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.