Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.08.56 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.08.56

Laurent Coulon, Pascale Giovannelli-Jouanna, Flore Kimmel-Clauzet (ed.), Hérodote et l’Égypte: regards croisés sur le Livre II de l’ Enquête d’Hérodote. Actes de la journée d’étude organisée à la Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée, Lyon, le 10 mai 2010. Collection de la Maison de l’Orient, 51; Série littéraire et philosophique, 18​.   Lyon:  Maison de l’Orient et de la Méditerranée - Jean Pouilloux​, 2013.  Pp. 200.  ISBN 9782356680372.  €27.00.  

Reviewed by Yvona Trnka-Amrhein, Harvard University (


This collection of articles devoted to the second book of Herodotus’ Histories addresses the Egyptian logos from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. A very brief introduction (with summaries of the contributions) is given by Pascale Giovannelli-Jouanna, who outlines the volume’s goal of providing a fresh approach to Herodotus’ Egyptian book with two main themes: literary studies (two articles on the book in general) and links to Egyptian evidence (five articles on specific topics). Coming down on the side of Herodotus’ genuine use of Egyptian sources, the pieces in the second section collect a range of new Egyptian material relevant to the Histories’ account, and as such they are a valuable update to works like A. B. Lloyd’s foundational commentaries on Book 2.1 Generally minimizing the focus on Herodotus’ historical methodology, the collection treats both established topics (the phoenix, Osiris) and relatively new ones (Demotic narratives).

Flore Kimmel-Clauzet sets out to refine the customary structural analysis of the Egyptian logos, which divides it into two distinct parts (2.1-98 and 2.99-182 as signaled by Herodotus’ own statements), by identifying more subtle thematic links and compositional techniques in the book’s underlying structure. She combines specific and detailed analysis (connections between passages and sections) with general and overarching claims (principles unifying the whole book), and some arguments are more persuasive than others. Particularly suggestive are Kimmel-Clauzet’s observations that the chronologically problematic pyramid builders divide two phases in the pre-Saite kinglist and that the book is structured to reflect the evolving perspective of a newcomer to Egypt.

Karim Mansour catalogues examples of poetic and stylistically marked usages in the Egyptian logos. Such stylistic traits, he suggests, feature more frequently in Herodotus’ ethnographic passages than in the rest of the Histories and comprise an ethnographic style that is complementary to the use of parataxis. The article is primarily descriptive, and I would have liked to see more statistical comparison (e.g. as appears for tmesis at p. 52) and directly stated proof to support the claim that Book 2 is the best example of Herodotus’ “poetic” ethnographic style. Similarly, Mansour’s suggestion that some poetic constructions are used first in ethnographic passages and then redeployed in other types of Herodotean discourse could be more fully explored.

Joachim F. Quack presents an informative survey of new Demotic material (mostly narrative, both published and unpublished) with important connections to several episodes from the Egyptian logos (including the Ἀσμάχ deserters, the festival at Boubastis, Sesostris, and Pheros). He also treats a nexus of older texts that relate to Rhampsinitos’ descent to the underworld (2.122), disproving a close link between this tale and the Demotic First Setna Story but identifying a general Egyptian background for the pharaoh’s journey in the story of Merire and the pharaoh Sisobek (P. Vandier). This material will revitalize the historically vexed discussion of Herodotus’ use of Egyptian sources, and Quack has lucidly set out the evidence that changes the central question from whether Herodotus used “authentic” Egyptian material to how he utilized it. As the Demotic texts are fully published and more hopefully will come to light, exciting new work on the Egyptian logos will be possible.

Lilian Postel argues that Herodotus used Egyptian Royal Annals (e.g. the Palermo Stone or Amenemhat II’s Annals from Memphis) as a key source for the history of Pre-Saite Egypt. A helpful overview of the Royal Annals is provided, including some newer material (one piece published by Postel herself), but the range of evidence covered in the analysis of Herodotus’ text is limited. None of the parallels sketched between the Egyptian Logos and the Royal Annals are satisfactorily established, although the suggestion that records of inundation height from different reigns might have been easily compared using annalistic inscriptions is intriguing (regarding 2.13). Material from the Royal Annals may lie behind Herodotus’ account in some way, but this genre is yet to appear as an important source.

Françoise Labrique traces connections between the Egyptian benu bird and the Histories’ phoenix (2.73), suggesting that Herodotus’ (source-critically) problematic comparison of the phoenix to an eagle is based on status not appearance. The conclusion that Herodotus’ description of the phoenix conveys the meaning of the benu is overly optimistic; a solid explanation for the bird’s color seems particularly elusive. This contribution covers a variety of Egyptian sources, relying heavily on The Book of the Dead, and some explanation of technicalities (e.g. how illustrations of the Book of the Dead work) would have been useful to orient a reader coming from Classics.

Emmanuel Jambon provides an accessible overview of Egyptian evidence for the two types of divination mentioned in Histories 2.82: hemerology and the collection and interpretation of portents and signs. The piece nicely brings out the different concepts of time inherent in these types of divination. While hemerology was based on the unchanging cycle of the calendar (e.g. a Calendar of Good and Bad Days from the Ramessid Period), signs were tied to the linear time of real life (e.g. a Demotic treatise on divination by shrew behavior). Jambon confirms that Herodotus recorded real Egyptian practices, suggesting that divination might have been part of everyday temple business, even if solid evidence for soothsayers themselves is hard to come by.

Incorporating recent work in Egyptology, Laurent Coulon compares Herodotus’ Osiris with Egyptian evidence from four angles (Osiris’ and Isis’ status, religious silence, equation of Osiris and Dionysus, and phallophoria rites). Most convincingly, four problematic passages where the historian refuses to name Osiris in connection with mourning and burial are explained as the observation of an Egyptian taboo prohibiting explicit mention of the murder and dismemberment of Osiris by Seth. The phallophoria ritual (2.48) serves as a case study for Coulon’s reminder that a current lack of Egyptian comparanda does not necessarily condemn the Greek account, since much evidence has been lost or lies waiting to be discovered. Although not all attempts to match Herodotus with Egyptian sources will be successful, Coulon is absolutely correct to stress that advances in Egyptology necessitate periodical reconsideration of the Histories’ Egyptian background.

As can be seen, there is a clear divide between the collection’s two sections which falls along disciplinary lines. Although some pieces draw on both Classics and Egyptology (in particular Coulon’s), one or two contributions that truly fused the two approaches might have helped draw the sides together and provide further insights into this fascinating section of the Histories.2 In particular, one might examine more closely what (new) Egyptian sources really mean for literary analysis of the Egyptian logos. Did Herodotus write up material from Egyptian sources in different ways, or did he seamlessly incorporate everything into the main body of his work with the same approach? What happens when the Egyptian material has its own distinctive style and narrative conventions (cf. Postel’s comparison of structure)? Can answers to these questions help us better understand other books of the Histories? This new collection provides a solid basis for such further work to be done.

The volume is quite polished, and its comprehensive set of indices is impressively detailed. I noticed a few typos including: some Greek is not fully translated (p. 30 n. 34); Minos for lake Moeris twice (p. 50 n. 16); fig. 6 for 7 (p. 123, n. 28). ​


1.   Lloyd, A. B. (1975) Herodotus Book II. Introduction (Leiden: Brill); Lloyd, A. B. (1976) Herodotus Book II. Commentary 1-98 (Leiden: Brill); Lloyd, A. B. (1988) Herodotus Book II. Commentary 99-182 (Leiden; New York; København; Köln: Brill); a new version in Asheri, D., Lloyd, A. and A. Corcella (2007) A Commentary on Herodotus Books 1-IV, ed. O. Murray and A. Moreno (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
2.   For a recent historical approach to such fusion, see the first chapter of I. Moyer (2011) Egypt and the Limits of Hellenism (Cambridge). ​

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