Saturday, 24 March 2012

Crazy Tales from Herodotus

We all know one. That girl or guy at the party who just can't stop telling you about all those amazing things they saw. They are completely credulous ('No, really, homoeopathy does work; I met an African shaman on my gap year, and they told me about the crystal energies, and how they channel your body's natural healing powers'), and no matter what you've done or seen, they've got an outlandish story to top it.

Guess what folks? Ancient history has one of them too. His name was Herodotus.

Who is this guy?

Herodotus was kicking around in 5th century BC Athens, though he was actually born in Halicarnassus, which is in modern day Turkey. Here is a picture of him.

 There are many, many library statues of Herodotus today.

He was the first person to gather together a 'history' in prose (if we include the Homeric epic poems as 'histories'), in a reasonably systematic manner. This was no mean feat, and probably the work of a lifetime. Herodotus supposedly travelled all over the Greek world, going to Egypt and Sythia and asking for their stories. Unfortunately, these claims are looking more and more tenuous as we learn more about these places from other sources.

What did he write about?

Herodotus claimed to be writing so that 'human events do not fade with time. May the great and wonderful deeds- some brought forth by Greeks, others by the barbarians- not go unsung; as well as the causes that led them to make war on each other' - proem, Histories. In practise, this was chiefly the Graeco-Persian Wars (you may remember them from such films as The 300 Spartans and 300).

However, 'Histories' in Greek means 'Enquiries', and as well as a history, Herodotus' work is also also ethnography, geography, zoology and general interest. Herodotus was actually very scrupulous by the standards of his day; but unfortuntely, our standards of what comprises history and myth have altered somewhat, and now poor Herodotus' work looks quite ridiculous indeed.

Here are some of his best* stories:

Kandaules and his wife (1.8-12)

Kandaules, king of Lydia, we are told, was a very lucky man indeed: he was in love with his wife, and he thought her the most beautiful woman in the world. All well and good. Unfortunately, he was pretty certain his bodyguard Gyges didn't really believe him about this. Naturally the solution was for Kandaules to arrange for Gyrges to spy on his wife while she was undressing, so that he would truly appreciate the wonder of her naked form. Yes, you did read that right.

Gyges initially refused, saying "I beg you not to ask for what is against all decency." But Kandaules was king, and he could have whatever he wanted, so the plan was arranged. Gyges got to play the peeping tom and agreed, she was really, really attractive. But the story doesn't end here. The queen found out about all this, and decided to take her revenge.

 Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, As She Goes to Bed by William Etty.

So, in turn, she went to Gyges, and offered him a choice. He had seen her naked, which was a great dishonour. Either he must die, or must kill her husband (the king), marry her and become king himself. I think we all know what we would have done in that situation. Kandaules died, Gyges became king and about four generations later, the gods saw fit to punish his offspring. Seems legit.


Herodotus describes the hippopotamus, which he saw on his travels in Egypt. 'This animal has four legs, cloven hoofs like an ox, a snub nose, a horse's mane and tail, conspicuous tusks, a voice like a horse's neigh, and is about the size of a very large ox. Its hide is so thick and though that when dried it can be made into spear-shafts' - 2.73 Histories

Uh... yeah. Looks totally like a hippo.

There are several  schools of thought that say that Herodotus never actually went to Egypt. This is definitely in their favour. It is commonly thought that Herodotus took this description from Heceateus of Miletus, and probably neither of them ever saw a hippo, which were extinct in the Nile region by this time anyway. The only other description from Antiquity is the one from Job 40.10, which is equally bad.

Alexander, the Persians and a certain amount of cross-dressing (5.18- 5.21)

No, I didn't just fail on my history. Alexander the Great (who did go to Persia,  kill an awful lot of Persians, and began wearing something as effeminate as trousers) was Alexander III of Macedon. This was one of this predecessors, and only a prince when all this happened. Alexander the Great comes quite a bit later.

In the Graeco-Persian war, the Macedonians capitulated to Persia. Tactically, this was probably the best thing they could have done; had they fought back they would have been on their own (no Sparta or Athenian help; they weren't considered 'Greek' enough), and without any major defences or allies. As was the norm, King Darius of Persia asked for an offering of earth and water. The ageing king, Amyntas, agreed, and threw a large banquet to celebrate.

Only men were present at this banquet, as was the Macedonian custom, but the Persians demanded that women be brought out for them to admire. They claimed to be dazzled by the beauty of the women, and got pretty handsy.

Amyntas was pretty distressed about all this, and his son Alexander was livid. Alexander sent his father to bed (plausible deniability) and then set about getting even. He told the Persians he was sending the women out to bathe before sending them to bed with them (presumably without the women's consent). The Persians were incredibly drunk by this point. Alexander sent the women off and found some young men without beards, dressed them in women's clothing, and equipped each one with a dagger. He then sent them back in.

When the Persians tried to touch the new "women", they were set upon and all of them stabbed to death. Somehow, mostly by bribes, the inquest into this found no guilt on the part of the Macedonians.

This story is all very dubious indeed; it is far more likely to be a retrospective invention to justify their banquet with the Persians after the Greeks had been the victors.

*Note, there are many, many bizarre and amusing stories from Herodotus. If someone told you one that's not in this list, it's probably in there anyway. The only exception is the flying snakes, (bet Samuel L. Jackson would have loved those) which are commonly attributed to Herodotus but which are actually from Lucan.


  1. It's well known that the Ancient Egyptians made their hippopotimuses wear wigs in the interest of public decency. If this is taken into account then Herodotus' account of hippos is entirely consistent.

    1. Of course! Quick, you must inform the academic community that we may spend then next twenty years arguing about what was fashionable when Herodotus went to Egypt. Get writing on that paper!

  2. There is a reason why it is fashionable to ridicule Herodotus. Have you actually read his anthropological sections on Egypt, Libya and the Scythians? So he got a few things wrong, so did Newton and just about every other scientist, historian, anthropologist and writer who ever tried to construct a record of anything. Why is he singled out as the father of lies? Aristotle thought worms could spontaneously self generate. He is not ridiculed because of it, he is hailed as the first great biologist.

    "So with animals, some spring from parent animals according to their kind, whilst others grow spontaneously and not from kindred stock; and of these instances of spontaneous generation some come from putrefying earth or vegetable matter, as is the case with a number of insects, while others are spontaneously generated in the inside of animals out of the secretions of their several organs.[5]"
    —Aristotle, History of Animals, Book V, Part 1

    Concerning sexual reproduction, Aristotle argued that the male parent provided the "form," or soul, that guided development through semen, and the female parent contributed unorganized matter, allowing the embryo to grow.[7]

    The second quote is, no doubt, one of the reasons Aristotle has remained so popular.

  3. I've read all or very nearly all of Herodotus, and you're right; there's an awful lot of good material in there.

    Perhaps I should have said his work "looks quite ridiculous *in parts*", as I hope you'll agree it does. I wasn't trying to rubbish his entire corpus, though. I have great affection for Herodotus, and rate him a lot higher than Thucydides, for example (but that's a whole other can of worms).

    However, the point of this blog is to be funny, and interesting for the "lay" historian, as well as factual, and I thought people might prefer to read about some of the more outlandish parts of Herodotus, rather than a dry discussion of his merits. There are other people a lot more qualified than me to write those, and if you're interested, the appendices of the Landmark Herodotus are very, very good.

    As for Aristotle, I could almost certainly write a similar blog for him, or Newton or any other factual author from 50+ years ago. In light of our greater knowledge, their mistakes appear somewhat comical. But I didn't, because I'm vastly more familiar with Herodotus than the others.

    1. A better example of Herodotus's sillyness that you left out is his telling of what is inscribed on the pyramids. According to Herodotus they recount how much onions and garlic the workers ate. Which is, of course, ridiculous. But he likely asked his Egyptian guide and the average Egyptian had long ago lost the ability to read hieroglyphics.

      Tourists being scammed buy guides since 400ish BC.

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  5. I get what you are saying/doing but you are pretty unfair to Herodotus. If someone first read this as their intro to him he would come off as a liar. When the reason he is so funny is for the most part he is not (and therefore honestly put down everything he was told no matter how silly). Hippo aside he was actually usually pretty good at saying things like "I am told that" or "the Persians believe that" "the Scythians believe". This is the case with the Lydia story, which he recounts as was told to him and explicitly states he was doing such. He was recounting events before his time in cultures that for the most part only used oral history. He had no sources, no way to fact check. All he could do was report what was told to him. He often gave three versions of the same story. For instance, he gives three Scythian origin stories. The one he says he believes is true is that it was a mixing of some nomad tribes (probably true) but the other two he doesn't believe are mythical and fantastic. He gives several reasons for the flooding of the Nile. One, he doesn't believe, is that snow melting in the south floods the river. This is correct and he believes it is false because he doesn't know about the equator (how could he). He believes it just gets hotter and hotter the further you go so there would be no snow. Even though he doesn't *believe it* he reports it. So his readers can make up their mind.

    Another famous example is the Phoenicians who told him that they circumvented Africa and on the other side the sun was to their left. Which he doesn't believe because as far as he knows it isn't possible. But he reports it and tells the readers he is skeptical but they can make up their own minds. Of course, that is where the sun would be had the Phoenicians done what they claimed.

    And in the same passage as the hippo he accurately describes a crocodile showing he had been there. He does have some slips like that where he doesn't make it clear that he is just recounting what was told to him. But he is usually very good about doing just that. He never hid what he was doing. He traveled around and spoke to people and wrote down what they said to him. Often commenting on what he believed and what he didn't but he included it all. He is more like a Studs Turkel than a true historian. But his work is actually more honest this way. Men like Thucydides would recount things they had no way of knowing but did not say how they were told, who told them, and whether it was verbatim. He just made it all seemed like fact. As opposed to Herodotus who set forth that you can't believe everything you hear but this is what I was told.

    1. I'm sorry you think this is a poor introduction to Herodotus. It's not intended as an introduction at all. If it was, I'd have done a much clearer lay out of what his methods were (as he tells us) and what material he covers.

      Since I called these "stories" and "tales" and I've also said he was extremely rigorous by the standards of his day, I don't think I've made him come across as a liar.

  6. You missed out the giant furry gold-digging ants!!!

  7. Herodotus was a great man. Many of the 'ridiculous' stories and descriptions he himself regards as dubious, and merely records them because that's what the people of this or that region believed. There's a difference to what he records and what he believed. Further, the comical anecdotes lighten up his history, adding color and making it all interesting and enjoyable, which is more than can be said of our robotic, plain fact, no-nonsense academic style today.