Historians discredit Herodotus' "Account of Egypt," but are they missing the point?
At the hands of some modern day historians and scholars, Herodotus’ attempts to record his travels through Egypt are reduced to an academic source not much more credible than Homer’s fanciful poems. In the essay “Did Herodotus Ever Go To Egypt,” O. Kimball Armayor presents arguments from modern Egyptologists and other authors of historical leanings that question the validity of Herodotus’ claims. Some say he completely misinterpreted the Egyptians, others say he had no intention to provide an truthful record but rather wanted to profit from storytelling, and still others believe the inaccuracy of his information proves he never went to Egypt at all. In light of modern archaeological evidence, Armayor questions Herodotus’ assertions that the Egyptians were black and circumcised, that he obtained truthful information from high priests or even commoners, and his geographical specifications and omissions. These doubts have led some modern scholars to view Herodotus’ writings as painfully misguided, if not outright deceitful. But even if we cannot take Herodotus’ “Account of Egypt” at face-value because of its historical contradictions, why can we not still value it for what it does provide?
Egyptologists say ancient Egyptians were highly xenophobic (a fact Herodotus himself acknowledged when he spoke of Egyptian reverence for cows and their refusal to share knives with Greeks) and the commoners would therefore not have had any interest in conversing with Herodotus, let alone the prestigious priests he claims to have spoken with. Additionally, he would have needed a translator, a fact he does not address. Furthermore, his descriptions of “black” skin are unclear, and historians think only the priests were circumcised. Finally, Herodotus’ geographical measurements have been proven inaccurate, and certain places like Chemmis have not been identified, while other absences, such as that of the Great Sphinx, are considered troubling.
With these being only some of the attacks on Herodotus’ veracity, it seems his writings cannot be regarded as anything other than far-fetched storytelling. Of course, some of the assumptions made by historians are also not infallible; for instance, Herodotus’ definition of “black” may likely have simply meant “darker than my own skin,” and there is no solid proof that the Egyptians, even the priests, would have refused to speak with him. However, there is little about Herodotus’ claims that can be absolutely proven or disproven. In arguing about facts recorded nearly 2,500 years ago, I believe the true worthiness of his work is both diminished and ignored by disappointed historians who presumptuously expected the account to adhere to modern-day standards and capabilities of accuracy. For one thing, measurement inaccuracies should hardly be considered a point of contention, since they were most likely estimated very roughly, and Herodotus’ sense of place orientation would have been based on little more than his internal compass. But more importantly, Herodotus was not aware of the anthropological methods of research common today, and did not claim to use them; it is not fair to consider him deceitful because he may have asked leading questions, or communicated through a possibly questionable interpreter, or not verified the information relayed to him by the Egyptians. Given the time period, when fact and fantasy blurred together in art, story, religion, and real life, it is hardly to be expected that Herodotus would have had the modern sensibilities to separate truth from fiction, both in the Egyptians’ legendary tales and their exotic daily life.
Perhaps he did purposefully embellish what he saw, or appropriated stories he heard as his own eyewitness accounts, or lied about going to Egypt at all. But I think it is more likely that he simply attempted to give a description of what he saw, and was unable to do so with complete accuracy because of cultural and language differences, a lack of authoritatively trustworthy resources, and possibly a tendency to mistake isolated incidents as universal peculiarities. Still, I was impressed by his lack of prejudice towards the Egyptians (especially if they were as inhospitable as some historians say), the extensiveness of his account, and his cautious attempts to warn readers about stories he considered doubtful. Far too many years have passed to determine the real truth about Herodotus, so what is the benefit of attacking him? I think his account should be appreciated for its literary value and authorial ambition, and even if the details cannot be used as a source of accurate information, the work itself is highly interesting from an anthropological perspective in regards to the mindset and cultural approach of an ancient man. Besides, even if one refuses to believe Herodotus ever set foot in Egypt, he still wrote a fantastic story.