Readings in Early European History

Date: 1897

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Chapter I Three Oriental Peoples as Described by Herodotus



The Egyptians


Concerning Egypt itself I shall extend my remarks to a great length, because there is no country that possesses so many wonders, or any that has such a number of works which defy description. Not only is the climate different from that of the rest of the world, and the rivers unlike any other rivers, but the people also, in most of their manners and customs, exactly reverse the common practice of mankind. The women attend the markets and trade, while the men sit at home at the loom. While the rest of the world works the woof up the warp, the Egyptians work it down. The women likewise carry burdens upon their shoulders, while the men carry them upon their heads .... A woman cannot serve in the priestly office, either for god or goddess, but men are priests to both. Sons need not support their parents unless they choose, but daughters must, whether they wish to do so or not.

In other countries the priests have long hair; in Egypt their heads are shaven. Elsewhere it is customary, in mourning, for near relatives to cut their hair close. The Egyptians, however, who wear no hair at any other time, when they lose a relative, let their beards and the hair of their heads grow long. All other men pass their lives separate from animals; the Egyptians have animals always living with them. Others make barley and wheat their food; it is a disgrace to do so in Egypt, where the grain they live on is spelt.1 . . . Dough they knead with their feet; but they mix mud, and even take up dirt, with their hands. . . . Their men wear two garments apiece, their women but one. They put on the rings and fasten the ropes to sails inside; others put them outside. When they write or calculate, instead of going, like the Greeks, from left to right, they move the hand from right to left. They insist, notwithstanding, that it is they who go to the right, and the Greeks who go to the left. They have two quite different kinds of writing, one of which is called sacred, the other common.2

They are religious to excess, far beyond any other race of men, and use the following ceremonies. They drink out of brazen cups, which they scour every day. To this practice there is no exception. They wear linen garments, which they are specially careful to have always fresh washed. . . . The priests shave the whole body every other day, that no impure thing may adhere to them when they are engaged in the service of the gods. Their dress is entirely of linen, and their shoes of the papyrus plant. It is not lawful for them to wear either dress or shoes of any other material. They bathe twice every day in cold water, and twice each night; besides which they observe, so to speak, thousands of ceremonies. They enjoy, however, not a few advantages. They consume none of their own property, and are at no expense for anything. Every day bread is baked for them of the sacred corn, and a plentiful supply of beef and of goose flesh is assigned to each, and also a portion of wine made from the grape. Fish they are not allowed to eat. . . . The priests will not even look at beans, which are considered unclean. Instead of a single priest, each god has the attendance of a college, at the head of which is a chief priest. When one of these dies, his son is appointed in his place. . . .

Egypt, though it borders upon Libya,1 is not a region abounding in wild animals. The animals that do exist in the country, whether domesticated or otherwise, are all regarded as sacred. If I were to explain why they are consecrated to the several gods, I should be led to speak of religious matters, which I particularly shrink from mentioning. . . . The inhabitants of the various cities, when they have made a vow to any god, pay it to his animals in the way which I will now explain. At the time of making the vow they shave the head of the child, cutting off all the hair, or else half, or sometimes a third part. This they then weigh in a balance against a sum of silver. Whatever sum the hair weighs is presented to the guardian of the animals, who thereupon cuts up some fish, and gives it to them for food. . . . When a man has killed one of the sacred animals, if he did it with intentional malice, he is punished with death; if unwittingly, he has to pay such a fine as the priests choose to impose. When, however, an ibis or a hawk is killed, whether by accident or on purpose, the man must needs die.

The number of domestic animals in Egypt is very great. . . . On every occasion of a fire in Egypt the strangest prodigy occurs with the cats. The inhabitants allow the fire to rage as it pleases, while they stand about at intervals and watch these animals, which, slipping by the men or else leaping over them, rush headlong into the flames. When this happens, the Egyptians are in deep affliction. If a cat dies in a private house by a natural death, all the inmates of the house shave their eyebrows; on the death of a dog they shave the head and the whole of the body. The cats on their decease are taken to the city of Bubastis,1 where they are embalmed, after which they are buried in sacred repositories. The dogs are interred in the cities to which they belong, likewise in sacred burial places. . . . The bears, which are scarce in Egypt, and the wolves, which are not much bigger than foxes, they bury wherever they happen to find them lying. . . .

In social meetings among the rich, when the banquet is ended, a servant carries round to the several guests a coffin. In it there is a wooden image of a corpse, carved and painted to resemble nature as nearly as possible, about a cubit or two cubits in length. As he shows it to each guest in turn, the servant says, "Gaze here, and drink and be merry; for when you die, such will you be." . . .

There is a custom in which the Egyptians resemble a particular Greek people, namely the Spartans. Their young men, when they meet their elders in the streets, give way to them and step aside; and if an elder comes in where youths are present, the latter rise from their seats. In another respect they differ entirely from all the peoples of Greece. Instead of speaking to each other when they meet in the streets, they make an obeisance, sinking the hand to the knee. . . .

Each physician treats a single disorder, and no more. The country, therefore, swarms with medical practitioners. Some undertake to cure diseases of the eye, others of the head, others again of the teeth . . . and some treat diseases which are not local.

The following is the way in which they conduct their mournings and their funerals. On the death of a man of consequence, the women of his family at once plaster their heads, and sometimes even their faces, with mud. Then, leaving the body indoors, they sally forth and wander through the city, with their dress fastened by a band, and their bosoms bare, beating themselves as they walk. All the female relations join them and do the same. The men, too, similarly begirt, beat their breasts in like manner. When these ceremonies are over, the body is carried away to be embalmed.

There are a set of men in Egypt who practice the art of embalming and make it their proper business. These persons, when a body is brought to them, show the bearers various models of corpses, made in wood, and painted so as to resemble nature. The most perfect is said to be after the manner of him whom I do not think it religious to name in connection with such a matter.1 The second sort is inferior to the first, and less costly; the third is the cheapest of all. All this the embalmers explain, and then ask in which way it is wished that the corpse should be prepared. The bearers tell them, and having concluded their bargain, take their departure, while the embalmers, left to themselves, proceed with their task. . . .

The Egyptians were the first to broach the opinion that the soul of man is immortal. They believe that, when the body dies, it enters into the form of an animal which is born at the moment. Thence it passes on from one animal into another, until it has circled through the forms of all the creatures which tenant the earth, the water, and the air, after which it enters again into a human frame and is born anew. The whole period of the transmigration is (they say) three thousand years. . . .

1 Herodotus. The translation of George Rawlinson, edited by A. J. Grant. 2 vols. London, 1897. John Murray.

2 Herodotus, ii, 35–37, 65–67, 78, 80, 84–86, 123.

1 One of the most ancient of the varieties of wheat. It is still raised in parts of Europe.

2 A reference to the so-called hieratic writing, and to the demotic or popular script of the Egyptians in the time of Herodotus. Hieratic writing was a simpler form of the earlier hieroglyphics. Demotic writing, derived from hieratic, came into use about 700 B. C.

1 The ancient name for the continent of Africa exclusive of Egypt.

1 In the Delta.

1 A reference to the Egyptian divinity Osiris.


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Chicago: A. J. Grant, ed. George Rawlinson, trans., "The Egyptians," Readings in Early European History in Readings in Early European History, ed. Webster, Hutton (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1926), 2–5. Original Sources, accessed June 20, 2024,

MLA: . "The Egyptians." Readings in Early European History, edited by A. J. Grant, and translated by George Rawlinson, in Readings in Early European History, edited by Webster, Hutton, Boston, Ginn and Company, 1926, pp. 2–5. Original Sources. 20 Jun. 2024.

Harvard: (ed.) (trans.), 'The Egyptians' in Readings in Early European History. cited in 1926, Readings in Early European History, ed. , Ginn and Company, Boston, pp.2–5. Original Sources, retrieved 20 June 2024, from