Amasis: Egypt in the Timaeus & Critias
In the first place, then, [Solon] went to Egypt, and lived, as he himself says,
“Where Nile pours forth his floods, near the Canobic shore.”
He also spent some time in studies with Psenophis of Heliopolis and Sonchis of Saïs, who were very learned priests. From these, as Plato says,45 he heard the story of the lost Atlantis, and tried to introduce it in a poetical form to the Greeks.
– Plutarch, Parallel Lives, s.v. “The Life of Solon” [26.1]. (1)
Eudoxos, they say, received instruction from Chonouphis of Memphis, Solon from Sonchis of Saïs, and Pythagoras from Oinouphis of Heliopolis.
– Plutarch, Moralia, s.v. “On Isis & Osiris” [10.1]. (2)
Solon, however, met at Sais with a priest called Pateneit; but at Heliopolis, with a priest called Ochlapi; and at Sebennytus, with one whose name was Ethimon, as we learn from the histories of the Egyptians.
– Proclus Lycaeus, Proclus on the Timaeus of Plato. (3)
In the Timaeus & Critias, Plato appeals to the authority of Solon to lend a sheen of believability to his account of an Egyptian-derived tale. Within the text, Solon is informed of the great deeds of his distant Athenian forebears by a college of Egyptian priests at Saïs [Tim. 21e; Crit. 108d, 110a], with particular input from the most senior priest present [Tim. 22b]. Though Plato only mentions Solon in Saïs, and does not record the name of any of the priests, later writers, as shown above, present Solon as having consulted priests at a number of sites and name the senior Saïte priest as either Sonchis or Pateneit. As luck would have it, the name “Pateneit” (P3-di-Nt4) does appear during the reign of Amasis on an ushabti. This figure, Padineith5 or Pedineith6, was the son of Psamtik, a court dignitary, and Tadubaste7, and served as the major-domo to the God’s Wife of Amun Ankhnesneferibre. Ankhnesneferibre was the daughter of Psamtik II & sister of the deposed pharaoh Wahibre and it is likely that Padineith was installed by Amasis as a means to regulate & control Ankhnesneferibre’s activities, as Barbara Watterson5 suggests. He died in around 545 BC6 and was succeeded by his son Shoshenq, who was likely named in honour of his predecessor Shoshenq son of Harsiese8, who served during the early years of Ankhnesneferibre’s long reign (she held the position from 586 BC until the Persian overthrow of Psamtik III in 525 BC9). However, Padineith was based not in Saïs but Thebes and did not serve as a priest. Nonetheless, it is possible to speculate that the names Pateneit and Sonchis (perhaps a contraction of Sesonchis, i.e. Shoshenq) were associated with legends about Solon’s visit to Egypt in antiquity.
Ankhnesneferibre: sorry folks, Pateneit’s with her in Thebes.fig1
The two accounts do, however, present another discrepancy in their treatment of the story of Atlantis. Both the development of Ur-Athens [Tim. 23e] & the Atlantis war [Crit. 108e, 111a] are dated to 9,000 years before Solon’s visit, despite the passage of time at Athens [Crit. 112c] and of “many generations” in Atlantis [Crit. 114c, 120d], which was allotted to Poseidon simultaneously to Athena & Hephaestus being given Athens [Crit. 113c, cf. 109c].
Additionally, the Timaeus implies that the ancient Athenian civilisation thrived for more than a millennium: according to the Saïte priest, “the duration of our civilization as set down in our sacred writings is 8000 years,” whereas the paleo-Athenians “lived 9000 years ago” [Tim. 23e]. That the Egyptians were among the peoples liberated by the Athenians from the threat from the ocean is hinted at in Tim. 25c, wherein the priest states that “all the rest of us who dwell within the bounds of Heracles it ungrudgingly set free.” The existence of Egypt at the time of the conflict is also implied by 25b, which states that the Atlantean confederation held sway over “?????? ??? ????? ????? ???? ????????.” In the Critias, however, 9000 years is the span of time which elapsed between the war and Solon’s visit to Egypt [108e], and from the disaster which befell Athens & Atlantis [111a-b]. Effectively, the 1000 year gap between the foundations of Athenian & Egyptian society is developed to address contemporary criticisms of Plato’s ideal state which, as reported by Proclus Lycaeus3, quoting the late-4th century Platonist Crantor of Soli, revolved around the suggestion that he derived much of his material from Egyptian prototypes. The Timaeus–Critias is this a rebuttal, citing Egyptian authority for the pre-eminence of Athens.
According to Proclus [1.75-76]: –
With respect to the whole of this narration about the Atlantics, some say, that it is a mere history, which was the opinion of Crantor, the first interpreter of Plato, who says, that Plato was derided by those of his time, as not being the inventor of the Republic, but transcribing what the Egyptians had written on this subject; and that he so far regards what is said by these deriders as to refer to the Egyptians this history about the Athenians and Atlantics, and to believe that the Athenians once lived conformably to this polity.
Isocrates [Busiris10 15] says, of the mythical pharaoh Busiris: “he divided [the Egyptians] into classes: some he appointed to priestly services, others he turned to the arts and crafts, and others he forced to practise the arts of war.” Herodotus11 [2.164 ff.] also outlines the elaborate caste structure employed by the Egyptians: –
The Egyptians are divided into seven distinct classes: these are, the priests, the warriors, the cowherds, the swineherds, the tradesmen, the interpreters, and the boatmen. Their titles indicate their occupations. The warriors consist of Hermotybians and Calasirians, who come from different cantons [i.e. nomes], the whole of Egypt being parcelled out into districts bearing this name.
The age of Egypt, given as 8,000 years [Tim. 23e] is this arbitrary and is to be taken with a pinch of salt: Plato himself sees fit to ignore it in the Laws12 [2.656e-657a]. Herodotus [2.142], calculating on the basis of the number of kings related to him by the Egyptians, estimated the length of Egyptian civilisation at 11,340 years between the first human ruler and a period just before the rise of the 26th Dynasty. Additionally, he cites Egyptian authorities placing the era of the gods prior to the rise of the kings: the reign of “Dionysus,” i.e. Osiris, one of the third generation of gods (the “children of the twelve”) was 15,000 years before Amasis [2.145], with “Heracles,” one of the twelve, 2,000 years earlier [2.43]. Before him was the floruit of Pan and the other members of the eight (Ogdoad) [2.145]. The last god to rule over Egypt was “Orus”/”Apollo” (i.e. Horus), who overthrew “Typhon”/Seth [2.144]. As part of this discussion, Herodotus explains that both his predecessor Hecataeus of Miletus & himself had been gently mocked by the Egyptians in the same manner as Solon in the dialogues [2.143, cf. Tim. 22b]. There was also a fashion for exalting Egypt during Plato’s century and claiming Egyptian origins for Greek founding heroes. Alan Cameron13 argues that Plato – and Diodorus Siculus14 a [5.57.2] – represented a counter-narrative to the more common version which exalted Egyptian antiquity. Hecataeus of Abdera, writing shortly after the Macedonian Lagid dynasty assumed power in Egypt, was potentially “consciously contradicting Plato” in his statement of Cecrops’ Saïte origin. Hecataeus, according to Diodorus, also derived the Athenian caste system from an Egyptian precedent [1.28.4-5]. In short, Plato is using Egyptian authority whilst simultaneously subverting it for his own ends. His account of an Egyptian preservation of intimate knowledge of ancient Athens’ exploits is quite out of character for a people whose concern about goings on in foreign lands was somewhere on the scale between patchy and nonexistent.
It is also highly unlikely that Plato’s description of the Egyptian priest’s conversation with Solon derives from reality. Obviously, Greek authors had a tendency of ascribing appropriate speeches to characters depicted historically in their work, though there are other factors which negate the possibility. For example, it is worth noting that the names Leucippe & Elasippus contain forms of ?????, the Greek term for “horse.” The earliest evidence for Egyptian use of horses dates to the Middle Kingdom15, which would tend to place the Atlantis texts relatively late.
Another factor which seems to mitigate against an Egyptian origin for the story is the Egyptian priest’s obliging placement of his country & its people within a Greek conception of geography: in the discussion of the origins of the use of shields & spears, the priest states that “we [i.e. the Egyptians] were the first of the peoples of Asia to adopt these weapons” [Tim. 24b – Jowett16 translates the passage “a style of equipment which the goddess taught of Asiatics first to us”]. This notion that the Egyptians were an Asiatic people would have surely been anathema to them: to the Egyptians, the Asiatics or ‘Aamu17 18 were the peoples who lived to the north-east of Egypt and were held by the Egyptians in a particularly low regard19.
All in all, it is highly unlikely that the Egyptians, not noted for their keen interest in ethnography & the precise recollection of the history of states outside of Egypt, would have so lovingly conserved knowledge of the origins of their own customs far across the “great green” in Athens.
aDiodorus’ statement that Athenians founded Sais before the flood led to their collective amnesia on the subject could surely only be derived from Plato’s dialogues.
1Plutarch (c.100 AD), translated by Perrin, Bernadotte (1914). Parallel Lives, s.v. “The Life of Solon”
2Plutarch (c.100 AD), translated by Babbitt, Frank Cole (1936). Moralia, s.v. “On Isis & Osiris”
3Proclus Lycaeus (mid-5th century AD), translated by Taylor, Thomas (1820). Proclus on the Timaeus of Plato
4Mosher, Malcolm (1990). The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead in the Late Period: A Study of Revisions Evident in Evolving Vignettes & the Possible Chronological or Geographical Implications for Differing Versions of Vignettes. Vol. 1
5Watterson, Barbara (2013). Women in Ancient Egypt
6Hahn, Robert (2012). Proportions & Numbers in Anaximander & Early Greek Thought, in Couprie, Dirk L.; Hahn, Robert & Naddaf, Gerard (2012). Anaximander in Context: New Studies in the Origins of Greek Philosophy
7Griffith, F. Ll. (1916). A Tourist’s Collection of Fifty Years Ago, in Gardiner, Alan H. et al (1916). The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology. Vol. III
8Boardman, John (1984). The Cambridge Ancient History. Plates to Vol. 3
9Ayad, Mariam F. (2009). God’s Wife, God’s Servant: The God’s Wife of Amun (c.740–525 BC) [link]
10Isocrates (early 4th century BC), translated by Norlin, George (1980). Isocrates with an English Translation in Three Volumes, s.v. “Busiris”
11Herodotus (c.440 BC), translated by Rawlinson, George; Rawlinson, Henry C. & Wilkinson, John G. (1858-1860). The History of Herodotus
12Plato (c.360 BC), translated by Bury, R.G. (1967-1968). Plato in 12 Volumes. Vols. 10 & 11, s.v. “Laws”
13Cameron, Alan (1983). Crantor & Posidonius on Atlantis
14Diodorus Siculus (60-30 BC), translated by Oldfather, C. H. et al (1933-1967). Bibliotheca historica
15Booth, Charlotte (2005). The Hyksos Period in Egypt
16Plato (c.360 BC), translated by Jowett, Benjamin (1871). The Dialogues of Plato. Vol. III, s.v. “Timaeus”
17David, Ann Rosalie (1998). A Handbook to Life in Ancient Egypt
18Aruz, Joan; Graff, Sarah B. & Rakic, Yelena (2013). Cultures in Contact: From Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean in the Second Millennium BC
19Silverman, David P. (2003). Ancient Egypt
fig1Campana, John (2004). A statue of the final Egyptian God’s Wife of Amun at Thebes, Ankhenesneferibre, of the 26th Saite dynasty. She was the daughter of the 26th dynasty Saite pharaoh: Psamtik II. The statue is now located in the Nubian Museum of Aswan in southern Egypt. Its catalogue number was CG42205.
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