My Friend Herodotus
by Candace Cedar


I have a hard time dealing with all of the attacks on my friend Herodotus. He is, after all, the father of history. But if his accusers could only understand him. If only they had heard him speak as I did in a public lecture in Athens, they would know the influence that Herodotus had on his listenersí perception of the world. Herodotus was my doorway to a land beyond Greece. Now, more than two thousand years later, since Iím still alive and he is not, I feel that it is my place to defend the man against the accusations of James Redfield and his followers. I want to prove that Herodotus was not ethnocentric. Redfield stated that the author only described other cultures of the ancient world in an inferior voice and as odd inhuman circus shows. In actuality, I saw Herodotus as moving in the opposite direction. He opened my eyes and taught me about other people, different yet connected by the common bond of humanity. After listening to him speak and reading his book, The Histories, I gained more respect for the other civilizations. I remember a particular speech about the Egyptians and their customs. Although Herodotus did describe them as different than Greeks, he presented them as a highly esteemed people.

Though Herodotus repeatedly said that the Egyptians were peculiar and different, he did not do it in an ethnocentric fashion. Ethnocentrism is the belief that oneís race is superior to all others. I have to say that walking around Athens, seeing the glory in politics, philosophy, theater, and art, I thought that Greece was the quintessential civilization. Then one day I heard Herodotus speaking of his travels to Egypt. I couldnít believe that other cultures found different ways of living such as the Egyptians had. The great historian said "the Egyptians themselves in their manners and customs seem to have reversed the ordinary practices of mankind" (p. 98 The Histories.) Herodotus went on to describe how the women worked and the men were priests; how they wrote from right to left, which is completely backwards. Opposite to the customs of the Greeks, they ate outside and went to the bathroom inside. They even lived with their animals. How outrageous! Herodotus compared these actions to those of the rest of the known world, most importantly the Greeks. I began to think that the Egyptians were a strange inferior people, but Herodotus hadnít finished speaking.

Later, I caught hold of a copy of Herodotusí book and looked up the same subject. The author of The Histories respects the Egyptian culture, and his purpose for writing the book goes beyond ethnocentrism. I had missed parts of his speech that were crucial to his character. He never thought that Egypt was inferior, proven in the first paragraph of the lengthy book. "Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not be forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds -- some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians (non-Greeks) -- may not be without their glory..." His inquiry was to record the great deeds of that time; that is what he wrote and spoke to reveal. He was not inquiring into the foolish ways of the outside civilizations; Herodotus was not seeking to make other cultures appear inferior to that of Greece. Since the purpose of Herodotus was to glorify human achievements, the fact that he dedicated an entire book to the Egyptians, their customs, and their history demonstrates his obvious esteem for the culture. In addition, Herodotus said "About Egypt I shall have a great deal more to relate because of the number of remarkable things which the country contains." (p. 98) Thus, though he did state that Egypt was different from the rest of the world, Herodotus did not mean to say the the country was inferior to Greece.

Although Herodotus presented his observations in a straightforward and biased manner, his excerpts of Egyptian thoughts went beyond ethnocentrism. Some may be confused by his use of words such as "peculiar" when regarding methods of the Egyptians. He said the Egyptians did not weave the "normal" way or sail the "ordinary" way. However, he wrote in a comparative tone. Herodotus never said that the Egyptians did anything the wrong way, but only in a different way. There is a crucial difference. In fact, he showed the Egyptians as being an ethnocentric culture. First, he relayed that they "obstinately maintain that theirs is the dexterous method [of writing], ours being left-handed and awkward." (p. 99) They not only chose to write their way over the Greek method, but also claimed that theirs was the proper way of writing. In the second example of the Egyptianís ethnocentrism Herodotus said, "The Egyptians are unwilling to adopt Greek customs, or, to speak generally, those of any other country." (p. 116) By giving these examples, Herodotus was demonstrating the Egyptianís dignity. They were proud to be different and non-Greek. This is an important note because an inferior country cannot be proud of its customs. Instead, the lesser countries were quickly taken over by other empires or absorbed other customs to replace their inferior traditions. By mentioning the Egyptianís pride, Herodotus was acknowledging that the Egyptians were proud to be "peculiar" and thus, he couldnít have been ethnocentric.

Herodotus recorded his own observations for the Egyptian customs and researched their history directly from their own people, disproving accusations of ethnocentrism. If Herodotus had based his speeches and book on hearsay and gossip, his noble effort to record the great achievements of the times would have been compromised. I might then believe that he had ulterior motives to make the Greeks sound great. However, on page 119 of his book the author said, "Up to this point I have confined what I have written to the results of my own direct observation and research, and the views I have formed from them; but from now on the basis of my story will be the accounts given to me by the Egyptians themselves..." Herodotus confined his writings and oral presentations to what he knew from primary observation and what his subject revealed to him. Thus, he adhered to the original task of revealing the great Egyptian culture.

The work of Herodotus was not promoting ethnocentrism, rather his passages regarding the Egyptians revolved around cultural relativism. Herodotus did not think that the Greek civilization was better than the Egyptian civilization. However, he did use the differences between the two as an instrument to describe Egypt. I have to admit that Herodotus was a performer. As a oral historian for much of his life, he had to attract a crowd to listen to him. I remember how he compared Egypt to Greece from many angles. Egyptís customs, religions, lifestyles, and environment were all analyzed and separated into those that were similar to Greece and those that were different. He related the Egyptian culture to the Greek culture. But, the reason was not to expose the Egyptians for their oddities. Herodotus realized that there was no better way to describe something that his audience had not heard about than to compare the Egyptian culture to something that the Greeks were familiar with, their own culture. James Redfield in "Herodotus the Tourist" unfairly said "...Herodotus seems thus not the precursor of [modern anthropologists] as of Strange as It Seems and Believe It or Not." He wanted to make the learning of other cultures interesting. He talked of how the countries were different without making the Egyptians appear in the center ring of a circus show. Some may forget that both Jerry Springerís talk show and the Discovery channel explore the "oddities" of the world. Redfield attempted to place Herodotus alongside Springer, exposing the oddities of humanity to attract a crowd. However, after seeing him speak and reading his book, I realized that he was an explorer, documenting the great wonders of the world hidden from my immediate view.

A proof that Herodotus did not think that the Egyptians were inferior was his comparison of the Greek and Egyptian religions. "The names of nearly all the gods came to Greece from Egypt. I know from the inquiries I have made that they came from abroad, and it seems most likely that it was from Egypt, for the names of all of the gods have been known in Egypt from the beginning of time." (p. 105) Herodotus could not have been ethnocentric because of the way he pursued the influences of Egypt on Greece. He would not put a country on display for its oddities and inferiorities and then move on to show how his own culture took many of its customs. Instead, the excerpt produces the opposite result; Herodotus holds the Egyptians in esteem for their antiquity and what they gave to Greece.

Herodotus invoked Egyptís influences on Greece to help me realize what it meant to be Greek as well as to understand the Egyptian culture. What better way to learn about yourself than to learn about those that are different and why they are different. Thus, Herodotus compared and contrasted Egypt and Greece to show exactly what Greece was. I would not know light if I lived my entire life in darkness. Likewise, I cannot know my culture unless someone reveals other cultures to me. The passage regarding the Egyptian influence on Greek religion advances the descriprion of Greece. Ethnocentrism cannot exist when one acknowledges that his or her culture developed from other races. When Herodotus told me that Greek religion developed from the Egyptian religion, the distance that separated our two cultures lessened. By teaching me about the Egyptians, Herodotus enabled me to know more about Greece and also respect other cultures.

In the ancient world of rising and falling empires, there arose a great man with a modern message. Herodotus said that Egypt was odd, but also that difference was good. He showed the Greeks that there were other ways to write, different clothes to be worn, and different ideas to be thought. His object in writing the book was to show the great aspects of humanity; he himself said so repeatedly throughout the inquiry. Though people such as Redfield attempt to twist his words into a negative view of the Egyptians, Herodotus showed people, myself included, that other cultures are worthy of exploration. He spent time and energy observing the Egyptians, making his efforts prove that his purpose was not to praise the Greek culture but to discover other aspects of humanity. Then he used cultural relativism to help describe the strange place to his audience and make it interesting to learn. He was an explorer of both the Egyptian culture and a definer of the Greek culture. Remember Herodotus not as an ethnocentric man bound to the ways of the Greek culture, but see him as I do. Herodotus was a Greek historian bound to the ways of humanity, recording the differences which defined us.