Herodotus is one of the most famous historicists who provided people with the knowledge about the ancient era, how peoples lived, what customs and traditions they had. His works are a priceless heritage of that period of time. They promote a better understanding of the epoch and help to create the image of peoples customs and traditions. At the same time, the structure of his book The Histories and its content demonstrate that the author also uses multiple references and other means to represent information and knowledge he possesses about the issue.
Consisting of nine large parts devoted to different historical events, Herodotus work can be analyzed to acquire a distinct idea about the theme. For instance, the author offers a story describing the debate over the oldest race on the earth. In this narrative, Herodotus depicts Psammetichus attempts to determine the origin of nations and their right to call themselves the oldest ones.
Story and Book
The nature of peoples living on earth at that time was vague and hard to determine. For this reason, in the story offered by Herodotus, the ruler conducts an experiment by giving two infants to a shepherd ordering to raise them in silence and solitude with only she-goats to give milk. Their first words should indicate their origin, and, in such a way, demonstrate what nation is the first on the earth. In two years both children said their first word bekos which was similar to the Phrygian word bathos meaning bread (Herodotus 95). In such a way, Psammetichus concluded that Phrygians were older than Egyptians.
Thus, the given story can be considered a part of Book 2 devoted to this very land, its customs, cartography, and other issues that are related to the area. Being the pharaoh, Psammetichus wanted to settle the problem and find the solution to the problem of races and their origins (Herodotus 96). The location of the given extract can also be proven by the fact that other books are devoted to Persians, their conquests and various ethnicities.
At the same time, the given story is closely connected with other parts of the book and themes discussed there. First of all, Herodotus speaks about ancient Egypt, its pharaohs, culture, and people. The given country was one of the most potent states of the ancient world. Even being concurred by Persians led by Darius, the area remained an important province that was given significant attention (Casson 101).
Moreover, there are also such themes as the nature of science and calendar mentioned by Herodotus in the story. It means that there is a direct connection between all parts that are united in a single entity describing all meaningful events of the world and how people lived at that period. Finally, the theme of the primordiality of one or another culture and nation is not new, and it can be often found as the reason for multiple debates and even religious wars.
Thus, the significance of this story can be proven by the fact that there are multiple broader implications. The case of Psammetichus can be considered as not only the myth describing numerous attempts to determine the origin of nations, their role in the world, and satisfy local rulers desire to create the ideological ground for their domination.
However, the story can be taken as a rich source of ethnographic research demonstrating the peculiarities of peoples lives, their relations with representatives of other nations, their religion, myths, and mentality. From this perspective, a story is a perfect collection of pieces of data that can be used to discuss the culture and history of ancient Egypt, its rivalry with Phrygians, and attempts to determine the origins of their nation evidencing the high level of conscience and cognition.
Despite the central motif about the origins of race, Herodotus also touches upon the science in the story. Traveling and communicating with priests, he finds that according to their words, Egyptians were the first to discover the year and divide it into twelve parts (Herodotus 95). In such a way, we can observe the first ideas about astronomy and its use in practice to trace particular events and create a chronology needed to fix outstanding dates.
Accepting the importance of this invention that was discovered while observing the stars, Herodotus recognizes its convenience and says that it is even more efficient that then Greek one (Herodotus 95). In such a way, the story is closely connected with the theme of science and its development in the ancient world. The given topic is often repeated in The Histories which means that there is a direct bond between the extract and the rest of the parts.
Another theme mentioned by Herodotus is religion. In his description of the communication with priests, he states that Egyptians were also the first to establish the epithets of all twelve gods and Greeks took it after them (Herodotus 96). In general, religion is an important theme often mentioned by the author. Being of the driving forces in the ancient world, religion often impacted identity and preconditioned the emergence of certain responses to particular events (Casson 98).
At the same time, there are multiple theories that the majority of religious have common grounds as they emerged from the same belief. In such a way, Herodotus talk with Egyptian priests about the nature of religion can be considered an important element of the whole book as it is repeated in all its parts. The author revolves around this very element to demonstrate the direct connection between various cultures and their constant struggle for dominance in multiple spheres.
Finally, there are also some mythological themes in the story provided by Herodotus. Firs of all, children raised in solitude and fed by animals often become the central characters of various myths or religious texts (Bauer 123). It can be explained by the fact that all gods had their animalistic representation and were associated with some creatures to simplify worshipping (Bauer 121). At the same time, the use of children comes from their innocent character, the absence of knowledge about the world, and unprejudiced attitude to various events.
That is why infants often prove some assumption made by rulers or other actors or help to materialize some prophecy (Van De Mieroop 98). A shepherd or a person from some lower classes met in myths as educators or guardians of some unusual children. Finally, she-goats or other animals are often featured in myths and legends of various peoples as nurses who provide infants the needed milk. In such a way, the given story perfectly correlates with other myths and beliefs of nations mentioned by Herodotus.
In such a way, in the story, the author continues his cogitations about the nature of peoples living in the area in ancient times. It is not a separate extract that provides readers with the additional information about the irrelevant topic. On the contrary, it helps to understand the global context and improves the understanding of the overall work. The issues pushed in this work remain topical for all other parts of The History. It is a sequence of data pieces created to help a reader to create the full image of the world of that period of time, the state of science, religion, ethnicity, and myths. The story can also help to compare various cultures as Herodotus always communicates with people through the prism of the Greek mentality and opposes peculiarities of one ethnos to these of another one.
Altogether, in the extract devoted to the debate over the oldest race on the earth, Herodotus manages to create a distinct image of Egypt with its culture, myths, and religions during the rule of the pharaoh Psammetichus. Through his attempts to solve the problem by using mythological motifs, the king provides critical information about the dominant values and essential features of mentalities.
However, Herodotus also includes cogitations about the origin of astronomy, science, and mythology by proving communication with Egyptian priests and sharing their perspectives on the nature of the world and their ethnicity. In such a way, the story becomes an important element of the whole book and contributes to the better understanding of ideas discussed by Herodotus, critical aspects of the ancient world, and the way people tried to find their place in it.
Bauer, Susan. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome. W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.
Casson, Lionel. Life in Ancient Egypt. New Word City, 2015.
Herodotus. The Histories. Translated by Robin Waterfield, Oxford University Press, 2018.
Van De Mieroop, Marc. A History of Ancient Egypt. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.