The Master of Signs: Signs and the Interpretation of Signs in Herodotus’ Histories

  Hollmann, Alexander. 2011. The Master of Signs: Signs and the Interpretation of Signs in Herodotus' Histories. Hellenic Studies Series 48. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.


This work is an investigation of signs, their interpretation, and the use to which they are put in the Histories of Herodotus. The collocation ‘signs’ and ‘Herodotus’ is most likely to suggest the bizarre portents, riddling oracles, and striking dreams which make an impression on every reader of the Histories. Yet there are other types of signs and sign systems at play in the work to which Herodotus draws our attention: human speech as a coded system able to manipulate and be manipulated; visual signs in the form of objects, gifts, artifacts, writing, markings, even the human body, all capable of being invested with meaning; human actions, gestures, and ritual also form a system of signs that, as Herodotus shows, need decoding and whose meaning is conventionally and culturally determined.

Some of these sign systems have received scholarly attention separatim. Herodotean dreams and oracles each have a monograph devoted to them. Recent works on religion in the Histories (Harrison 2000, Mikalson 2003) have again spurred interest in these areas. [1] Lateiner’s article on non-verbal communication in the Histories has made a fundamental contribution to the field and already proceeds on a theoretical model in which the function of the sign is recognized and instances of non-verbal communication are seen in terms of a signifier residing in an action, gesture, non-verbal sound, or object which corresponds to a signified. [2] Dewald’s study of significant objects in Herodotus is likewise an important contribution, and is also based on an appreciation of the semiotic role that such objects play in the Histories as a means of communication both between figures in the work and between author and audience. [3] More recently, the work of Munson has drawn attention to the ainetic mode in Herodotus (Munson 2001a) and also to Herodotus as interpreter and provider of glosses (Munson 2005). Other scholars have played a no-less important role in drawing attention in a more general fashion to the semiotic in Herodotus. Benardete, writing in the late sixties, when semiotics as a discipline was coming into its own, was perhaps the first to apply terms drawn from this field to the work of Herodotus and to pose questions using this framework. [4] Hartog and Nagy have been sensitive to this approach, calling attention, for example, to Herodotus as transmitter and decoder of signs. [5] Nagy’s picture of Herodotus as a “master of speech,” corresponding to his vision of Pindar as “master of song,” one who perpetuates the kleos of the figures in his work while also dispensing praise and blame, has had the most profound effect on my work here, together with his exploration of sêma and noêsis (1990a), and its influence is seen on many of the following pages. Lastly, Thomas’ (2000) treatment of Herodotus in the context of fifth-century scientific, medical, and philosophical writing has explored such terms as marturion and tekmêrion as well as the use of proofs and reasoning by signs.

There still exists, however, no overall examination of signs and the process of signification and interpretation in the Histories as well as the use to which sign interpreters (including Herodotus) put their interpretations. It is therefore part of the aim of this project to consider both together and separately the various sign systems present in the Histories. I also investigate the terminology used by Herodotus to describe the transmission, reception, and decoding of signs, and argue that he had at his disposal an array of terms with which to describe the semiotic activities of the figures in his work and his own activities as transmitter and interpreter of signs. This is not to make of Herodotus a semiotician avant la lettre: one cannot speak of him as a theoretician, or point to a passage where he elaborates on the nature and function of the sign. He is, however, what I would call a master of signs, asserting his control over the transmission of them and calling attention to his skill (σοφίη) at interpreting them, which he demonstrates in his own right and at the hand of those figures in his work who distinguish themselves in this respect. It is in the identification of this persona and the demonstration of its connection with the realm of signs that the other aim of this book lies.





Encoder – – – – – Sign – – – – – Decoder







Figure 1. Process of Communication Using Signs

[[* “Contact” is the physical and psychological connection between encoder and decoder along which information about the channel of communication and keeping it open can be passed (“phatic function”).]]

Let us turn from questions of method to the structure of the book, which is divided into three parts. Part I examines the vocabulary used by Herodotus in connection with signs and the process of signification outlined above, and shows that it is more extensive than has perhaps been previously realized. Part II is an investigation into the various sign systems found in the Histories: portents, dreams, oracles, mantikê in general, the ainos, names and naming, action, gesture, and ritual objects as signs. Here too it has been my concern to show Herodotus’ use of the vocabulary discussed in Part I and to demonstrate more clearly the semiotic aspects involved in these categories. Part III looks at the people who decode and manipulate signs, beginning with the manipulators. I suggest Herodotus’ affinity to these figures and demonstrate his personal involvement in the processes he describes. In conclusion I show that he projects a clearly observable narrative persona, which I have labeled the “master of signs,” and that the features of this persona overlap substantially with what are considered to be the distinctive features of his work. While clothed in language found in fifth-century scientific and medical writing, at the core of this figure is the archaic sophos, who through his mastery of signs investigates, interprets, praises, blames, and warns.


[ back ] 1. Dreams: Frisch 1968. Oracles: Crahay 1956, Kirchberg 1965.

[ back ] 2. Lateiner 1987.

[ back ] 3. Dewald 1993.

[ back ] 4. Benardete 1969.

[ back ] 5. Hartog 1988; Nagy 1990b.

[ back ] 6. Thus, for example, in one oracle given to the Athenians, they are told to call upon their brother-in-law for help (7.189.1). The signifier here is the word ‘brother-in-law’, what is signified by this arrangement of phonemes is ‘brother of one’s sister’, but the task faced by the Athenians is to find out the referent, namely which brother-in-law is meant. The terms signifier and signified go back to Saussure’s distinction between signifiant and signifié (Saussure 1983), which resembles the Stoic distinction between τὸ σημαῖνον and τὸ σημαινόμενον (Sextus Empiricus Adversus Mathematicos 8.11–12); on ancient theories of the sign, see Manetti 1993. The notion of the triad is not Saussure’s however: on this, see Nöth 1990:89–91. Artayktes and the οἶκος of Protesilaos (9.116.3) are discussed in ch. below.

[ back ] 7. Nöth 1990:81, following Peirce and Morris: “Every object, event, or behavior is thus a potential sign. Even silence can have the semiotic function of a zero sign.?.?.?. Everything can thus be perceived as a natural sign of something else, and by prior agreement between a sender and a receiver, every object can also serve as a conventional sign. This does not mean that every phenomenon of the world is semiotic. It only means that under conditions of semiosis every object can become a sign to a given interpreter.”

[ back ] 8. See ch. 2.1.4 and

[ back ] 9. As quoted in Nöth 1990:42.

[ back ] 10. An example of the modus tollens (If p, then q, but if not-q, then not-p). See Manetti 1993:41. The Stoics also referred to such signs as σημεῖα, but as will be seen in ch. 1.1, Herodotus never uses σημήιον in this sense, only τεκμήριον and μαρτύριον.

[ back ] 11. Jakobson 1962.