Phoenicians: Herodotos on customs and colonizing efforts (fifth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Daniel Mitchell, 'Phoenicians: Herodotos on customs and colonizing efforts (fifth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 12, 2024,

Ancient author: Herodotos, Inquiries, or Histories, passages from books 1–8 (link to Greek text and translation)

Comments: Herodotos of Halikarnassos (writing ca. 420 BCE) relates details about several aspects of Phoenician culture, character, and history from a Greek perspective. The category “Phoenicians” is itself a Greek, outsider-term that groups together a variety of peoples that would call themselves after their city of residence (e.g. Tyrians, Sidonians, Berytians, Byblians). The topics he discusses in these selections include: Phoenician trade with the Greeks, the Phoenician colonization of Greek lands (especially in connection with Kadmos), the importation of the Phoenician alphabet into Greece, and Phoenician maritime and engineering skills.


Book 1

[Origins of the Phoenicians, according to Persians]

1 The Persians say that the Phoenicians . . . came to our seas from the sea which is called Red (Persian Gulf). After settling in the land which they still occupy today, they began to make long voyages. Among other places to which they carried Egyptian and Assyrian merchandise, they came to Argos, which was about that time preeminent in every way among the people of what is now called Greece. . .


Book 2 (on Egypt)

[Temples of Herakles among Phoenicians]

44 Moreover, wishing to gain clear knowledge of this matter, from where it was possible to do so, I took a ship to Tyre in Phoenicia, where I learned through inquiry that there was a rather holy temple of Herakles [i.e. Tyrian Melqart].​ (2) There I saw the temple, richly furnished with many other offerings. Within the temple there were also two pillars, one of refined gold and the other of emerald, a great pillar that shone in the night-time. Conversing with the priests, I asked how long it had been since their temple was built. (3) I found that their calculation of the number of years did not align with the belief of the Greeks. For they said that the temple of the god was established at the time when Tyre was founded, and that this occurred two thousand, three hundred years ago. At Tyre I saw yet another temple of that Herakles called the Thasian. (4) Then I went to Thasos [Greek island in the northwestern Aegean] as well, where I discovered a temple of Herakles built by the Phoenicians, who made a settlement there when they voyaged in search of Europe. Now, these things happened as many as five generations prior to the birth of Herakles son of Amphitryon in Greece. (5) Therefore, what I have discovered by inquiry plainly shows that Herakles is an ancient god. Furthermore, I think those Greeks are most in the right who have instituted and practise the worship of two separate Herakles, giving sacrifice to one as if to an immortal and calling him the Olympian, while bringing offerings to the other as if to a dead hero. . .

[Egyptian festival for Dionysos originated with Kadmos the Phoenician]

48  On the evening of his festival, everyone offers a piglet to Dionysos, which one kills in front of his door and then returns for disposal to the same pig-dealer who sold it. The rest of the festival of Dionysos is arranged by the Egyptians much the same as it is by the Greeks, except for the dances. But instead of phalluses, they have invented the use of puppets, measuring a cubit long [ca. 45 cm] and moved by strings, which are carried around the villages by women. The phallus of each puppet swings about and is nearly as large as the rest of the its body. A flute-player leads the procession while the women follow, singing about Dionysos. There is a sacred legend which gives the reason for the appearance and motions of these puppets.

49 (1) Now then, it seems to me that Melampos son of Amytheon was not ignorant of this sacrifice, but was familiar with it. For Melampos was the one who taught the Greeks the name of Dionysos, the method of sacrificing to him, and the phallic procession. He didn’t quite reveal the entirety of the sacrificial procedure, taking all aspects into consideration, for the wise men who came after him revealed more. But it was from him that the Greeks learned to carry the phallus along in honour of Dionysos, and they got their current practice from his teaching. (2) I say, then, that Melampos acquired the prophetic art, being a discerning man, and that, besides many other things which he learned from Egypt, he also taught the Greeks things concerning Dionysos, altering few of them. For I will not say that what is done in Egypt in connection with the god and what is done among the Greeks originated independently: for they would then be of a Greek character and not so recently introduced. (3) Nor again will I say that the Egyptians took either this or any other custom from the Greeks. But I believe that Melampos learned the worship of Dionysos chiefly from Kadmos of Tyre and those who came with Kadmos from Phoenicia to the land now called Boeotia. . .

[Circumcision among the Colchians and others, including Phoenicians]

104  (2) . . The Kolchians, Egyptians and Ethiopians are the only nations that have practised circumcision from the beginning. (3) The Phoenicians and the Syrians of Palestine themselves acknowledge that they learned the custom from the Egyptians. The Syrians of the valleys of the Thermodon [Terme] and the Parthenios, as well as their neighbours the Macronians, say that they learned the custom recently from the Kolchians. These are the only peoples that circumcise… (4) for it is clearly a very ancient custom. That the others learned it through dealings with Egypt, I hold to be clearly proved by this: that Phoenicians who have dealings with Greece cease to imitate the Egyptians in this matter and do not circumcise their children. . .

[Tyrians settled in Memphis]

112  Pheros was succeeded by a man of Memphis, whose name in the Greek language was Proteus. This Proteus has a fair and well decorated temple precinct at Memphis, lying to the south of the temple of Hephaistos. (2) Around the precinct live Phoenicians of Tyre, and the whole place is called the Camp of the Tyrians.


Book 3

[Phoenicians mentioned in descriptions of the actions of the Persian king Cambyses]

19 (1) . . . Cambyses . . . (2) ordered his fleet to sail against Carthage (Karchedona). But the Phoenicians would not consent. They said they were bound by a strict treaty and could not justly attack their own sons. With the Phoenicians being unwilling to act, the rest of his forces were of no account as fighters. (3) Thus the Carthaginians escaped being enslaved by the Persians. For Cambyses would not use force with the Phoenicians, seeing that they had willingly given their help to the Persians, and the whole fleet drew its strength from them.

37 (1) . . . Cambyses did many crazy things to the Persians and his allies. He stayed at Memphis and opened ancient coffins and examined the dead bodies. (2) He also entered the temple of Hephaistos and made much mockery of the image there. This image of Hephaistos is most similar to the Phoenician Pataikos [akin to the Egyptian god Ptah/Patah],​ which the Phoenicians carry on the prows of their vessels with three sets of oars (triremes). I will describe it for anyone who has not seen these figures: it looks like a dwarf. (3) Also he entered the temple of the Kabeiroi, into which none may enter except the priest. The images here he even burned in a bitter, mocking way. These also are like the images of Hephaistos, and are said to be his sons.


Book 4

[Kadmos and Phoenician settlers on Thera / Kalliste]

147  (4) On the island now called Thera, but then called Kalliste, there were descendants of Membliaros the son of Poikiles, a Phoenician. For Kadmos son of Agenor, in his search for Europe, had landed at the place now called Thera. After landing, either because the land pleased him or because for some other reason he desired so to do, he left behind on the island his own kinsman Membliaros among other Phoenicians. (5) These people lived on the island Kalliste for eight generations before Theras came from Lakedaimon.


Book 5

[Phoenician settlers in Boiotia]

57  (1) . . . Now the Gephyraian clan, of which the slayers of Hipparchos were members, claim to have come at first from Eretria. But my own enquiry shows that they were some of the Phoenicians​ who came with Kadmos to the land now called Boiotia, and they settled the Tanagrian portion [of Boiotia], after obtaining this land by lot. (2) After the Kadmeans had first been expelled from there by the Argives,​ these Gephyraians, after being expelled in turn by the Boiotians, were forced to go to Athens. The Athenians received them as citizens of their own on set terms, prohibiting them from many practices not deserving mention here.

[Phoenicians introduce the alphabet to Ionians and Greeks]

58 (1) . . . These Phoenicians who came with Kadmos and of whom the Gephyraians were a part brought the alphabet with them to Greece, among many other kinds of learning. I think the alphabet had been unknown to Greeks before this time. As time went on, the sound and the form of the letters were changed. (2) At this time, the Greeks who were settled around them were for the most part Ionians. After being taught the letters by the Phoenicians, they used them with a few changes of form. In so doing, they gave to these characters the name of Phoenician, as was quite fair seeing that the Phoenicians had brought them into Greece. (3) From ancient times, the Ionians have also used sheets of papyrus skins, since they formerly used the skins of sheep and goats due to the lack of papyrus. Even to this day there are many foreigners who write on such skins.

59  I have myself have seen Kadmean characters in the temple of Ismenian Apollo at Thebes of Boiotia, engraved on certain tripods and for the most part like Ionian letters. On one of the tripods there is this inscription: “Amphitryon dedicated me from the spoils of Teleboai.” This would be of the time of Laios, the son of Labdakos, who was the son of Polydoros, who was the son of Kadmos.

60  A second tripod says, in hexameter verse: “Skaios the boxer, victorious in the contest, / Gave me to Apollo, the archer god, a lovely offering.” Skaios the son of Hippokoon, if indeed that is the dedicator, and not someone else with the same name as Hippokoon’s son, would be of the time of Oedipus son of Laios.

61  The third tripod says, in hexameter verse again: “Laodamas, while he reigned, dedicated this cauldron / To Apollo, the sure of aim, as a lovely offering.” (2) During the rule of this Laodamas son of Eteokles, the Kadmeans were expelled by the Argives and went away to the Encheleis. The Gephyraians were left behind but were later compelled by the Boiotians to withdraw to Athens. They have certain set forms of worship at Athens in which the rest of the Athenians take no part, particularly the rites and mysteries of Achaian Demeter.


Book 6

[Phoenician settlers on Thasos]

47 (1) . . .  I myself have seen these mines [on Thasos]. By far the most marvellous were those that were found by the Phoenicians who with Thasos colonized this island, which is now named after that Phoenician Thasos. (2) These Phoenician mines are between the place called Ainyra and Koinyra in Thasos, opposite Samothrake. They are in a great hill that has been dug up in the searching.


Book 7

[Phoenicians’ technical skill during the digging of a canal at Athos for the Persians]

23  The barbarians dug [the canal at Athos] as follows, dividing up the ground by people: they made a straight line near the town of Sane. When the channel had been dug to some depth, some men stood at the bottom and dug, others took the dirt as it was dug out and delivered it to yet others that stood higher on stages, and they again to others as they received it until they came to those that were highest, who carried it out and threw it away. (2) For all except the Phoenicians, the steep sides of the canal caved in, doubling their work. Since they made the distance between the sides the same width at the top opening and at the bottom, this was bound to happen. (3) But the Phoenicians showed the same skill in this matter as they show in everything they do. Setting out on the portion of the canal that was assigned to them, they dug a trench by making the topmost area of the canal as wide again as the canal was intended to be, and they narrowed it as they worked lower, until their work at the bottom was of the same dimensions as that of the others. . .


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.

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