The Mice of Herodotus

Sethôs was an Ethiopian priest who became the ruler of Egypt at a time when the state was under Ethiopian domination, a gazillion or so years ago—or somewhere in the early seventh century B.C.E. to be a bit more specific. Apparently when Sethôs clambered up to the throne, he made a point of showing he couldn’t care less about the ‘warrior-class’ of Egyptians. Although you might chalk up his indifference to a sense of pragmatism, that the soldiers served no purpose, he didn’t hesitate to seize the land that they had received as gifts under the reigns of previous kings.

But such contempt soon came home to roost right on top of his crowned head when the Assyrian monarch Sennacherib—who was stomping around Babylonia, boasting of his successes and his spoils—landed threateningly at Egypt’s threshold. The warriors basically told Sethôs to cry them a river; they were not going to help him turn Sennacherib and his army around. So Sethôs did what came naturally, he went into a temple and cried himself to sleep. He dreamt that the temple’s god came and told him to pull himself together, to go and meet the Assyrians, to worry not because he, the god, “would send those to help him.” Both a dreamer and a doer, Sethôs did as he was told. He gathered a ragtag coalition of the willing: artisans and shopkeepers and market people, and carried forth. That night as they slept in proximity to the enemy, a mob of field mice came and munched the Assyrians’ quivers and bows as well as the leather straps of their shields. When Sennacherib’s army tried to flee, they fell in defeat since they had been left completely defenseless.

While Herodotus presented this tale as fact in Histories, Archibald Sayce, the nineteenth century University of Oxford Assyriologist, said not so fast, this story was nothing more than Egyptian folklore.


Herodotus, Histories, Book II

Archibald Sayce, The “Higher Criticisms” and the Verdicts of Monuments, 1894

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