Another Delphic Mystery

(Chapter 180) When the temple of Apollo at Delphi burnt down one night, the Amphictyons accepted a bid of 300 talents ($375,000) to rebuild, and stuck the Delphians with a fourth of the cost. The Delphians went around begging for contributions, and received most from Egypt. The Greeks living in Egypt contributed twenty minae ($400), and generous, Greek-loving Amasis, so our text says, sent them 30 tons of alum. How they must have rejoiced to see a shipload of dirt! Now, if we assume Herodotus did not write total absurdity, we have a contradiction here. It is difficult to see both where Amasis would come up with so much alum, since Egypt is not known for producing it, and what the Delphians would do with it, since alum is used as a mordant for dyes, and as a styptic, and 30 tons gets a lot of dyeing done and bleeding stopped. It has no uses in construction or decoration. Moreover, shipment of bulk minerals was not common in the ancient world.

The bulk of the shipment indicates that the cargo could not have been sal ammoniac (made from dung at the temple of Ammon in Thebes), or red ochre (enough to turn all Greece red). It cannot have been lime, which would have been of great use in construction, because although Egypt has a lot of limestone, it lacks the fuel to calcine it. Egypt does produce natron, natural sodium bicarbonate, but 30 tons bakes a lot of biscuits and calms a lot of stomachs. Besides, there is a good Greek word for it, nitron, of which Herodotus would not have been ignorant. We must conclude that there is no probable mineral that could have formed the gift.

We require something that Egypt produces, that would be useful in building a temple, and is valuable enough to stand the cost of shipment and make the recipients grateful for it. If the t is omitted in the word for alum, we get a word closely related to stuph, tow, a coarse linen that is used to make ropes. Egypt had tow and labor, used ropes widely, and could easily have made 30 tons of it. A shipload of ropes would not only be valuable, but would be very gratefully received in rope-poor Greece. I think this is the answer. A copyist cut himself shaving, used alum styptic before he sat down to copy Herodotus, and inserted the tau into a very similar word, ropes probably not making up a large part of his life. One letter changed the gift from rope to alum.


[Vocabulary] This is a short and easy chapter, beginning with a long genitive absolute, with the usual wealth of participles and few surprises except for the alum.

When the Amphictyons had contracted to finish the temple now existing in Delphi (the former one burnt up on the spot by itself), It fell to the Delphians to provide a quarter of the expense. The Delphians, going around, begged from the cities, and doing this not the least was brought from Egypt. Amasis indeed gave them a thousand talents of alum [rope!], while the Greeks living in Egypt [gave] twenty minae.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Last revised 25 July 1999