Egyptians in Athens: following the Trails of Words

December 13th 2022 I gave the Members Lecture at the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago.

It is the year 458 BCE, and Aeschylus presents The Suppliants at the theatre of Dionysus in Athens. The plot of this tragedy brings a chorus of the daughters of Danaus to Argos, fleeing from a forced marriage to their Egyptian cousins, and Aeschylus places Egyptian words in the Greek speech of the actors. The Athenian audience had some knowledge of their southern neighbor. Not only had Herodotus and others described the marvels and rarities of the Land of the Nile, but there were also Egyptian born residents in Athens working at the harbor and the markets. Join us for a lecture that will attempt to hear their voices, by exploring The Suppliants and other sources that attest to the linguistic contact between Greece and Egypt before Alexander’s conquest of Egypt. Torallas-Tovar will treat Egyptian loan words in Greek as tokens of this exchange. When words are perceived as cultural artifacts rather than as merely lexical units, they break from the boundaries of linguistics and extend into social and historical contexts, helping us to understand the everyday exchange at the market, the street, the temple, the harbor in 5th century Athens. But as the old saying goes, verba volant: the context of these immaterial cultural artifacts is difficult to grasp.