Egyptians in the eyes of the Greeks

According to the Greek writer, Polyaenus, c. 200 C.E., the Persians, during their successful attempt at occupying Egypt (525 BCE), used sacred animals as bait and protection against the Egyptian military. In this painting by Paul-Marie Lenoir from 1872, we see that cats are being slung and thrown to their death in front of the Egyptian soldiers. Cats being a famously sacred animal to the Egyptian.

This artwork is of course is a fantasy piece from the modern era (19th Century), and it must be remembered that the Greek writers such as Polyaneus or even Herodotus, who have fantastic writings about Ancient Egypt, did not live through such periods, and were documenting stories told to them by others who also were not alive during the many periods of the Egyptian empire either. We must also note that through these writings, we are seeing Ancient Egypt through the eyes of foreigners, who at the time of writing, were ‘modern’ writers, documenting history that was already long ancient and rather mysterious by the time they lived.

Herodotus statue in Vienna, Austria.

When studying history, before certifying something as a fact, it is important to consider biases (be it cultural or other), dates, sources for the stories told, and what archaeology and history itself has provided to either certify or sometimes debunk theories and tales from the past or present. This stands, even if the source we are reading from is historical itself: Be it the Greeks writing about Egypt (which was already very ancient by the time such books were put together), or the Romans writing about the Gaels or Celts, or even Ramesses the Great writing of his victory in Kadesh…as the writings from the Hittites tell an opposite story.

It is important to consider the why’s of the writings, the agenda behind the writings (is it political? Propagandist? Or even self-grandeur; looking one’s nose at other peoples, etc). These are all things to be taken into consideration, when reading an ancient foreigner’s view on another peoples, and even when reading a king’s boastful glories about himself.

The Greek writings, therefore, are a great way of seeing how the writers of that time saw the past of Egypt, but it must be remembered that what we read from these books, are not to be your only source for historical fact regarding Ancient Egypt, as they too, were essentially historians trying to gather and learn about the past.