Herodotus: The Gods of Ancient Egypt

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Egyptian Anubis (with dog head) weighing heart of dead Osiris and Isis look on

Picture by Thomas Sztanek via Adobe Stock. Shows Anubis (with head of dog) weighing heart of dead. Osiris - Lord of the Underworld - and his wife Isis look on. Their son Horos writes on a scroll bottom left.

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Herodotus: The Gods of ancient Egypt.
Read by Bertie.
Proofed and audio edited by Jana.
Hello this is Bertie,

And I’m here with some more ancient history based on the writings of Herodotus. In the second book of his Histories he describes ancient Egypt and in this episode I’m going to be talking about the Egyptian gods.

Herodotus gathered much of his information about Egypt by talking to the scribes and priests in the temples when informed him about the countries traditions and beliefs. He himself reckoned that no nation was more right about religion than any other, and that the Greeks had probably imported most of their beliefs from Egypt. And he often gives the Egyptian gods Greek names.

For instance, he tells us that he spoke to the priests of Hephaestus
in the Egyptian city of Memphis.

Hephaestus was the Greek name for the blacksmith god who worked with metal, making devine swords, armour, chains, and, presumably, horse shoes. Actually the Egyptian name for the chief god at Memphis was Ptah. Ptah was also a worker god, the patron of craftsmen and architects and house builders. Memphis, the capital of ancient Egypt, was a hive of activity and trades, including building and blacksmithing, and Herodotus naturally thought that their worker god, Ptah, was the same as the Greek worker god, Hephaestus, and he just uses that name to describe him.

And as an aside, The Greek name for Egypt, Aigypta actually contains the name, Ptah. Aigypyta eventually became our word Egypt. So to this day, the country is the Land of Ptah - though not a lot of people know that!

Sometimes Herodotus is quite specific about linking an Egyptian God to a Greek one. He says that the two gods that were considered very holy all over Egypt were Isis and Osiris. And he adds, “Osiris is called Dionysus in the Greek Language.”

Dionysus, known as Baccus in Rome, was the god of wine. I think we can assume that the celebrations of Osiris included wild parties and wine drinking! In fact, Herodotus tells us that the celebration of Osiris in Egypt was very similar to the festival of Dionysus in Greece.

He tells us that the worship of Osiris included sacrificing a pig at the time of the full moon. This was unusual, because he also says that pigs were considered unclean by ancient Egyptians, and normally if anyone touched a pig by accident, they immediately dipped themselves in the river, clothes and all. To this day, the two great religions of the Middle East, Islam and Judeism, both regard pigs as unclean.

But only when it came to the festival of Osiris and the moon, the ancient Egyptians were able to sacrifice a pig and eat it.

We know from other sources that the celebration of Osiris included a kind of play in which worshipers mourned his death by wailing and beating their chests, and then celebrated his resurrection or rebirth with rejoicing. To understand why, you need to know the story of Osiris and his Queen, Isis.

The myth of Isis and Osiris was central to ancient Egyptan beliefs, but I have to warn you, it is a bit gruesome. If you have ever been to the Egyptian section of a museum, you will have seen that death, tombs, sarcophaguses, and Mummies were essential to Egyptian religion.

It is actually a murder story, and it involves some blood, so if that’s not your sort of thing, you can skip this bit!

According to mythology, Osiris was the first king of Egypt. His brother Set, was jealous and wanted to rule in his place, and so he murdered him. And then, just to make sure that he was truly a gonner, Set cut Osiris up into little bits and scattered him all over Egypt.

But that was not the end of Osiris, because his wife, Isis, searched the land collecting the parts of her husband. She found all his pieces, wrapped him up, and made him into the first Egyptian Mummy. Then, with the help of some of the other gods, she brought him back to life.

Having conquered death, Osiris and Isis ruled the underworld and judged the dead. They were the gods of death, but also resurrection, and rebirth, and the recycle of life. They made the crops grow, and Osiris’s skin was often shown as green, the colour of leaves and nature.

The son of Osiris and Isis was Horos, the sky god, who is sometimes shown as a hunting bird called a falken, and sometimes simply as the Egyptian eye. Horos is the eye of the gods who sees everything.

The gates of the underworld, by the way, were guarded by Anubis, the Egyptian god with the head of a dog. He was a little like Kerberos, the god with three heads who guarded the underworld in Greek mythology.

And although in Greek mythology, Hades ruled the underworld with his Queen Perseophone, daughter of Demetre, who made the crops grow, this was not the comparison that struck Herodotus. He saw the worship of Dionysus, involving wine and celebration and fertility, as being strikingly similar to the worship of Osiris.

Now while the story of Isis and Osiris was perhaps the most important part of Egyptian religion, there were many other interesting gods, who were popular in various parts of Egypt.

For instance, Herodotus identifies the Egyptian cat-goddess, Bastet, as Artemis the huntress. They were both, you see, protectors of women. Though to be frank, I have never seen the Greek goddess Artemis shown with the head of a cat, but the comparison was good enough for Herodotus.

Now as fans of Storynory’s Lapis know, Bastet’s temple was at Per-Bast - also known as Bubastis - on the river Nile, and was home to thousands of cats. The priests at the temple of Bastet made many of the cats into Mummies. I don’t mean mothers, I mean Egyptian Mummies. Some say this was to make a nice profit by selling them to the tourists. Others say it was because the death of a cat was a great tragedy in an Egyptian family, and they buried their treasured pet with full honours.

The Egyptians loved their pets, and mourned them when they died. Herodotus tells us that in a house where a cat has died, the family shave their eyebrows to show that they are in mourning. But if anything, they love their dogs even more, because if a dog passed away, they shaved their entire bodies to show how sad they were!

Herodotus describes the temple of Bastet as being on an island in the middle of the Nile, surrounded by tall trees. The annual festival of the cat goddess was one of the biggest parties of the year. Every year around 700,000 visitors would arrive on boats, singing, dancing, and drinking wine. All this song and dance pleased Bastet the cat goddess.

I don’t think there really was any goddess like Bastet in Greek mythology, but Herodotus skips over that.

He also often says it would be sacrilegious to tell the stories of the Egyptian gods. Sacrilegious means it would be against religion and might offend the gods. Why would this be? Maybe Herodotus thought that if he showed that the stories of the Egyptian gods were not the same as the Greek ones, people would believe in them rather less. So this gives us something to think about. When you learn about other cultures, and travel to new countries like Herodotus did, you encounter different religions. In fact, in the modern, more globalised world, many religions probably exist on your doorstep.

What do these various beliefs make you think? Does only one religion have the truth? Or none? Or all of them? Or does each religion have part of the truth?

And what is more important? The differences between various religions, or the similarities?

For example, the Hindu god Shiva is often shown with four arms, and looks nothing like, i might say, Jesus on the cross.

But deep down religions are often about similar ideas - about how the world was made, about birth, marriage, and death, about spring, harvest, and winter, about right and wrong, and about the search for enlightenment. In some ways you could say the religions of the world have much in common.

So everyone must make up their own mind about what they think on these important questions. However, it is interesting to know that two and a half thousand years ago, Herodotus travelled from Greece to Egypt and concluded that the religions of the two countries were more similar than different.
So much so that he actually identified the Egyption gods with his own Greek gods.