Histories, book 2
summary and comments by Jona
Fourth logos: Egyptian geography (2.1-34)
After the death of king Cyrus, his son Cambyses becomes the new shah of
Persia. His plan to conquer Egypt gives Herodotus the opportunity to dedicate
three logoi to the ancient kingdom on the boards of the Nile. In
the first logos of Book Two, he gives a description of the country,
the desert, and the river Nile. He gives a (rather unconvincing) proof
that the Egyptian language is the oldest in the world, explains the inundation
of the Nile, and tells several stories about the sources of this river
Here Herodotus shows himself an unbiased and critical observer. His
observation of the Nile valley as an alluvium is scientific triumph;
his discussion of the cause of the inundation of this river is exemplary.
Fifth logos: Egyptian customs and animals (2.35-99)
In the next logos, Herodotus tells us about the customs of the Egyptians.
These are often inversions of Greek customs: women attend market and men
do the weaving, the priests shave their hair, they knead dough with their
feet and clay with their hands. Next, we learn us about the religion and
the festivals of the country along the Nile; and Herodotus concludes with
a description of the animals that live in Egypt, such as the holy bull
Apis, the holy cats, the holy crocodiles, the hippopotamus, the phoenix
and the cobra. Then, Herodotus returns to the Egyptian customs, and explains
-among other things- how mummies are made.
Herodotus knows more about the Egyptian
religion than he thinks proper to write down. E.g., he mentions all elements
of the legend of Isis and Osiris in passing, but never tells the complete
His way of describing the holy animals is pretty
accurate, but one cannot help but wonder if he ever saw a hippopotamus.
His description is closer to a horse with tusks than to the hippo. Now
it turns out that at this point, Herodotus is guilty of plagiarism. Perhaps
he has seen the hippo only from a distance and has decided not to trust
his defective observation and to rely on another source, Hecataeus
of Miletus (see below).
Although egyptologists regard this logos
as a valuable source of information, the accuracy of it has been challenged.
His eyewitness accounts seem accurate, but the stories told to him are
questioned. Some researchers think the people who told Herodotus information
could have forgotten parts, or just entertained him with an interesting
answer having nothing to do with the truth.
Sixth logos: Egyptian history (2.100-182)
The third logos is devoted to Egyptian history. It starts with the
first pharaoh Min; Herodotus claims that since this legendary king 330
pharaohs have ruled. He does not mention all of them. He gives some attention
to the great conqueror Sesostris, tries to find out about Greek contacts
with Egypt at the time of the Trojan War, tells a story about a cunning
thief who managed to rob the treasury of pharaoh Rhampsinitus (and after
all kinds of adventures marries Rhampsinitus' daughter and lives happily
ever after), explains how the pyramids were built, knows of a Ethiopian
pharaoh Sabacus and describes the history of Egypt under the pharaohs Necho,
Psammetichus, Necho II, Psammis, Apries and Amasis.
This is a curious mixture of facts, fiction and fairy tales. Among
the latter is of course the story about king Rhampsinitus and the thief.
Sometimes, we can see why our Greek historian tells a story. That Sesostris
was a great conqueror must be Herodotus' own invention: he tells us that
Sesostris had made a monument in the neighborhood of modern Izmir in which
he had written that he had met only effeminate warriors in this part of
the world. There is a monument with Hethitic hieroglyphs that fits the
description; since Herodotus cannot have known the difference between the
hieroglyphs of the Hethites and the Egyptians, his mistake is understandable.
Book 1 Book
3 Book 4 Book
5 Book 6
Book 7 Book
8 Book 9
On the whole, Herodotus description improves when
he comes closer to his own time. He has grossly misdated the building of
the pyramids, his tale about the Ethiopian pharaoh Sabacus contains some
elements of truth, and his narrative on the twenty-sixth dynasty (ruled
672-525) is pretty accurate. Herodotus is aware of his growing reliability
and explains why: under these pharaohs, there were Greek mercenaries and
merchants in Egypt.