According to Apollodorus,1 a son of Aegyptus, who was killed by the Danaid Automate; but according to Diodorus,2 he was the governor whom Osiris, on setting out on his expedition through the world, appointed over the north eastern portion of Egypt, which bordered on the sea and Phoenicia. In another place3 he speaks of Busiris as an Egyptian king, who followed after the fifty-two successors of Menas, and states that Busiris was succeeded by eight kings, who descended from him, and the last of whom likewise bore the name of Busiris. This last Busiris is described as the founder of the city of Zeus, which the Greeks called Thebes.
Apollodorus, too,4 mentions an Egyptian king Busiris, and calls him a son of Poseidon and Lysianassa, the daughter of Epaphus. Concerning this Busiris the following remarkable story is told: — Egypt had been visited for nine years by uninterrupted scarcity, and at last there came a soothsayer from Cyprus of the name of Phrasius, who declared, that the scarcity would cease if the Egyptians would sacrifice a foreigner to Zeus every year. Busiris made the beginning with the prophet himself, and afterwards sacrificed all the foreigners that entered Egypt. Heracles on his arrival in Egypt was likewise seized and led to the altar, but he broke his chains and slew Busiris, together with his son Amphidamas or Iphidamas, and his herald Chalbes.5
This story gave rise to various disputes in later times, when a friendly intercourse between Greece and Egypt was established, both nations being anxious to do away with the stigma it attached to the Egyptians. Herodotus6 expressly denies that the Egyptians ever offered human sacrifices, and Isocrates7 endeavors to upset the story by showing, that Heracles must have lived at a much later time than Busiris. Others again said, that it was a tale invented to show up the inhospitable character of the inhabitants of the town of Busiris, and that there never was a king of that name.8
Diodorus9 relates on the authority of the Egyptians themselves that Busiris was not the name of a king, but signified the tomb of Osiris, and that in ancient times the kings used to sacrifice at this grave men of red color (the color of Typhon), who were for the most part foreigners.
Another story gives a Greek origin to the name Busiris, by saying that when Isis had collected the limbs of Osiris, who had been killed by Typhon, she put them together in a wooden cow (βοῦς), whence the name of the town of Busiris was derived,10 which contained the principal sanctuary of Isis.11
If we may judge from the analogy of other cases, the name of the town of Busiris was not derived from a king of that name; and indeed the dynasties of Manethon do not mention a king Busiris, so that the whole story may be a mere invention of the Greeks, from which we can scarcely infer anything else than that, in ancient times, the Egyptians were hostile towards all foreigners, and in some cases sacrificed them.
A famous painting on a hydria from Caere (ca. 550 BCE; Vienna) depicts in a naive-humorous way Heracles as a woolly-haired strongman who battles six Egyptians and Negroes, while the rest seeks cover. In the background is an altar with a bound Busiris.
- The Library ii, 1.5.
- i, 17.
- i, 45.
- The Library ii, 5.11.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus, l.c.; Scholiast on Apollonius Rhodius, iv, 1396; comp. Herodotus. Histories ii, 45; Gell. ii, 6; Macrobius. Saturnalia vi, 7; Hyginus. Fabulae, 31.
- Busiris, 15.
- Strabo. Geography xvii, 802.
- i, 88.
- Diodorus Siculus, i, 85.
- Herodotus. Histories ii, 59.
- Aken, Dr. A.R.A. van. (1961). Elseviers Mythologische Encyclopedie. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.