Herodotus on the Flooding of the Nile

I haven’t written in a while, but I hope to be able to post more often in the coming year. Most of my posts will probably be like this one: a (hopefully) humorous and slightly informative blurb about something in my reading or research that I find amusing or curious. I’ve been working on Herodotus since last semester, and have read a sizable chunk of Book 1 in the original; this semester, I’m reading Book 2 for my Greek seminar.

One of the more amusing bits of Herodotus Book 2 is his description of Egypt and the Nile, particularly all the contemporary theories on why the Nile floods every year.

He describes what he thinks are a few preposterous theories about why it floods, and then shares his own theory.

Theory #1 is that somehow the winds blow the water around, pushing it down such that it floods the Nile valley. This is silly because the Nile doesn’t seem to have winds blowing off it, and other rivers do not experience this sort of thing at all.

Theory #2 is that Oceanus, the great river that flows all around the world somehow causes the Nile to flood. Herodotus does not elaborate on how that might be possible.

Theory #3 (and the silliest of all the theories, according to Herodotus) is that it is caused by melting snow that comes down from the lands in the South. Herodotus thinks this is ridiculous because the land to the south of Egypt are blazing hot, and how could it possibly snow in places that are even hotter than Egypt? Sounds absurd, doesn’t it?

Herodotus’ own theory about the flooding in the Nile probably seems perfectly plausible, since the logic of theory #2 is clearly unsound. His theory is that the sun gets blown off course by storms, and travels further inland and sucks up all of the water into itself. And then, when it has sucked up all the water from the ground, when it gets back onto its usual course, it dumps all the water into the Nile, causing it to flood.

This is probably a pretty good vignette for Herodotean methods of inquiry, and reminds us all why we don’t read Herodotus for accurate information. Herodotus is perfectly correct about many things, but he has become notorious for the things he was dead wrong about.

We read Herodotus as an artifact of his culture, and subject everything he wrote to strict scrutiny whenever possible, whether it be archaeological evidence or written evidence from inscriptions or other authors. Despite being useless, as you might think, it reveals far deeper truths about Greek culture and literature than meets the eye, even though the surface content often seems dubious. We can learn more about Greek culture from the details, and plenty about the Greek language from the writing and the style. We learn far more than Herodotus ever imagined, I think.



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