Commentary Essay – Herodotus, The Histories. Book 2.86
Book two of Herodotus’ The Histories contains his account of Egyptian culture, traditions and relations to Greek religion. In particular, passage eighty-six describes the practice of an ancient ritual that has fascinated people for millennia. In this passage, Herodotus describes the ancient Egyptian method for mummification. Being one of the earliest known records, this account of the mummification process immediately retains merit. This does not mean, however that the account is accurate. While some call Herodotus the “Father of History”, others call him the “Father of Lies”.1 This is most likely due inaccuracies found in his Histories and even in book 2.86. Several scholars in the past and present day have either supported his accounts or discredited them as while some passages have been proven correct, others are thought to be inaccurate or misleading. A lover of oral traditions, Herodotus wrote his Histories as if he were speaking them to his audience rather than simply stating his ‘facts’ another possible reason as to the scepticism with which his work is regarded. Though regardless of its flaws, the Histories remains one of the oldest historical accounts ever recorded and by that definition, if nothing else, it deserves consideration. Having lived during the fifth century BCE, Herodotus would have had first-hand experience with Egyptian culture. Book two is particularly interesting, not just because it is a glimpse into the Egyptian culture but also because of the way in which Herodotus relates Egyptian culture to Greek religion.
Book 2.86 tells the reader about the professional embalmers who specialize in mummification. It details the process from the very beginning, starting from the point in which a corpse is brought in to be embalmed and ending with the body in a casket, ready to be placed in a tomb. Herodotus describes the process which he claims the Egyptians use to preserve the bodies. He begins by describing the transaction between the embalmers and the family of the dead. He goes on to say that there are three types of services, the best being the one he describes. Supposedly, the first part of the process is the extraction of the brain through the nostril using a hooked instrument. This is followed by the extraction of the organs and the cleaning of the body cavity. Herodotus states that the bodies were rinsed with palm wine and spices such as crushed myrrh and cassia were used to perfume the body before it was sewn up again. It was his belief that after this the body was packed into a salt-like substance called natron and left there for no more than seventy days before finally being washed once more and wrapped in fine linen bandages to be placed in a casket and collected by their loved ones.2 This passage is historically significant in its portrayal of a ritual so fundamentally important to the Egyptians. One only has to think of Egypt for thoughts of pyramids and mummies to spring to mind. We have the evidence of their hard work still today but of course, do not have the means to find a definitive answer as to how exactly mummification was performed. We rely on forensic analysis and archaeological evidence to piece together an idea of the practices. That is why accounts such as The Histories 2.86 are so important; they take the reader back into the mind of a person who would have lived through the times when mummification was still actively practiced and could have witnessed it themselves. This gives us almost an insider’s point of view of the ritual, a source second only to an ancient Egyptian account, which are not considered particularly useful in terms of describing the actual process.3
This does not mean, however, that the passage or the entire Histories for that matter, should always be taken at face value. Ironically, it is our other sources for information about the ancient world which manage to prove some of Herodotus’ work...
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