Herodotus in Egypt

Painting: pyramids in distance, people working by the Nile in foreground
Eugen Bracht: Memory of Gizeh, 1883

In a recent post, Claudie Cox shared her impressions and photos from a tour in Egypt. And a couple of years ago, the Herodotus Study Group was reading Book 2 of Herodotus’ Histories, which included his observations of Egypt and accounts of its history and customs.

So this brought to mind a few of the passages from Book 2 that stood out for us.


Illustration: many small figures pulling on ropes, water being poured in front of a sledge carrying a statue
Illustration depicting Egyptian labor

The pyramids are the most famous landmarks and tourist attractions today. Herodotus describes the construction of the ‘Great Pyramid’:

124. They said that Egypt until the time of King Rhampsinitus was altogether well-governed and prospered greatly, but that Kheops, who was the next king, brought the people to utter misery. For first he closed all the temples, so that no one could sacrifice there; and next, he compelled all the Egyptians to work for him. [2] To some, he assigned the task of dragging stones from the quarries in the Arabian mountains to the Nile; and after the stones were ferried across the river in boats, he organized others to receive and drag them to the mountains called Libyan. [3] They worked in gangs of a hundred thousand men, each gang for three months. For ten years the people wore themselves out building the road over which the stones were dragged, work which was in my opinion not much lighter at all than the building of the pyramid [4] (for the road is nearly a mile long and twenty yards wide, and elevated at its highest to a height of sixteen yards, and it is all of stone polished and carved with figures). The aforesaid ten years went to the building of this road and of the underground chambers in the hill where the pyramids stand; these, the king meant to be burial-places for himself, and surrounded them with water, bringing in a channel from the Nile. [5] The pyramid itself was twenty years in the making. Its base is square, each side eight hundred feet long, and its height is the same; the whole is of stone polished and most exactly fitted; there is no block of less than thirty feet in length.

125. This pyramid was made like stairs, which some call steps and others, tiers. [2] When this, its first form, was completed, the workmen used short wooden logs as levers to raise the rest of the stones; they heaved up the blocks from the ground onto the first tier of steps; [3] when the stone had been raised, it was set on another lever that stood on the first tier, and the lever again used to lift it from this tier to the next. [4] It may be that there was a new lever on each tier of steps, or perhaps there was only one lever, quite portable, which they carried up to each tier in turn; I leave this uncertain, as both possibilities were mentioned. [5] But this is certain, that the upper part of the pyramid was finished off first, then the next below it, and last of all the base and the lowest part. [6] There are writings on the pyramid in Egyptian characters indicating how much was spent on radishes and onions and garlic for the workmen; and I am sure that, when he read me the writing, the interpreter said that sixteen hundred talents of silver had been paid. [7] Now if that is so, how much must have been spent on the iron with which they worked, and the workmen’s food and clothing, considering that the time aforesaid was spent in building, while hewing and carrying the stone and digging out the underground parts was, as I suppose, a business of long duration.

Herodotus Histories 2.124–125, translation by A.D. Godley

Photo: top of Pyramid of Khafre, still encased in white limestone, stepped construction of pyramid beneath
Top of the Pyramid of Khafre

He describes others, and it seems that Herodotus wants to emphasize that he himself visited this one personally:

127. The Egyptians said that this Kheops reigned for fifty years; at his death he was succeeded by his brother Khephren, who was in all respects like Kheops. Khephren also built a pyramid, smaller than his brother’s. I have measured it myself. [2] It has no underground chambers, nor is it entered like the other by a canal from the Nile, but the river comes in through a built passage and encircles an island, in which, they say, Kheops himself lies. [3] This pyramid was built on the same scale as the other, except that it falls forty feet short of it in height; it stands near the great pyramid; the lowest layer of it is of variegated Ethiopian stone. Both of them stand on the same ridge, which is about a hundred feet high.

Herodotus Histories 2.127, translated by Godley


Illustration of types of embalming showing coffins and bodies
Illustration of different types of mummies and the mummification process

The ancient Egyptians embalmed the bodies of their dead, at least when they could afford to. Herodotus provides a description of their rituals and of the different methods of embalming:

85. They mourn and bury the dead like this: whenever a man of note is lost to his house by death, all the women of the house daub their faces or heads with mud; then they leave the corpse in the house and roam about the city lamenting, with their garments girt around them and their breasts showing, and with them all the women of their relatives; [2] elsewhere, the men lament, with garments girt likewise. When this is done, they take the dead body to be embalmed.

86. There are men whose sole business this is and who have this special craft. [2] When a dead body is brought to them, they show those who brought it wooden models of corpses, painted likenesses; the most perfect way of embalming belongs, they say, to One whose name it would be impious for me to mention in treating such a matter; the second way, which they show, is less perfect than the first, and cheaper; and the third is the least costly of all. Having shown these, they ask those who brought the body in which way they desire to have it prepared. [3] Having agreed on a price, the bearers go away, and the workmen, left alone in their place, embalm the body. If they do this in the most perfect way, they first draw out part of the brain through the nostrils with an iron hook, and inject certain drugs into the rest. [4] Then, making a cut near the flank with a sharp knife of Ethiopian stone, they take out all the intestines, and clean the belly, rinsing it with palm wine and bruised spices; [5] they sew it up again after filling the belly with pure ground myrrh and casia and any other spices, except frankincense. After doing this, they conceal the body for seventy days, embalmed in saltpetre; no longer time is allowed for the embalming; [6] and when the seventy days have passed, they wash the body and wrap the whole of it in bandages of fine linen cloth, anointed with gum, which the Egyptians mostly use instead of glue; [7] then they give the dead man back to his friends. These make a hollow wooden figure like a man, in which they enclose the corpse, shut it up, and keep it safe in a coffin-chamber, placed erect against a wall.

87. That is how they prepare the dead in the most costly way; those who want the middle way and shun the costly, they prepare as follows. [2] The embalmers charge their syringes with cedar oil and fill the belly of the dead man with it, without making a cut or removing the intestines, but injecting the fluid through the anus and preventing it from running out; then they embalm the body for the appointed days; on the last day they drain the belly of the cedar oil which they put in before. [3] It has such great power as to bring out with it the internal organs and intestines all dissolved; meanwhile, the flesh is eaten away by the saltpetre, and in the end nothing is left of the body but hide and bones. Then the embalmers give back the dead body with no more ado.

88. The third manner of embalming, the preparation of the poorer dead, is this: they cleanse the belly with a purge, embalm the body for the seventy days and then give it back to be taken away.

Herodotus Histories 2.85–89, translated by Godley

Bronze knives used in mummification
Bronze knife used in mummification, Egypt, 600–200 BCE. Science Museum, London

They took precautions over certain women, however:

89. Wives of notable men, and women of great beauty and reputation, are not at once given to the embalmers, but only after they have been dead for three or four days; [2] this is done to deter the embalmers from having intercourse with the women. For it is said that one was caught having intercourse with the fresh corpse of a woman, and was denounced by his fellow-workman.

Herodotus Histories 2.89, translated by Godley

Priests and ritual behavior

Egyptian bronze vessels
Ancient Egyptian bronze vessels, Louvre

Herodotus contrasts customs and ritual practice of priests and others, with behavior elsewhere:

36. Everywhere else, priests of the gods wear their hair long; in Egypt, they are shaven. For all other men, the rule in mourning for the dead is that those most nearly concerned have their heads shaven; Egyptians are shaven at other times, but after a death they let their hair and beard grow. [2] The Egyptians are the only people who keep their animals with them in the house. Whereas all others live on wheat and barley, it is the greatest disgrace for an Egyptian to live so; they make food from a coarse grain which some call spelt. [3] They knead dough with their feet, and gather mud and dung with their hands. The Egyptians and those who have learned it from them are the only people who practise circumcision. Every man has two garments, every woman only one. [4] The rings and sheets of sails are made fast outside the boat elsewhere, but inside it in Egypt. The Greeks write and calculate from left to right; the Egyptians do the opposite; yet they say that their way of writing is towards the right, and the Greek way towards the left. They employ two kinds of writing; one is called sacred, the other demotic.

Herodotus Histories 36

Papyrus showing different types of Egyptian writing
Papyrus Salt 825, demonstrating “a mixture of cursive hieratic, hieroglyphs and figurative hieroglyphs” © The Trustees of the British Museum

Godley notes here that there are “Three kinds, really: hieroglyphic, hieratic (derived from hieroglyphic), and demotic, a simplified form of hieratic.”

Herodotus continues:

37. They are religious beyond measure, more than any other people; and the following are among their customs. They drink from cups of bronze, which they clean out daily; this is done not by some but by all. [2] They are especially careful always to wear newly-washed linen. They practise circumcision for cleanliness’ sake; for they would rather be clean than more becoming. Their priests shave the whole body every other day, so that no lice or anything else foul may infest them as they attend upon the gods. [3] The priests wear a single linen garment and sandals of papyrus: they may have no other kind of clothing or footwear. Twice a day and twice every night they wash in cold water. Their religious observances are, one may say, innumerable. [4] But also they receive many benefits: they do not consume or spend anything of their own; sacred food is cooked for them, beef and goose are brought in great abundance to each man every day, and wine of grapes is given to them, too. They may not eat fish. [5] The Egyptians sow no beans in their country; if any grow, they will not eat them either raw or cooked; the priests cannot endure even to see them, considering beans an unclean kind of legume. Many (not only one) are dedicated to the service of each god. One of these is the high priest; and when a high priest dies, his son succeeds to his office.

Herodotus Histories 2.37, translated by Godley


Colored illustration of crocodile with sandpipers
Nile Crocodile

Throughout the Histories Herodotus describes various animals, some identifiable and realistic, others seemingly fantastic. Crocodiles are the creatures perhaps most emblematic of Egypt, and this is what he says about them:

68. The nature of crocodiles is as follows. For the four winter months, it eats nothing. It has four feet, and lives both on land and in the water, for it lays eggs and hatches them out on land and spends the greater part of the day on dry ground, and the night in the river, the water being warmer than the air and dew. [2] No mortal creature of all which we know grows from so small a beginning to such greatness; for its eggs are not much bigger than goose eggs, and the young crocodile is of a proportional size, but it grows to a length of twenty-eight feet and more. [3] It has eyes like pigs’ eyes, and long, protruding teeth. It is the only animal that has no tongue. It does not move the lower jaw, but brings the upper jaw down upon the lower, uniquely among beasts. [4] It also has strong claws, and a scaly, impenetrable hide on its back. It is blind in the water, but very keen of sight in the air. Since it lives in the water, its mouth is all full of leeches. All birds and beasts flee from it, except the sandpiper1 , with which it is at peace because this bird does the crocodile a service; [5] for whenever the crocodile comes ashore out of the water and then opens its mouth (and it does this mostly to catch the west wind), the sandpiper goes into its mouth and eats the leeches; the crocodile is pleased by this service and does the sandpiper no harm.

69. Some of the Egyptians consider crocodiles sacred; others do not, but treat them as enemies. Those who live near Thebes and lake Moeris consider them very sacred. [2] Every household raises one crocodile, trained to be tame; they put ornaments of glass and gold on its ears and bracelets on its forefeet, provide special food and offerings for it, and give the creatures the best of treatment while they live; after death, the crocodiles are embalmed and buried in sacred coffins. [3] But around Elephantine they are not held sacred, and are even eaten. The Egyptians do not call them crocodiles, but khampsae. The Ionians named them crocodiles, from their resemblance to the lizards which they have in their walls.

70. There are many different ways of crocodile hunting; I will write of the way that I think most worth mentioning. The hunter baits a hook with a hog’s back, and lets it float into the midst of the river; he himself stays on the bank with a young live pig, which he beats. [2] Hearing the squeals of the pig, the crocodile goes after the sound, and meets the bait, which it swallows; then the hunters pull the line. When the crocodile is drawn ashore, first of all the hunter smears its eyes over with mud; when this is done, the quarry is very easily mastered—no light matter, without that. …

90. Anyone, Egyptian or foreigner, known to have been carried off by a crocodile or drowned by the river itself, must by all means be embalmed and wrapped as attractively as possible and buried in a sacred coffin by the people of the place where he is cast ashore; [2] none of his relatives or friends may touch him, but his body is considered something more than human, and is handled and buried by the priests of the Nile themselves.

Herodotus Histories 2.68–70, 2.90, translated by Godley

Related topics

A Memorable Trip to Egypt: Cairo, Alexandria and a Nile Cruise – March 2023

Open House: Herodotus, with Alexander Hollmann

Open House | The End of the Histories, with Scarlett Kingsley and Timothy Rood


Herodotus Histories:
Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 1920.
Online at Perseus

Text accessed July 2023

Image credits

Detail from illustration depicting transportation of the colossus of Djehoetihotep, 1854
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Top of the Pyramid of Khafre, still encased in white limestone
Photo: David Stanley, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0), via Flickr

Papyrus Salt 825, demonstrating “a mixture of cursive hieratic, hieroglyphs and figurative hieroglyphs
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license
© The Trustees of the British Museum

Plate showing different types of mummies and the mummification process.
Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) via Wellcome Collection.

Bronze knife used in mummification, Egypt, 600-200 BCE. Science Museum, London
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) via Wellcome Collection

Ancient Egyptian bronze vessels, Louvre
Photo: Gary Todd, Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication via Wikimedia Commons

Nile Crocodile, illustration from 1898
No known copyright restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

Note: Images have been selected from pictures that are freely available with open source or Creative Commons licenses or from photographs sent in by community members for the purpose. The images in this post are intended to suggest the subject, rather than illustrate exactly—as such, they may be from other periods, subjects, or cultures. Attributions are based where possible by those shown by museums, or on Wikimedia Commons or Flickr at the time of publication on this website.

Images accessed July 2023


Hélène Emeriaud and Sarah Scott are members of Kosmos Society