Herodotus is known as the father of history, but could just as easily be called the father of the travel channel. Herodotus’s account of Egypt reads like a proto-tourist-guide created without the benefit of an editor or fact-checker.

Herodotus’s account opens with a description (that is pretty much the plot to a Paul Auster novel) of the efforts of the Egyptian king Psammetichos to determine the first civilization by depriving newborns of all human interaction and observing what language they naturally speak. Having taken psychology 101 at a small university in South-central Kansas I feel more than qualified to say that this would not, in fact, lead to the discovery that the Phrygians were the first people (nor a pre-Tower of Babel original language as in Auster), but is, in fact, child abuse.

Herodotus is a complete tourist who’s thrilled to report back to you what he’s seen. And boy howdy what a whirlwind it’s been. He’s here to tell you that Egyptians are:

opposite to other men in almost all matters: for among them the women frequent the market and carry on trade, while the men remain at home and weave; and whereas others weave pushing the woof upwards, the Egyptians push it downwards: the men carry their burdens upon their heads and the women upon their shoulders: the women make water standing up and the men crouching down

In addition to that bit of secondhand TMI there are other interesting revelations about flying snakes:

its form is like that of the watersnake; and it has wings not feathered but most nearly resembling the wings of the bat.

Birds that may or may not exist:

There is also another sacred bird called the phoenix which I did not myself see except in painting, for in truth he comes to them very rarely, at intervals, as the people of Heliopolis say, of five hundred years;

And an entertaining if misleading description of the Hippo:

he is four-footed, cloven-hoofed like an ox, flat-nosed, with a mane like a horse and showing teeth like tusks, with a tail and voice like a horse and in size as large as the largest ox; and his hide is so exceedingly thick that when it has been dried shafts of javelins are made of it

Throughout his account Herodotus evinces himself an Egypt fanboy. His fanboyishness leads him to make some interesting claims. For example, Herodotus supports the claim that the Greek gods’ names all came from Egypt:

the naming of almost all the gods has come to Hellas from Egypt

And Homer’s Odyssey wasn’t written by Homer, but he heard it from some Egyptians who knew it from the first-hand account of Menelaos (King of Sparta):

the “Cyprian Epic” was not written by Homer but by some other man

Oh, and also, forget Pythagoras:

and I think that thus the art of geometry was found out and afterwards came into Hellas also

And so on:

Egyptians were the first of men who made solemn assemblies and processions and approaches to the temples

And so forth:

Amasis too who established the law that every year each one of the Egyptians should declare to the ruler of his district, from what source he got his livelihood, and if any man did not do this or did not make declaration of an honest way of living, he should be punished with death. Now Solon the Athenian received from Egypt this law and had it enacted for the Athenians, and they have continued to observe it, since it is a law with which none can find fault.

I don’t get the impression that Herodotus is a fabulist. Herodotus, being a single individual, is working from the information he’s given and observations he can make by himself. Some of his observations are astute. There is a particularly canny passage about the flow of the Nile based on Herodotus’s observations of the regional topography. The descriptions of mummification seem much the same as the descriptions I’ve seen in modern sources. There are some good descriptions real, actual animals: crocodiles, ibis, etc. Basically, everything Herodotus saw seemed reasonable and sane, and everything he was told seemed like his guides were kind of fucking with him.

This is the start of the history of Western civilization according to the Harvard classics collection. It’s unique in that it was committed to writing contemporaneously. This work was an early move away from an oral tradition. For that reason it is uniquely rigorous – flawed, but constrained in the flaws in makes. The first stumbling of what was to become what we understand as history. I can conclude that the advent of Wikipedia has been a boon in terms of knowing what hippos look like.