An interesting character named Sesostris made an appearance in the work of Herodotus (490-425/420 BCE), who is considered to be the father of the history genre and profession. Even though Herodotus was a historian, his work was thoroughly laced with folklore and mythology, and he often made no attempt to separate sober fact from theatrical embellishment. As such, fair warning is in order—this article is not about what actually occurred in ancient Egypt. Instead, this article takes a look at the bizarre piece of folklore that Herodotus recorded about the semi-mythical pharaoh, Sesostris.
Modern historians think that Herodotus’ Sesostris was an exaggerated character that combined, under one name, the feats of several historical Twelfth Dynasty (roughly 20th-18th century BCE) pharaohs of Egypt, particularly Senusret (or Senwosret) I and II, as well as Ramses II. Herodotus, or the sources he drew upon, collected the accomplishments of theses pharaohs under the broad character of Sesostris, claiming that this mythical man was an expansionist king who successfully conquered lands from Ethiopia in the south, to the borderlands of the Thracian and Scythian territory in the north.
The most shocking story about Sesostris came after Herodotus finished recording the conquests of this fictitious king. As the tale goes, Sesostris was returning to Egypt after years of continuous war. He was met by his brother at the edge of the Nile Delta, at a place called Daphne, near the city of Pelusium. This brother hosted a banquet for Sesostris, and also invited Sesostris’ wife, as well as two of the pharaoh’s six sons, to attend the event. This brother, however, was not looking to celebrate—he had tasted power as the governor of Egypt while the pharaoh was away, and did not want to relinquish control back to Sesostris. Therefore, the brother had firewood piled around the venue where the banquet was being hosted and set fire to the place while Sesostris was inside.
Sesostris had not expected such treachery from his brother and soon found himself surrounded by a wall of flames. With the flames closing in, Sesostris’ wife proposed an unthinkable solution. She calmly explained that she and Sesostris could easily escape the moat of fire by simply using their two sons who were present at the banquet as a bridge over the deadly heat. Sesostris was apparently willing to sacrifice his children to save himself and his wife. According to the grim tale, the royal couple nonchalantly used the bodies of their sons as a way to escape the trap, leaving the two princes to burn to death in the fire.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Pyramids of Giza and circular flames, both [Public Domain] via Pixabay.com).
- From The Histories by Herodotus (Book II), translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola (Penguin Classics, 2002).