Dispelling the myth – Herodotus, Cambyses, and Egyptian religion #1

The religious beliefs and practices of ancient Egypt during the first Persian occupation have provided the basis for controversy and discussion among scholars. The Achaemenid king Cambyses, who conquered the country in 525BC, attracted the scrutiny of the ancient historian Herodotus, earning a place in Histories as the murderer of the sacred Apis bull and a disregarder of the native religious beliefs and practices. These claims are now widely believed to be fallacy, and when examining the evidence available from the 27th Dynasty, not only is it possible to understand why the claims are doubted, but it is also evident that many of the native beliefs and practices were continued, respected and even elevated.

Four artefacts which exemplify the religious beliefs and practices of the first Persian period also sustain this theory – the statue and inscription of Udjahorresnet which resides in the Vatican Museum (cat. 22690), a bronze votive figure of the Apis bull (W101) from the Swansea Egypt Centre collection, a statuette of the goddess Isis nursing the child Horus (MMA 04.2.443) housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a stele of the Persian period which was found during the test excavations of the National Museums of Scotland Saqqara Project.

This post will focus on the first of these artefacts – the statue and inscription of Udjahorresnet.

Cat. 22690 Naophorous statue of Udjahorresnet (Vatican Museum online collection).

The biographical inscription on the naophorous statue of Udjahorresnet, courtier, chief physician and priest of Neith under Cambyses, is one of the most important texts of the first Persian period as it is the only lengthy biography of the time that is known. Udjahorresnet served as a naval officer at the end of the preceding Saite Dynasty, and survived into the reign of the second Achaemenid king, Darius I, allowing him to bear witness to the impact of this period of foreign rule on the religious beliefs and practices of Egypt. During the Late Period, statues of this kind were placed within temples by members of the elite, to ensure that the deceased owner received a share of the offerings brought to the temple. The statue of Udjahorresnet was placed within the temple of Neith at Sais and consequently much of the inscription refers to the goddess, although the naos contains a figure of the god Osiris-hmAg, the form of Osiris worshipped at Sais and closely connected to the cult of Neith. Six lines of text on the roof and front of the naos itself are dedicated to Osiris, and utilise the traditional Htp-dj-nsw offering formula which was popular from the Old Kingdom onwards, although it underwent some changes through time. This part of the inscription also reveals the symbolism of the naophorous statue: ‘O Osiris, lord of eternity! The chief physician, Udjahorresnet has placed his arms about you as protection’. The deceased holds the shrine containing Osiris, thus portraying himself in a protective role.

Particularly noteworthy is the way in which the remaining lines of the inscription reveal information regarding some of the religious beliefs and practices of the time, and the attitudes of Cambyses and Darius I towards them. In lines 7 to 15, inscribed under the right arm, Neith is referred to as ‘the mother of god’ and ‘the mother who bore Re and inaugurated birth when birth had not yet been’. It is quite clear that at this time in Sais, the warrior goddess was venerated in her role as creator goddess, the mother of Re, a role traditionally held by the goddess Nut. Neith is known from the pre-dynastic period; however, during the Saite Period her importance rose significantly. She is portrayed wearing the Red Crown, symbolic of Lower Egypt, and her chief cult centre was at Sais, the seat of the Saite kings, which perhaps explains why the goddess became so popular during this period. She replaced Amun-Re as the state deity and head of the gods, and enlargement of her temple continued throughout the 26th Dynasty.

The main theme of the inscription is an autobiographical proclamation of good deeds carried out by Udjahorresnet – he describes how Cambyses ordered the removal of squatters from the temple of Neith, cleansed the temple and made offerings to Neith and the other deities, restoring the temple ‘as it had been before’ after Udjahorresnet had petitioned to him. This part of the inscription is written in the classic Konigsnovelle narrative form, in which the king is presented as ‘the agent of the divine’, bringing about order over chaos.

The inscription also relates that Cambyses, in person, made a ‘great prostration’ and offering to Neith ‘as every king had done’, and also made offerings to Osiris. It is evident that Cambyses respected and upheld the traditional religious beliefs and practices, so much so that he partook in the customs himself to ensure that he could successfully assume the role of pharaoh. Similarly, the second Persian pharaoh, Darius I, also enabled these traditional customs to remain in place – Udjahorresnet describes how Darius ordered him to restore the House of Life because ‘he knew the worth of this guild in making live all that are sick, in making endure forever the names of all the gods, their temples, their offerings, and the conduct of their festivals’. From this, it is evident that Darius knew the importance of the traditional beliefs and practices, and decided to respect them and allow them to continue throughout his rule.

The inscription was intended to ensure that Udjahorresnet would receive a share of the temple offerings in order to live on in the afterlife, and so caution must be exercised when attempting to use it as ‘evidence’ for the religious practices of the time. Udjahorresnet would have wanted to portray himself in the best possible light, emphasising his good deeds in order to gain favour from the gods – there was no place for negativity on statues such as his. Scholars have also noted an apologetic tone to the inscription, suggesting that Udjahorresnet is apologising for collaborating with the foreign rulers. In light of these points, the theory that this inscription acts as a kind of ‘propaganda’ cannot be dismissed and, consequently, there is no certainty that it accurately portrays the attitudes of Cambyses and Darius towards the Egyptian religious beliefs and practices. Furthermore, while the inscription may reveal details of the state of the religious affairs during the reigns of the two kings, it focuses on the royal and elite sphere of Sais only, and so in order to gain a more complete picture of Egypt during the first Persian period, other artefacts must be examined.

Next week: the bronze votive figure of the Apis bull (W101) from the Swansea Egypt Centre collection.


David, Rosalie. 2002. Religion and Magic in Ancient Egypt. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Dillery, John. 2005. “Cambyses and the Egyptian Chaosbeschreibung Tradition.” Classical Quarterly 55.2: 387–406.

Gardiner, Alan. 1926. Egyptian Grammar: Being an Introduction to the Study of Hieroglyphs. 3rd ed.,Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lesko, Barbara. 1999. The Great Goddesses of Egypt. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Lichtheim, Miriam. 1980. Ancient Egyptian Literature Volume III: The Late Period.Berkeley andLos Angeles: University of California Press Ltd.

Lloyd, Alan. 1982. “The Inscription of Udjahorresnet: A Collaborator’s Testament.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 68: 166-180.

Marincola, John, ed. 1996. Herodotus: The Histories. Translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Myśliwiec, Karol. 2000. The Twilight of Ancient Egypt: First Millennium B.C.E. Translated by David Lorton. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Parkinson, Richard. 1991. Voices from Ancient Egypt: an anthology of Middle Kingdom writings. London: British Museum Press.

Pinch, Geraldine. 2002. Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robins, Gay. 1997. The Art of Ancient Egypt. London: British Museum Press.

Simpson, William Kelly. 1982. “Egyptian Sculpture and Two-Dimensional Representation as Propaganda.” Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 68: 266-271.

Wilkinson, Richard. 2003. The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt. London: Thames and Hudson.

5 comments on “Dispelling the myth – Herodotus, Cambyses, and Egyptian religion #1

  1. Interesting artifact, but really this does not provide grounds to ‘disprove’ Herodotus. There was a now-discredited movement among some circles in the 20th century to criticize Herodotus whenever possible, but this flawed approach is now out of date and Herodotus has proved his worth time and time again. Often it is the misinterpretations of the critics that are wrong rather than Herodotus. As for why a Persian ruler would respect Neith, well any ANE archaeologist knows that Neith above all was a Levantine and Near Eastern goddess, and was always associated with the goddesses of the Levant even by the Egyptians. Anat/Ishtar/Astarte and Neith were almost interchangeable, so this inscription does not make a case that can be extrapolated to the Persians ruler’s attitude towards all Egyptian religion.

    • Thank you for your informative comment.

      Firstly, I am not suggesting that this artefact ALONE disproves Herodotus – this is just one of four artefacts that I have focused on. This is only part 1 – there is more to come.

      Secondly, I’m not an ‘Herodotus basher’ – his work is full of invaluable information and certainly should not be disregarded.

      • Well I am sorry I appeared rude but I certainly think its important to be aware of the issues regarding erroneous attitudes towards Herodotus. Margaret Murray was attacking his critics 60 years ago. They are gone but Herodotus lives on.

      • No, I appreciate your comments 🙂 The main reason I started this blog was to attract debate and discussion. I’m not saying for one minute that my conclusions will be right – after all, within the field of Egyptology, there are very few instances when any of us can be one hundred percent sure that we are right.

        And I agree with what you say about Herodotus – far too many people are quick to dismiss him.

  2. […] of the Late Period official, Udjahorresnet, a figure you will be familiar with if you have read my earlier posts about the Persian king, Cambyses, and the Apis bull. Having studied photographs of this statue and its inscriptions many times, I didn’t expect […]

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