Ethiopians: Diodoros on their claims, appearance, and customs (mid-first century BCE)

Ancient authors: Herodotos, Ktesias, and others in Diodoros of Sicily, Library of History 2.15 (link Greek text and full translation); 3.2-10 (link to Greek text and full translation).

Comments: As with his account on Egyptians, Diodoros of Sicily (or: Diodorus Siculus) begins his main discussion of ostensible Ethiopian perspectives with the observation that these people claimed to be the original inhabitants from which all of humanity descended (via colonization) and the originators of important aspects of civilization, particularly the custom of honouring the gods. Diodoros here is sometimes claiming to be describing what “they [Ethiopians] say,” although this stance is less common than in his Egyptian account. (In the earlier discussion of Ethiopian burial presented below, he expressly draws on Greek sources, both Herodotos and Ktesias). Clearly, the somewhat extensive physical description of Ethiopians does not claim to be drawing on Ethiopian sources and clearly reflects Greek stereotypes, as do other sections.

Although Greek authors could in some ways positively portray Ethiopians as close to the gods (which is hinted at in Diodoros’ account), Diodoros or his source does not refrain from strongly negative evaluations of these people. In particular, near his conclusion he finishes with the idea that they are far from human (lacking philanthropia) and closest to animals in their lifestyle, which is quite distanced from an alternative noble image of the far-off Ethiopians banqueting with the gods in other Greek ethnographic writing.

Source of the translation: C. H. Oldfather, Library of History, volumes 1-2, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1933-1935), public domain (copyright not renewed), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.

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Book 2

[Customs surrounding death]

15  In the burial of their dead, the inhabitants of Ethiopia follow customs peculiar to themselves. After they have embalmed the body and have poured a heavy coat of glass over it they stand it on a pillar, so that the body of the dead man is visible through the glass to those who pass by. This is the statement of Herodotos.​

(2) But Ktesias of Knidos, declaring that Herodotos is inventing a tale, gives for his part this account: The body is indeed embalmed, but glass is not poured about the naked bodies, for they would be burned and so completely disfigured that they could no longer preserve their likeness. (3) For this reason they fashion a hollow statue of gold and when the corpse has been put into this they pour the glass over the statue. Prepared in this way, the figure is then placed at the tomb and the gold, fashioned as it is to resemble the deceased, is seen through the glass. (4) Now the rich among them are buried in this way, he says, but those who leave a smaller estate receive a silver statue, and the poor receive one made of pottery. As for the glass, there is enough of it for everyone, since it occurs in great abundance in Ethiopia and is quite current among the inhabitants. (5) With regard to the custom prevailing among the Ethiopians and the other features of their country, we will present those that are the most important and deserving of record a little later on, at which time we will also recount their early deeds and their mythology.

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Book 3 

[Ethiopians as the earliest people

Now the Ethiopians, as historians relate, were the first of all people and the proofs of this statement, they say, are clear. They say that practically everyone agrees that they did not come into their land as immigrants from abroad but were natives of it and so are rightly described as “sprung from the land” (autochthones; or: indigeonous). Furthermore, it is clear to everyone that those who dwell beneath the noon-day sun were, in all likelihood, the first to be generated by the earth. This is because, insofar as the warmth of the sun dried up the earth when it was still wet and impregnated it with life at the time when the universe was generated, it is reasonable to suppose that the region which was nearest the sun was the first to bring forth living creatures. (2) They say that they were the first to be taught to honour the gods and to hold sacrifices, processions, festivals, and the other rites by which people honour the deity. They also say that the consequence of this is that their piety has been published abroad among all people, and it is generally held that the sacrifices practised among the Ethiopians are those which are the most pleasing to the heavens. (3) As witness to this they call upon the poet who is perhaps the oldest and certainly the most venerated among the Greeks. For in the Iliad​, he represents both Zeus and the rest of the gods with him as absent on a visit to Ethiopia to share in the sacrifices and the banquet which were given annually by the Ethiopians for all the gods together: “For Zeus had yesterday to Ocean’s bounds / Set forth to feast with Ethiopia’s faultless men, / And he was followed there by all the gods” [Homer, Iliad, 1.423‑424]. (4) They also state that, by reason of their piety towards the deity, they clearly enjoy the favour of the gods, inasmuch as they have never experienced the rule of an invader from abroad. For they have always enjoyed a state of freedom and of peace one with another, and although many and powerful rulers have made war upon them, not one of these has succeeded in his undertaking.

[Legends about Ethiopian colonization of Egypt, according to Ethiopians]

(1) . . . They say also that the Egyptians are colonists sent out by the Ethiopians, Osiris having been the leader of the colony. (2) For they maintain that, generally speaking, what is now Egypt was not land but sea when in the beginning the universe was being formed. Afterwards, however, as the Nile during the times of its inundation carried the mud down from Ethiopia, land was gradually built up from the deposit. Also the statement that all the land of the Egyptians is alluvial silt deposited by the river receives the clearest proof, in their opinion, from what takes place at the outlets of the Nile. (3) For as each year new mud is continually gathered together at the mouths of the river, the sea is observed being thrust back by the deposited silt and the land receiving the increase.

[Egyptian customs derive from Ethiopian customs, according to Ethiopians]

Most customs of the Egyptians are, they hold, Ethiopian, the colonists still preserving their ancient manners. (4) For instance, the belief that their kings are gods, the very special attention which they pay to their burials, and many other matters of a similar nature are Ethiopian practices, while the shapes of their statues and the forms of their letters are Ethiopian. (5) For of the two kinds of writing​ which the Egyptians have, that which is known as “popular” (demotic) is learned by everyone, while that which is called “sacred”​ is understood only by the priests of the Egyptians. The priests learn it from their fathers as something that is to be kept secret, but among the Ethiopians everyone uses these forms of letters. (6) Furthermore, they maintain that the orders of the priests have much the same position among both peoples. For all who engage in service of the gods are clean​, keeping themselves shaven like the Egyptian priests. They also have the same dress and form of staff, which is shaped like a plough and is carried by their kings, who wear high felt hats which end in a knob at the top and are circled by the serpents which they call asps. This symbol appears to indicate that anyone who dares to attack the king will encounter death-carrying stings.​ (7) Many other things are also told by them concerning their own antiquity and the colony which they sent out that became the Egyptians, but about this there is no special need of our writing anything.

[Ethiopian writing]

We must now speak about the Ethiopian writing which is called hieroglyphic among the Egyptians, in order that we may omit nothing in our discussion of their ancient practices. Now it is found that the forms of their letters take the shape of animals of every kind, and of the members of the human body, and of implements and especially carpenters’ tools. For their writing does not express the intended concept by means of syllables joined one to another, but by means of the significance of the objects which have been copied and by its figurative meaning which has been impressed upon the memory by practice. (2) For instance, they draw the picture of a hawk, a crocodile, a snake, and of the parts of the human body: an eye, a hand, a face, and the like. Now the hawk signifies to them everything which happens swiftly, since this animal is practically the swiftest of winged creatures. The concept portrayed is then transferred, by the appropriate metaphorical transfer, to all swift things and to everything to which swiftness is appropriate, very much as if they had been named. (3) The crocodile is a symbol of all that is evil, and the eye is the guardian of justice and the entire body. as for the members of the body, the right hand with fingers extended signifies a procuring of livelihood, and the left with the fingers closed, a keeping and guarding of property. (4) The same way of reasoning applies also to the remaining characters, which represent parts of the body and implements and all other things. For by paying close attention to the significance which is inherent in each object and by training their minds through drill and exercise of the memory over a long period, they read from habit everything which has been written.

[Customs of Ethiopian kings]

5  As for the customs of the Ethiopians, not a few of them are thought to differ greatly from those of the rest of humankind, this being especially true of those which concern the selection of their kings. The priests, for instance, first choose out the noblest men from their own number. The people choose as king whichever one from this group the god may select by way of him being carried around in a procession in keeping with a certain practice of theirs. Right away the people both worship and honour him like a god, believing that the sovereignty has been entrusted to him by divine providence. (2) the king who has been chosen in this way both follows a regimen which has been fixed in accordance with the laws and performs all his other deeds in accordance with ancestral custom. He accords neither favour nor punishment to anyone contrary to the usage which has been approved among them from the beginning.

It is also a custom of theirs that the king will put no one of his subjects to death, not even if a man will have been condemned to death and is considered deserving of punishment. Instead, he will send one of his attendants to the transgressor bearing a token of death. The guilty person, on seeing the warning, immediately retires to his home and removes himself from life [i.e. commits suicide]. Moreover, for a man to flee from his own into a neighbouring country and thus by moving away from his native land to pay the penalty of his transgression, as is the custom among the Greeks, is permissible under no circumstances. Consequently, they say, once when a man received the token of death from the king but tried to flee from Ethiopia. His mother, on learning of this, bound his neck about with her girdle, but he dared not so much as raise his hands against her in any way but submitted to be strangled until he died, so that he might not leave a greater disgrace​ to his kin.

6  Among all their customs, the most astonishing is what happens in connection with the death of their kings.​ For whenever the idea comes to the priests at Meroe [near Kabushiya, Sudan] – who spend their time in the worship of the gods and the rites which do them honour, being the greatest and most powerful order – they dispatch a messenger to the king with orders that he should die. (2) For the gods, they add, have revealed this to them, and it must be that the command of the immortals should in no way be disregarded by one of mortal frame. this order they accompany with other arguments, such as are accepted by a simple-minded nature, which has been bred in a custom that is both ancient and difficult to eradicate and which knows no argument that can be set in opposition to commands enforced by no compulsion. (3) Now in former times the kings would obey the priests, having been overcome, not by arms nor by force, but because their reasoning powers had been put under a constraint by their very superstition (deisidaimonia). But during the reign of the second Ptolemy [Philadelphos, reigned 284-246 BCE], Ergamenes the king of the Ethiopians, who had had a Greek education and had studied philosophy, was the first to have the courage to disdain the command. (4) For assuming a spirit which became the position of a king, he entered with his soldiers into the unapproachable place where, it turned out, the golden shrine of the Ethiopians stood, and put the priests to the sword. After abolishing this custom, he afterwards ordered that things be done his way.

Strange as it is, the custom relating to the friends of the king persists, they said, down to our own time. For the Ethiopians have the custom, they say, that if their king has been maimed in some part of his body through any cause whatsoever, all his companions suffer the same loss of their own choice. This is because they consider that it would be a disgraceful thing if, when the king had been maimed in his leg, his friends should be sound of limb, and if in leaving the palace they should not all follow the king limping as he did. (2) For it would be strange that steadfast friendship should share sorrow and grief and bear equally all other things both good and evil, but should have no part in the suffering of the body. They say also that it is customary for the comrades of the kings even to die with them of their own accord and that such a death is an honourable one and a proof of true friendship. (3) it is for this reason, they add, that a conspiracy against the king is not easily raised among the Ethiopians, all his friends being equally concerned both for his safety and their own. These, then, are the customs which prevail among the Ethiopians who dwell in their capital​ and those who inhabit both the island of Meroe and the land adjoining Egypt.

[Ethiopian peoples and their customs]

[Physical features]

8  But there are also a great number of descent groups (genē) among the Ethiopians, some of them dwelling in the land lying on both banks of the Nile and on the islands in the river, others inhabiting the neighbouring country of Arabia,​ and still others residing in the interior of Libya. (2) The majority of them, and especially those who dwell along the river, are dark-skinned and have flat noses and wooly hair. As for their spirits, they are entirely wild and display the nature of a wild beast. However, this is not so much in their temper as it is in their ways of living. For their skin is dry, they keep their nails very long like wild beasts, and are as far removed as possible from loving their fellow human beings (philanthropia). (3) Speaking as they do with a shrill voice and cultivating none of the practices of civilized life as these are found among the rest of humankind, they present a striking contrast when considered in the light of our own customs.

[Weapons and clothing]

(4) As for their weapons, some of them use shields of raw ox-hide and short spears, others javelins without a slinging-thong and sometimes bows of wood, four cubits in length, with which they shoot by putting their foot against them. After their arrows are exhausted, they finish the fight with wooden clubs. They also arm their women, setting an age limit for their service, and most of these observe the custom of wearing a bronze ring in the lip. (5) As for clothing, certain of them wear nothing at all, going naked all their life long and making for themselves of whatever comes to hand a rude protection from the heat alone. Others, cutting off the tails and the ends of the hides of their sheep, cover their loins with them, putting the tail before them to screen, after a manner, the shameful part. some make use of the skins of their domestic animals, while there are those who cover their bodies as far as the waist with shirts, which they weave of hair, since their sheep do not produce wool by reason of the peculiar nature of the land.

[Food and hunting]

(6) For food some gather the fruits which are generated in their waters and which grow wild in both the lakes and marshy places. Some of them pluck off the foliage of a very tender kind of tree, with which they also cover their bodies in the midday and cool them in this way, some sow sesame and lotus,​ and there are those who are nourished by the most tender roots of the reeds. Not a few of them are also well trained in the use of the bow and bring down with good aim many birds, with which they satisfy their physical needs. But the greater number live for their entire life on the meat, milk, and cheese of their herds.

[Customs regarding the gods]

With regard to the gods, the Ethiopians who dwell above Meroe entertain two opinions: they believe that some of the gods, such as the sun and the moon and the universe as a whole, have a nature which is eternal and imperishable; but they think other gods share a mortal nature and have come to receive immortal honours because of their virtue and the benefactions which they have bestowed upon all humankind. (2) For instance, they revere Isis and Pan, and also Herakles and Zeus, considering that these deities in particular have been benefactors of humankind. But a few of the Ethiopians do not believe in the existence of any gods at all. Consequently at the rising of the sun they utter imprecations against it as being most hostile to them, and flee to nearby marshes.

[Customs surrounding death]

(3) Different also from those of other peoples are the customs they observe with respect to their dead. Some dispose of them by casting them into the river, thinking this to be the best burial. Others, after pouring glass on the bodies,​ keep them in their houses, since they feel that the countenances of the dead should not be unknown to their kin and that those who are united by ties of blood should not forget their near relations. some put them in coffins made of baked clay and bury them in the ground in a ring about their temples, and they consider that the oath taken by them is the strongest possible.

[Customs regarding kingship]

(4) The kingship some of them grant to the best-looking, believing both supreme power and beauty to be gifts of fortune, while others entrust the rule to the most careful keepers of cattle, as being the only men who would give the best thought to their subjects. Some assign this honour to the wealthiest, since they feel that these alone can come to the aid of the masses because they have the means ready at hand. there are those who choose for their kings men of unusual courage, judging that the most efficient in war are alone worthy to receive the meed of honour.

[Disputes between Ethiopians and Libyans about a particular region]

10  In that part of the country which lies along the Nile in Libya​ there is a section which is remarkable for its beauty. For it bears food in great abundance and of every variety and provides convenient places of retreat in its marshes where one finds protection against the excessive heat. Consequently this region is a bone of contention between the Libyans and the Ethiopians, who wage unceasing warfare with each other for its possession. (2) It is also a gathering-place for a multitude of elephants from the country lying above it because, as some say, the pasturage is abundant and sweet. For marvellous marshes stretch along the banks of the river and in them grows food in great plenty and of every kind. (3) Consequently, whenever the elephants taste the rush and the reed, they remain there because of the sweetness of the food and destroy the means of subsistence of the human beings. because of this, the inhabitants are forced to flee from these regions, and to live as nomads and dwellers in tents. In a word, they are forced to fix the bounds of their country by their advantage. . .

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