Mythical Structures in Herodotus’ Histories

Tricksters and Structure in Herodotus

1. Tricksters in Herodotus?

Herodotus’ Histories are populated with highly intelligent characters often reaching their goals by means of cunning and deceit. In her influential 1987 study, Carolyn Dewald has identified “savants”, the wise advisers nobody listens to, as well as “tricksters”, who know more than others and act in unconventional and manipulative ways. These include Artemisia of Halicarnassus, who sinks an allied ship to make the Greeks think she is fighting on their side and stop chasing her (8.87), or Themistocles, who befriends Greeks and Persians at the same time, “mouthing pious platitudes with one hand and secretly preparing to feather his Persian nest with the other” (Dewald 1987:53). There are more cunning figures in the Histories (cf. e.g. Bencsik 1994), and not surprisingly, they, too, are implicated in traditional narrative structures, some of which will be analysed below. Also, the term ‘trickster’ means more than ‘cunning fraud’, having become a fixed term in anthropological vocabulary; this aspect will be looked at in more detail below.

2. The Faithful Traitors

2.1 The Pretended Renegade: Zopyros (3.153–160):

The story of Darius’ general Zopyros set during the siege to Babylon is one of the more spectacular ruses of the Histories, combining the extreme obedience of the Persian subject with a talent for cunning deceit.

Determined to end the siege after having received a favourable omen, Zopyros crops his hair and flagellates and mutilates himself, cutting off his own nose and ears. With the initially shocked Darius, he makes a cruel and cunning plan: Zopyros will defect to the enemy, pretending to have been maltreated by Darius. After that, Darius will lead practically unarmed men to the walls of Babylon (‘except daggers; leave them these’), first 1000, then 2000, finally 4000 Persians ‘from the part of your army about which you will least care if it is lost’ (3.155.5). Zopyros will then slaughter them and so earn the trust of the Babylonians.

The plan works, Zopyros becomes Babylonian commander-in-chief and guardian of the city wall. When Darius attacks from all four sides, he opens the gates and lets the Persians in; Darius razes the town and impales the leading men. At the end of the story and of the third book (160), Herodotus emphasises the greatness of Zopyros’ deed, which in the opinion of Darius had never been surpassed by any Persian except Cyrus and for which Zopyros was highly honoured in Persia. Still, the passage ends on a less enthusiastic note: Darius says he would have preferred Zopyros’ health to the possession of 20 Babylons—and in the last sentence, we get the punchline that Zopyros’ homonymous grandson has defected to the Athenians (3.160.2)—as if defection were a family tradition, regardless if pretended or real.

We can split up the story into the following elements:

  1. A city is besieged.
  2. One of the besiegers pretends to defect to the enemy.
  3. He pretends to have been abused by his own people by

    • a. cutting off his nose and ears
    • b. flagellating himself.

  4. A smaller group is killed before the final victory over the enemy.
  5. The besieged trust the pretender.
  6. The pretender opens up the gates for his own people.
  7. The story is cited as an example for exceptional courage.

The striking similarity of the story with the mythical ‘pattern of Sinon’ has already been recognised by Wolf Aly (1921:111). Even earlier attested than the actual Sinon-story is the tale of Odysseus spying on the Trojans, told by Helen to Telemachus Od. 4.234–264 as an example of his father’s heroism (element no. 7). Of course, this story is set during the siege of Troy (1). Odysseus infiltrates the enemy’s camp as a spy; he has flagellated himself (3b) to look like a Greek deserter. The Trojans do not notice anything suspicious (5). When returning, Odysseus kills four Trojans (4), which helps him escape and eventually leads to Greek victory over the Trojans. The actual opening of the city gates (6) is not part of the story, but immediately afterwards Menelaos takes over telling Telemachus of Odysseus’ function as a leader of men in the wooden horse (4.271–289)—a clear reference to the opening of Troy’s gates by the Greek heroes.

The obvious difference between the mythical characters and Herodotus’ Zopyros is that the former act independently—whereas Zopyros does everything as an overly faithful subject of the Persian king. Also, the severity of the self-mutilation is much more emphatic in Herodotus, and the fact that the group killed beforehand are the besiegers’ own people. This accentuates the context of monarchy in the Persian episode, spiced with Zopyros’ almost cynical comment on the daggers that the ‘cannon fodder’ will be given (‘leave them these’). The courage of Zopyros is put into perspective, too, as Darius himself is critical towards his self-mutilation, and as the story closes with the prominently placed anecdote of Zopyros the Younger having been a real deserter.

Another more distant parallel shows the Sinon-pattern in connection with monarchy, too: the deceit of Peisistratos wounding himself (3) in the war between the Attic coast and inland factions and claiming bodyguards from the Athenians; when they believe him (5), he seizes power (1.59.6). The structure of the pretended deserter, and even its derivatives, are used by Herodotus only in the context of tyranny.

2.2 The Pernicious Dream: Themistokles (8.70–83) and the Deceitful Dreams of Xerxes (7.8–19):

After telling this, Herodotus quotes an oracle endorsing Themistocles’ actions (77) and later gives another proof of divine approval of the battle: a supernatural appearance in the shape of a woman (φάσμα … γυναικός, 8.84.2) castigates the Greeks who at the sight of the attacking Persians panic and try to retreat (84). We find the following elements in the story:

  1. A deceitful message is delivered to the enemy promising success if they attack immediately.
  2. The sender is convinced that the opposite of the promised will happen.
  3. The parties involved are quarreling.
  4. The recipient believes the message.
  5. A divine portent supports the party of the sender.

After that, there is a variation of the pattern: now the deceived Agamemnon turns to his people with another message aiming for the opposite of its contents (2.110–141): he encourages them to go home (variant of function 1: success is denied) and expects their resistance (variant of 2: Agamemnon expects victory for the party addressed, whereas Zeus and Themistocles expect defeat). When the Achaeans take his fatalistic call for retreat literally (4), Athena and Hera step in to convey Agamemnon’s actual intention and motivate Odysseus to make the army stay.

The difference here is that there is one additional turn: Agamemnon orders his people to do the opposite of what he wants for ‘rhetorical’ reasons—if the men resisted him, their motivation to fight would be the result of their own decision and therefore stronger. He hopes for success but threatens with failure, so that Odysseus has to promise success again, so that the men do what Agamemnon had wanted from the start. Zeus, on the contrary, wants failure and promises success; Agamemnon believes him and does what he wants without any further ado.

There is another scene in the Histories that corresponds with the mythical structure of the deceitful dream, as has often been noticed: [4] the motivation of Xerxes’ Greek campaign by godsent dreams (7.8–19). This story, too, consists of several turns. Xerxes is already motivated to march against Greece (this is the main difference compared to the other stories’ protagonists), but his wise adviser Artabanos can convince him not to (7.10–12): thus there is a change in Xerxes’ plans before the deceitful message is even delivered. After that, the king dreams of a man who does not explicitly promise him military success, but orders him to stick to his decision—not a lie, but the equivalent of the deceitful message (1). Of course, it must be assumed that the dream-sending force knows that Xerxes will fail (2). The quarreling of the involved parties is part of the story, too, in the discussion among Xerxes, Artabanos and the general Mardonios, who is decidedly pro-invasion. Function 4, the belief in the message, does not happen immediately: the sceptical Xerxes has to see the dream twice, and even persuades Artabanos to sleep on his throne in his clothes in order to dream the same—which works: Artabanos is convinced, too. The supporting divine appearance is not mentioned in this context, but happens several times during the fights of the Greeks with the Persians (e.g. 7.84; 8.35–39). Also, the dream itself has a godlike quality much like the dream sent by Zeus in the Iliad.

Herodotus’ tales of the deceitful dream are linked to the institution of monarchy, too, although in this case, monarchy is thwarted by deceit: Themistocles keeps Greece from becoming part of the Persian empire by his intrigue, and Xerxes is driven to his doomed campaign by the deceitful dream, so that the threat of Persia’s foreign rule over Greece is finally removed and the authority of the monarch significantly undermined.

With the pattern of the deceitful dream, however, however, other narrative effects seem more important: the numerous turns of destiny characteristic of the structure heighten the suspense of the stories; the idea that everything could so easily have had a completely different outcome constitutes an important part of narrative strategy and would contribute to the mythification of the Persian Wars even if the mythical parallel of the deceitful dream did not exist at all.

Also, the use of parallels from Trojan myth, especially in the context of the great European-Asian conflict of the Persian Wars, puts the stories in close proximity to epic, and by this ‘epification’, the outstanding significance of the events is made clear. The Homeric or Trojan parallel validates and sanctions the divine predestination of contemporary events.

3. The ‘Suitors’

3.1 The Ruse of Darius (3.84–87):

One of the most devious characters in the Histories is the Persian king Darius, as can already be seen from his ascension to the throne (3.84–87). After having deposed the false king Smerdis and decided the famous constitutional debate in favour of monarchy (3.80–83), the six conspirators plan to elect a new king from their midst and set up some rules to protect the non-elected, one of them being that they will be allowed to enter the palace at all times, unless the king is sleeping with a woman. As for the election, they decide to ride outside the city gates and see whose horse will whinny first when the sun rises—this candidate shall be made king. Darius’ clever stableman Oibares now makes Darius’ stallion whinny by bringing a mare along, and Darius becomes king of the Persians.

However, Darius does not seem to respect the pact of the conspirators, as Herodotus vaguely suggests (3.118–119): when Intaphrenes wants to enter the palace, the guards tell him that the king is sleeping with a woman. Intaphrenes does not believe this and cuts of the guards’ noses and ears. Learning of this, Darius suspects rebellion and kills Intaphrenes with most of his family. Now, which of the two was right is difficult to say. On the one hand, Herodotus calls Intaphrenes’ act ‘outrageous’ (ὑβρίσαντα, 118.1). On the other hand, his motivation to enter the palace has nothing whatsoever to do with rebellion:

Ἤθελε ἐς τὰ βασιλήια ἐσελθὼν χρηματίσασθαι τῷ βασιλέι· καὶ γὰρ δὴ καὶ ὁ νόμος οὕτω εἶχε, τοῖσι ἐπαναστᾶσι τῷ μάγῳ ἔσοδον εἶναι παρὰ βασιλέα ἄνευ ἀγγέλου, ἢν μὴ γυναικὶ τυγχάνῃ μισγόμενος βασιλεύς.


He wanted to enter the palace and speak with the king; and in fact the law was, that the rebels against the Magus could come into the king’s presence unannounced, if the king were not having intercourse with one of his wives …

It is unclear who violates the rules here—Intaphrenes thinks the guards (and therefore Darius) are lying; if that is not the case, it is Intaphrenes who breaks the rules. In any case, Darius, the former rule-breaker, destroys Intaphrenes, claiming he has broken the rules; the king therefore becomes the ultimate rule-keeper.

A close mythical parallel for the story is the ‘suitors’ oath’ of the Trojan myth. Of course, Herodotus’ story is not about courtship, but it does deal with a candidate trying to stick out from the crowd. Three elements are the same:

  1. Several candidates claim a position.
  2. Rules are set up to confirm the status of the elected and non-elected beforehand.
  3. Some form of deceit happens: a. in acquiring the position and/or b. in breaking the fixed rules.

Seeing that the courtship of Helen is important in myth mostly because of the consequences of the oath—the non-elected suitors have to support Menelaus in Troy—function 3b, the fraudulent breaking of the oath, is most momentous here. 3a, a fraudulent attempt to acquire the position, is also present—but only attested in the Hesiodic fragment.

In the story of Darius’ accession to the throne, the motif of fraud has shifted to the actual election (3a), but not completely so. The oath between Darius and Intaphrenes is broken, too (3b), although it remains unclear which one of them has violated it. Conversely, while element 3b is more important in myth, we also have Hesiod’s testimony of a fraudulent attempt to acquire the position (3a).

It is precisely by this diffuse quality that the two stories become similar, because the roles of the characters are inverted. In Herodotus, the oath protects the non-elected, not the elected; in myth, it is the other way round. Were Darius clearly breaking the oath, he would be closer to the character of Odysseus but farther removed from the mythical pattern, because in myth it is the non-elected who violates the oath. As things stand, however, the deceiver and the deceived become virtually interchangeable.

Another common feature with the mythical parallel is the fact that both stories point to the future; their consequences are more relevant than their contents. This ‘trickster-story’ deals with monarchy, too: the preservation of the Persian kingship that will shortly have such an impact on Greece.

As in the Sinon-structure and the pattern of the deceitful dream, it now becomes clearer how deceit and monarchy are connected: The rise of the trickster illustrates the nature of this fragile form of government, where a single sovereign rules the (physically superior) masses not because of his physical strength, but by his intellectual capacities or his cunning.

3.2 Hippokleides and the Alcmaeonids (6.126–131):

Since the story is completely lacking the motif of fraud, it has less to do with the Trojan oath than the previous example. Hippokleides does not deceive anyone, he does not seem to be too intelligent, and he does not succeed.

Instead, in his character we find similarities with the anthropological paradigm of the trickster that originally stems from North American mythology: in 1956, Paul Radin published his influential book on the trickster-myths of the Winnebago. The grotesque, ambivalent character of Wakdjunkaga, for example, is permanently involved in tricking others, but also gets caught up in others’ or even his own ruses. His motivations are usually base—food or sex—and he knows no good or evil.

Another striking feature of the story is that it is not really Hippokleides’ own story. Herodotus reports the anecdote in the context of the Alcmaeonid family story, concluding: ‘and thus the fame of the Alcmeonidae resounded throughout Hellas’ (6.131.1), following up with the genealogy of the successful suitor Megakles. At first glance, it is quite puzzling why the Alcmaeonids should become famous over the story of Hippokleides—especially seeing that many members of this family have traits of the anthropological trickster, too, although not in this very story. Megakles’ father Alcmaeon, for example, had been promised by king Croesus as much gold as he could carry in exchange for helping his legates at Delphi. Herodotus describes in comic detail how Alcmaeon, putting on a huge khitōn and large boots, virtually stuffs himself with gold, even putting some in his mouth and rubbing it into his hair, making Croesus laugh and give him even more, founding the immense wealth of the family (6.125.3–5). Alcmaeon here is a laughable trickster, an “ethical opposite of Solon on a similar occasion” (Munson 2001:263).

The trickster heritage of the family seems to be enhanced by the marriage of Megakles with Agariste, because apparently she is from a trickster family, too: there are certain stories about her father which portray him as cunning—bypassing the verdict of the Delphic oracle and tricking the Argive hero Melanippos out of his sanctuary in Sicyon by importing a Theban hero—and also ridiculous—mockingly renaming the Doric tribes, absurdly calling them ‘Swinites, Assites and Porkites’ (5.68.1).

Interaction with other tricksters is typical within the anthropological paradigm—and nothing else happens when Hippokleides loses to the scion of a notorious trickster family. This kind of interaction makes sense—where there is a deceiver, there must be a deceived one, and the narrative’s suspense and dynamics grow when the latter is a trickster, too.

Hippokleides’ rival Megakles is not portrayed as deceitful or ridiculous in any way—in this story. But the image of the fight between tricksters still works because we know the reputation of his family: that an Alcmaeonid should triumph over another trickster is very plausible. If the Alcmaeonids become famous by the ridiculous dance of Hippokleides, it is because the story fits into their family history so well.

For the trickster, the situation of courtship is obviously ideal (it is not surprising that Odysseus, too, finds himself in a group of suitors twice in his biography): within a crowd of candidates, he has perfect chances of getting positive or negative attention. He does not necessarily win.

The story of Megakles and Hippokleides, too, is connected to the institution of monarchy. While Darius’ story refers to the preservation of monarchy in Persia, here, Herodotus goes a long way to stress the ambivalent relationship of the Alcmaeonids with tyrants and tyranny.

4. Tricksters in Herodotus

For the most part, Herodotus’ trickster-stories are ‘picaresque novels’ dealing with deceit, at most with a certain element of unconventionality involved. The stories about Hippokleides and the Alcmaeonids, however, are different: apart from cunning, we also have ridicule in them, foolishness, even obscenity, in short, the kind of comical elements we find in the anthropological paradigm of the North American trickster, too.

Still, all of the analysed stories have features in common. Firstly, they all have to do with the subject of monarchy. Secondly, all the characters seem interchangeable in a certain manner. Thirdly, they all deal with paradoxical personalities.

Let us start with monarchy. As has been stated, every trickster story requires a situation of agonality. The trickster can only show himself as such by competing with others, and the monarch can only rule over the masses by intelligence.

‘Little’ moving ‘great’ is a kind of reversal which Aristotle sees symbolised in the form of the circle: by mechanics, ‘small things rule over greater things and things with little weight move heavy and big things’; all balance—the condition for leverage that lets small things move big things—is connected to the circle (Mech. 847a), which is the original mechanical miracle because it moves in two directions at the same time and yet stands still. These qualities of the circle are linked to the Greek concept of intelligence outlined by Detienne and Vernant in their analysis of Greek μῆτις (1974). They see its main characteristics in a kind of sinuousness, suppleness and polymorphy, doubleness and ambiguity, inversion and reversal—qualities of the uneven, the bended, twisted, oblique and dubious, in contrast to the right, direct, rigid and unequivocal. This character of μῆτις expresses itself in the use of a Greek ‘vocabulary of the curve’, i. e. ἀγκυλόμητις (‘crooked in counsel’), σκολιός (‘crooked’, ‘perverse’) and so on.

This ‘twisted’, ‘bent’ thinking also shows in the flexibility of Herodotus’ trickster-stories. Monarchy, unstable as it is, is established and abolished in them: political power is flexible and completely unpredictable, like the pretended renegade revealing himself in an unexpected turn, like the dream structure in its complexity and unlimited flexibility. The sudden reversal of the trickster-story also illustrates a turn-over of political circumstances.

The position of the trickster figures is flexible, too—they all are interchangeable to a certain degree. This is obvious with the ‘suitors’, where several candidates attempt to acquire a position: the tricksters Darius and Hippokleides do not just interact with ‘normal’ candidates, but also with another trickster. Consequently, the contours of the single characters become less distinct. Also, the whole point of the Zopyros story is the blurring of the main character’s affiliation and identity; the Persian plays friend to the Babylonians. Similarly, Themistocles deceives both enemies and friends and is ready for any outcome of the battle—whether as a Greek patriot or a Persian sympathiser. The ultimate ambivalence is reached with the dreams of Xerxes. A trickster character does not appear here; Herodotus keeps the sender of the dream very vague, unlike Homer who has Zeus send it. The narrative structure with its turns and unpredictabilities becomes the actual protagonist of the plot.

This interchangeability of character and structure, of human error and divine deceit, attests once again the ‘tragic’ double motivation of the events Herodotus describes. Nor is Themistocles acting completely on his own: Herodotus tells us of the supernatural appearance at the beginning of the battle that sanctions Themistocles’ doings and proves an interference of divine and human acting. Themistocles’ becomes an intermediary between gods and mortals, he himself, not just his servant Sikinnos, takes the place of the deceitful dream transporting divine will.

Herodotus’ characters are more closely linked to the anthropological paradigm of the trickster in stories that have only a loose connection with a mythical parallel: The Alcmaeonids and Hippokleides resemble the ‘real’ trickster by their comical features, but their story does not have a lot in common with the mythical suitors’ oath. On the contrary, Darius is not funny at all, but the element of fraud likens his story to the myth in a higher degree. Zopyros and Themistocles, too, are closely implicated in narrative mythical structures but have only deceit in common with the anthropological paradigm of the trickster.

However, all Herodotean tricksters analysed here share one feature with the intercultural trickster figures, even with Wakdjunkaga, the Winnebago trickster: they are all paradoxical in some way.

Wakdjunkaga is clever and stupid at the same time. Even his body is not a correlated entity: in Radin’s fifth episode (1956:8), his left and right arm fight each other. In episodes 13 and 14 (1956:16–18), Wakdjunkaga orders his anus to watch the food; when it is stolen, he burns his anus with a red-hot piece of coal and then loudly complains about the pain—and so on. It might mean pushing the argument too far to compare this to the self-mutilation of Odysseus, Sinon and Zopyros. In any case, however, their self-mutilation is a schizophrenic division of identity: the traitor has to be flagellated or even mutilated, to help the loyal citizen or subject succeed—unfortunately, the two roles are united in the same body, like Wakdjunkaga and his anus.

This leads us to the paradox of the ‘faithful traitors’, Themistocles included: the paradoxical combination of deceit and loyalty. And the characters in the suitors stories are ambivalent, too: the Alcmaeonids are friends to tyrants and μισοτύραννοι at the same time; with Darius, in the end nobody knows whether he or Intaphrenes have violated the rules, whether the king is keeper or breaker of the law.

The combination of two mutually exclusive features seems to be typical of picaros throughout world literature; it includes Herodotus’ cunning characters, with their ambivalent traits of keeping and violating the rules, hate and friendship for tyrants, loyalty and deceit, as well as the Winnebago trickster. The structure of deceit combines opposites in a paradoxical manner—not surprisingly so, as falsehood itself, the conscious assertion of something that is known to be wrong, is per se the ‘original paradox.’


[ back ] 1. Either for the Ilias parva, as Aristotle claims Po. 1459b, or for the Iliu Persis (Procl. arg. Iliup. Davies EGF p. 62, 14–15 = Bernabé PEG I, p. 88, 10–11).

[ back ] 2. Cf. Blösel 2004 for the historical perspective.

[ back ] 3. Cf. Blösel 2004:236–241.

[ back ] 4. Cf. e.g. Macan 1908 on 7.15; Pohlenz 1937:118; Immerwahr 1954:34–37; Huber 1965:38; Saïd 1981:22–25.

[ back ] 5. Fr. 196–204 MW, later sources are Stesichoros fr. 190 Page/Davies = Schol. A ad Il. 2.339;E. IA 58–85; Isoc. 10.40.

[ back ] 6. E.g. in Apollod. 3.10.8–9 = 3.131–132.

[ back ] 7. E.g. Müller 1844 [1824]:164; Aly 1969 [1921]:159–160; Griffin 1990:72–76; Scott 2005 on 6.126.3 and 6.128.1; Müller 2006b:229 with n. 13.

[ back ] 8. Kerényi 1956; cf. Bierl 2007a:37–38 for an overview.

[ back ] 9. Cf. Asheri 2007 [1988] ad loc.