Eating Like It’s 440 B.C.

Isis, adorned with cow’s horns, is nursing Horus, 611–594 B.C.. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

This post is inspired by a book that has been grabbing a lot of my attention lately. Its author is Herodotus of Halicarnassus, a Greek historian who reported on what he observed and the stories he heard as he explored some of the world known to his 5th-century-B.C. contemporaries (from the Atlantic Ocean in the West to the Indus River in today’s Pakistan in the East, and from the Caucasus Mountains in the North to the Arabian Peninsula in the South). Herodotus’s notes and comments focus especially on the Persians, on the various peoples that made up the Greek civilization and on the Egyptians. Learning from him about their mores and customs is as fascinating as time travel. Especially all that deals with food.

Herodotus was especially fascinated by Egypt and the Egyptians–he stated as much. And he wrote at length about their way of life. He was especially impressed by the population who lived off the land, who were among all Egyptians “the most attached to their past and the most knowledgeable on many subjects.” He noticed that “they purge themselves for three consecutive days each month and maintain their health through laxatives and emetics since they think all diseases are caused by the food they ingest.” Their diet consisted of spelt bread, “barley wine” (beer) and small fish and birds (except for sacred ones).

Although Herodotus doesn’t mention it, modern historians claim that the poor supplemented their diet of bread and beer with onion and garlic (food with medicinal qualities), while the wealthy had access to a more diverse selection of vegetables, including lettuce, radishes, cucumbers, turnips, lotus bulbs, legumes and various melons and gourds. Fruits included dates, figs, grapes and pomegranates.

Husband & Wife Plowing Fields, Tomb of Sennedjem (ca. 1306-1290 B.C.), Dehr al-Madinah, Egypt.

At any rate, what Herodotus does mention is the Egyptians’ reputation for being the healthiest of all peoples in his time, which he attributes also to their consistent weather year around and the absence of seasonal changes.

Incidentally, by the time of Herodotus’s visit, Egypt was no longer the lush land that it had been in its pharaonic glory days (if one believes the frescoes and carvings left in temples and tombs). The desert had crept in and its inhabitants were pretty limited in their choice of meat.

“Their country is not rich with many species but most animals, whether domesticated or in the wild, are sacred to them,” indicates Herodotus. ” The murder of any one of these animals is punishable by death or by a fine determined by the priests in the case of involuntary slaughter. However, whoever kills an ibis or a falcon whether voluntary or involuntary cannot escape death.” The god Thoth was shown in human form with the head of an ibis. The god Horus was shown in human form with the head of an falcon.

Nebamun Hunting Fowl (ca. 1350 B.C.), British Museum, London.

Herodotus makes no mention of four-legged animals in the Egyptian daily diet, although they did raise cattle, sheep and goats. That’s because no such killing would ever occur outside of a religious ritual. Only a bull deemed “pure” by priests according to various criteria would be fit for a sacrifice anywhere in Egypt. Its innards would be burnt, its head would be used as a magnet to attract the gods’ anger and thrown into the Nile, then the supplicants would feast on its roasted flesh. Since the goddess Isis was represented as a woman with a cow’s horns, killing a cow or an “impure” male would call for a death sentence, according to Herodotus. All these animals were considered sacred and cared for until their natural death. Cows would then be thrown into the Nile, males would be buried.

In Herodotus’s time, various gods also ruled different communities across Egypt, influencing local relationships to animals. Sheep were sacrificial victims of choice for Mendes worshippers, whose god shared his appearance with goats. Goats, however, were favored for sacrifices to the god Amoun (the Greek Zeus) who once hid under a ram’s fleece (one ram would be sacrificed every year then mourned and buried). Each sacrifice, of course, translated into a feast (except for the ram’s in Amoun’s temple in Thebes).

Nebamun's Cattle, from the Tomb-chapel of Nebamun, Thebes, Egypt (ca.1350 B.C.), British Museum, London.

We have come a very long way from the days when eating meat, aside from fish and poultry, was an exceptional event. Without suggesting that we adopt the 5th-century-B.C. Egyptian way of life–what with raising all these “sacred” animals who use resources and rot in the river!–I can’t help thinking that that there are some valuable lessons to learn here: respect your fellow living creature; live like your health matters to you; don’t consume more than you need–we may even find that less is more.

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