One doesn’t study history for very long, at least in the West, before running into Herodotus. I’ve meant to read him for years, given his reputation as one of the earliest, if not the earliest, historian — that is, someone who kept a chronicle not for a mythic or state purpose, but purely so it would not be lost. Having trekked through a thousand pages of ancient history with Herodotus, traveling around the Mediterranean and hearing stories from the mundane to the grotesque, I’m tempted to think of Herodotus as some kind of cultural conservationist. He repeats anything he hears, but not with careless credibility. His declared intent is to preserve and pass on what he hears, so that the “customs of the Greeks and others will not be forgotten”. Although Herodotus does assert inaccuracies as fact (“Ethiopians and Indians have black semen”, for instance), most of the time he cautions his reader: “I don’t believe this, but I was told it”, or “If you find this credible, may you find use of it”, and so on. Herodotus is more thoughtful than his reputation belies. In Egypt, for instance, he offers to the reader his idea that the entire area was at one time underwater, given how often sea shells and other artifacts have been found far inland, as well as many salt deposits; he is also struck by the temple to Heracles in Egypt, which is obviously far older than the stories of Hercules in Greek. The chief obstacle to reading the histories is the amount of content and the matter-of-fact way it’s often presented, with Herodotus simply listing things he’s learned, explaining different customs. It’s a mix, to me, of interesting and sleep-inducing observations. Learning that the Scythians created clothing and equipment out of human skin (I really hope that was just slander) is one thing; the details of how so-and-so became king of a city I’ve never heard of and will doubtlessly never heard of again…..is another.
I’m going to take the same approach I did with The Canterbury Tales and share a few of the more interesting claims.
- The Egyptians had a taboo regarding pigs, and would not touch them. Swineherds could only marry other swineherds. However! At the festival of the full moon, pigs were permissible to be slaughtered and eaten. Interestingly, the Egyptians also practiced circumcision! One wonders how the stories of the Israelites fit into this, given their own genital circumcision and pig taboo.
- Cows in Egypt were revered, and Egyptians would not kiss Greeks on the mouth or even eat from Greek plates for fear they were tainted with beef.
- Prior to the Greek invasion of Troy that offended Persia, there as a lot of wife-kidnapping going on. But, Herodotus adds, the women probably asked for it.
- One queen of Persia had herself entombed above a gate into the city, with an inscription that gold was inside her tomb for any future king who needed it, but they must only open it if they were desperate. Darius opened it, only to find the queen’s body and a note: if you hadn’t been so greedy, you would have never defiled my tomb!
- The Babylonians had no doctors ,but instead would deposit the sick in the marketplace, where everyone would pass by, ask about their ailment, and offer advice.
Again, this is all just according to Herodotus, so…take it with a bushel, peck, or similarly antiquated measure of salt.