10 months ago

The Old and the Restless - The Egyptians and the Scythians in Herodotus' Histories by Robert J. Hagan

9 truly dreadful

9 truly dreadful prospect for any Greek used to mild weather almost year-round, and certainly befitting a distant end of the known world. It is true that the rainfall patterns of the Eurasian continent east of the Black Sea are quite different than those of the Mediterranean civilizations, where it hardly ever rains in the winter and is quite dry in the summer. Herodotus even writes that “there is no fairer region in the whole known world” than Ionia (1.140). In climate, the Egyptians experienced conditions opposite from the Scythians. Egypt is "one of the hottest places in the world," and the sun there is powerful enough to evaporate the Nile. As opposed to the overbearing winter of the north, inland Libya, just beyond Egypt, is "in the grip of constant summer" (2.25). The implications of such extreme weather on the populations of Egypt and Scythia are manifold, as we shall see shortly. When discussing Egypt’s geography, Herodotus spends a significant amount of energy on what we might call scientific explanation. He is perplexed by the science behind the Nile's flow, particularly the fact that it floods in the summer, unlike most known rivers, which flood in the winter. He states three extant theories on why the Nile floods in the summer, and then debunks them. However, he turns to Egypt's powerful sun as the reason, citing its powers of evaporation, and its drift across the across the sky because of storms. While we now know this to be false, Herodotus' powers of reasoning are admirable and his arguments well organized. Herodotus also associates the idiosyncratic behavior of the Egyptians with their different climate and river. He writes that “Just as the Egyptians have a climate peculiar to themselves, and their river is different from all other rivers, so, too, have they instituted customs and laws contrary for the most part to those of the rest of mankind” (2.35). He notes several examples of customs that are opposite to those of the rest of the world; they write from right to left, keep their

10 animals in the house, and urinate differently from most peoples (2.35-36). By Herodotus' logic, the sun, which causes the extreme heat and the Nile's peculiar flooding pattern, is linked with the backwards behavior of the Egyptians. The link can sometimes can be causal as well. Applying his thinking to fauna as well, Herodotus explains that in Scythia, the winter is so harsh that the livestock there do not grow horns, whereas in Libya, they "grow horns shortly after birth" (4.29). For Herodotus, a people's condition comes from their surroundings. Given the nature of scientific information in Herodotus' time, it is not surprising that he manages to link so many facets of Egyptian and Scythian life to their extreme climates. It would be natural from a Greek perspective to believe that such opposite behavior would result from their strange, harsh (and relative to those of their neighbors, static) climate. Herodotus was certainly not alone in his inferences. The famous physician Hippocrates, a contemporary of Herodotus, equated the nondifferentiation of seasons in Scythia and Egypt with a general "uniformity of resemblance" amongst their peoples. 3 The hot climate seems for Herodotus to inspire complacency and inertia in the Egyptian people. He believes that their geography allows them to gather their crops with incomparable ease because of the Nile (2.92-94). While not made explicit, his emphasis on the reliability of their food source and stable climate indicates that their subjugation by the Persians is, in part at least, a result of the comfort of their surroundings. When one juxtaposes the wretched climate of the Scythians and their alacrity to uproot themselves to defend their homeland with the rapid 3 Adams, F., trans., “On Airs, Waters, and Places.” 199.