Friday, February 18, 2011

Ancient Egyptian Quote of the Week

This is an idea I picked up from Julianne Douglas of Writing the Renaissance. I really enjoy her Sixteenth Century Quotes of the Week and thought it would be fun to share some of the Egyptian quotes I pick up as part of my research. Though my posts tend to be much larger than just a quote when all's said and done, and end up as more of a mini lesson in some aspect of Egyptian belief.

This week's quote is not technically Egyptian, but Greek. The Greeks had a deep fascination and respect for the Egyptians. It was vogue for Greek sages and philosophers to visit Egypt to learn from the priests there. Even if a philosopher hadn't actually been to Egypt in their life, their biographers would often say that they had to give them more credibility. To Greece, Egypt was pretty much the font of all wisdom and knowledge. So we have this account found in one of Plato's Dialogues, Timaeus, about the Athenian statesman and poet Solon...

"In the Egyptian Delta, at the head of which the river Nile divides, there is a certain district which is called the district of Sais, and the great city of the district is also called Sais, and is the city from which King Amasis came. The citizens have a deity for their foundress; she is called in the Egyptian tongue Neith, and is asserted by them to be the same whom the Hellenes call Athene; they are great lovers of the Athenians, and say that they are in some way related to them. To this city came Solon, and was received there with great honour; he asked the priests who were most skilful in such matters, about antiquity, and made the discovery that neither he nor any other Hellene knew anything worth mentioning about the times of old. On one occasion, wishing to draw them on to speak of antiquity, he began to tell about the most ancient things in our part of the world—about Phoroneus, who is called 'the first man,' and about Niobe; and after the Deluge, of the survival of Deucalion and Pyrrha; and he traced the genealogy of their descendants, and reckoning up the dates, tried to compute how many years ago the events of which he was speaking happened. Thereupon one of the priests, who was of a very great age, said: O Solon, Solon, you Hellenes are never anything but children, and there is not an old man among you. Solon in return asked him what he meant. I mean to say, he replied, that in mind you are all young; there is no old opinion handed down among you by ancient tradition, nor any science which is hoary with age. And I will tell you why. There have been, and will be again, many destructions of mankind arising out of many causes; the greatest have been brought about by the agencies of fire and water, and other lesser ones by innumerable other causes."

The Egyptian Priest goes on to describe how while the rest of the world has been suffering destructive natural disasters over and over for ages, Egypt does not because of its unique climate. Every time a disaster would strike only a small remnant of the Greek people would survive, civilization would fall and would need to be rebuilt. Therefore Egypt is the one land that has been able to preserve knowledge of all former times.

"And whatever happened either in your country or in ours, or in any other region of which we are informed—if there were any actions noble or great or in any other way remarkable, they have all been written down by us of old, and are preserved in our temples. Whereas just when you and other nations are beginning to be provided with letters and the other requisites of civilized life, after the usual interval, the stream from heaven, like a pestilence, comes pouring down, and leaves only those of you who are destitute of letters and education; and so you have to begin all over again like children, and know nothing of what happened in ancient times, either among us or among yourselves."

Solon is amazed and asks for more detailed information about the past. The priest tells him of various things including the story of Atlantis...

"For these histories tell of a mighty power which unprovoked made an expedition against the whole of Europe and Asia, and to which your city put an end. This power came forth out of the Atlantic Ocean, for in those days the Atlantic was navigable; and there was an island situated in front of the straits which are by you called the Pillars of Heracles; the island was larger than Libya and Asia put together, and was the way to other islands, and from these you might pass to the whole of the opposite continent which surrounded the true ocean; for this sea which is within the Straits of Heracles is only a harbour, having a narrow entrance, but that other is a real sea, and the surrounding land may be most truly called a boundless continent. Now in this island of Atlantis there was a great and wonderful empire which had rule over the whole island and several others, and over parts of the continent, and, furthermore, the men of Atlantis had subjected the parts of Libya within the columns of Heracles as far as Egypt, and of Europe as far as Tyrrhenia. This vast power, gathered into one, endeavoured to subdue at a blow our country and yours and the whole of the region within the straits; and then, Solon, your country shone forth, in the excellence of her virtue and strength, among all mankind. She was pre-eminent in courage and military skill, and was the leader of the Hellenes. And when the rest fell off from her, being compelled to stand alone, after having undergone the very extremity of danger, she defeated and triumphed over the invaders, and preserved from slavery those who were not yet subjugated, and generously liberated all the rest of us who dwell within the pillars. But afterwards there occurred violent earthquakes and floods; and in a single day and night of misfortune all your warlike men in a body sank into the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner disappeared in the depths of the sea. For which reason the sea in those parts is impassable and impenetrable, because there is a shoal of mud in the way; and this was caused by the subsidence of the island."

So there you have it folks, the legend of Atlantis comes from the Egyptians.

I find the idea that while the rest of the world is being destroyed and rebuilding its self over and over the Egyptians survived in their stable Nile Valley watching and recording the history around them to be absolutely fascinating. I'm not sure how yet, but I think it's something I would like to explore and build on in my fantasy world.

*Quotations obtained through Project Gutenburg, text is translated by Benjamin Jowett.


  1. That was wonderful, less in my case perhaps for the Atlantis idea, than for the idea of two individuals, one from an elder ancient world, one from a younger, discussing timeless troubles. Just wonderful.

  2. Agreed. It's a very evocative scene.


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