After the Persian king Cyrus dies and before the narrative follows Cambyses’ reign, Herodotus pauses and relays his inquiries and research on Egypt. While still wealthy, Egypt had declined markedly over the previous few centuries. Despite the decline, the wonders and achievements he sees in that land provide material for an entire section: “[T]his country has more marvels and monuments that defy description than any other.” (All translations by Andrea L. Purvis. I will also use her spelling of proper names.) This harkens back to his opening statement in addition to providing an example of the downfall of greatness (“human prosperity never remains constant”). While Herodotus does not explicitly point out the Egyptian decline in this book, he is setting the stage for the Persian conquest in the next. Between the lines, however, lies an implication that Egypt’s greatness lies in the past and its power has waned.
In his view of the world, Herodotus assumes a certain symmetry in the world although the further you travel from the center (Greece) the stranger things get. In looking at Egyptians, he sees traits that are both similar and opposite to Greek customs. Herodotus respects the Egyptians because of their status as an older civilization and assumes that knowledge and customs can flow only in one direction, from the older civilization (Egypt) to the younger (Greece). This assumption is most apparent in his discussions on religion but it causes certain tensions that he never resolves.
The Egyptian priests list all of their leaders, back 341 generations, for Herodotus and drop the tidbit that in the 11,000+ years of their reigns no god had appeared in human form to the Egyptians. Herodotus mentions Hekataois’ visit with the priests and that author’s ability to trace his linage for 16 generations back to a god, which puts the difference between Egyptian and Greek beliefs front and center. But Herodotus shrugs off the difference, saying “One may espouse either of these views.” But the difference has important implications, and if one believes the Egyptians then the heroic age as told in Greek epics would be called into question. Herodotus shrugs the difference off, saying he has already relayed his belief. In an earlier discussion on Herakles, Herodotus seems to say that the Greeks applied the name of an Egyptian god to a Greek hero, so his reconciliation appears to assume a conflation of ancient gods and more “recent” heroes.
Herodotus’ investigation into what really happened to Helen of Troy provides insight into his investigative methods as well as his assumptions and biases (as well as a nice counterpoint to my recent read of The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason). Herodotus can be dismissive of Greek tradition, labeling stories such as Herakles’ visit to Egypt as foolish. I found it interesting that, while respecting the gods, Herodotus can be so contemptuous of Homer, judging some areas of his stories as poetic license or inventions. Herodotus then presents the Egyptian priests version of what happened during the Trojan War. They claimed that Alexandros and Helen stopped in Egypt but local leaders looked unkindly on the abduction and theft. The Egyptian leaders demanded Alexandros/Paris leave Helen and the stolen treasure which they would safeguard for Menelaos. The Trojan War begins but, in answer to Greek demands for Helen, the Trojans claim she is not in the city. The Greeks continue the war, not believing this response, and Troy falls as a punishment from the gods. Menelaos, on not finding Helen in the ruined city, travels to Egypt and finds his wife.
As with other competing stories, Herodotus tries to reconcile differing versions as well as look for a logical conclusion. He assumes the Greek epics reflect pieces of the Egyptian version with embellishments for storytelling purposes. In the conclusion, his historical evaluation reads like a literary criticism (paragraph 120):
This is what the Egyptian priests said, and I agree with their argument, considering if Helen had been in Troy, the Trojans would have certainly returned her to the Hellenes, whether Alexandros concurred or not. For neither Priam nor his kin could have been so demented that they would have willingly endangered their own persons, their children, and their city just so that Alexandros could have Helen. Surely the Trojans would have realized this even in the first years of the war and would have given her up. After all, many Trojans were being killed whenever they joined combat with the Greeks, and the sons of Priam himself were dying in every battle, two or three at a time, and sometimes even more. And I believe—if the verses themselves can be used as evidence—that even if Priam himself had been living with Helen, he would have certainly returned her to the Achaeans in order to bring their troubles to an end. In fact, since the kingship was not even going to devolve upon Alexandros, he could not have hoped to control matters in Priam’s old age. It was Hector, both older and more of a man than Alexandros, who was to inherit the crown when Priam died, and he would never have entrusted affairs of state to a brother who committed injustices, and especially not if doing so were to bring great evils upon himself and on all the Trojans. And so it is clear that they did not have Helen and therefore could not give her back; and that when they said this to the Hellenes, they were telling the truth; but the Hellenes did not believe them. This all took place—and here I am declaring my own opinion—because a divine force arranged matters so that the Trojans, by their total ruin and destruction, would clearly demonstrate to all humans the fundamental truth that when great injustices are committed, retribution from the gods is also great. That, at least, is what I think.
Herodotus also mentions what the priests said about Menelaos’ affront while in Egypt, sacrificing two Egyptian children in order to get a fair wind home. While this sounds like an Egyptian adaption of Greek epic, Herodotus assumes that Homer’s version reflects the ‘original’ Egyptian version of the story.
The story of Mykerinos provides another example of Herodotus' assumption of man's inability to escape from fate. Mykerinos’ father and uncle had ruled Egypt for 106 years, bringing suffering to the Egyptians as they abused their subjects and disrespected the gods. Mykerinos changed things, opening sanctuaries and not working his subjects to death. After several personal losses, Mykerinos consults an oracle who tells him his life will end in six years because he is behaving contrary to the fate assigned to Egypt. His father and uncle understood that Egypt was destined to suffer for 150 years and played their part accordingly. Mykerinos, on the other hand, has not behaved appropriately. Believing he is already condemned, Mykerinos attempts to subvert the gods the only way he believes possible, immersing himself in debauchery day and night in order to make his remaining six years feel like twelve. (Yet another Sophoclean take on attempts to subvert fate leading directly to the decreed outcome) Herodotus’ look at Egypt stops with the reign of Amasis since this sets the stage for Cambysis’ invasion of Egypt.
The Landmark Herodotus includes an appendix evaluating Herodotus’ account of Egypt. Written by Alan B. Lloyd of the University of Wales’ Department of Classics, Ancient History, and Egyptology, his conclusion provides a concise judgment of this section:
Herodotus’ account of Egypt is the oldest and longest classical discussion of the subject to have survived from any source, but we must never forget that it is written to a Greek agenda and for a Greek audience. It therefore inevitably reflects Greek experience, interests, and preoccupations, and there is no attempt whatsoever to present an objective description of what was there or of the country’s historical evolution. … Nevertheless, his account contains rich nuggets of information on both Egyptian history and culture, and it has, in particular, an enormous value as the record of the reaction of a European to the culture of pharaonic Egypt when that culture was still a going concern, and if its agendas are borne firmly in mind, his account is still capable of yielding much of value to the discriminating reader.