Introduction: Myth, Truth, and Narrative in Herodotus’ Histories
Abstract and Keywords
This introductory chapter focuses on myth and its multiple relationships with the concepts of truth and narrative, both within Herodotus' Histories and between the work and its context. First, it discusses the problematic reception in modern history of the material deemed mythical in Herodotus' work, and offers suggestions towards a definition that makes myth a workable concept specifically in relation to the Histories. Next, the vexed question of time and knowledge is addressed and related to the debate about Herodotus' ideas about a spatium mythicum opposed to, or rather continuing into, a spatium historicum. Debating this question raises issues of authority and demands reflection upon Herodotus' historiographical aspirations in recounting or adapting material deemed mythical. The historical context of myth is then considered, as well as its particular capacity to exercise a powerful influence upon the events that Herodotus narrates. Finally, attention is paid to the literary tradition that schooled and inspired Herodotus, as it presented itself in the shape of epic, lyric, and dramatic poetry as well as orally transmitted stories.
The contributions to this volume take as their point of departure the various ways in which Herodotus dealt with, reflected upon, and was influenced by the traditional stories that are nowadays collectively known as myths. The concept of myth, however, is wide-ranging, and has accumulated various shades of meaning in the course of time. Herodotus himself uses muthos only twice (2.23; 45.1), to reject the historiographical value of a story. Those who studied his work after him, on the other hand, found the term ‘myth’ useful in contemplating his methodology, principles of selection, and narrative organization, and thus it found its way into Herodotean scholarship. For this reason the term merits a discussion that evaluates its meanings and opens up ways that it might be applied. Moreover, even if ‘myth’ is anachronistic, it is heuristically valuable as a concept, and can help us describe a distinction that may indeed be present in Herodotus’ text. Such a discussion ushers in questions of verifiability, and the equally contestable concept of truth. It would appear from the Histories that Herodotus believed in the possibility of attaining a truthful reconstruction of past events, and yet we also find traces of the Protean struggle he undertook to capture an often elusive past: a past that presented itself in different forms and versions, and through alternating channels. We must also reflect upon Herodotus’ methods of presenting his material and exploiting his storytelling capacities in tying together a string of gripping narratives according to thematic and chronological principles.
Our introduction focuses on myth and its multiple relationships with the concepts of truth and narrative, both within the Histories (p.2) itself and between the work and its context. To begin with, we discuss the problematic reception in modern history of the material deemed mythical in Herodotus’ work (§1), and offer some suggestions towards a definition that makes myth a workable concept specifically in relation to the Histories (§2). Next, we focus in on the vexed question of time and knowledge and review the discussion of whether Herodotus conceived of a spatium mythicum opposed to, or rather continuing into, a spatium historicum (§3). Debating this question raises issues of authority and demands reflection upon Herodotus’ historiographical aspirations in recounting or adapting material deemed mythical (§4). We also consider the historical context of myth, and probe its particular capacity to exercise a powerful influence upon the events that Herodotus narrates (§5). Finally, we pay attention to the literary tradition that schooled and inspired Herodotus, as it presented itself in the shape of epic, lyric, and dramatic poetry as well as orally transmitted stories (§6). But we shall begin with the Histories itself.
1. The Herodotean ‘Paradox’
In the opening words of the Histories, Herodotus set out to eternalize erga megala te kai thōmasta (‘great and marvellous deeds’) in the footsteps of his epic predecessors, but broke with their tradition of ascribing authority to the Muses, instead to take personal responsibility for a narrative founded upon historical research.1 His credibility, no longer sanctioned by a divine institution, depended and still today depends upon the willingness of his audience to believe in his sincerity in presenting the records of his enquiries.2 At the same time, (p.3) his work contains logoi and legomena that fall beyond the reach of such enquiry, stemming from eras or places too distant to allow personal observation, rational analysis, and the cross-questioning of informants,3 and this has impeded a straightforward appreciation of Herodotus’ self-proclaimed methods. We are confronted, then, with the paradox that Herodotus at times claims to rely on material verified by research, and yet the ‘unverifiable’ figures prominently in his work, especially in the form of stories that are told but cannot be confirmed. We will provisionally class this material as ‘mythical’.
Herodotus’ successor Thucydides took a different approach and described the character of his own work as ‘not fabulous’ (mē muthōdes). Thus he sacrificed entertainment to ‘clarity’ (to saphes, Thuc. 1.22.4), and, in the view of such scholars as Gomme, Lesky, and Evans,4 he took distance from his predecessor’s storytelling liberties.5 Cicero later formulated the Herodotean paradox more explicitly in his On Laws, where he admits that, while history aims at the truth, innumerable fabulae are to be found in the work of the ‘father of history’ (Cic. Leg. 1.5).6 These are associated with entertainment (delectatio), a function that Cicero’s speaker regards as belonging to poetry rather than historiography.
With the rise of Altertumswissenschaft (‘the scholarship of Antiquity’) in nineteenth-century Germany, the Herodotean paradox became a popular subject of scholarly debate, but it was reformulated in a (p.4) more scientifically charged fashion. It was felt that Herodotus had not merely juxtaposed the results of his research with the unverifiable, but, by sacrificing the former to the latter, had considerally weakened, even undermined, his historiographical enterprise. ‘Although sober historical accounts are not altogether absent, they pale into insignificance beside the lively elaborated mythical and novelistic stories so characteristic of his work. For their sake he has frequently brushed completely aside the historical data.’7 This scholarly Zeitgeist expressed itself, in relation to Herodotus, in three interdependent ways.
First, there was a strong historicist tendency that sought to ascribe every piece of information found in the Histories to a particular source. It was above all in Quellenforschung (‘the study of sources’) that modern scholarship distinguished itself from its ancient counterpart, and found in Herodotus’ Histories—with its many source references—a welcome object of study. To identify Herodotus’ sources—to reconstruct, as it were, the iceberg below the visible tip—scholars paradoxically envisaged a historian who collected his data in a modern, empiricist fashion, and presented it to his audience directly and uncritically. Even Jacoby, the father of modern Herodotean scholarship, could not free himself from this incongruous conception, as he argued that Herodotus knew only how to string together particulars, without having a ‘proper understanding’ of, indeed even a ‘proper interest’ in, their causal coherence.8
Second, a strong analytic tradition tended to classify some of Herodotus’ logoi as ‘novellae’ or, more ideologically, ‘Volksmärchen’ (‘folktales’).9 In the wake of the Grimm brothers’ collections of German fairy tales, and the growing interest in folkloric heritage, such (p.5) scholars as Aly analysed the Histories and divided it into thin slices of fictional, ‘novelistic’, or ‘folktale’ material, on the one hand, and ‘truthful history’, on the other. In the ‘historical’ parts, Herodotus was believed to have relied on a wide variety of sources, many trustworthy.10 The ‘novelistic material’, by contrast, was claimed to originate from ‘novellae’: short, folktale narratives with an underlying historical kernel that were orally delivered in the Ionian world and had served Herodotus as a literary model.11 Stories such as those of the youth of Cyrus (1.107–22) and Xerxes and the wife of Masistes (9.108–13) were regarded as typical Herodotean novellae.12
Third, in the discussion of Herodotus’ position in relation to fifth-century intellectual and sophistic developments, various scholars based their arguments on similarities between (the fragments of) the works of the sophists and the Histories. These similarities then served as a point of departure for drafting Herodotus’ intellectual biography. Thus Maass used the Constitutional Debate (3.80–2) to illustrate the relationship between Herodotus and the sophists,13 whereas Meyer compared him to Sophocles and made the two of them representatives of archaic religious views, as opposed to those of closer contemporaries.14 Still others pointed to the heterogeneous nature of the Histories’ source material and denied Herodotus a (p.6) fixed Weltanschauung (‘world view, outlook’) altogether: ‘In fact, he has neither political understanding nor historical sense nor a solid and proper Weltanschauung, but rather oscillates between rationalism and superstition. The Ionian science is entirely alien to him.’15 In the decades that followed, scholars such as Jacoby, Aly, Pohlenz, and Regenbogen qualified this view in Herodotus’ defence.16 And yet their solution to the Herodotean paradox was equally paradoxical. For them, Herodotus was inspired by Ionian empiricist trends that explained the references in his work to sophistic and scientific developments, but he had not internalized them sufficiently and had not taken enough distance from the more archaic world view that underlay his work. Aly spoke of ‘drops of oil’ that did not mix with the surrounding liquid.17 In a more historicist vein, Pohlenz surmised that Herodotus was a Dorian who, despite his empiricism, lacked the sensitivities an Ionian would have had in the wake of new intellectual developments.18 This conception of Herodotus as a transitional, Janus-faced historian gained much influence, for it tied in so well with Nestle’s ‘rise of the rational’ at the expense of ‘the mythical’,19 the overarching thesis of his Vom Mythos zum Logos (1940). In his brief chapter on Herodotus, he repeats the assumption of his predecessors: ‘Herodotus learned and borrowed much material from the sophists and, at times, also from the Ionian philosophers, but their thoughts and knowledge remain merely ornaments to his work, and he does not incorporate them into his personal outlook on life.’20
In post-war scholarship, the approach to Herodotus and the problem of reconciling the Histories’ ‘mythical’ and ‘historical’ material started to change. Important in this process were the views of scholars such as Momigliano and Immerwahr, who each in their own way sought to re-evaluate the position of Herodotus in the development of the historiographical genre. Rejecting the usual, often negative, (p.7) comparison with his successor Thucydides, they promoted a more nuanced picture of two complementary historians who, as formidable representatives of an intellectual community, tried to solve the problems they encountered in assembling their data and organizing their logoi in their own, specific ways.21 This shift in attitude had repercussions for the evaluation of Herodotus.
Instead of historicism—with the iceberg reconstructed by gazing into the murky depths below the surface—the tip itself became the subject of scrutiny. Thus attention shifted from author to narrator, from history to presentation, and from progenesis to end product.22 In tandem with this development, a fierce debate erupted about the reliability of Herodotus’ source references. Not only were unverifiable elements questioned, but so too was information that Herodotus seemed to verify so scrupulously.23
Likewise, the ‘novellae’ theory was queried.24 Although the analytic approach of distinguishing between ‘novelistic’ and ‘historical’ parts had the advantage of laying bare aspects of Herodotus’ narrative artistry,25 the underlying assumption remained unproven. No defining sample of the ‘Ionian Novella’ was ever identified, and more importantly, scholars began to realize that the distinction itself seemed unfamiliar to Herodotus, who used different, more subtle (p.8) methods to indicate his opinion about the historicity of the material he presented, making use, for example, of source references and comparative research.26 Scholars meanwhile sought other ways of explaining the presence and value in the text of Herodotus’ ‘short stories’—for instance, by arguing for their thematic or even symbolic relevance to the work as a whole.27
This increasingly prevalent unitarian view went hand in hand with attempts to contextualize the Histories in its own right. Its quality and innovation were no longer judged in light of the works of earlier and contemporary Greek intellectuals.28 Some of these approaches were empiricist/philological, such as Thomas’ convincing thesis about the Histories’ affinities with the Hippocratics,29 or Moles’ acknowledgement that the work was written with an eye especially to contemporary political developments of the later fifth century.30 Others were more theoretical—for example, Hartog’s structuralist enterprise to determine the value of Herodotean ethnography31 or the linguists’ soundings of language and style that placed the Histories on the cusp between oral and written grammar.32 In current scholarship the picture has thus emerged of a historian who developed his work under the influence of contemporary genres and intellectual developments, but remained fully in charge of his material and made conscious choices to exploit all his narrative talents in telling his stories.33 Rather than accidental drops of oil that have not mixed with the surrounding liquid, sophistic elements, for instance, can be considered spices deliberately added with a view to making the text (p.9) respond to and engage with aspects of contemporary rhetoric in the Greek world.34
These tendencies in recent scholarship have reshaped the Herodotean paradox. Whereas the unverifiable, ‘mythical’ material in the Histories was previously deemed an almost accidental remnant of an archaic mode of storytelling that undermined the work’s historical value, one is now more inclined to assume that Herodotus either did not himself experience its presence as paradoxical,35 or, conversely, consciously employed it with a view to enriching his work. As Griffiths expressed it in the late 1990s in his essay ‘Euenius the Negligent Nightwatchman’: ‘Herodotus not only rides the two Phaedrian horses muthos and logos with ease, but he knows it, delights in it, and consciously exploits it. And the listeners collude in the enterprise.’36 Griffiths was here contributing to Buxton’s edited volume From Myth to Reason? (1999), which critically re-evaluated the ‘Rise of the Rational’ theory that had been at the centre of Nestle’s Vom Mythos zum Logos.37 The theory, nicely summed up by the editor as the ‘from…to’ thesis, was deconstructed from several directions by contributors who mostly favoured an explanatory or philosophical model38 in which the ‘mythical’ and ‘the rational’ coexisted, reinforced, or eliminated one another, depending on author, genre, philosophical school, city, time, and place.39 Whereas (p.10) Nestle had awarded him only a brief chapter at the end of his book, Herodotus now made a comeback, for it was acknowledged that his position in any debate about the viability of the muthos/logos polarity was pivotal—comparable indeed to that of Parmenides and Plato.40 Thanks in large part to Buxton’s volume, the Herodotean paradox became a ‘paradox’, as what had seemed paradoxical to many of his students may well have been a self-evident characteristic of the genre that Herodotus had in mind.
Despite this acknowledgement, nowadays shared by many in the field of Herodotean studies, the question of how to explain the unverifiable, ‘mythical’ material in the Histories remains important. Beyond the findings that continue to surface from the debate about the context of the Histories, this question retains its relevance primarily as a result of continuing developments in academic thinking—from antiquity through to more recent times—about the definition, status, role, and function of ‘myth’ and ‘the mythical’. If such a disputed and broadly interpreted concept is to serve as a heuristic tool, we must begin by setting out an acceptable working definition that can be applied to Herodotus’ text.
2. The Parameters of Myth in Herodotus: Towards a Working Definition
The title of this volume presupposes a belief in the effectiveness of terms such as ‘myth’, ‘muthos’, and ‘mythology’ in studying and contextualizing Herodotus’ work. At the same time, they bring with them a long-standing record of scholarly debate about their definitions and relationships to one another. Thinkers such as Detienne and Calame go so far as to question the validity and ultimately the legitimacy of these terms as criteria for the analysis of data from the (p.11) ancient world.41 Moreover, in the case of ‘myth’ we are confronted with definitions that range from denoting anything non-historical42 to, more specifically, traditional tales about the influence of the divine upon (human) nature and culture.43
It is not our intention to review exhaustively the backgrounds of these discussions (that would require an entire book, or several44), or to seek wholly new parameters within which these terms can be employed. Neither do we wish to impose upon our contributors a model of muthos and logos in any particular relationship to one another, for the simple reason that a formal restriction of two terms with such a wide range of meanings, both in- and interdependently, would impede rather than stimulate creative thought and interpretation. We do, however, wish to consider what aspects of the wide-ranging semantics of these terms may be meaningfully employed as a heuristic tool in studying the Histories, and to suggest some parameters within which they might function.
Our search for parameters should begin with the question of how Herodotus himself used the term muthos, and whether he conceived of an opposition between muthos and logos that can be useful for our purpose. This is not an easy enterprise, for Herodotus uses the word muthos only twice.45 Thin evidence, then—which does not allow us to (p.12) reach firm conclusions, though it should be observed that he both times explicitly rejects the content of the muthos. The first instance concerns the muthos of the river Ocean, which Herodotus mentions in the course of discussing the unusual timing of the inundation of the Nile (2.20–7). In this polemical section of the Egypt book, he rejects three theories of some Greeks who ‘wish to distinguish themselves in the field of wisdom’ (episēmoi boulomenoi genesthai sophiēn, 2.20.1). The second theory explains the behaviour of the Nile as a consequence of its connection to Ocean, which flows around the world:
The second theory is even more ignorant [anepistēmonesterē] than the one I have just mentioned, though it is more striking in expression; it claims that it is because the Nile flows from the Ocean that it manages to do what it does, and that the Ocean surrounds the whole world. (2.21)46
Hecataeus is known to have adopted this Homeric view (FGrH 1, F. 302),47 and it may well be that he was the target of Herodotus’ polemic.48 Herodotus considers his the least credible theory of the three on the basis of the criterion of ‘knowledgeability’. Although LSJ and Powell’s Lexicon distinguish between anepistēmōn as it appears here, ‘unintelligent’ (LSJ), and as it appears later in the narrative of the battle of Plataea, where it refers to the ‘lack of skill’ of the Persian infantry (9.62), this second meaning certainly applies to this passage as well. The inventor of the Ocean theory lacked the skilful methodology on which Herodotus prided himself. Herodotus returns to this subject in the ensuing discussion:
It is impossible to argue against the person who spoke about the Ocean, because the tale [muthos] is based on something that cannot be refuted [ouk ekhei elegkhon]. I do not know of the existence of any River Ocean, and I think that Homer or one of the poets from past times invented the name and introduced it into his poetry. (2.23)
(p.13) Apparently what disturbs Herodotus most is not the content of the theory, but that it is no theory at all, in that it cannot be refuted (ouk ekhei elegkhon). How could anyone seeking authority seriously put forward such an argument? Later on in his Scythian logos he repeats this objection explicitly, arguing that those who believe that Ocean streams around the world ‘fail to produce evidence’ (ergōi…ouk apodeiknusi, 4.8.2), and even admits to laughing at these and similar theories that are exposed as being ‘without intelligence’ (oudena noon ekhontōs, 4.36.2).
The second instance of muthos appears a little later in the Egypt book, and again its connection with the criterion of knowledgeability is made explicit:
The Greek account of Heracles’ birth is far from being the only thoughtless [anepiskeptōs] thing they say. Here is another silly [euēthēs] tale [muthos] of theirs about Heracles. They say that when he came to Egypt, the Egyptians crowned him with garlands and led him in a procession with the intention of sacrificing him to Zeus. He did nothing for a while, and began to resist only when they were consecrating him at the altar, at which point he massacred them all. Now, in my opinion, this Greek story displays complete ignorance [apeirōs ekhein] of the Egyptian character and customs. For it is against their religion for Egyptians to sacrifice animals (except for sheep, ritually pure bulls and male calves, and geese), so how could they sacrifice human beings? (2.45.1–2)
It appears, then, that Herodotus uses muthos to describe a story that cannot be accounted for, and can moreover be rejected on other grounds such as its degree of wondrousness (2.21) or its incompatibility with the customs of the people that it describes (2.45). For Herodotus, it seems that muthos is semantically more restricted than logos or legomenon, which can be applied to any story whatsoever and require explicit qualification if they are to indicate the historian’s disbelief.49
In Thucydides we find this same connection between muthos (although the word itself does not occur in Thucydides’ History) (p.14) and a lack of elegchos. In his methodological chapter he takes distance from the methods of the logographoi, since they compose stories for the purpose of pleasure and thus succumb to ‘the fabulous’ (to muthōdes): ‘Their accounts cannot be tested [anexelegkta]…and most of the facts in the lapse of time have passed into the region of the fabulous [to muthōdes]’ (1.21.1, trans. Jowett, adapted). Although many assume that Thucydides is here targeting his predecessor Herodotus (see above, n. 5), it may well be that both historians’ understanding of muthos is conditioned by the same epistemological criterion.50 Following this line of reasoning, we could argue that a logos ou pistos that defies any kind of examination is for Herodotus a muthos that should be rejected from a historiographical work. For him, muthos was not then an antonym, but a species, of logos.51 But such incidental use of the term makes it unsuitable as a point of departure for a heuristic model: it cannot be proven with certainty that Herodotus used the word in any terminological opposition.52
Moreover, any model that conceives of a meaning of muthos in Herodotus that is akin to our modern concept of ‘myth’ ushers in the problem of how to judge those passages in the Histories that are not in any way qualified, and yet contain unverifiable elements and (as we saw above) have so often frustrated those who looked for truth in a Rankean manner. Adopting such a model would oblige us to accuse Herodotus of disingenuousness whenever he makes use of narrative artistry or presents his material in a form that resembles narratives used to present Greek mythology (on which see below, §6). Herodotus’ understanding of muthos, we can conclude, does not take us any further.
A more fruitful approach might then be to take into account modern, less restrictive meanings of ‘myth’. Kirk defended such an approach, pointing out that ‘ “Myth” is such a general term, and its (p.15) etymology and early applications are so unspecific, that one is compelled to take some notice of contemporary usage’.53 And yet this approach has its pitfalls, too. In the first place, it was in the nineteenth century that the term ‘myth’ came to be connected to stories about the divine as a causative factor, as opposed to such terms as ‘legend’ (a story about humans that supposedly has some historical kernel), ‘saga’ (applied to tales about heroes), and ‘folktale’ (specifically associated with the stories of ‘the ordinary people’ as opposed to those that circulated among the elites).54 The shortcomings of these distinctions are immediately apparent when one tries to apply them to a work like the Iliad, with its complex layers of human and divine causation and its humanized heroes set against the backdrop of a contested historical setting in Troy.55 Applying such terminological distinctions would lead to a hairsplitting analysis of the Homeric narrative—is it a legend, a saga, or a myth after all?—and the needless imposition of a model that seems entirely unfamiliar to it. In the case of Herodotus, such an analysis would be even more problematic, in view of the various literary models that inform his text, each of them employing mythical subject matter in its own particular way.56
The strong connection of ‘myth’ with the divine led to an approach that was based on anthropological studies and sought to explain ‘myth’ as a product that emerged from and should be considered in connection with ritual. This so-called Cambridge school of myth (p.16) and ritual57 became highly influential over the course of the twentieth century, with repercussions also for studies of Herodotus’ Histories. It was established, for instance, that mythical narratives often reflected a Rite de Passage58 and that elements that seemed unintelligible at first glance could be accounted for once they were placed in the context of ritual. In this way, stories such as that of Lycophron and Periander (3.50–3) could be explained as being based upon or informed by patterns related to initiation rituals.59 Be that as it may, the Histories’ content is again too diverse for a purely ritualistic definition to work. In a story like that of Cleobis and Biton (1.31) the ritualistic context cannot be overlooked;60 but how is one to reconcile this type of story with the fantastic, ‘mythical’ stories about the inhabitants of the fringes of the known world, such as the Ethiopians and the Hyperboreans? Once again, the wide variety of Herodotus’ material defies too restrictive a concept.61
Nor does it much help to reason the other way around and—by deconstructing wholesale the myth/history opposition—admit that any narrative can be classed as ‘myth’.62 To do so would be to render ‘myth’ virtually equivalent to its ancient Homeric meaning of muthos in the sense of ‘speech’,63 ‘utterance’; and we could no longer employ the term as a heuristic tool, for it would imply the study of each individual story along with the Histories’ entire narrative, and would lead to further terminological confusion among classical scholars.
In seeking a means of demarcating the boundaries of our terrain, it is probably wisest to look to adjacent scholarly traditions. Our (p.17) understanding of myth will then take its point of departure from the work of Kirk and Buxton, who have sought to restrict the meaning of ‘myth’ so as to make it a useful tool in analysing a text like the Histories. They deemed this a necessary step in part because the body of narratives that encompasses ‘Greek mythology’64 was simply too diverse to allow for a distinction between a ‘divine myth’ and a ‘heroic tale’65 (Kirk indeed suggested avoiding altogether the singular ‘myth’ as a definable category66). Kirk and Buxton considered such restriction valuable also because they preferred (in contrast to the French structuralists) to study Greek mythology in its own right, taking into account its particular characteristics—for instance, the prominent role of humanized heroes in comparison to other mythological traditions, and the features that were typical of time, place, and genre.67 They identified the following three defining elements in their description of ‘myth’:
1. The subjects of myths, regardless of the narrative form in which they appear, are gods and heroes. The first to employ this criterion were collectors from later antiquity such as Pausanias and Apollodorus, but the forms and functions of stories of gods and heroes in earlier genres (often in the shape of ainos/praise parables68) are discernible enough for it to be applied to them, too.
2. Myths are ‘traditional’, in that they may appear across different works or genres, and cannot be attributed to a particular inventing author. Notwithstanding the variations that individual authors could introduce in employing myths, they were always to some extent bound by traditions that determined the skeleton of the narrative and the limits within which motifs could shift. Thus one could tell the story of Troy in endless ways, but it was not possible to ignore the presence of Priam or the sack and fall (p.18) of Troy itself. To alter these traditional elements would generate parody.
3. Myths had ‘collective significance to a particular social group or groups’69 in that they were not uniquely connected to a single individual, but part of a larger network of stories that could, for example, shape Greek consciousness of their history and of the relationships between various groups. One can think of the foundation stories of colonies and the tales of mythical ancestors of royal genealogies, or myths connected to polis hero-cult that could be used by citizens in constructing their identity vis-à-vis other Greeks.
An important advantage of a discussion of myth based upon the above three parameters is that it allows for a variety of approaches. It can, for example, sidestep difficult questions of belief and historicity and focus entirely on the presentation of the material, as do several of the contributions of Part I of our volume (‘From Myth to Historical Method’). A related question is that of how historians such as Herodotus reconciled the content of myths with the epistemological criteria they imposed upon themselves (a problem we return to below, §§3–4). For Herodotus, in whose Histories heroes played a larger part than in Thucydides’ contemporary historiography, stories had to conform to a certain extent to the principle of plausibility or probability, to oikos.70 Thus his rationalized versions of the Trojan War story (1.1–5 and 2.112–20)71 avoid the miraculous and omit any reference to the opposing divine powers that control the battlefield in Homer’s Iliad.72 One can also explore the function of mythical material within the wider narrative in which it is embedded. To (p.19) what extent do mythical references supply meaningful backdrops against which more recent events are staged? Alternatively, one may analyse the material from a more historical angle, as do several of the contributions of Part II (‘Myth and History’), and ask how and in what guise mythical material found its way into the Histories. We might even speculate about what its presence tells us of Herodotus’ own beliefs.73 Herodotus chose to ‘demythologize’ the mythical tales that he incorporated, apparently in accordance with his epistemological criteria.74 But he did not omit them completely. This brings us to the complex issue of whether and in what ways Herodotus conceived of material we label ‘myth’ or ‘legend’ as belonging to a different category from that of recent history, and the related question of where it then stands in terms of the historian’s primary objective of truthfully memorializing actual past events (ta genomena ex anthrōpōn). Did Herodotus conceive of a separate spatium mythicum or assume (some form of) continuity over the course of time?
3. Time and Knowledge
Time is the most obvious criterion that distinguishes ‘myth’ from ‘history’ in the Histories. Ancient history, myth, legend—all are encompassed by to palaion and its cognate expressions, which denote events of long ago, in contrast with those of more recent times. As Herodotus frequently emphasizes, the passing of time produces change. In his preface he declares he will cover small and large human settlements alike, since
of those that long ago [to palai] were great, the majority have become small, and those which were great in my own time were small in times past. Knowing, then, that human prosperity never resides in the same place [oudama en tōutōi menousan], I will make mention [epimnēsomai] of both alike. (1.5.4)
(p.20) The potential for change is one of the few constants of the historical process, and an important part of what impels Herodotus to memorialize the past. This principle of change infuses the entire Histories. It is encapsulated by Solon’s wisdom on the human condition—‘look to the end, to see how it will turn out’—and is implied by the historian’s search for causes and origins (announced already in his proem: di’ hēn aitiēn…).75
Change is particularly likely to have occurred through the longue durée that separates the present time of the historian from ancient times, and, for this reason, continuity across time may not be taken for granted, whether in customs, identities, or character—and perhaps even in the very nature of individuals.76 Herodotus models this important point in his proem (1.1–5), where Io, Europa, and Medea, each the king’s daughter in her natal country, ‘become cultural icons of the countries of their eventual appropriation’ and are thus ‘metaphors for and embodiments of the potential instability of race and culture’, as Dewald has expressed it.77 Medea reappears as metaphor for ongoing cultural change in the catalogue of Xerxes’ forces at Doriscus, when Herodotus reports the Medes’ account that long ago (palai) they were called Arians, ‘but when Colchian Medea came from Athens to these Arians they, too, changed their name’ (7.62.1), in parallel to the Persians, who at some point adopted their present name from Perses, the son of Andromeda (7.61.3).78 This catalogue may indeed be read as a study of discontinuities over time, and the fluidity of identities. It demonstrates that apparently clear signs of a people’s history—the signs of origins and identity embodied for example in names—may only obliquely reflect what was in reality a more complex historical development. Truth may be appreciable only after deeper investigation. This tentative approach allows no room for the manœuvre of a Thucydides, whose bold assumption of broad diachronic continuities—of to anthrōpinon (human nature/culture) ‘remaining the same or similar’ across time (1.22.4)—could justify his construction of a detailed history of sea power in early Greece purely on the basis of (p.21) present-day realities. As Munson observes, it is unlikely that Herodotus would have approved of Thucydides’ Archaeology, ‘as brilliantly rational as it appears now to us’.79
As well as effecting societal change, the passage of time is responsible for wearing away human memories. It renders human events exitēla, ‘effaced’—like a monument whose inscriptions have worn away over time and thus become difficult to read, as in the metaphor Herodotus evokes in his opening sentence.80 The evanescence of oral and material sources of information means that early events may lie wholly beyond the reach of human knowledge. Herodotus frequently reminds his readers of this state of affairs—for example, with his characteristic qualifier of superlative claims, tōn hēmeis idmen (‘of which we know’—that is, have direct historical knowledge about81). Herodotus distinguishes carefully between what can be known with certainty through historical enquiry, what tradition holds but historical enquiry cannot verify,82 and what is wholly unknown. Material concerning early history (where it is available), whether preserved in the oral traditions of local communities, transmitted by the poets, or evoked by fragmentary material remains,83 is frequently unverifiable (see above, §1).84 The situation is further complicated by the way that skeletal information attracts elaboration over time, whether partisan or imaginative. The fact of the missing hands of the female statues associated with Mycerinus (the third Egyptian king after Proteus) has, for example, drawn some (tines) to conclude that they represent maidservants punished for allowing him to rape his daughter—a foolish tale (phluēreontes, ‘they talk nonsense’), Herodotus observes, (p.22) since the hands have clearly fallen off over the course of time (hupo khronou), and in fact they are still there visible on the ground (2.131). Here, the physical ravages wrought by the passage of time have combined with careless human interpretation to generate dubious verification. In this instance, as elsewhere, Herodotus stages the problems and limitations even of material evidence as a witness to the early or ‘mythical’ past.
Occasionally, however, Herodotus must sacrifice the principle of change that underlies his work: for his project frequently entails assuming continuity and resemblance, in dealing with early times as with other elusive matters (such as distant terrains, the divine, and hidden human motivations). By analogizing from the known to the unknown, and by employing the criterion of probability,85 the historian can broaden and enrich his account, and make it more convincing and accessible to his readers. Several modern studies thus address assumptions of continuity between past and present in the Histories, investigating how Herodotus uses myth to contextualize the Persian Wars in the wider complex of the known past and to provide chronological reference points, and in other ways employs myth to help readers understand current phenomena.86 An assumption of continuity in human psychology across time, is, for example, implied by Herodotus’ conjecture that Priam would have given Helen back had she really been in Troy—a conjecture which adds to the cumulative argument that Helen never was in Troy at all. Likewise his refutation of the Greeks’ foolish (euēthēs) story that the Egyptians tried to sacrifice Heracles, and he then massacred them—how could men for whom it is impious to sacrifice most animals ever sacrifice human beings?87—assumes stability in Egyptian national character (p.23) across time. Deduction from generalization is a vital tool in historical interpretation, even as it stands in tension with Herodotus’ emphasis elsewhere (noted above) on the mutability of national character and identity. Something important is at stake here, which trumps the impulse for consistency: for the logic helps debunk a Greek misconception about foreigners. The reasoning underpinning Herodotus’ second rhetorical question (how could Heracles—a single human being—have had the ability (phusis) to slay a multitude?) assumes that the phusis of a human individual has not changed over time.88
Yet notwithstanding the desire in certain contexts to work out knowns from unknowns, the way Herodotus highlights the epistemological criterion—the unverifiable nature of myth—issues a tacit challenge to assumptions of qualitative continuity. And at one point his text may be read as articulating explicitly the possibility that more radical qualitative discontinuity separates the world as we know it from the mythical age. Taking the opportunity to underline Polycrates’ historical significance, as he rounds out the account of Oroetes’ plot against his life, Herodotus declares:
Polycrates is the first of the Greeks whom we know to have set his mind on ruling the sea, excluding Minos of Knossos and if indeed someone else before him ruled the sea; but of the geneē called human [geneēs anthrōpēiēs legomenēs], Polycrates was the first. (3.122.2)
This locus classicus in discussions of whether Herodotus conceives of a ‘mythological’ period separate from the ‘historical’ attracts translations that press in two different directions. The term geneē may be construed exclusively temporally, as ‘era’ or ‘period of time’89 (or, in close connection with that, as the ‘generation’ in which the gods were still involved with humans90), in keeping with many uses in the Histories. Alternatively, as occasionally in Herodotus and very commonly in Homer, it may be construed as ‘race’ or ‘nationality’.91 On either reading the qualifying participle legomenēs allows (p.24) Herodotus a measure of distance from the distinction, presenting it as one that is either accepted by tradition, or (a possibility Irwin raises92) employed ‘by Herodotus’ more sophisticated contemporaries’. Especially striking is the dismissive tone in which Herodotus here leaves aside Minos in favour of Polycrates93—or rather, perhaps, leaves aside any tradition that would like to put Minos on a par with Polycrates, without realizing that he belongs to a completely different era.
The divergent translations of geneē encapsulate the long-debated question of whether the Histories presents a spatium mythicum distinct from a spatium historicum—or, in the celebrated formulation of Vidal-Naquet, a ‘temps des dieux’ separate from a ‘temps des hommes’.94 The debate on this question—for which evidence may be adduced in arguing on either side, as Boedeker has observed—has been fruitful, attuning us further to Herodotus’ methods and to his sensitivity to this issue.95 And yet ultimately the binary framework of (p.25) the discussion is too reductive to do justice to the breadth and complexity of Herodotus’ vision.96 It may be expressive that the ambiguity reflected in translations of 3.122 mirrors the broader ambiguity about the status of mythological material that suffuses the Histories: elsewhere too Herodotus’ presentation sensitizes readers to the difficult question of whether the difference between mythical figures and individuals of recent history—between Minos and Polycrates—is purely temporal, or whether it runs deeper than that;97 or, indeed, whether we simply cannot know. Ambivalence in Herodotus’ linguistic choices can be expressive: at the level of syntax and semantics he invites readers to wrestle with problems and tensions, just as he does on broader levels of theme and story.98 Herodotus’ subtle and deliberate exposure of the ‘problem with Minos’ (to borrow Williams’ phrase99)—the problem of whether our ignorance or his status is at issue—would be in keeping with Herodotus’ more general staging of uncertainty about the terrain of myth. As Darbo-Peschanski has remarked in relation to Herodotus’ treatment of mythical genealogies: ‘Toutes les Histoires sont placées sous le signe de ce balancement entre le refus de s’aventurer dans le récit des vies divines ou héroïques du premier temps et la reconnaissance de leur (p.26) antériorité, donc leur existence.’100 Brillante has observed more generally that the complexity of functions projected by the Greeks onto the heroic world does not allow for simplifications and univocal interpretations, or for drawing sharp oppositions between human and heroic worlds.101
The deliberate and thoroughgoing way in which Herodotus displays his awareness of historical time suggests that the ‘indeterminacy about the past’ that his text displays102 is studied. It challenges Williams’ suggestion that Herodotus was only beginning to be anxious about these questions, whereas Thucydides first engaged with them rigorously, ‘inventing historical time’ and ‘discovering’ objectivity as a stance.103 In fact, Herodotus continually reminds us of the methodological and epistemological barriers that stand in the historian’s way as he seeks to access accurate knowledge about the distant past. As Irwin insists, his sceptical stance in relation to Minos is an attitude that permeates the Histories.104 Indeed, the most striking feature of Herodotus’ Histories is its concern with the veracity question, with the problem of sources: as Fowler has reminded us, it is in its critical approach to the past, acknowledging (rather than eliding) the distance that separates past from present, that historiē is most markedly different from its poetic and prose predecessors.105
At the very outset of the work Herodotus stages a refusal to settle for a rationalized version of the events that tradition has preserved, where further verification is not possible. Rather as he takes a (p.27) distanced stance vis-à-vis Minos, so he caps his account of Phoenician and Persian versions of how the Trojan War came about by taking distance—‘I am not going to say that this happened in this way or some other’—and turning instead to Croesus, a figure of the sixth-century BCE ‘whom I myself know [ton de oida autos] first began to commit injustices against the Greeks’ (1.5.3). Verification is, of course, doubly unattainable so far as the gods are concerned, and in the proem Herodotus has also taken the ‘deliberate and amazing step’ of writing them wholly out of the traditional story.106 Whereas Hecataeus settled on a principle of rationalization in accordance with probability—reducing the daughters of Danaus down from fifty to a more plausible twenty (even as his proem’s criticism of the plurality and ridiculousness of the Greeks’ stories implies an awareness of the existence of a more intractable problem than this method could unravel107)—Herodotus’ epistemological awareness reaches a more sophisticated level in his insistence that we simply cannot know. He may transmit rationalized but unverified accounts, like those of the proem, or the most plausible account of several available, as in the story of Cyrus’ death (where the logos he selects is ho pithanōtatos); and these may play a valuable role in inviting readers to consider a wider sweep of history and different perspectives, or in encapsulating broader themes. But, in the absence of the opportunity for proper historiē, Herodotus avoids claiming as truthful what he transmits, or vouching for it in his own voice.108 As he reminds readers at 7.152.3, ‘I report what is said, but I am not obliged to believe it: and that applies to the whole of my logos’ (cf. 2.123).
In Egypt the priests’ records, in the context of the heightened sensitivity to the past of the Egyptians in general and Egypt as locus of tekmēria (‘signs, proofs’),109 cause human time to stretch so far (p.28) back that even events contemporary with the Trojan War may belong in the realm of verifiable history. It is for this reason that in Egypt Herodotus’ methods of enquiry into the distant past most closely resemble those he employs in dealing with the recent past.110 Egypt thus plays a crucial role in the investigation of Herodotus’ approach to myth. Herodotus’ personal receptivity to foreign expertise, and admiration in particular for the Egyptian historical awareness, may well help explain his sophistication in grappling with this complex issue. Moyer suggests that the Late Period Egyptian traditions about the past gave Herodotus a framework on which he could compare traditions about specific events, thus extending human time back and historicizing aspects of Greek collective memory, but also a field in which to compare on a theoretical level ‘approaches and relations to the past’.111
Where Thucydides adopted the perhaps already conventional practice of giving exact dates to mythical events—the Dorians invaded the Peloponnese ‘in the eightieth year’ after the Trojan War (1.12.3)—Herodotus stuck with dating by generations, ‘for the sake of honest indefiniteness when the exact time-interval was unknown’.112 Again, by contrast with Thucydides and other Greek and Roman successors, who tended to organize their accounts of history in terms of clear temporal divisions (such as Varro’s adēlon—‘unclear’, muthikon—‘mythical’, and historikon—‘historical’) connected to key events such as the Trojan War or the founding of the Olympic Games, Herodotus’ notion of chronological demarcation is fluid.113 It is not that as an ‘outrider of the song culture’114 he is oblivious to linear (p.29) chronological distinctions. Rather, with the scope of his enquiries stretching beyond the limits of Greece, and attuned as he is to all varieties of cultural difference, Herodotus is mindful of the fact that different communities have different relationships to their respective pasts; and he is mindful too of the profound ramifications this has for his task as enquirer after historical knowledge. The way the epistemological criterion—the fact that information of different quality is available in different contexts of early history—intersects with the temporal criterion implies a flexible notion of the extent of the spatium historicum. Herodotus’ deliberate memorializing of recent history—of the Persian Wars—lest it, likewise, become effaced over the course of time also implies the fluidity of boundaries in terms of the epistemological criterion between known and unknown: without being recorded in history, more recent events, too, may one day be unknown.
4. Historiographical Authority in Recounting Myth
Discussing time and knowledge in the Histories raises issues of historiographical authority. As Herodotus’ presentation underscores, the reach of human time depends in any instance on the community—and particularly on that community’s wise men (logiōtatoi)—responsible for transmitting the information.115 How then did Herodotus position himself vis-à-vis the heritage of traditional, mythical material?
In Greece—as opposed to Egypt—knowledge about the mythical or early past was transmitted by poetic and prose traditions far less concerned with history’s objective of recounting accurately ta genomena. According to Herodotus, Homer deliberately rejected the truthful logos of Paris’ and Helen’s delay in Egypt on their way to Troy because it was not so ‘appropriate to epic’ (es tēn epopoiiēn (p.30) euprepēs) as the version he chose (2.116.1).116 Poets more generally make exaggerated claims: ‘not even Aristeas, in his poetry, claims to have gone northwards of the land of the Issedones’ (oude gar oude Aristeēs,…, oude houtos prosōterō Issēdonōn en autoisi toisi epesi poieōn ephēse apikesthai, 4.16): if such an exaggerated claim is to be expected of anyone, it is to be expected of a poet.117 The same point comes out in Herodotus’ adoption of a narrator persona with limited access, rejecting the omniscient and omnipresent vantage point of the Homeric primary narrator (who claims reliance on the perfect knowledge of the Muses).118 Thus, besides the criteria we considered above of memory and knowledge, Herodotus highlights the fact that one’s disposition towards the material affects its ultimate expression.119 But it is the Greek oral culture generally, not only the poets,120 that Herodotus presents as insensitive to or unconcerned with history’s objectives: Herodotus uses Egypt as the backdrop for staging the ridiculousness of the claims of his prose predecessor Hecataeus—claims that reflect wider Greek traditions and assumptions—that he is merely sixteen generations removed in descent from the gods. Again, whereas Athenian funeral orations and public architectural sculpture, and Greek epinician poetry, could present mythic events alongside recent ones without marking any difference, Herodotus invites (p.31) readers to contemplate possible divergence.121 We may wonder whether his emphasis on potential obstacles to analogizing between present and remoter events is partly a reaction against the increasing tendency in the period after the Persian Wars to see the present as analogous to the past.122
Herodotus builds up his own narrator persona against the foil of other purveyors of mythical material—poets, mythographers, geographers, orators, artists—as one who is methodologically cautious in dealing with myth, and yet attentive to the cultural significance of people’s mythological traditions, and the role of such traditions in shaping history. Just as in his treatment of religious experience his presentation succeeds in conveying people’s strong belief in epiphanies123 and in the efficacy of sacrificial ritual and oracles, while nonetheless framing the material in such a way as to avoid verifying in his own person what historiē is unable to verify, so too with his treatment of myth. Herodotus commonly describes myths in great detail, conveying communities’ commitment to them as aetiologies, and their role in the present in informing identities and motivating (and justifying) action. His meticulous treatment, frequent inclusion of variant versions of a particular myth, and generally respectful tone where myths are espoused by particular communities or individuals,124 convey a sense of the narrator’s modesty in dealing with this material that parallels his position on ta theia: ‘everyone knows equally about these things’ (2.3.2).125 At the same time his framing techniques (notably the use of indirect discourse, and the juxtaposition of different versions of mythical accounts) signal that mythical narratives are not to be taken as historically verified.
A fascinating example is Herodotus’ presentation of three accounts of the origins of Scythia, which also suggests the degree of (p.32) corroboration needed for him to accept traditions about early history as potentially truthful. In the first account, the Scythians themselves tell how Targitaus—offspring of Zeus and a daughter of River Borysthenes—appeared in the then empty land and fathered three sons, the youngest of whom took possession of golden objects that fell from the sky and with them, the kingship (4.5–7). In the second account, the Greeks of Pontus say that the youngest of the three sons of Heracles and the snake woman claimed the kingship by carrying out Heracles’ tasks (4.8–10). In the third version, ‘Greeks and foreigners’ claim that the Massagetae pressed the nomadic Scythians into the land of the Cimmerians, who—threatened by the Scythians’ advance—debated what course of action to take. The kings desired to stay and fight, but the people to flee, with the upshot that one group fought each other to the death, while the other departed, and the Scythians took over their land (4.11–12). Each of these accounts can be considered mythical in referring to ancient history and in the involvement of superhuman beings.
In the case of the first version, Herodotus does not accept the account as true (he explicitly rejects the divine aetiology),126 and yet supplies detail that conveys the Scythians’ commitment to the information they give:
Thus then the Scythians say they came to be; the whole amount of years since they came to be, from the first king Targitaus to the crossing of Darius against them, they say is a thousand, not more but exactly this many [ou pleō alla tosauta]. (4.7.1)
While not affirming the account of the origins of the gold, Herodotus points to the strength of the Scythians’ belief in the story by highlighting the role of the gold in their present-day rituals:
This sacred gold the kings guard as much as possible [es ta malista], and every year [ana pan etos] they placate it by propitiating it with great sacrifices [thusiēisi megalēisi]. The Scythians say that anyone who has the sacred gold and falls asleep out in the open during the festival will die within a year, and that is why [dia touto] they give him as much land as he can ride around on horseback in a day. (4.7.1–2)
(p.33) The sacred character of the gold in the present is thus affirmed (with its description several times as ‘sacred’ and the sketch of the community’s regard for its power), even as Herodotus takes distance from the Scythians’ aetiology (that is, as fallen from the sky, presumably as a gift from Zeus). Similarly, elsewhere in the Histories, Herodotus offers a detailed account of the contemporary festival of Rhampsinitus but explicitly refuses to affirm the mythical aetiology the priests supply for the festival’s origins: the story that Rhampsinitus played dice in Hades (2.122.2). Herodotus thus includes this myth in his account—for it is a story that is important in terms of Egyptian beliefs and identity, the Egyptian imaginaire—even as he explicitly and emphatically refuses to confirm its historicity (as event and as origin of the festival) (‘I cannot, however, say whether it is actually because of this that they celebrate’: ou mentoi ei ge dia tauta hortazousi ekhō legein).127
After next recounting the more fabulous story of Heracles’ affair with the Scythian snake-woman (which Herodotus finds the most amusing, even as he will not vouch for it), it is the third account of Scythian origins (of the nomadic Scythians, pressed by the Massagetae, gaining Scythia through conquest) that he inclines towards (tōi malista legomenōi autos proskeimai). This is evidently because of the confirmation given by visible material remains,128 the corroboration of sources (Greek and foreign), and the less fantastical nature of this account: it is plausible on the human level,129 and actually encapsulates important truths about human behaviour that mirror behaviour and choices elsewhere in the Histories.130 But, though he frames the case for this third explanation quite emphatically,131 Herodotus (p.34) nonetheless presents it in terms of his inclination rather than firm knowledge, and he retains the use of indirect discourse.
Likewise in presenting his enquiries into the origins of the oracle of Zeus at Dodona and of Zeus Ammon in Libya, Herodotus lays out alternative accounts (2.54–5), flagging the fact that the veracity question remains key (though it may not be resolvable) even in approaching such early material, while conveying the commitment of his informants to their respective versions. The priests of Egyptian Thebes relate that Phoenicians abducted two priestesses, selling one to Greece and one to Libya; and the enslaved women then founded the oracles in each of those two countries. The account is reported in indirect discourse, and in wrapping it up Herodotus highlights the issue of verifiability by staging his own scepticism about the possibility of knowing such information: he describes himself interrogating the priests on this very issue (eiromenou de meu hokothen houtō atrekeōs epistamenoi legousi, ephasan…: ‘when I questioned them as to whence they knew so accurately, they said…’, 2.54.2). In the absence of an authorial evaluative gloss, readers are left to weigh for themselves the credibility of the priests’ explanation. Next Herodotus recounts the Dodona priestesses’ version, that black doves flew from Egypt to Libya and Dodona and instructed that these oracles be established. He wraps up this version with the observation that the three priestesses of Dodona (each of whom he names) say this, ‘and the other Dodonians connected with the shrine agree with them’—thus affirming the absolute agreement of all those connected with the sanctuary.
Detlev Fehling concluded that Herodotus thus ‘provid[ed] the miraculous story at Dodona…with an enhanced Confirmation’, ‘giv[ing] the names of three priestesses as witnesses and add[ing] that the people living round about likewise confirm the story’.132 But Herodotus does not verify the story himself, and his hard-nosed scepticism at the far less fantastical earlier account of the priests (p.35) suggests rather that this tale is so improbable as to require no refutation at all133—but equally that Herodotus is respectful in shrinking from outright disagreement with the priestesses, and leaves possibilities open in the case of such unverifiable matters.134 The detailing of the names of the individual priestesses and the mention of the collective Dodonians puts a more personal face to those who are committed to this story and transmit it—which in itself brings out further its worthiness for inclusion in the Histories. At the same time, Herodotus’ warnings elsewhere of the partial and partisan nature of storytelling135 might well induce a glimmer of recognition in the reader that this account serves the interests of the priestesses and Dodonians who recount it: divinely sent dove founders heighten the charisma of the shrine in a way that slave-girl founders might not. Herodotus’ recording of these two accounts then—so far from representing a strategy of evoking dovetailing sources that instils audience persuasion, ‘maintaining the veracity of these two reports’ and producing a ‘perfect harmony between the two accounts and their sources’136—serves rather as a reminder of the variation in traditions, and the difficulty in ascertaining the truth. The difficulty is accentuated by the possibility in this instance of divine intervention, about which humans cannot have secure knowledge.
Finally Herodotus borrows from both accounts in constructing himself, in accordance with principles of likelihood, a possible account:
I [egō de] hold about these things the following opinion [gnōmēn tēnde]: if truly [ei alētheōs] the Phoenicians carried away the sacred women and sold one of them in Libya and the other in Greece, it seems to me [dokeei emoi] that this woman [the one sold in Thesprotia in Greece]…while working as a slave established in that place a temple of Zeus under an oak tree which was growing there, for it was likely [hōsper ēn oikos] that she—after serving the shrine of Zeus in Thebes—would remember it in the land where she arrived; and that she said that her sister had been sold in Libya by the same Phoenicians by whom she too had been sold. (2.56, excerpts)
(p.36) With alētheōs we are reminded that the truth criterion remains a concern for the historian even in dealing with this early mythical material (a higher goal than the ‘agreement’ that the priestesses and neighbours reach in the second version). Herodotus’ account is emphatically speculative: it stems from a hypothetical condition (‘If the Phoenicians did in truth…’), and is the product of his own personal judgement (egō d’ ekhō…gnōmēn tēnde; dokeei emoi). Herodotus thus reminds us that he is exercising his historical imagination, and the results are not to be taken as verified and true. And yet, even as he situates the account firmly in the realm of the speculative, he constructs a pièce de résistance in his vivid, detailed, and persuasive narrative of a possible way in which the oracles’ establishment might have occurred, which is a narrative that is no less comprehensive and lucid—with no less impact on the reader—than equivalent accounts of more recent history.
Herodotus goes on to offer a rationalizing explanation likewise for the story of doves (peleiades de moi dokeousi klēthēnai…, 2.57), proposing that the name—and the story told by the Dodonians—arose from the women’s unintelligible speech. As Pelling has observed, this is ‘a story about how a story could develop, it explains away a legend’—and is thus to be contrasted with the sort of rationalization Thucydides engages in in his Archaeology (Thuc. 1.1–19),137 where he is content (in less rigorous manner than Herodotus: cf. above, pp. 20–21) to rationalize the mythical account by taking it literally. Herodotus’ story exposes ‘the mythopoetic power of names’: how the process of transmission has turned the woman into a literal dove.138
The influence of Herodotus’ model is evident four centuries later, when a similarly careful balancing strategy in the treatment of religion and myth surfaces in the Roman historian Livy. In narrating divine action, Livy’s careful use of indirect discourse allows him to avoid making direct claims of historical verification; and yet at the same time he persuasively conveys the possibility of divine (p.37) involvement, and its significant role in the unfolding of history.139 Equally in recounting mythical material, Livy remains distanced and sardonic yet ‘contrives to let the glamour and power of the myths leak into his narrative’ (as Feeney remarks of his account of the foundation of Rome).140 Praef. 6–9 displays his sensitivity to generic distinctions—which are related to the epistemological concerns that Herodotus underscores (see below, pp. 50–1)—while defending the inclusion of mythical elements.141 Livy’s observation that if it belongs to any nation to claim divine ancestry, then the claim of the warlike Romans to Mars as their founder will be tolerated (praef. 7), corresponds to Herodotus’ occasional acceptance of myths on the grounds of their appropriateness and plausibility, regardless of the possibility of proving their literal truth. Thus in Herodotus’ judgement the miraculous nature of Cyrus’ survival implies that there must have been a measure of divine involvement in it:142 to this extent he allows credence to the (otherwise overblown) legends that circulate about Cyrus’ birth. Perhaps his refraining from refuting the story of the black doves in part represents a similar allowance to its manifest appropriateness as an explanation for such austere and significant shrines.
5. The Truth of Myth: Its Historical Context and the Histories
The stories that we collectively refer to as mythology had an enormous impact upon the world that Herodotus described. This went beyond the realm of literature and poetry—in fact myths sprang forth from this world, as it were, for they were intimately connected to the landscape that the Greeks saw around them. They accounted for all kinds of natural phenomena, but were also tied to cultic sites where (p.38) communities would gather to participate in shared rituals and confirm their identity vis-à-vis one another, their ancestors, and the outside world. In places such as Eleusis and the Acropolis of Athens, these rituals took place upon the remains of Bronze Age settlements that had been abandoned at the end of the second millennium BCE, but nonetheless kept an aura of past glory.143 Clearly the Greeks of the Archaic and Classical Age sought to connect themselves, through cults, genealogies, and the reconstruction of their remote past, to the heroes who were felt to belong to these ancient settlements, and whose tales they had inherited.144 The fact that these tales portrayed a world that was not geographically or culturally dissimilar to their own facilitated identification and stimulated the Greeks to use them in explaining events or legitimizing actions in their contemporary world.145
Thus their prominence guaranteed them a place among the genomena that were the subject of the Histories. We may take as a salient example the anti-Argive politics of Cleisthenes of Sicyon. Cleisthenes first banned the performance of the Homeric epics on the grounds that they exalted heroes associated with Argos. Subsequently—foiled by the Delphic oracle in his attempt to get rid of the cult of the Argive hero Adrastus—he introduced from Thebes the cult of Adrastus’ most hated adversary, the hero Melanippus, and transferred to him the offerings and rituals normally due to Adrastus (5.67). The myths of the Theban and Trojan cycle were apparently meaningful enough to be put to use for propagandistic purposes. Not simply entertaining stories from the past, they had such relevance that they continued to influence and give shape to political affairs in Herodotus’ world, not only directly—supporting Cleisthenes the tyrant in his political reforms—but also indirectly: Cleisthenes’ reforms inspired his Athenian namesake two generations later and led to a reorganization of the tribal landscape in Athens whose consequences were felt down to (p.39) Herodotus’ own time (5.69).146 Stories such as these are in keeping with references to Greek mythical heroes that surface in speeches147 and with traditions surrounding their mysterious roles during the Persian Wars.148 Herodotus displayed notable sensitivity to this material, for he was aware of its influence, even though it belonged to a domain that could not be subjected to his methodological standards. It was the ongoing presence and pervasiveness of myth in Herodotus’ world that ensured its prominence in a work that sought to memorialize the past.149
And yet, as a historian, Herodotus can question the status of mythical stories. ‘Enough about deeds of long ago’, he has the Athenian spokesman at Plataea declare in countering the Tegeans’ evocation of their legendary exploits in a dispute about the prestigious position on the left wing (9.27.5). This passage echoes Herodotus’ own approach in the Histories’ opening chapters, where he rejects the traditional tales of the Persian logioi about the rapes and counter-rapes of women, and chooses (as we saw above) to start with Croesus (1.5.3).150 But Herodotus did not ban these unverifiable stories entirely from his work. Instead, he presented a version of the events leading up to the Trojan War that allowed him to introduce themes of great relevance for his entire work, such as reciprocity, the role of women, and the escalation of conflict over time.151 In the same way, the Athenian spokesman at Plataea objects to his opponent’s recourse to mythical exploits only after listing Athenian counter-examples that were as heroic as they were legendary.152
(p.40) Despite his reluctance to embrace mythological aitiai as truth, myth—in a more general sense—wins an important place in Herodotus’ narrative in part because of its capacity to exercise a powerful influence on events. Cyrus’ belief in his ‘superhuman’ birth is part of what motivates his final campaign into the territory of the Massagetae (1.204.2).153 Elsewhere the same myth exerts its effect through its rhetorical function: Cyrus invokes the tale of the divine favour that attended his birth in persuading the Persians to revolt from the Medes (‘I think that I myself was born by divine chance to take in hand this task’, 1.126.6). Individuals and communities are motivated by their knowledge or understanding of mythical episodes, in carrying out contemporary rituals (as in the Scythians’ case: 4.7), in claims to territory (as in the dispute of Athenians and Mytileneans over Achilleum: 5.94.2), and in justifications for war (including in Xerxes’ and Mardonius’ interpretation of the war against Greece as justice for Troy).154 Yet, as Herodotus’ careful framing devices remind us, myth is not to be received by his readers in the same way as more recent history can be, as approaching an accurate and literal truth.155 This is not a matter of there being different epistemological categories for myth versus history, different ways of believing (as Veyne conceived of the ancient Greek approach to myth156): rather, there is a spectrum of certainty in terms of the clarity and reliability of available evidence.
Whereas the processes of historiē can produce a reasonable convergence of evidence in constructing a narrative of recent history—as (p.41) in the account of Thermopylae, where Herodotus stages the divergence of sources (of Spartan and Thessalian traditions157) and yet achieves a largely coherent and unitary account—alternative accounts of the same mythical episode are frequently incommensurable, as in the case of those of Scythian origins (discussed above, pp. 31–4). The contested and rhetorical nature of myth contributes to the elusive character of its historicity. For, while Herodotus’ treatment of myth emphasizes the epistemological issues, as we have seen—its distance in time from the present, and the consequent difficulty for the historian in affirming or refuting it—he also underlines this rhetorical function.158 Myths are an especially contested category of logoi. The poets and orators relished displaying dexterity in exploiting and reshaping traditional stories to suit the particular argument and occasion.159 Herodotus reveals this situation, highlighting what modern scholarship has underscored: that myth is never neutral. Myths have an argumentative function and serve a purpose. Like oral tradition more generally, they exist in their particular form because they meet the needs of an individual or community in a specific context in the present.
Thus, in his treatment of the mythical origins of Medes and Persians, discussed by Vannicelli in this volume (Ch. 10), Herodotus includes both eponyms (Perses/Perseus and Achaemenes: each of which derives from a separate strand of oral tradition), rather than being content to transmit just the (Spartan) propaganda against Argos in the wake of the Persian Wars that exploited the Perseus eponym to associate Argives with Persians. Here as elsewhere the Histories bears witness to Herodotus’ commitment to seeking out alternative sources that promote contrasting views, avoiding relying on a single, potentially propagandistic account.160 Hence the ‘flagrant incompatibility’ scholars have come up against in seeking to reconcile the Histories’ (p.42) diverse genealogies: Herodotus’ desire to preserve variant accounts and to draw attention to the sources that transmit them here outstrips his desire for system.161 Herodotus brings out how individuals’ and communities’ commitment to mythical accounts shapes identities and influences action—for which reason myth plays an important role in the record of genomena ex anthrōpōn (cf. proem)—even as he refrains from making truth claims about the content of unverifiable stories.
The truthfulness of myth in the Histories can be akin, then, to that of archaic poetry, ‘a-lētheia’ as ‘not-forgotten’—as remembered and transmitted across time—rather than alētheia in its alternative (and generally later) sense of a firmer, more absolute truth (that stands in starker opposition to competing claims).162 Assertions of such an absolute truth (or opinion that comes as close as possible to truth) occur quite frequently in the Histories,163 in the context of more readily grasped knowledge relating to recent events or scientific phenomena. In the case of myth, on the other hand, what is significant may not be its literal truth, but that it is said and believed (as in the example of the Dodonian priestesses’ story, 2.55)—or at least effective in inducing persuasion. Thus in the case of myth we may more readily take at face value Herodotus’ claim ‘to say what is said’ (legein ta legomena, 7.152.3), which is manifestly not the whole story when it comes to his treatment of recent history.164 In this tension in approach we see reflected the double character of Herodotus (a doubleness invoked below by Dewald165), as well as the transitional nature of his project. For in certain respects Herodotus presents himself as an Archaic Age storyteller, preserving traditions and (p.43) sustaining memory; in others, he seems more akin to a (late-)fifth-century, sophist-like seeker after truth.166
Herodotus is acutely aware of deliberate processes of memory: of the human inclination to shape stories in a bid to shape reality—for example, when Egyptians knowingly fabricate a connection with Cyrus to bolster their pedigree (3.1).167 Thus he is alert to the significance of myth as ‘intentional history’ (intentionale Geschichte), serving to bolster claims and cement identities.168 Indeed, as Bowie observes, in the Histories ‘we see…how stories are not innocent tradition, but weapons in the selective creation of an identity, the claiming of a privilege, or the justification of an act’.169 Throughout the work Herodotus stages people’s conscious use of the mythic past in the present, and in particular the role of mythic discourse in persuasive rhetoric that can shape events. Dionysius in urging the Ionians to train seriously enlarges his rhetoric and highlights the urgency of the situation by employing the Homeric expression ‘on razor’s edge’ (6.11.2). Leonidas’ expressly heroic choices and action at Thermopylae aim to secure the kleos of the Spartans and inspire other Greeks. Mardonius’ and Xerxes’ mythic discourse seeks to justify and heroize the campaign in a way that will rally Persians as well as Greek communities to the cause.170
Such use of myth by characters in the Histories comes as no surprise: mythic exempla were a stable ingredient of argumentation, from Homer through the archaic poets down to the fifth-century tragedians and fourth-century orators. Myth remained an important ingredient in contemporary sophistic epideixeis (display performances): Prodicus, for example, employed the myth of the choice (p.44) of Heracles.171 This persuasive function of myth should prompt us to consider whether the historian, too, employs it in this way: does Herodotus, like the characters in his text, use myth to buttress his own authority, to make his story more persuasive, and to support particular ideologies? Mythic material that evokes the epic tradition certainly assists in elevating his new prose project and establishing its authority. Homeric resonances heighten the tone and enlarge the significance of the events recounted, as when the twenty Athenian ships lending support to the Ionian revolt are described as ‘the beginning of evils’ (5.97.3; cf. Iliad 5.62–3).172 So too does the aetiology for the place name ‘Aphetae’ that Herodotus includes in his account of Xerxes’ fleet dropping anchor there on the way to Greece (7.193): here Heracles was left behind by the Argonauts on their voyage to Aea to fetch the fleece, after he went for water to stock up before they steered for the open sea. The detail sets Xerxes’ more recent expedition westwards in line of the mythical voyage east.173 The effect is stronger still when mythical figures such as Protesilaus step into the pages of Herodotus’ text and exert an influence on events.174 The model of mythical episodes thus lends stature—and perhaps also credence175—to aspects of Herodotus’ own account of the Persian Wars.176 Herodotus’ text borrows also (particularly via his informants) from the authority and majesty of traditional stories and story patterns, with their close associations with the heroic world. The favourable augury before Mycale, presided over by Deiophonus, issues in the story of the seer Euenius (Deiophonus’ alleged father), which, with its elements of divine involvement, its mythemes177 reminiscent of tragedy, and its (p.45) foundation on the oracular authorities of Dodona and Delphi, elevates the end of the Mycale narrative and elicits heightened emotional engagement in readers (9.92–5).178 In this case myth serves as a mode of explanation and interpretation in the narration of recent history, in parallel to the analytical or ‘historical’ mode that marks the preceding Mycale narrative.179 The world of myth in a certain sense supplies ‘a realm of heightened, “truer” reality’ (as Chiasson expresses it180)—a reality that is different from, but certainly no less valuable than, run-of-the-mill actuality.181
In these ways myth certainly has a rhetorical and persuasive function in the historian’s text. But, at the same time, Herodotus’ care to keep readers alert to its unverifiable and contested nature—keeping various possibilities in play rather than emphasizing one in particular—works against the idea that he uses it to press a distinct ideology above all others (unless we are to regard such general promotion of dialogism as an ideology). Herodotus’ practice in the Histories of selecting traditions demonstrates a general concern to promote additional and less obvious viewpoints, problematizing the communis opinio, as Munson brings out.182 More important to Herodotus’ own narrative than the rhetorical function of myth is the role it plays in explaining history and rendering it intelligible to readers (as several contributions to this volume illustrate). References to mythical paradigms promote intelligibility by enabling readers to contextualize recent history against the background of what is already familiar. Xerxes’ dream, for example, becomes more understandable and plausible for an audience who is reminded of Homer’s account of Agamemnon’s, and can consequently contextualize the new material within an existing frame of reference. As Vandiver has observed, myth frequently serves as a tool to make foreign peoples intelligible in Greek terms.183 Then again, it is also available for modelling in a more theoretical way historiographical truths—such as the presence (p.46) of barriers to intelligibility across cultures.184 At times the mythical element may proliferate explanatory possibilities in a more associative way. Thus the account of Euenius just mentioned contributes to and enriches the texture of historical explanation by suggesting the possibility of divine involvement equally in the recent Greek victory.185
Dionysius of Halicarnassus observed that the histories written before Thucydides’, including that of Herodotus, are interspersed with to muthōdes (‘the fabulous’), like the tales of female monsters, unions of mortals and divine beings—‘histories that seem to us nowadays unbelievable [apistous] and quite senseless [polu to anoēton ekhein]’ (Th. 6). Herodotus’ Histories certainly contains a good measure of incredible material: Herodotus draws into his work such items of cultural significance as genealogies leading back to encounters with heroes and gods, aetiologies for festivals and rituals, speaking doves, and so forth. But, aside from its inherent cultural noteworthiness, such mythical material—as the contributions to this volume bring out—helps to contextualize the historical narrative and convey its importance and meaning to readers. Thus it serves the historian’s key objective of preserving the past from becoming effaced by time (cf. proem).
Besides using myth to enlarge recent events, to grid them onto the wider sweep of human experience, and to promote intelligibility, in Herodotus’ hands it becomes a tool to engage readers in thinking more deeply and reflectively—about past history but also the present.186 In the fifth century, the Trojan War, for example, was frequently used for thinking about acquisitive imperialism. In the Histories it serves repeatedly as an analogy for the Persian Wars, and one that Herodotus puts to use also in promoting his readers’ reflection on contemporary international relations, and particularly the Peloponnesian War.187 But all the while, Herodotus takes great care to signal that mythical, early events are beyond the bounds of verification by historiē; and indeed he even uses mythological (p.47) examples to make points about historical processes and historiographical methodology.188 For him at least as much as for Thucydides, then (to borrow Dionysius’ expression: Th. 8), ‘history is the high priestess of Truth’.
6. Myth and Herodotus’ Narrative: Modes, Genres, Audiences
Underlying the disputed status of the mythical material in Herodotus’ work is the question of the extent to which he himself as a narrator was influenced by the models handed down to him by predecessors and contemporaries who derived their subject matter from the mythical past. In his choice of topic and his aetiological approach (Croesus as ‘the first’ to commit unjust deeds), for instance, Herodotus followed a pattern familiar from Homer, who sang about klea andrōn that were the consequence of a conflict that found its origin in the rape of a slave-girl by the Greek commander-in-chief.189 Furthermore, as de Jong has shown, Herodotus found an important model in the voice of the omniscient Homeric narrator and—though ultimately rejecting the latter’s omniscient and omnipresent vantage point—used it in much of his narrative without accounting for his omniscience.190 Nor did epic alone supply an important model. The emphasis in the Histories’ proem on preserving human deeds from oblivion also recalls epinician poetry,191 which frequently drew from the stores of traditional myth, and in its structure it follows that of the poetic priamel.192 Indeed, there are points of contact in particular with the famous priamel of Sappho Fragment 16,193 where she deploys the mythical exemplum of Helen’s departure for Troy. (p.48) Herodotus quotes another lyric poet, Simonides, for his epigrams commemorating the fallen at Thermopylae (7.228), and appears to have been influenced by aspects of his Plataea Elegy, including his depiction of the agency of gods and heroes, in crafting his own account of the battle.194 In drawing a parallel between the Persian Wars and the Trojan War, Simonides is a forerunner for Herodotus (if one among others, which included Athenian monumental sculpture). Important points of contact surface also with tragedy, which almost always took mythological themes as its subject.195
A key issue to bear in mind in considering the effect of the Histories’ mythical elements on Herodotus’ original audience are the distinctions between myth as general cultural referent, more specific (storytelling/epic/tragic/lyric) emplotments of mythic material, and occasional allusions to particular texts or enactments. The level of detail and choice of vocabulary give some sense of which of these may be at issue, even as the diverse nature of the original audience makes it likely that their response will have been anything but monolithic: what one listener takes as a traditional element might in another listener activate a specific allusion.196
Griffiths has remarked upon the striking ‘change of gear’ between ‘historical’ and ‘mythic’ modes in the account of Mycale (mentioned above) and also elsewhere in the Histories.197 Certainly, beyond its mythic exempla and paradigms, we may regard the Histories as infused with the mode associated with myth—a timeless, generalizing mode, or in Griffiths’ formulation ‘a discourse whose construction is dominated by traditional components, and whose expression and final shape are thus to a large extent predictable’, which presents a contrast with a discourse ‘in which elements are individually selected and disposed in a compositional process which is not fundamentally determined by inherited routines’.198 (Again, from the point of view (p.49) of the present, the distant past, in the absence of more detailed knowledge, does have a timeless aspect.) The mythic mode was a valuable tool in the historian’s hands, structuring oral material in a way that listeners could more readily grasp it, and underscoring the universal significance of particular occurrences.199 Recent events and personalities could be more clearly and memorably portrayed on the model of the already-familiar patterns of thought and action that this mode evoked.200 Then again, the mythic mode could in certain contexts convey significant messages more charmingly and obliquely. It was regarded by ancient thinkers as connected with pleasure. Herodotus’ contemporary Protagoras offered the choice to his listeners of framing his account in a muthos or a logos, with the stories in mythical mode making the same point as the hypothetical logos but in a more pleasurable way (as Protagoras says: dokei…moi…khariesteron einai muthon humin legein, Plato, Protagoras 320c).201 Thucydides famously observed that the absence of to muthōdes (‘the fabulous’, whether to be understood in terms of content or mode) risks diminishing the pleasurable quality of his narrative but allows a stricter focus on the truth.
But pleasure was by no means inevitably felt to compromise truth; Thucydides (as so often) is something of the odd man out. In the Histories, Solon’s use of both more and less analytical modes in advising Croesus stages the way a more pleasing mode might further in this case the adviser’s didactic objectives, aiding him in conveying an important truth. The timeless aspect and distant location (in Greece) of the examples of Tellus and Cleobis and Biton allow them to hover between the specific/historical and universal/mythic,202 heightening their instructive function (and conveying to readers a sense of universal significance), as well as allowing the encapsulated wisdom to reach the Lydian king more indirectly and agreeably. It is (p.50) Croesus’ incomprehension that prompts Solon to adopt the more direct and specific mode of arithmetic calculations to convey the same message, which spells out explicitly the implications for the ruler—and provokes his anger. The charming, proverb-style mode of communication employed by Croesus’ earlier advisers likewise challenges the idea that the presence in the Histories of a non-analytical mode could compromise its seriousness in striving after historical truth. The proverbial wisdom uttered by Bias (or Pittacus: 1.27) and other wise advisers matches that of Aesop’s fables, which extremely effectively (and charmingly) encapsulate universal moral truths in fictional tales about the animal world.203
Besides general ‘mythic modes’, particular poetic genres or models204 may be at issue as we address the Histories’ mythic material. Feeney frames the discussion in terms of literary genre, and emphasizes the deliberate manner in which Herodotus exploits the dialectic of mythic/poetic versus historical models.205 The Histories thus ‘skirmishes’ with the epic and tragic genres associated with mythical material206—for example, in appropriating poetic vocabulary that comes ready laden with wider intertextual associations. In view of the way in which Herodotus signals the distance between the objectives of the historian, on the one hand, and of poets (and other purveyors of ta palaia), on the other, such a move might once again draw to the attention of engaged readers the problem of historicity. The historian’s sensibility about genre (which we have already (p.51) encountered above, in Livy, p. 37) is indeed closely bound up with—and perhaps stems from, in its Herodotean origins—the epistemological concern: the awareness of the limits to human understanding of certain aspects of history, and the consequent need to take an approach that differs sharply from the poets’.207 Herodotus supposes that the poiēsis (‘fabrication’: creation, poetic composition) of Homer and Hesiod was responsible for teaching Greeks their genealogies of the gods, and the divine epithets, attributes, and forms.208 The historian’s claimed authority derives not from the Muses but from the more limited powers of human observation and judgement, and thus in historical works, by contrast with poetry, gods and heroes are by and large not directly depicted in a ‘characterful narration of divine action’.209 And yet—even as Herodotus calls attention to the fact that poetry must be used with great caution as historical source—poetic material and vocabulary are pervasive in the Histories, as are direct hexametric quotations of Delphic oracles and lines from Homer. The historian is occasionally even caught shaping his narrative in distinctly poetic form.210
Of the different poetic sources and models available to Herodotus as he set about framing his narrative, Homer—his main narrative model, and the celebrated heritage of all the Greeks—was certainly the most important and evocative.211 With Homer Herodotus could (p.52) assume an intimate familiarity on the part of his audience. Even subtle allusions will have been discernible by many.212 But Attic tragedy—the true inheritor of epic—was also important, and a rich source of mythological material for Herodotus.213 Though Attic in dialect and style, and close enough to contemporary speech to be easily accessible, the plays were at the same time ‘identifiable, through their manifold links with epic and lyric poetry, as part of a large, rich, and extremely self-conscious tradition with a strong Panhellenic pedigree’.214 In its broad pan-Hellenic familiarity, but equally its democratic qualities, it probably appealed to Herodotus as he set about creating his inclusive and dialogic text. Aeschylus is among the very few authors that Herodotus mentions by name (2.156). Herodotus knew and used Persians (which is an important intertext for the account of Salamis) and doubtless other plays, as well, by the famous dramatist and Marathon man.215 Likewise he will certainly have known the work of his own contemporaries Sophocles and Euripides. The Histories has affinities with tragic poetry, as in its ‘themes of horror’, depiction of fearful and inescapable moral decisions, and use of ironic discourse. And at times it expressly evokes tragedy.216
(p.53) We might expect that myth inflected through the genre of tragedy would be highly emotionally and cognitively engaging, and powerful in its effect on an audience steeped in the genre.217 And there is no reason to imagine that such an audience was confined to Athens. In the latter half of the fifth-century non-Athenians could see Attic tragedy—new works as well as Aeschylus in re-performance—when they visited Athens, but also closer to home, thanks to the spread of dramatic performance to other regions of the Greek world.218 Celebrated scenes might be familiar even to audience members who had not seen them directly.219
Finally we turn from addressing such deliberate use of myth and the mythic mode to glance briefly at the problem of Herodotus’ unconscious or reflexive employment of the mythical paradigms of (p.54) oral tradition. For the Histories’ mythic past is infused with paradigms and patterns that reflect wider patterns of Greek (and non-Greek) thought, patterns that have infused and shaped the oral and poetic traditions that underlie the Histories. Motifs such as that of blindness followed by wisdom in Herodotus’ story of Euenius, or the ‘bargain’ in the story of Tisamenus,220 surface across much extant Greek literature. Structuralist scholarship has coined the term ‘mytheme’ to denote the irreducible, unchanging kernel elements that are found across various myths.221 Such mythemes, or mythic schemata, are a function and reflection of wider cultural realities and thought-patterns, and inevitably find reflection in the Histories, though in any instance there is considerable uncertainty as to how far Herodotus himself is responsible for shaping the material he transmits, and how far the ‘deformation’ of oral tradition.222 Structuralist diachronic analysis of patterns common to Herodotus and other Greek texts and performance illuminates ways in which they reflect wider societal and ritual patterns, and thus bear an oblique relationship to reality.223
Again, several of the Histories’ mythemes have broader, or cross-cultural parallels, such as that of the miraculously saved child, in Herodotus’ stories of Cyrus and Cypselus and elsewhere in the stories of Romulus, Moses, and others. Comparative studies have brought out ways in which various paradigms and motifs in Greek literature including the Histories also surface in eastern contexts, and has raised (p.55) the possibility of shared Indo-European origins.224 These mythical paradigms thus represent a most complicated facet of the problem of the historicity of Herodotus’ narrative.
To borrow Dougherty’s helpful formulation of this problem of historicity, in a different but related context: Greek colonial legends (many of which are found in the Histories) ‘are not clear, untroubled reflections of some historical truth but rather are literary representations of that truth, they stand in a complicated relationship to the events they relate’. That relationship, Boedeker observes, ‘must be analysed for each case, bringing to bear all the kinds of evidence that exist’.225 Sourvinou-Inwood has explored the possibility that certain events in the Histories usually dubbed ‘historical’ may have mythical schemata beneath, and no ‘historical core’ whatsoever—such as Lycophron’s expulsion to Corcyra (3.50–3, mentioned above, p. 16). The story pattern in this instance, she suggests, displays the father–son hostility schema (cf. Theseus–Hippolytus) familiar elsewhere in initiatory paradigms widely reflected in Greek texts.226
But the question remains as to whether tradition has fashioned the episode in accordance with the familiar pattern, or whether the episode actually occurred in accordance with the mythic schema and is intelligible in terms of ritualized behaviour. Certain paradigms or schemata may be so deep-rooted that they not only influence the exposition and reception of the past, but also shape how it is actually lived—a phenomenon that may help explain how recent history may play out on the model of mythic events. In the fascinating case of the literary representation of the Greek seer, we must recognize a combination of factors: on the one hand, the historian’s shaping of his portrait on traditional, Homeric models, but, on the other hand, the seer’s modelling of his own conduct on that of the eminent seers of tradition.227 A related modern phenomenon to which Pelling draws (p.56) attention is the way juries tend to find more plausible those patterns of behaviour that conform to models familiar to them from television and popular culture: which is not so unreasonable, since art can shape life, and people do imitate art all the time.228 Again, modern sociology has demonstrated how people live within particular structures and reproduce them, and how everyday habits may become the very fabric of society itself.229 At the same time we must not lose sight of the fact that certain mythical patterns are also a historical phenomenon, as Dewald reminds us: the ‘thoughtless ruler’ motif, for instance, reflects a reality of human history.230 Thus Herodotus responded on a conscious and unconscious level to mythical material that presented itself in diverse guises, ranging from well-known traditional tales to more general underlying truths about human behaviour. As such, myth found its place in all kinds of forms in his vast and varied narrative and will continue to challenge his readers in current and future generations.
* * *
Our introduction has scratched the surface of the challenging and still-relevant issues that swirl about the subject of Herodotus and myth. The chapters that follow explore in more detail the role of ‘mythical’ elements in Herodotus’ narrative, exposing further the complexity and nuance of his treatment of myth, across a range of studies, some with a literary/narratological focus on the presentation of the text (Part I), others taking a more historicist perspective that addresses the question of the source materials Herodotus had to hand, and his attitude to truth (Part II). Our aim is thus to elucidate further the relationship of ‘mythical’ and ‘historical’ elements in this first work of history, and the question of whether and in what ways Herodotus displays awareness of such a distinction. In different ways all contributions bring out further how, far from being unrelated to or removed from the ‘historical’ aspects of Herodotus’ text, the ‘mythic’ elements are vital to Herodotus’ presentation of history.
(1) For a comparison of the Homeric and Herodotean narrators, see de Jong (1999; 2004b: 101–7). For the proem’s Homeric reminiscences, see inter alia the works of Krischer (1965) and Erbse (1992: 123–5). E. J. Bakker’s thought-provoking study (2002) re-establishes the meaning of historiēs apodexis as ‘enactment’ of an enquiry rather than ‘publication’; his ideas have been further developed by Węcowski (2004).
(2) This question was the focus of the heated debate between the so-called Liar-school and Herodotus’ apologists, their key proponents Fehling (1989) and Pritchett (1993) respectively. For a critical view on the debate, see Packman (1991: 400–2) and Kurke (2000: 134), who describes it as ‘sterile’ and observes that ‘both sides apply to Herodotos an anachronistic standard of accuracy or truth. We must accept the fact that we simply cannot reconstruct in detail exactly where Herodotos travelled from his text.’
(4) Gomme (1945: ad loc.), Lesky (1963 2: 518), and Evans (1968: 12–13), following the scholia on Thuc. 1.22.4. Their views were elaborated by Lendle (1990), who read Thucydides’ entire proem as an uncompromising polemic against Herodotus. Cf. Flory (1990: 201), relating muthōdes to patriotic stories that seek to aggrandize the events of, e.g., the Persian Wars.
(5) Not all share this belief that Thucydides targeted Herodotus. Thus Wardman (1960: 404–6) holds that his remarks have been misunderstood and Herodotus’ own critical views on myths overlooked (see below, pp. 13–14; cf. n. 45. In R. L. Fowler’s view (1996: 76–7), Thucydides is targeting contemporary (local) historians and mythographers other than Herodotus. Cf. Scanlon (1994: 165). That Thucydides’ general attitude to his predecessor is more complex and certainly not condescending is clearly brought out by Rood (1999). See also Hornblower (1992), Rogkotis (2006), and now Foster and Lateiner (2012), the introduction of which (pp. 1–9) summarizes ancient and modern scholarly responses to the relationship of Herodotus and Thucydides.
(6) Cicero names Theopompus too. Cf. de Divinatione 2.115–16, where he disputes the historicity of the oracle to Croesus about the invasion of Persia (Hdt 1.53).
(7) E. Meyer (1892–9: 233). This and subsequent German quotations are translated from the original by the editors. Cf. Jacoby (1913: 478), who suggested that Herodotus’ historical methods were still in their infancy. Pohlenz (1961 2: 216) later qualified this view, arguing that Herodotus’ investigative faculties matched his abilities as a teller of stories.
(9) The concept of the ‘Ionian Novella’ was invented by Erdmannsdörffer (1870); its most important advocate was Aly (1969 2). Within Herodotean scholarship, the term is also employed by Schmid and Stählin (1934: 604–10, 640–1), L. Solmsen (1944: 241), Trenkner (1958), Regenbogen (1961), Lang (1968: 32), Stahl (1968), K. H. Waters (1970: 504–5), Cobet (1971), Chapman (1972: 559), Cooper (1974: 41), Oliva (1975: 175), Erbse (1981, 1991, 1992), and Nielsen (1997: 59). Some scholars have used the term ‘novella’ in purely formal ways and thus sought to lessen its association with fiction. See, e.g., Reinhardt (1982: 326).
(10) The locus classicus here is Jacoby’s lengthy book-by-book discussion (1913: 392–467) of Herodotus’ sources. For a more recent approach based on comparative anthropological research, see Murray (2001a).
(12) These were considered historically less significant, and so they received less attention in the commentaries of Stein (1881–1901) and How and Wells (1928). For the preconceived idea of the ‘Ionian Novella’, see de Jong’s convincing discussion (2002: 257–8). Kurke (2011) has recently revived the idea that Ionian storytelling, and Aesopic fable in particular, is an important background to Herodotean narrative (chs. 10–11, noting her debt to Aly at 361 n. 2 and 368–9).
(13) Maass (1887: 581–5). The origins of the Constitutional Debate have remained disputed in subsequent scholarship. Following Maass, the debate is often read as a reflection of sophistic theories. See Pohlenz (1961 2: 107, 185–6), Hornblower (1987: 16), and Lachenaud (2003: 230–1, though cf. 333–4). Protagoras is frequently referred to as the key influence: see Kleber (1890: 4), Nestle (1940: 292–5, cf. 509–10), Morrison (1941: 12–13), Ryffel (1949: 64–73), Stroheker (1953: 385–9), Sinclair (19592: 36–9), Dihle (1962), Kennedy (1963: 45), von Fritz (1967: 316–18), Lasserre (1976: 69), Evans (1981: 83–4), and Thomas (2000: 18, 266). Other sophists mentioned in this connection are Gorgias (Dihle 1962), Hippias (Podlecki 1966: 369–71), and Antiphon (Aly 1969 2: 107).
(15) Von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf (1905: 56). Cf. von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf (19123: 97).
(16) Jacoby (1913: 481). A generally more positive verdict was reached by Regenbogen (1961: 100), who saw in the Histories a combination of modern empiricist trends in Ionia and more traditional Athenian religious views. Cf. Pohlenz (1961 2: 185).
(21) Momigliano (1958) pointed out that Thucydides, in imposing a strict methodology on his material, set a standard for later historians and so made Herodotus a vulnerable target for criticism—criticism that often overlooked the difficulties he faced in shaping his work. Cf. Immerwahr (1966: 12): ‘When Herodotus constructed the first complex prose work in Greek literature—a work rivaling the Iliad in scope—he had to invent a system that would be intelligible without the help of a strongly developed tradition.’ Meanwhile, Thucydides’ narrative was subjected to more intense scrutiny, with the integrity of his claims re-evaluated in the light of a growing perception of the literary shape of his work. On this see, e.g., Rood (1998a) and Dewald (2005).
(22) As a starting point in this discussion, note von Fritz (1967: 213): ‘Whatever material Herodotus had at his disposal for his history, there can be no doubt that it was Herodotus himself who gave it the shape in which we read it’. Cf. Lesky (1977: 230). For the role of the Herodotean narrator, see Dewald (1987, 2002), Marincola (1987), and de Jong (1999, 2004b). Formal aspects of the Histories’ presentation are discussed inter alia by Beck (1971), Cobet (1971, 2002), Lang (1984), and Long (1987).
(27) e.g. de Jong (2002) in her analysis of the structure of the fifth book of the Histories, challenging others to explain the function of the story of the Gephyrean clan (5.57–61). Pelling (2007b) and Munson (2007) rise to this challenge. Cf. the approach of Munson (2001). Gray (2002) surveys Herodotus’ short stories and the shifting scholarly approaches to them.
(33) Herodotus’ use of various poetic models in shaping his narrative is discussed below, pp. 47–53.
(35) So, e.g., Vandiver (1991: 9): ‘Most scholars have failed fully to realize that there is a question about why and how Herodotus used the mythical as opposed to the historical type of explanation; they have simply assumed that Herodotus did, or did not, differentiate between myth and history, and have based their readings of the Histories on their assumptions.’
(37) Nestle’s influence could be seen in seminal works like Snell’s Die Entdeckung des Geistes (its first edition appearing in 1946), and in the works of the French structuralists like Vernant (1962), who argued that, together with and owing to the rise of the polis and the abolishment of monarchy, a new, ‘philosophical’ way of thinking evolved in Greece that in different ways sought to replace a ‘mythical’ mode of thought.
(38) Gould (1999), for instance, pointed out that the mythical discourse of Greek tragedy provided a multivalent explanatory model that could equally well be called logos; Most, in his essay provocatively titled ‘From Logos to Muthos’ (1999), showed how the debate about the significance of Greek myths to the contemporary world gained impetus in eighteenth-century philosophers’ circles, whereas classicists in general were content to study them within their historical context. For a recent evaluation of the muthos/logospolarity see R. L. Fowler (2011).
(39) Kirk (1974: 276–303) had undertaken an earlier valuable re-evaluation of the muthos/logos polarity. Despite his adherence to a more complicated version of the ‘from…to’ thesis, he deconstructed the term ‘mythical thinking’ in opposition to ‘logical, philosophical, systematic reasoning’. He argued that it was the ‘nature and generality’ of the early Presocratics’ object of study that distinguished them from authors like Hesiod, but avoided an explanation in terms of ‘a new mode of thinking’. The Presocratics adopted a genetic model (perhaps derived from myth), whereas authors like Homer and Hesiod used systematic models to classify their myths (pp. 295–7, 300–1).
(41) See the opening chapter of Calame (1996); cf. Calame (1999), and see also Detienne (1981, 2000), who claimed that ‘myth’ is essentially an eighteenth-century construct. Edmunds (1990a) countered Detienne’s radical view and argued convincingly that the Greeks did in fact have a category of traditional tales that corresponds to our notion of ‘myth’.
(42) This definition surfaces from the treatment of myth of McNeill (1986a), who argues that, since the ultimate truth will never be attained, ‘mythistory’ is the best compromise any historian can come up with: ‘what seems true to one historian will seem false to another, so one’s historian’s truth becomes another’s myth, even at the moment of utterance’ (p. 3). For a different understanding of ‘mythistorical’ narration, see Chiasson, this volume, Ch. 8.
(43) German scholarship in particular sought to differentiate ‘myths’ from ‘folktales’, assigning to the former category tales in which the divine played an important role. Seminal in this has been Jolles’ Einfache Formen (1968 4: esp. 91–125). Cf. Radermacher (1938: 64), who adds a formal criterion to ‘myth’ by implying its ‘poetic’ character: ‘ein ahnendes, dichterisch in Rede gekleidetes Begreifen des Göttlichen und der Welt’ (‘a foreboding understanding of the divine and the world, clothed poetically in speech’).
(47) Il. 18.607–8, 21.195–7, and cf. Hesiod Theogony 338.
(48) So A. B. Lloyd (2007: ad loc.). Cf. Corcella (1993: ad 4.36.2). Nickau (1990: 84–7) points to the presence of the article (ton muthon, 2.23), which implies that Herodotus refers to a muthos that is known to his audience. He claims that Herodotus in both instances referred to muthoi in which Hecataeus believed, arguing that gelō (‘I laugh’, 4.36.2) should be seen as an allusion to Hecataeus’ first fragment: hoi gar Hellēnōn logoi polloi te kai geloioi (‘for the logoi of the Greeks are many and laughable’, FGrH 1, F. 1).
(49) Incredible logoi: 7.214.2, 8.119; legomena: 7.209.5. Cf. the expression ou pista legein: 1.182.1, 2.73.3, 4.5.1, 4.25.1, 4.42.4, 5.86.3, 8.120. Cf., too, Hecataeus’ first fragment, above, n. 48. Aside from explicit indications, Herodotus can use indirect speech to indicate that he does not grant full credibility to a certain tradition, though indirect speech (contrary to what is commonly assumed) need not always imply scepticism: see T. Harrison (2000a: 248–50), de Bakker (2007: 160–78), and, in this volume, de Bakker, Ch. 3, pp. 124–5, and de Jong, Ch. 4, pp. 131–2.
(50) On knowledge as a key criterion for distinguishing ‘myth’ from ‘history’ in Herodotus, see §3 below.
(51) In fact, before Plato’s Protagoras 320c (on which see below, p. 49), no clear traces of such a theoretical contrast have been found in Greek literature; cf. Buxton (1994: 12–13). Edmunds (1990a: 2–8), however, points to a passage in Aristophanes’ Wasps (1174–80), where a distinction is made between logoi and muthoi, the latter clearly meaning fantasy stories. Nickau (1990: 88–90) uses the same passage to argue that the antithesis between logos and muthos was already implicit in Thucydides and could be ascribed to sophists such as Prodicus and Protagoras.
(52) Nor is the case for a very specific reading of muthos strengthened by its neutral meaning ‘utterance’ in epic and archaic poetry; cf. below, n. 63.
(54) See, e.g., Aly (1969 2: 7–10, 238–9): ‘Das Märchen wird zum Mythos, wenn Götter seine Personen, kosmisches Geschehen sein Inhalt wird.’ (‘A fairytale becomes a myth when gods become its characters and cosmic events its content’). Cf. Jolles (1968 4) for the general distinctions between the different categories. ‘Legend’ as a term goes back to legenda, which was first used in the thirteenth century to refer to stories about saints. ‘Saga’ was introduced in nineteenth-century scholarship to describe specific Icelandic traditions about local clans and kings. ‘Folktale’ is a translation of German Märchen. Recent scholarship generally acknowledges the anachronistic character and limited usefulness of these distinctions; e.g. Day (1984: 17–20), Bremmer (1987: 1–9), Dowden (1992: 6–7), and Buxton (1994: 13 n. 19).
(55) For the uniquely realistic presentation of the heroes in Homeric epic, in particular the Iliad, in comparison with the Epic Cycle, see Griffin (1977), with many references to earlier scholarship. For the vexed question of the historicity of the Trojan War and its relationship to the Homeric epics, witness the fierce debate between believers like Latacz (2004) and sceptics like Kolb (2010: ch. 1). For a summary of the debate, and a balanced view that tends towards that of the sceptics, see Grethlein (2010a).
(56) On this, see below, §6.
(57) Important representatives of this school include J. E. Harrison (1912), Hooke (1935, 1958), and Burkert (1966, 1972, 1983). The latter recognized ‘programs of action’ that were grounded in human biology and found a dramatized continuity in ritual, which was in turn reflected and paralleled in mythology. See the discussion in Edmunds (1990b: 25–90).
(59) As exemplified by Sourvinou-Inwood’s suggestion (1988) that one read this story as a reflection of a failed ephebeia, a coming-of-age initiation ritual; cf. below, p. 55, with n. 226.
(61) Cf. Kirk (1974: 25–6) and Burkert (1999), who point out that a significant number of the stories that we tend to consider ‘myths’ have nothing to do with the sacred, and even fewer myths concern the divine as a creative force.
(63) The basic meaning as given in the Lexikon des frühgriechischen Epos under muthos, whereas Kirk (1974: 22–3) translates it as ‘utterance’. For a detailed study of the semantics of muthos in the Homeric epics, see Martin (1989).
(69) Kirk (1974: 28–9), Burkert (1979: 1–5), and Buxton (1994: 15–16). Buxton, however, takes distance from Kirk’s distinction (1970: 31–41; 1974: 30–7)—which is followed by Lowry (1982: 14–15)—between ‘myth’ and ‘folktale’, on the basis of the former’s concern with the aristocracy and the latter’s with ordinary people, rightly noting that the concept of ‘folk’/ordinary people as opposed to aristocracy dates back only to the eighteenth century.
(70) For detailed discussion of the epistemological criteria that Herodotus imposed on his material and used to determine its truth value, see D. Müller (1981) and Thomas (2000: 168–212), and below, pp. 22–3 and n. 85, for Herodotus’ use of the argument from probability.
(74) On demythologization, or rationalization, in the Histories, see Stern (1989), S. West (2002), and below, pp. 26–7; also in this volume, see Gray, Ch. 6, pp. 176–8, on Herodotus’ demythologizing of Melampus, and Saïd, Ch. 2, §2, for more general discussion of Herodotus’ process of rationalization.
(75) On the Histories’ principle of change, see van der Veen (1996). Thomas (2000: ch. 4) exposes Herodotus’ emphasis on the mutability of ethnic character and changing nomoi, bringing out the stress in his explanatory scheme on operative factors that are ‘transient, flexible and mutable’ (p. 123); cf. Thomas (2001a).
(81) Shimron (1973); cf. Lateiner (1989: 118): ‘the modification reminds the reader of the author’s great separation from his data, the increasing inadequacy of sources as inquiry is pushed back to the limits of known time,’ and Rood (2010: 53).
(82) Cf. 7.20, where he contrasts military campaigns ‘of which we know’ (tōn hēmeis idmen) with others including the Trojan expedition that ‘according to tradition’ (kata ta legomena) have occurred. See Moles (1993: 97) on this passage (which suggests an attitude to Homer that is ‘critical in both senses, depreciatory and discriminating’), and also Bowie, this volume, Ch. 11, pp. 272–3.
(83) See just below for Herodotus’ sceptical treatment of current interpretations of certain fragmentary Egyptian statues.
(85) For Herodotus’ connections with the sophists and use of ‘sophistic’ techniques such as these, see Thomas (2000); for his use of the probability argument in particular, see A. B. Lloyd (1975: 162–3), D. Müller (1981: 307–11), Romm (1989) (on probability arguments regarding distance places), and Thomas (2000: 168–90). See below, p. 35, for an example of Herodotus constructing arguments about early history from probability.
(87) The passage is quoted above, at p. 13. Cf. Munson (2001: 142): here as elsewhere, Greek inexperience with Egyptian national character contrasts with Herodotus’ experience of it. Piérart (1983) observes that Herodotus, along with all ancient authors, works on the assumption that the past is qualitatively similar.
(89) Cf. Powell (1960 2): s.v. γενεή 1: ‘generation, as chronological unit’; 6: ‘era’ (and here Powell locates only 3.122). Liddell and Scott: γ. ἀνθρωπηΐη the historical, opp. to the mythical, age, Hdt. 3.122.
(93) Cf. E. Irwin (2007a: 213–14): ‘not only are πάρεξ Μίνωος and the implication in ‘human’ dismissive, but Herodotus does further injury to any model that privileges the Cretan king by granting the possibility that some nameless τις might possibly have a claim to priority.’ See Munson, this volume, Ch. 7.
(95) Boedeker (2002: 110). On the debate as to whether Herodotus conceives of a spatium mythicum separate from a spatium historicum, see, inter alia, answering in the affirmative: Jacoby (1909: 99), Shimron (1973), Finley (1975a), Erbse (1979b: 83), Fornara (1983: 6–8) (separation of the two spatia from Hecataeus onwards), Darbo-Peschanski (1987: 25–38) (with the qualification that Herodotus avoids dwelling upon the distinction, e.g. refusing to supply a genealogy himself at 2.143, and remaining evasive on the question of how humans came to appear; genealogical notices serve as chronological markers, no more), Nickau (1990), and Canfora (1991: 5–6); answering in the negative: Hunter (1982: 93–115) (since Herodotus, like Thucydides, ‘consider[s] the mythological period a temps des hommes, a time of real, historical personages’ (p. 103)), Raubitschek (1989), T. Harrison (2000a: 203–7), Murray (2001a: 20), and Cobet (2002: 405–11). Hunter (1982: 93–115) suggests that these terms are misapplied to the Histories; there is no spatium mythicum in Egypt (since the priests preserved accurate memory), and Herodotus ‘reject[s]…the entire temps des dieux in Greece as a creation of the poets’ (p. 87). R. L. Fowler (2010: 327) proposes the existence rather of a spatium divinum in Herodotus (‘draw[ing] the line between the two qualitatively different spatia not between us and the heroes, but between heroes and gods’ produces a ‘tolerably consistent’ result). Lateiner (1989: 123–4) observes a threefold distinction between epochs. Williams (2002: 178) deems Vidal-Naquet’s formulation (1960) misleading in that it conceptualizes the distinction too much in terms of eras and implies that the worlds of gods and humans are separate. Feeney (2007a: 69–86) finds a sensible middle ground: ‘the activity of demarcating between myth and history mattered in the ancient historiographical tradition, though not necessarily in ways that might correspond closely to any of our current modern divisions between myth and history’ (p. 69), and highlights the chronological dimension of the distinction. See also Rood (2010: 65–7) and Saïd, this volume, Ch. 2, pp. 88–90.
(96) Cf. E. Irwin (2007a: 214), observing the damaging consequences in the case of 3.122 of interpreting the passage solely in terms of a myth/history distinction (with perceptive discussion of 3.122 at 213–15). Feeney (2007a: 72–6) likewise emphasizes the need for recognition of Herodotus’ sophistication on this score.
(97) In Minos’ case, E. Irwin (2007a) offers a fresh focus on the adjective ‘human’, suggesting that it is precisely this that Polycrates represents in Herodotus’ narrative (exemplifying the typically human change of fortune). Cf. Vandiver (1991: 150): Herodotus could both distinguish between heroes and the heroic age, and consider heroes as real historical personages. Herington (1985: 59) draws attention to the ‘delicate balance between imaginative acceptance and hard-headed realism which is so characteristic of the ancient Greeks’ attitude to their divine and mythical world’. See also Munson, this volume, Ch. 7, passim.
(98) On how patterns on the level of sentence in Herodotus are replicated on the highest level, see Immerwahr (1966: 47). Expressive syntactic ambiguity in Herodotus: e.g. 8.3.1–2, on the Athenians’ attitude towards their allies, yielding leadership to Sparta mekhri hosou karta edeonto autōn (‘for as long as the allies had great need of the Athenians’, or ‘for as long as the Athenians had great need of the allies’): Baragwanath (2008: 199–200, with further examples discussed at 168, 209–10, 262); cf. 5.97.3, arkhē kakōn (‘beginning/empire of evils’): Irwin and Greenwood (2007: 10 n. 20, with text).
(100) ‘The entire Histories is located under the sign of this balancing act between the refusal to venture into reciting the lives of divine or heroic figures of earliest times, and the recognition of their anteriority, and therefore their existence’ (Darbo-Peschanski 1987: 33).
(103) Williams argues that Thucydides ‘invented historical time’ by applying to early material the same standards of truth and falsity as to recent history (see, e.g., 2002: 162), cf. Saïd (2010: 167–9). Von Leyden (1949/50) and Vandiver (1991: 237) likewise recognize Herodotus’ steps forward in acknowledging the methodological difficulties in dealing with early material, but regard Thucydides as responsible for the true advance.
(104) E. Irwin (2007a: 212). Feeney (2007a: 243–4 n. 34) likewise notes that Williams does not fully appreciate Herodotus’ achievement in this respect. Cf. Griffiths (1999: 180) on the sceptical add-on to the tale of Euenius, which serves to distance the author from the improbable material he has been narrating. For Herodotus as ‘Vater des Empirismus’ (‘father of empiricism’) see D. Müller (1981).
(109) Cf. Herodotus on Heracles, 2.43: many tekmēria were available to Herodotus in support of the idea that the name of the Greek Heracles came from Egypt to Hellas (and to the Greeks who then gave the name to Amphitryon’s son), including the fact that Amphitryon and Alcmene were of Egyptian descent; and Herodotus’ own enquiries in Egypt (2.44) corroborate this by proving the existence of two separate Heracles. The account demonstrates that (a) Egypt is a locus where you can do historiē in relation to myth; and (b) even in the early history of Egypt one may discern chronological layers: it is not a ‘timeless’ realm like the mythic realm in Greece.
(110) See, in this volume, de Bakker, Ch. 3, and de Jong, Ch. 4. Shimron (1973) observes that the two counter-examples to his interpretation of idmen in the Histories (as referring to events that occurred ‘within the period of the two or three generations from Croesus’ time to [Herodotus’] own’, p. 48) refer to Egyptian history: p. 49. See Hunter (1982: ch. 2) (on Herodotus’ display of how the reliability and longevity of tradition in Egypt allows him to discover objective truth spanning back more than 10,000 years) and the important discussion of Vannicelli (2001). Munson, this volume, Ch. 7, p. 210, compares the Cretans’ long historical memory, which likewise renders their heroic age accessible to historiē.
(113) These traditional demarcations are discussed by Piérart (1983: 49–51) and Feeney (2007a: esp. 77–86), who highlights the more fluid temporal demarcations in Herodotus. Varro’s divisions are transmitted by Censorinus, De die natali 21.1.
(115) Cf. Cobet (2002: 391): ‘Herodotus’ narrative reflects the different ‘historical times’ inherent in the various cultural traditions he draws on’; Cobet brings out well the different statuses of time across the Histories’ various collectivities (ethnē, poleis, empires, etc.). Historical knowledge depends also on the type of item or source material: Lateiner (1989: 115–16), Pelling (1999: 333 n. 30).
(117) See further S. West (2004) and Chiasson (forthcoming: ch. 1) on Herodotus’ attitude to Aristeas’ hexameter poem Arimaspeia and use of it as a source. Before Herodotus, there existed no firm notion that poetry was not a suitable medium for recounting early or recent history, as Simonides’ Plataea Elegy, for example, bears witness: Boedeker (2001a); E. L. Bowie (2001); cf. below, pp. 47–53.
(118) For Herodotus’ adoption of a human narrator persona closer to Odysseus’ than Homer’s, see de Jong (1999: 220–3), Marincola (2007a: esp. 13–15, 35–7, 61–5), and Baragwanath (2008: ch. 2); cf. above, n. 1.
(119) In other contexts besides that of poetry Herodotus likewise exposes the fact that sources for early or mythical history, just like those for recent history, do not always record information transparently. Transmitters of information may, for example, be implicated emotionally: the Egyptians ‘out of hatred’ are loath to name Cheops and Chephren (2.128), with the result that the pyramids built by those kings are inaccurately named after the shepherd Philitis. Propaganda—a stronger form of this phenomenon—is addressed below, p. 41, and esp. in Baragwanath, this volume, Ch. 12, n. 26 with text.
(120) Stadter (1997) reminds us of the close intertwining in Ancient Greek oral culture of poetic and prose media and traditions (noting, e.g., the intrusion of song into Herodotus’ prose text). Nagy (1990: chs. 8–11) views Herodotus as part of the poetic tradition. Thucydides, however, lays out an interesting distinction between prose and poetic genres, in contrasting poiētai with logographoi (1.21.1).
(121) Grethlein (2010b: chs. 7–8) argues that Herodotus and Thucydides define the new genre that they developed both explicitly and implicitly against other commemorative genres such as epideictic oratory.
(124) There is the occasional exception—e.g. Herodotus’ treatment of Hecataeus, 2.143 (where mild polemic is in order, to challenge this mistaken rival view).
(125) pantas anthrōpous ison peri autōn (in reference to ta theia, ‘divine things’, or perhaps ta ounomata, ‘(divine) names’) epistasthai: see Darbo-Peschanski (1987: 35–7) for possible interpretations of this passage, which either refers to equal positive knowledge or suggests that everyone knows equally little.
(126) ‘This Targitaus’ parents, they say—I don’t believe it, but it’s the story they tell [emoi men ou pista legontes, legousi d’ ōn]—were Zeus and a daughter of the river Borysthenes’ (4.5.1).
(128) ‘And the kings’ burial place is still evident. And to this day there are in Scythia Cimmerian walls, and a Cimmerian ferry’, etc. (4.11.4–12.1).
(129) It accords with how people might be expected to act under such circumstances: ‘(they say that) the Cimmerians—when the Scythians were attacking [epiontos]—planned on the grounds that a great army was attacking [hōs stratou epiontos megalou]’ (4.11.2).
(130) e.g. the choice of dying honourably or escaping and surviving; the difficulty of persuading others: the people fail to persuade the kings, and vice versa; human intransigence; irreconcilable objectives. Cf. Saïd, this volume, Ch. 2, pp. 91–2, on the factors that for Herodotus confirm the historicity of the Egyptian priests’ account of the Trojan War (2.112–20).
(131) ‘And now there is…and there is…and there is…and the Cimmerians clearly [phainontai] in fleeing the Scythians into Asia founded also the Chersonese, in which now the Greek city Sinope is founded. And evident also [phaneroi de…kai] are the Scythians, that they pursued them and invaded the Median land, missing the path…And this other account, which is told in common by Greeks and by foreigners, I have now told’ (4.12.1–3). This also seems to dovetail with Herodotus’ own previous firm knowledge (which he reports directly): ‘For the Cimmerians fled always by the coast, but the Scythians—keeping the Caucasus on the right—were fleeing to the point where they invaded the Median land, turning in their route inland’ (4.12.3).
(133) Moreover, Herodotus goes on to model the use of the probability criterion in his ensuing hypothesis about the matter (cf. below, hōsper ēn oikos).
(134) He does not shrink from exposing corruption scandals surrounding the Pythian prophetess, as at 5.63 (bribery by Alcmaeonids) and 6.66 (by Cleomenes)—but these are a matter of recent events about which the sordid truth has surfaced.
(138) Munson (2005: 69, with discussion of this narrative at pp. 67–9). In the story of the handless statues (above, p. 21) we encountered another instance of Herodotus modelling the way in which stories develop over time, and thus staging a warning of the care needed in approaching mythical material. On Herodotus’ account of the foundation of the oracles at Dodona, see also S. West (2002: 39–46) and Gray, this volume, Ch. 6, p. 184.
(139) See Levene (1993) on indirect discourse as a framing device. Feldherr (1998: 51–81) brings out Livy’s use of authority figures (esp. representing their firm belief) to strengthen his accounts. Feeney (2007b: 185–6) highlights the influence of Herodotus’ example.
(141) He initially appears to be upholding the generic distinctions that ought to exclude such legends from a history, but ultimately differentiates his work from traditional models and justifies its inclusion of myth: Feldherr (1998: 75–6).
(144) The Homeric epics played an important role in this as well. Grethlein (2010a: 130–1) summarizes the debate and himself assigns multiple functions to the Iliad in the Archaic Age: the poem provided ‘a basis of aristocratic self-assertion’, but also played a complex, symbolic role in the subtle negotiations between various parties within the emerging polis communities.
(145) Dewald, this volume, Ch. 1, pp. 70–1, considers the resonance of mythic elements connected to local geography in the context of Hdt. Book One. See further below, p. 43 on Herodotus’ portrayal of the role of myth in the contemporary world.
(148) e.g. the story of Phylacus and Autonous (8.39).
(149) For a parallel instance, see E. Irwin’s discussion (2011: 397–414) of the Aeacid heroes of Aegina during the battle of Salamis, who play a role, she argues, in the Aeginetans’ heroic self-fashioning.
(151) Cf. Dewald’s narratological study (1999) of Herodotus’ proem, which argues that the shifting focalizations of Herodotus’ preface expose the partial and partisan nature of storytelling. On Herodotus’ proem, see also, in this volume, Saïd, Ch. 2.
(153) On this passage, see Dewald, this volume, Ch. 1, p. 74, and, for a detailed discussion of the story of Cyrus’ death in the war against the Massagetae, see Chiasson, this volume, Ch. 8, pp. 227–32.
(154) For the role of myth in contemporary political and colonizing discourse, see esp. Malkin (1994); cf. Saïd, this volume, Ch. 2, §3. See also, in this volume, Baragwanath, Ch. 12, on Xerxes’ and Mardonius’ use of myth, and Dewald, Ch. 1, Bowie, Ch. 11, and Baragwanath, Ch. 12, on Herodotus’ awareness of the power of myth to shape behaviour.
(155) Myths in the context of Egypt present something of an exception: see above, pp. 27–8.
(156) Veyne (1988), on whom see esp. Brillante (1990: 116–17). R. L. Fowler (2000) observes that, while a category of tales we call ‘myth’ was recognized (p. xxviii, cp. n. 41 above), the mythographers did not necessarily confine themselves to it: ‘in particular, the authors of local and regional history started in the mythical period and carried on into the historical without any thought that they were crossing generic boundaries’ (p. xxix). The practice of the Atthidographers of roaming between mythical and fifth-century material suggests that they were not working with such an epistemological distinction (nor was Plutarch in his use of this material and material of the first century BCE: Pelling (2002b: 188)).
(158) As Rood (2010: 67) observes: ‘The Histories as a whole are shaped by an awareness of the manipulation of the past.’ See Baragwanath, this volume, Ch. 12, on the problematic qualities of Mardonius’ use of myth, and Dewald (1999 and this volume, Ch. 1, pp. 61–7) on Herodotus’ staging of contested versions of myth in his proem; cf. Munson, this volume, Ch. 7, pp. 198–9.
(160) As Thomas (1989: 280) observes in a related context: ‘Far from parroting the family tradition, Herodotus was able to pick up…[alternative] traditions and treat them with considerable independence of mind.’
(161) See esp. Mitchel (1956). ‘Flagrante incompatibilité’: Darbo-Peschanski (1987: 31; cf. 29–32) (underlining the lack of system, while observing that it none the less furnishes the Histories with a broad chronological framework). A. B. Lloyd (1975: 171–94) attempts to reconcile the chronology of the Histories’ most prominent heroic genealogies. More generally, see Cobet (2002) and (with a focus on Egypt) Vannicelli (2001).
(164) In the case of recent history, we may not take this claim entirely at face value, for Herodotus aspires to more than this. See inter alia Lateiner (1989: 79, 82–3), Moles (1993: 95–6), and Thomas (2000: 188 n. 47 with text).
(166) Cf. Thomas (2000: 267–9) on his combining of Homeric and sophistic aspects, Baragwanath (2008: ch. 3) for the doubleness of his narrator persona, and Kurke (2011: chs. 10–11), who reads this doubleness in terms of a clash of (high) Homeric and (low) Aesopic narrative modes. Grethlein (2010b: ch. 7) offers an assessment of the tension between tradition and innovation in Herodotus’ work in relation to other genres of memory.
(167) The conscious aspect of such a process is highlighted at 2.77, where Herodotus observes that the Egyptians of the cultivated country ‘most of all men toil at preserving [epaskeontes] memory [mnēmēn]’.
(171) Xenophon, Memorabilia 2.1.21–34.
(172) See Irwin and Greenwood (2007: index s.v.) for the epic overtones and ambiguity of arkhē kakōn; cf. above, n. 98, and, in this volume, Vandiver, Ch. 5, and Bowie, Ch. 11 (e.g. pp. 271–8: Iliadic resonances in the account of Xerxes’ march give a sense of the significance of the conflict).
(175) Pelling (1999: 344) (on Herodotus’ borrowings from Homer): ‘the story is simply more believable if it corresponds to the audience’s expectations, more or less conscious, of how stories work’. Cf. below, n. 228 with text.
(176) Thucydides’ account likewise derives authority by evoking Homer’s war, but with a view to presenting his own as surpassing it—even though he explicitly rejects the fabulous element; cf. above, n. 4 with text.
(177) See below, pp. 53–5, for the term.
(179) Cf. Dewald, this volume, Ch. 1, pp. 61–5, on the combination in Herodotus’ opening sentence of both mythic and realistic resonances, and Griffiths (quoted below at p. 48) on the ‘change of gear’ between the Mycale and Euenius narratives.
(187) Baragwanath, this volume, Ch. 12, pp. 289–93 considers Herodotus’ use of the myth of Theseus’ abduction of Helen in this way; it may even (so Biraschi 1989) supply a stimulus to collaborative Greek action. Saïd, this volume, Ch. 2, §4, discusses the Trojan War as a paradigm that deepens the understanding of recent historical events.
(190) See above, nn. 1, 116, and 172 with text, and below, n. 211.
(191) Cf. Nagy (1990: 221–5, 329), Chiasson (2012). Nagy (1990: ch. 10), Crane (1996), and Kurke (1999: ch. 4) consider points of contact and divergence between Herodotus and epinician poetry in their treatment of Croesus. See more broadly Nagy (1990: chs. 9–11) for comparison of Herodotus and Pindar.
(195) On Herodotus and his poetic heritage, see Herington (1991a), Calame (1995: ch. 3), and, in this volume, de Bakker, Ch. 3, Vandiver, Ch. 5, Gray, Ch. 6, Munson, Ch. 7, Chiasson, Ch. 8, and Baragwanath, Ch. 12; and see below, pp. 50–3, for the importance of epic and tragedy as sources and models.
(200) See Wesselmann (2007: 33), pointing, for example, to how the mythical model of Oedipus informs Herodotus’ characterization of Demaratus, and E. Irwin (2011) for the way in which the Aeacidae are used to reflect upon the role played by the Aeginetans in the battle of Salamis.
(202) Tellus is connected with a historical incident (a war between Athens and Eleusis), but one that is only vaguely placed in time (as occurring at some point in a generalized past). As Rood (2007: 130) observes, the story is a ‘timeless paradigm’.
(203) Cf. Kurke (2011: passim) on Herodotus’ connection with Aesop, and (at pp. 131–4) the pleasurable character of indirect fable narrative. More generally, too, as Kowalzig (2007: 2) observes, ‘myth’s entertainment value may complement rather than contradict its serious content. Is it not precisely the excitement of myth that makes religion accessible to the Greeks themselves and so omnipresent in their society?…it is myth that makes ritual interesting, and perhaps meaningful.’
(204) Rosenmeyer (1985: 81) observes that ancient writers practised model criticism rather than genre criticism; Pelling (1999: 331) agrees in the case of Greek historians down at least to Xenophon, and highlights the undetermined and provisional nature of reader expectations in approaching Herodotus’ text. But, even as particular models (Homer, Hecataeus, etc.) are certainly important, and notwithstanding the fact that the term historia meaning ‘history’ occurs first in Aristotle (Hornblower 1987: 9–11), Herodotus sets up the poets collectively as a foil for his own practice (cf. below, p. 51).
(206) Cf. Feeney’s observation (2007b: 185) that Livy ‘follow(s) Herodotus and Thucydides in setting up a strategy of skirmishing with opposing genres’. See Chiasson (1982, 2003), Avery’s discussion (1979) focusing on Herodotus’ use of the tragic term epairō, and, in this volume, Chiasson, Ch. 8, and Baragwanath, Ch. 12.
(208) Cf. Histories 2.23, on which see above, p. 12. Mythological stories thus test the limits of human knowledge of far-flung places (Ocean was believed to flow around the edge of the earth) as well as distant times.
(209) Feeney (1991: 261) (in reference to epic poetry); cf. Feeney (2007b: 182, 197: ‘the strongest line of demarcation between formal history and other literary forms is that history does not introduce gods as characters into the narrative, while a strong but less watertight demarcation is to be found in historiography’s regular distancing of other “fabulous” or “mythical” material’). For Herodotus’ awareness of (and self-production of) budding generic criteria see further Baragwanath, Ch. 12 in this volume, n. 24 with text, and Marincola (1999) on the need for a dynamic concept of genre in approaching ancient historiography.
(210) The epiphany of Pan in particular ‘looks like a poetic epiphany’, and is perhaps ‘a deliberate and daring [generic] crossover, a real epic feature in a real historian’ (Hornblower 2001: 144); yet even here Herodotus presents the information as the account of Philippides, rather than narrating it directly: cf. Feeney (2007b: 179). See above, n. 195, for Herodotus and his poetic heritage.
(211) On the importance of Homer to the ‘most Homeric’ author Herodotus (as Longinus 13.3 describes him), see inter alia Huber (1965), Strasburger (1972), de Jong (1999), and Boedeker (2002: 97–109). See, in this volume, esp. de Jong, Ch. 4, and Vandiver, Ch. 5, for Herodotus’ engagement with and reworking of Homeric material.
(212) Cf. Grethlein (2006a) on Herodotus’ subtle use at 7.153–63 of the Iliadic embassy scene. Boedeker (2002: 97–109) and Pelling (2006a) bring out the complexity of the question of Homeric citations/intertextuality.
(213) Easterling (1997: 25) describes tragedy as the inheritor of epic; see Herington (1985) for tragedy as the culmination of the earlier song culture/Greek poetic art; cf. Nagy (1990). See Raubitschek (1993: 143) for Herodotus’ knowledge of mythological material from tragedy, but his suggestion that myth was best known to Herodotus through this material overstates the matter; there were ‘forests of myth’ available to Herodotus in various forms, through literary and oral transmission but also visual: see above, pp. 37–8, with Herington (1985: ch. 3).
(214) Easterling (1997: 25), with the further suggestion that ‘when allied and foreign ambassadors, businessmen, and visitors saw performances at the City Dionysia they may have been implicitly encouraged to view the plays as the modern equivalent of the greatest literature of the past and therefore of great interest and importance to the whole Greek-speaking world’.
(216) Affinities with tragedy: Laurot (1995), S. West (1999), Saïd (2002), and Griffin (2006: 48–54, ‘themes of horror’ at 48). Among other examples, Griffin singles out the story of Xerxes: ‘The whole story of the expedition of Xerxes itself is, in one vital aspect, the story of divine temptation, superhuman presumption and aspiration, and eventual defeat and despair (7.17; 8.109.3). That is very Aeschylean’ (pp. 49–50). Griffin acknowledges the ‘cultural and rational approach’ the historian brings to such stories (referring here to that of Cambyses’ death), which ‘marks his treatment off from the normal style of tragic poetry’ (p. 52); cf. esp. Chiasson (2003) on how the historian makes use of ‘tragic’ material but stamps it as history. Herodotus’ presentation of Xerxes glances at ‘tragedy’ in the ‘one vital aspect’ Griffin observes, though it contains quite un-tragic elements too, to be contrasted with Aeschylus’ presentation of Xerxes in Persians: see Romm (2006), Scullion (2006), and Baragwanath (2008: ch. 8). Cf. R. Rutherford (2007), pointing to affinities with tragedy even as the effect of a historical work is finally quite different from that of a tragic drama. Herodotus’ use of ironic discourse as related to the conventions of tragedy: Schellenberg (2009). It remains more difficult to establish the extent of Herodotus’ affinities with historical narrative in elegiac poetry of the Archaic Age. For an overview and some suggestions, see E. L. Bowie (2009).
(218) The expectation of re-performance in Aeschylus’ time (or at least in Herodotus’: cf. Taplin 1999: 37) is evident from its being forbidden in the case of Phrynichus’ Capture of Miletus (Hdt. 6.21). On re-performance at Athens and beyond already in the fifth century, see Dearden (1999), Taplin (1999, cf. p. 37: ‘Once good quality productions with quasi-professional performers are going round the Attic demes, we have a plausible scenario for a rapid and easy spread to other parts of the Greek world’, 2007: 6–7), Csapo (2004: 66–7), laying out evidence that the process of the expansion of the theatre beyond Attica began already in the mid-fifth century. The classic Attic tragedians were frequently restaged in the fifth century in western Greece in particular (to which Herodotus moved himself in 443 BCE, if we accept as historical his involvement in the foundation of Thurii); cf. Stella (1994: 16–17). Among the literate classes in and outside of Athens we may think also in terms of the circulation of texts, and the closer familiarity that facilitated; see further Baragwanath, this volume, Ch. 12, n. 61.
(219) e.g. from oral accounts or vase depictions. Cf. how a twenty-first-century individual can build up a good idea of a famous movie scene—from, say, Casablanca or Spartacus—even without having seen it.
(222) For example in the case of the shaping of the Thermopylae account on the pattern of the duel to turn it into a story of moral victory: Dillery (1996). On Herodotus and oral tradition, see the classic article by Murray (including the term ‘deformation’) (2001a), his reconsideration of the topic (2001b), and Thomas (1989: esp. 247–51, 264–81).
(223) For a recent overview of the relationship of myth and ritual, with further references, see Kowalzig (2007: 13–23). Scarpi (2009) considers the salient differences between mythic account and ritual (and their respective relationships to historical reality), each of which operates on a different plane and should by no means necessarily be brought into direct association with the other. Buxton (1994: 5) addresses the ‘distance and interplay between the imaginary world of the stories and the (real?) world of the tellers’. See above, pp. 15–16, for ritual-centred definitions of myth and their influence on Herodotean scholarship.
(224) e.g. M. L. West (2007). For ‘international’ or ‘migratory’ story types/motifs, see Calame (1990, 1996) and, with a survey of the modern scholarship, Hansen (2002: 1–31). For eastern parallels for specific Herodotean story patterns, see inter alia S. West (2007) on Rhampsinitus, and, in this volume, Thomas, Ch. 9.
(227) See Flower (2008: 19–20). In this volume, Gray, Ch. 6, and Bowie, Ch. 11, §2.3, discuss Greek seers in Herodotus. Cf. Thomas’ observation, this volume, Ch. 9, p. 237, that one must consider the possible impact of Greek storytelling on ritual actions (like the one she considers, of cutting a victim in half and marching an army between the halves).