HERODOTUS: The History [Book II]

HERODOTUS: The History [Book II]

  • Book 2 is named after the Greek Muse Euterpe. Her name is derived from the Greek word meaning “delight.” She was the muse of music and lyric poetry.
  • The following bullet points provide a concise summary and can be found on Wikipedia. I have expanded upon the points where I thought additional information was required.
  • The proof of the antiquity of the Phrygians by the use of children unexposed to language. One king of Egypt gave instructions that no one should speak a word in the presence of two newborn infants in order to learn who the oldest group of people on earth is. When the two boys said the word “Bekos,” which is the Phrygian word for bread, King Psammetichus concluded that the Phrygians are the oldest group of people on earth.
  • The Giza Pyramids.
  • The geography of Egypt
  • Speculations on the Nile river. No other people in the world toil so little to grow food. The Egyptian farmers merely scatter their seeds after the Nile floods and send their pigs into the field to tread the seeds into the earth, and then wait for harvest time. Herodotus thinks that the Nile floods during the summer months because the sun is close to it and draws the waters toward it. When the sun is farther north in the winter months, the Nile’s waters are not drawn to the surface, and because no rain adds to the water level, the Nile recedes. He also thinks that no wind comes from the river because no wind blows where it is hot. Breezes always come from that which is very cold.
  • The religious practices of Egypt, especially as they differ from the Greeks.  Their priests shave all the hair from their bodies every other day so that nothing foul may infest them. Twice a day and twice a night they wash in cold water. Swines are considered unclean beasts. Swineherds are not allowed within sacred temples and can only marry among one another. The Greeks adopted the ritual of honoring Dionysus with a procession of women carrying phallic symbols. Most of the gods came to Greece by way of Egypt. The Egyptians believe that one must wash after intercourse before one enters a sacred temple, and that men and women should not engage in intercourse within a temple. This is different from the Greeks, who explain that man is like any other animal, and that the gods do not seem displeased when birds mate in temples and sacred precincts.
  • The animals of Egypt: cats, dogs, crocodiles, hippopotamuses, otters, phoenixes, sacred serpents, winged snakes, ibises. Whoever kills an ibis or hawk, even accidentally, is executed. When female cats have a litter, they are no longer receptive to male cats. Thus, the male cats kill the kittens. The mothers then become receptive again to the males. Egyptians shave their eyebrows after the death of their cat, and shave all of their body hair after the death of a dog.
  • The culture of Egypt: medicine, funeral rites, food, boats. Women buy and sell while men stay at home and weave. They practice circumcision for the sake of cleanliness because they would rather be clean than more beautiful. They believe that sickness come from food. Herodotus believes that they are the healthiest people because the climate does not change; change of seasons is the cause of sickness according to Herodotus. They eat fish, ducks, and quail either raw or sun-dried. They roast sacred birds. They drink wine made of barley and eat bread of coarse grain. During the meals of rich men, a man carries around an image of a corpse in a coffin and tells the company that, while they enjoy the food, they ought to remember that they will all come to the state of the corpse in the coffin when they die. The art of medicine is so specialized that each physician is the healer of one malady. When a man of the house dies, the women daub their faces and heads with mud; then they lament throughout the city, and finally embalm and bury the body. Embalmers draw out the brain through the nostrils with an iron hook. Wives of notable men are not immediately handed over to embalmbers lest they have intercourse with the corpse.
  • The kings of Egypt: Menes, Nitocris, Mœris, Sesostris, Pheron, Proteus. Menes or Min was the first king of Egypt. He created the city of Memphis by damming the Nile. Nitocris was a Queen of Egypt, who, to avenge her brother that was killed by his Egyptian subjects, killed many Egyptians by deceiving them to enter an underground chamber where they were drowned to death. Afterwards she cast herself into a chamber of hot ashes to escape vengeance. Moeris built the northern forecourt of the temple of Hephaestus, dug a great lake, and built pyramids near the lake. Sesostris, or Ramses II 14th century BC, subjugated nearby provinces and afterwards erected pillars in the cities with inscriptions describing how he had overcome them. On the pillars erected in cities that surrendered without fighting, Ramses II drew images of female genitalia to show that the people were cowardly. Pheros audaciously threw a spear into the Nile; after which he was blinded for 10 years. Prophets told him that he should wash his eyes with the urine of a woman who had only slept with her husband. He first tried hi wife’s urine, but it didn’t work. He tried several other women; finally he was cured of blindness. All the women whose urine did not cure his blindness, he burned to death. He married the woman whose urine cured his blindness. A temple is dedicated to Proteus, of whom it is said that Helen of Troy sojourned with him during the Trojan War.
  • Helen and Paris’s stay in Egypt, just before the Trojan War. Violent winds drove Paris and Helen to Egypt during their return to Troy form Greece. Paris’ sailors told an Egyptian priest, Thonis, that Paris had committed an act of impiety by stealing Menelaus’ wife. Thonis brought Paris and Helen before Proteus. Proteus vowed never to kill a stranger, so he decides to let Paris leave, but keeps Helen in Egypt until Menelaus comes in search for her. Herodotus claims that Homer knew that Helen was in Egypt, but that the truth was not suitable to his epic poem. The Trojan War still occurred according to the Egyptians because the Greek forces did not believe the Trojans when they told them that Helen was in Egypt. Herodotus claims that Priam would not have been so mad as to consent to allow Paris to keep Helen when faced with the evils of the impending war with the Greeks. (2.112–120)
  • More kings of Egypt: Rhampsinit (and the story of the clever thief). Rhampsinit commissioned a building to store his wealth in. The builder provided that one stone could be easily removed, and told his two sons of this. The two sons stole treasure several nights. The king became aware of this, and intending to catch the thieves, he placed traps around the containers of treasure. One brother was caught in a trap and told his brother to cut off his head so that they both would not suffer death. The other brother cut off his head and returned home. The king hung the body in front of his palace with a guard watching over it. The morther of the two thieves told her living son that if he did not recover the boyd, she would tell the king that they were the thieves. The surviving thief made the guards drunk, cut down the body, and returned home. The king commanded his daughter to enter a brothel and inquire of each man as to what was the most impious and shrewd thing they had ever done, with the purpose of catching the thief. The thief learned of this, and then secured an arm from a dead body. He went to the king’s daughter and disclosed his crime, but in the darkness he offered her the dead arm. Thus clutching to the dead arm, she thought that she had captured the thief. The king finally relented and offered the thief his daughter in marriage because he was the cleverest man he knew.
  • Cheops (and the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza). Gangs of 100,000 men worked alternatively for 3 months at a time dragging stones from the Arabian mountains to the Nile for 10 years. The building of the Great Pyramid lasted 20 years. He put his own daughter in a brothel to help pay for the labor needed to erect the pyramid. Chephren was Cheops brother, and also built a pyramid. The Egyptians hate the memory of these two kings because they closed all the temples and forced many of the Egyptians into strenuous physical labor.
  • Mycerinus. He was the most just judge of all the kings, reopened the temples, and was beloved by the people. Mycernius received an oracle that proclaimed he would die within 7 years. He was infuriated by the prophecy because he was just, and the two immoral kings who preceded him lived much longer than he would. Mycernius, knowing that his doom was fixed, made lamps and reveled all night, intending to make night day and thus 6 years into 12. He sought pleasures wherever he heard that he could find them. He also erected a pyramid.
  • Asychis. He built the eastern court of Haphaestus’ temple – the finest and grandest of all the courts. He also erected a pyramid of brick to commemorate his name, on which is inscribed: do not think me less than the pyramids of stone; for I excel them as much as zeus does the other gods.
  • Anysis. He was blind. He fled to the marshes when Sabacos, the king of Ethiopia, invaded Egypt. Sabacos reigned over Egypt for 50 years, but when he received a dream in which he gathered all the priests of Egypt and cut them in half, he departed Egypt, fearing that the dream would provoke him to commit sacrilege and incur the vengeance of men and gods alike. Anysis had lived on an island in the marshes during this time, and was fed by Egyptians that pitied him. The island was called elbo and was a mile in length and breadth.
  • Sethôs. He was a priest of Hephaestus. When he became king of Egypt he dishonored the soldiers by taking their land away from them that had been given to them by kings in the past. He did not think that he would have a need for an army. An Arabian army threatened to invade Egypt. The Egyptian army refused to fight them. Sethos lamented his fate, but he received a dream assuring him that the gods would send him champions. The next night, he camped with merchants, craftsmen, and traders. Their enemy camped across from them. During the night, a horde of field mice gnawed the enemy’s quivers, bows, arrows, and shield handles, so that the enemy was routed the next day by Sethos and his army of business men.
  • The line of priests. The time from the first priest to that of the current priest of Hephaestus in Herodotus’ era covered 345 generations. Thus, the whole period is around 11,340 if we assume that each generation is around 33 years. Every priest fashioned a wooden statue of themselves within the temple of Hephaestus. Herodotus saw all 345 wooden statues in the temple.
  • The Labyrinth. To preserve the name of the 12 kings who divided Egypt into 12 kingdoms after Sethos’ reign, they constructed a Labyrinth. It was a horseshoe shaped building. According to Herodotus, this maze surpasses the magnificence of even the pyramids. There is a lake with two pyramids in the middle of it near the Labyrinth.
  • More kings of Egypt: the twelve. After Sethos, Egypt divided into 12 kingdoms, each ruled by a king. The kings were friendly towards one another; for there was a prophecy that whichever one of them offered a libation poured from bronze would rule all of Egypt.
  • Psammetichus (and his rise to power). The 12 kings came to sacrifice at the temple, but the high priest only brought out 11 golden bowls because he counted wrongly. Psammetichus took off his bronze helmet and poured a libation with it. The other 11 perceived what he had done, but believed that he did not do it with the intent of ruling over all of Egypt, so they decided to banish him to the marshes. An oracle told Psammetichus that he would have vengeance when he saw bronze men coming from the sea. A short time later, Ionians and Carians searching for plunder were forced on to the coast of Egypt by the wind. They disembarked in armor of bronze. Psammetichus made friends with these men and deposed the 11 other kings. He gave the Ionians and Carians places to live in Egypt and rewarded them according to his promise. He also put Egyptian boys amongst them to learn their language.
  • Necôs. He began building a canal into the Red Sea that was finished by Darius. He stopped building it when he received an oracle that he was building it for barbarians. Thus he prepared for war against an invading army of barbarians. He defeated an army of Syrians.
  • Psammis. He reigned for only 6 years. He invaded Ethiopia and died shortly thereafter.
  • Apries. He sent a great army against Cyrene. This army was routed. The Egyptians believed that Apries sent these men to their doom with the purpose of securing his rule over Egypt. He sent Amasis to dissuade the rebels. The rebels asked Amasis to be their leader. He accepted, and prepared to march against Apries. Apries, when he heard of this, commanded Patarbemis to bring Amasis into his presence. Amasis farted and told Patarbemis to take that to the king. He also said that he would shortly be in the king’s presence with an army of men. When Patarbemis returned to Apries without Amasis, Apries cut his ears and nose off. The Egyptians who saw this defected to Amasis. Egyptian soldiers are professional soldiers, practicing only the art of war. Amasis’ army defeated Apries, and strangled him to death.
  • Initially the Egyptians scorned Amasis because he was a man of low birth, but they soon grew to love him because he was just, and not arrogant. Amasis made an image of god out of the pieces of a golden washbowl that he and his guests had used to clean their feet. When he learned that the Egyptians were worshipping the statue, Amasis told them that he is like the statue – before he was a common man, now he is a king. He made a law that every Egyptian must declare his means of livelihood to the ruler of his district every year or face the punishment of death. Solon of Athens adopted this law, and Herodotus believes that it is a perfect law.


“When he overtook them, he asked them in a long speech not to desert their children and wives and the gods of their fathers. Then one of them, the story goes, pointed to his genitals and said that wherever that was, they would have wives and children.”

“The Egyptians were the first who maintained the following doctrine, too, that the human soul is immortal, and at the death of the body enters into some other living thing then coming to birth; and 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.”

“Look at me, and believe.”

“Men that have bows string them when they must use them, and unstring them when they have used them; were bows kept strung forever, they would break, and so could not be used when needed. Such, too, is the nature of man. Were one to be always at serious work and not permit oneself a bit of relaxation, he would go mad or idiotic before he knew it; I am well aware of that, and give each of the two its turn.”

Herodotus describes the different customs people in the world possess. These descriptions support an argument that culture is merely a social construct. One group of people values a particular activity or quality while another group of people values the exact opposite. These differences illustrate that morals and values are almost entirely arbitrary. Even decisions about some of the most taboo topics according to modern America – cannibalism – find proponents in some areas of the world. Does this mean that there is no ultimate and objective value system? Or can we conclude that some cultures adhere to correct moral principles while others cultures do not? If we answer yes to the latter question, then we risk the possibility of ethnocentrism and all of the consequences which attend it.

The Egyptians developed a primitive model of the scientific method. Whenever they perceived a portent, they would write it down along with its consequences. In the future, they expected that after seeing a similar portent, they would receive similar consequences. This is a very primitive attempt at predicting future events by analyzing the past, albeit the Egyptians likely drew irrelevant and absurd connections between causes and effects. For example, they might have construed the high likelihood of rain from the position of a dead frog relative to the sun.

While reading about the various monuments, pillars, and pyramids that Egyptian kings erected to memorialize themselves and their achievements, I frequently recalled Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias. The kings’ vaunts ultimately mean nothing. Their monuments have decayed or have been destroyed. Though we still recognize the greatness of their ancient society, and some of their more majestic structures remain – the Pyramids of Gaza – the hollow boasts of the kings are particularly striking. They encourage us to seek happiness, immortality, and meaning in something other than physical structures and physical means because the objects that exist in the physical realm are constantly in flux and subject to destruction.

When some Egyptian men denounced King Amasis for indulging in too much drink and vulgarity, Amasis replied that a man is like a bow; a man strings a bow when he intends to use it, and unstrings the bow when he has used it. If the bow is always strung, then it would break. Likewise, if a man is always serious and always working, then he would break and become crazy. A man requires some relaxation. Of all the Egyptian kings, Amasis is my favorite. Not only do I agree with his insight about human nature, but he was a man of humble origins that rose to become a king. There are many instances of unfortunate reversals of fortune in ancient Greek writings; it is nice to read a success story.

The Histories, Revised (Penguin Classics)

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