Ancient Egypt

Seven Influences of Ancient Egypt on Greek Civilization

Ancient Egypt significantly influenced Greek civilization in art, architecture, religion, and philosophy, enriching Greek culture and knowledge.

influence of ancient egypt on ancient greece

Ancient Greece is frequently hailed as the birthplace of modern civilization, a pivotal era where foundational institutions and inventions took root. However, this article delves deeper into history, shining a spotlight on how ancient Egypt profoundly shaped Greek culture. We’ll explore the myriad of influences, from art and religion to philosophy, mythology, and societal structures, tracing the threads of Egyptian impact on the Greek world.

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Tracing the influence of ancient Egypt on Greece takes us to the very roots of their mythologies. A striking parallel emerges when we compare their cosmogonies, the myths explaining the world’s origin. Both civilizations, across their long histories, developed unique creation stories, yet notable similarities are evident in their key narratives.

In Hesiod’s “Theogony,” key Greek deities like Gaia, Tartarus, and Eros, emerged spontaneously from Chaos. Similarly, in Egypt’s Hermopolitan Cosmogony, the primordial god Atum also originated from chaos. These early gods laid the foundations for the pantheons in both cultures, essentially forming two extensive divine families.

Both Greek and Egyptian cosmogonies attribute natural forces to their earliest gods. For Greeks, Gaia symbolizes Earth, Tartarus the Abyss, and Erebus the Darkness. In Egyptian mythology, Atum’s offspring, Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture), parented Geb (earth) and Nut (sky).

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Herodotus, often regarded as the father of history, was not only the first to document the past in what we recognize as a historical account, but he was also a widely read author in antiquity. His journey to Egypt in the 5th century BCE, a time when it was under Persian rule – adversaries of Greece – was particularly significant. He meticulously interviewed knowledgeable locals, gathering firsthand insights about Egypt’s rich past.

Back in Greece, there was a keen interest in Egypt, a land shrouded in mystery and allure. Herodotus’ accounts, detailed in his famed “Histories,” brought to life the wonders of Egypt – from its monumental rock-cut tombs and colossal pyramids to the unique reverence for cats and the depiction of gods as part-animal, part-human.

Following Herodotus’ path, other writers also ventured into Egyptian lands. Hecateus of Abdera, though his works are largely lost, Diodorus of Sicily, Plutarch, and the romantic storyteller Heliodorus, all journeyed to Egypt. Even Strabo’s “Geography” is indebted to his experiences in Egypt, showcasing the enduring impact of these explorations on Greek literature and understanding of the world.

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In ancient Greece, it was widely believed that Egypt was a profound source of wisdom, a belief woven into their mythology and intellectual history. Renowned figures from Greek lore were often depicted as journeying to Egypt, seeking the ancient knowledge preserved there.

The esteemed Athenian statesman Solon, as Herodotus recounts, is said to have visited Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Amasis II. Plato’s travels to Egypt around 393 BCE are reflected in his dialogues, where he mentions Egyptian traditions dating back 9,000 years and attributes the invention of writing to the Egyptian god Thoth.

Prominent thinkers like Thales and Pythagoras were also believed to have gained significant insights from Egypt. Plutarch suggested that the famous Pythagorean theorem was influenced by the Pyramids of Giza. Pythagoras’ trip to Egypt wasn’t just for mathematical enlightenment; he reportedly delved into the Orphic Mysteries, adopting ascetic practices focused on purifying the soul and body, which he later imparted to his followers in Kroton, modern-day Calabria, Italy.

After Alexander the Great’s conquests, the Mysteries of Isis, dedicated to a major Egyptian goddess, gained popularity in Greece. This cultural exchange highlights the profound and enduring influence of Egyptian wisdom and religious practices on Greek thought and beliefs.

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The ancient Egyptians pioneered a groundbreaking method of timekeeping. They were among the earliest civilizations to recognize the link between celestial movements and seasonal changes. A key observation was the annual appearance of the star we know as Sirius, coinciding with the Nile’s inundation, occurring every 365 days.

Around 5,000 years ago, the Egyptians had already developed a calendar system featuring 12 lunar months of 30 days each, capped off with an extra five festive days to round out the year. Each month was broken down into three 10-day weeks, known as decans, which we will explore further in relation to astrology.

The early Greek calendars were remarkably similar to the Egyptian model. The Egyptians are also credited with the invention of the clepsydra, or water clock, a timekeeping method that the Greeks adopted. While shadow clocks or sundials were more accurate, the portable nature of the clepsydra made it more practical for the Greeks. The primary distinctions between the Greek and Egyptian calendars were the naming of months and the Greeks’ unique practice of associating each day with a specific deity, alongside a fixed relationship between calendar dates and certain sports events.

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Art history has seen a significant shift in perspective regarding the relationship between Egyptian and Greek art. In the past, led by figures like Johann Winckelmann, a common view was to contrast the “naturalistic” style of Egyptian art with the more refined and ostensibly superior Greek art. However, this outlook has been reevaluated in modern times, recognizing that Egyptian art was not only on par with Greek art but also greatly influenced it.

A prime example of this influence is seen in the archaic Greek sculptures known as kouroi (the singular being kouros). These monumental statues of young men bear evidence of Egyptian inspiration in both their proportions and techniques, particularly in the depiction of the human form.

Egyptian statues typically portrayed standing men with one foot forward, introducing a sense of movement and vitality. The Greeks adopted and evolved this concept into what is known as contrapposto. This stance, where one leg bears the body’s weight and the other is relaxed, required Greek artists to delve deeply into human anatomy. The result was classical Greek statues that exude a sense of dynamism and emotion, captivating viewers even today with their lifelike depiction of the human body in motion.

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The ancient Egyptians’ mastery in observing the night sky was nothing short of remarkable. Their knowledge of celestial bodies’ positions and movements was incredibly precise. Diodorus of Sicily noted that they could even predict solar eclipses, a feat that the Greeks of the time couldn’t achieve. Their astronomical expertise led them to develop a map of the sky, or the zodiac, building upon knowledge inherited from the ancient Babylonians. This zodiac was composed of twelve constellations corresponding to the 36 decans of the year, each represented by a specific star, with the system anchored around the rising of Sirius.

This Egyptian astronomical knowledge had a significant impact on Greek astronomy. Almost every constellation known to the Egyptians found its counterpart in the Greek zodiac, often retaining the imagery associated with the stars. For instance, the constellation we know as Capricornus was referred to as ‘the Goat’ in Egypt. Similarly, a duo of stars called ‘The Pair’ in Egypt was known as Castor and Pollux in the Greek zodiac. These stars represented the mythical half-brothers, sons of Leda, in Greek mythology. Pollux, the immortal son of Zeus, wished to remain eternally close to his mortal half-brother Castor. In response to this wish, Zeus immortalized them in the night sky as the constellation Gemini. This story is just one example of how Greek mythology intertwined with celestial observations, a practice deeply influenced by Egyptian astronomy.

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The influence of Egyptian civilization on ancient Greek religion is one of the most remarkable, yet unexpected, aspects of their cultural interplay. The Greeks, initially surprised by Egyptian deities with animal heads and human bodies, eventually embraced a more nuanced understanding of these complex religious systems. This interaction led to syncretism, a blending and identification of deities from different cultures, a phenomenon vividly documented by Herodotus and especially prominent during the Hellenistic Period following Alexander the Great’s conquests.

In this syncretic environment, Egyptian and Greek gods were often equated: Horus was identified with Apollo, Ptah with Hephaestus, Isis with Demeter, and Neith with Athena, among others. Egyptian gods were multifaceted, represented in various forms. Thoth, the god of wisdom and the mythical inventor of writing, could appear as a baboon, an ibis-headed human, or entirely human. The Greeks adopted this latter image, merging it with Hermes to create Hermes Trismegistos, or “Hermes the Thrice-Greatest.”

Another syncretic deity was Zeus Amun, venerated in Egypt, Greece, and neighboring regions like Libya. This figure combined Zeus, the chief deity of the Greek pantheon, with Amun, the principal Egyptian god, depicted in Greek style but with the characteristic ram’s horns of Amun. Even Alexander the Great was sometimes portrayed with ram’s horns, symbolizing the deep Greek indebtedness to Egyptian culture and religion. This fusion of deities exemplifies the profound religious and cultural exchanges between these two ancient civilizations.

young writer Olivia on Greco-civilization
Olivia Reyes
Dr. Olivia Reyes specializes in Medieval European Literature. She holds an MA in English Literature from the University of Oxford. Formerly a high school teacher, she now works as a freelance writer and editor. In her free time, Sophie enjoys playing the violin and composing music.

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