Image: Isis, adorned with cow’s horns, is nursing Horus, 611-594 B.C., Metropolitan Museum, New York.
This post today 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.
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.