Herodotus and the Upside-Down World of Egypt

The ancient Greek traveler and historian Herodotus was impressed by many of the things he saw in his visit to Egypt. He wrote about ancient monuments like the pyramids (already thousands of years old by the time he saw them), great temples, and the works of kings. But he was equally interested in the habits and daily life of the people around him. He noted a number of things in the daily life of Egyptians that struck him as unusual.

Just as the Egyptians have a unique climate, and the nature of their river is unlike any other, they have established customs and norms that are different from any other people. Among them, the women haggle in the market while the men stay home weaving. While other peoples weave by pushing the weft up, the Egyptians push it down. Men always carry burdens on their heads, women on their shoulders. Women pee standing up, men sitting down. They relieve themselves in their homes but eat outside in the street, saying that what is embarrassing but necessary should be hidden away, but what is not shameful may be done in the open. No woman serves as priest either for a male or a female deity; men serve each and every god. No son is obliged to care for his parents if he does not wish to, but daughters must whether they wish to or not.

Herodotus, Histories 2.35

(My own translation)

Herodotus’ perspective on Egypt was shaped by his background as a Greek. These details he lists are things that were the reverse of typical Greek habits: in Greece, men usually went out to the market while many women stayed in the home doing textile work. Greeks customarily ate their meals inside their homes but went outside to relieve themselves. In the Greek world, women served as priests of female gods while men served as priests of male gods.

Two factors are at work in Herodotus’ perception of the Egyptians, factors familiar to anyone who has spent time in a foreign culture. In the first place, we tend to notice things that are different more than things that are the same. When you visit a new place, you tend to notice that people speak differently than you are used to or eat foods you haven’t tried before, not all the little things that are just like at home. Secondly, when we notice these differences, they tend to blow up to exaggerated proportions in our minds. We may come home from a vacation thinking “Wow, everybody there likes to sing a lot,” when the reality was that it was one or two people who busted out a song at a time you just weren’t expecting it.

Some of Herodotus’ observations actually do align with our evidence for ancient Egyptian culture in the period when he visited. For example, it seems it was not unusual for Egyptian women to do business outside the home or for men to work as weavers. Some are simply false: at least some Egyptian women did serve as priestesses. Others are harder to pin down—no one has yet come up with evidence for Egyptian women habitually standing up at the toilet, but it’s not the sort of thing we have much documentation for at all.

Herodotus was a sharp-eyed observer of culture, but even so he wrote from a partial and biased perspective, not just as a foreign visitor trying to make sense of an unfamiliar world, but as an educated Greek who knew something about history and literature. Greeks had a long tradition of writing about Egypt as an alien world, a kind of magical Neverland where nothing was as it was in Greece. We credit Herodotus with inventing the genre of history in the Western tradition, but he saw himself as following in the footsteps of epic poets like Homer. In the details he provides about his time in Egypt, we see how he both tried to ground his account in the facts he observed and also fill out an existing Greek picture of Egypt as an upside-down world where everything was different.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.