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Rhampsinitus, Setne Khamwas and the Descent to the Netherworld: Some Remarks on Herodotus II, 122, 1

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The purpose of this article is to analyse Pharaoh Rhampsinitus’ descent to the Underworld, briefly reported by Herodotus (II, 122, 1) and included by the Greek writer in the legendary history of Egypt. This short episode can be connected to the demotic cycle of Setne Khamwas, to be precise when this literary hero seizes a book of magic from a tomb after playing dice—the Egyptian senet—with the dead. These two stories share a common origin, arising possibly from the same folkloric tradition from the second half of the First Millenium B.C. But even if the adventure of Rhampsinitus is one of the many underworld motifs which occur in folklore throughout the world, it is important to note that the descent to hell is not a recurrent theme in Egyptian imagery. Here we are dealing possibly with a foreign topic, even an interpretatio graeca of the katabasis of Rhampsinitus, Herodotus being influenced by the echoes of the doctrines of the Orphics and the Pythagoreans, and trying to support the supposedly Egyptian belief in the transmigration of the soul, a clearly dubious statement.


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Affiliations: 1: Department of Ancient History, Seville University Seville Spain, Email:


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