Herodotus and Monumental Hubris


Herodotus (born around 485BC) was a Greek traveler and chronicler of stories. He was quite open to sharing tall tales… intermixed with solid history. In his book “An Account of Egypt” Herodotus recounts his conversation with Egyptian priests. In that account, the priests tell the story of the building of the great pyramids of Giza, especially the pyramid of Cheops (aka Pharaoh Khufu, 2589–2566 BC)  gpgoodshot

According to the priests, Cheops was a heretic and a tyrant.

“Egypt was excellently governed and very prosperous; but his successor Cheops (to continue the account which the priests gave me) brought the country into all sorts of misery. He closed all the temples, then, not content with excluding his subjects from the practice of their religion, compelled them without exception to labor as slaves for his own advantage. Some were forced to drag blocks of stone from the quarries in the Arabian hills to the Nile, where they were ferried across and taken over by others, who hauled them to the Libyan hills. The work went on in three-monthly shifts, a hundred thousand men in a shift. It took ten years of this oppressive slave-labor to build the track along which the blocks were hauled– a work, in my opinion, of hardly less magnitude than the pyramid itself, for it is five furlongs in length, sixty feet wide, forty-eight feet high at its highest point, and constructed of polished stone blocks decorated with carvings of animals.”

The story goes on as far as the extravagance of the pyramid for his own sepulchre and pride. According to the priests, he even had his daughter prostitute herself to get more blocks of stone for the pyramid. (Yes, this sounds more than a bit apocryphal… though not impossible.) According to Herodotus, between the reign of Cheops and his son, the temples were closed for 106 years. This is most likely an exaggeration, but regardless suggests a great audacity and lack of concern for the people. The Egyptians of old were highly religious. This religion manifested itself in concerns for the future, and the sacrificial system and rituals maintained by the priests gave the people a sense of hope and control over what lay ahead. The shutting down of the temples, and shifting of all forms of labors to building a necropolis to himself, arguably suggests that Cheops saw himself more than simply being part of the divine cycle of Egyptian theology. He was, rather, above and more important than the pantheon. It also suggests that his own well-being, especially in the afterlife, was more important than the well-being of the entire population of Egypt. There has been a disagreement as to whether the pyramids were built by slaves or by freemen. The story of Herodotus suggests a mediated position. The workers were commonly not slaves in a legal sense, but served as slaves in a practical sense as conscripts.

Herodotus goes on to speak of Cheops and his son Chephren:

“The Egyptians can hardly bring themselves to mention the names of Cheops and Chephren, so great is their hatred of them; they even call the pyramids after Philitis, a shepherd who… fed his flocks in the neighborhood. The next king of Egypt after Chephren was Mycerinus, the son of Cheops. Mycerinus, reversing his father’s policy of which he did not approve, reopened the temples and allowed his subjects, who had been brought into such abject slavery, to resume the practice of their religion and their normal work. Of all kings who ruled in Egypt he had the greatest reputation for justice in the decision of legal causes, and for this the Egyptians give him higher praise than any other monarch; for apart from the general equity of his judgments, he used to compensate out of his own property any man who was dissatisfied with the result of his suit, and so leave him with nothing to complain of…”

Diodorus Siculus (90-30BC) was a Sicilian historian who added to the stories of monuments in Egypt.

“It is generally agreed that these monuments [the pyramids] far surpass all other constructions in Egypt, not only in their massiveness and cost but also in the skill displayed by their builders. And they say that the architects of the monuments are more deserving of admiration than the kings who furnished the means for their execution; for in bringing their plans to completion the former called upon their individual souls and their zeal for honor, but the latter only used the wealth which they had inherited and the grievous toil of other men.”

There is something rather refreshing in the Egyptians’ attitude. Despite granting divinity to their rulers (which is quite a thing to grant), they found ways to undermine their leaders’ hubris. For Cheops and Chephren future leaders avoided using their names, and referred to their pyramids by the shepherd who lived in the vicinity. They also noted that the architects and the workers were more deserving of praise than those that sought praise by forcing others to design and build these structures for themselves. For Pharaoh Mycerinus, who also had a (smaller) pyramid built for himself, he is given praise two millennia later, not for his monuments, but for his compassion and justice for his people.

It is rather a shame that we lack such wisdom today. Even in Christian circles (or perhaps ESPECIALLY in Christian circles) we commonly feed the hubris of those who seek to build monuments to their own gods… themselves.

In line with that, I will offer two bits of literature

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Stature Fragment of Ramesses II in the British Museum

on Ozymandias (Ramses II). The first is Diodorus (again), and the second is the poem Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Ten stades from the first tombs… in which, according to tradition are buried the concubines of Zeus, stands a monument of the king known as Osymandyas… beside the entrance are three statues, each of a single block of black stone from Syene, of which one, that is seated, is the largest of any in Egypt, the foot measuring over seven cubits, while the other two at the knees of this, the one on the right and the other on the left, daughter and mother respectively, are smaller than the one first mentioned. And it is not merely for its size that this work merits approbation, but it is also marvelous by reason of its artistic quality and excellent because of the nature of the stone, since in a block of so great a size there is not a single crack or blemish to be seen. The inscription upon it runs: “King of Kings am I, Osymandyas. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.”

Ozymandias
I met a traveler from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

<The quotes, except for the poem by Shelley were from Herodotus and Diodorus, as quoted by Leonard Cottrell, The Horizon Book of Lost Worlds, 1962, starting around page 288.>

 

 

 

 

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