Sunday, June 20, 2010

Tales from Herodotus

Back in 78, I got married. It didn’t last so long but some good things did come out it. I stopped school for a year and went to work for a year to help pay for the apartment ($150 a week). It was not a great job. I was a picker/packer of car parts. Although some of my co-workers were entertaining, generally speaking, I was sometimes known as “the college boy,” and wasn’t well liked. I don’t think they hated me, but I wasn’t going to get any backyard barbeque invitations either. Then again, at one point, the foreman (“overseer”) challenged me to a fist fight. Anyway, after a few months there, I realized I needed some intellectual stimulation and decided to get a reasonably challenging book to read during lunch hours.

I had always loved history, in particular ancient history, and most of all ancient Greek history. Although I had familiarized myself with some ancient history before then, I can’t tell you how I learned it other than from some almanacs. I just know that I knew something about it without having to read textbooks. Thus, the year on ancient history was the only “good” grade outside of gym I ever received in high school, but the teacher expressly told me that she couldn't put me back into honors unless I would read the textbook and do the homework. Having already been thrown out of the other honor's classes, I was relieved and told her that would be fine.

Any way, I picked Herodotus’ The Histories to read during my lunch break from picking and packing, he being the father of history and all that. He is in some sense also the father of Greek prose. He certainly wasn’t the first to write non-poetry (or history for that matter), but his history of the Greek/Persian conflict plus a myriad of diversions into other known people's is the earliest complete work we have of what you might call real Greek prose.

It was love at first sight for me, and I ransacked The Histories faster than Alexander ran through Persia. It was the start of over 30 years of reading history for me, and is one of the great literary loves of my life. Certainly I would have started reading history seriously at some point anyway, even had I not then read Herodotus, but having a really boring job inspired me.

As much as I love this book, enough to include it on my desert island list (see my May 30, 2007 post), I certainly wasn’t going to re-read the whole thing in a week just for a post or to meaningfully summarize a long book so completely stuffed with facts. The following is merely a collection of some of my favorite stories from The Histories:

1. Take my wife, please. Not long after I read The Histories, I saw the movie 10, a tale of adultery and love that caused a bit of a stir in its day. It dawned on me then how important adultery was to literature, even going back so far as The Epic of Gilgamesh, a book that makes Herodotus seem as modern as a Green Day concert, (and which starts with Gilgamesh claiming the right of kings with local brides) through Homer (Paris and Helen) and many Shakespearean plots. And, having just read The Histories, I realized that the father of history also chose to starte off his grand project with a little adultery.  I guess he wanted people to read him just like Shakespeare and the screenwriter of 10 wanted an audience too.

Herodotus explains to us how it is told how some Phoenician traders kidnapped a king’s daughter, Io (the Phoenicians say that their captain knocked her up and she fled), and how some Greeks revenged themselves by doing the same to Asian princesses, Europa and Medea (all three girl’s names will be familiar to students of mythology). This all led to Paris (aka Alexandros) of Iliad fame kidnapping Helen from Menelaos and setting off the Trojan War. But, this appears to be a mere sketchy introduction, as he rushed through it. The first real story of any depth is the tale of a schnook named Kanaules, a descendant of Herakles, no less.

I’m not sure what it means sociologically when Herodotus’ writes – “Now this Kandaules fell in love with his own wife . . . " but obviously, it means something, and strikes me a little funny, as us soft 21st centurions believing you are always supposed to be in love with your wife (at least up to the point of marriage). Not only was he in love, but he thought her the fairest of them all. And, being a vain man, he loved to brag about her, particularly to his favorite bodyguard, Gyges.

Kandaules was a little concerned that Gyges thought he was exaggerating, so he insisted that Gyges hide behind the door in their bedroom so he could see his wife (known only to us as the queen or wife) undress. Gyges, not an idiot, begs not to be put to this test. Even then, we learn, seeing women naked was considered a violation of their dignity. But, Kandaules tells him not to be afraid of either of them and Gyges goes through with it.

As it turns out, the lovely wife observes Gyges leaving (after all, he was only behind the door and sneaked out when she turned her back) and, realizing her husband had to be responsible, decides to get revenge on him.

The next day she gave Gyges a choice – kill Kandaules and take her and the kingdom, or die. As I said, Gyges chose the latter. Hiding behind the very same door, he waited until the king was asleep and slew him. But, sometimes, Kevin Costner, the bodyguard does get to keep the girl and the kingdom, and ruled for 38 years.

The moral of the story is obvious. If you want someone to see your wife naked, don’t have them hide behind the door. Even then, there were better ways to do it (closet, under the bed perhaps?)

2. If you don’t want to know, don’t ask. Gyges had a descendant, Croesus, as in the expression “rich as Croesus.” King of Sardis, he was a really rich guy and quite proud of it. Jewels, clothes, you name it. He was visited by the famous Solon, the great Greek philosopher who after changing all of Athens laws’ quickly left the city on a ten year sightseeing tour so they couldn’t make him change them back. Croesus asked Solon if he knew of a happier person than himself. Solon gave him a name and then two more. This pissed the arrogant Croesus off quite a bit, but Solon explained that while the wealthy man had riches, he might not be happy or fortunate, whereas the fortunate man not only has a good life, but if ends his life well (one hopes in battle, of course), then “he alone deserves to be called happy and prosperous.” Essentially, you never know if you have had a good life until you are dead.

Croesus sends Solon packing, thinking him a fool, and consults the oracle in Delphi.The oracle advises that if he invades Persia, a great empire will be destroyed. Croesus thinks this is a great idea, of course, and invades. Things don’t go so well. When Croesus was about to be burned at the stake by Cyrus, king of Persia, who captured him, he remembere his question to Solon and began mumbling his name. He was forced to reveal what he meant by that, and once he told them, Cyrus decided to spare him, thinking, "You know, that could be me some day." When the Persians can’t put the flames out. Fortunately, the God Apollo, whose oracle's advice Croesus had followed, took pity, and put the flames out with a storm. Deus ex machina, of course. Herodotus often states that he doesn’t believe these miraculous events, but he is recording what he was told.

Not surprisingly, reinvigorated as Cyrus’s advisor, Croesus sends to the oracle in Delphi to say – hey, what the hell was that all about? What happened to my great kingdom? But, it was explained that by telling him a great empire was to be destroyed, it was meant his own kingdom. To add insult to injury, the reason this was done to him by Apollo was because of Gyges’ killing Kaudanes generations before. Gods being inscrutable, who can say why it wasn’t taken out on Gyges instead of Croesus – but someone had to pay.

The moral of this story is - do you really need to know what others think of you? There's a second moral, that fortune tellers seem to have low rent offices and not great big palaces for a reason. Don't ask them anything.

3. Cyrus and the bitch. Cyrus, one of history’s most important kings, didn’t exactly pop of out of nowhere, and Herodotus takes his time telling us his tale too. Before Cyrus, Astyages was king of the Medes (at that time, the rulers of the Persians, although at other times in the book Herodotus refers to them collectively by either name). Astyages had a daughter named Mandame. When she became older he had a couple of dreams I'm too polite to talk about here (involving his daughter’s genitals) that led his dream interpreters to conclude that her son would one day supplant Astyages. He married her off to a Persian and she had a son, whose name was Cyrus.

When Cyrus was born, Astyages remembered his dream and called upon his most trusty kinsmen, Harpagos, to take the babe and kill him. Naturally, he warned him not to screw up and Harpagos assured him he’d take care of business if he did. You've read enough to know what happens, of course. Harpagos didn’t want to do it at all. But, playing out the consequences in his mind and with his own wife, he decided the kid had to die, or Astyages might kill him, but it shouldn’t be by his own hand, or Mandame might someday kill him.

So, he called for one of Astyages’ herdsman by the name of Mitradates and told him that Astyages said Mitradates should kill Cyrus by exposure in the wilderness upon penalty of death if he disobeys. Mitradates goes home to his wife, not too happy either. She has a solution. While Mitradates was out, she had given birth to a still born child. So, she suggested and he agreed to swap kids. They would raise Cyrus and their own son would get the big funeral.  His wife's name happened to be Kyno, which meant (in Greek) a female dog or bitch.

When Cyrus was 10, he was playing a game with other kids who selected him king, and, being disobeyed by a nobleman’s son, had him actually whipped. When the kid whined to his dad, he complained to Astyages about his slave’s son’s abusive behavior. Mitradates and Cyrus were brought before Atstyages and little Cyrus told him what happened. Astyages noticed Cyrus’s resemblance to himself and his lordly manner, and put two and two together. Under threat of torture, Mitradates confessed all.

Astyages summoned Harpagos, to whom he had assigned the task. He too now confessed all and the king seemed pleased the way it worked out. He told Harpagos to summon his own son to play with Cyrus and invited him to dinner. Harpargos did as ordered and had plenty to eat, but he was then told to lift the lid on the last tray and help himself. When he did, he saw the head and other parts of his own son, who Astyages had slain and fed him. But Harpagos did not bat an eye and said if it pleased the king, that was just fine with him.

The king’s dream interpreters decided when little Cyrus was made a king in his game with his friends, it had fulfilled the prophecy that he would become king, and that Astyages was safe. So, Astyages sent him home to Persia to his real mother and father, who were fairly shocked to find that he was alive. He praised his adopted mother, Kyno (“bitch”), so much that they used her name to spread the story that when he was exposed as a baby, he was raised by a bitch (shades of Romulus and Remus and many others), a story that remains to this day.

In the meantime, Harpagos plotted his revenge. When Cyrus got older, Harpagos conspired with Cyrus to plot against his grandfather, and Cyrus went along with it. When Astyages learned that Cyrus was doing this he sent for him. Cyrus sent back a message saying that Astyages would be seeing him sooner than he wished. Astyages was taken aback and summoned again his most trusted servant to defend the Medes. Unfortunately for him, that was still Harpagos, who had, of course, betrayed him.

Later, when Cyrus was made king and Astyages was a prisoner, Harpagos gloated over the fallen ruler who had murdered his son. Astyages, for his part, told Harpagos what a fool he was, that he could have been king himself. Besides, if he was going to give it away, why not give it to another Mede, instead of making them slaves to the Persians. But, some people prefer to be the number two guy, and Cyrus and Harpagos made quite a team for a long time.

The moral of the story is if you are going to feed someone his own kid, don’t keep any leftovers. It has an after taste.

4. Babylonian marriage and prostitution. Herodotus tells us of the Babylonians, also conquered by Cyrus. They had a tradition of auctioning off their women to be married. They would start with the most beautiful eligible woman and get as much gold as they could for her and so on down the line until they got to the women who couldn't raise a bid. For these women, they offered more and more gold to those who would marry them, right down to the least attractive. Herodotus adds, “This was their finest custom; however, it is no longer observed.”

Another Babylonian custom was described by Herodotus as their most disgusting, though it is hard to see the difference for us. At some point, presumably when they were young, every Babylonian woman was required to wait in the sanctuary of the Babylonian Aphrodite, Mylitta, until she was selected by a stranger to have intercourse. For some, unfortunately, that took three or four years.

Frankly, whether these are mere tales about customs foreign to the Greeks in Herodotus' time and exaggerated or not is still debated by scholars. I believe there may be some truth to them as there are other sources which, if they don’t confirm, at least are consistent, and that includes from the Persians themselves.

5. Psammetichos the Wise. This kooky king was my favorite of all of those we learn about from the father of history. Before he ruled Egypt, he decided to find out who were the first people on earth, the Egyptians or the Phrygians. So, he took two children and had them raised by a shepherd. The instructions were that no one might utter a word in front of them. Another version has them raised by women who had their tongues cut out. One day, the children came running to the shepherd saying “Bekos.” After they repeated that a few times, he took them to see Psammetichos and they said the same thing to him. The word he learned meant bread in Phrygian.

He was an experimental guy over 2000 years before Francis Bacon. Another time he tried to find how deep the water was at the source of the Nile by having a rope thousands of fathoms long dropped down in it. It never hit bottom. But, the scribe who told Herodotus this added that the water is fast and strong there and no rope, however long, could ever do reach the bottom due to those factors. I never said Psammetichos was good at experiments. He just did them.

How he became king is more ancient lunacy. For a while, the Egyptians were under the sway of the Ethiopians. But, eventually, they freed themselves. Egypt was divided up into twelve districts and twelve kings were appointed, Psammetichos being just one of them. The twelve agreed to be friends with one another. An oracle predicted that the one to pour from a bronze libation cup at a sanctuary to the god Hephaistos, would be the next sole king. This is not an unknown thing for a group of hopefuls to do, at least in legend, when they can’t decide who should be king.

One day, they met to sacrifice together at a sanctuary of Hephaistos. You’d think that being at the very place where someone could become king merely by pouring a libation from a certain type of cup, they’d all be wary. Apparently not. But, the priest goofed and brought only eleven cups. Psammetichos took off his bronze helmet and poured his libation with it. Instantly everyone realized what that meant, but rather than make him king, they stripped him of “most of his power” and banished him (the other option being to kill him, but they didn’t think he had done it on purpose).

Put out, Psammetichos had the best Egyptian oracle consulted and got a response that said he would become king when bronze men appeared from the sea. Even I can figure that one out, but then again, I remember Shakespeare having the forest “come against” Macbeth, and many similar scenes in literature (even in the Lord of the Rings). Sure enough some Greeks pop up on shore and help Psammetichos take the crown.

As much as a character as he seemed to be, Herodotus seemed to think him a pretty good king, and tells us he ruled 54 years (although, much of the data Herodotus got from the Egyptians seems to be pretty bad).

6. You think you have bug problems? In India, there is a desert near where men live who are black like Ethiopians (“men with burnt faces”) and even have black sperm. The go out in the desert to collect gold dust. There was one little problem. Giant ants, smaller than dogs but bigger than foxes, lived in the desert too. When the Indians came, the ants immediately smelled them and gave chase. And these ants were really, really fast.

So, to avoid getting eaten by them, which has to be among the worst ways to go, the Indians yoke three camels together. In the middle of two males was always a female who had just been torn away from her newborn. When they have gotten some gold collected, the Indian rode the female who was anxious to return to her child and could run very fast. The males were slower and were released one at a time (I presume to be eaten by the ants, which must have slowed them down a bit).

There’s a moral to this story too, which can be told in the form of the old joke about the two guys hunting who were discussing what to do if they came upon a bear. One said, “I’ll run as fast as I can.” When the other reminded him that he couldn’t outrun a bear, the first one said, “I don’t have to outrun a bear. I just have to outrun you.”

7. What’s with Homer? My two favorite stories in The Histories are told back to back. The first of these is what Herodotus suggest is the truth about Troy. Herodotus seemed quite familiar with Homer, which is not a surprise, but he claims to have learned the following in Egypt, proving Homer wrong:

After Alexandros (or Paris) stole Helen from Menelaos in Sparta he headed straight for Troy but was thrown off course by a storm and wound up in Egypt. There was situated a sanctuary to Herakles. If a servant came there, dedicated himself to the god and was branded, he was free. Herodotus claimed that the sanctuary still existed and that was still the rule in his own time. Alexandros’ men, learning of the sanctuary, fled there, and blabbed about his abduction of Helen.

The guard sent away to the king in Memphis, Proteus (actually a mythical character possibly created or first related by Homer), relating the story to him and asking if Alexandros should be allowed to go free or would pay for his behavior. Proteus was also outraged that anyone would so disrespect their host and wanted to question Alexandros himself. Alexandros tried to lie himself out of it, but his own former men refuted him. Proteus told him he was keeping Helen and the property safe for Menelaos, and gave Alexandros three days to scram.

The Greeks went to Troy anyway, as we are told, but in the version Herodotus was told, Menelaos and others who are sent into Troy itself to demand Helen's return were told that she was with Proteus in Egypt. The Greeks didn’t believe it and besieged the city until they sacked it (Herodotus doesn’t tell us how long it took in reality). But, when they had entered the city they saw that the Trojans had told the truth. Menelaos himself went to Memphis to reclaim her and his property. The Egyptians said they knew all this, because Menelaos himself had told them so.

Menelaos wasn’t exactly a great guy either. He was reacquainted with Helen and all his stuff in Egypt. But when the weather turned and he couldn’t sail, he grabbed two local children and sacrificed them, hoping to appease whatever gods were listening. The Egyptians gave chase, of course, but the sacrifice may have worked because he sailed safely away.

The moral of the story (not Herodotus’ – mine – his moral is that great injustices merit great retribution from the gods) is that when things are going bad, take it out on someone else. It worked for Menelaos, and he was a king.

8. The thief without a head.  This is my favorite story in all of The Histories, and the one that seems to me the most likely to be made into a Disney film.

Proteus’ successor was one Rhampsinitos. In order to secure his wealth in silver he had a storage room built outside the living quarters. The builder secretly build a trap door, a stone in the wall that could be removed. When he was nearing death, he told his sons how they could control the treasury.

The boys got to work once their dad died, and started removing treasury through the secret passageway. The king notice large amounts of things missing and set a trap. The next time one of them went in, he was snared and had no way out. He called out to his brother, who came in, and told him to cut his head off so that they wouldn’t recognize him and know the other brother was guilty too. So, he did as his brother suggested and made his escape.

The king, quite disturbed at finding a headless thief and still no explanation, had the body displayed and told his guards to arrest any mourner. The mother of the boys was quite upset and told her remaining son to get the body down at penalty of her exposing him herself. Once he saw no way out, he loaded some donkeys with wineskins and made sure one started leaking right next to the guards. While he pretended to be all upset, the guards began filling jars of wine from the leaking skin. Finally, they stopped and calmed him down. He went a little away and heard the guards begin to make fun of the way he had carried on. He came back with more wine. Eventually, of course, they got drunk and fell asleep. He slipped off with his brother after shaving one side of the face of the guards.

The angry king came up with another plan. He ordered his daughter to prostitute herself, but before anyone slept with her, she required him to tell her his most evil and clever deeds. The living brother heard about the plan somehow and went to see her. When he told her about he had cut his brother’s head off and how he rescued the body, she grabbed his arm to hold him. However, the clever brother had secreted an arm in his shirt he had taken off a fresh corpse and she was left with it.

The king was so impressed he let it be known that if the man who did this came forward he would be pardoned and given rewards. The boy did so, and Rhampsinitos, good to his word, married him off to his own daughter.

The moral of the story is, if you ever find yourself in this situation, have your companion cut off an arm or a leg. Not your head.

Herodotus frequently mentioned that he didn’t believe the more dramatic or mythological aspects of these stories, but was recording what the people he visited told him and believed themselves. The book is not just a collection of tales such as these, which are just a part of the long narrative history. Sometimes it seems he (or his sources) got it right and is still given as the history by modern authors today. But, sometimes not, thanks to the unreliability of his sources. But, it is also great fun, and inspiring, enough so that I've read it about 3 1/2 times in my life, and why I'm taking it on the desert island.

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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .