Life as an Egyptian Priest
Little is known about the life of Manetho. He was born in Lower Egypt, possibly at Heliopolis or Mendes, and was likely a priest at the temple of Ra in Heliopolis. As a priest he would have the skills to read hieroglyphic texts and have access to various temple archives which he put to use writing a history of Pharaonic Egypt. It has also been suggested that Manetho was involved in the creation of the cult of Serapis, a composite Egyptian and Greek god with several aspects, including healing and fertility.
Manetho's History of Egypt
His most important work, Aegyptiaca, was dedicated to Ptolemy II Philadelphos (285-246 BCE), although it would have been written during the reign of Ptolemy I Soter (305-285 BCE). Aegyptiaca was a history of Pharaonic Egypt, probably written as an alternative to that of Herodotus, and was written in Greek. The original text has been lost through time, and only extracts and references remain.
It was in Aegyptiaca that Manetho coined the term dynasty (from the Greek word dynasteia which refers to the rule of government). Manetho divided Pharaonic history into 30 or so different dynasties, not necessarily by bloodline, but also according to periods of rule from a particular center or capital. The division into dynasties has remained fundamental to the study of Ancient Egyptian history.
The most important source of Manetho's work comes from the Jewish historian Josephus (first century CE) in his works "Jewish Antiquities" and "Against Apion". Additional fragments, mainly in the form of king lists and details of the lengths of reigns, appear in the works of Sextus Julius Africanus (specifically his Chronicle, c.220 CE), Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea (c.320 CE) and George Syncullus (c.800 CE).
Manetho is credited with an additional seven books:
- The Sacred Book
- An Epitome of Physical Doctrines
- On Festivals
- On Ancient Ritual and Religion
- On the Making of Kyphi (a type of incense)
- Criticisms of Herodotus
- The Book of Sothis
It is likely that Criticisms of Herodotus was an abridged version of Aegyptiaca, and that The Book of Sothis was a forgery, used by Syncullus to justify his version of history. Original texts for the others no longer exist (if they ever did).
Problems with Manetho's History
The fragments of Manetho's Aegyptiaca presented by different authors are often contradictory - historians believe this is due to political and religious bias on the part of the authors, each of whom championed a different interpretation of Egyptian history. In addition, Manetho seems to have used names which are either abridged versions of one or more of the five royal titles, or are misspelt, or in a few cases simply unknown when compared to other sources. Modern scholars have incorporated chronological details and king lists from other sources, such as the Palermo Stone (held by the Palermo Museum, Sicily), the Royal List of Abydos (in situ in the Hall of Ancestors, temple of Seti I), the Saqqara King List (Cairo Museum), and the King List from the temple of Rameses II, Abydos (British Museum).