Comparing Egyptian and Greek Myth through Herodotus

In book II of The Histories, Herodotus uses Greek god’s names in reference to Egyptian gods. He is clear in stating that they are the same, but different names. He very rarely uses Egyptian names, but does mention that the Greeks took Hercules name from the Egyptian name, as well as his parent’s names, which may give light to the idea that he thought ancient Greek mythology derived from ancient Egypt mythology. There are similarities in the interactions between god and man, and immortality especially when comparing the Pharaohs to heroes. The common use of the term Egyptian Pantheon, a Greek routed word typically used to refer to the gods also shows their connection. In order to further portray the contrast and similarities of Greek and Egyptian mythology to Herodotus, I think it is important to look at some of the Gods he compares. In doing so we can start to see the way in which different cultures myths relate and transform, even in referencing modern religion, and the way past scholars viewed these transformations. This could also show evidence of the function of religion and myths when comparing the differences to the local culture and environment.

Herodotus refers to Atum (Ra) as Zeus. Ra and Zeus are both considered the king of the gods, and father many gods. Pharaohs are also considered sons of Ra, similar to heroes in ancient Greek text, who are demi-gods that are often sons of Zeus, although they do not rule but are leaders in war. Zeus represents the sky, while Ra represents the sun. The rays of light projected from the sun in some images are also often seen to show similarities to Zeus lightning bolts.

Herodotus also shows similarities between the goddesses Isis and Demeter. Isis is one of the central gods of the ancient Egyptian Pantheon, and Demeter is the one of the central Olympian Gods. Isis and Demeter are similar through their symbolism of fertility in how they “[give] birth to heaven and earth” (Book of the Dead). They also share similarities through the image of “woman’s form, horned like a cow, exactly as the Greeks picture Io, and cows are held by far the most sacred of all beasts of the herd by all Egyptians alike” (The Histories, 2.41.2).

Herodotus references many other Egyptian gods comparing them to Olympian gods and demi-gods. This brings up the question of whether Herodotus is correct in his theory that Greek myth derived from Egyptian myth, or whether it was just a happenstance occurring from the popularity of polytheism.


References:

  • Rawlinson, George. “The Internet Classics Archive | The History of Herodotus by Herodotus.” The Internet Classics Archive | The History of Herodotus by Herodotus. World Wide Web. Web. 25 Sept. 2014. <http://classics.mit.edu/Herodotus/history.2.ii.html>.

One thought on “Comparing Egyptian and Greek Myth through Herodotus

  1. I enjoyed your blog post as my interest is in Ancient Greece and Classical Archaeology. One of the biggest contributions to the Egyptian religion into Greek culture was during Ptolemaic Egypt. Ptolemy I established one of the most successful and long-lived Hellenistic kingdoms around 333 BC. The Egyptian cults of Isis and Sarapis spread throughout the Greek world. A sanctuary of Isis appeared in the port of Athens and Apollo’s sacred island of Delos had three separate sanctuaries to the Egyptian gods.

    The type of architecture that existed in Egypt in the seventh century BC seems to have had an impact on the Greeks when they began to build their own temples with columns and cut stone blocks. According to John Camp in, The World of the Ancient Greeks, the stiff striding pose of the kouros, which is one of the earliest subjects in monumental Greek structure, surely derives from Egypt, albeit adapted to Greek tastes.

    Another story from Herodotus is of the Egyptian king Psammetichus. The king refused to believe an oracle who claimed that men of bronze would come to help him. Soon after, certain Ionians and Carians who were voyaging for plunder were forced to put in on the coasts of Egypt. An Egyptian told the King of the men with bronze armor currently foraging in the plain. After some persuasion and promises on behalf of the King, the prophecy was claimed to be fulfilled as Psammetichus deposed eleven kings with their help.

Comments are closed.