The Quest for Herakles

The Greek historian Herodotus left us one of the earliest and most popular works of ancient history. While focused on the history of the Persian Wars, he digressed far and wide, covering the cultures, history and customs of many regions. He even visited some of these regions, such as Egypt. Other regions, such as Scythia, he described based on the accounts of others but does not claim to have visited the regions himself.

Herodotus traveled to Egypt sometime in the mid 400s BC. “I conversed with the priests of Hephaistos,” he later wrote. “And I also went to Thebes and Heliopolis, since I wanted to see if they agreed with what was said in Memphis. For of all the Egyptians, the Heliopolitans are said to be the most learned in tradition.”[1]

Herodotus did not mean that the Egyptians had a temple to worship the Greek god Hephaistos. Rather, Herodotus, like many Greeks, saw all polytheistic religions as worshiping the same gods, just under different names. In a way, they were correct. The gods of all ancient polytheistic religions were anthropomorphic manifestations of various natural phenomena, emotional states and other forces which acted upon individual humans.

Obelisk of Senusret I in Heliopolis. Senusret I reigned from 1971 to 1926 B.C., so this monument had already been standing for almost 1,500 years when Herodotus visited Egypt.

Religious mythology sprung up around each of these characters, and a series of rich and complex stories took shape in various cultures. Rituals, offerings and temples developed to please the gods and gain their goodwill. These myths were not meant to be taken literally, rather, they served as a way to understand the complex, often destructive  and seemingly random world. Ancient religious thought was generally abstract and not meant to be taken literally. It’s not that the ancients believed these events did or didn’t happen, it’s just that the question of actual temporal existence was altogether unimportant. Since all cultures observed things such as water, storms, rage, the wind, knowledge, war, and so on, they tended to develop similar deities. Herodotus credited the Egyptians with being the first to develop this, saying that “They said that the Egyptians were also the first to establish the tradition of identifying names for the twelve gods, and that the Hellenes [Greeks] adopted this practice from them. They were also the first to assign altars, statues, and temples to the gods and to carve their figures in relief on stone.”[2]

When Herodotus traveled to Heliopolis, he visited one of the most important centers of Egyptian religious thought. The Heliopolitan priests had worked out a series of complex myths to explain the origin of the gods and the origin of the world. Herodotus doubtless learned of their myths, but declined to relate them in his history, explaining that “I have no desire to relate what I heard about matters concerning the gods, other than their names alone, since I believe that all people understand these things equally. But when my discussion forces me to mention these things, I shall do so.”[3]



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