Myth and Legend in Herodotus’ First Book
Abstract and Keywords
Herodotus has constructed a dense legendary and mythic framework comprised of the genealogies, the various forms of mythic background, and the religious thômata (‘wonders’), on which the main narrative itself floats. At the same time, already in the proem Herodotus has warned readers to be suspicious of logoi purporting to come from the past of myth and legend. This chapter examines, first, Herodotus' uses of genealogies that stretch back to legendary times to introduce and order both personal and ethnic lineages and to integrate them with genealogies already familiar to Greek audiences. By creating a dense web of mythological genealogies for peoples and individuals, Herodotus has helped locate exotic material in a traditional Greek framework, and he also has provided a rudimentary chronology for foundation stories of various families and ethnic groups. A second section considers how even mentioned in passing, mythic names can add informative background detail to an ongoing narrative that suggests to the Greek reader cultural connections of significance. A third section examines mythic thinking as it shapes ideology and ideological assumptions, both those of Herodotus himself and those of the characters in the Histories. Mythical accounts testify to the power that ancient legends have, as background that either motivates action or retroactively plays an explanatory role in events that Herodotus regards as real.
In regards to divine doings [ta theia], apart from their names alone I am not eager to relate what sorts of narrative I heard, considering that everyone knows equally about them. If I do recall such matters, it will be because my account leaves me no choice. (2.3)
There were a number of significant factors tempting and inducing [Cyrus] to undertake this campaign [against the Massagetae]: first, his birth, the fact that he seemed to be something greater than human, and second, the good fortune that attended him in war, in the sense that any people which Cyrus sent his troops after found it impossible to escape. (1.204)
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Herodotus is called the first historian. If any Greeks before him set out to tell a monumentally inclusive and realistic version of the recent past, one shaped as an account of human decisions and actions, neither we nor Dionysius of Halicarnassus know who they were.1 (p.60) Some uncertainty, however, always attends a prōtos heuretēs or ‘first inventor’. Unlike his near-contemporary Thucydides, Herodotus saturates his work with story elements that do not seem to us, strictly speaking, historical, but rather to have sprung from the world of earlier Greek mythic thinking.
‘Mythic thinking’, however, is an exceedingly polyvalent concept. If we were to accept the most precise and limited definition of myth, as the stories about gods and how the world and its primal inhabitants came to be, this chapter would be a very short one, since Herodotus explicitly does not intend to treat such subjects at all.2 As he says in the first of the quotations above (Hdt. 2.3), he thinks that no human being knows more than another about ta theia, divine matters, and so he will bring them up only when the human story requires him to do so. But when does his account, in his words, ‘leave him no choice’? In Book One, this seems to happen principally for two reasons: when legendary material imbued with what we at least consider mythic echoes is in Herodotus’ judgement an integral part of the oral logoi about the human past that he thinks it his obligation to set down; or when the mythic backdrop or resonances of some important event, person, or fact mentioned in the Histories will help his fifth-century Greek readers understand its larger cultural relevance—in effect, grid it in the larger Greek imaginaire. The dense web of material Herodotus makes use of that we might call mythic includes, most prominently, genealogies, picturesque background details, and even religious miracles and traditional story elements; it pervades and thematically shapes Herodotus’ first set of narratives, the expansive accounts of Croesus the Lydian and Cyrus the Persian that we have called Book One. These are usefully surveyed, I think, because it is in these first narratives that Herodotus signals to us as readers much of what he wanted his massive book to be and how he wanted it to be read. If I have erred here, it is on the side of inclusiveness, since I think these somewhat heterogeneous elements in Herodotus’ text are thematically tightly interconnected.
(p.61) I will argue here that Herodotus uses various kinds of mythic and legendary material in order to weave new and exotic material that might otherwise not have been accessible to Greek understanding into the fabric of traditional Greek ways of looking at the past. In particular, the mythic narrative patterns and thematic resonances that support and give continuity to the accounts of Croesus the Lydian and Cyrus the Persian enable his Greek readers to begin to make sense of autocratic rulers of large eastern kingdoms; they also set in play ideas about the nature of politics and the importance of the political choices that human beings make—ideas that will have real explanatory power as events come to a climax much later in the Histories, in the narrative of the great war of 481–479 BCE.3
There are three sections to this survey of myth and legend in Book One. The first considers the very odd and ambiguous approach to the distant past Herodotus displays in his proem, and the second explores his use of mythic genealogies and background information. The third and final section explores a more diffuse and interesting issue: mythic thinking as it shapes ideology and ideological assumptions, both those of Herodotus himself and those of the characters in the Histories. Religious signs and portents and motifs drawn from myth, legend, and folklore are aspects of Herodotus’ narrative that he took very seriously as part of the record of events but that by our twenty-first-century standards certainly seem mythic. Although we would not today expect to encounter them as central elements in a historical account, thematically they link up with the more obviously mythic and legendary material considered in Section 2, and together with that material become part of the causal and explanatory framework that makes the Histories as a whole hang together as a text.
1. Herodotus’ First Sentence and Proem (1.1–5)
At the Histories’ very beginning, the mythic and legendary Greek past is pointedly introduced, but in a very peculiar way. The interpretative (p.62) ambivalence of this first passage (1.1–5) points to one of Herodotus’ central beliefs: that we can neither completely trust stories that claim to be authoritative accounts of the distant past nor do entirely without them in making sense of our collective human heritage.
The first sentence of the Histories reads as follows:
This is the display of the investigation of Herodotus the Halicarnassian, so that the things done by human beings [ta genomena ex anthrōpōn] should not become worn away [exitēla] by time, and so that the great and remarkable deeds [erga megala te kai thōmasta] displayed by both Greeks and barbarians should not become unsung, both other aspects and the cause [tēn aitiēn] through which they went to war with each other.
Here the ambiguities of Herodotus’ relation to the world of the Greek mythic and legendary past already confront us as readers, head-on. The two purpose clauses highlight two very general neuter nouns—genomena and erga—as the focus of his promised historiē, or investigation. Although the two purpose clauses are grammatically parallel, they use different interpretative registers. Both of them direct Herodotus’ and our attention to a human past that he believes needs to be preserved, but they suggest different stances towards that past, especially in their implicit connections to the world of earlier myth and legend.
When Herodotus begins by declaring that ta genomena ex anthrōpōn should not become exitēla, worn away, he seems tacitly to eschew an interest in the themes of traditional myth and legend, in particular, the deeds of gods and superhuman heroes.4 At the outset of his massive narrative, he declares that he intends to investigate the accomplishment of humans in the ordinary human world, and he pointedly does not include any appeal to the muses or other divine facilitators of story. Indeed, the genomena ex anthrōpōn of this first purpose clause are not explicitly connected to story at all.
Expressions reflecting Herodotus’ determination to investigate human beings and their (real) achievements are scattered throughout the Histories; in general, he goes to considerable lengths to retell the version of past events most likely to be true: most plausible, or vouched for by credible witnesses, or testified to by material remains (p.63) left behind to support it.5 For evidence of Herodotus’ interest in being seen as a critical and discriminating author interested in Realien, one need only think of 1.95, where he wryly comments that he knows three other versions of the story of Cyrus, but has chosen here to tell the one reported to him by Persians who want to tell ton eonta logon, the ‘real’ logos. In many other logoi too, he takes seriously the requirements of to oikos (the likely), to prepon (the appropriate), and arguments from tekmēria (evidence).6 He does not believe that human women co-inhabit temples and sleep with gods, whether in Egyptian Thebes, Chaldaean Babylon, or Lycian Patara (1.182); he does not believe that the Neuri, neighbours of the Scythians, are werewolves (4.105), or that in the Persian War of 481–479 BCE Scyllias the swimmer swam more than 8 miles underwater (8.8–9).
Sometimes Herodotus’ own rational and prudential attitudes as a judge of human genomena are echoed by people within his account. For instance, 6.68–70 recounts the Spartan King Demaratus’ response to his mother’s very odd version of his own conception. When she declares that the guardian hero of the family must have impregnated her, taking on the likeness of her husband, Demaratus without comment hastily makes the necessary arrangements and flees the country. Apparently he considers her mythic, even pseudo-Heraclean, story unlikely to convince his enemies in Sparta; Herodotus, the narrator of the story, is clearly unconvinced by it.7 Throughout the later books of the Histories, Herodotus’ intent is to set down what really happened, especially in the Greco-barbarian wars of his father’s and grandfather’s generation, so that their details do not become ‘worn away’, whether by being forgotten or by being changed so that they no longer reflect reality, as in Demaratus’ mother’s imaginative version of his conception. In modern scholarship, this is the Herodotus—argumentative, (p.64) learned, fastidious about expressing scepticism towards peculiar logoi from the past—that many historiographers now privilege; we are comfortable in calling him Thucydides’ almost-contemporary and the echte father of history.
In the second purpose clause of the Histories’ first sentence, however, the language changes; Herodotus abandons his investigatory spelunker’s hat and assayer’s tools and dons bardic, even Homeric, robes instead.8 He now turns to the language of story, promising to acknowledge and celebrate the extraordinary aspects of the human record—to seek out great and remarkable erga, achievements, in language that suggestively resonates with that of Greek legend and myth. The erga megala of this part of the sentence—especially if they are thōmasta—bear a disconcerting resemblance to the material that the first purpose clause has tacitly eschewed, since one very common way things become thōmasta is by being, in effect, out of the ordinary human realm. Here, in his second purpose clause, he does not expect to renounce but rather to celebrate strange and wondrous achievements, precisely to keep them from being aklea, ‘unsung, unfamous’.
Many logoi in the Histories fulfil this second purpose by including material we would call mythic—which is perhaps why Thucydides sourly commented on the absence of to muthōdes in his own work, and why Cicero goes on to speak of the presence of ‘legends’ in the work of the father of history.9 Gyges and Candaules’ queen, Arion and the dolphin, Thrasybulus and his Milesian banquet, Cyrus’ remarkable rescue as a child: some of the best-loved stories in the Histories, stories apparently too good to be true, seem to us to have become exitēloi, so to speak, by the leaching-out of whatever historical details they possessed, so that they have come at length to resemble traditional myths, legends, and folktales. For Herodotus’ fifth-century Greek audience the problem of a tension between the ‘realistic’ and ‘mythic’ resonances of the first sentence probably seemed much less pronounced than it does to us, but the contrast is there if we look for it, and Thucydides’ implied criticism of to (p.65) muthōdes and his own very different narrative choices provide some evidence that even in the fifth century BCE the issue was for thoughtful people a real one.10
A hint that Herodotus gives us that he too has thought about or cares about the distinction between what we modern readers would call myth and what we would call history is contained in the odd series of demythologized logoi that follow immediately on his first sentence. Ostensibly pursuing his proemial promise to seek out the aitiē, cause (and responsibility to be assigned) for the commencement of hostilities between Greeks and barbarians, Herodotus begins the narrative proper with a feint, a ‘Persian version’ of the mythic rapes of Io, Europa, Medea, and Helen. The resonances here are superficially those of a Hecataean rationalism, since what the Persian logioi and then the Phoenician addendum provide is not the heroic, mythic, and epic versions of the four abduction stories familiar to Greeks, but rather a banal sequence of stories about trade and marital commerce.11 In it, Helen (to the earlier Greeks, the most beautiful woman in the world and herself perhaps a faded goddess12) has become a commercialized counter in the wife-swapping that is the dominant theme of the story. The basic plotline involves a succession of enterprising barbarian and Greek men, each of whom gets himself a foreign woman on the cheap. The final player in the series, Paris, figures he can get himself a Greek wife without paying for her, because, after all, the Greeks have got away with both Europa and Medea, without having to pay compensation for their acquisitions.13
It is hard not to see Herodotus as amusing himself here, perhaps startling his Greek audiences with a clever, supposedly Persian, version of long-known Greek mythic tales. But it is also hard to know the larger implications, or precisely at whose expense the humour comes. When Herodotus abruptly abandons these deflated versions of mythic and (p.66) legendary stories (two of them in their earlier Greek versions involving not entrepreneurial wife-getters but powerful and amorous Greek gods), he does so with an absolute, dismissive praeteritio:
This now is what the Persians and the Phoenicians say. For my own part, about these matters I am not going to say that thus or otherwise they somehow happened, but I will point out the man I know first began unjust deeds against the Greeks, and I will proceed to the rest of the logos…(1.5.3)
Certainly Herodotus has here avoided retelling some famous abduction stories from the Greek legendary past in their mythic form, but he has also made the rationalized versions of the Persians and Phoenicians appear ridiculous. We readers are not told why he changes the subject so pointedly, but plunges instead with assurance into the almost equally peculiar story of Croesus’ fifth-generation ancestor Gyges—this time presenting strange and vivid stories from the past that he does expect us to believe, some of it at least apparently vouched for by Delphi.14
Perhaps, as von Leyden has suggested, by retelling and then dismissing the demythologized stories of the Persian logioi and the Phoenicians, Herodotus is tacitly separating a ‘temps des dieux’ from the ‘spatium historicum’ he wants to privilege henceforth in the narrative.15 In von Leyden’s reading, the praeteritio in 1.5 signals Herodotus’ belief that myth cannot be cleaned up and rationalized to become part of the record of human doings; the abduction accounts, though interesting, have truly become exitēloi and their initially historical kernel unrecoverable. In this reading, Herodotus retells the four abduction accounts to suggest to the alert reader that a Hecataean rationalizing of myth and legend no longer adequately accounts for the human past, even if foreign so-called experts do it. This may be so. However, there is also a simpler and more overtly political and methodological purpose on Herodotus’ part for including these odd, demythologized logoi. After all, the tacked-on Phoenician variant of the Io abduction at the end of the Persian version makes it clear that both of the sober, cleaned-up accounts of Greek (p.67) myth provided by Persians and Phoenicians are also deeply self-serving in their apparent rationality. The pedestrian wife-swapping stories have a political purpose: easterners (the men who began the great war of Herodotus’ father’s generation) are using these stories to cast blame on the Greeks for beginning the enmity separating Greeks from Asiatic peoples.16 Herodotus abandons these accounts once they have served the purpose of showing that even stories from long ago contain overtly partisan implications in the present that leach them of their usefulness as real reports from the human past as effectively as the appearances of gods and magical journeys would have done.17
Whichever interpretation of the bold praeteritio of 1.5 we adopt, the bottom line is that in the passage we are discussing, three pages into the Oxford text, Herodotus has avoided specifying what kind of past he intends to explore. In particular, he does not make clear what relation he wants to establish between the world of ancient story—heroic myth and legend—and ta genomena ex anthrōpōn, the ordinary human world of politics, sociology, and anthropology that since Thucydides we have called the terrain of history. But, whatever the larger methodological implications we read into this odd beginning, Herodotus has clearly warned us, his readers, to be suspicious of logoi purporting to come from the past of myth and legend, even if they are told by foreign experts and have been stripped of their gods and more romantic story elements.
2. Genealogies and Aetiological Myths
In the ongoing narrative of Book One, material that we call mythic and legendary does appear and functions as a valid part of the story. (p.68) Its first and in some ways most obvious presence is traditional: Herodotus uses genealogies that stretch back to legendary times to introduce and order both personal and ethnic lineages and to integrate them with genealogies already familiar to Greek audiences.
As Vannicelli has recently explored, throughout the Histories Herodotus relies especially on the genealogy of Heracles and his family (we note that this is the human Heracles of 2.43–5, not the much older divine one).18 Launching into his first serious narrative, in 1.7, Herodotus introduces the Heraclidae. Their first appearance in the Histories is as the royal family of Lydia, the dynasty that Croesus’ Mermnad dynasty supplanted in the early seventh century BCE. Herodotus gives the specific genealogy of Candaules, the last Heraclid, as a descendant of Heracles, Alcaeus, Belus, Ninus, and Agron. How and Wells succinctly comment: ‘the (otherwise unknown…) son of a Greek hero is father of a Babylonian god and grandfather of the eponymous hero of Nineveh.’19 However improbably mythic their origins, the Heraclidae will appear again in all but two of the Histories’ subsequent books, and will be featured especially in Books Seven through Nine (7.208, 8.114, 9.26–7) as the family of the Spartan king Leonidas, who fights at Thermopylae and whose death will require compensation from Xerxes in Thessaly. The early Greek Heraclidae will also figure in Book Nine in the stories from the mythic past told by the Tegeans and Athenians, as they argue for their right to a place of honour in the battle line at Plataea. At the very beginning of Book One, however, Heraclids figure instead as early Lydians. We note that neither Gyges, Candaules’ Mermnad usurper, nor Candaules’ formidable but anonymous wife is given a mythic genealogy—Herodotus presents Gyges simply as Candaules’ favourite spear-carrier, and his role as illegitimate usurper is emphasized by the mention of Candaules’ mythic Heraclid antecedents.20
(p.69) Mythic genealogies for important easterners do not only link them to Greek myths; sometimes purely eastern mythic connections are in play, and these are often eponymous.21 A Lydian royal genealogy even earlier than that of the Heraclids is given, both in 1.7 and in 1.92–3, having to do with Atys and his sons Lydus and Tyrrhenus, from whom will come the Lydians and Etruscans. (This lineage, incidentally, reappears in 4.45 as a possible source for the name ‘Asia’, from Asiēs, a cousin of Lydus and the eponymous founder of a tribe at Sardis. Lydus and another brother, Mysus, reappear also in 1.171, as putative brothers of the eponymous Car, therefore explaining why Lydians and Mysians are allowed to use the sanctuary of Carian Zeus at Mylasa.) Other eastern mythic genealogies, some of them also with a connection to Greek legendary figures, involve the Lycians, descended from Glaucus son of Hippolochus, familiar from the Iliad (2.876), and the Caucones, who came to Asia originally from Pylos via Athens, since they are descended from the Neleid Codrus son of Melanthus (1.147). The Neleids will appear again in Books Five and Nine (5.65, 76, 9.97).22
Other large organizing genealogies appear in Book One, especially in the discussion of ethnic identities. Deucalion and Dorus are mentioned in 1.56, where Croesus is investigating the background of the Spartans—here the descendants of Cadmus the Phoenician also are mentioned, as the people who evicted Dorus son of Hellen from the north. Cadmus and the Cadmaeans will appear many times, although not elsewhere in Book One, unless we include Europa, Cadmus’ sister, who is part of the demythologized abduction story of the proem (1.2), and perhaps Thales named as a ‘Phoenician’ 1.171, as an oblique reference to a mythic Milesian connection to Cadmus. The lineages of the Ionian coast are more complex than this, however, and involve the fusion of a number of mythic founders’ lines. Discussing the ethnic background of Lycia, in 1.173 Herodotus starts with Minos and Sarpedon as Cretans, sons of Europa the Phoenician. Sarpedon came to what in Herodotus’ day is called Lycia. There he was supplanted by Lycus, son of Pandion, banished from Athens by Theseus’ (p.70) father, Aegeus. The point of all this is to establish that the Lycians’ ethnic habits are a mixture of Cretan and Ionian/Carian traits. So, even though Herodotus later dismisses Minos’ naval empire,23 in Book One Minos has appeared as a legitimate actor, mentioned for his Cretan family connections. By creating a dense web of mythological genealogies for peoples and individuals, Herodotus has helped locate exotic material in a traditional Greek framework, and he also has provided a rudimentary chronology for foundation stories of various families and ethnic groups.
The second way that conventional mythic and legendary material comes into Book One of the Histories is more complex. Even mentioned in passing, mythic names can add informative background detail to an ongoing narrative that suggests to the Greek reader cultural connections of significance. This background can occur as part of the description of a place or object occurring in the narrative, as an incidental aspect of the story itself, or as a motivating detail or even an aetiology, explaining why someone behaves in a particular way or encounters certain experiences.
When a local context is in question, it is often unclear whether the named mythic elements resonate as more than familiar cultural markers.24 The ‘Midas’ whom Herodotus names as the first barbarian king to donate objects at Delphi (1.14) may in fact have been understood by Herodotus and his fifth-century audience to be a historical Midas who ruled Phrygia in the late eighth century BCE—but Herodotus uses the same name in Book Eight to refer to the legendary Midas in whose garden Silenus was captured (8.138).25 A central element in the story of the remarkable Spartan victory over Tegea in the mid-sixth century is the discovery of bones that turn out, apparently, to be those of Orestes son of Agamemnon, found at a forge in Tegea (1.67–8). For all we know, there may have been a real discovery of the bones of some prehistoric animal, and their identification as the bones of the son of Agamemnon might not have (p.71) seemed mythic at all to the Spartans, but merely a reasonable way to account for their antiquity and their remarkable size.26
Many geographical locations were intimately linked to, even identified by, the stories that traditionally adhered to them, but we are not always sure what the mythic resonances would have been for Herodotus’ audiences. Herodotus calls a mountain in Lydia the source of the Hermus River and the home of ‘mother Dindymene’ (1.80); presumably many fifth-century Greeks knew this cult name for Cybele, and even knew stories about her worship on Mount Dindymon. The account Herodotus gives of the capture of Croesus’ Sardis in 546 BCE includes the story of an early Lydian king, Melas, whose concubine gave birth to a lion who was then carried around the perimeter to make it impregnable (1.84); the motif is the widespread one of the fatal vulnerability of magic circles at a particular point.27 Two semi-mythic queens of Babylon, Semiramis and Nitocris, are linked to the remarkable waterworks and fortifications that surround the city (1.184); the waterworks were real, and Herodotus was dealing with real Assyrian material and perhaps even echoes of real queens, but both Semiramis and Nitocris per se are legendary heroines, Semiramis later made famous by Ctesias, Nitocris perhaps emerging by confusion with the Egyptian Nitocris of Book Two (2.100.2), perhaps by confusion with Nebuchadnezzar (who was responsible for great building projects in Babylon).28
Sometimes the mythic background is not directly connected to place, but rather emerges incidentally as part of one of Herodotus’ logoi. The name of Midas, the ambiguous figure in the context of the throne donated at Delphi, appears again as that of the grandfather of the unfortunate Adrastus in 1.35, where other names too in the story of Croesus’ son’s death have disconcertingly mythic resonances.29 (p.72) Such figures were undoubtedly part of the oral account Herodotus heard and recorded, and many of them were taken for granted by fifth-century Greeks as part of a real prehistory, even if in actuality they were imaginative reconstructions pointing to an otherwise vanished past. The Pelasgians and the Leleges are peoples mentioned as part of background narratives in Book One who have both mythic and historical resonances: the Pelasgians in 1.56–8 and 146 as part of the story of the Athenian and Ionian past, the Leleges in 1.171 as the name of the original island-dwelling Carians.30 The Phocaeans’ painful departure from their homeland in Ionia included the mention, in passing, of ‘Cadmaean victories’ (1.166). This story shows Greeks themselves as confused over the ambiguities inherent in mythic geographical resonances: according to a clever Posidonian man, the Phocaeans ran into great difficulties attempting to settle in Cyrnus or Corsica, because they forgot or did not know about an obscure hero, Cyrnus, bearing the same name as the island (1.167). Delphi had apparently meant the Phocaeans to honour the hero, not the island, which was what made their first attempts at founding a city on the island Cyrnus so disastrous.
A particularly suggestive category involves the myths and legends that are advanced in the text as part of the logos, to explain later people’s behaviour and actions. This raises a question that we will consider more extensively in Section 3: the extent to which the world of Herodotus and his audiences was an oral one. In an oral world, legendary material was seen by almost everyone as historical (that is, conveying a real past), and both Greeks and non-Greeks had no difficulty in thinking of mythic material as giving legitimate aetiologies for current conditions, or even explanations for things happening in their own lives, as part of their Foucauldian epistēmē, so to speak.31 Returning to the story of the bones of Orestes found in Tegea (1.67–8), we see that the bones and the mythic story attached to (p.73) them play an essential part of the plot Herodotus narrates. Their discovery motivates action on the part of Lichas the crafty Spartan agathoergos, ‘benefactor’, because it is Lichas who links the bones to an oracle predicting Spartan victory upon possession of Orestes’ bones. Thereupon, according to Herodotus, Lichas concocts an elaborate story to get control of the smithy and the bones; in consequence, he provides the Spartans by 650 BCE the means to dominate Tegea and obtain hegemony in the Peloponnese—because they have the bones of Orestes in their possession.32 The mythic material in this case has led to an important historical event, because the Spartans took the oracle and Lichas’ deeds so seriously.
Mythic stories can explain more generally why some cultural practices have emerged to be as they are in the present. In 1.82 a long-ago Homeric-style duel turned bad between Sparta and Argos is advanced as the explanation of the different hairstyles worn in present-day Sparta and Argos. In 1.105 the hermaphroditism of contemporary Scythians is explained as a punishment for their long-ago sacking of the Ascalon temple of Heavenly Aphrodite (this episode comes up again as we consider religious aetiologies, below, Section 3). In 1.146 there is an odd and oddly poignant parenthetical observation explaining why Ionian women do not stay seated with their men: they are remembering their long-ago Carian husbands, sons, and brothers whom the Ionians slew.33 The agonies of the Phocaeans in discerning the correct meaning of ‘the Cyrnus with which they are to found a city’ are relevant here too (1.165–7). Their need to honour Cyrnus, the hero, rather than to travel to Cyrnus the place, has retrospectively provided an explanation for why their attempts to found a colony proved so disastrous. All such accounts in Herodotus—and there are many, throughout the Histories—testify to the power that ancient legends have, as background that either motivates action and/or retroactively plays an explanatory role in events that Herodotus regards as real.
(p.74) The most striking testimony of Herodotus’ awareness of the power of stories from the past to shape the behaviour of people in the narrative, however, does not come in the context of an ancient myth or legend, but rather from a legend created within the real time of the narrative. It is quoted at the head of this chapter. Herodotus tells us in 1.204 that many factors stirred Cyrus on to fight the Massagetae, a decision that ultimately cost him his life. Among these, Herodotus says, the first and foremost was his belief in his own miraculous birth, and the second, his remarkable fortune in war. Even though Herodotus does not indulge here in an elaborate gloss, he makes it clear that Cyrus’ life had in effect become mythic for him—to the point where it had constructed in Cyrus’ own mind a myth of invincibility.34 This is part of a more general belief implicitly found throughout the Histories: logoi about and from the past, whether they are accurate accounts of what happened or not, create assumptions that have great power to shape decisions leading to action in the present. This plays a great part in Herodotus’ decisions about when and how to include stories from the past in his narrative, and we shall return to it at the end of the chapter.
3. The Influence of the Mythic on the Narrative of Book One
So far we have considered myth and legend when it is connected to genealogy or provides narrative background: attached to place, relevant as story-setting, or motivating and/or explaining conditions and actions in the narrative present. The pervasiveness of this material already makes it clear how much myth is woven into the fabric of the genomena ex anthrōpōn that Herodotus wants to preserve through his historiē. Perhaps if I were prudent, I would stop here. But I want instead to plunge ahead into deeper waters and consider as well two other fundamental ways in which myth emerges in the narratives of Book One—both of which gain much of their convincing power (p.75) from being connected ideologically to the mythic material so far described.35
Herodotus’ belief in what we would call miraculous occurrences constitutes one of the most difficult aspects of the Histories for us as moderns to take seriously.36 For Herodotus and most of his contemporaries, oracles, dreams, and portents foreshadowing outcomes of events would not have seemed mythic; they rather emerged on important occasions from the ordinary sphere of Greek religion. Oracles, after all, were real phenomena that really played a part in decision-making processes, both public and private, and oracular centres dotted the real Greek landscape.37 However, in our own twenty-first-century understanding of Herodotus as a reporter and analyst of human history, and in our secular and academic understanding of what constitutes genomena ex anthrōpōn, religious thōmata like those Herodotus often reports are matters for the National Enquirer and other supermarket tabloids but should not figure in serious historical accounts. They are ‘mythic’ in the dismissive modern sense of the word, simply unreal fantasy. Or, if they do intrude in history, religious thōmata are seen as instances of mass hysteria and cynical human opportunism, like the appearance of the angels at Mons in the First World War that putatively were seen by a large number of British troops, or the images of Mary, mother of Jesus, that appear periodically on the walls of modern subway stations and other public places.
Whether Herodotus believed in the Greek gods per se, he clearly believed that forces greater than human shaped the direction events would take and occasionally communicated that they were doing so through obscure means such as dreams, portents, oracles. Supernatural powers revealing themselves in various ways were for Herodotus not mythic, or at least, not entirely mythic; their help in determining the outcome of the Great War of 481–479 is one of the remarkable aspects of the historical account that Herodotus sets out (p.76) to record for posterity.38 Their powers are pervasive already in Book One, especially in the Croesus story.
Oracles and divination are deeply embedded in the basic plot line of Book One. The most powerful and frequently appearing oracle is that of Apollo at Delphi, whose control over the five-generation Mermnad line shapes the narrative of the first half of Book One. In 1.13, the oracle at Delphi confirms Gyges in his kingship but indicates trouble to come in the fifth generation; in 1.19, Delphi informs Alyattes that he will not be cured of illness until he has rebuilt the temple of Athena he had burnt in Assesus; in 1.46, Delphi is listed among the oracles that Croesus used; in 1.47–8, Croesus boils the tortoise shell, testing the god at Delphi; in 1.55, Delphi predicts the portent of the mule that will be explained in 1.91; in 1.66, Delphi points to the necessity for Sparta to find the bones of Orestes; in 1.85, Delphi predicts that Croesus will rue the day that his mute son speaks; in 1.91, Delphi explains to Croesus the errors in his thinking, undertaking to conquer Cyrus and then blaming Delphi for his decision. Delphi’s predictive and explanatory powers occasionally reappear in the later parts of Book One: in 1.165, Apollo at Delphi explains to the Phocaeans the mysteries of Cyrnus, in 1.167, he tells the Agyllans that they have to propitiate the Phocaeans they had killed, and in 1.174 he explains to the Cnidians why they are unable to dig a trench separating their peninsula from the mainland. Other famous oracle locations too are mentioned in Book One, some of them reappearing later: Abae in Phocis (1.46), Dodona (1.46), Amphiaraus’ oracle near Thebes (1.46, 49, 52, 92), Trophonius’ at Lebadeia (1.46), the Milesian oracle at Branchidae (1.46, 92, 157–9), Ismenian Apollo’s oracle in Boeotia (1.52, 92), the oracle of Zeus Ammon at Siwa in Egypt (1.46), the oracles of Telmessus (1.78) and Patara (1.182) in Anatolia.39
(p.77) Other manifestations of divine intent appear as well; the sheer bulk of them is impressive. In 1.19, Alyattes is struck by a sickness from the god, an omen that Delphi helpfully decodes; in 1.31, the mother of Cleobis and Biton prays for the greatest good to befall her pious sons, and they die in the temple itself; in 1.34, Croesus’ ominous dream foretells the death of his son, Atys; in 1.62, Amphilytus of Acarnania uses a theiē pompē to deliver a riddling oracle to Pisistratus, who then decodes it to gain a surprise military victory; in 1.78, the horses of Sardis eat a mysterious infestation of snakes, an omen that local diviners interpret too late to benefit Croesus; in 1.87, Croesus prays, and rain puts out his funeral pyre; in 1.105, as we have already noticed, the Scythians are struck with hermaphroditism after plundering the most venerable temple of Heavenly Aphrodite; in 1.107–8, Astyages has two dreams about his daughter Mandane that foretell the power of her unborn son.
A relatively long interlude without many religious thōmata occurs in the first part of the Cyrus narrative, as he begins to conquer much of western Asia, but in 1.157–60 we find the episode of Pactyas, and the response of the oracle at Branchidae, that Apollo has given faulty advice in order that the Cymaeans would be destroyed in consequence; in 1.160 we are told that the Chians never again use grain for sacrificial purposes that comes from Atarneus, the territory Chios has gained for betraying Pactyas; in 1.168, Timesius is made a hero by the Teans; in 1.175, Herodotus first mentions the priestess of Pedasa who grows a beard in times of stress and has done so three times.40
Unpacking all the narrative implications of these oracles and portents would take us far afield from Herodotus’ use of myth in Book One. But we are obliged to note a crucial, if obvious, thread connecting them to Herodotus’ larger historiographical purposes: gods, especially the god at Delphi, may repeatedly interfere to complicate human actions and choices, but, in the many passages listed above, it is the human circumstances and consequences connected to the oracular or portentous intervention that interest Herodotus, and the pattern to which the oracles point is not one the humans themselves generally see until they look back, with the advantage of (p.78) hindsight. The etymology Herodotus gives for theoi in 2.52, that they ‘set’ the world in order (using thentes, the aorist participle of tithēmi), means that for him the divine, to theion, has an explanatory role in history roughly comparable to the role played in our modern sensibility by climate change, the stock market, or the progress of infectious diseases—forces that are very important, but hard to discern at the time of their working. Thōmata as presented in the Histories denote an aspect of the natural order in which human beings live but also mark the limits of human understanding of that order. When they play a part in the narrative, religious thōmata not only connect thematically to the world of ancient myth and legend discussed above, in Section 2; they also articulate a deep-seated explanatory framework within which the human decisions and actions of the narrated present occur, for Herodotus and undoubtedly for most of his contemporaries.41 It is Herodotus’ historiē that allows him, following the recipe laid out by Solon in 1.32.9, looking back after events, to see the aitiai, the causal patterns, that the signs from the gods had apparently hinted at beforehand.
The final way that myth plays a role is more diffuse, since it has to do not with gods, whose powers inhere in thōmata and also pervade the world of myth and legend, but rather with the purely narrative aspects of traditional Greek mythic material. In Book One Herodotus presents individual actors thinking and speaking to others in ways echoing those of earlier folklore; moreover, the major plot lines of the narrative also contain patterns, traditional tropes, that any modern reader acquainted with the literature and thinking of archaic Greece finds deeply familiar.42 To those of us who want to emphasize Herodotus’ basic trustworthiness as a historian of ta genomena ex anthrōpōn, this is perhaps even more disconcerting an aspect of his narrative than is the pervasive appearance of religious thōmata.
In the realm of speech and thought, a number of actors in Book One deliver themselves of gnomic mots, little sayings, improving speeches, and even parables similar to those found in wisdom literature—for instance, in the paroemiography that clusters around the seven sages (all but one of whom, incidentally, are mentioned in the (p.79) narrative of Book One).43 In 1.27, Bias or Pittacus delivers advice that Croesus can hear, about the islanders buying horses, because it is delivered tactfully and obliquely, rather like the advice implicit in an Aesopean ainos (‘fable’). In 1.30–2, however, Solon is not similarly oblique and tactful. Although as a guest he is expected at least to begin with flattery of his host, he more or less harangues Croesus with several long stories and a free demonstration of his prowess in handling large numbers. (Perhaps one aspect of the Solon story is ironic: is Herodotus as a cultivated East Greek slyly mocking the customary but somewhat ponderous fifth-century Athenian deliberative mode of decision-making?) In making his long-winded, ungracious, and pedantic speech, Solon offends Croesus’ royal sense of propriety, but he also embodies one of the most famous traditional literary tropes in Herodotus, the warner whose excellent advice goes unheeded.44
In 1.59 Chilon (who, like Pittacus and Bias, is one of the traditional seven sages) forcefully tells the father-to-be of Pisistratus not to have a child—we may call this the ‘Laius motif’. In 1.71 Sandanis tries to remind Croesus of an already traditional motif, that of the savage outsider who conquers partly in order to get the goods of the insiders who live in luxury—a contrast between the overcivilized haves and the undercivilized have-nots that comes up in many other parts of the Histories as well.45
Cyrus, as befits his founding-father status among the Persians, is the author of a number of gnomic declarations and actions following from gnomic wisdom. In 1.125–6, he forces the Persians in effect to perform an ainos, experiencing a day of hard toil and then a day of pleasant feasting and, at the end, asking which they would choose; in 1.127, he tells Croesus a classic warrior’s warning, that he will appear before Croesus expects him; in 1.141, he tells the Ionians an entirely Aesopean fish story; in 1.153, he affects to despise people who have an agora in which they trade and lie to each other; and in 1.155–6, following Croesus’ advice, he unmans the Lydians by forcing them (p.80) to embrace music and the arts (another instance of the overcivilized/undercivilized trope).
Others who speak and act in terms familiar from traditional legend and ainos are Nitocris, the queen of 1.187 who lectures Darius on his greed, choosing to open her tomb, and Tomyris the Massagetan queen in 1.212, who swears to drown Cyrus’ bloody-minded head in blood and then carries out her pledge. In 1.86–9, Croesus belatedly realizes the value of the traditional, gnomic advice Solon had given him, and tries, successfully at least for the moment, to hand it on to Cyrus. Here, however, we should observe an odd note that comes up repeatedly in the Croesus story: Croesus, once he has been removed from the pyre through the intervention of the god, also advises Cyrus to stop his soldiers’ looting by speciously professing an interest in pious religious donation (1.89). This reminds us of his (very un-Greek) testing of the oracles earlier, and his (calculating and therefore less than heroic) advice to Cyrus later, to fight on the territory of the Massagetae rather than his own, since it would be more prudent—‘the first thing you should appreciate is that human affairs are on a wheel, and that as the wheel turns around it does not permit the same people always to prosper’ (1.207). As the saying goes, as Cyrus’ adviser at this point, he’s got the words, but not the melody, of Solon’s earlier advice. Croesus also advises tricking the Massagetae with food and wine (mentioning in passing the overcivilized/undercivilized motif again, 1.207.6–7; cf. Cyaxares’ behaviour in 1.106). Cambyses in Book Three is right to be somewhat suspicious of the overall quality of Croesus’ thinking (3.36).
Croesus is one of a number of individuals in Book One who also act, at least occasionally, as tricksters—in the Amerindian tradition, the ‘Coyote’ motif.46 Connected to Croesus’ gnomic speech is his largely unsuccessful but crafty behaviour, manipulating others’ cultural assumptions and religious sensibility (1.89, 207, 211). Most poignantly (and again, unheroically), he unmans his own people, the Lydians, in 1.155, by advising Cyrus to make them surrender their arms and become instead overfond of fine clothing, music, and retail trade. In all these passages, like Wile E. Coyote himself, Croesus (p.81) is good on figuring out short-term benefits but not sometimes the long-term consequences of his advice and actions.47
A number of individuals use tricks, the staple of oral folktale, very successfully. In 1.19–21, Periander and Thrasybulus trick Alyattes the Lydian by giving Miletus the appearance of prosperity under a lengthy siege; in 1.59–60, Pisistratus foists on the Athenians a couple of tricks, first pretending to be wounded and so receiving bodyguards with clubs, and then, after successfully decoding the meaning of Amphilytus’ oracle, perpetrating the trick with the tall woman Phya. We have already noticed the actions of Lichas the crafty Spartan, tricking the Tegeans into giving up the bones of Orestes (1.67–8). In 1.123, Harpagus uses a hare, apparently killed in hunting, to send a message to Cyrus; in 1.106, Cyaxares successfully uses on the Scythians the trick that will backfire when Cyrus and Croesus use it, of getting his undercivilized opponent drunk on good wine and food.48
In the more distant past of the early parts of Book One, many stories that have legendary or mythic overtones appear; one has only to read a survey of Herodotus’ use of Greek literary and especially tragic motifs to see how many traditional plot lines emerge as parts of his narrative.49 The account of Candaules’ formidable wife starts a theme that continues later in the Histories, that may go back ultimately to the Semitic mother goddess dimly visible behind the Ionian Greek versions of Heavenly Aphrodite, Artemis, and Athena—the goddess whose love can kill, as it did Adonis and many others, or whose epiphany can terrify, as it did poor Anchises. Arion’s miraculous rescue by the dolphin might have appeared originally as part of a dithyramb sung by Arion himself, but not necessarily about himself,50 (p.82) and in any case it recalls innumerable stories of righteous human beings saved from death by animals (we may think of Daniel in the lion’s den (Dan. 6:19–23) or Aesop’s Androcles). Croesus as the ruler warned by a mysterious foreigner from Athens in 1.29–33 gains added piquancy for Herodotus’ Greek audience from the fact that the foreigner is himself Greek and declaiming traditional Greek wisdom, much of it familiar from the historical Solon’s poetry. The royal father’s attempt to avert a fated doom for his child creates the Atys/Adrastus story, with names in it that certainly resonate with those of the Atthis myth.51
As the narrative moves further east, Deioces’ seven coloured walls bear an astrological or folktale resonance, but no archaeological trace of them has been found in Hamadan (1.98);52 his gaining the Median throne through the pretence of fair-mindedness forms part of the tricky-tyrant motif also noted above for Pisistratus. Two Medes, Cyaxares (1.73) and Harpagus (1.119), are treated by their enemies to a Thyestian banquet. One could add many other themes, some of them historical with a mythic overlay, like the story (echoes of which are found also in the Bible (Dan. 5:30)), of Babylon as a city so large and magnificent that the royal feasting is still continuing as the city is suddenly taken over, by Darius the Mede in the Book of Daniel but, more accurately, by Cyrus in Herodotus (1.191).
Cyrus’ narrative is rich in mythic motifs, as is treated in detail by Chiasson;53 I will mention here only his miraculously saved infancy and the revelation of his ancestral heritage (like those of baby Krishna, Moses, or Harry Potter), as well as the motif of the daughter whose child, like Perseus in the Danae story, will harm the powerful evildoer when he grows up. Most importantly, both the story of Croesus and the story of Cyrus, as Herodotus constructs them, rely implicitly on the ‘thoughtless ruler’ theme developed at length in Books One and Nine of the Iliad: the carelessness with which King Agamemnon, trusting in the power of his status, uses bad judgement, thereby endangering his whole expedition to Troy.54
(p.83) 4. Conclusion
What has this survey told us, then, about Herodotus’ use of mythic and legendary materials in Book One? Three areas of conclusion seem especially obvious at this point. First, Herodotus makes it clear that he constructs his narrative out of logoi he has gathered from many sources. Logoi, especially logoi from the distant past, make possible the narrative of Book One by giving explanatory background that makes sense to his Greek audiences. They organize family connections between Greeks and barbarians, and between barbarians and other barbarians, going many generations back. They adhere as part of the setting for many stories and their locations. Most importantly, they are used by the actors inside the narrative to explain things to others and to motivate their own actions. The fact that many of these logoi used by individuals in the narrative are in our terms from a past of myth and legend does not in itself vitiate their power or their reality as an important part of ta genomena ex anthrōpōn. Real people use logoi—mythic and otherwise—to understand their situations and then to act on their understanding, and Herodotus shows them doing so. Reflecting the fact that mythic logoi are deeply implicated in the Greeks’ sense of their own and others’ cultural identity, Herodotus has constructed a dense legendary and mythic framework comprised of the genealogies, the various forms of mythic background, and the religious thōmata, on which the main narrative itself floats. One of the functions of the Histories’ first book is to act as a methodological mise en abyme, in which the mythic logoi within the narrative allow Herodotus as narrator tacitly to reflect upon the power of traditional stories and mythic beliefs to shape actions taken by historical actors in the nearer past of concern to him, the world of the Persian Wars fought in his father’s generation.
Secondly, the religious thōmata that pervade Book One establish from the very beginning of the narrative, in the mid-sixth century BCE, that the story of Persian aggression coming in Books Seven through Nine is itself part of a much larger moral and ideological, and in this sense mythic, pattern. By anchoring the very beginning of the story of Persian imperialism (Cyrus’ connection with Croesus the Lydian) in a Delphic explanatory structure, Herodotus foreshadows a narrative role for divine communication for the whole narrative that will manage to encompass a wide variety of subordinate plot lines but also stay focused on the articulation of a religious truth: unjustified (p.84) aggression tends to lead, both in supernatural and entirely human terms, to catastrophic results.55
This leads, finally, into the third and most important point I want to make, again having to do with the connection of myth to ideology. By inserting the stories of Croesus the Lydian and Cyrus the Persian, two foreigners, in a dense web of Greek mythic and legendary motifs and patterns, Herodotus both provides an explanatory model for the collapse of Persian power in Greece three generations later (what I have called the ‘thoughtless ruler’ theme just above), and he allows each ruler, in his own relation to mythic/ideological thinking, to exemplify the power that narratives from the past, including mythic ones, have in creating such thoughtlessness. In different ways, both Croesus and Cyrus act out their own participation in this very old mythic pattern—I have referred above to Agamemnon of Mycenae but I could just as easily have referred back to Candaules at the beginning of Book One, to Ravana in the Ramayana, Tarquinius Superbus in Rome, King John in the Robin Hood saga, or, most recently, the forty-third American president, George W. Bush, performing on the US and international political scene.
Belatedly, as Croesus starts to roast on his pyre (1.86), he realizes that he is in a story that Solon the Athenian once told; he now sees that the stories of Tellus and Cleobis and Biton he had earlier dismissed have a direct relevance to his own understanding of himself. When Croesus tells Solon’s logos to Cyrus, he seems thereby for the moment (though, as we have seen, not later) to release them both from the power of imperialist fantasies of omnipotence. The end of Croesus’ story is not a glorious one; we last see him as an ineffectual courtier dancing attendance on a mad king (3.36). Cyrus’ version of the ‘thoughtless-ruler’ theme is darker still: he is brilliantly successful for many years but then, as Herodotus says, whether because of the apparently miraculous nature of his birth or his remarkably good fortune in war (1.204), he buys into his own myth of invincibility, and takes on the hardy, uncivilized Massagetae and Tomyris the terrible, ending with his head stuffed in a bag filled with blood (1.214).
Herodotus does not directly address the underlying question of whether a sovereign and imperial nation can learn, by thinking historically, to resist its infatuated leaders and their fantasies of (p.85) glamorous invincibility; Thucydides showed that this terrible myth continued to be operative in the Peloponnesian War and was responsible for many of the Athenians’ more imprudent decisions.56 It is not only a problem for ancient Greeks; a superficial perusal of any newspaper reminds us that it also remains in play for us, in the here and now. I think Herodotus would not in principle be sanguine. In the last book of the Histories, he makes an anonymous Persian before the Battle of Plataea, in tears, opine:
An event which has been decreed by the god cannot be averted by man, for no one is willing to believe even those who tell the truth. A great many Persians are well aware of what I’ve just said, but we follow our leaders because we have no choice. There’s no more terrible pain a man can endure than to see clearly and be able to do nothing. (9.16)
This points to the true and truly terrible power of mythic thinking: as human beings acting out our erga and thus creating genomena ex anthrōpōn, we do not generally see our own myths for what they are until, like Croesus, we look back from an already burning pyre. (p.86)
This chapter has profited greatly from the editorial acuity of Nancy Felson, Rachel Kitzinger, Rosaria Munson, and the two editors of this volume, for which I thank them all.
(1) D.H. Th. 5. For recent discussions of Herodotus’ relation to other early prose writers, see R. L. Fowler (1996, 2001, 2006) and Schepens (2007: 39–47). Marincola (1999: 283–8, 291–301) usefully critiques Jacoby’s pioneering work (1913). The translations of Herodotus used here are my own or those of Waterfield (1998), somewhat modified.
(2) For myth as a system of thought and its connection to oral culture, see Finley (1975a) and Vernant (1990: 203–60). Dowden (1992: 8) gives a working definition: ‘Greek Mythology is a shared fund of motifs and ideas ordered into a shared repertoire of stories.’ See also Csapo (2005: 1–9) for categories used to analyse myth, in particular, myth as a function of social ideology; see Saïd (2007) for a valuable overview of ‘myth’ and muthos in the Greek historians. Worth remembering is Calame (1999: 122): ‘Clearly, in spite of its Hellenic name, myth is not an indigenous category.’
(4) See Thomas (2000: 4–27, 164, 2006: 60–75) for Herodotus’ fifth-century intellectual and cultural milieu, and the rationalizing and scientific impulses that might underlie the phrase genomena ex anthrōpōn. For the genealogical use of exitēlos in inscriptions, see Moles (1999: n. 39), and the Introduction to this volume, p. 21.
(6) For the Cyrus logos and its relation to truth, see Chiasson, this volume, Ch. 8. More generally, see Darbo-Peschanski (1987: 127–89), Lateiner (1989: 98, 137, 140–42, 279 n. 11), Thomas (2000: 173–212), Raaflaub (2002: 157–86), and Dewald (2006: 169–70, 174–7).
(7) She may have been hoping to conjure with the Spartan royal Heraclid ancestry (6.51–2 and Boedeker 2002: 111). The controversy over Demaratus’ paternity is narrated in 6.61–3; for the importance of the Heraclids to Herodotus, see below, nn. 18–20. Herodotus reports other moments of cynical attempts to generate or influence religious belief: 1.59–60, 6.66, 7.6.
(8) See esp. Nagy (1987) and Bakker (2002) for analysis of Homeric vocabulary found in Herodotus’ first sentence. Boedeker (2002) and Marincola (2006, 2007a) give an overview of Herodotus’ larger connection to epic and mythic patterns; see further below, nn. 42 and 49.
(9) Thuc. 1.21–22; Cicero Leg. 1.5, on which see the Introduction to this volume, p. 3. Not all ‘remarkable’ material Herodotus wants to report is mythic, however; see, e.g., Munson (2001) for his interest in the exotica of ethnography.
(12) She continued to receive cult in Sparta: M. L. West (1975). For recent bibliography on Helen and discussion of her possibly Indo-European roots, see Suzuki (1989) and Edmunds (2007). De Bakker, de Jong, and Vandiver, this volume, Chs. 3, 4, and 5, discuss aspects of the story of Helen in Egypt.
(15) Von Leyden (1949/50: 94–5). Cf. Vidal-Naquet (1986: 39–60, esp. 45), for the basic distinction between the ‘temps des dieux’ and the ‘temps des hommes’, and the Introduction to this volume, pp. 24–29. See Boedeker (2002: 110 n. 43) for further bibliography.
(16) I owe to Rosaria Munson the observation that this is, incidentally, an aitiē for east–west conflict that the Croesus account that follows calls into question, since barbarian and Asiatic Croesus will cheerfully consult Greek oracles, have a half-Ionian half-sibling, and entertain Greeks at his court. See further Munson (2001: 100–7).
(17) Vansina (1985: 114–23) comments on homeostatic tendencies in oral cultures: ‘the historical consciousness expressed in [the Malagasy] body of tradition corresponded completely with the present-day concerns of the time when they were recorded’ (p. 120); see also below, n. 31. For the function of 1.1–5 in setting up the issue of authorial judgement exercised over Herodotus’ largely oral sources of information, see Dewald (2002: 269–70); for some of its broader rhetorical implications, see Dewald (1999: 224–8) and Goldhill (2002: 10–15).
(18) See Vannicelli (2001: 211–40, esp. 223–5, 232, and 234 n. 40), for Heracles as a vital key to Herodotus’ larger project of establishing a universal chronology for the more distant human past, and cf. Vandiver (1991: 167–89).
(20) If one applies the language of 1.5.4 to the story of Heracles’ descendants in the Histories, in this instance big becomes small but also, finally, big again. In winning the Persian Wars, the Heraclids Leonidas and Pausanias (7.204, 9.64) help restore the glory of their family that had been diminished when Gyges killed the last Heraclid of Lydia; see Boedeker (1988) and Dewald (1997) for other, more prominent, closural narratives. See Asheri (2007: 80) for the possibility that ‘Mermnadae’ meant ‘dynasty of hawks’.
(22) Vannicelli, this volume, Ch. 10, pp. 263–8 discusses the coexistence in the Histories of alternative genealogical myths of Persian origins (which lead back to the eponymous heroes Perses/Perseus and Achaemenes respectively).
(24) The same is certainly true today; inhabitants of Los Angeles, for instance, rarely think of the mother of St Augustine when they refer to Santa Monica. But the deliberate mention of mythic and legendary information had also been a part of the Ionian periplous, or sixth-century geographical writing. L. Pearson (1983b: 30) writes: ‘[Hecataeus] liked to explain how a particular place got its name, especially if it had any associations with a heroic figure of mythology.’
(26) Mayor (2000). See below, n. 32, and also, more generally, the authors cited above, n. 10. As we shall see below, it is the oracle and Lichas’ interpretation of the meaning of the bones’ identification that gives them a mythic importance.
(29) For Midas, see n. 25. Graf (19962: 135 n. 11) cites Burkert (1985) for the role of Croesus in the Greek imaginaire; see also Hartog (1999). On the Atys/Adrastus story, see Asheri (2007: 104): ‘It seems likely that the story has its origin in a local aetiological saga’ (of the temple of Nemesis of the Mysian city Adrasteia).
(30) See Dowden (1992: 74–92, esp. 80–1) on ‘pre-peoples’; for their relevance to fifth-century discussions of Athenian autochthony myths, see Thomas (2000: 119–21). For Herodotean ethnography in general, see Munson (2001), Sourvinou-Inwood (2003), and Rood (2006).
(31) For Herodotus as an active participant in an oral culture, the classic treatment remains Murray (2001a), supplemented by Murray (2001b); Stadter (2004) makes this point forcefully, examining Herodotus’ use of Helen and the Croesus story. For Herodotus’ use of oral narrative strategies, see Immerwahr (1966), Slings (2002), and Griffiths (2006).
(32) See Boedeker (1993) for the significance of this passage in establishing Sparta’s cultural identity, both more generally and specifically within Herodotus’ text. Gray, this volume, Ch. 6, analyses the traditional patterns in the story and compares it with the accounts of Tisamenus and Melampus in Book Nine.
(33) Asheri (2007: 177): ‘Herodotus gives a rational aetiology for the widespread custom of sex-segregation at meals; cf. the Cretan and Spartan sussitia, the Greek symposia in general, and the banquets of the Macedonians (5.18.3) and the Persians; the Caunians are an exception ([1.]172.1).’
(36) See the Introduction to this volume, §1.
(37) For oracles’ role in the politics of Greek states, see Parker (1985), and for Delphi’s role in Athenian political decision-making, see Bowden (2005). See Antonaccio (1993) and Buxton (1994: 80–113) for the larger mythical resonances of the Greek landscape.
(38) Mikalson (2003: 194) comments: ‘we modern scholars cannot have, and can never remotely approximate, the breadth of experience Herodotus had as a participant in and observer of the religion of early classical Greece.’ See also Gould (1989: 67–80, 1994), T. Harrison (2000a), Mikalson (2002), and Scullion (2006). Hartog (1999) points to the congruence of sēmainein and historeein in the Croesus episode. Lachenaud (1978) most fully develops the ties between Herodotus’ religious views and his work as a historian; see also T. Harrison (2003). Romm (2006) gives a nuanced view of Herodotus’ mixture of scientific and religious explanation for what we would call natural phenomena.
(39) Most of these, however, do not appear because of specific oracular responses attached to them but rather as part of a descriptive background, or because Croesus was said to have consulted them as well as Delphi (1.46). Most remarkable is the story of Apollo’s oracle at Ptoüm, north of Thebes (8.135), and the amazement of Mardonius’ emissary, a Carian, when the oracle started speaking Carian to him.
(43) For the importance of the ainos in early Greek thought, see Kurke (2011); for the close connection between myth and the ainos, see Gould (1999: 114–15) and discussion of Nagy’s argument (1990) by Hartog (1999: 186). See also below, n. 49.
(44) For the tragic warner or wise adviser, see Bischoff (1932), Lattimore (1939), Saïd (2002: 122–3), and Gray (2002: 299–302). For the echoes of the historical Solon’s own advice found in Herodotus’ Solon, see Chiasson (1986).
(48) In the context of all this clever behaviour, it is hard not to read as Coyote-like trickery as well more prosaic clever actions, like that of Thales, in 1.74 predicting the eclipse, and in 1.75 getting Croesus’ army over the Halys by diverting the river. On the other hand, since this cleverness was very deeply embedded in Greek culture (Detienne and Vernant 1978), who is to say that real tricks did not often occur and were admired, and that their presence in, say, the Odysseus legend merely reinforced their very real cultural presence?
(49) See above, nn. 42–4, and Boedeker (2002), Saïd (2002), Marincola (2006), and Griffin (2006), with their ample bibliographies. See Boedeker (2000) for discussion of Herodotus’ use of multiple genres in fashioning his own distinctive form of writing.
(51) See above, n. 29.