Mythical Structures in Herodotus’ Histories

Rite de Passage—The Tradition of Starting Over

1. On Terminology

I classify stories that deal with ‘coming of age’ by the three steps defined by Van Gennep 1909 and Turner 1964: separation from society, a phase of transition / liminality, and aggregation, the reintegration into society with a new status. Herodotus’ stories do not deal with actual initiation rites, but they show the same structure. [1]

The stories analysed below do not just contain possible associative references to initiation as have been detected in the stories of Cambyses and Cleomenes (1.4.2), but actually deal with children or young people undergoing some sort of change or transition. I have discerned three types of structures: the Exposure of the Threatening Child, the story of the Young Fugitive, finally, the ‘Thyestean Feast’, where a child is slaughtered and eaten.

All of them symbolise a kind of ‘initiation’, as we will see, and they all refer to more than the actual protagonists. Herodotus seems to aim for global comment: the single protagonist’s initiation always symbolises a more general cultural change. Initiation here works as a metaphor of starting over on a larger historiographical scale.

2. Persecution and Exposure of the Threatening Child: The ‘Cyropaedia’ (1.107–130) and the Childhood of Cypselus (5.92.α–ε)—Heroic Biography as a Portent of Adversity

The mythical pattern of the exposure of a threatening successor has a long tradition. In the Histories, we find it at first in the biography of king Cyrus. The Median king Astyages, his grandfather, dreams of his daughter Mandane flooding the capital and the whole empire with urine. He has the dream interpreted (Herodotus does not go into details here) and then picks a lower-ranking husband for the girl, the Persian Cambyses—an inferior father for the prospective child.

But the king dreams again: from his daughter’s genitals grows a vine overshadowing all of Asia. Herodotus tells us the interpretation this time: the child will be king, replacing his grandfather. Astyages has his pregnant daughter come to his court and when she gives birth, hands the child to his relative Harpagus in order to have it killed. Harpagus has scruples, because the child is related to him; also, he fears Mandane’s wreath. So he gives the baby to a cowherd to have him exposed in the mountains. But the cowherd’s wife has just had a stillborn child and persuades her husband to keep the baby, which is ‘fine and fair’ (112.1). Of course, the boy will live and eventually become king, after his nature is recognized when the children he plays with make them their king (114–115).

Many years later, just before the death of Cyrus, there is another reference to the story of his childhood (1.209–210). This time, he has a prophetic dream himself: he sees young Darius, the son of his subordinate Hystaspes, with two wings overshadowing Asia and Europe. Cyrus is worried and decides to see to the child on his return—but does not manage to do so anymore. The metaphor of the threatening child illustrates Cyrus’ own death, too.

The prophecies are fulfilled: Herodotus tells us that Cypselus becomes a bloodthirsty tyrant only to be surpassed by his son Periander (5.92.ζ.1), exiling, robbing and killing many Corinthians (5.92.ε.2).

In Herodotus, the stories can be broken down to the following elements:

  1. Prophecy: the ruler is told he will lose his power or his life by his yet unborn descendant.
  2. He tries to prevent the descendant’s birth

    1. by marrying his daughter to an inferior husband.
  3. The child is exposed:

    1. in a chest or
    2. by giving it to a third party who does not execute the order.
  4. The child is:

    1. nurtured by an animal or
    2. The child is raised by strangers (often herdsmen).
  5. The child has special abilities.
  6. The prophecy is fulfilled and the child regains his birthright.

In the story of Cyrus we find the elements 1, 2.1, 3.2 (doubled with Harpagos and the cowherd), 4.2, 5 (the baby is ‘fine and fair’, later, the boy will excel among his peers: 114–115), and 6. Even the nurturing animal (4.1) is hinted at: Cyrus’ foster mother is called Cyno or Spako, the Greek and Median word for ‘dog’, as Herodotus tells us himself (1.110.1).

In Greek mythical biographies, we have countless variants of the exposure pattern, many of which contain the first function so important in Herodotus: the prophecy of losing power. Several figures have parallels to Cyrus and Cypselus: Zeus, Oedipus, Telephus, Perseus, Paris, Aegisthus, Eteocles and Polyneices, and, for functions 1 and 2.1 only, Achilleus.

Why Herodotus’ historical characters are given such ‘heroic’ biographies is understandable especially in the case of Cyrus. The Persian of humble upbringing who ends up founding the Persian Empire by conquering the Medes, Asia Minor and Babylon, can hardly have the vita of a common mortal; consequently, he is given a typical hero’s biography—the story of the exposed child.

It is interesting how ambivalent the survival of the child becomes from this angle: if exposure is removal of a katharma, the emphasis is not placed with the rise of the new order as it is with initiation, but with the threatening fall of the old generation—not with the survival of the individual but with the downfall of society as it has been so far.

In Herodotus’ exposure stories, the positive and the negative prevail. Cyrus is the survivor, the hero who creates a new cosmic order: this is stressed via the initiation paradigm. However, he is also the ‘cursed child’ on three different levels: firstly for Astyages, secondly for himself, thirdly for a much larger group of persons. Not only does Cyrus overthrow his grandfather, but his own downfall will result from his excessive power, too: Herodotus informs us that Cyrus’ reason for his doomed campaign against the Massagetes is ‘first, his birth, because of which he seemed / believed (δοκεῖν) to be something more than mortal’ (1.204.2). In Herodotean theology, this is problematic.

Finally, for Herodotus’ Greek audience Cyrus is always the founder of the Persian empire. His miraculous childhood story evokes the rise of the Persians and therefore also an immense danger for the Greek world.

The case of Cypselus seems a bit more one-dimensional. His survival, too, threatens not only his contemporaries. He is practically the inventor of tyranny, being the oldest Greek tyrant. Herodotus’ view of tyranny generally tends to the negative—Cypselus is its prōtos heuretēs. Therefore, it is not coincidental that the story of Cypselus’ birth is cited by Sosicles condemning tyranny in the context of one of the constitutional debates of the Histories. There are no heroic or positive elements to be found in Herodotus’ Cypselus: he is all pharmakos—again, bringing significant change for the worse to all Greece (and by no means only to his family).

The element of uncovering can also be found in the story of Cyrus: taking the baby to his wife, the cowherd ‘uncovered it and showed it’ (ἐκκαλύψας ἀπεδείκνυε) after having spoken the clearly deictic words: ‘And now, here he is’ (νῦν τε ὅδε ἐστί, 1.111.5–112.1)—an important act of great symbolic value.

The example of Erichthonios shows the paradigm of initiation to be connected with negative emotions, too—fright and horror, which, psychologically, is not much of a surprise. We can understand now, why in Herodotus’ story of the tyrant Cypselus the association of initiation is not necessarily a positive one.

Neither Cyrus nor Cypselus are mere ‘cursed children’, nor are they flawless heroes. This ambiguity is owed to historical reality: the prophecies the hero’s ancestors receive do not refer to concrete events (neither of them kills their grandfather) but to historical change: the rise of the Persian Empire, the institution of tyranny in Greece. Myth works here as a marker of historical developments and as an instrument of interpretation. The characters cannot be portrayed in an unambiguous manner. Consequently, they are linked to a structure that, including all its nuances, eludes a moral evaluation, covering the whole spectrum from exposed hero to ‘cursed child’.

3. The Young Fugitive

3.1 Adrastos—‘the Boy’s Tragedy’ (1.34–45):

The story of Adrastos in the Lydian logos contains an especially evident adaption of a mythical pattern: the story of the noble boy having to escape from his native country because of a murder. Herodotus tells the story about Adrastos, who, hailing from Phrygian royalty, comes to the Lydian court and asks Croesus to purify him from murder. The king complies and afterwards learns that Adrastos is the son of his friend Gordias and has killed his brother inadvertently; delighted, he grants the youth unlimited hospitality.

In the following chapters, we are told about a boar ravaging the area. Croesus does not want his son Atys to join the hunting party because he has once dreamed that the prince would be killed by a spearhead (1.34). Consequently, Croesus had ordered his son to get married and all weapons to be removed from his presence, to keep him from all warlike activities. This time, however, Atys can convince him to let him go; Croesus has Adrastos accompany him for protection. But the inevitable happens: Adrastos points his spear to the boar but hits Atys and kills him.

When confronted with the slayer of his son, the king realises the youth’s awful misfortune and pities him; he absolves him from guilt telling him that the gods had long since foretold his sorrow. Still, Adrastos kills himself at Atys’ grave. Herodotus gives us a kind of epitaph ending the story:

Ἄδρηστος δὲ ὁ Γορδίεω τοῦ Μίδεω, οὗτος δὴ ὁ φονεὺς μὲν τοῦ ἑωυτοῦ ἀδελφεοῦ γενόμενος, φονεὺς δὲ τοῦ καθήραντος, ἐπείτε ἡσυχίη τῶν ἀνθρώπων ἐγένετο περὶ τὸ σῆμα, συγγινωσκόμενος ἀνθρώπων εἶναι τῶν αὐτὸς ᾔδεε βαρυσυμφορώτατος, ἐπικατασφάζει τῷ τύμβῳ ἑωυτόν.


But Adrastos, son of Gordias who was son of Midas, this Adrastos, the destroyer of his own brother and of the man who purified him, when the tomb was undisturbed by the presence of men, killed himself there by the sepulcher, seeing clearly now that he was the most heavily afflicted of all whom he knew.

The story of the youth that kills a relative—inadvertently or not –, goes into exile and usually acquires a privileged position there, as a friend or guardian of the prince or husband of the princess, is frequent in Greek myth. [
20] It is plausible that the story is a mythical reflection of an initiation rite: the protagonist is always a young man expelled and separated from his own society who, after a liminal period, finds aggregation in another situation. In Adrastos’ case, it is striking that he is named by Herodotus only after the purifying ritual: before, neither the reader nor Croesus know his name—as has been stated before, it is typical of initiation that the candidate is given a new name. Also characteristic of initiation is the pair of youths, [21] in this case the fugitive and the prince he is guarding.

I have confined my analysis of the numerous similar Greek mythical stories to the ones that contain the first two, or even all three of the most important elements in Herodotus’ Adrastos story:

  1. The inadvertent murder during a boar hunt
  2. The responsibility of the fugitive for a king’s child
  3. The doubling of the murder.

The murder is doubled in Peleus’ story, too. According to Apollodoros, he kills his purifier Eurytion during the hunt for the Calydonian boar (3.163–167). He has to escape again, and his next host, Iolkos, will not be his last, either: he experiences a ‘Potiphar’-story there (cf. below chapter V.3.2). Peleus, it seems, is a kind of super-Adrastos unable to find aggregation anywhere in the world.

Adrastos is probably not just an ordinary figure, but a personification of inescapability. But Atys, the son of Croesus, too, is incapable of initiation. At the very moment he could prove himself hunting and become a man, his life ends. His father had wedded the uninitiated child as if he had wanted him to come of age in an innocuous way. Actually, only an initiated man is allowed to marry.

The failure of initiation illustrates the downfall of the Lydian empire on a mythical and ritual level. It is a very graphic metaphor for the fate of the Mermnads, Croesus’ family: the king is left childless; the other son is a mute and cannot be king (1.34.2). This has been destined since Gyges: his descendants would only be kings of Lydia for five generations (Hdt. 1.14.2; 1.91.1). All of Croesus’ precautions were doomed to fail from the beginning.

That the Adrastos-miniature, of so little importance in the context of Herodotus’ account of the Persian-Greek-antagonism, takes up so much room in the book, confirms the impression that something larger is expressed by the micro-story: the artificial figure of Adrastos is a metaphor for the end of the Mermnad reign, the death of Atys, the downfall of Croesus. The failed initiation is also “symbolic disintegration of kosmos” (Felson Rubin and Sale 1983, 142); it demonstrates the end of an old order.

3.2 Phronime and the Wicked Stepmother (4.154–155):

In this context, I want to look at only one single structure that is part of Herodotus’ Cyrenaic logos, the biography of Phronime, mother of Battos, the mythical founder of Cyrene. This story is explicitly identified as a Cyrenaic version (4.154–155).

Phronime is the daughter of king Etearchos who rules over Oaxos in Crete. After his wife has died, the king marries another woman, who ‘thought fit to be the proverbial stepmother to Phronime, ill-treating her and devising all sorts of evil against her’, finally accusing the girl of ‘lewdness’, μαχλοσύνη, and convincing the king (4.154.2). He asks a merchant to grant him a wish and then tells him to take Phronime away and throw her into the sea. The honest merchant acts according to his name—Themison, which is related to θέμις, ‘righteousness’—and, while saving the girl, still fulfills his promise: he lets her down into the sea with ropes and pulls her up again. Later, a ‘notable Theraean’ takes Phronime as a concubine and she has his son Battos, the ‘stutterer’. Later, the young man Battos consults the Delphic oracle because of his physical flaw. The god ignores his question but orders him to found a colony in Libya. When the undecided Battos returns home, ‘things turned out badly for Battus and the rest of the Theraeans’ (4.156.1); consequently, they go to Libya.

Let’s just take a quick glance at the Therean version of the story, the version of the colony’s mother island (4.150–153). Phronime does not figure here, and her son Battos plays a marginal role, too; the main figure is Grinnos, king of Thera, who consults the Delphic oracle with a deputation of which Battos is just one member. When the oracle orders the foundation of the colony, Grinnos claims he is too old and tells the god that ‘one of these younger men’ (4.150.3) should do it, pointing randomly at Battos. The oracle does not react and they go back home. Consequently, Thera is struck with a drought, the Pythia tells them again to settle in Libya, and finally Battos leads them there, which is only the second time his name comes up.

Back to the story of Phronime, which consists of the following elements:

Obviously, the gender relations are reversed in Herodotus. The main consequence of this change is the lack of sexual desire in the stepmother who is now slandering a stepchild of the same sex.

Obviously, in Herodotus’ tale of Phronime, several mythical structures intertwine. However, they can plausibly be disentangled by paying attention to the connotations of the singular elements. The most likely interpretation can be gained from comparing the two different versions cited by Herodotus. In the Thera tradition, Battos is a completely marginal figure; Grinnos is more important and young Battos is chosen rather accidentally as founder of the colony. It is likely that the inhabitants of Cyrene coined a more ‘heroic’ biography and possibly royal lineage for their founding hero. Battos’ mother gets a vita similar to other mythical mothers like Tyro and Antiope, meaning Battos is associated with heroes like Pelias and Neleus or Amphion and Zethos.

Consequently, Battos’ humility seems to be programmatic and rather difficult to combine with a heroic vita. To give the character mythical traits, the heroic elements have been transferred to the generation of the parents—not to the father (who would then be a hero in his own right, but not necessarily his son) but to the mother, as female fugitives typically bear important sons.

4. The Deathly Banquet

4.1 The ‘Thyestean Feast’ (1.73; 1.119)—Change of Power and Levels of Culture:

In the first book of the Histories, there are two episodes of children being slaughtered and served to their father, who unsuspectingly eats the horrible meal. Although at first glance this pattern seems to be connected mainly with the paradigm of sacrifice, it also has to do with the idea of a new beginning.

The first ‘Thyestean feast’ of the Histories is found in 1.73: Scythian hunters, refugees at the Court of the Median king Cyaxares, want to take revenge on their host for treating them unfairly. They slaughter a child the king has entrusted to them (maybe his son), prepare him like game, send him to Cyaxares, who eats part of the meal, and escape before the deed is revealed.

The second story following the pattern is about Cyaxares’ son Astyages (1.119); its context is the exposure tale of baby Cyrus analysed above in chapter V.2. The Median king Astyages wants revenge because Harpagos has not killed the boy but tried to deceive his master.

So the king sends for Harpagos and his son on the pretext of inviting them to a sacrifice for the gods; he orders the son to come first so that he can play with the boy Cyrus.

The sacrifice then is human: Harpagos’ child is slaughtered, cut up, partly roasted and partly boiled and finally served to the father. The deceived Harpagos is additionally provoked when Astyages asks him: “Did you like your meal, Harpagus?” and after the son’s head, hands and feet have been carried in: “Do you know what beast’s meat you have eaten?” (1.119.5–6).

The ritual of the Lykaia, in turn, has a lot in common with the mythical structure of the ‘Thyestean feast’, even apart from the wolf metaphor. The preparation of the feast is usually described in the manner of a sacrifice—the meat is boiled and roasted—which links the myth to a ritual level. In both myth and ritual, the eater of the human flesh is expelled from society, not the slaughterer: Thyestes has to yield his reign to his brother Thyestes.

The dualism of life and death, day and night, eater and non-eater is not one-dimensional, as Burkert remarks: one thing can turn into its opposite. The polarities also symbolise the change of generations: the werewolves at the Lykaia are initiands; between Atreus and Thyestes there is a change of sovereign.

Burkert recognises this element of changing generations in Herodotus’ story of Astyages and Harpagos: the rule of the Medes ends and passes over to the Persians—because of the meal (cf. Hdt. 1.129). Harpagos, like the wolf-initiand, is turned into an outcast, the secret enemy of the king, who will help Cyrus overthrow the tyrant. The ritual structure, predestined by its polarities to symbolise the rise of a new cosmic order, marks the change of reign in Herodotus, too.

To Burkert’s analysis I would add a few remarks. To begin with, I think that his assumption works just as well with the other ‘Thyestean feast’ of the Histories, the story of Cyaxares and the Scythians. It also announces a change of dynasty. Firstly, Medes and Scythians are fighting for predominance (1.106.2). Secondly, this first ‘Thyestean feast’ is an important early step for Cyrus’ foundation of the Persian empire, because it anticipates the conquest of Lydia so crucial for Cyrus’ success: the guilty Scythians, chased by Cyaxares, flee to the Lydian Alyattes, and as a result, Medes and Lydians go to war. In the sixth year of war, there is a divine portent: ‘during the battle the day was suddenly turned to night’ (1.74.2), consequently, peace is made and the two royal families are dynastically united; The sister of Croesus, the Lydian crown prince, marries the Median crown prince Astyages, Cyrus’ future grandfather. We can see where this is leading: when Cyrus overthrows his grandfather, this family relationship is the reason why Croesus has to intervene—and in the long run, the reason why Cyrus swallows up Media and the rich Lydia in one go. Also, the change of cosmic order is signalled by the eclipse—a cosmic sign connected with the ‘Thyestean feast’ that in Herodotus, too, in both instances, signifies a change of reign.

In the case of Cyaxares and the Scythians, the mythic-ritual structure works as a marker: on a mythical and ritual level, the cannibalist meal is associated with change of order and of generations. Consequently, Cyaxares’ meal is already a portent of what is to come. The change of power happens many years after, but seeing that the pattern is associated with cosmic change, it is highly plausible for Herodotus’ audience to connect already the first ‘Thyestean feast’ with the burgeoning Persian power. The second meal, by which the fate of the people involved is directly decided (Harpagos becomes the king’s enemy and helps Cyrus overthrow him), is undoubtedly more closely linked to the change of power; however, it is more complicated, too, as the structure is not a mere marker but seems closely connected to Cyrus in a way that is not completely clear at first glance. Firstly, we have to note that the constellation of characters is generally different in mythical and Herodotean narrative than in the Arcadian ritual of the Lykaia: while the eater of the human meat is expelled in many cases—Harpagos, too, is in a kind of ‘inner’ exile—the eaters in mythical and Herodotean narrative, for example Thyestes or Harpagos, do not return in a significant turn of things. It is always a different person returning to the ‘crime scene’ like the initiand of the Lykaia: in the case of the actual ‘Thyestean feast’ a younger avenger, Aegisthos maybe, or the one who ends the family curse, Orestes, In Herodotus, the ‘returning hero’ is clearly Cyrus. He substitutes for the slaughtered child.

So the initiated is the slaughtered, eaten one. After his resurrection he gains new life and power. Of course, Cyrus is not eaten like Pelops, Dionysus and the Arcadian kings. It does seem, however, that the slaughtered child of Harpagos lives one half of the story and Cyrus the other: the child is killed, and Cyrus returns. We get the impression of virtual identity: the child is killed because Cyrus is not, owing to the paternal or at least kinsmanlike feelings of Harpagos, and at last, the father Harpagos helps the substitute son Cyrus to regain his throne.

The association of the founding hero to an initiation rite is supported by the metaphor of sacrifice also inherent in the structure of the ‘Thyestean feast’: founding sacrifice and initiatory recommencement merge into one.

But of course the structure of the ‘Thyestean feast’ has more dimensions in a narrative, and also a historiographical context. All mythic-ritual elements aside, the act of slaughtering and eating a child is primarily a shocking outrage. The punishments sent by the gods in myth are extreme, especially in the cases of Tantalos and Lycaon—in the latter case, the transformation into a wolf is not all; finally, the deluge extinguishes all mankind. Within the historiographical, contemporary discourse of the Histories, the mythical structure appears even more monstrous.

Herodotus’ use of the pattern in the context of the Scythians and king Astyages seems to be owing to the cultural positions the characters have in the Histories. What happened in Greece in a faraway, ‘mythical’ past at most, occured with the Scythians not so long ago. Child slaughtering and cannibalism fit in well with the picture Herodotus paints of this people: the depictions of Scythian cruelties in Book 4 are amongst the most drastic passages of the Histories (esp. 4.64–72). But this is different with the Mede Astyages. In the story of Cyrus’ exposure, his moral conduct may be questionable—but the ‘Thyestean feast’ is on a completely different scale of brutality. Why does the Mede suddenly act like a Scythian?

The fact that the Scythians had prepared the first cannibal meal for Astyages’ father Cyaxares, and that the son now uses the same method to take revenge on his servant Harpagos indicates a sort of ‘contagion’ of the Medes by the barbarism of the Scythians. One generation earlier, the Scythians had been the Other committing such atrocities, now, the Medes themselves have turned into the Other—from the recipient’s point of view, this is how things look. The Median culture seems to be declining.

Of course, this implies a kind of scale of civilisations on top of which the Greeks stand (not counting the Egyptians with their special position outside even the course of the other books). The related Persians and Medes are probably somewhere in the middle of that scale (the latter being more ‘archaic’ due to the later period of their heyday) while the ‘wild’ and faraway Scythians are almost at the bottom, followed only by fabulous peoples like the Amazons.

4.2 Murdering the Dinner Party (5.18–21; 1.106)—Clash of Cultures:

Another tradition of the ‘deathly banquet’ also implying a change of culture, or at least a definition of its status, is the story of the hosts murdering their guests. This leads away from the field of initiation and into the sphere of—perverted—sacrifice. Like the ‘Thyestean feast’, however, the collective murder of guests in Herodotus signifies a disintegration of culture.

The first and most prominent case of the banquet ending in collective murder is 5.18–21: The Macedonian king Amyntos, a friend of the Persians, invites Darius’ ambassadors to his court. When having dinner, the Persians claim it is their νόμος to have their meals together with the women and press the king to get the Macedonian women to join them. The king hesitates and points to the difference in νόμος, but finally has the women sent in. The Persians now demand that they sit with them, and of course the women are molested by the drunken barbarians. Now Amyntas’ son Alexandros gets furious and, having sent his timid father to bed, tells the Persians that the women will briefly leave them to get ready for the night. After the women have left, Alexandros dresses up young men in female clothes and sends them to the guests; when the Persians start molesting the ‘women’, they stab them with daggers.

The story contains the following elements:

  1. Invitation to a banquet.
  2. The guests get drunk.
  3. Women are molested.
  4. The hosts dress up as women.
  5. The guests are collectively murdered by the hosts.

At first, we have ask why the collective murders of the Histories happen at all. What seems to suggest itself is René Girard’s pattern of the crisis of sacrifice, “crise sacrificielle” (1972:esp. 63–101), his term for the loss of difference between the ritualised, purifying violence of sacrifice on the one hand and uncontrolled, impure violence on the other. If violence and killing are not ended by a sacrifice but lead to reciprocity and escalation, there is an irreversible balance between victim and committer, a crisis of differences (“crise des différences”, 76) and therefore a crisis of all cultural order dependent on an organised system of differences.

Girard points out that the ‘festivity turned bad’ occurs exclusively in declining societies, or in societies permanently at war. At the end, there is no reconciliation or purification, but escalation and destruction. The mythical reflection Girard cites is not the battle of the centaurs, but the bacchanal of Pentheus also ending in annihilation. If we consider this example, part of the disintegration of society would also be the blurring of gender boundaries, given in Herodotus in the form of cross-dressing.

This kind of ‘festival of reversal’ is, unsurprisingly, linked with change—like the New Year or critical transitions in the agrarian course of the year, “moments of stagnation and rupture at which chaos threatens” (Versnel 1993:120). The vacuum between the times is filled with sexual and other liberty, contact with the world of the dead, and ritual battles. Chaos reigns “as a temporary elimination of all contours, a return to a state undefined by bounds and moral standards” (121).

There still remains the element of cross-dressing that we might trace back to the tradition of the ‘Ausnahmefest’ or take as a general metaphor for ‘change’. But there must also be a reason why the element figures in only one of the Herodotean stories. Why do the Macedonians dress up to kill the Persians, whereas the Medes, it seems, just storm in and massacre the Scythians?

The Macedonian disguise is an elaborate ruse, and maybe this is where the accent of the story lies. The link of the motifs of dressing up and trickery has a long tradition in Greek myth: Achilleus is dressed as a girl to avoid going to war; Pentheus disguises himself as a Maenad to remain incognito; Zeus takes the shape of Artemis to seduce Callisto and so on.

Furthermore, we have two stories in Plutarch that combine the element of cross-dressing with collective murder in a way strikingly similar to Herodotus. In Solon 8.4–6, the eponymous hero sends a pretended renegade to the Megarians, who are at war with Athens. The false deserter tells the enemies about a festival for Demeter being prepared by Athenian women on the beach. While the Megarians approach expecting easy prey, Solon has young Athenian men put on the women’s clothes. The Megarians try to ravish them and are collectively killed.

Apart from the elements depending on the context of the banquet (1 and 2: being invited and getting drunk), all functions of the structure are there, even 0, the intention to kill. There may well be an intertextual link with the Histories. Another story in Plutarch, however, indicates an intricate interweaving of intertextuality and a more general ‘tradition’. It is the 7th episode of the Virtues of Women, the Women of Melos (Mor. 246D–247A): Intending to kill a group of shipwrecked Melians, Carians invite them to a banquet. One Carian woman, however, is in love with the Melian leader Nymphaios and warns him. Nymphaios tells the Carians that it is not the Greek νόμος to eat without women present, and so the Carians allow the Melians to bring their women. The men arm them with swords that they hide in their bosoms. When the Carians attack the Melians, the women give them the weapons, and consequently, the barbarians are killed.

Then we have a close resemblance to Herodotus’ Macedonian story again, especially considering the νόμος of bringing women to a banquet—an element with this degree of detail and complexity is surely intertextual and not generally traditional. Element no. 4, the disguise, does not figure; still, the female gown is the place where the weapon is hidden, just as it is in Herodotus’ Macedonian story.

Both Plutarchian stories show triumphs of cunning over violence, and especially the latter clearly deals with the difference of cultures. The proverbially wise Solon devising the cunning plan of cross-dressing proves that the motif is practically a narrative symbol of ruse. This may be the key to Herodotus using the element of transvestism, too.

If the structure of centauromachia means the annihilation of cultural borders, it seems that the element of disguise constitutes a cultural differentiation as well: the Macedonians have to beat the Persians with cunning, whereas the Medes are more clearly superior to the Scythians and not in need of elaborate ruses. The Scythians are utter barbarians, almost like centaurs, unlike the Persians, who represent an actual match for their Macedonian opponent. The mythical structure is refined and completed with the element of disguise.

There remains a friction between cultural differentiation and blurring of differences. But these phenomena are not mutually exclusive. At the time of the banquet, the present status quo is depicted: the dangerous game of two equal ethnic groups is not the same as Medes slaughtering a few barbarian Scythian nomads. It is through the fact of the collective murder, however, that the fragility of cultural superiority is depicted as well. The Macedonians are a marginal people never making the important decision of positioning themselves on either side, Persian or Greek. The Medes are a people teetering on the edge of the abyss.

5. ‘Mingled Cries’: Rhampsinitos and the Master Thief (2.121–122)

The story about Rhampsinitos and the master thief is one of the most famous of the Histories, thanks to its macabre humour and its poikilia. Its complexity makes understanding the narrative difficult at first but seems programmatic at a closer glance. We will see that the episode, dealing with themes of the underworld, represents a rite of passage. Like the other stories analysed in this chapter, it also announces a new historical phase, in this case the reign of the Egyptian pyramid builders. Moreover, the elements of Greek narrative tradition included in the story turn out to illustrate the Egyptian doctrine of metempsychosis, first on a formal level in a sort of narrative mimesis, depicting the contents by combination of traditional elements, and second by allusion to content.

The story is composed of four phases:

1. Theft and trap (2.121.α–β):
King Rhampsinitos requires a treasure chamber (οἴκημα, 2.121.α.1). The deceitful builder puts a removable stone into the wall and tells this to his sons on his deathbed. They commit several thefts before the king becomes aware of the loss and has traps set up. One of the thieves gets caught and realises there is no escape. Consequently, he begs his brother to severe his head so that nobody will recognise him; the brother obliges.
2. Stealing the corpse (2.121.γ–δ):
The king has the headless corpse publicly displayed and orders that anyone mourning it be arrested. The thieves’ mother begs her surviving son to put an end to the defilement, so the master thief disguises himself as a wine merchant, makes the guards drunk and steals his brothers’ corpse. For spite, he shaves the sleeping guards—on one cheek only.
3. The princess in the brothel (2.121.ε–ζ):
The king absolutely wants to capture the thief and demands that his daughter should receive all men in an οἴκημα. Before she sleeps with them, they have to tell her their ‘shrewdest and most impious’ deed. The thief cuts off his dead brother’s arm, takes it with him to the princess and tells her about the decapitating of the brother and the theft of the corpse. When she tries to seize him, he sticks out the dead brother’s arm and escapes again. Finally, the king is so impressed that he summons the thief to give him his daughter in marriage.
4. The journey to the underworld (2.122):
Later, Herodotus’ sources say, Rhampsinitos went to the underworld while still alive and played dice with Demeter, sometimes winning and sometimes losing. Finally he returned with a golden hand towel the goddess had given to him. Herodotus calls this story the aition of an Egyptian festival where a blindfolded priest is led by two werewolves to the sanctuary of Demeter and back.

At first, this conglomeration of elements is confusing. And indeed, the story has often been regarded as a not very consistent mixture of independent parts or “floating motifs” (Hansen 2002, 366), with interpretations mostly concentrating on the question of its origin.


But the parts do make a whole, as Carl Werner Müller has emphasised. All phases of the story, not just the journey to the underworld, deal with the subject of death: the treasury is most likely a burial chamber, a house of death leading to the underworld; the builder discloses his secret on his deathbed; the brother dies after having entered Death’s house; a corpse is stolen and its arm used to escape (1992:164–171). Müller believes the οἴκημα of the princess to be an underwordly place, too: all men have to pass it and answer questions resembling the situation of a judgement in afterlife. Finally, Müller regards the dead man’s hand as a substitute sacrifice to Death or a female death demon—all in all, the thief’s story would then be a contest with Death itself. Consequently, Rhampsinitos’ journey to the underworld, although at first glance it may seem like an appendix, is really organically linked with the preceding parts.

Based on Müller’s interpretation, Gerhard Baudy has read the story as a reflection of an Egyptian initiation rite (1996). He recognises several elements of mystic initiation also connected with the near death experience of the initiand. The symbolism of rites of passage is especially present, one might add, in the kind of death that happens to the thief’s brother: as has been stated before, dismemberment is a common metaphor for death and resurrection.

Baudy takes the important step of connecting the initiatory underworld journey of a pharaoh (who becomes one with Osiris in Egyptian myth before returning) with the metempsychosis of the dead—turning into animals and plants while travelling the underworld (described by Herodotus in 2.123.2). This picture strongly evokes the polymorphous god Proteus, whom Herodotus reports to be Rhampsinitus’ direct predecessor (2.121).

Trophonios’ oracle also is full of of underworldly symbolism, as Pausanias 9.39 describes: the surrounding area is called Κόρης θήρα, Kore’s hunting ground, after Persephone/Kore; the visitors of the oracle have to drink water of Lethe to forget everything, then descend on a ladder to the actual crevice sucking them in like a maelstrom and spitting them out after the oracle has been given. Terrorised and knowing neither who nor where they are, they have to be taken care of by their families after the disturbing experience—which resembles a mystic initiation in several respects.

The underworldly quality of the episode is, I think, firmly established by Müller, Baudy, and the Greek parallel of the Trophonios myth. But why does Herodotus include the episode at all, and why does he do it at this exact place?

Let’s take a look at the context. The episode connects Herodotus’ report about the first five Egyptian kings with his narrative about the rulers following them, the pyramid builders—it acts as a link between two different eras. Directly following is a short chapter on the Egyptian doctrine of metempsychosis (123):

πρῶτοι δὲ καὶ τόνδε τὸν λόγον Αἰγύπτιοί εἰσι οἱ εἰπόντες, ὡς ἀνθρώπου ψυχὴ ἀθάνατός ἐστι, τοῦ σώματος δὲ καταφθίνοντος ἐς ἄλλο ζῷον αἰεὶ γινόμενον ἐσδύεται· ἐπεὰν δὲ πάντα περιέλθῃ τὰ χερσαῖα καὶ τὰ θαλάσσια καὶ τὰ πετεινά, αὖτις ἐς ἀνθρώπου σῶμα γινόμενον ἐσδύνειν, τὴν περιήλυσιν δὲ αὐτῇ γίνεσθαι ἐν τρισχιλίοισι ἔτεσι.


The Egyptians were the first who maintained the following doctrine, too, that the human soul is immortal, and at the death of the body enters into some other living thing then coming to birth; and after passing through all creatures of land, sea, and air, it enters once more into a human body at birth, a cycle which it completes in three thousand years.

It becomes clear that the story of Rhampsinitos is not just any fairytale with underworldly connotations—it is also linked with the metamorphosis of the soul, as can be shown on several narrative levels, by analysing the implications of the other mythical parallels we have apart from the myth of Trophonios. They illustrate the metempsychosis on a ‘mimetic’, formal level, but also with regards to content, by linking it with Greek mythical and ritual traditions also dealing with metamorphosis, even of the soul.

Let’s take a look at the formal, ‘mimetic’ level first. It is striking that in the 12 chapters on the pyramid builders following Rhampsinitos’ story and the short excursus on metempsychosis, there is also a concentration on the subject of death, since the chapters deal mainly with tombs and burial. But there is an even closer connection with the story of Rhampsinitos: the following chapters seem like a series of variations on the first story.

The principal subject is building tombs; the theme of builders is reflected in the passages describing edifices, furnishings, construction or dealing with conflicts between constructor and workers (124–125, 127, 130–132, 134). Furthermore, Cheops makes his daughter a prostitute to finance his project; his successor Mykerinos forces his daughter to other sexual acts by committing incest with her. Both stories are closely linked with the subject of burial: Cheops’ daughter is paid with stones so that she can build herself a pyramid (126); Mykerinos’ daughter hangs herself and is buried inside a wooden cow (129). There is also the story of the hetaera Rhodopis, who builds herself a pyramid with her earnings (134).

Summing up, we hear of a daughter twice and of a prostitute twice; in one case, with the daughter of Cheops, both elements converge (and in the story of Mykerinos the daughter is forced to illicit sexual behaviour, too) as they do in the story of Rhampsinitos, which actually seems like a concentrate of the following chapters.

Apart from the themes of prostitution and burial, the cunning circumvention of death, too, is a motif immanent in one of the following chapters: Mykerinos, having only six more years to live according to an oracle, wants to get around the death sentence by not going to bed anymore ‘so that by turning night into day he might make his six years into twelve’ (133.5). This is just the kind of contest with death that Müller sees in the story of Rhampsinitos, too.

The element of burial and mourning denied to the brother of the thief is also reflected in one of the following chapters, 136, where Herodotus tells us that in Egypt, one’s father’s mummy or even the whole family grave can be pawned; if the money owed is not paid, the debtor will not be buried.

It seems as if the story of Rhampsinitos is a narrative concentration of the afterlife themes the following chapters deal with, the essence of a pyramid builder’s biography, followed by modulations and modifications. Like the soul will take on new forms on its journey, the tale of Rhampsinitos will repeat itself in variations in the lives of his successors.

The patchwork of disparate parts that is the story of Rhampsinitos is also playing at several different mythemes of Greek tradition: the deceitful builder resembles the Greek trickster Daedalus, ‘the skillful’, whose biography contains several acts of fraud: deceiving king Minos by helping his wife cheat on him with the bull, cleverly avoiding punishment by constructing the mechanical wings (note that there is also a wooden cow and a prominent father-son-relationship in his biography). The strictly guarded corpse can be associated with the initial situation of Sophocles’ Antigone. Making the enemy drunk is a common motif even in Herodotus (1.106.2; 3.4.3), the most famous Greek reference most likely being the encounter of Odysseus and Polyphemus (Od. 9.345–374). Marriage between a former enemy and one’s daughter is a frequent element of folktale; Iobates, e.g., gives his daughter to Bellerophon, admiring him for having survived all his traps (Ap. Bibl. 2.33). The journey to the underworld, finally, is common in Greek myth: Odysseus, Heracles, Orpheus, and Theseus go to Hades or its gates.

Apparently, the story of Rhampsinitos and the master thief is not just a concentration of the ensuing biographical chapters but also a potpourri of disparate parts that, by a Greek audience, will be perceived as not belonging together. The variety of different patchwork pieces merged into each other again points to the theme of metamorphosis.

Now, on the semantic level of the myths’ contents we will also find links to the phenomenon of metempsychosis and transformation, namely the drunkenness of the guards and the dismemberment of the brother’s corpse. The element of wine and intoxication is closely associated with the mystery cult of Dionysus, the god of afterlife, also, with the dismemberment of the god: Diodorus has the picking of grapes and their cooking in the process of wine-making symbolise the renewal of life (3.62.3–8). The motif of dismemberment is, of course, also connected with death and resurrection, as has been stated before, especially in a Dionysiac context. If we follow Richard Seaford’s interpretation, the god’s mythical dismemberment by the Titans also symbolises a fragmentation of the soul (cf. Seaford 2006, 114–119). The concept of metamorphosis seems to be fundamental in this process, too: Plutarch has ‘theologians’ say that the death of Dionysus (here seen as one with Apollo) points to plurality and unity alternating within the cosmos, thus resembling the multiple possibilities of reincarnation that the Egyptians assume:

ἀκούομεν οὖν τῶν θεολόγων τὰ μὲν ἐν ποιήμασι τὰ δ’ ἄνευ μέτρου λεγόντων καὶ ὑμνούντων, ὡς ἄφθαρτος ὁ θεὸς καὶ ἀίδιος πεφυκώς, ὑπὸ δή τινος εἱμαρμένης γνώμης καὶ λόγου μεταβολαῖς ἑαυτοῦ χρώμενος ἄλλοτε μὲν εἰς πῦρ ἀνῆψε τὴν φύσιν πάντα ὁμοιώσας πᾶσιν, ἄλλοτε δὲ παντοδαπὸς ἔν τε μορφαῖς καὶ ἐν πάθεσι καὶ δυνάμεσι διαφόροις γιγνόμενος, ὡς γίγνεται νῦν, κόσμος ὀνομάζεται [δὲ] τῷ γνωριμωτάτῳ τῶν ὀνομάτων. κρυπτόμενοι δὲ τοὺς πολλοὺς οἱ σοφώτεροι τὴν μὲν εἰς πῦρ μεταβολὴν Ἀπόλλωνά τε τῇ μονώσει Φοῖβόν τε τῷ καθαρῷ καὶ ἀμιάντῳ καλοῦσι, τῆς δ’ εἰς πνεύματα καὶ ὕδωρ καὶ γῆν καὶ ἄστρα καὶ φυτῶν ζῴων τε γενέσεις τροπῆς αὐτοῦ καὶ διακοσμήσεως τὸ μὲν πάθημα καὶ τὴν μεταβολὴν διασπασμόν τινα καὶ διαμελισμὸν αἰνίττονται, Διόνυσον δὲ καὶ Ζαγρέα καὶ Νυκτέλιον καὶ Ἰσοδαίτην αὐτὸν ὀνομάζουσι καὶ φθοράς τινας καὶ ἀφανισμοὺς εἶτα δ’ ἀναβιώσεις καὶ παλιγγενεσίας οἰκεῖα ταῖς εἰρημέναις μεταβολαῖς αἰνίγματα καὶ μυθεύματα περαίνουσι· καὶ ᾄδουσι τῷ μὲν διθυραμβικὰ μέλη παθῶν μεστὰ καὶ μεταβολῆς πλάνην τινὰ καὶ διαφόρησιν ἐχούσης· ‘μιξοβόαν’ γὰρ Αἰσχύλος φησί ‘πρέπει διθύραμβον ὁμαρτεῖν σύγκωμον Διονύσῳ’ [fr. 355 Radt TrGF 3, p. 421], τῷ δὲ παιᾶνα, τεταγμένην καὶ σώφρονα μοῦσαν, ἀγήρων τε τοῦτον ἀεὶ καὶ νέον ἐκεῖνον δὲ πολυειδῆ καὶ πολύμορφον ἐν γραφαῖς καὶ πλάσμασι δημιουργοῦσι· καὶ ὅλως τῷ μὲν ὁμοιότητα καὶ τάξιν καὶ σπουδὴν ἄκρατον, τῷ δὲ μεμιγμένην τινὰ παιδιᾷ καὶ ὕβρει [καὶ σπουδῇ] καὶ μανίᾳ προσφέροντες ἀνωμαλίαν ‘εὔιον ὀρσιγύναικα μαινομέναις Διόνυσον ἀνθέοντα τιμαῖς’ [fr. adesp. 85 PMG ed. Page].

Plu. De E apud Delphos, Mor. 388e–389b

Now we hear theologians saying or singing, in poems or in plain prose, that the God subsists indestructible and eternal, and that, by force of some appointed plan and method, he passes through changes of his person; at one time he sets fire to Nature and so makes all like unto all, at another passes through all phases of difference—shapes, sufferings, powers—at the present time, for instance, he becomes ‘Cosmos’, and that is his most familiar name. The wiser people disguise from the vulgar the change into fire, and call him ‘Apollo’ from his isolation, ‘Phoebus’ from his undefiled purity. As for his passage and distribution into waves and water, and earth, and stars, and nascent plants and animals, they hint at the actual change undergone as a rending and dismemberment, but name the God himself Dionysus or Zagreus or Nyctelius or Isodaites. Deaths too and vanishings do they construct, passages out of life and new births, all riddles and tales to match the changes mentioned. So they sing to Dionysus dithyrambic strains, charged with sufferings and a change wherein are wanderings and dismemberment. For Aeschylus says: ‘In mingled cries, the dithyramb should ring, With Dionysus revelling, its King.’ But [Apollo] has the Pæan, a set and sober music. Apollo is ever ageless and young; Dionysus has many forms and many shapes as represented in paintings and sculpture, which attribute to Apollo smoothness and order and a gravity with no admixture, to Dionysus a blend of sport and sauciness with seriousness and frenzy: ‘God that sett’st maiden’s blood, Dancing in frenzied mood, Blooming with pageantry! Evoe! we cry!’

Plutarch is, of course, a late source, but the theme of the permanently changing cosmos and soul is attested earlier, [
63] and the polymorphy of Dionysus is alluded to in Aeschylus’ fragment. Note the striking accumulation of the words denoting ‘mixing’: maybe Aeschylus’ ‘mingled cries’ are an allusion to genre—and Plutarch takes up the dichotomy of ‘no admixture’ and ‘blend’, relating it to Apollo and Dionysus.

The dismemberment of Dionysos as a symbol of the cosmic mixture of many shapes, the variety that also shows in the music appropriate for the god, is reflected in the patchwork character of the Rhampsinitos story in the context of metempsychosis.

Let’s sum up. The story of Rhampsinitos reflects a journey to the underworld, a rite of passage. The metamorphoses of the soul happening on this journey are alluded to on formal and semantic levels: the story is formed from single pieces of the pyramid builders’ biographies, one possible combination of different parts followed by more variations. It incorporates different Greek genres, and the incoherence of the patchwork will probably be noticed by a Greek recipient. As regards contents, the elements of ‘wine’ and ‘dismemberment’ connect the story to the Dionysiac mysteries also associated with metempsychosis. The patchwork nature of the story itself corresponds with the state of the soul on its way of reincarnation. The god of metamorphosis precedes the logos as a kind of patron of historiography, the continuous battle with varying stories, even with change itself.


[ back ] 1. For criticism of this pattern and its use as an instrument of interpreting literature, see Wesselmann 2011, chapter V.1.

[ back ] 2. Vernant 1981:56.

[ back ] 3. Cf. Binder 1977 and Huys 1995:377–394.

[ back ] 4. Huys 1995:338.

[ back ] 5. 1.110.1–2; 110.3; 113.2; 117.4; cf. Long 1897:143; 159.

[ back ] 6. Long 1987:144; Huys 1995:206–208.

[ back ] 7. Cf. Propp 1944:103.

[ back ] 8. Cf. Binder 1964:29–31.

[ back ] 9. Cf. e.g. Propp 1944:101–102.

[ back ] 10. Cf. e.g. Propp 1944:95–97; Binder 1964:35–36; Burkert 1997 [1972]:103–104.

[ back ] 11. Apollod. 2.7.4 = 2.146; 3.9.1 = 3.103, maybe also in Euripides’ Auge; cf. Huys 1995:133–136; 140.

[ back ] 12. Cf. Burkert 1977:139–142; Parker 1983:18–31; Huys 1995:18–19. For cathartic ritual in general cf. Burkert 1979:59–72; Girard 1982; Bremmer 1983; Parker 1983; Compton 2006:3–18; Bierl 2007a:34–37.

[ back ] 13. Cf. Delcourt 1938 und 1944; Girard 1972; 1982. For the physical defects in colonial and political founding figures cf. Calame 1996:98, who also refers to “the partially illegitimate and deformed origin of Cypselus”.

[ back ] 14. Girard 1982:72–75.

[ back ] 15. S. OC, e.g. 459–460. Cf. Girard 1972:102–129; Vernant 1972:esp. 116–125.

[ back ] 16. Rank 1922 [1909]:e.g. 89; Delcourt 1944:54–55.

[ back ] 17. Cf. Delcourt 1944:46–51; Huys 1995:206 and n. 385.

[ back ] 18. Cf. Burkert 1966; 1972:169–173; 1977, 348–349; Brelich 1969:229–238; Brulé 1987:83–100; Baudy 1992.

[ back ] 19. Cf. Burkert 1966:22.

[ back ] 20. Cf. Parker 1983:375–392; Stadter 2004:38–42; Nünlist 2009.

[ back ] 21. Cf. e.g. Bierl 1994 for Apollo and Orestes and Orestes and Pylades.

[ back ] 22. παῖς: 1.34.3; 1.35.1; 1.36.3; 1.37.1; 1.41.2; 1.44.1–2; 1.45.3; νεηνίης: 1.37.1; cf. Long 1987:88–89.

[ back ] 23. Cf. Stadter 2004:39–40; Salvá 1994:96–97.

[ back ] 24. Alkmaionis fr. 1 Davies EGF p. 139 = fr. 1 Bernabé PEG I, p. 33; Paus. 2.29.9–10; D. S. 4.72.6.

[ back ] 25. Schol. 39b ad Pi. Ο. 8.30; Apollod. 3.13.1 = 3.163.

[ back ] 26. Cf. Apollod. 2.7.6 = 2.150.

[ back ] 27. Cf. e.g. Immerwahr 1966:71; Rieks 1975; Stadter 2004:40.

[ back ] 28. Cf. Long 1987:104.

[ back ] 29. Cf. e.g. How and Wells 1912:ad 1.34; Asheri 2007 [1988]:ad 34–45; Baudy 1997:247.

[ back ] 30. Cf. Näsström 1989,:78.

[ back ] 31. E.g. Burkert 1979:6–7.

[ back ] 32. Cf. e.g. Calame 1996; Osborne 1996, esp. 1–18; Giangiulio 2001.

[ back ] 33. Cf. Griffin 1990:63.

[ back ] 34. Tyro: Apollod. 1.9.8 = 1.90–92; Tz. ad Lyc. 175; D. S. 4.1–3. For the fragments of Sophocles’ Tyro tragedies cf. Watson 1995:228 n. 8.—Antiope: Apollod. 3.5.5 = 3.41–44; Hyg. Fab. 8 (summary of Euripides’ Antiope. Both figures are simultaneously mentioned Od. 11.235–265.

[ back ] 35. Cf. e.g. Salvá 1994; Hansen 2002:332–352.

[ back ] 36. Cf. Watson 1995:234–238.

[ back ] 37. Apollodoros 3.211; cf. Parthenios fr. 24a Lightfoot.

[ back ] 38. Alcidamas, Odysseus 14–16.

[ back ] 39. Cf. Calame 1996:107.

[ back ] 40. Cf. Giangiulio 2001:117–118 and n. 5.

[ back ] 41. Schol. D ad Il. 19.326; Bion Bucolicus Epithal. 15; Sen. Tro. 214–215; Stat. Ach. 1; Apollod. 3.13.8 = 3.174; Hyg. Fab. 96; the episode is depicted in art from the 5th century AD on, cf. LIMC 1, 1989, s. v. Achilleus, p. 57–58, 95–104. For the phenomenon of initiatory sex-change cf. Graf 1979:15 and n. 117; Bierl 2007b:272–273.

[ back ] 42. Cf. Burkert 1997 [1972]:120–121; Detienne 1977:173–182.

[ back ] 43. Euph. fr. 24a v. Groningen; Parth. Narr. 13; Lact. Placidus on Stat. Theb. 5.120–122; Hyg. Fab. 206, 242, 246, 253; Nonn. D. 12.70–75; Schol. T ad Il. 14.291.

[ back ] 44. Burkert 1997 [1972]:125; cf. also 97–152.

[ back ] 45. Cf. Piccaluga 1968 for a collection of loci.

[ back ] 46. Pl. R. 565d; Paus. 8.2.6.

[ back ] 47. E.g. E. El. 727–742; Or. 996–1011; Apollod. Ep. 2.10.61–67 = Ep. 2.12; Sen. Thy. 776–779.

[ back ] 48. Cf. Burkert 1997 [1972]:106.

[ back ] 49. Hartog 1980:28; cf. his summary 367–372.

[ back ] 50. One example is the battle technique of the Persians, who fight as “anti-hoplites” (65)—on horseback, using bow and arrow—when their opponents are Greeks (Hartog 1980:63–68). Against the Scythians, however, the Persians become “quasi-hoplites” (66), the Scythians being the less civilised people, the ‘others’.

[ back ] 51. Cf. Long 1987:138–139 and 164.

[ back ] 52. Even the Athenians seem to be given this very warning by Herodotus; the ‘barbarian’ punishment of Artaÿctes by Greeks at the end of the Histories (9.120.4) has often been read as a sign of the barbarisation of imperialist Athens, cf. Nagy 1990:307–313; Georges 1994:130; Moles 1996:276–277; Pelling 1997:7–8.

[ back ] 53. Cf. Asheri 2007 [1988]:ad 1.95–106.

[ back ] 54. Most extensive is Ov. Met. 12.210–535, but cf. also Il. 1.262–268; 2.740–744; Od. 21.295–304; Plut. Thes. 30.3.

[ back ] 55. “la fête qui tourne mal”; 1972:178–185.

[ back ] 56. Cf. Versnel 1993.

[ back ] 57. Fearn 2007 obtains similar results using different mythical parallels: the Macedonian prince Alexandros recalls both his Trojan namesake (and woman-stealing opposite) Paris-Alexandros and a sort of Odysseus-Telemachus-figure (killing the suitors and also being the son of the insulted party). Both parallels “provide a deeply ambivalent basis for Alexander as a man whose actions throughout the narrative characterize him neither as obviously Greek, nor as entirely Eastern either: he continues to hover somewhere in the middle” (2007:108).

[ back ] 58. Both the collective murders of the Danaids and the Lemnian women happen in the context of a banquet: the Lemnian men are murdered after a reunion feast (Stat. Theb. 5.152–264; V. Fl. 2.187–195) being drunk and helpless (Stat. Theb. 5.186–188, cf. also 256–257; V. Fl. 2.221); the drunken husbands of the Danaids are slaughtered after their wedding banquet (Ov. Ep. 14, 25–34; Apollod. 2.1.121–125 = 2.21. The tale of the Danaids also deals with sexual violence in the form of forced marriage.

[ back ] 59. Cf. e.g. Aly 1969 [1921]:67; Erbse 1981:263–267; Fehling 1971:210–211; Müller 1992.

[ back ] 60. Cf. Charax FGrHist 103, fr. 5 Jacoby = Schol. ad Ar. Nub. 508. There is another version of the Trophonios tale in Pausanias (9.37.4–7); Müller 1992:180–183 believes it to be a mixture of the versions of the Telegonia and the Histories.

[ back ] 61. He seems to have been an important figure in several lost tragedies and satyr plays of Sophocles and Euripides (S. Daidalos: fr. 158–164a Radt TrGF 4, p. 171–173; S. Kamikoi: fr. 323–327 Radt TrGF 4, p. 310–312; E. Krētes: fr. 471a–472g Kannicht TrGF 5.1, 41, p. 502–516; Theseus: fr. 381–390 Kannicht TrGF 5.1, p. 426–436) but also figured in comedy (Ar. Daidalos: fr. 191–204 PCG III.2, p.116–121; Kokalos: fr. 359–371 PCG III.2, p. 201–207; Platon, Daidalos: fr. 18 PCG VII, p. 440).

[ back ] 62. Od. 9.106–566, a scene that has been subject of satyr plays even before Euripides, such as Aristias’ Cyclops (fr. 4 Snell TrGF 1, 9, p. 86), but also of Epicharm’s comedy of the same name (fr. 70–72 PCG I, p. 49–50) and of Cratinus’ Odyssēs (fr. 143–157 PCG IV, p. 192–200).

[ back ] 63. Cf. Heracl. fr. A 1; A 15; B 31; B 36 DK.

[ back ] 64. I owe this idea to Mathieu de Bakker’s paper on “Herodotus’ Proteus: ἱστορίη and the Liberties of λογοποιίη”, given in Christ Church, Oxford, on 09/24/07.