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Herodotus' fifth logos: Egyptian customs and animals

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Map of Egypt at the end of the sixth century BCE. Design Jona Lendering. Lower Egypt

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, women urinate standing up and men do it sitting down (text). Next, we learn us about the religion and the festivals of the country along the Nile, which cause Herodotus to digress on the temple of Heracles in Tyre; 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 (text).
The god Anubis balming a deceased man. Papyrus from the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden (Netherlands).
The god Anubis balming a deceased man (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden; ©!!!)



Many Egyptian customs described by Herodotus are the reversal of a custom that existed in Greece. The explanation is that the ancient Greeks believed that the barbarians on the edges of the earth were the opposite of the civilized people in the middle of the terrestrial disk. Herodotus' description tells a lot more about ancient Greece than about the Egyptians.

Herodotus knows more about the Egyptian religion than he finds proper to write down. E.g., he mentions nearly all elements of the legend of Isis and Osiris in passing, but never tells the complete story. (It is known to us from a treatise by the Greek author Plutarch of Chaeronea, who lived c.100 CE.) When Herodotus describes the festivals, sacrifices and rituals of famous Egyptian temples like Memphis, Sais and Heliopolis, he can seldom been shown to err.

Egyptian statuette of a hippopotamus. Louvre, Paris (France). Photo Marco Prins.
Statuette of a hippopotamus (Louvre)

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 (Eusebius, Preparation to the Gospel 10.3). Perhaps the Halicarnassian researcher 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 that the people who told Herodotus information could have forgotten parts, or just entertained him with an interesting answer that had nothing to do with the truth.



  • Walter Burkert, 'Herodot als Historiker fremder Religionen' in: Hérodote et les peuples non Grecs. Neuf exposés suivis de discussions (Entretiens sur l' Antiquité classique, tome XXV) (1990 Genève), pages 1-39
  • Alan B. Lloyd, commentary on Herodotus. Book Two. Its three volumes appeared in Leiden between 1975 and 1988.
  • Alan B. Lloyd, 'Herodotus on Egyptians and Libyans' in: Hérodote et les peuples non Grecs. Neuf exposés suivis de discussions (Entretiens sur l' Antiquité classique, tome XXV) (1990 Genève), pages 215-253
  • Alan B. Lloyd, "Egypt" in: Egbert Bakker, Irene de Jong and Hans van Wees (eds.), Brill's Companion to Herodotus (2002 Leiden), pages 415-436

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