Egyptians: Herodotos on customs and legendary kings (fifth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Daniel Mitchell, 'Egyptians: Herodotos on customs and legendary kings (fifth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 24, 2023,

Ancient author: Herodotos of Halikarnassos, Inquiries, or Histories, portions of book 2 and other books (link)

Comments: Writing about 420 BCE, Herodotos (also Latinized as Herodotus) of Halikarnassos in Caria provides our earliest, extensive account of Egyptian peoples, customs, and achievements from a Greek perspective.  He does so in digressions or excurses aimed primarily at providing context for the Persian campaigns (of the sixth and fifth centuries) in various parts of Greece and the Near East. For Herodotos and for many Athenians or other Greeks at the time, the Persians represented the main image of the dangerous “barbarian” people that was a threat to the Greeks. Yet, in dealing with areas where the Persians were active, Herodotos gives attention to many other peoples that a Greek of the time would categorize as “barbarians”, especially Egyptians.

Herodotos presents his material as though it derives from both interviews of Egyptian priests at various locales and from Herodotos’ own eye-witness observation (autopsy), though the presence of clear misinformation suggests we should not be expecting accurate descriptions. Instead, we once again gain direct insights into how a Greek might perceive and interpret another people for his own purposes, in this case a people considered to be among the oldest if not the oldest “barbarians.” Particularly interesting is Herodotos’ tendency to compare the customs of Egyptians with those of other ethnic groups.

While Herodotos tends to emphasize the importance and influence of Egyptian customs, particularly with respect to the gods, and argues that some Greek gods or customs derive from Egyptians (alongside Pelasgians as another very old people), this does not mean that Herodotos was necessarily a “barbarian-lover,” as Plutarch angrily called him many centuries later (Moralia 857a). It is true, though, that Herodotos dispels Greek stories about Egyptians engaging in human sacrifice, a la king Bousiris or Busiris (on which go to this link [coming soon]). Alongside Herodotos’ admiration for the long heritage of Egyptian culture, there are still also signs of ambivalence towards these (e.g. 2.35-36) and, even more so, other “barbarian” peoples.

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 1 (on Persian campaigns in the east)

[Comparison of Babylonian and Egyptian customs regarding visiting deities]

181 [In] the sacred enclosure of Zeus Belos [at Babylon] … (5) [i]n the last tower there is a great shrine and in the shrine stands a great, well-covered couch, and a golden table nearby. But no image has been set up in the shrine, nor does any human creature lie there during the night, except for one native woman chosen from all women by the god, so the Chaldeans – the priests of this god – say. 182 These same Chaldaeans say – though I do not believe them – that the god himself [Zeus Belos] is accustomed to visit the shrine and rest on the couch, as he does at Thebes in Egypt, as the Egyptians say. (2) For in Egypt a woman also sleeps in the temple of Theban Zeus [i.e. the temple of Amon-Api], and neither the Egyptian nor the Babylonian woman, it is said, has intercourse with men.


Book 2 (on Egypt)

[Egyptian priests of Memphis, Thebes, and Heliopolis on the accomplishments of the Egyptian people]

2 Now before Psammetichos became king of Egypt [ca. 644 BCE], the Egyptians believed that they were the oldest people on earth. But ever since Psammetichos became king and wished to find out which people were the oldest, they have believed that the Phrygians were older than Egyptians, and that they were therefore older than everybody else… (5) This is the story which I heard from the priests of Hephaistos’ [i.e. Ptah’s] temple at Memphis. 3 I also visited Thebes and Heliopolis for this very purpose, because I wished to know if the people of those places would tell me the same story as the priests at Memphis. For the people of Heliopolis are said to be the most learned of the Egyptians.

4 But as to human accomplishments, this was the account on which all the priests agreed: The Egyptians, they said, were the first men who counted time by years after they had divided the seasons into twelve parts to form the annual cycle. They discovered this from the stars, as the priests said. Moreover, their method of counting time is, to my mind, a more accurate one than that of the Greeks. For the Greeks add an intercalary month every other year so that the seasons agree, whereas the Egyptians, counting thirty days in each of the twelve months, add five days on top of the total number of days in every year. So the completed circle of seasons is made to agree with the calendar [i.e. 360 days (12×30) + 5 days = 365 days]. (2) Furthermore, the priests said the Egyptians used the names of twelve gods first, which the Greeks afterwards borrowed from them. It was the Egyptians who first assigned to the several gods their altars, images, temples, and first carved figures on stone, the priests said. Most of this they showed me to be actually the case.

[Origins and identification of Egyptians as a people]

15 (3) Instead, I maintain that the Egyptians did not come into existence together with what the Ionians call the [Nile] Delta, but have existed since humankind came into being, and as the land grew in extent, there were many of them who stayed behind, and many who spread down over it. Be that as it may, the Theban district, a land of seven hundred and sixty-five miles in circumference, was in the past called Egypt.

17 I leave the Ionians’ opinion aside, and my own judgment about the matter is the following. Egypt is all that land which is inhabited by Egyptians, just as Cilicia and Assyria are the lands inhabited by Cilicians and Assyrians, and we know of no boundary line – as is correct to say – beneath Asia and Libya except the borders of the Egyptians. 18 (1) The response of oracle of Ammon in fact bears witness to my opinion that Egypt is of such an extent as I have argued. I learned this by inquiry after my judgment was already formed about Egypt. (2) The men of the cities of Marea and Apis in the part of Egypt bordering on Libya believe themselves to be Libyans and not Egyptians and dislike the injunction for sacred worship that prohibited them from eating cows’ meat. These men sent word to Ammon that they had no share or lot with Egypt. For they lived, they said, outside the Delta and did not consent to the ways of its people, and they wished to be allowed to eat all foods. (3) But Ammon disallowed them, declaring that all the land watered by the Nile in its course belonged to Egypt, and all who lived lower down than the city Elephantine and drank the river’s water were Egyptians. Such was the oracular response given to them.

[“Deserters” from Ethiopia settled in Egypt]

30 … [To the south of] the capital city of Ethiopia … you come to the land of the “deserters” [automoloi]. These “deserters” are called “asmakh,” which translates in Greek to: “those who stand on the left hand of the king.” (2) These people once revolted and joined themselves to the Ethiopians, numbering two hundred and forty thousand Egyptian men of fighting age. The reason was as follows: In the reign of Psammetichos [late seventh century BCE], there were watchposts at Elephantine facing Ethiopia, watchposts at Daphnai of Pelousion facing Arabia and Assyria, and watchposts at Marea facing Libya… (3) Now the Egyptians had been on guard for three years, and no one came to relieve them. Therefore, after organizing themselves and finding common cause, they revolted from Psammetichos and went to Ethiopia… (5) So they came to Ethiopia and gave themselves up to the king of the land, who rewarded them as follows: He told them to dispossess certain Ethiopians with whom he was feuding and to settle on their land. These Ethiopians then learned Egyptian customs and have become milder-mannered by intermixture with the Egyptians.

[Egyptian ancestral customs as contrary to other peoples]

35 (1)Concerning Egypt, I am going to speak at length, because it has the most wonders and everywhere presents works beyond description. Therefore, I will speak more about Egypt. (2) Just as the Egyptians have a climate peculiar to themselves and their river is different in its nature from all other rivers, so too they have instituted customs and laws contrary for the most part to those of the rest of humankind. Among them, the women buy and sell, the men stay at home and weave, and in weaving the Egyptians push the weft [threads on the loom] downwards while all others push the weft upwards. (3) Men carry burdens on their heads, while women carry them on their shoulders. Women urinate while standing, men while sitting. They have bowel movements indoors and eat out of doors in the streets, explaining that inappropriate but necessary things should be done alone in private, whereas appropriate things should be done openly. (4) No woman is dedicated to the service of any god or goddess, while the men are dedicated to all deities both male and female. Sons are not forced against their will to support their parents, but daughters are forced to do this and even contrary to their will.

36 (1) Everywhere else in the world, the priests of the gods wear their hair long, yet in Egypt they shave their head bald. For all other humans, the proper custom in mourning the dead is that those most closely related to the deceased have their heads shaven bald. While the Egyptians are shaven at other normal times, after a death they let their hair and beard grow. (2) The Egyptians are the only people who keep their animals with them inside of the house. While all other people live on wheat and barley, it is the greatest disgrace for an Egyptian to live on these grains. Instead they make food from a coarse grain which some call spelt. (3) They knead dough with their feet, and they gather mud and dung with their hands. The Egyptians and those who have learned it from them are the only people who practise circumcision. Every man has two garments, every woman only one. (4) The rings and sheets of sails are secured to the outside of the boat elsewhere in the world, while in Egypt they are secured to the inside of the vessel. The Greeks write and calculate from left to right, while the Egyptians do the opposite. Yet, they say that their way of writing is towards the right and the Greek way is towards the left. They employ two kinds of writing: one is called sacred [i.e. hieroglyphs and/or hieratic] and the other demotic.

[Customs relating to priests and the gods, including sacrifice]

37 (1) They are god-fearing beyond measure, more than anyone, and the following are among their customs. They drink from cups of bronze, which they clean out daily. This is done not only by a few Egyptians but rather by all of them. (2) They are especially careful always to wear newly-washed linen. They practise circumcision for cleanliness’ sake, for they would rather appear clean than more attractive. Their priests shave the whole body every other day, so that no lice or anything else impure may infest them as they tend to the gods. (3) The priests wear a single linen garment and sandals made of papyrus. They are not permitted to wear other kinds of clothing or footwear. Twice a day and twice every night these articles of priestly clothing are washed in cold water. Their forms of worship are, one may say, in the thousands. (4) The priests also enjoy many benefits. They do not consume or spend anything of their own. Sacred food is cooked for them. Beef and goose are brought in great abundance to each priest every day and grape-wine is given to them as well. They may not eat fish. (5) The Egyptians sow no beans in their country and, if any grow, they will not eat them either raw or cooked. The priests cannot endure even to see them, since they consider beans to be an unclean kind of legume. Many priests, not just one, are dedicated to the service of each god. One of these is the high priest, and when a high priest dies, his son succeeds to his office.

38 They believe that bulls belong to Epaphos [i.e. Apis], and for this reason they scrutinize them as follows. If they see even one black hair on them, the bull is considered impure. (2) One of the priests appointed to the task examines the beast by making it stand up, by making it lie down, and by pulling out its tongue to determine whether it is clean of the predetermined signs, which I will indicate later [cf. 3.28, below]. The priest also looks to the hairs of the tail to see if they grow naturally. (3) If it is clean in all these respects, the priest marks it by wrapping papyrus around the horns, then he smears it with clay and stamps it with his ring. After this they lead the bull away. The penalty for sacrificing a bull that the priest has not marked is death. Such is the manner of approving the beast. I will now describe how it is sacrificed.

39 After leading the marked beast to the altar where they will sacrifice it, they kindle a fire. They then pour wine on the altar and over the sacrificial victim and call upon the god. Then they cut the victim’s throat and, after slaying it, they sever the head from the body. (2) They flay the carcass of the beast, then invoke many curses on its head, which they carry away. Those carrying the head then take it to the market and sell it, wherever there is marketplace and visiting Greek traders in it. On the other hand, when there are no Greeks available in the market, the head is thrown into the river. (3) The curse which they utter over the heads of the victims is as follows: whatever evil threatens those who carry out the sacrifice or the whole of Egypt fall upon the head. (4) Now, regarding the heads of sacrificed beasts and the libation of wine, all Egyptians share the same customs in all their sacrificial ceremonies. In accordance with this custom, no Egyptian will taste of the head of anything that once lived.

40 But in regard to the disembowelling and burning of the victims, there is a different method for each sacrifice. I will now, however, speak of that goddess whom they consider the greatest [i.e. Isis], and in whose honour they keep highest festival. (2) After they have flayed the bull and uttered the curse, they take out the whole stomach, leaving the entrails and the fat in the carcass. They cut off the legs, the end of the loin, the shoulders, and the neck. (3) After doing this, they fill what remains of the carcass with pure bread, honey, raisins, figs, frankincense, myrrh, and other kinds of incense, and then they burn it, pouring a lot of oil on it. (4) They fast before the sacrifice and while the carcass is burning, and they all make lamentation. When their lamentation is over, they lay out the unburned portions of the victim for a feast.

41 All Egyptians sacrifice unblemished bulls and bull-calves. They may not sacrifice cows since these are sacred to Isis. (2) For the formal depiction of Isis is in the form of a woman with cow horns, exactly as the Greeks picture Io, and cows are considered by far the most sacred of all herd beasts by every Egyptian. (3) For this reason, no Egyptian man or woman will kiss a Greek man, or use a knife, or a spit, or a cauldron belonging to a Greek, or taste the flesh of an unblemished bull that has been cut up with a Greek knife.

(4) Cattle that die are dealt with in the following way: Cows are cast into the river, bulls are buried by each city in its suburbs, with one or both horns uncovered for a sign. Then, when the carcass is decomposed and the time appointed is at hand, a boat comes to each city from the island called Prosopitis. (5) This island is located in the Nile Delta and is nine schoinoi in circumference [ca. 540 stadium-lengths; cf. Hdt. 2.6]. There are many other towns on Prosopitis. The town from which the boats come to gather the bones of the bulls is called Atarbechis, and in this town stands a sacred temple of Aphrodite. (6) From this town many people go out, some to one town and some to another, to dig up the bones, which they then carry away and bury collectively in one place. In the same manner as they bury the cattle, they bury all other beasts when they die. Such is their custom respecting these other beasts as well, for likewise they may not be killed.

42 Everyone who has established a temple to Zeus of Thebes or is from the Theban district sacrifice goats, but they will not touch sheep. (2) For no gods are worshipped in common by all Egyptians except for Isis and Osiris, who they say is Dionysos. These gods are worshipped by everyone alike. Those who have established a temple of Mendes or are from the Mendesian district sacrifice sheep, but they will not touch goats. (3) The Thebans and those people, who by the Theban example will not touch sheep, give the following reason for their custom: They say that Herakles wanted very much to see Zeus, but Zeus did not want to see him. Finally, when Herakles prayed to him, Zeus contrived of a device (4) to present himself to Herakles, and after he had flayed and beheaded a ram, he held before him the head and wore the fleece. It is from this that the Egyptian images of Zeus have a ram’s head, and on this count the Ammonians, who are colonists from Egypt and Ethiopia and who speak a hybrid language from the tongues of both countries, imitate the Egyptians. (5) It was from this, I think, that the Ammonians got their name as well, for the Egyptians call Zeus “Amon.” The Thebans then consider rams sacred for this reason and do not sacrifice them. (6) But one day a year, at the festival of Zeus, they cut in pieces and flay a single ram and put the fleece on the image of Zeus, as in the story. Then they bring an image of Herakles near to it. After doing this, all present at the temple mourn for the ram and then bury it in a sacred coffin.

[Rejection of Greek stories of human sacrifice, implying legends about king Bousiris]

43 Concerning Herakles, I heard it said that he was one of the twelve gods. But I could nowhere in Egypt hear anything concerning the other Herakles, whom the Greeks know. I have indeed many proofs that the name of Herakles did not come from Greece to Egypt, but from Egypt to Greece. . .  45 But among the many ill‑considered tales told by the Greeks, this is a very foolish story which they relate about Herakles: how when he came to Egypt, the Egyptians crowned him and led him out in a procession to sacrifice him to Zeus. For a while (they say) he followed quietly, but when they began the first rites of sacrifice upon him at the altar, he resisted and slew them all. Now it seems to me that by this story the Greeks show themselves completely ignorant of the character and customs of the Egyptians. For how would those who are forbidden from sacrificing even lower animals (except swine, bulls, and bull-calves, if they be unblemished, and geese) actually sacrifice humans? Moreover, Herakles being alone, and still but a man, as they say, how is it natural that he should slay a countless multitude? So much I say of this matter. May no god or hero be displeased with me as a result!

46 This is why the Egyptians of whom I have spoken sacrifice no goats either male or female. The Mendesians count Pan among… the gods. (2) In their painting and sculpture, the image of Pan is designed with the head and the legs of a goat, as he is among the Greeks . . . (3) The Mendesians consider all goats sacred – the male more so than the female – and goatherds as well are held in special esteem. But one he-goat alone from the herd is considered the most sacred of all. When that he-goat dies, it is ordained that there should be great mourning in all the Mendesian district. (4) In the Egyptian language Mendes is the name both for the he-goat and for Pan.

[Ancestral customs related to pigs]

47 Pigs are held by the Egyptians to be unclean beasts. In the first place, if an Egyptian touches a hog in passing, he goes to the river and dips himself in it, clothed as he is. In the second place, pig-tenders alone of all men, though native-born Egyptians, are forbidden to enter any Egyptian temple. Neither will any Egyptian man give a pig-tender his daughter in marriage, nor take a wife from their women. Pig-tenders intermarry among themselves. (2) Nor do the Egyptians think it right to sacrifice a pig to any god except the Selene [Moon] and Dionysos. To these gods, they sacrifice their pigs simultaneously and in the same season of full moon. Afterwards they eat the meat. The Egyptians have an explanation of why they sacrifice pigs at this festival, yet they loathe them at other festivals. I know it, but it is not fitting that I relate it. (3) But this is how they sacrifice pigs to the Moon. The sacrificer lays the end of the tail and the spleen and the caul together and covers them up with all the fat that he finds around the belly, then he consigns it all to the fire. As for the rest of the flesh, they eat it at the time of full moon when they sacrifice the victim, but they will not taste it on any other day. Poor men with but slender means mold pigs out of dough, which they then take and sacrifice.

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 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.

[Comparison of Egyptian and Greek customs with regard to phalluses]

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. I also say 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 mainly from Kadmos of Tyre and those who came with Kadmos from Phoenicia to the land now called Boiotia.

[Egyptian and Pelasgian origins for Greek gods and related customs]

50 In fact, the names of nearly all the gods came to Greece from Egypt. For I am convinced by inquiry that they have come from barbarian lands, and I believe that they came mainy from Egypt. (2) Except the names of Poseidon and the Dioskouroi, as I have already said, Hera, Hestia, Themis, the Graces, and the Nereids, the names of all the gods have always existed in Egypt. I only say what the Egyptians themselves say. The gods whose names they say they do not know, as I think, were named by the Pelasgians, except Poseidon, the knowledge of whom they learned from the Libyans. (3) The Libyans alone have had among them the name of Poseidon from the beginning, and they have always honoured this god. The Egyptians, however, are not accustomed to pay any honours to heroes.

51 These customs, then, and others besides, which I will indicate, were taken by the Greeks from the Egyptians. It was not so with the ithyphallic images [i.e. statues depicted with an erect penis] of Hermes. The production of these came from the Pelasgians, from whom the Athenians were the first Greeks to take it. The Athenians then handed this custom on to others. For the Athenians were then already counted as Greeks when the Pelasgians came to live in the land with them and thereby began to be considered as Greeks. Whoever has been initiated into the rites of the Kabeiroi, which the Samothrakians learned from the Pelasgians and now practice, understands what I mean. Samothrake was formerly inhabited by those Pelasgians who came to live among the Athenians, and it is from them that the Samothrakians take their rites. The Athenians, then, were the first Greeks to make ithyphallic images of Hermes, and they did this because the Pelasgians taught them. The Pelasgians told a certain sacred tale about this, which is presented in the Samothrakian mysteries.

52 Formerly, in all their sacrifices, the Pelasgians called upon gods without giving a name or nickname to any. (I know this, because I was told at Dodona [famous ancient oracle in Epeiros, western side of central Greece]). For as yet they had not heard names. They called them gods from the fact that, besides setting everything in order, they maintained all the dispositions. (2) Then, after a long while, first they learned the names of the rest of the gods, which came to them from Egypt, and, much later, the name of Dionysos.

53 But where each of the gods came from or whether they all had always been, as well as how they appeared in form, they did not know until yesterday or the day before, so to speak. For I suppose Hesiod and Homer flourished not more than four hundred years earlier than I, and these are the ones who taught the Greeks the descent of the gods, gave the gods their names, determined their spheres and functions, and described their outward forms. But the poets who are said to have been earlier than these men were, in my opinion, later. The earlier part of all this is what the priestesses of Dodona relate. The later, that which concerns Hesiod and Homer, is what I myself say.

[Egyptian origin of the ancient oracle of Zeus at Dodona in Epeiros]

54 But about the oracles in Greece and that one which is in Libya, the Egyptians give the following account: The priests of Zeus of Thebes [in Egypt] told me that two priestesses had been carried away from Thebes by Phoenicians. They said that they had heard that one priestess was taken away and sold in Libya, the other in Greece. These women, they said, were the first founders of places of divination among the peoples mentioned above. (2) When I asked them how it was that they could speak with such certain knowledge, they said in reply that their people had searched diligently for these women and had never been able to find them, but later they had learned the story which they were telling me.

55 So that was what I heard from the Theban priests. What follows is told by the prophetesses of Dodona: namely, that two black doves had come flying from Thebes in Egypt, one to Libya and one to Dodona. (2) The latter settled on an oak tree, and there uttered human speech declaring that a place of divination from Zeus must be made there. The people of Dodona understood that the message was divine and therefore established the oracular shrine. (3) The dove which came to Libya told the Libyans, as they say, to make an oracle of Ammon. This also is sacred to Zeus.

57 I suppose that these women were called “doves” by the people of Dodona because they spoke a strange language, and the people thought it sounded like the calls of birds. At this point the woman spoke what they could understand, and that is why they say that the dove uttered human speech. As long as she spoke in her foreign language, they thought her voice was like the voice of a bird. For how could a dove utter human speech? The tale that the dove was black signifies that the woman was Egyptian.

58 The methods of divination at Thebes in Egypt and Dodona [in Epeiros] resemble one another. Moreover, the practice of divining from the sacrificed victim has also come from Egypt. It would seem also that the Egyptians were the first people to establish ceremonial assemblies, processions, and services. The Greeks learned all that from them. I consider this positively proved, because the Egyptian ceremonies are manifestly very ancient and the Greek are of recent origin.

[Egyptian festivals]

59 The Egyptians hold ceremonial assemblies not once a year but often. The principal one of these and the most enthusiastically celebrated is that in honour of Artemis at the town of Boubastis [an island in the Nile Delta]. The next is that in honour of Isis at Bousiris. (2) This town is in the middle of the Egyptian Delta, and in it there is a very great temple of Isis, who is Demeter in the Greek language. (3) The third greatest festival is at Sais in honour of Athena. The fourth is the festival of the sun at Heliopolis. The fifth of Leto at Boutos, and the sixth of Ares at Papremis.

60 When the people are on their way to Boubastis, they go by river with a large number of men and women together in every boat. Some of the women make a noise with rattles, others play flutes all the way, while the rest of the women and the men sing and clap their hands. (2) As they travel by river to Boubastis, whenever they come near any other town they bring their boat near the bank. Then some of the women continue to act as I have said, while some shout and make a mockery of the town’s women. Other women dance, and some stand up and lift their skirts. They do this whenever they come alongside any riverside town. (3) But when they have reached Boubastis, they make a festival with great sacrifices and more wine is drunk at this feast than in the whole rest of the year. It is customary for men and women – but not children – to assemble there in numbers upwards of seven hundred thousand, as the people of the place say.

61 The following is what they do there. I have already described how they keep the feast of Isis at Bousiris. There, after the sacrifice, all the men and women lament in countless numbers. But it is not pious for me to say for whom they lament. (2) Carians who live in Egypt do even more than this since they cut their foreheads with knives. By this action, they show that they are foreigners and not Egyptians.

62 When they assemble at Sais on the night of the sacrifice, they keep lamps burning outside around their houses. These lamps are saucers full of salt and oil on which the wick floats, and they burn all night. This is called the Feast of Lamps. (2) Egyptians who do not come to this are mindful on the night of sacrifice to keep their own lamps burning, and so they are lit not only at Sais but throughout Egypt. A sacred tale is told about why this night is lit up and honoured in this way.

63 When the people go to Heliopolis and Boutos, they offer sacrifice only. At Papremis sacrifice is offered and rites performed just like elsewhere, but when the sun is setting, a few of the priests hover around the image of the god, while most of them go and stand in the entrance to the temple with clubs of wood in their hands. Others, namely more than a thousand men fulfilling vows, who also carry wooden clubs, stand in a crowd opposite the priests. (2) They carry the image of the god in a little gilded wooden shrine to another sacred building on the day before this event. The few who are left with the image of the god pull a four-wheeled wagon transporting the shrine and the image that is in the shrine. The others stand in the space before the doors and do not let them enter, while the vow-keepers taking the side of the god [i.e. those who have sworn an oath to aid the god] strike at those who defend themselves. (3) A fierce fight with clubs breaks out there, and they are hit on their heads. Many, I expect, even die from their wounds, although the Egyptians said that nobody dies. (4) The natives say that they made this assembly a custom from the following incident: The mother of Ares lived in this temple. Ares had been raised apart from her and came, when he grew up, wishing to visit his mother. But as her attendants kept him out and would not let him pass, never having seen him before, Ares brought men from another town, mistreated the attendants, and went to his mother. From this event, they say, this hitting for Ares became a custom in the festival.

[Egyptian purity customs]

64 Furthermore, it was Egyptian worshippers who first made it a custom not to have intercourse with women in temples or to enter a temple after such intercourse without washing. Nearly all other peoples are less careful in this matter than are the Egyptians and Greeks, and they consider a man to be like any other animal. (2) For animals and birds, they say, are seen to mate both in the temples and in the sacred precincts. Therefore, were this displeasing to the god, the animals would not do so. This is the reason given by others for practices which I, for my part, dislike. The Egyptians in this and in all other matters are exceedingly strict against desecration of their temples.

[Egyptian customs regarding sacred animals]

65 Although Egypt has Libya on its borders, it is not a country of many animals. All of them are held sacred. Some of these are part of men’s households and some not. If I were to say why they are left alone as sacred, I should end up talking of matters of divinity, which I am especially averse to treating. I have never touched upon such things except where it has been necessary. (3) But I will indicate how it is customary to deal with the animals. Men and women are appointed guardians to provide nourishment for each kind respectively. A son inherits this job from his father. (4) When they pay their vows and pray to the god to whom the animal is dedicated, people in each town shave either all, a half, or a third of their children’s heads and weigh the hair in a balance against a sum of silver. Then the weight of the hair in silver is given to the female guardian of the creatures, who buys fish with it and feeds them. (5) In this way, food is provided for them. Whoever kills one of these creatures intentionally is punished with death. If he kills one accidentally, he pays whatever penalty the priests designate. Whoever kills an ibis or a hawk, intentionally or not, must die for it.

66 There are many household animals and there would be many more, were it not for what happens among the cats. When the female cats have a litter, they are no longer receptive to the males. Those male cats that seek to have intercourse with them cannot. (2) So their recourse is to steal, carry off and kill the kittens, but they do not eat what they have killed. The mothers, deprived of their young and desiring to have more, will then approach the males. For they are creatures that love offspring. (3) When a fire breaks out, very strange things happen among the cats. The Egyptians stand around in a broken line, thinking more of the cats than of quenching the fire. But the cats slip through or leap over the men and spring into the fire. (4) When this happens, there is great mourning in Egypt. The occupants of a house where a cat has died a natural death shave their eyebrows and nothing else. Whereas when a dog has died, the head and the whole body are shaven.

67 Dead cats are taken away to sacred buildings in the town of Boubastis, where they are embalmed and buried. Female dogs are buried in sacred coffins by the people in their own towns, and this is similarly done with mongooses. Shrewmice and hawks are taken away to Boutos, ibises to the city of Hermes. (2) There are few bears, and the wolves are slightly bigger than foxes. Both of these are buried wherever they are found lying.

[Digression on the crocodile in 68 omitted]

69 Some of the Egyptians consider crocodiles sacred, while others do not and treat them as enemies. Those who live near Thebes and Moiris lake [modern Qarun lake] consider them very sacred. (2) Every household raises one crocodile, trained to be tame. They put ornaments of glass and gold on its ears and bracelets on its front feet, provide for it special food and offerings, and give the creatures the best of treatment while they live. After death, the crocodiles are embalmed and buried in sacred coffins. (3) But around Elephantine they are not held sacred and are even eaten. The Egyptians do not call them crocodiles, but champsai. The Ionians named them crocodiles from their resemblance to the lizards, which they have on their walls. The Ionian Greek word for “lizard” is krokodeilos.

[Material on various animals omitted.]

[Health and diet of the Egyptian people – including the impact of climate]

77 Among the Egyptians themselves, those who live on cultivated land are the most attentive of all men at preserving the memory of the past, and no one else whom I have questioned is so skilled in this. (2) They practice the following way of life. They purge themselves for three consecutive days in every month, pursuing health by means of vomit-inducing substances and enemas, for they think that the food they eat causes all sicknesses. (3) Even without this, the Egyptians are the healthiest of all men next to the Libyans. The explanation for this, in my opinion, is that the climate is the same in all seasons. For change is the great cause of men’s falling sick, more especially changes of seasons. (4) They eat bread, making loaves which they call “kyllestis” of coarse grain [i.e. bread loaves twisted to a point]. For wine, they use a drink made from barley, for they have no vines in their country. They eat fish either raw and sun-dried or preserved with brine. (5) Quails, ducks and small birds are salted and eaten raw. All other kinds of birds, as well as fish – except those that the Egyptians consider sacred – are eaten roasted or boiled.

[Other Egyptian customs]

78 After rich men’s banquets, a man carries around an image in a coffin, painted and carved in exact imitation of a corpse two or four feet long. This he shows to each of the guests, saying “While you drink and enjoy, look on this, because you will end up in this condition when you die.” Such is the custom at their drinking parties.

79 They keep the customs of their ancestors without adding anything to them. Among other notable customs of theirs is this, that they have one song, the Linos-song [i.e. a hymn for slain youth], which is sung in Phoenicia, Cyprus, and elsewhere. Each people has a name of their own for this, (2) but it happens to be the same song that the Greeks sing and call Linos.  Among many things in Egypt that amaze me, one is where did the Egyptians get Linos? Plainly they have always sung this song, but in Egyptian Linos is called Maneros [likely derived from ma-n-hra, “come back to us.”] (3) The Egyptians told me that Maneros was the only son of their first king, who died prematurely, and this lamentation was sung by the Egyptians in his honour. This, they said, was their earliest and their only chant.

80 There is a custom also which no Greeks, except the Lakedaimonians [i.e. Spartans], have in common with the Egyptians. Younger men, upon encountering their elders, yield the pathway and stand aside, and when the elders approach, the younger men rise from their seats for them. (2) But they are like none of the Greeks in this way: those who pass by one another do not address each other but salute by lowering the hand to the knee.

81 They wear linen tunics with fringes hanging about the legs called “kalasiris” and loose white woolen cloaks over these. But nothing woolen is brought into temples or buried with their dead, for that is impious. (2) On these points of argument, they agree with the practices called Orphic and Bacchic, which in fact are Egyptian and Pythagorean in origin. For it is also impious for one who partakes of these rites to be buried in woolen wrappings. There is a sacred legend about this.

[Divination and related customs]

82 Other things originating with the Egyptians are as follows. Each month and day belong to one of the gods, and how each person will fare in life, how they will come to their end and what their personality will be like are determined according to the day of their birth. Those Greeks occupied with poetry borrowed these practices. (2) More portents have been discovered by the Egyptians than by all other peoples. When a portent occurs, they take note of the outcome and write it down. If something similar happens again, they think it will have a similar result.

83 As to the practice of divination among them, it belongs to no man but to certain members of the gods. There are in their country oracles of Herakles, Apollo, Athena, Artemis, Ares, Zeus, and Leto, the most honoured of all, in the town of Boutos. Nevertheless, they have several ways of divination, not just one.

[Practice of medicine]

84 The practice of medicine is so specialized among them that each physician is a healer of one disease and no more. All the land is full of physicians, some of the eye, some of the teeth, some of what pertains to the belly, and some of internal diseases.

[Funerary practices and mummification]

85 They mourn and bury the dead in the following manner. Whenever a significant man dies, all the women of the house daub their faces or heads with mud. Then they leave the corpse in the house and roam around the city lamenting with their garments bound around them by a girdle and their breasts showing. All women’s relatives go with them. (2) Elsewhere, the men lament, with garments bound around them in similar fashion. When this is done, they take the dead body to be embalmed.

86 There are men whose sole business is embalming, and they have this special skill. (2) When a dead body is brought to them, they show to those who brought it wooden models of corpses painted with realistic likenesses. The most perfect way of embalming, they say, belongs to one [deity] whose name it would be impious for me to mention in treating such a matter. The second way, which they show, is less perfect than the first and cheaper. The third method of embalming is the least costly of all. Having shown these, they ask those who brought the body in which way they desire to have it prepared. (3) Having agreed on a price, the body-carriers go away and the workmen, left alone in their place, embalm the body.

If they do this in the most perfect way, they first draw out part of the brain through the nostrils with an iron hook and inject certain medicinal ingredients into the rest. (4) Then, after making a cut with a sharp knife of Ethiopian stone near the flank, they take out all the intestines and clean the belly, rinsing it with palm wine and bruised spices. (5) After filling the belly with pure ground myrrh, casia and any other spices (except for frankincense), they sew it up again. After doing this, they conceal the body, embalmed in saltpetre [a naturally occurring nitrate], for seventy days. A longer period for the embalming process is not permitted. (6) When the seventy days have passed, they wash the body and wrap it all in bandages of fine linen cloth anointed with gum, which the Egyptians mostly use instead of glue. (7) Then they give the dead man back to his kin. The kin make a hollow wooden figure in the likeness of a man into which they enclose the corpse. After shutting it within, they keep it safe in a coffin-chamber placed upright against a wall.

87 That is how they prepare the dead in the most expensive way. Those who want the middle way and shun the costly, they prepare the body as follows. (2) The embalmers charge their syringes with cedar oil and fill the belly of the dead man with it, without making a cut or removing the intestines, but injecting the fluid through the anus and preventing it from running out. Then they embalm the body for the prescribed number of days. On the last day, they drain the belly of the cedar oil, which they put in before. (3) It has such great power as to bring out with it the internal organs and intestines all dissolved. Meanwhile, the flesh is decomposed by the saltpetre, and in the end nothing is left of the body but hide and bones. Then the embalmers return the dead body.

88 The third manner of embalming, by which the poorer dead are prepared, is the following: They cleanse the belly with a purge, embalm the body for the seventy days and then give it back to be taken away.

89 Wives of notable men and women of great beauty and reputation are not immediately given to the embalmers, but only after they have been dead for three or four days. (2) This is done to deter the embalmers from having intercourse with the women. For it is said that one was caught having intercourse with the fresh corpse of a woman and was denounced by his fellow-workers.

90 Anyone, Egyptian or foreigner, known to have been carried off by a crocodile or drowned by the river itself, must by all means be embalmed and wrapped as attractively as possible and buried in a sacred coffin by the people of the place where he is brought lifeless to shore. (2) None of his relatives or friends may touch him, but his body is considered something more than human, and it is handled and buried by the priests of the Nile themselves.

[Competitions at Chemmis compared to Greek customs]

91 The Egyptians shun using Greek customs and, generally speaking, the customs of all other peoples as well. Yet, though the rest are wary of this, there is a great city called Chemmis [modern Akhmim] in the Theban district, near Neapolis. (2) In this city is a square temple of Perseus [likely either the Egyptian god Min or Horos] son of Danai, in a grove of palm trees. There is a very large stone colonnade in front of this temple and there are two great stone statues at the entrance. In this outer court there is a shrine with an image of Perseus standing in it. (3) The people of this Chemmis say that Perseus is seen often up and down this land, and often within the temple, and that the sandal he wears, which is four feet long, keeps turning up. When it does turn up, all Egypt prospers. (4) This is what they say and their actions in honour of Perseus are Greek, in so far as they celebrate games that include every form of contest and offer animals, cloaks and skins as prizes. (5) When I asked why Perseus appeared only to them, and why they celebrate games unlike all other Egyptians, they told me that Perseus was by lineage from their city. For Danaos and Lynkeus, who travelled to Greece, were from Chemmis, and they traced descent from these down to Perseus. (6) They explained also how Perseus came to Chemmis and recognized all his relatives, when he came to Egypt for the reason which the Greeks also tell – namely, to bring the Gorgon’s head from Libya – and they said that he had heard the name of Chemmis from his mother before he came to Egypt. It was at his bidding, they said, that they celebrated the games.

[Customs in the Egyptian marshlands]

92 All these are the customs of Egyptians who live above the marshland [of the Delta region]. Those who inhabit the marshes have the same customs as the rest of Egyptians, including that each man has one wife like the Greeks. They have, besides, devised means to make their food less costly. (2) When the river floods and flows over the plains, many lilies, which the Egyptians call lotuses, grow in the water. They gather these and dry them in the sun. Then they crush the poppy-like center of the plant and bake loaves using it. (3) The root of this lotus is edible and sweet. It is round, and the size of an apple. (4) Other lilies grow in the river as well that are like roses. The fruit of these is found in a bud springing from the root by a separate stalk and is most like a comb made by wasps. This produces many edible seeds as big as olive pits, which are eaten both fresh and dried. (5) They also use the byblos [i.e. same plant used for papyrus] which grows annually. It is gathered from the marshes, the top of it cut off and put to other uses, and the lower part, about twenty inches long, is eaten or sold. Those who wish to use the byblos at its very best roast it before eating in a red-hot oven. Some live on fish alone. They catch the fish, take out the intestines, then dry them in the sun and eat them dried.

94  The Egyptians who live around the marshes use an oil drawn from the castor-berry which they call kiki. They seed this plant, which grows wild in Greece, on the banks of the rivers and lakes. (2)… when they gather this, some bruise and press it, others boil it after roasting and collect the liquid that comes from it [i.e. castor oil]. This liquid is thick and useful as oil for lamps, and it gives off a strong smell.

[Customs for protection against mosquitos]

95 Against the mosquitos that abound, the following have been devised by the Egyptians. Those who dwell higher up than the marshland make use of the towers, which they climb when they go to sleep, for the winds prevent the mosquitos from flying upwards. (2) Those living within the marshes have a different recourse instead of the towers. Every one of them has a net, with which he catches fish by day, and at night he sets it around the bed where he rests, then creeps under it and sleeps. (3) If he sleeps wrapped in a garment or cloth, the mosquitos bite through it, but they absolutely do not venture through the net.

[Customs relating to boats]

96 The boats in which they carry cargo are made of the acacia [a.k.a. “Mimosa Nilotica”]… They cut four feet long logs from this tree and lay them like courses of bricks and build the boat (2) by fastening these four-foot logs to long and close-set stakes. After doing this, they set crossbeams diagonally and on the logs. They use no ribs. They seal with caulking the seams within with byblos. (3) There is one rudder passing through a hole in the boat’s keel. The mast is of acacia-wood and the sails of byblos. These boats cannot move upstream unless a brisk breeze continues. They are towed from the bank. But downstream they are managed in the following way. (4) They have a raft made of tamarisk wood, which is fastened together with matting of reeds, and they have a pierced stone of about two talents’ weight. The raft is let go to float in front of the boat and is fastened to it by a rope, and the stone is connected to the back of the boat by a rope. (5) So, driven by the current, the raft floats swiftly and tows the “baris”, which is the name of these boats. The stone, which drags behind on the river bottom, keeps the boat’s course straight. There are many of these boats ­and some transport loads of many thousands of talents.

[Sections omitted].

[Egyptian kings and their civilizational achievements]

99 So far all I have said is the outcome of my own sight and judgment and inquiry. From here on I will record Egyptian chronicles, according to that which I have heard, adding to them somewhat things I have seen myself. The priests told me that Min [Menes] was the first king of Egypt, and that first he separated Memphis from the Nile by a dam. All the river had flowed close under the sandy mountains on the Libyan side, but Min made the southern bend of it which begins about an hundred furlongs above Memphis, by damming the stream. In this way he dried up the ancient course of the river, and carried the river by a channel so that it flowed half-way in between the hills. . .  Then, when this first king Min had made what he cut off to be dry land, he first founded in it that city which is now called Memphis, for even Memphis lies in the narrow part of Egypt. Outside of it he dug a lake to its north and west, from the river (the Nile itself being the eastern boundary of the place). Secondly, he built in it the great and most noteworthy temple of Hephaistos [Ptah].

100 After him came three hundred and thirty kings, whose names the priests recited from a papyrus roll.​ . . . 101 But of the other kings they related no achievement or deed of great note, except Moiris [Amenemhet III], who was the last of them. This Moiris was remembered as having built the northern forecourt of the temple of Hephaistos [Ptah]. He also dug a lake of as many furlongs around as I will show further below. He also built pyramids there, the size of which I will mention when I speak of the lake. All this was Moiris’ work, they said. They did not have anything to record about the rest of these early kings.

[Sesostris’ / Senwosret’s legendary achievements]

102 Passing over these, therefore, I will now speak of the king who came after them, Sesostris [transliteration of the Egyptian name Senwosret, of which there were several beginning in 1991 BCE]. This king, said the priests, set out with a fleet of long ships​ from the Arabian gulf which is by the Erythraian sea and subdued all settlers by the Red Sea until, as he sailed on, he came to a sea which was too shallow for his vessels. After returning back to Egypt, he gathered a great army (according to the story of the priests) and marched over the mainland, subduing every people (ethnos) to which he came. When those that he met were courageous men who worked hard for freedom, he set up pillars in their land with an inscription showing his name and that of his homeland and describing how he had overcome them with his own power. When the cities had made no resistance and been easily taken, then he put an inscription on the pillars like those where the peoples were courageous; however, he depicted the pudendum of a woman on the monument because he wanted to to show clearly that the people were cowardly.

103 As he did this, he marched over the land until he had passed over from Asia to Europe and subdued the Scythians and Thracians. This far and no farther, I think, the Egyptian army went. For the pillars can be seen standing in their country, but in none beyond it. From there he turned around and went back towards home. When he came to the Phasis river [modern Rioni], it may be (for I cannot speak with exact knowledge) that King Sesostris divided off some part of his army and left it there to settle in the country, or it may be that some of his soldiers grew tired of his wanderings and stayed by the Phasis.

[Digression on Egyptian origin of the people of Kolchos in the Caucasus mountain area, with reference to circumcision]

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’ 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; and they are alike in all their manner of life, and in their speech. Linen has two names: the Kolchian kind is called by the Greeks Sardonian. That which comes from Egypt is called Egyptian.

[Continuation of Sesostris’ legendary achievements]

106 As to the pillars which Sesostris, king of Egypt, set up in the countries, most of them are no longer to be seen. But I myself saw them in the Palestine part of Syria, with the inscription I mentioned and the woman’s pudendum on them. Also there are in Ionia two figures​ of Sesostris carved in rock, one on the road from Ephesos to Phokaia, and the other on that from Sardis to Smyrna. In both places there is a man of a height of four cubits and a half cut in relief, with a spear in his right hand and a bow in his left, and the rest of his equipment. For it is both Egyptian and Ethiopian, and right across the breast from one shoulder to the other there is carved a writing in Egyptian sacred characters, saying: “I myself won this land with the might of my shoulders.” There is nothing here to show who he is and where he comes from, but it is shown elsewhere. Some of those who have seen these figures guess them to be Memnon, but they are wrong.

107 Now when this Egyptian Sesostris (so said the priests), being on his way home and bringing many men of the peoples whose lands he had subdued, had come in his return to Daphnai of Pelousion, his brother, to whom he had given Egypt in charge, invited him and his sons to a banquet and then piled wood round the house and set it on fire. When Sesostris was aware of this, he took counsel at once with his wife, whom (it was said) he was bringing with him; and she counselled him to lay two of his six sons on the fire and to make a bridge over the burning whereby they might pass over the bodies of the two and escape. Sesostris did this, and two of his sons were thus burned, but the rest were saved alive with their father.

108 After returning to Egypt and taking vengeance on his brother, Sesostris found work for all the people which he brought with him from the lands which he had subdued, as I will show. It was these who dragged the great and long blocks of stone which were brought in this king’s reign to the temple of Hephaistos [Ptah]. They were compelled to dig all the canals which are now in Egypt. Although unintentional, by doing this they made a land known for horses and carts to no longer be that. For from this time Egypt, even though a level land, could use no horses or carts by reason of the canals being so many and going every way. The reason why the king intersected the country in this way was this: those Egyptians whose towns were not on the Nile but inland from it lacked water whenever the flood left their land, and drank only brackish water from wells.

109  For this reason Egypt was intersected. This king moreover (so they said) divided the land among all the Egyptians by giving each an equal square parcel of land, and made this his source of revenue, appointing the payment of a yearly tax. Any man who was robbed by the river of a part of his land would come to Sesostris and declare what had happened to him. Then the king would send men to look into it and measure the space by which the land was diminished, so that afterwards it should pay in proportion to the tax originally imposed. From this, to my thinking, the Greeks learned the technique of measuring land. The sunclock and the sundial, and the twelve divisions of the day, came to Greece not from Egypt but from Babylonia.

110 Sesostris was the only Egyptian king who also ruled Ethiopia. To commemorate his name, he set before the temple of Hephaistos two stone statues of himself and his wife, each thirty cubits high, and statues of his four sons, each of twenty cubits. Long afterwards Darius the Persian would have set up his statue before these. But the priest of Hephaistos did not allow him to do this, saying that he had achieved nothing equal to the achievments of Sesostris the Egyptian. For Sesostris (the priest said) had subdued the Scythians, besides as many other peoples as Darius had conquered. And Darius had not been able to overcome the Scythians. Therefore, it was not just that Darius should set his statue before the statues of Sesostris, whose achievements he had not equalled. Darius, it is said, let the priest have his way.

111 When Sesostris died, he was succeeded in the kingship (so said the priests) by his son Pheros.​ . .  [Succession of pharaohs omitted]

[Egyptian immortal soul]

123 . . (2) The Egyptians were the first who maintained the following doctrine as well that the human soul is immortal and, at the death of the body, it enters into some other living thing at the moment of its birth. After passing through all creatures of land, sea, and air, it enters once more into a human body at birth, a cycle which it completes in three thousand years.

[Cow worship at Sais in connection with the goddess Isis]

129 (3) … [Pharoah Mykerinos] though mild toward his people and conducting himself as he did, yet he suffered calamities, the first of which was the death of his daughter, the only child of his household. Deeply grieved over this misfortune, he wanted to give her a burial somewhat more extravagant than ordinary. He therefore made a hollow cow’s image of gilded wood and placed the body of his dead daughter in it. 130 This cow was not buried in the earth but was to be seen even in my time, in the town of Sais, where it stood in a furnished room of the palace. Incense of all kinds is offered daily before it, and a lamp burns by it all through every night. (2) Near this cow in another chamber stand statues of Mykerinos’ concubines, so the priests of Sais said, and in fact there are about twenty colossal wooden figures there, made like naked women, but beyond what I was told, I cannot tell who these figures are. 132 As for the cow, it is covered with a purple robe, only the head and neck exposed, encrusted with a very thick layer of gold. Between the horns is the golden figure of the sun’s orb. (2) It does not stand, but kneels. It is as big as a live cow of great size. This image is carried out of the chamber once every year, whenever the Egyptians mourn the god whose name I omit in speaking of these matters. (3) Then the cow is brought out into the light – for they say that before she died the daughter asked her father, Mykerinos, that she see the sun once a year.

[Material omitted]

[Social organization of Egypt]

164 The Egyptians are divided into seven classes: priests, warriors, cattle-tenders, pig-tenders, merchants, interpreters, and ship navigators. This is how many classes there are, and each is named after its occupation. (2) The warriors are divided into Kalasiries and Hermotubies, and they belong to the following districts, for all subdivisions in Egypt are made according to districts (nomes).

165 The following are the districts of the Hermotubies: Bousiris, Sais, Chemmis, and Papremis, the island called Prosopitis, and half of Natho. The Hermotubies are from all these districts. Their number at its greatest reached one-hundred and sixty thousand. None of these people have learned anything of common trade, but rather they are free to follow the military profession alone.

166 The Kalasiries are from the districts of Thebes, Boubastis, Aphthis, Tanis, Mendes, Sebennys, Athribis, Pharbaïthis, Thmuis, Onuphis, Anytis, Myekphoris. This last place is in an island opposite the city of Boubastis (2) The Kalasiries are from all these districts. Their number at its greatest reached two-hundred and fifty thousand men. These people as well are not permitted to practise any trade but war, which is their hereditary calling.

168 The warriors were the only Egyptians, except the priests, who had special privileges. For each of them there was set apart an untaxed plot of twelve acres. This acre is a square of a hundred Egyptian cubits each way, the Egyptian cubit being equal to the Samian. These lands were set apart for all, it was never the same men who cultivated them, but each in turn [i.e. each twelve-acre plot was given to a new tenant every year]. A thousand Kalasiries and as many Hermotubies were the king’s annual bodyguard. Besides their alotted plot of land, these men each received a daily provision of roast grain five minai in measure, two minai of beef, and four cups of wine. These were the gifts received by each bodyguard.

[Egyptian census law as inspiration for Solon]

177 It is said that Egypt attained to its greatest prosperity in the reign of Amasis [II, reigned 570-526 BCE], with respect to what the river did for the land and the land did for its people. It is said that the number of inhabited cities in the land totaled twenty thousand. (2) It was Amasis also who made the following law, which stipulated that every Egyptian declare his means of livelihood annually to the ruler of his district [nomarchēs], and that failing to make these declarations or failing to demonstrate a just livelihood would be punishable by death. Solon the Athenian got this law from Egypt and established it among his people. May they always have it, for it is a perfect law.


[For Herodotos’ preceding discussion of the Persians, go to this link (coming soon)]

Book 3 (on Persians)

[Persian and Egyptian physical features the result of climate]

12 (2)… the Egyptians shave their heads from childhood, and the bone thickens by exposure to the sun. (3) This also is the reason why they do not grow bald, for nowhere can one see so few bald heads as in Egypt. (4) Their skulls then are strong for this reason, while the Persian skulls are weak because they cover their heads throughout their lives with the felt hats (called tiaras) which they wear.

[Persian and Egyptian perceptions on fire]

16 . . . [2] When the Persians were weary of doing this [i.e. desecrating the body of the deceased Egyptian Pharaoh, Amasis II] – for the body, being embalmed, remained whole and did not fall to pieces ­– Cambyses [reigned 530-522 BCE] gave orders to burn it, a sacrilegious command. For the Persians hold fire to be a god. (3) Therefore neither people thinks it right to burn the dead. The Persians for the reason given, as they say it is wrong to give the dead body of a man to a god, while the Egyptians believe fire to be a living beast that devours all that it catches, and when sated with its meal dies together with that on which it feeds.

[Persian king Cambyses and the Egyptian festival of Apis at Memphis]

27 When Cambyses was back at Memphis, there appeared in Egypt that god Apis – whom the Greeks call Epaphos – and when he appeared, the Egyptians put on their best clothing and held a festival. (2) Seeing the Egyptians doing this, Cambyses was fully persuaded that these signs of joy were for his misfortunes, and he summoned the rulers of Memphis. When they came before him, he asked them why the Egyptians behaved in this manner at the moment he returned with so many of his army lost, though they had done nothing like it when he was at Memphis earlier. (3) The rulers told him that a god, who is habitually inclined to appear after long intervals of time, had now appeared to them, and that all Egypt rejoiced and made holiday whenever he so appeared. . .  28 . . . (2) This Apis, or Epaphos, is a calf born of a cow that can never conceive again. By what the Egyptians say, the cow is made pregnant by a light from the heavens, and afterwards gives birth to Apis. (3) The marks of this calf called Apis are the following: He is black, and he has on his forehead a three-cornered white spot and the likeness of an eagle on his back. The hairs of the tail are double, and there is a knot under the tongue.

Leave a comment or correction

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *