EUTERPE is Herodotus’s book-length guide to Egypt. Rather than continue on with the main narrative of the Persian Wars, he instead spends the entire volume discussing the history, geography, and culture of one country. We won’t learn about what happened during the reign of Cyrus’s son and heir Cambyses until THALIA, the next book.
Herodotus probably wrote EUTERPE after the rest of the Histories. Notably, he presents in this volume a fair amount of information about Ethiopia which he is plainly ignorant of in THALIA. The basic theory is that he started writing about Egypt and just couldn’t stop. As this book is simply a series of anecdotes and digressions, the structure of these entries will likewise be looser. Though CLIO and EUTERPE are roughly similar lengths (216 numbered paragraphs in the former, 182 in the latter) we’ll be spending substantially less time on EUTERPE.
HERODOTUS EXPLAINS EGYPTIAN GEOGRAPHY, KIND OF
Herodotus has far more to say on the topic of the geography of Egypt than I have the patience to explain, so this is a quick précis.
First off, as we all know Egypt consists, mostly, of the Nile river floodplain and delta. Once upon a time the Nile river delta was just open water, but over ten thousand years sediment filled in the whole Cairo-to-the-Mediterranean portion of the country. Herodotus cites personal experience to support this notion: he once tried to sail to Egypt and discovered how shallow the Mediterranean is to the north of the Nile, even a full day’s sail out from land. And of course he’s largely correct, although he drastically underestimates the amount of time taken by the sedimentary deposition.
Egypt is long but narrow, with mountains on the east side and mountainous desert on the west. Herodotus figures probably basically all of Egypt is river deposit, not just the Nile delta. Once upon a time the whole country was a big bay between those two mountain ranges, probably, like the Red Sea.
Herodotus 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 other priests) and has this to report. Eight hundred and mumblety years before Herodotus wrote these words down, during the reign of Moeris, 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.
HERODOTUS EXPLAINS EGYPTIAN FARMING, KIND OF
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! Herodotus suggests you 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 more and drive the seeds down into the mud. At that point, 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. Truly, it’s a infallible method for farming and one superior to all others.
Herodotus doesn’t explain where he found out about this one weird trick an Egyptian farmwife discovered. My first guess was “over wine, lots of wine,” but it turns out that the farming method he describes actually was practiced, in the swampiest parts of the Nile delta. Furthermore, archaeologists have discovered statues and monuments that so closely hew to Herodotus’s description that they might easily be taken as crude after-the-fact forgeries.
And, of course, Deuteronomy 15:4 mentions using an ox for the same purpose as the Egyptians used swine.
HERODOTUS EXPLAINS THE NILE, KIND OF
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.
Hecataeus, an early geographer whose work Herodotus has been accused of plagiarizing (not true, according to historical consensus), appears to have believed that Upper Egypt (everything except the Nile delta) wasn’t really Egypt. I say “appears” because his work survives only in fragments and quotations.
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 lived there disagreed, and Herodotus agreed with them.
Basically, Herodotus disagrees with what seems to have been the conventional wisdom of the day, that Egypt was half in Africa and half in Asia, and that the Nile was the border between the two continents. Instead he declares the border between the two continents to be the border of Egypt, although he ducks the question of whether he means the eastern border or the western border (and thus whether Egypt was part of Africa or Asia).
He talked to some guys, and they told him a relevant anecdote involving 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 were…
…Did Herodotus not mention that already? He meant to. Egyptians didn’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 included Marea, it included Apis, and it definitely included Upper Egypt.
Later historians have interpreted this story with an eye towards the politics of the day, and theorized that the real question was whether Marea and Apis should join in the revolt of Inaros II (which we’ll discuss when we get to it, in THALIA), which was conceptualized as a Libyan rebellion against Egyptians.
The oracle’s answer 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.
Three different theories as to the source of this flooding were popular in Herodotus’s time, each attributed to a different legendary sage. Thales of Miletos, noted sorcerer, blamed the seasonal winds: they blew towards the south, upstream. Maybe they blew so hard the water couldn’t flow northwards into the wind, and it built up and flooded the riverbanks instead?
This suggestion has several flaws, 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, advanced by Hecataeus the geographer: something about the legendary River Oceanus. This doesn’t even make sense. There isn’t even a verb; it’s just “something something River Oceanus.” Supposedly this mythic river, which girdles the world, is the wellspring from whence the Nile flows and therefore sometimes the Nile floods. But half-quoting Homer doesn’t accomplish anything; it’s just bull hockey! Herodotus doesn’t mention it, but other historians report that this was the explanation that had the most traction in Egypt itself, funnily enough; it was the standard explanation the priests there gave Greek tourists.
The third solution is the stupidest, in Herodotus’s mind. The philosopher Anaxgoras 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 (warmer climate equals darker skin, he says). Ergo, snow melting in June is super implausible, and snow melting from June to September even more so.
Of course, we with the benefit of radar and modern satellite imagery and such know that one of the largest mountain chains in the world is located near the source of the Nile (the Ethiopian Highlands, Mount Kilimanjaro, heck, the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda). Some peaks are snowcapped year-round and others don’t melt until midsummer. Others catch torrential rain every summer that slowly washes north to the Nile.
Alas, Herodotus lacks our advanced knowledge, so he’s invented an explanation of his own. Herodotus’s theory is axial tilt. In the summertime, see, it gets extra hot. Way down south, it’s so 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 condenses as floodwater! That’s also why it’s so dry in the interior of Africa, clearly.
This theory hangs together reasonably well, provided you don’t really know how axial tilt and seasons and evaporation and condensation and temperature all work. Later historian Diodorus of Sicily pointed out that if it were true, every river in Africa should exhibit the same seasonal flooding behavior, not just the Nile.
Having solved the problem of the annual flooding, Herodotus turns his attention to the other great mystery of the Nile: its source.
Nobody knows from whence the Nile flows, except perhaps the treasurer at the Temple of Athena in Saïs in Egypt, who was joking but whose story Herodotus has diligently recorded for us anyway. The treasurer claimed that equidistant between Syene and Elephantine (a couple of other cities in Egypt) were two mountains that were perfect cones, right next to each other, called Mount Crophi and Mount Mophi. Smack dab in between them there was an artesian well that spewed out the Nile and another river which flowed south to Ethiopia. The legendary scientist-pharaoh Psamtik did a cunning experiment and dropped a long rope down the shaft of the well, and that 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.
HERODOTUS EXPLAINS ETHIOPIA, KIND OF
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 rocks 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. A more correct name for the city would be Napata.
Kush, 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 probably the world’s leading producer of worked iron, as well as big in the cotton game.
However Kush didn’t interact with Greece much due to distance, and they didn’t deal with Rome much either, except to make war upon them. The Romans didn’t talk much about them in their history books for that reason. A few hundred years of intermittent war with Rome went by, and Kush was pretty well gone by the second century AD. They were big for a while, though, at least as much as Lydia or Ionia. We just never hear about them because the historians we’ve read 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 Psamtik, a great experiment was conducted. Procedure: construct a massive garrison of eighty thousand troops at Elephantine and two more the same size at Daphnae and Marea. Eighty thousand troops, man! A lot of troops.
The question was, would two hundred and forty thousand soldiers, stationed in the godforsaken uplands of Egypt, rebel when Psamtik stopped paying them?
The experiment was a success! The soldiers rebelled en masse, and set out marching south, away from stupid Psamtik and his stupid refusal to give them their back pay. Psamtik, the story goes, sent couriers to entreat the soldiers.
“Maybe y’all have some reason to be mad at Psamtik,” the courier told the deserters. “Maybe everybody’s right, and everybody’s wrong. Or nobody’s right, or wrong. Either way. Probably we should all just turn around and go back to base. Psamtik is willing to forgive and forget; can you soldiers also forgive and forget your pensions?”
This line of argument didn’t hold much water with the deserters, who told the courier where he could stick Psamtik’s forgiveness. The courier had 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 Kush we’ll get new loved ones, with blackjack and hookers!”
Kush was, naturally, eager to agree to anything that would stick a thumb in Egypt’s eye. They granted the deserters a big tract of land south of the city, which they settled (either with their wives and families or else with new wives and families; it’s unclear). Their descendants continued to live in these Nubian uplands at least up to the time of Herodotus’s writing, over a century later.
For a while historians figured this whole story was bunkum, but then they came around, due to the weight of evidence. Historians do insist that it was probably far fewer than 240 000 soldiers who deserted, because historians are total buzzkills. You know I love you, historians, but it’s true.
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, he says.
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.
HERODOTUS PASSES ALONG SOME CRAZY STORIES
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 as described by Nasamonians, 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 moved on towards Tunisia, scouting out the coastline, then eventually 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, swampland with trees!
- Fruit in the trees!
- Short angry dark-skinned locals who didn’t speak Nasamonian and didn’t cotton to strangers eating their fruit!
- A whole city full of people who were also short and who had 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 bratty douchebag 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 Kush (as related previously), 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.
The remarkable thing, if you take this story at face value, is how accurate it is. There really was a river in the right place to be the one the explorers found, and it’s surrounded by swampland. There really was an ethnicity of very short and dark-skinned people who lived in cities, in the proximity of that river. And there really were crocodiles in that river. Which was, in fact, unusual, inasmuch as in the classical world crocodiles were assumed to be unique to the Nile. There’s a story about Alexander the Great invading India and discovering crocodiles in the Indus River and assuming he’d somehow discovered the source of the Nile, because everybody knew crocodiles were only found along the Nile. The direction of the river is really the only inaccuracy (not counting the natives all being wizards).
As far as Herodotus is concerned, the river in question 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 up 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,” he says.
NEXT: MOST OF EGYPTIAN HISTORY!
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