In ancient Greek mythology and The Histories of Herodotus, Ethiopia was described as a truly special and unique place. The land was favored by the Greek gods—the poet, Homer, repeatedly wrote of Poseidon visiting Ethiopia within the pages of The Odyssey. Historians consider the Ethiopians of ancient Greek mythology and legend to be largely exaggerated, and possibly entirely fictitious, but the descriptions of these ancient Ethiopians (especially by Herodotus) were surprisingly vivid and intriguing.
First of all, the geographical description of ‘Ethiopia’ mentioned by Herodotus does not seem to point to the modern nation of Ethiopia. If the mythological Ethiopians of ancient Greek legend were based on a real civilization, historians hypothesize the likeliest bet would be a community living in, or south of, the Numidian Kush Kingdom near Libya. Also, one of the more popular stories about these ancient Ethiopians, the legend about the Ethiopian Table of the Sun, is often described as taking place in the city Meroë (in modern-day Sudan), where a temple to a lion-god, Apedemek, has been discovered.
Herodotus recorded the story about the Table of the Sun in book three of his history. According to Herodotus, after Cambyses II of Persia subjugated Egypt, he set his sight on Ethiopia. As the first step of his campaign, Cambyses sent spies to investigate the lands of Ethiopia and its people—in particular, they were told to investigate the rumored Table of the Sun. As the spies set out on their journey, all they knew about the Ethiopian Table of the Sun was rumor and folklore. They had heard that in a particular field in Ethiopia, a variety of edible meats always appeared, without fail, to feed the poor and needy that could not afford food in the market. According to the rumors, the food was a gift from the gods, or the earth, itself. With this information, the spies set off for Ethiopia.
Cambyses’ agents found more than they bargained for in Ethiopia. The Ethiopians Herodotus described were thought to be the tallest and most beautiful people in the known world. On average, they could apparently live to one hundred twenty years of age, a feat attributed to their water source, which oddly smelled like violets and gave off a sheen like oil. Furthermore, the Ethiopians were unimaginably wealthy. The spies supposedly saw that the local prison chains were constructed from gold, and dead Ethiopians were buried in clear, crystal coffins. To top it off, when the spies (posing as diplomats) gave a gift of Persian luxuries to the king of Ethiopia, the king was blatantly unimpressed with what Persia had to offer. He even had the gall to warn Cambyses against invading Ethiopia. Surprisingly, of all the things that the spies supposedly found in Ethiopia, the most mundane of them all was the answer to the mystery of the Table of the Sun. The spies discovered that Ethiopian magistrates boiled meat each night and laid out all the food in the field before the first light of morning.
According to Herodotus, when Cambyses heard of Ethiopia’s wealth and cockiness, he immediately set out on an invasion. He pressed out from Egypt toward Libya, but ran into trouble when he reached the Siwah Oasis, near the modern border between Egypt and Libya. Apparently, logistical problems led to famine in Cambyses’ army (and, allegedly, cannibalism), ultimately causing the Persians to abandon their campaign against Ethiopia.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
- The Odyssey by Homer, translated by E. V. Rieu and edited by D. C. H. Rieu. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.