Herodotus and Egyptian Religion

Mark A. Rivera

University of Arizona

Herodotus's Histories Book 2 is one of the earliest attempts at what we now call ethnography, and it offers an important starting point for uncovering Herodotus's views on religion and belief in general.  Scholars have criticized Herodotus's account of Egyptian religion for lacking "any grasp of the concepts underpinning belief or ritual" (Lloyd 2002: 432).  However, such criticism misses the point: Herodotus emphasizes belief and ritual because he believes they are the substance of religion.  Thus, his logos aiguptikos can seem unfocused at times because so much is included in this rubric.  I first argue that Herodotus's emphasis on belief and ritual, practice and performance, reveals that they are important elements of ancient religion; second, Herodotus's treatment of Egyptian religion (2.35-90) possesses an elegant structure that begins (after initial remarks in 2.35-41) and ends with the treatment of dead things (first animals and then humans), a frame which marks an internal logic and development that contradicts those who claim that Herodotus's view of religion is undeveloped.

Herodotus begins his discussion of Egyptian religion with a well-known passage that ends: ta polla panta empalin toisi alloisi anthropoisi estesanto ethea te kai nomous, "generally, they have set up customs and laws opposite to all other people" (2.35).  What follows (2.35-90) is a long description of Egyptian religious customs.  However, the phrase ethea te kai nomous, which does not necessarily have religious connotations, appears to downplay the specifically religious aspects of what Herodotus is describing.  Initially this might suggest that Herodotus's ethnography lacks subtlety.  I argue that the very diversity he portrays reflects how broadly he defines the concept of religion.

Herodotus's broad definition sheds light on the status of women in Egyptian culture (and consequently in Greek culture) when discussing purified bulls and calves (2.41).  In preceding passages, Herodotus mentions women several times, but only to illustrate the "topsy-turvy" culture of Egypt.  This passage, however, implies that both Egyptian women and men alike were able to interact with Greek men in certain unspecified but apparently religious contexts.

If Herodotus's description of women is rather vague, his depiction of the mythical phoenix is not (2.73).  Herodotus writes that the phoenix is hiros, or sacred; its association with Heliopolis, and therefore with the sun, indicate the phoenix's special religious status.  Herodotus offers little critical examination of the phoenix story, except to emphasize that he is recounting the opinion of Heliopolitans rather than his own.  Beyond these remarks, Herodotus does not differentiate the phoenix from most of the other animals he writes about.  This may indicate a failure on Herodotus's part to reflect critically on what he is recounting, but I argue that it once more indicates his wide definition of religion.  Here, Herodotus is interested not necessarily in the truth of the story but in the fact that it forms part of Egyptian religious belief.

Herodotus's discussion of mummification (85-90) also illustrates his emphasis on ritual in religion.  Initially the passage leaves the reader wondering why the Egyptians practice mummification.  However, Herodotus allows the reader to deduce the point by analogy with the passage of the disposal of dead bulls and cows (2.41): the Egyptians practice mummification because they are concerned with the treatment of the dead, both human and animal.

Herodotus's description of Egyptian religion conveys information not just about Egyptian culture but about ancient concepts of religion generally.  Herodotus's focus on belief and ritual, practice and performance, reveal that they were important elements of ancient religion and that the Egyptians shared this understanding.  The readers bring their own knowledge of Greek religious beliefs and practices, and the interaction of reader and text generates in the reader an appreciation of what is uniquely Egyptian in Egyptian beliefs and practices.

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