists essentially took it as a fact, even though there was no real proof that’s what had happened. At the time, even the mere existence of the Sea Peoples was only documented in the records left by Ramses III and by Merneptah, who ruled 30 years earlier. Each claimed to have fought against an invasion of these Sea Peoples. Merneptah said it happened in the fifth year of his reign, which would be about 1207 BCE, while Ramses III said he fought both a land and a naval battle against them in his eighth year, which would be about 1177 BCE.

More at the link – read the whole thing.

Thoughts I have had while lecturing

I. An interesting shift: at one point African-American slaves took inspiration from Moses leading the Hebrew slaves out of bondage from Egypt, hence the spiritual:

When Israel was in Egypt’s land, Let My people go!
Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let My people go!
Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt’s land;
Tell old Pharaoh To let My people go!

But of course Egypt is African, or judged to be representative of Africa, so starting in the twentieth century African-Americans began to look back with admiration on ancient Egypt, partly as a riposte to the European idealization of Ancient Greece (this is where the Afrocentric charge that the latter “stole” everything from the former comes from). Thus, for example, Alpha Phi Alpha, the nation’s first black fraternity, founded at Cornell in 1906 and which:

utilizes motifs from Ancient Egypt and uses images and songs depicting the Her-em-akhet (Great Sphinx of Giza), pharaohs, and other Egyptian artifacts to represent the organization…. This is in contrast to other fraternities that traditionally echo themes from the golden age of Ancient Greece. Alpha’s constant reference to Ethiopia in hymns and poems are further examples of Alpha’s mission to imbue itself with an African cultural heritage.

(This despite the fact that they use Greek letters to identify themselves – why not a couple of hieroglyphs?)

I suppose the fall of slavery in the United States lessened the appeal of the ancient Hebrews, allowing the shift toward sympathizing with the Egyptians.

II. One of my favorite records when I was in college features the novelty song “Istanbul (not Constantinople),” which dates from the 1950s and is (I suppose) a celebration of the rise of nationalist Turkey. By way of explaining the name change of that county’s most famous city, the song points out a parallel situation:

Even old New York, was once New Amsterdam.
Why they changed it I can’t say, people just liked it better that way.

But perhaps a more accurate assessment of this name change is that the British defeated their continental rivals the Dutch and took possession of the New Netherlands in 1664, and promptly changed the names of New Amsterdam and Fort Orange to New York and Albany respectively, after the Duke of York and Albany, the future King James II. Fort Orange was so called, of course, on account of “Orange” being the name of the ruling house of the Netherlands.

What’s ironic is that James II was a Catholic, and didn’t have the good sense to keep it to himself, and provoked the Glorious Revolution of 1688, whereby Parliament invited his daughter Mary Stuart to become queen, and her husband to become king… that husband being none other than William of Orange, king of the Netherlands. These two reigned as co-monarchs, hence the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg.

So an Orange was replaced by an Albany, who was replaced by another Orange (who opened up Ireland for Protestant settlement, hence the Orange Order, and Orangeman’s Day).

Confederate Monuments

While in Richmond we got a chance to see the Museum of the Confederacy. It is completely surrounded (and dwarfed) by the Virginia Commonwealth University Hospital and parking ramp, somewhat surprisingly – you’d think that they would have restricted development around such hallowed ground. But I suspect that time has passed it by. The original museum was housed in the White House of the Confederacy; in 1976 it was moved to a purpose-built building next door, while the house was restored to how it might have looked when Jeff Davis lived there. It’s clear that they have tried to make it more of a museum and less of a shrine, but the main exhibit can’t seem to get beyond its roots: you go through a chronological timeline of battles and other events, but all that’s on display are things like Lee’s overcoat or Longstreet’s sword or Johnston’s overcoat or Stuart’s overcoat. I did like the second floor, which was devoted to the various Confederate flags and clearly the work of John Coski, whose book on the subject I quite admire. (I was unaware of the existence of RuPaul as “Miss Rachel Tensions” in the 1995 movie To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.) The basement had some interesting social-history what-nots, like a keepsake made of human hair or a hat made of corn husks, although not all of this was Confederate as such.

Lately, this Museum of the Confederacy has merged with two other museums: one at Appomattox Court House, the site of Lee’s surrender in April of 1865, and one at Historic Tredegar, which is located on Richmond’s waterfront and was once the site of a gun foundry. We did not have time to go to Tredegar, but it apparently deals with the war from the Union, Confederate and slave perspectives. This new three-site institution is known as the American Civil War Museum and its motto is “Confederacy, Union, Freedom” – reflecting the mandate of the Tredegar site more than that of the Museum of the Confederacy site. So I suspect that if you are in Richmond, and you only have time to see one, you should probably go to Tredegar.

We did cruise up and down Monument Avenue, and marveled at the outsized monuments to Stuart, Lee, Jackson and Davis (there were also monuments to oceanographer Matthew Fontaine Maury and African-American tennis star Arthur Ashe; I think they need more such non-Confederate statues).

On the grounds of the State Capitol is an equestrian statue of Washington and six other famous Virginians. This was unveiled in the 1850s. The image of Washington on his horse was reproduced on the Great Seal of the Confederacy.

Via Wikipedia. The date, 22 February 1862, is when the CSA’s constitution went into effect and Jeff Davis was officially inaugurated to his six year term as president. The Confederates admired Washington as someone who had led a successful armed rebellion against a stronger foe.

Not far from the State Capitol is St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, another site with Confederate associations (both Lee’s and Davis’s pews are marked). I confess that I was taken aback by this stained glass window:

I like the Egyptian details. The white writing reads: “By faith Moses refused to be called the Son of Pharaoh’s daughter choosing rather to suffer affliction with the children of God for he endured as seeing Him who is invisible” and below that, across the bottom “In Grateful Memory of Robert Edward Lee, Born January 19, 1807.” This is a rather interesting way of viewing Lee’s resignation of his federal commission in order to lead the Army of Northern Virginia. Sorry, I think that African-American slaves have a much better claim to the notion that they were akin to the Hebrews in Egypt.

But speaking of things Egyptian, we enjoyed seeing this building:

via Wikipedia.

It dates from 1845 and is now part of VCU – and has even made it onto the VCU seal.

Via Wikipedia. MCV = Medical College of Virginia; RPI = Richmond Professional Institute. These were merged in 1968 to form VCU.


Carbonized Scrolls!

One of the great advantages of recording things on clay tablets is that when the library burns down, the books just get harder. Thus are some 20,000 tablets of the Royal Library of Nineveh still legible, over 2500 years after the place was sacked by the Babylonians. Not so the papyrus scrolls in the library of Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesonius, carbonized by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. These were discovered in 1754 and have remained as curiosities since; now, however, scientists think that the application of “X-ray phase contrast tomography,” initially developed for medical imaging, may help unlock the scrolls’ secrets without having to unroll them and invariably ruin them. See the stories in the New York Times and the Toronto Star. It’s great when archaeologists furnish documents for historians to use! (Another recent example: a papyrus used to make a cut-rate mummy mask has been found to contain fragments of the Gospel of Mark.)

King Tut

Many people are familiar with this National Geographic cover, which dates from June 2005 and represents an attempt at reconstructing Tutankhamun’s face:

Similar reconstructions have been done of King Richard III (d. 1485) and Simon Sudbury, the archbishop of Canterbury murdered during the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, but I’ve always thought, how do they know? Apparently someone has tried again with King Tut – and not just the face, but the whole body. They have produced an altogether less regal portrait. From the Daily Mail:

The REAL face of King Tut: Pharaoh had girlish hips, a club foot and buck teeth according to ‘virtual autopsy’ that also revealed his parents were brother and sister

  • ‘Virtual autopsy’ composed of more than 2,000 computer scans carried out
  • Genetic analysis of Tutankhamun’s family showed his parents were brother and sister
  • Family history could also have led to his premature death in his late teens
  • Various myths have him murdered or dying in chariot race
  • Club foot would have made it impossible to take part in chariot racing 

See the original article for photos of this new King Tut (I don’t want to reprint them lest RU have to pony up fees for violating copyright, as has happened in the past).