8 months ago

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

17 the

17 the first time; Herodotus’ voice when discussing the Scythians reflects his view of the Scythians as new, and thus without a significant history. Time and Timelessness How does a civilization mark time? The easy answer would be that they do so through their histories, but unfortunately, many civilizations throughout time have not kept a formal history. The Histories gives an excellent comparison of one civilization well recorded through time and another scarcely recorded at all. Egypt has existed for thousands of years, and shows ample evidence for this. The priests show Herodotus records of the 341 generations of Egyptian kings and high priests, depicted in wooden statues. Herodotus makes sure to state that none of the kings of these generations were gods or heroes, carefully distinguishing here at least between history and myth (2.142). Although his figure of 11,340 years of dynastic rule is certainly not in line with modern historical records, it is made clear that Egypt is very ancient and long-lasting; the priests tell him how throughout the lifetime of Egypt, “twice [the sun] rose from the place where it currently sets, and twice it set in the direction where it currently rises. They told me that nothing in Egypt was altered at these times- nothing growing on the earth or living in the river was any different, and there was no change in the course of diseases or in the ways people died” (2.142). Essentially, the priests convey that the Egyptian kingdom transcends shifts in the cosmos. The Egyptians’ record keeping, in its meticulousness and secularity, surely had a great effect on his desire to write the Histories. In an age where myths and legends were used to explain human events, Egypt’s history had real people who lived and died and whose exploits

18 were set down into papyrus and stone. Not even the Athenians, who recalled the mythical hero Theseus as one of their kings, and Cecrops, a half-serpent man as their founder, could say the same. For Herodotus, to see such tangible attention to the passage of time that formed the past must have been inspiring. There is little such temporal inspiration from the Scythian culture. In fact, the Scythians’ lack of reliable recorded history seems to have inspired the fabrication of stories. In the absence of history, Herodotus gives us four different origin stories, three of which are clearly myth (4.08). He does make a point of singling out the most reliable origin story, which is that of the Scythian invasion of the Cimmerians, when the Scythians themselves have been pushed out of Asia by the Massagetae (4.11). Compared to the mythical origin stories Herodotus rejects, these movements of nomadic peoples seems closes to the truth in our eyes as well. It is the closest thing to a backstory of the Scythians that appear in The Histories. Other than this vague retelling, the Scythians lack a historical past discernible by Herodotus. While their nomadic way of life leaves little trace, the great exception to their lack of permanent evidence of civilization is their graves. The visible structures left behind by the Scythians before Herodotus' time are their burial mounds, most of which were for royalty. These kurgans, which modern archaeologists have excavated, confirm Herodotus' facts; they testify to the presence of a female warrior culture 8 and the Scythian affinity for hemp. 9 They also reveal an interest in posterity greater than Herodotus’ reading of their nomadic culture would suggest. Although their society has no permanent settlements or buildings, the Scythians do not overlook the caretaking of their royalty into the afterlife. Herodotus writes (and modern archaeology 8 Rolle, R., The World of the Scythians., 88. 9 Dewald, C. (ed.) The Histories by Herodotus, 652.