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

21 which is of course

21 which is of course vital to a nomadic way of life. They also drink wine, both recreationally and in their rituals, and are prone to overdrinking. It is the cause of their downfall as masters of “all of Asia” when the Medes rise up, invite the Scythians to a feast where they drink too much and, in their drunken stupor, are killed by the Medes (1.106). We will return to the Scythian relationship to wine in much more detail later. Herodotus does not mention much on the health habits of the Scythians, but he does point out their affinity for cannabis. Although they surely enjoyed the intoxicating elements of smoking such substances, as the Massagetae did (1.202), Herodotus emphasizes other features of the ritual. After throwing cannabis seeds on hot coals, “the seeds emit dense smoke and fumes, much more than any vapour-bath in Greece. The Scythians shriek with delight at the fumes. This is their equivalent of a bath, since they never wash their bodies with water. Their women, however, pound cypress, cedar, and frankincense wood on a rough piece of stone, and add water until they have a thick paste which they then smear all over their bodies and face. This not only makes them smell nice, but when they remove the paste the day after they turn out to be all clean and shining” (4.75). His description of this Scythian ritual evokes imagery of a culture that looks to a Greek observer very primitive and wild. For the Egyptians, the Nile fills the role of the Scythian horse, acting as both their main highway (since its canals make roads less possible, 2.108) and the source of their sustenance. Much of Egyptian diet was based on bread and beer, both of which originate from the grain cultivated banks of the Nile. It is where they gather their staple wheat, known as emmer (olura) (2.36). It is also where the lotos water-lily grows, which the Egyptians use for their seeds and roots to bake and eat as a cheap source of food (2.92). Finally, some Egyptians who live in the marsh eat just fish (2.92). The Egyptians show their high level of civilization by excluding

22 certain foods from their diet, many on religious grounds. For instance, the Egyptians are very phobic when confronted with swine. If an Egyptian “just brushes against a pig, he goes to the river and immerses himself there, clothes and all” (2.47). Herodotus has before in Book One divided civilizations into those who eat a wide variety of foods and those who eat just what is available. When Croesus is preparing to attack the Persians, a sophos advises him not to, stating that “Their food consists of what they can get, not what they might want… They drink no wine, just water, and figs are the only good things they have to eat…what will you gain from them?” (1.71). Like the Lydians under Croesus, Egypt too knows the feeling of abundance of choice; the Scythians would be closer to the Persians in this comparison, with their diet consisting mostly of milk-products and boiled meat. Herodotus writes that the food of the Egyptian priests is considered sacred, and they abhor the eating of beans, which Lloyd suggests is because of their tendency to cause flatulence: “[beans] were considered unusually efficient demon-carriers and obviously to be avoided by purity-conscious priests.” 12 Food, for the Egyptians, determined social status. The priests are very well taken care of; they are “provided with a generous daily allowance of beef and goosemeat” (3.27). They are not allowed to eat fish (a food seen as impure), but they receive donations of wine, a rare luxury afforded only to the elite in Egypt. 13 The common Egyptian people may have had a variety of foods available to them, but they were certainly not as well-fed as their priests. Their health habits and medicine also show their sophistication as a civilization. Herodotus declares them to be “after the Libyans, the most healthy people in the world,” due to 12 Lloyd A.B., Herodotus: Book II, ii. 169. 13 Lloyd A.B., Herodotus: Book II, ii. 315.