Saturday, September 10, 2005

Herodotus "The Histories"

How little is actually known about the life of Herodotus! We know that he was born between 490 and 480 B.C.E. at Halicarnass on the South-West coast of Asia Minor. Later Greeks would date his birth at 484, meaning that he was born under the Persian Empire. In the Histories, Herodotus never claims to remember any events of the great invasion personally, relying instead on the testimony of men he has spoken to. It becomes clear throughout that he draws much from second-hand sources, fables, and rumor, although seldom in an uncritical way.

This has led some writers to criticize Herodotus' abilities as a historian, and he has been called "The Father of Lies" as well as "The Father of History". However, it is important when reading Herodotus to understand his method which differs significantly from the sort of historiography that has been written since Leopold von Ranke, but which has merits of its own.

For one thing, this is not a work of strict historiography, or the critical analysis, evaluation, and selection of primary source materials into a scholarly narrative. "History" here comes from the Greek historia or "inquiry"; these are Herodotus's studies into geography, anthropology, ethnology, zoology, even fable and folklore.

Herodotus ranges widely, but expertly. Ethnographical descriptions are woven into the narrative. Hence, we learn that the "Mendesians hold all goats in veneration, especially male ones" (114) When a distinguished Egyptian male dies, "all the women of the household plaster their heads and faces with mud" (127) Egyptian women urinate standing up; Egyptian men do so sitting down.

He explains zoology: "The crocodile is a four-footed amphibious creature (that) lays and hatches its eggs on land, where it spends the greater part of the day, and stays all night in the river..." (122) The hippopotamus "has four legs, cloven hooves like an ox, a stub nose, a horse's mane and tail, conspicuous tusks, a voice like a horse's neigh, and is about the size of a very large ox." (124) The reader also hears about otters, various fishes, birds, and the "flying snakes" that Herodotus has heard of and apparently believed in the existence of.

Herodotus also details the physical geography of Egypt at great length, but not all of it. "As far as Elephantine I speak as an eye-witness but further south from hearsay." (105) He straveledave travelled a great deal and deals first and foremost with the things and places he has seen. "Up to this point, I have confined what I have written to the results of my own direct observation and research, and the views I have formed from them; but from now on the basis of my story will be the accounts given to me by the Egyptians themselves- though here- to- I shall put in one or two things which I have seen with my own eyes." (IIHerodotus2)

Herotodus seems to give primacy to the things he has seen with his own eyes. But, it isn't clear that this isn't a trope to convince us that he is a reliable storyteller. Some critics have questiotraveled really travelled as widely as he claims throughout the histories. They spot discrepancies in the narrative, but it's also not clear that these aren't mistakes made by the chroniclers who finally took down Herodotus' stories some years after his death.

After that, he relates hearsay from "reliable sources". Finally, he isn't above telling us a particularly entertaining yarn, fable, or tall-tale that he has heard. Many of these stories are convincing, although some, such as the winged snakes or the king who cures his blindness by washing his eyes with virgin's urine, are less so. Some stories Herodotus himself finds unconvincing, and openly tells us so.

Herodotus is using the real and the fantastic to paint an overall picture of the nations he deals with. His general plan is "to record the traditions of the various nations just as I have heard them related to me." (145) In a sense, his histories are closer to the collection of myths that nations tell to define themselves. However, he is also using the critical method, judging these stories and telling the listener which ones he finds unconvincing. He is not relying on primary sources, that Rankean fetish, but it is clear that he is relying on his own discernment and erudition. Most importantly, he is not making anything up. He may be relatively naive, but it is probably unfair to call him a "liar".

2 comments:

Pantiespantiespanties said...

Brett: I have "The Histories" hidden in my e-mail client at work.. Hiromi complains when I "spam her" with quotes from it, but dutifully reads them. Who wouldn't like the part about Egyptian burial customs, with morticians showing the customer accurate wooden facsimilies of the end results of their three tiers of service? I enjoy him a lot, but Thucydides is The Man, and his Penguin is surprisingly good (when taking it on a trip). Thanks for plugging the classics!!!

Rufus said...

Thucydides is a much better historian, but there's something so jolly about learning how Egyptians peed! You know, in the 19th C. most historians hated Herotodus, and actually throughout much of the 20th, he was sniffed at by historians. But, when cultural history caught on, he suddenly seemed contemporary.

I enjoy the classics too, although I'm definitely not an expert on them. Actually, I'm working through Plutrarch currently and teaching Medea next Monday!