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Home » Atlantis » The ancient Greeks and the lure of Egypt

THE ANCIENT GREEKS AND THE LURE OF EGYPT

Written by Graham | Created: Saturday 26th September 2020 @ 2341hrs | Revised: Monday 12th October @ 1101hrs; Monday 19th October 2020 @ 1151hrs

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For the ancient Greeks, the great civilisation of Egypt, with its storied history and hoary past, held an irresistible appeal.

BEGINNINGS

MYTHOLOGY

  • perhaps the earliest Greek known to have connections with Egypt, Io was the daughter of a king of Argos who travelled to Egypt via a circuitous route in the form of a cow after Zeus' lusting after her invoked Hera's jealousy. Once there, she married the king and became the mother of Epaphus, who founded a dynasty there. Perseus and Heracles were among their descendants.
  • Epaphus founded a brief dynasty of rulers, culminating in Aegyptus and Danaus, with the latter fleeing Egypt for Argos after his 50 daughters were involved in a plot to kill Aegyptus' 50 sons.
  • a descendant of Danaus, Perseus, flew over Egypt when transporting the head of Medusa from Libya, being recognised by the people of Khemmis as a kinsman.
  • the great Heracles visited Egypt during his labours, removing the tyrannical Busiris, a son of Poseidon and Epaphus' daughter Lysianassa, from power.
  • Menelaus and his wife Helen, the cause of the Trojan War, were also associated with Egypt. The Odyssey has Menelaus learn of the fates of Odysseus and himself from Proteus, the "Old Man of the Sea," on an island off the northern coast of Egypt, while other stories suggest that Helen had been in Egypt throughout the conflict, with only a phantom in her form in Troy.

HISTORY

While there is evidence of connections between the Mycenaean states of Greece and the New Kingdom rulers of Egypt, sustained contact between the two sides of the Mediterranean only really took off again in around the 8th century BC, when the Greeks were once more looking to the seas for new lands to colonise and trade with.

  • noting Diodorus' hailing of one "Bocchoris," identified with the ephemeral minor pharaoh Bakenranef, who was based at Saïs, as a sage [1.65.1] and significant lawgiver [1.79; 1.94.5], Robin Lane Fox proposes that some Greeks enjoyed a close relationship with this ruler. Bakenranef was, in all likelihood, an ancestor of Psamtik I, the founder of the later Saïte rulers. It should be noted, however, that Herodotus apparently knows nothing of this man.
  • Herodotus' account of Egypt's history is rightly considered as being highly inaccurate, with his list of rulers only being accurate from the end of the 25th dynasty and into the 26th (which began with Psamtik I).

It is highly likely that Odysseus' cover story, which he gives to Eumaeus when he is back on Ithaca, reflects these early piratical endeavours and the Egyptians' tendencies to hire Greek (and Carian) mercenaries.

SOLON IN EGYPT

As noted elsewhere, Herodotus synchronises Solon's travels to Egypt with the time of Amasis of the 26th dynasty. In fact, Herodotus can be read as refering to two journeys (or a subsequent addition to Solon's laws after his return: -

Amasis is said to have made a law ordering every Egyptian declare his occupation to the district governors on an annual basis on pain of death, which Solon emulated in Athens [2.177.2].

After extracting pledges from the Athenians that they would abide by his laws for ten years, Solon departs for Egypt to visit Amasis, before subsequently visiting Croesus in Sardis.

SOLON AND THE PRIESTS OF SAÏS

The transmission of the story of Athens and Atlantis involves Solon hearing it from the college of priests in the city of Saïs, capital of Bakenranef and later the 26th dynasty pharaohs. Later sources give different accounts of Solon's (and other Greeks') interactions with the priests, with a number of names bandied about: -

According to Plutarch in his Life of Solon [26.1], Solon "spent some time in studies with Psenophis of Heliopolis and Sonchis of Saïs, who were very learned priests," from whom he learned of Atlantis.

The same author, in his On Isis and Osiris [10.1], reiterates the association between Solon and this Sonchis, whilst adding that Pythagoras was instructed by Oinouphis of Heliopolis and Eudoxus (a Greek who was in the service of various Ptolemaic rulers) from Chonouphis of Memphis.

Much later, Proclus Lycaeus writes of Solon's Egyptian sojourn in his Commentary on the Timaeus of Plato, saying that "Solon [...] met at Sais with a priest called Pateneit; but at Heliopolis, with a priest called Ochlapi; and at Sebennytus, with one whose name was Ethimon, as we learn from the histories of the Egyptians."

As luck would have it, the name given by Proclus, "Pateneit" (P3-di-Nt) was common during the Saïte period, appearing for example on an ushabti dating from the reign of Amasis. The individual commemorated, Padineith or Pedineith, was the son of Psamtik, a court dignitary, and Tadubaste, and served as the major-domo to the God's Wife of Amun Ankhnesneferibre. Ankhnesneferibre was the daughter of Psamtik II and sister of the deposed pharaoh Wahibre, and it is likely that Padineith was installed by Amasis as a means to regulate and control Ankhnesneferibre's activities, as Barbara Watterson suggests. He died in around 545 BC and was succeeded by his son Shoshenq, who was likely named in honour of his predecessor Shoshenq son of Harsiese, who served during the early years of Ankhnesneferibre's long reign (she held the position from 586 BC until the Persian overthrow of Psamtik III in 525 BC). It may be suggested that the names Pateneit and Sonchis (perhaps a contraction of Sesonchis, i.e. Shoshenq) were associated with legends about Solon's visit to Egypt in antiquity.

However, it must also be borne in mind that this Padineith was based not in Saïs but Thebes and did not, as far as we know, serve as a priest.

PLATO IN EGYPT

There are also traditions which suggest that Plato himself may have spent time in Egypt, though they are problematic.

  • one tradition suggests that, during his time there, Plato supported himself through engaging in the olive oil trade, which, given his rather sniffy aristocrat's attitude to merchants, does not seem to compute.
  • another has him visiting with Euripides, the great tragedian, who died towards the end of the 5th century, when Plato was still a young man in Athens. Thus, like the evidence for Solon in Egypt, the material suggesting Plato went there is highly dubious.
  • a third depends upon the reading of a passage from Proclus' Commentary, which mentions someone (usually identified with Crantor, a member of the Academy founded by Plato from around Alexander the Great's time) seeking and finding corroboration for Solon's account of Atlantis there. Alan Cameron identifies this seeker with none other than Plato.

INDEPENDENT EGYPT

Plato was writing during the 62-year period in which Egypt enjoyed freedom from Persian rule. 360 BC, about the time the finishing touches were being put on the Timaeus and Critias, saw the accession of the Black Land's last native pharaoh, Snedjemibre Setepenanhur Nakhthorheb, better known as Nectanebo II.

  • Egypt had regained its freedom in 404 BC when Amenirdisu or, in Greek, Amyrtaeus of Sais, who had led a guerilla war in the Delta for some years, was left unharassed due to a civil war in the Persian Empire.
  • Amyrtaeus seems to have concluded an alliance with Sparta which was inherited by his successor Nefaarud (Nepherites) I, who overthrew him in about 398 BC. As a consequence of this, Sparta, under Agesilaus II, invaded Asia Minor, occupying the Persians, who thus left Egypt unmolested.
  • after Agesilaus was recalled by his co-king Agesipolis I in response to Athens, Thebes, Corinth and Argos forming an anti-Spartan coalition, the pharaoh Hakor (Achoris) concluded an alliance with Athens (as well as Athens' ally Evagoras of Cyprus) in 389 BC. The assistance of the Athenians, led by Chabrias, would prove invaluable in the repulsion of the Persians between 385 and 383 BC.
  • Chabrias was recalled in 379, after the Greeks and Persians made peace, and the Persians launched another invasion of Egypt in 373 BC, featuring a Greek contingent led by Iphicrates - an Athenian!
  • this invasion was, however, foiled in the Delta and western parts of the Persian Empire fell into anarchy a few years later during the Satraps' Revolt. In an attempt to capitalise on the situation, the victorious pharaoh, Nakhtnebef (Nectanebo I) planned to extend his borders eastward. The expedition took place in 360 BC during the reign of his son Djedhor (Teos), who had recalled both Chabrias and Agesilaus, though Teos' brother Tjahapimu - who had been charged with governing the country in the king's absence - revolted, offering the throne to his son Nectanebo II, then on campaign with his uncle.
  • while Chabrias remained loyal to Teos, Agesilaus supported Nectanebo, leaving Teos friendless when Chabrias was recalled to Athens, whereupon Teos sought asylum at the Persian court, a cruel irony given the likelihood that the Persians had incited Tjahapimu's revolt against him.
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