Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Egyptians: Hekataios of Miletos on encountering Theban priests (late sixth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 24, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=14040.
Ancient authors: Hekataios (or: Hecataeus) of Miletos (sixth century BCE), as discussed by Herodotos of Halikarnassos (mid-fifth century BCE), Inquiries, or Histories 2.143-144 (link)
Comments: The passage presented below is somewhat renowned as the earliest preserved story about an encounter between a Greek (Hekataios of Miletos) and the priests of Thebes in Egypt. Writing about 420 BCE, Herodotos of Halikarnassos is concerned to differentiate himself from his predecessor of the sixth century, Hekataios, in various ways. Herodotos presents Hekataios as, in part, a bit presumptuous about the importance of his own Greek heritage and lineage when faced with the long history of Egyptian priests and culture. Herodotos presents himself as a bit more careful and, ultimately, open to the great antiquity of the Egyptians. This apparent respect is coupled with other areas of ambivalence and irony (i.e. the supposed inverted character of Egyptian customs), as Herodotos’ full account of the Egyptians shows (link).
Works consulted: I. Moyer, Egypt and the Limits of Hellenism (Cambridge: CUP, 2011), especially pages 42-83.
Source of the translation: A. D. Godley, Herodotus, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-25), public domain, adapted and modernized by Harland.
Hekataios (or: Hecataeus) the writer of accounts was once at Thebes, where he made for himself a genealogy which connected him by lineage with a god in the sixteenth generation. But the [Egyptian, Theban] priests did for him what they did for me (who had not traced my own lineage). They brought me into the great inner court of the temple and showed me there wooden figures which they counted up to the number they had already given, for every high priest sets there in his lifetime a statue of himself. Pointing to these statues and enumerating them, the priests showed me that each priest inherited from his father. They went through the whole tale of figures from the one who had died most recently back to the earliest one. Thus when Hekataios had traced his descent and claimed that his sixteenth ancestor was a god, the priests also traced a line of descent according to the method of their counting. They would not be persuaded by Hekataios that a man could be descended from a god. They traced descent through the whole line of three hundred and forty-five figures, not connecting it with any ancestral god or hero, but declaring each figure to be a “Piromis [good man] the son of a Piromis,” that is, in the Greek language, a “completely good man.”
So the priests showed that all those represented in the statues standing there had been good men, but completely unlike gods. Before these men, they said, the rulers of Egypt were gods, but none had been contemporary with the human priests. Among these gods one or other had in succession been supreme. The last of the gods to rule the country was Osiris’ son Horos, the latter being called “Apollo” by Greeks. Osiris deposed Typhon, and was the last divine king of Egypt. In the Greek language, Osiris is “Dionysos.” . . . [omitted extensive discussion of the gods and dynasties].