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


23 their stable climate (2.77). There are apparently “doctors all over the place” who all specialize in single illnesses and parts of the body (2.84). The Egyptians purge themselves for three consecutive days each month, because “they believe that all human illness is due to food causing colic” (2.77). These purgations, coupled with their acute aversion to contact with pigs, and their priests’ shaving their entire bodies to prevent getting lice (2.37), make the Egyptians appear to be a somewhat fastidious, even neurotic people. Whereas the Scythians bathe only in cannabis and never in water (4.75), Egyptians priests bathe in cold water “twice every day and twice at night” (2.37). They are, as Herodotus often says, a very old race, with many nomoi, and it is not surprising that their culture is inundated with traditions that seem excessive in complexity, especially compared with one whose traditions seem so primitive. Wine and Milk The dichotomy between the peoples that drink wine and those who do not is prominent throughout the Histories. The societies that drink wine or beer as their principal beverage are the more central, “civilized” ones, such as Greece, Egypt and Persia. Milk-drinkers are satellites around these countries, and are described as less civilized. They include the Scythians, the Massagetae, and the Ethiopians. The Egyptians were a culture of beer-drinkers, much like the modern day Germans. All levels of society drank Egyptian beer, which Lloyd describes as “made from barley or wheat and dates…pale, foamy and slightly acidulous.” 14 Egypt had a limited amount of vineyards and wine was mostly imported, but beer was produced from the grain from the Nile. The wine the 14 Lloyd A.B., Herodotus: Book II, ii. 334.

24 Egyptians did drink was a luxury of the elite, not because of a lack of sophistication on the part of the Egyptian people, but rather because of the high cost of importation and scarcity of grapes. 15 Despite being a populist beverage, beer did require a modicum of technical processes including cooking, sieving to remove chaff and yeast, and fermentation. 16 The Scythian diet was, as discussed before, more centered around milk and milk-based foods. These hippemolgoi were well-known for this, and it can be assumed that milk took up a dominant role in their daily eating regimen. Wine was also a part of Scythian life, but in a fundamentally different way than that of Egypt or Persia. In Herodotus’ account, wine is often used in ritual, such as those rewarding prowess in battle: “Once a year, each provincial governor is in charge of a ceremony that takes place in his province. He mixes a bowl of wine, and all the Scythians who have killed an enemy that year have a drink from it. Anyone who has not managed to do this does not partake of the wine, but sits to one side in disgrace- which is the greatest indignity there is for them. Any of them who have killed large numbers of men are given two cups to drink together” (4.66). This Scythian ritual links wine to blood, and blood to honor. This connection is illustrated even more clearly in their procedure for swearing oaths, which consists of mixing the participants’ blood with wine in a bowl and drinking it (4.70). For the Scythians, wine is the symbol of blood and is a part of their warrior traditions, not quite the social lubricant of polite societies like Athens or Memphis. 17 When they do drink wine recreationally, they drink it less diluted than usual, as noted by Herodotus in Book Six, when he discusses the Spartan king Cleomenes. In the passage, the Spartans claim that Cleomenes is driven mad by learning from the Scythians to drink wine undiluted (6.84). From then on, when 15 Homan, M., “Beer and Its Drinkers”. 85. 16 Redford, D., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt, 1. 17 Hartog, F. The Mirror of Herodotus,168.