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.
- 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!
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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