Barbarian wisdom: Ephoros on inventors (mid-fourth century BCE)

Authors: Ephoros of Kyme as cited in various authors indicated further below.

Comments: Ephoros (or: Ephorus) of Kyme (writing ca. 340 BCE), whose works survive only in brief citations by others, was among the Greek authors who tended to challenge certain common depictions of “barbarian” peoples. Among his challenges was the idea that certain barbarians, including Egyptians, Phoenicians, and Scythians, made important discoveries or inventions. In fact, Ephoros produced a work called On Inventions, but he sometimes dealt with similar issues in his work Histories. The passages below give a glimpse into Ephoros’ tendencies even if they only provide a partial picture of his views. In the first passage, Diodoros of Sicily is sufficiently bothered by Ephoros’ overall approach to “barbarians” and “barbarian” inventors that Diodoros begins his entire work by challenging the notion of barbarian precedence and inventions, pointing to Ephoros as his main sparring partner for Diodoros entire section on “barbarians.” While Poseidonios’ views may differ significantly form Ephoros on various points, Poseidonios likewise imagines barbarians as inventors (including Anacharsis), at least in the earliest times (link).

To read more on Ephoros and wise barbarians as inventors, see Harland’s article: “Revisiting Wise ‘Barbarians’ in the Hellenistic Era” (link forthcoming).

Source of the translations: Various, indicated with each passage below.


[“Barbarians,” especially Egyptians, as the earliest peoples and as inventors]

[FGrHist / BNJ 70 F 109 = Diodoros, Historical Library 1.9.3-6; trans. LCL Oldfather 1933, adapted]

(3) Concerning the antiquity of the descent group (genos) of humanity, not only do Greeks put forward their claims but many of the barbarians as well, all holding that it is they who were indigenous and the first of all humans to discover the things which are useful in life, and that it was the events in their own history which were the earliest to have been considered worthy to record. (4) So far as we are concerned, however, we will not make the attempt to determine with precision the antiquity of each people or which of the peoples (ethnē) are prior in point of time to the rest and by how many years. But we will summarize (keeping our account to an appropriate length) what each people has to say concerning its antiquity and the early events in its history. (5) The first peoples which we shall discuss will be the barbarians, not that we consider them to be earlier than the Greeks, as Ephoros has said, but because we wish to present most of the facts about them at the outset. We do this so that we may not, by beginning with the various accounts given by the Greeks, have to interpolate in the different narrations of their early history any event connected with another people. (6) Since Egypt is the country where mythology places the origin of the gods, where the earliest observations of the stars are said to have been made and, furthermore, where many noteworthy achievements of great men are recorded, we shall begin our history with the events connected with Egypt. . . [For the rest of this passage in Diodoros, go to this link – COMING SOON]

[Hyr the Egyptian woman]

[FGrHist / BNJ 70 F 5 = Scholia on Homer, Iliad 1.31 / Eustathios of Thessalonika, Commentary on Homer, Iliad 1.31; trans. Harland]

. . . Women in ancient times were weaving while standing and they walked back and forth in front of the loom due to the width of what was being woven, it seems. They say that the first woman who wove while sitting was an Egyptian named Hyr. In On Inventions, Ephoros says that, because of her, the Egyptians even set up a statue of Athena seated.



[FGrHist / BNJ 70 F 4 = Athenaios (second century CE), Sophists at Dinner 14.637; trans. Harland]

In their books titled On Inventions, Ephoros and Skamon (FGrHist / BNJ 476 F 4) say that the Phoenicians invented the phoinix instrument, which is why it received this name. But in Delian Matters book one, Semos of Delos (FGrHist / BNJ 396 F 1) says that it was named this because the instrument’s arms were made from the palm-tree (phoinix) on Delos.

[Kadmos the Phoenician]

[FGrHist / BNJ 70 F 105a = Scholia on Dionysios of Thrace, Ars grammatica 183.1; trans. Harland]

Various others, including Ephoros in book two [likely of Histories], say that Kadmos discovered letters. But others say that he did not discover them, but was the messenger to us of the Phoenicians’ discovery, as both Herodotos in the Histories [5.58] and Aristotle [fragment 501 in Rose] record.

[FGrHist / BNJ 70 F 105b = Scholia on Dionysios of Thrace, Ars grammatica 184.20; trans. Harland]

Letters are called “Phoenician,” as Ephoros of Kyme and Herodotos [Histories 5.58] say, because the Phoenicians discovered them.



[Anacharsis the Scythian]

[Strabo (ca. 18 CE), Geography 7.3.9; trans. LCL Jones 1924, adapted; cf. Diogenes of Laertes, Lives of the Philosophers 1.41]

When Ephoros calls Anacharsis “wise,” he says that he belongs to this descent group (genos) [of the Scythians], and that he was also considered one of the “Seven Sages” because of his perfect self-control and good sense. Ephoros goes on to explain the inventions of Anacharsis: the bellows, the double-fluked anchor, and the potter’s wheel.

[FGrHist / BNJ 70 F 42a = Scholiast on Apollonios of Rhodes, Argonautika 1.1276; trans. Harland]

It is absurd that Ephoros thinks that Anacharsis first invented the double-fluked anchor, because the Argonauts are older than Anacharsis.


[Phrygians and the invention of initiations and mysteries]

[FGrHist / BNJ 70 F 104 = Diodoros, Historical Library 5.64.3-4; trans. LCL Oldfather 1939, adapted]

(3) The first of these gods of whom tradition has left a record made their home in Krete about Mount Ida and were called Idaian Dactylians. These, according to one tradition, were one hundred in number, but others say that there were only ten who received this name, corresponding in number to the fingers (dactyloi) of the hands. (4) But some historians, and Ephoros is one of them, record that the Idaian Dactylians were in fact born on the Mount Ida which is in Phrygia and passed over to Europe together with Mygdon. Since they were enchanters (goētes), they practised spells, initiations, and mysteries. During their travels on Samothrake they somewhat amazed the natives of that island by their skill in such matters. It was at this time, we are further told, that Orpheus, who was endowed with an exceptional gift of poetry and song, also became a student of the Phrygian Dactylians, and he was subsequently the first to introduce initiations and mysteries to the Greeks.

(5) However this may be, the Idaian Dactylians of Krete [as opposed to Phrygia], so tradition tell us, discovered both the use of fire and what the metals copper and iron are, as well as the means of working them. This was done in the territory of the city of Aptera at Berekynthos, as it is called. (6) Since they were looked upon as the originators of great blessings for the descent group of humankind, they were accorded immortal honours. Writers tell us that one of them was named Herakles. Excelling as he did in fame, he established the Olympic Games, and that the men of a later period thought, because the name was the same, that it was the son of Alkmene who had founded the institution of the Olympic Games. (7)Evidences of this, they tell us, are found in the fact that many women even to this day take their incantations from this god and make amulets in his name, on the basis that he was an enchanter and practised the arts of initiation. But they add that these things were indeed very far removed from the habits of the Herakles who was born of Alkmene.

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