Herodotus, first of all, credits the Egyptians with a tremendous amount of intelligence, cunning, and invention. They’re the oldest civilization, he says, and also the smartest. To defend this assertion he lists off a number of items the Egyptians invented, some of which are so basic it defies reason to imagine someone had to invent them.
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 by comparison and they had to throw in a Leap Month every other year (12x28x2+46=730 days, maybe?). Egyptians invented altars, Herodotus claims. Before an Egyptian came up with the idea for putting your sacrifices on a table, people just threw them on the ground. Egyptians also invented carving pictures into things, writing, representational art, and probably also abstract art.
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, engraved images of the gods on them, and wrote prayers. See? It all hangs together.
The first king of Egypt was Menes, who accomplished such remarkable deeds as inventing the concept of being king, founding the city of Memphis, and diverting the course of the Nile. Herodotus does not explicitly credit him with inventing cities, but he does say Menes dug a channel that resulted in the Nile’s peculiar bend fourteen miles south of Memphis, and also Menes dug a particular lake that may or may not have ever existed (it definitely doesn’t exist nowadays).
For centuries Menes was somebody that historians pointed at and said ‘listen, Herodotus can’t be trusted, he believed in Menes! He may as well have believed in the tooth fairy! There’s no mythical Egypt-founder! It’s nonsense! Ha ha, Herodotus, ha ha!’ and words to that effect. Then around the start of the 20th century, Egyptologists discovered his tomb, so who’s laughing now?
On the other hand, Herodotus also reports the story of Nitocris with a straight face. His chronology claims there had been as of his writing three hundred and thirty-one kings of Egypt, of which eighteen were Ethiopian conquerers and one was Nitrocris, a woman who just happened to have the same name as the semi-mythical Babylonian queen.
This Nitocris only has the same name as the Nitrocris discussed back in CLIO. She was the sister of a king, he says. For reasons Herodotus doesn’t explore, a cabal within the Egyptian aristocracy rose up in revolt and killed her brother. Afterwards they were at something of a loss.
“We probably should have thought this through,” said the conspirators to one another. “Now we don’t have a king and our dead king didn’t leave any heirs.”
“Oh, all right,” said Nitocris, who was standing within earshot. “I’ll do it. I’ll be king.”
“A woman king? Truly we live in strange times!” But there were no other claimants, so Nitocris became ‘woman-king,’ i.e. history’s first ruling queen.
She was, however, not nearly the smiles and sunshine one might expect given that she was just handed the throne. Nitocris had been put in power by a conspiracy of aristocrats, and she didn’t trust them. Thus, her four-part plan.
Step one: arrange for the construction of a big underground complex, a veritable dungeon, on the pretext that it would become a new public building and memorial.
Step two: throw a big gala celebrating the opening of her dungeon, and invite all the aristocrats who had participated in the plot against her brother. Also invite all the aristocrats who would have participated, if they’d been given the chance. Err on the side of inviting too many aristocrats. Pack them in.
Step three: divert the Nile through the dungeon. Cackle insanely as the upper crust of Memphis all drown in agony.
Step four: to assure that no one calls you to account for your crime, commit suicide. Chosen method: seal yourself in a basement room full of hot ashes and die of carbon monoxide poisoning from the incomplete combustion.
Pretty crazy, am I right? After Nitocris, Herodotus says, there were no interesting kings until Sesostris, aka Ramses II.
SESOTRIS WHO WAS PROBABLY RAMSES II
Well, probably Rameses II. Maybe. There’s a considerable amount of dispute as to whether he means Rameses II or some later pharaoh, Sensoret III or Thothmes III or some other pharaoh I’ve never heard of. For our purposes, we can go ahead and say Ramses II. It’s not as if Herodotus’s chronology of Egypt is flawless in any other area; arguably Sesotris might as well just be made up out of whole cloth.
Supposedly Sesotris invaded the Middle East and made it as far east as India, mainly through naval power. He only turned around when he got to India, in fact, because the Indian Ocean was too shallow for his ships to proceed. I suppose Herodotus thought that sounded fairly plausible.
Wherever Sesotris went he conquered. When he conquered a city that put up a good fight, afterwards he’d arrange for the construction of a war memorial, honoring the city’s fallen defenders and listing their names. When he conquered the city that just rolled over for him, he’d instead arrange for the construction of a cowardice memorial. The cowardice memorials looked like the war memorials, except that instead of fallen heroes they listed the names of guys who had surrendered, and also they were covered in crude images of women’s genitals.
There may or may not have been crude images of men’s genitals all over the war memorials. Herodotus is ambiguous. Apparently these memorials were an actual thing, albeit a Greek thing rather than an Egyptian thing.
The other thing Herodotus can tell us about Sesotris is a funny story about murdering children. During his campaigns invading the Middle East and raising his phallic and yonic memorials, and so on, he left his brother in charge of Egypt, as interim pharaoh. When Sesotris came back to Egypt, the brother didn’t want to give up his power, so plotted murder. He invited Sesotris and his family over, but then ran outside his house and locked it and set it on fire.
“Aw, heck,” said Sesotris. He tried the doors and windows and couldn’t find a way out, except up on the roof, and from there the only escape meant falling to his death. “I guess we’re all going to die.”
“Not so fast!” said Sesotris’s wife, whose name Herodotus failed to write down. “Instead of you and me and all six of our sons dying, why not kill two of our sons and use their corpses to construct a safety ladder? Then we, and our four surviving sons, can escape!”
“Honey, you’re a genius!” cried Sesotris. Lickety-fast he killed their two least-favorite sons, and the rest were saved.
Naturally Sesotris went on to avenge his children by killing his brother in a bloody civil war, but you could have guessed that. Afterwards he took his enormous army of slaves, captured during his Middle Eastern campaigns, and had them dig all the irrigation canals in Egypt.
“Probably he also invented the sundial,” muses Herodotus. “I mean, someone had to have, right?”
PHARAOH, HEIR OF SESOTRIS
Sesotris’s heir was, according to Herodotus, the unimaginatively-named Pharaoh. Seriously, ‘Pharaoh’ is the name Herodotus wrote down, which just goes to show, he was flying blind a lot of the time. This so-called Pharaoh was overall a pretty nebbishy king, neither an effective administrator nor a captain of war. His big claim to fame was the time he got cursed by the gods.
Once upon a time, there was a massive flood in Egypt. The Nile floods regularly, but this was something special: twenty-seven feet above its usual level. Pharaoh was called upon to take some kind of action. Rather than evacuate the people or dig more canals or anything else useful, he decided to go do battle with the flood.
Pharaoh took a spear and attacked the floodwaters, hurling the spear like an idiot. Naturally the gods were incensed by this display of arrogant command over nature. They struck Pharaoh blind on the spot.
Ten years went by. Presumably the floodwaters eventually receded. Pharaoh was still blind, but also still pharaoh. Year eleven of his blindness was marked by the arrival of a holy man, who told him that the gods were ready to forgive him for being such an idiot.
“Anoint your eyes with the urine of a woman,” the oracle told him.
“Ew,” said Pharaoh.
“I know, right? Nasty. Still, it’s one last humiliation the gods demand before they declare you’ve sufficiently demeaned yourself.”
“Okay, I’ll do it,” said Pharaoh. He obtained some urine from a handy woman and splashed it in his face.
“What gives?” he demanded of the oracle.
“Oh, didn’t I say? The woman has to be someone who has never cheated on her husband,” said the oracle.
So Pharaoh got some of his own wife’s urine. Nothing! And then he systemically collected urine from every woman in his court and splashed it in his face.
Eventually he regained his sight. Herodotus is not specific as to whether this was because he found a woman who had never been unfaithful to her husband, or for another reason. Either way, once he could see, the first thing Pharaoh did was gather up all the women whose urine hadn’t magically cured him, and had them mass-executed in a town called Bloody Ground.
Bloody Ground has never existed and this story is pretty clearly a fairy tale about how awful women are. But for what it’s worth urine was sometimes used in Egyptian medicine. Urine is high in ammonia and sterile; it might have been useful for something at some point.
HELEN OF TROY WHY NOT?
After Pharaoh died or was deposed, he was succeeded not by his own son but by a prominent aristocrat of Memphis, a man Homer called Polybus and Herodotus calls Proteus. It’s possible Herodotus misunderstood something and Proteus was actually a Prouti, which was apparently a title. Like thinking Dracula’s first name was Count?
Anyway, Proteus was king or at least local bigwig in Memphis, when Paris showed up. You remember Paris from a little thing called the Trojan War, right? He kidnapped Helen, fled across the sea to Troy, and all the Greek heroes teamed up to recover her?
According to this story, Paris and Helen fled Greece by way of Egypt, on account of a storm blew them off course. Their ship put in at the mouth of the Nile, and Paris made repairs and waited for the winds to change.
Meanwhile Paris’s various servants were not cool with the whole kidnapping of Helen thing. The fact that Helen was super into it did not figure; she was someone else’s property and they felt bad about aiding and abetting Paris’s theft.
So they left his ship and went to a nearby shrine to Heracles, which in ancient times (and in Herodotus’s own time this persisted) had a policy of granting asylum to slaves and servants willing to act as whistle-blowers against their masters.
Proteus’s man Thon, the local cop, found out from the shrine’s priests that Paris abducted Helen. (Thon is mentioned very briefly in the Odyssey, in Book IV, as the husband of Helen’s Egyptian poison-supplier Polydamna, by the way.) Thon wasted no time alerting Proteus about the Trojan criminal camped out on the shore. Proteus ordered Paris arrested and brought to him.
Cut to Paris in Proteus’s court.
“Paris, Paris, Paris,” Proteus said, clucking his tongue. “Whatever are we going to do with you?”
“Let me go with a present?” Paris suggested.
“No. I’d execute you, but it seems unsporting to kill a man who just blew into Egypt by accident, and whose crimes weren’t committed here. Seducing Helen, stealing Helen away from her husband Menelaus, robbing Menelaus of various valuables…” Proteus ticked off the crimes of Paris on his fingers. “You are yourself a guest of Egypt, just as you were a guest of the House of Atreus. I cannot break the rules of hospitality, just because you did. So I will let you go.”
“Awesome!” cried Paris.
“But I’m keeping Helen here,” added Proteus.
And so Helen became the prisoner/guest of the pharaoh in Memphis, and Paris went to Troy empty handed.
Menelaus led the Greek army to Troy and besieged the city, as told in the Iliad. When Troy was finally opened, he discovered that Helen wasn’t there (just as the Trojans had been shouting at him over the city walls for years). So he sailed to Egypt and picked Helen up from Memphis, where she’d been waiting.
But Menelaus was also kind of a dick, because when he left Egypt he abducted a couple of local kids and sacrificed them to Poseidon, the jerk.
Herodotus is well aware that this story doesn’t quite jibe with the popular account of the Trojan War, but he points to evidence in Homer mentioning Paris’s travels and Helen’s acquaintances in Egypt as proof that a) this is what really happened, b) Homer knew that it happened this way, and c) Homer omitted the bit about Helen never actually reaching Troy because it made for a more interesting story if the war was caused by a dispute over Helen instead of what it probably had really been about, namely the control of trade routes and excise taxes.
“I mean, come on,” says Herodotus. “Paris was Priam’s younger son. No way Hector or Priam would have risked their whole kingdom on account of his shenanigans. Obviously they didn’t have Helen to return, or else they would have just handed her over.”
THE PYRAMIDS, FINALLY!
Skipping ahead to the next ancient king of Egypt with an interesting anecdote attached, we come to Cheops, he of the Great Pyramid. Herodotus places him as a successor of the successor of the successor of Sesotris, which is kind of funny inasmuch as Cheops reigned around twelve hundred years before Rameses II.
Cheops came to power at the end of a long silver age of peace and prosperity, no doubt caused by the former king supplementing the national treasury with magical golden Hades-napkins. Cheops wasted no time in running Egypt into the ground! First he closed all the temples so that peasants wouldn’t waste time praying and would have more time to spend laboring (there is no historical record of Cheops doing this but who are you going to believe, Herodotus or modern archaeology?). Then he put a hundred thousand people to work digging giant stones, for building the Pyramids with, and another hundred thousand people to work building a roadway to drag the stones from the quarry to the construction site.
Herodotus claims to have seen this road, and calls it as mighty an achievement as the Pyramids themselves: a half-mile long! Sixty feet wide! Built on a causeway as much as forty-eight feet high! Beautifully engraved with lovely carvings! Took ten years to build!
As for the Great Pyramid itself, Herodotus says it took twenty years to build, and he lists off some dimensions for it which are incorrect now and were incorrect in 400 BC, too, but only by ten percent or so. The measurements are close enough to give you a good sense of the project’s scope.
Herodotus assumes you have a lot of questions about how the Pyramids were constructed, and he lays out a theory that big stones were laid out first, one layer on another, building up a sort of stepped pyramid, and then smaller stones were placed around them to create the straight sides. This is probably an accurate description of how the Pyramids were constructed. Less plausible alternatives: they built a little pyramid first and made it bigger gradually over time by adding layers; they made rickety wooden towers by jamming logs underneath the edges of the big stone blocks, lifting the stones up to the level of the top of the pyramid and piling them from the top down; they built half the pyramid one way and the other half the other way. These are all alternate methods that were proposed by one sage or another back in the ancient world; they were able to come up with all kinds of crackpot theories without even resorting to aliens.
Herodotus claims that his tour guide showed him an inscription on one of the Pyramids, detailing the amount of money spent on onions and garlic for the workmen during its construction (about fifty tons of silver). Herodotus cites this figure as indicative of the tremendous expense of the Pyramids (as the onion/garlic costs would be only a fraction of the total overhead). Historians for centuries have argued as to whether H. made this up, or misunderstood his translator, or what; there’s no such inscription anywhere near any of the Pyramids, and the hieroglyph for pharaoh and the one for onion were, apparently, similar enough to be confused, and maybe H.’s native guide was making a joke or pun Herodotus misunderstood? There’s no way to know.
Cheops also had a daughter, and so wicked was he that he forced his daughter into prostitution to fund his Pyramid-building mania! This princess charged, in addition to the money that she passed along to her father, one giant block of stone per client. She used the stones she obtained in this way to construct her own pyramid (one which Herodotus points out is 150′ on a side).
Cheops’s brother Chephren succeeded him; together the brothers ruled Egypt for 106 years, during which all the Pyramids got built and all the Egyptians were really miserable because they were forced to built the Pyramids all day.
APPARENTLY THE VERY FIRST VERSION OF THE CINDERELLA MYTH
Mycerinus was the son of the brother of Cheops, and succeeded them. His tomb was probably discovered at the end of the 19th century, but his effects were lost en route from Egypt to the British Museum, so we’re limited in our ability to fact-check Herodotus on this one.
Mycerinus was an excellent king: he reopened the temples that Cheops closed (again, no historical record of this), he judged disputes fairly, and he stopped making people build Pyramids all day every day.
He was also involved with a particular religious festival involving an idol of a cow, one still celebrated in centuries later when Herodotus wrote. Supposedly the idol was actually Mycerinus’s daughter’s sacrophagus. The king wanted to give his beloved daughter the best possible send-off, when she died, and apparently that meant sealing her up inside a wooden statue of a cow.
Mycerinus’s other claim to fame lay in his death. Relatively briefly into his reign, an oracle visited him and told him that he would take ill and die after six years. Mycerinus was pretty upset to hear this; he’d been a good king, reversing Cheops’s many terrible policies, so why should the gods punish him so?
The oracle explained that Egypt was supposed to suffer for 150 years of bad rulers, and Mycerinus had bucked the trend by not ruling as a wicked despot for 44 years.
“Screw that,” said Mycerinus. He devoted the rest of his life to partying as hard as he could — wine, women, song! Late nights! Drugs! Lanterns! His goal was to pack as much living as possible into the six years he was allotted by the gods.
When he died they put him up in a pyramid, a relatively modest one. Herodotus asserts that some wags claim this particular pyramid was actually built for Rhodopis, but calls bull hockey on that.
Our man H. realizes that we might not know who Rhodopis was, so he explains. She was the Fanne Foxe of her day, a notorious courtesan. Born a slave in Greece (belonging, in fact, to the same household as Aesop, the fable guy) she travelled to Egypt and convinced a patron to buy her freedom, at which point she became the greatest courtesan in history. She was so good at sex! She made a fortune!
You can tell how much she made, says Herodotus, because late in life she donated ten percent of her wealth to the oracle at Delphi. Her donation, a huge pile of iron spits and implements for roasting whole oxen, still remained at Delphi as of Herodotus’s last trip there. Despite iron spits not being terribly precious, the sheer volume of them was apparently very impressive.
Rhodopis was also super famous, says Herodotus. Way more famous than Archidice, about whom we know nothing! Seriously I dunno about this Archidice lady except that she was a courtesan whose sexiness couldn’t compare to the notorious Rhodopis. Herodotus assumes we’d be familiar with Archidice.
The guy whom Rhodopis pressured to bring her to Egypt and buy her freedom was named Charaxus. Sappho, the Lesbian poet, wrote a whole poem about how dumb Charaxus was, a fragment of which survives today.
Rhodopis was a real person, historians agree, and maybe once upon a time she was involved in an event wherein one of her lovers obtained one of her shoes, and tried to identify her by getting women to try the shoe on for size, which is the seed of part of the story of Cinderella. This version of the story involves zero fairy godmothers, but there is a giant eagle who steals Rhodopis’s sandal while she’s bathing. The eagle then drops the sandal in the lap of the king, and the king decides that the gods must want him to marry whatever woman the sandal belongs to, and there you are. This last part, about the eagle, probably did not happen.
THE ETHIOPIAN CONQUEST
So once upon a time, a couple of generations after Mycerinus, the king of Egypt was a man named Anysis, who was blind. When Ethiopia invaded, Anysis fled into the swamp and hung out for fifty years while the Ethiopians ruled Egypt.
The Ethiopians were even-handed conquerers; they didn’t randomly murder Egyptian peasants. Instead they punished criminals through hard labor, specifically building up the embankments of the many irrigation canals that criss-crossed Egypt.
Fifty years after the conquest, the Ethiopian king, Sabacos, had a mystic vision, i.e., a dream. In the dream he took the advice of a mysterious stranger and gathered together all the priests in Egypt for a big mystical ecumenical conference.
When he woke, Sabacos considered a few facts:
1) The oracles in Ethiopia, back when they’d first invaded Egypt, had predicted a fifty-year reign of peace and plenty over that land, and not a day more.
2) The gods are jerks.
3) Probably the vision was to get him to call all the priests together, and then he’d make a mistake and accidentally blaspheme and the priests would promulgate tales of his unrighteousness and the Egyptians would rise up in a bloody civil war.
“Screw that,” said Sabacos, and left, along with the Ethiopian occupation.
And so the Egyptians went out to the swamp and found Anysis, the blind former king, who had been just straight chilling in the swamp for fifty years. He’d built himself a little hidden island, which Herodotus named Elbo, and claimed had been lost for seven hundred years after Anysis’s reign.
Once upon a time, a massive army of Assyrians and Arabians stood poised to conquer Egypt. The Egyptians were all terrified, and unwilling to fight off these invaders. A priest prayed for deliverance, and Hephaestus sent an army of mice who ate through all the bowstrings of the Assyrian army in a single night, an event recounted somewhat differently in 2 Kings 19:35.
Once upon a time Hecataeus, a Greek geographer who liked to claim he was descended from Zeus, was in Thebes. On a whim Hecataeus stopped by a temple and had the priests divine his family tree. Their methodology was unclear, but a key part of the process was a series of wooden statues, one of each priest, father and son, one statue per generation, going back to the beginning of history three hundred and forty-five generations prior.
Did you enjoy this? Tell someone! Like Primary Sources on Facebook! Follow Primary Sources on Twitter! Follow Primary Sources on Tumblr! Spread the word! If you want to, I mean, I’m not going to force you.