Home » Atlantis: the debrief » The lure of Egypt


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

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Request for more information on the Greeks - in particular Solon and Plato's - relationship to Egypt.

Present: Interrogator (Second Class) Корень, interrogating, and Agent Г.


Here we are again. I'm getting sick of the sight of you.
Well, imagine how much worse it would be if I had your face.
I'll grant you that. Mirrors are not legion in my grotty, bog-standard Communist era flat.
I thought you secret intelligence types had access to country clubs, mansions and the sort of things that the workers could never dream of?
That's only those on the upper floors, my friend. We grunts can only aspire to such greater things. *sigh*
Anyway, I've been tasked with coming at Atlantis from a different angle. Namely Egypt.
You previously stated that the likes of Perseus, Heracles and Menelaus were said to have had dealings in the land of the pharaohs?
Yes. The Greek gods too. Hence the identification of Athena with the Egyptian warrior goddess Neith.
I would also note the traditions which place the Argive princess Io in Egypt, where she married the king and became the mother of Epaphus, who founded a dynasty there. Perseus and Heracles were among their descendants.
Very good.
You also imply that the visits of Solon, Plato and others to Egypt were likely a mere convention, or at best fictionalised?
I would say so, yes.
Why is this?
Well, in the case of Solon, the chances that he visited Egypt are actually quite high. This was, of course, the glory days of the Saïte dynasty, with the trading port of Naucratis in full bloom and Greek mercenaries all the rage in the Near East.
Graeco-Egyptian relations were already of long standing by this stage, if not continuous: 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.
The major issue I identified was what precisely happened there. Herodotus suggests Solon's travels took place after his lawgiving, though he also says that one of the laws was adapted from an enactment of the Egyptian ruler Amasis.
As for Plato, he 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.
Er, yes. Better just call him 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...
Some of these Egyptian names make Polish look pretty normal...
... 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.
Okay. That's all well and fine, but where exactly does Plato come into this?
Sorry, got a little bit carried away there. When I'm on a roll, I'm on a roll.
Right. Plato.
Plato is reported by his later biographer Diogenes Laërtius to have visited Egypt, where he was keen to see "those who interpreted the will of the gods," though his description is problematic
You see, he states that Plato journeyed there in the company of the tragedian Euripides. Euripides, however, died some years before Socrates: in the Frogs, Aristophanes has Euripides debating with Aeschylus in the underworld [768-769, 830 ff.]. Socrates is also alluded to in the play [1491], which has been dated to 405, meaning that Euripides was dead by about 406.
In modern times, Alice Swift Rigonos suspects that Plato's association with the scandalous figure of Euripides is part of an attempt to discredit the philosopher by association. She writes: -

Probably the tradition adverse to Plato was inspired by the widespread hostility to Euripides in the creation of a story associating the two in friendly relations. Such an association would thus discredit Plato in showing him to be close to the unpopular Euripides.

Another issue is Diogenes' quoting Euripides' Iphigenia in Tauris, describing the statement "[t]he sea [...] washes all mortal evil" [1193] as having been inspired by his falling ill and being cured by the priests in Egypt. This play was written between 414 and 412 BC, which renders the statement of the pair's journey together even more anachronistic: Plato would be no more than a boy of about 14 at that time.
Well, if Plato didn't visit Egypt with Euripides, could he have done so at a later time?
We know Plato left Athens in the wake of Socrates' death in 399 BC, and there is some evidence that Egypt may have been among the stations on his journey. I believe I mentioned Alan Cameron's suggestion that a reference in Proclus Lycaeus' Commentary on the Timaeus places Plato (rather than his follower Crantor as is usually understood) in Egypt?
You did, yes.
J.W.G. Van Oordt is also persuaded that Plato was in Egypt, as his statements about that country are not simply derivations from Herodotus, as were those of his forebears Sophocles and Aristophanes, among others. Another anecdote has him supporting himself by dabbling in the olive oil trade, which does not gibe too well with his later disdain for merchants (Atlantis' ruin as much as any other factor).
I will leave the final word to Mary Lefkowitz, a major critic of the Afrocentrism of the likes of Martin Bernal: -

Plato never says in any of his writings that he went to Egypt, and there is no reference to such a visit in the semibiographical Seventh Epistle. But in his dialogues he refers to some Egyptian myths and customs. Plato, of course, was not a historian, and the rather superficial knowledge of Egypt displayed in his dialogues, along with vague chronology, is more characteristic of historical fiction than of history. In fact, anecdotes about his visit to Egypt only turn up in writers of the later Hellenistic period. What better way to explain his several references to Egypt than to assume that the author had some first-hand knowledge of the customs he describes?

That's a "no" from Lefkowitz, then.
I would agree with that assessment.
On to my next question. What of the priests Solon is supposed to have met?
Though Plato does not record the name of any of the priests, the later writers Plutarch and Proclus present Solon as having consulted priests at a number of sites and name the senior Saïte priest as either Sonchis or Pateneit. As luck would have it, the name "Pateneit" (P3-di-Nt)...
What is that? A name with numbers in it? Definitely stranger than Polish.
... 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).
So this ancient priest is historical?
However, before you get carried away, I must note that this Padineith was based not in Saïs but Thebes and did not serve as a priest. Nonetheless, it is possible to speculate 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.
Doesn't rule it out though. As you say, the name "was common"...
Indeed. And it is quite striking that Proclus associated Solon's visit with such a name. He claims to be working with Egyptian histories too (whether by Greek or native authors is unclear): -

Solon, however, 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.

The earlier Plutarch, meanwhile, names this priest as Sonchis, but adds further details, even citing Solon's poetry as evidence for the visit: -

[Solon] went to Egypt, and lived, as he himself says,
"Where Nile pours forth his floods, near the Canobic shore."
He also spent some time in studies with Psenophis of Heliopolis and Sonchis of Saïs, who were very learned priests. From these, as Plato says, he heard the story of the lost Atlantis, and tried to introduce it in a poetical form to the Greeks.

Thus, according to Plutarch, a Psenophis of Heliopolis also had some input in the Atlantis tale...
... and Proclus names a third source from Sebennytus.
One note of caution, besides the lack of agreement between the names is the accretion of more places to the Solon legend. In particular, Sebennytus was important at Plato's time, during Egypt's latter period of independence from Persia, and the presence of the Ptolemies in Egypt would give much cause for the Egyptians to associate themselves with famous Greeks of days gone by. Both Plutarch and Proclus were writing after the Ptolemaic period, and one must note that, in addition to Solon, Plutarch also has Eudoxus, a Ptolemaic traveller, and the famous Pythagoras learning at the feet of Egyptian priests.
All the same, though, it now seems likely that Solon (if not Plato) was in Egypt for a time, and there was information which Plato neglected to mention about his visit there.
That is true.
Any clues from our knowledge of Egyptian history as to the identity of Atlantis there?
Well, the Sea Peoples were a group who had mysterious origins and who invaded Egypt during the Late Bronze Age, but that's far too late for Atlantis.
Not if the 9,000 years is a mistake and that 900 was the original figure.
900 years before Solon is also too early for the Sea Peoples, though it is feasible if the Egyptians inflated their history slightly. 900 years before Solon brings us roughly to the time of the "first Amasis," Ahmose, who finally threw out the Asiatic Hyksos and founded the 18th dynasty, beginning the New Kingdom.
The Hyksos?
Yes. These were a people of Western Asia who invaded Egypt and progressively took control of the Delta prior to the rise of the 18th dynasty. Major Hyksos rulers include Khayan and Apepi.
Whether coincidence or no, the name Apepi cannot but remind us of that of Io's son Epaphus, whose great-grandson Danaus was likewise forced to flee Egypt.
Interesting. But hardly Atlantis.
True. And the same can be said for the Sea Peoples.
Of course, like Atlantis, there were approximately ten constituent groups within this rubric: -
  • Denyen or Danuna
  • Sherden or Shardana
  • Karkiša
  • Lukka
  • Eqwesh
  • Peleset
  • Shekelesh
  • Teresh
  • Tjekker
  • Weshesh
The names hardly match.
Indeed. And at least some of them appear to refer to Greeks: Denyen/Danuna and Eqwesh resemble Homer's Danaans and Achaeans.
Plus, a number of these tribes were eventually settled in the Levant, most notably the Peleset, who are the Biblical Philistines.
Others are probably Anatolian: the Karkiša and Lukka were probably the peoples known to the later Greeks as Carians and Lycians, and appear alongside the Drdny or Dardanians as allies of the Hittites against Ramses II's Egyptian forces at Kadesh.
They were, however, allied with the rising power to the west of Egypt, the R'bw (Libu,hence "Libyans"). Pharaoh Merneptah writes: -

The wretched, fallen chief of Libya, Meryey, son of Ded, has fallen upon the country of Tehenu with his bowmen - Sherden, Shekelesh, Ekwesh, Lukka, Teresh, taking the best of every warrior and every man of war of his country. He has brought his wife and his children - leaders of the camp, and he has reached the western boundary in the fields of Perire.

Tehenu, or Tjehenu, along with the slightly later term Temehu was the generic Egyptian name for their western neighbour with a pedigree dating back to the dawn of dynastic history, and Merneptah's description suggests that the Libu, first attested during the reign of his father, along with the Meshwesh (who first appear during the 18th dynasty), originated further to the west. Furthermore, the "Ekwesh, Teresh, Lukka, Sherden, Shekelesh" are described as "northerners coming from all lands," who could have been interpreted by a later Greek writer as being associated with the Etruscans (Tyrsenoi, i.e. Teresh), which Plato states was, like Libya, under the sway of Atlantis, Sardinians and Siculi.
Merneptah also mentions the "Horns of the Earth" as the ultimate location to which he pursued the Libyans. This designation appears in a number of inscriptions throughout the New Kingdom, usually in reference to a southerly location. To ancient Greek observers, one doubts it would have taken too much to conceive of a potential connection between this locale and the mystical Mount Atlas, or the Horns of the West and South known especially from the Periplus of Hanno.
So, these groups were not Anatolian or Greek?
Unclear. The Etruscans were traced back to Lydia in Anatolia. The others, however, remain enigmatic.
The provenance and eventual destination of the Sherden and Shekelesh contingents is unclear. Although the Sherden bear similarities with the Nuraghic culture of the island of Sardinia, while the Greeks who colonised Sicily met a people known as the Sicels (who also appear fleetingly in the Odyssey [20.383; 24.365-366, 389; cf Sicania at 24.305], whether the two largest Italian islands were the place of origin, rather than the destination, of these groups is enigmatic.
The Shekelesh have been suggested as having originated in Sagalassos in Asia Minor, but, against this view, Fred Woudhuizen writes: -

A first indication of [an aggressive policy having been embraced by the Sea Peoples] is formed by a letter from the destruction layer of Ras Shamra/Ugarit (RS 34.129), in which the Hittite great king, who must be identified as Suppiluliumas II, urgently requests information about the Šikalāyū 'who live in boats' and about their homeland Šikila from a certain Lunadusu or Ibnadusu who had been taken prisoner by them [...] the Hittite great king Suppiluliumas II happens to be unacquainted with the Sikalayu or Shekelesh, whereas, as we have seen earlier (see section 8), he is in full control of western Asia Minor. In other words: if the Shekelesh were Sagalassians, the Hittite great king would have known them. Consequently, it seems preferable to opt for de Rougé’s solution and identify the Shekelesh with the inhabitants of Sicily in the central Mediterranean.

You're getting carried away again, lengthy verbatim quotes and the like...
The Sicels themselves also knew nothing of any migration from further afield than Italy: according to Thucydides [6.2]: -

The Sicels crossed over to Sicily from their first home Italy, flying from the Opicans, as tradition says and as seems not unlikely, upon rafts, having watched till the wind set down the strait to effect the passage; although perhaps they may have sailed over in some other way. Even at the present day there are still Sicels in Italy; and the country got its name of Italy from Italus, a king of the Sicels, so called.

Either way, it is likely that any Greek hearing the name of these groups in the Classical period would have identified them with the denizens of the great Central Mediterranean islands.
Enough! Enough!
Okay, you're the boss.
But you did ask...
Well, it looks like if there was an Egyptian story which came to be Atlantis in Plato's hands, it was these Sea Peoples.
Possibly. But the chronology is all wrong.
Temper, temper. I only mentioned them because you suggested that Plato's 9,000 years could actually mean 900.
But, following that logic, surely his 8,000 years of Egyptian history, upon which the 9,000 year figure depends, would similarly have to mean 800, which is preposterous.
Similarly, if the Saïte priests intended the 9,000 to be reckoned in "lunar years," a similar problem emerges.
Firstly, one would have to look for other references to lunar years in Egyptian history.
Secondly, the same logic must be applied to other Egyptian sources, which would entail downdating the kings again, with the added bonus of having the most famously long-reigned of them - the likes of Pepi II, Thutmose III and Ramsses II - each being in power for barely more than a decade and a half in "solar years" combined. This, needless to say, is untenable chronologically and would be laughed out of court. The same surely applies to the notion that Solon's years were lunar in nature.
No, the timescale is in genuine millennia precisely because Critias is dating the origins of Athens to a remote period.
Atlantis isn't the Sea Peoples precisely because an Egyptian civilisation wasn't around at a time coeval with Atlantis to record being threatened by them.
But the story survives in Egyptian records!
Yes, but, for the first 1,000 years, this was presumably orally. Then Theuth invented writing [Phaedrus 274b] and these tales of the ancients were written down. Precisely as that: tales of the ancients. Not records of contemporary events. Stories of an immense power conquering all the land up to the very borders of Egypt (as they existed back then) and of a saviour from the north, whose constitution would be remembered and used as a model for that of Theuth's patron Thamus and his successors.
(Thamus, by the way, was no Egyptian king. Instead, he is, like Theuth, a god, this time Mesopotamian: the dying-and-rising Dumuzi or Tammuz.)
Opinionated little oik, aren't you? You have an answer for everything.
Not everything. The Grand Unified Theory as yet alludes me.
Don't get sarcastic... or you'll end up in a sarky-phagus. ALIVE!
A sarky-phagus?
Sarcophagus, you clown! It's a pun!
Right. Finally, before we finish (I need a break from all this self-assuredness), why on earth would Plato invent Atlantis?
I do have an answer to that.
Of course you do.
You remember that Plato had Socrates outline the constitution of his ideal state in the Republic?
Well, that state was composed of distinct classes.
That doesn't surprise me, given Plato's reactionary views.
He was around over 2,000 years ago. Most views we now see as reactionary were quite in vogue back then.
Enough with the snide remarks. Get on with the answer.
Well, Plato's contemporaries appear to have criticised this constitution, saying it was basically the Egyptian constitution in one of those dress thingies the Greeks wore back then.
Again, we're reliant on Proclus, who quotes Crantor as saying the following: -

Crantor, the first interpreter of Plato, [...] says, that Plato was derided by those of his time, as not being the inventor of the Republic, but transcribing what the Egyptians had written on this subject; and that he so far regards what is said by these deriders as to refer to the Egyptians this history about the Athenians and Atlantics, and to believe that the Athenians once lived conformably to this polity.

The upshot is that Plato wrote the account of ancient Athens and Atlantis as a rejoinder to these critics.
Among the contemporary writers, Plato's contemporary and rival Isocrates [Busiris 15] says, of the mythical pharaoh Busiris: -

he divided [the Egyptians] into classes: some he appointed to priestly services, others he turned to the arts and crafts, and others he forced to practise the arts of war.

This, in effect, is Socrates' preferred system in the Republic, and, while Busiris was mythical, the Egyptian origin of this system is apparent. Herodotus, for example, was even more elaborate, describing some seven castes in the century prior to Plato.
Perhaps even more significantly, Plato's student Aristotle [Politics 7.9-10] is convinced of the pre-eminence of Egypt with regards to the caste system: -

And that it is proper for the state to be divided up into castes and for the military class to be distinct from that of the tillers of the soil does not seem to be a discovery of political philosophers of today or one made recently. In Egypt this arrangement still exists even now, as also in Crete; it is said to have been established in Egypt by the legislation of Sesostris and in Crete by that of Minos. [...] It is from this country that the system of common meals has its origin, while the division of the citizen-body by hereditary caste came from Egypt, for the reign of Sesostris long antedates that of Minos.

With regards to the fragment highlighted, the translator H. Rackham notes that it is "[p]erhaps to be read as denying the originality of Plato's Republic," which suggests that Proclus' statement that Plato's work being ridiculed as derivative of Egyptian custom was based on solid evidence.
Consequent from this, Plato's timeline for the development of the civilisations of Atlantis and Egypt by Athena-Neith as set out in the Timaeus and Critias can be read as a response to this criticism, in that the Saïte priest is made to declare the primacy of Athens [Tim. 24c], whilst admitting similarities between the two systems [Tim. 24a-b, cf. Herodotus 2.164 ff.] and, indeed, the division of the Athenians by Ion into four distinct castes (which survived until being revised, ironically by Solon) is similar.
Plato rightly points out that the Athenians too had ancient traditions of class distinctions (indeed, it could be argued that the tetrapartite system of the Athenians represents a closer approximation to Plato's schema than does the Egyptian model), and is ultimately citing Egyptian authority to refute claims that he derived his scheme from the ancient country on the Nile by providing a precedent for the Egyptian caste system located at Athens itself.
As such, Plato's riposte to his alleged critics represents a breathtakingly audacious piece of propaganda.
Have you quite finished?
Well, then, so are we.
Guards! Take the prisoner back to his cell!
Oh, and let him visit the bathroom on the way.
I'm not a complete monster.
If I *was* a complete monster, maybe I'd get a promotion to the top floor.
Get that country club membership, the dacha and the chauffeur-driven Trabi...
Oh well. Guess I'll never know.