Egyptian Culture Described by Herodotus

Herodotus made a trek to the Egypt of his day (400s B.C.) and wrote down many observations in Book II of his "History". The following is comprised of excerpts from his book. The numbers in the text are the chapters from which the quotes are taken.

35. 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; and here, while the rest of the world works the woof up the warp [This has to do with the way fabrics are woven.], the Egyptians work it down; the women likewise carry burdens upon their shoulders, while the men carry them upon their heads. They eat their food out of doors in the streets, but retire for private purposes to their houses, giving as a reason that what is unseemly, but necessary, ought to be done in secret, but what has nothing unseemly about it, should be done openly. [A certain amount of hygeine may have helped to prevent disease in this densely populated area.] A woman cannot serve 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 choose or no.

36. In other countries the priests have long hair, in Egypt their heads are shaven; elsewhere it is customary, in mourning, for near relations to cut their hair close: the Egyptians, who wear no hair at any other time, when they lose a relative, let their beards and the hair of their heads grow long. [The shaven heads could have to do with the heat of the climate.] All other men pass their lives separate from animals, the Egyptians have animals always living with them. They are the only people in the world - they at least, and such as have learnt the practice from them - who use circumcision. When they write or calculate, instead of going, like the Greeks, from left to right, they move their hand from right to left; and 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.

37. They are religious to excess, far beyond any other race of men. The priests drink from brazen cups, which they scour every day. There is no exception to this practice. They wear linen garments, which they are specially careful to have always fresh washed. They practise circumcision for the sake of cleanliness, considering it better to be cleanly than comely. The priests shave their whole body every other day, that no lice or other 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. [Here again cleanliness is important, especially for priests. Cleaning is a common ritual among many religions as a sign of purifying the body and the spirit before contact with the gods or God. It is prominent in Judaism, and is reflected in the Christian saying, "Cleanliness is next to Godliness".] They bathe twice every day in cold water, and twice each night; besides which they observe, so to speak, thousands of ceremonies.

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Interesting Fact:

This snapshot of Egypt by Herodotus has formed western opinion of that ancient civilization for centuries.


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