Primary Sources: the Mabinogion 1 (Pwyll, Lord of Dyved)

Pwyll (pronounced, according to my inexpert interpretation of the pronunciation guide in my copy of the Mabinogion, midway between puhl and pewl) was a small-time local lord, local in this case being fairy-tale Wales. His particular little territory (comprising a hundred or so families) was called Dyved, and he was an okay guy. One day he was out hunting in Glynn Cuch, a forest maybe a day and a half’s ride from his home, when he and his pack of dogs stumbled across a totally different pack of dogs chasing a stag.

The stag was no great shakes, but these dogs were wacky! Shining snow white, except for their ears, which were a brilliant red color. Pwyll watched in stunned amazement as these supernatural dogs brought down the stag, but then he was like “hey, free stag!” He sicc’d his own dogs on the magic dogs and drove them off and claimed the stag for himself.

“Clearly there will be no negative consequences to this action!” he said to himself.

Then this mysterious figure appeared, on a supernaturally awesome horse. He immediately started bawling Pwyll out for kill-stealing and claiming Arawn’s dogs’ stag as his own.

“Okay, I’ll cop to that,” said Pwyll. “But to be fair, I’m a king.”

“Nuts to that,” retorted the other, “I’m a king too! I’m a better king, probably – I’m Arawn, King of Annwvyn.” Annwvyn, a footnote helpfully tells us in my edition, translates as not-world, so, fairyland.

“Okay, okay. Clearly I overstepped my bounds. I figured, since I’m kind of the king of right here I was entitled to claim any stag I wanted, regardless of whose dogs pulled it down. But if you want to make a thing of it, fine, it’s cool. I apologize for taking your stag. We’ve gotten off on the wrong foot, but is there any way we can be friends?”

Arawn accepted Pwyll’s apology on one condition. “There’s this jerk in the next kingdom over from mine, Havgan, King of Annwvyn? He’s all the time getting up in my grill. You take him out, we’ll be solemn buds.”

“Done!” Pwyll clapped his hands together. “I don’t know Havgan from Adam and I don’t know where he is and I don’t know what fighting him will consist of, but I’m totally up for it!”

Arawn liked Pwyll’s spunk, so made him an offer. “What we’ll do, see, is I’ll go to Dyved disguised as you, and you go to Annwyn disguised as me, with my magic that does that? And you live in Annwyn, as me, for a year and a day.”

“Sounds like fun,” said Pwyll. “Although kind of orthogonal to the whole defeat-Havgan thing.”

“Not at all! See, a year and a day minus one day, so, just a year from now, me and Havgan are scheduled to fight a duel. Kill him then, and boom, problem solved!”


“But when you kill him, take him out with one blow, boom!” Arawn mimicked a sword-blow with his hands. “Because I totally have tried to kill him like eighty billion times with multiple blows, and it doesn’t work. I think it’s got to be one and only one blow. Your mission is to test that theory!”

“Okay, if you say so.” Pwyll’s an easygoing sort.

So Arawn used magic to swap identities with Pwyll, and went off to Pwyll’s home to sleep with Pwyll’s wife and drink Pwyll’s liquor for a year and a day. But Pwyll got to go to Arawn’s home (which was super nice) and dress in Arawn’s clothes (which were super fancy) and drink Arawn’s liquor (which was super sweet, you get the idea) and so on, so, not a bad deal. Pwyll-as-Arawn also got to hang out with Arawn’s wife, who was much hotter than Pwyll’s own wife.

And by hang out I mean small talk and mealtimes only, because every time Mrs. Arawn started to get frisky, Pwyll-as-Arawn insisted he had a headache. By the end of a full year of this Mrs. Arawn was starting to get frustrated!

But just before she decided to finally voice her frustrations, Pwyll-as-Arawn had to participate in Arawn’s long-scheduled duel with Havgan. So that happened, the two kings jousting at each other, and Pwyll-as-Arawn smote Havgan a single massive blow that shattered his shield and broke his armor and sent Hagan flying!

“Jeez, guy who I don’t know who is disguised as Arawn for some reason!” cried Havgan, as he lay bleeding on the ground. “What did I ever do to you?”

Pwyll shrugged. “Oh, you know how it is.”

“Well, hit me again! Otherwise I’m just going to gradually bleed out and die painfully and slowly!”

Pwyll shook his head. “Nope! Arawn had this whole theory about how I had to only hit you the one time, and I’ve done that, so… we’re done here?”

“Jerk,” said Havgan, and died.


The next day all of Arawn’s people were pretty thrilled about Arawn having finally defeated Havgan, but Pwyll made excuses and snuck away back to Glynn Cuch, where he met Arawn-as-Pwyll.

“Did you do the thing?”

“I did the thing!”

“Cool!” Arawn magically restored Pwyll’s identity to him and reclaimed his own identity. “Well, that’s our business done. Stay cool!”

Arawn went home to Annwyn, where Mrs. Arawn finally vented her spleen about how Pwyll-as-Arawn hadn’t been giving her the sweet loving for a full year and also a day!

“It was because that wasn’t me! That was this guy I got to fight Havgan for me!” Arawn explained.

“Oh, you know, I kind of guessed that!”

“Seriously, he didn’t have sex with you at all?”

“Not even once.”

“Dang, now I feel bad about all the sex I had with his wife.”


Pwyll went home to Dyved and asked his wife how the last year of his rule had been, in her opinion.

“It was great!


(I’m kidding, of course. Pwyll is unmarried during this tale, and nobody has sex with anybody. Pwyll’s friends all thought he’d really stepped up his kinging game, though, over the year Arawn-as-Pwyll ruled Dyved.)



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Primary Sources: I’m doing to do something else

Man, I’m just not feeling Herodotus.  I’d like to, Lord knows, and maybe I will again at some point, but it’s not turning out like a fun project which is worthwhile, and so I’m going to do something else.

Something else starts on Monday.

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Primary Sources: Herodotus, EUTERPE part 6

Herodotus’s source for all this Nile lore was some cool guys in Cyrene, a Hellenic colony on the African coast just to the west of Egypt proper.  He met them in a bar (probably) and they spun him a tale about this one time they were at a dinner party in Ammon (a nation that once existed just to the east of Israel).  At this dinner party they’d been feted by Etearchos king of the Ammonians, because that doesn’t sound like a drunken boast someone made up in a bar in Cyrene at all.

Anyway, Etearchos and these unnamed Cyrene guys swapped Nile-source legends, like you do.  According to Herdotous, the Cyrene guys claimed that Etearchos told them that he’d once asked some Nasamonians about the interior of Africa and they’d had some very interesting notes on the topic.

Interesting side note: Nasamonia was located a stone’s throw from Cyrene; both were in what we’d call Libya.  So it’s hilarious and not at all implausible that for anyone in Cyrene to hear about the African interior the king of a nation east of the River Jordan would have to be involved.

The Nasamonian traders told the King of Ammon, who told the Cyrene merchants, who told Herodotus, who wrote this down to tell us, that once upon a time in Libya there were some trust fund kids who were total jerks.  These rich boys grew up to be the worst kind of fratty old-boy’s-network entitled dicks.  As an example of their dickery, one time they bet among themselves who could explore the most of Africa, and they went off in groups of five to outdo one another.  They found Libya (not hard as they were basically already there) and on towards Tunisia, scouting out the coastline, then turned inland.

On this trek across the Sahara, they encountered the following.

  • Sand.
  • More sand.
  • So much sand you guys.
  • On the other side of the sand, some trees!
  • Fruit in the trees!
  • Short angry locals who don’t speak Nasamonian and don’t cotton to strangers eating their fruit!
  • A whole city full of people who are also short and who have their own whole code of laws about fruit theft!
  • A river next to that city that ran west-to-east!
  • Crocodiles in the river!
  • Wizards!

Herodotus declines to explain further about the wizards.  Apparently wizards was the last straw for these financial-sector-douchebag-type Nasamonian explorers, because that’s when they turned around and went home.  Herodotus is more interested in the river; he deduces that since this river ran west-to-east, and the headwaters of the Nile ran eastwards before turning north in the distant southland of the Merotic Empire (as related in the previous entry), this river must have been the Nile.

No way was it the Niger River!  For one thing, Herodotus has never heard of the Niger River.  For another thing, the Niger flows more or less east to west.  Surely the Nasamonians who heard about the explorers and then told the King of Ammon about them, who told the Cyrene merchants, who told Herodotus, surely at no point in that chain did anyone get mixed up about east and west.

No, it was definitely the Nile.  And now Herodotus unveils his pet theory about the Nile.  The Nile starts way down in southern Africa and runs eastwards and then turns north and empties into the Mediterranean.  Similarly the Danube starts way north in Europe and runs eastwards until it turns south!  Plus Herodotus isn’t looking at a map or anything, but he’s pretty sure he’s pinpointed the source of the Nile to the exact same longitude as the source of the Danube.  Clearly the Nile and the Danube are mirror river twins.

For serious Herodotus spends a lot of time justifying this theory, using a lot of dubious geography about the Pyrenees and Ethiopia and the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.  Mirror river twins.

At this point, Herodotus is finally ready to move on from the Nile: Of the Nile then let so much suffice as has been said.”

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Primary Sources: Herodotus, EUTERPE part 5

In which we talk about Kush, finally

As hinted yesterday, today we examine a fun new topic here in Herodotus Explains African Geography: the source of the Nile! Nobody knows from whence the Nile flows, except the clerk at the Bank of Athena in Saïs in Egypt.  Dude was maaaaybe kidding but Herodotus isn’t taking chances. He’d rather just write down whatever credible-sounding Egyptians say, and let posterity (that’s us) decide whether it’s legit or not.

This is what the bank teller in Saïs claimed.  Equidistant between Syene and Elphantine (a couple of other cities in Egypt) are two mountains that are perfect cones, right next to each other, called Mount Crophi and Mount Mophi.  Smack dab in between them there’s this artesian well that spews out the Nile and also it sends another river flowing south to Ethiopia.  The legendary scientist-pharaoh Psammetichos (that guy again!) did a cunning experiment and dropped a looooooong rope down the shaft of the well, and the sounding-line never found a bottom.

That is, believe it or not, the most plausible story Herodotus could find regarding the source of the Nile.  When Herodotus visited Elephantine he asked people about Crophi and Mophi.  Folks were willing to concede that mountains are a thing that exist. That is, the word “mountain” signifies an external object, rather than a purely fanciful notion. Whether any particular mountains with any particular rhyming names exist, they couldn’t say.  They could tell him what was upstream from them, however.  Going up the Nile from Elephantine you find an island and a lake and the Nile flows in one side of this lake and out the other, and if you follow it further up you eventually hit reefs (maybe Herodotus meant rapids?) and you have to portage for a couple of weeks before you can get back on the water, and a month from there is Meroe, the metropolis-capital of the Meroitic Empire aka the Kingdom of Kush aka Ethiopia, home of an Oracle of Zeus.

Meroe, incidentally, is a great example of how skewed our view of the ancient world is.  It was some kind of crazy coo-coo super kingdom located south of and upstream from Egypt, more or less coterminous with modern-day Sudan perhaps.  Around the time Herodotus wrote about it was maybe the world’s leading producer of worked iron, as well as big in the cotton game probably.  (I use a lot of qualifiers because what am I, a historian?  I read Wikipedia; that’s the opposite of being a historian.)

However the Merotics didn’t interact with Rome much except to make war upon them, so the Romans didn’t talk much about them in their history books.  A few hundred years of intermittent war with Rome went by, and they were pretty well gone by the second century AD.  Big for a while, though, at least as much as Lydia or Ionia.  We just never hear about them because the Romans didn’t write much about them.

Anyway, I digress.  Meroe was a big city built on and around an island in the middle of the Nile.  You press on further south and further uphill and you come to the site of a charming story.

Once upon a time, in the reign of the scientist-pharaoh Psammetichos, a great experiment was conducted.  Procedure: construct a massive garrison of eighty thousand troops at Elephantine and two more the same size at Daphnai and Marea.  Eighty thousand!  For reference, each of these garrisons was roughly double the size of Fort Meade.  The question was, would two hundred and forty thousand soldiers, stationed in the godforsaken uplands of Eygpt, rebel when Psammetichos stopped paying them?

The experiment was a success!  The soldiers rebelled en masse, and set out marching south, away from stupid Psammetichos and his stupid refusal to give them their back pay.  Psammetichos, the story goes, sent couriers to entreat the soldiers.  Maybe they had some reason to be mad at Psammetichos, the courier told the deserters.  Maybe everybody’s right, and everybody’s wrong, and we should all just turn around and go back to base.  Psammetichos was willing to forgive and forget; could the soldiers also forgive and forget their pensions?

This line of argument didn’t hold much water with the deserters, who told the courier where he could stick Psammetichos’s forgiveness.  The courier has been trained to handle these kind of tense negotiations, though, and pointed out how the deserters had two hundred and forty thousand wives, plus roughly double that number of children and mistresses, all waiting for them back in Egypt.

“Screw our loved ones!” cried the deserters, in unison.  “In Meroe we’ll get new loved ones, with blackjack and hookers!”

The Meroitc government was down with anything that would stick in Psammetichos’s eye (Herodotus doesn’t bother to explain why, but it’s not hard to guess), so the deserters were granted a big tract of land south of the city, where their descendents live to this day.  And by “this day” I mean “as Herodotus wrote this, in 440 BC, give or take a decade.”

Past the land of the deserters — who have a cool name, by the way: they’re the Asmach — the Nile turns west and goes into the sun, or the burning desert, or something, Herodotus has no idea.  It’s hot, probably.  It sounds hot.

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Also I watched a wad of Friends

Another thing I did this past weekend was watch a lot of Friends, which was recently added to the Netflix streaming library. Watching it, I was struck by several things:

  • Even though I am pretty sure I’ve seen most of these episodes between zero and two times, I remembered plotlines and punchlines far more than I would have expected. I mean, yes, whole seasons of the Simpsons are burned into my amygdala, but I figured that was the exception, rather than the rule. I wonder whether I’d recall other shows I watched a bunch of episodes of zero to two times, like Cosby or Mad About You or Home Improvement or Major Dad or Hearts Afire or Murphy Brown or Cybill. (I watched a lot of stupid sitcoms between 1992 and… well, since 1992.)
  • Man, did fashionable dress circa season one for Friends look stupid. That falls away pretty fast, though, or I stop noticing it. Of course, in another twenty years when I sit down and have How I Met Your Mother injected into my brain or whatever, I’ll probably think the same thing about that.
  • It turns out everything I know about being in an adult relationship (that I haven’t learned the hard way, slowly and painfully) I know from watching Chandler and Monica. More than once I thought “ah, so that is why I thought that was a good idea” followed by “ah, I see it didn’t work any better for Chandler than it did for me.”
  • Ross is way less likable than I remember.
  • The sets, costumes, and lighting are all cheaper than I remember.
  • There’s a lot more continuity than I remember, callbacks and recurring characters and season-long arcs. I’ve thought about that as being something that started later, after Friends. I’d thought Friends was more like Cheers in that status quo and continuing plot elements were limited only to season premiers and finales, but nope.
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Bravely Default: a Crazy Stupid Name for a Pretty Okay JRPG

I used to write about games that I played a lot, but that was in another life and a different presidential administration. We hadn’t yet learned Iron Man was the greatest American hero, that’s how long ago it was. But just for fun, I’m going to write a little bit about Bravely Default for the 3DS.

This past weekend while my wife was out of town I spent a lot of time playing a couple of video games. One of them was Bravely Default. We got a 3DS this past spring when Emily was recovering from surgery; lying in bed and playing Pokemon X seemed like a good use of her time. I bought a couple of other games for the 3DS at the same time; a Zelda (which neither of us have tried) and Bravely Default, which at a glance appeared to be a solid JRPG title.

I tried Pokemon X, but I just barely missed playing Pokemon Red/Blue back when that was a thing, and each successive generation of Pokemon has drifted further from me. It didn’t grab me, while Emily, as is her wont, played it obsessively for a week or two before forgetting about it.

So Bravely Default had been sitting around for a while before I cracked it open to bring to Wisconsin visiting Emily’s family this past Christmas. It turns out the game is not just a solid JRPG in the vein of Final Fantasy V, it’s basically a straight-up homage to early Final Fantasy, V in particular. Once you recruit them all, an hour or less in, your party of four remains constant throughout the game (excepting a handful of gimmicky bits). But while two players’ parties will include the same four characters, the abilities of those characters are plastic. As you play through the game, you unlock more and more jobs – Knight, Monk, White Mage, Black Mage, Thief, Time Mage, Merchant, Spell Fencer, Ranger, Valkyrie, Summoner, Red Mage, Performer, Salve Maker, Swordmaster, Pirate, Arcanist, Spiritmaster, Templar, Dark Knight, Vampire, and Conjurer. I’ve probably forgotten at least one.

Most of those job names are familiar; there have been Black Mages and Red Mages in Final Fantasy since forever, and Dark Knights since half of forever. Most of the job names that were new to me turned out to be familiar jobs in new wrappings: the Spell Fencer is the Sorcerer, the Valkyrie is the Dragoon, the Performer and the Salve Maker are the Bard and the Chemist.

Each of your four characters can assume any job that you’ve unlocked, and select support abilities from a menu of choices based on the jobs that character has mastered. You can make a Knight who steals as well as a Thief, a Red Mage who attacks with a Spell Fencer’s sword magic, a Performer who goes into the Pirate’s beserk rage. You can also build character ability combinations that aren’t awful (those were all pretty awful).

The game’s plot, in which airships and elemental crystals both feature heavily, reflects the Final Fantasy tribute all the more. It’s heavy-handed at times, and it won’t win any prizes for its writing, but it’s enjoyable and does the job. The plot twists at one point in an unexpected direction, although the game doesn’t explore the full ramifications of it.

I was going to be cagey and avoid spoilers, but who cares? Halfway through the game you successfully save all four crystals and enter the glowing pillar of light. Generally you’d have to fight a giant tree monster or something and then, boom, game over. Instead the party is shunted into a nearby parallel universe and back to the beginning of the game; they’re tasked with saving the four elemental crystals all over again, this time with a huge amount of foreknowledge based on their experiences in the past world. This is used well in one place – there’s a murder mystery that your characters short-circuit the second time through because they already know whodunnit – but in a lot of other places the characters move through the same cutscenes they experienced the first time through, without even dialogue changes indicating they remember all of this from the last time. It’s not quite as repetitive as it sounds, since the second time (and, depending on how far you go with it, third through fifth times) around you already have an airship that allows you to fly direct from one boss fight to the next, but more could have been done with it.

The game’s single best feature is probably one that appeals only to me: you can turn random encounters off. I always found it immensely frustrating in Final Fantasy V or Final Fantasy IX or Final Fantasy X-2 or whatevs, when I was trying to get from point A to point B and the game insisted on throwing a whole series of irritating random encounters at me. In Bravely Default you can turn them off! So if I’m trying to explore a dungeon, I can just run through and explore it and find the chests and the boss and so on. It’s like a free Moogle Charm. And when I’m in the mood to grind up job points to unlock high-level abilities, the game lets me turn random encounters up. Basically it’s awesome.

I spent about eighty hours on Bravely Default over the last couple of months. Eventually, after I had leveled up sufficiently, the game became boring. Defeating the final boss turned out to be trivial for my part of level 99 characters with a half-dozen mastered jobs each. There’s a set of challenge encounters I didn’t complete, but the internet tells me there’s no rewards besides a congratulatory message, so I don’t feel I missed much.

To sum up: if you went to the Arkansas School of Mathematics and Sciences from 1995 to 1997 and spent many weekends playing Chrono Trigger on whoever’s SNES was set up in the fourth floor common room? And if you’ve bought Final Fantasy VI something like three times, on various platforms? And if you still chuckle at the non sequitur Boom! You forgot I was a Chemist! Then this is the 3DS Japanese RPG for you.

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Primary Sources: Herodotus, EUTERPE part 4

In which we consider the Nile

This brings us around to the topic of the mysterious Nile. Herodotus has several agenda items here.  First, why does the Nile flood every year at midsummer?  Regular as clockwork, supposedly, the Nile rises for one hundred days between 22 June and 30 September.  Then from October through May it lowers.  Most rivers flood in the springtime, not in July, so what’s up with that?  It’s a great puzzle.

Some of Herodotus’s friends have pitched ideas, hoping that he’ll include them in his book maybe, but they’re stupid ideas.  Like, one guy was all, maybe it’s the seasonal winds!  They blow towards the south, upstream, and maybe they blow so hard the water can’t flow into the wind and it builds up and floods the riverbanks instead?

But that’s dumb.  Aside from being self-evidently stupid, sometimes the wind is not blowing.  In fact it’s a rare year that the wind blows steadily for one hundred days starting on the summer solstice.  And again: it’s dumb.

Second stupid solution: something something the River Oceanus.  This doesn’t even make sense.  There isn’t even a verb; it’s just “something something River Oceanus.”  Half-quoting Homer doesn’t accomplish anything; it’s just bull hockey!  You have to do better than that to get your name included in the Histories: EURTERPE.

The third solution is the stupidest, in Herodotus’s mind.  His third drunk friend suggested that snowmelt was the major contributing factor.  Herodotus is quick to point out that the Nile flows from south of Egypt, which is equatorial and hot and the people who live there are black.  Ergo, snow melting in June is super implausible, and snow melting from June to September even more so.

No way there’s a big mountain chain down there (the Ethiopian Highlands, Mount Kilimanjaro, heck, the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda) where some peaks are snowcapped year-round, and which catch torrential rain every summer that slowly makes its way north to the Nile.  That’d be dopey!

No, Herodotus’s theory is axial tilt.  In the summertime, see, it gets extra hot.  Way down south, it’s soooo hot, because of axial tilt, that the very sea boils, and all that water evaporates and drifts north to where it’s a little bit cooler.  Then it recondenses as floodwater!  That’s also why it’s so dry in the interior of Africa, clearly.

This theory also shoots down the idea of blaming the wind.  ‘Cause it’s hot in the south, yo!  Wind makes things cool — that’s why they call it wind chill — so obviously the wind is not a major climatological feature in central Africa.

Axial tilt.  That’s it. Having solved the problem of the annual flooding, Herodotus now turns his attention to the other great mystery of the Nile: its source!  Will Herodotus find the source of the Nile?  Will he simply repeat stories some guys told him over drinks?  Stay tuned to learn!

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Primary Sources: Herodotus, EUTERPE part 3

In which Herodotus explains farming

Maybe the Egyptians will be able to figure out some way to combat climate change, though: they’re really sharp guys.  In particular Herodotus wants to call out the humble Egyptian subsistence farmer as a secret genius, because of this one weird trick that can save you inches off your farming budget.

In the rest of the world, when it’s time to plant seeds, farmers go through all this elaborate and time-consuming work: ploughing fields, planting crops, it just goes on and on.  There’s got to be a better way!  And there is!  Do like the Egyptians do: strew your seeds around in your field randomly, let the Nile flood your farm, and then send pigs out to wallow in the resulting mud!  The pigs will roll around and spread the seeds out, and then they’ll roll around and drive the seeds down into the mud.  Then all you have to do is round your pigs up: easy!

The pigs can also harvest for you.  You just wait until your wheat is ready to harvest, and then you send the pigs in again.  They root around and break the stalks and thresh the grain!  You only need to go through and pick the loose grain up off the ground.  It’s brilliant!

Herodotus doesn’t explain where he found out about this one weird trick an Egyptian housewife discovered, but my guess is the answer is “over wine, lots of wine.”

Speaking of drunken rambling, there’s a particular topic Herodotus wants to clear up.  He feels he has to answer a question often posed by pre-Socratic Hellenic geographers: is Upper Egypt part of Egypt?  The answer is yes and frankly Herodotus is ashamed to have to address the point.  This was apparently a major issue among Herodotus’s circle.  Before Aristotle or whoever straightened it all out, Greek natural philosophers asserted that the world was made of three equally vast continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa.  Because of how they defined the borders of these continents, Lower Egypt didn’t fit into any of them and Upper Egypt was half in Asia and half in Africa.  Some jackass asserted that Upper Egypt wasn’t a real place because of that, that it was an amalgam of two separate regions.  The Egyptians who live there disagree, and Herodotus agrees with them, and let’s all just move on.

No?  You need more evidence?  Herodotus suspects someone out there needs more evidence, so listen.  Herodotus talked to some guys, and they told him about the Oracle of Ammon.  There are these two border-town type Egyptian cities, Marea and Apis, the inhabitants of which were of course forbidden from eating beef, as all Egyptians are…

…Did Herodotus not mention that already?  He meant to.  Egyptians don’t eat beef, for religious reasons.  Anyway.  The people in those cities wanted to eat beef, and they figured if they could get their cities declared to be part of Africa, not part of Egypt, then they wouldn’t have to abide by the strictures.  So they contacted the Oracle of Ammon about it, hoping to get confirmation that they were Africans, not Egyptians.  But instead the Oracle declared that all of the land that is watered by the Nile is part of Egypt.  This includes Marea, it included Apis, and it definitely includes Upper Egypt.

Frankly, it even includes some parts of what everybody considers to be Libya and Arabia, on either side of Egypt, but nobody’s much into dwelling on that.

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Primary Sources: Herodotus, EUTERPE part 2

In which Herodotus has a serious axe to grind regarding Egyptian geography

Egypt is long but narrow, with mountains on the east side and mountainous desert on the west.  It would take a long time to walk across.  Herodotus goes into detail but it’s neither geographically accurate nor dramatically important. He’s just blue-skying, but he figures probably basically all of Egypt is river deposit.  Once upon a time the whole country was a big bay between those two mountain ranges, probably, like the Red Sea.

For serious he goes on about geography for pages.  I’m going to skip it, because we’ve got an awful lot of ground to cover.  Frankincense, for example.  Did you know that Frankincense comes from Ethiopia?  Well, now you do.

Anyway, after he lays that science on us, it’s back to the rambling about geography for Herodotus.  He realizes his assertions about all of Egypt being river deposit sounds crazy, but he’s got a whole list of arguments lined up in support of the theory.

Argument one: the Red Sea exists.  It’s a real place!  There’s a big long narrow ocean which cuts into Africa.  You can’t deny that!  Deny that the Red Sea exists and it’s you who sounds like a crackpot, not Herodotus.  If the Red Sea exists, who’s to say there didn’t used to be another Red Sea, also long and also narrow, connected to the Mediterranean Sea instead of the Indian Ocean, into which the Nile emptied?  And who’s to say it didn’t gradually get filled in and that’s what we call Egypt?

Argument two: the fossil record.  If you go into the Egyptian uplands, well away from the sea, you can find fossil imprints of seashells and fish all over the place!  How would they have gotten there, if they weren’t deposited sometime in the distant past when the whole of the region was underwater?  Riddle me that, Batman!

Argument three: Herodotus talked to some Egyptian priests about this and they totally agreed with him.  Nuff said!  Who can you trust about what topic, if you can’t trust an Egyptian priest about the geologic history of Egypt?

Argument four: it just makes sense if you think about it.  C’mon.  Be fair.  It’s a plausible theory.  It’s not crazy.  Herodotus is not a crackpot!  Get off his back already!

Argument five, which by the way is four more than Herodotus should really have to make: he’s checked the records (which is to say, he’s talked to priests) and has this to report.  Eight hundred and mumblety years before Herodotus wrote these words down, during the reign of Moiris, King of Egypt, the Nile flooded its banks and irrigated the surrounding farmland whenever it rose eight cubits above its lowest level.  But nowadays it has to get fifteen, sixteen cubits high before it floods!  Sediment has raised the level of the surrounding plain, because that’s how river deposits work, right?  Eventually the level of sedimentary deposit will get so high that the Nile won’t flood the farmland at all.  No more irrigation!

Then everyone will starve, which will be pretty bad, but at least Herodotus will be long dead by then.  Climate change isn’t his problem.

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Primary Sources: Herodotus, EUTERPE part 1

In which babies are abandoned, for science!

So a quick recap of CLIO would go like this.  First there was a guy named Croesus the Lydian, who spent a fabulous fortune, invaded Persia, and was captured by the lord of Persia, Cyrus.  Cyrus kept Croesus on as an advisor, and they went on a couple of military campaigns, and eventually Cyrus was killed and Croesus was sent to be the advisor of Cyrus’s son and heir, Cambyses.  That brings us to the present.  Herodotus has plenty to say about Cambyses, hoo boy.  His mother, Cassandane the daughter of Pharnaspes, had died well before Cyrus’s death, and it was at her funeral that a bereaving Cyrus declared Cambyses his heir.  Cambyses’s first act, as head of the Persian empire, was to invade Egypt, and this is the part where Herodotus totally loses track of the narrative thread, not for the first or last time, because Eygpt is awesome you guys!!

You don’t even know how great Egypt is!  You think you do, but you don’t.  First off, Egyptian culture is the oldest culture.  There’s two Egyptians in particular Herodotus wants to bring to our attention.  First, Psammetichos, the pharaoh who invented a bunch of stuff.  Second, Min, the king who invented the concept of kings in general and pharaohs named Min in particular.  Min was the first king; that’s his claim to fame.

When Psammetichos became king of the Egyptians, he surveyed all the Eygptian scholars and the scholars of other, lesser nations, in hopes of proving that Egypt was the oldest nation.  Or, failing that, proving that it was the second-oldest and the Phrygians were the oldest.  Don’t ask about the Phrygians, you don’t even want to know.  Midas, the golden touch guy?  Phrygian.  Gordias, the knot guy?  Phrygian.

So Psammetichos figured either the Phrygians or the Egyptians were the oldest race, and he proved which it was with science!


Hyptothesis: a baby raised in isolation will speak the language which comes naturally to humanity, which is the language of our oldest culture.

Introduction: For many ages scientists have wondered which came first, the Eygptian or the Phyrgian.  Now science can show us the truth, with babies.

Materials: Two babies; herd of goats; goat-herder; several women; a sharp knife.

Methods: The women had their tongues cut out.  The two babies were placed among the goats and entrusted to the goat-herder and the women.  The goat-herder was forbidden from speaking in the presence of the babies.  The babies were fed goat milk by she-goats from the herd and cared for by the women.

Results: The babies grew up not speaking any language.  After two years one of the babies said “bekos” at mealtime, and said it again persistently.

Discussion and Conclusion: Bekos is the Phrygian word for bread.  Therefore the Phrygian language is the language which comes naturally to babies raised in isolation, which means Phrygians must possess the oldest culture.

In addition to their awesome science experiments, Herodotus says, the Egyptians invented months.  They were better at calendars than the Greeks, you can tell, because their calendar had twelve months of thirty days each, plus five intercalated days (12×30+5=365 days); the Greek calendar was all screwy and they had to throw in a Leap Month every other year (12x28x2+46=730 days, maybe?).  Egyptians invented a whole pile of stuff.  Altars, for instance, and engraving.  They didn’t invent the gods, that would be crazy to think that, but they did determine what the gods looked like. Then they made altars and engraved images of the gods on them.  See?  It all hangs together.

They also colonized the Nile river delta, which once upon a time was just open water, but gradually sediment filled in the whole Cairo-to-the-Mediterranean portion of the country.  Herodotus totally buys this sedimentary deposits thing, citing personal experience trying to sail to Egypt and discovering how shallow the water is there, even a full day’s sail out from land.

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