The Greek historian, Herodotus, was very interested in Egypt. With his characteristic sense of fascination, he documented (with varying accuracy) his observations about Egypt’s people, culture and geography—especially the Nile River—and took notes on Egyptian religion, despite his clearly-stated desire to stay away from that subject. One of the more peculiar religious ceremonies that Herodotus claimed to have witnessed during his travels in Egypt occurred in the Nile Delta city of Papremis.
No one knows exactly where in the Nile River Delta the city of Papremis was located, but in Herodotus’ time, the city housed an important temple to a war god. Herodotus identified the temples’ patron deity as the Greek god of war, Ares, but it is more probable that the temple belonged to Horus, or some other Egyptian warrior god.
Herodotus wrote that on the day before an important ceremony, an image (probably a statue) of the god had to be moved from the temple complex to another sacred building. It was this journey of the sacred image, and the ceremony surrounding it in Papremis, that so bewildered Herotodus.
The transference of the god’s image from the temple to the sacred building was in no way a usual procession. Bystanders did not simply crowd the street to watch the priests carry their idol from building to building. No, Papremis housed the temple of a war god, and as such, there was only one proper way to give their sacred image a proper send off—an elaborate ceremonial battle.
Herodotus wrote that when it was time for the idol to be moved from the temple to the other building, the priests would arm themselves with clubs. Thus arrayed for battle, the idol was moved from the temple under priestly-armed escort. Outside, filling the streets, however, was a gigantic mob blocking the way of the priests. Herodotus estimated that the mob must have been over a thousand men strong, and they, too, carried clubs.
What then ensued was a spectacular battle between the priests (and other defenders of the sacred image) and the armed mob blocking the way to the secondary religious building. Herodotus ended his description of the bizarre scene with the onset of battle—he did not mention whether the image reached its destination, or what happened on the return-trip.
Herodotus did question the Egyptians about the odd display he witnessed at Papremis and even received an explanation as to why the city hosted such a battle. Apparently, the Greek historian was told that the battle commemorated a myth in which the city’s patron god violently barged into a temple to fulfill his carnal lust with a woman residing inside—typical mythological stuff. Nevertheless, in honor of that war god, the people of Papremis would reenact the myth’s battle-scene by fighting around the sacred image from the temple.
Despite this explanation, and an assurance from the Egyptians that no one was killed in the ceremonial battle at Papremis, Herodotus still maintained his belief that the event caused many deaths and many more injuries.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.