Egyptian diasporas: Herodotos on legends about Kolchians and customs of circumcision (late fourth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptian diasporas: Herodotos on legends about Kolchians and customs of circumcision (late fourth century BCE),' Last modified November 28, 2022,

Ancient author: Herodotos of Halikarnassos, The Histories, or The Inquiries 2.104-105 (link to Greek text and translation)

Comments: Here Herodotos (or: Herodotus; mid-fifth century BCE) claims to have information that suggests that some inhabitants of Kolchos just south of the Caucasus mountains (on the east coast of the Black Sea) were in fact immigrants from Egypt connected with Senswosret’s legendary conquests (on which see Herodotos’ more extensive Egyptian account at this link). He claims that they therefore share Egyptian customs including circumcision.

Source of the translation: A. D. Godley, Herodotus, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-25), public domain, adapted and modernized by Daniel Mitchell and Harland.


Book 2

104 For it is plain to see that the Kolchians are Egyptians. What I say, I myself noticed before I heard it from others. When it occurred to me, I inquired of both peoples: the Kolchians remembered the Egyptians better than the Egyptians remembered the Kolchians. (2) The Egyptians said that they considered the Kolchians part of Sesostris’ [equivalent of Senwosret, on which go to this link] army. I myself guessed it, partly because they are dark-skinned and woolly-haired, though that indeed counts for nothing since other peoples are as well. But my better proof was that the Kolchians, Egyptians and Ethiopians are the only peoples that have practised circumcision from the beginning.

The Phoenicians and the Syrians of Palestine themselves acknowledge that they learned the custom from the Egyptians, and the Syrians of the valleys of the Thermodon [Terme] river and the Parthenios, as well as their neighbours the Makronians, say that they learned it lately from the Kolchians. These are the only ones that circumcise, and it is seen that they do even as the Egyptians. But as to the Egyptians and Ethiopians themselves, I cannot say who learned it from the other. For it is clearly a very ancient custom. That the others learned it from interactions with Egypt I hold to be clearly proved by this: Phoenicians who interact with Greece cease to imitate the Egyptians in this matter and do not circumcise their children.

105  Let me address another matter in which the Kolchians are like the Egyptians. They and the Egyptians alone work linen, and have the same way, a way peculiar to themselves, of working it. They are similar in all their manner of life and in their speech. Linen has two names: the Kolchian kind is called by the Greeks “Sardonian” [not to be confused with the island of Sardinia in Italy]. That which comes from Egypt is called “Egyptian”.

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