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.

Part 1. The Vocabulary of Signs, Their Transmission, Reception, and Interpretation

1.1 The Sign

1.1.1 σημήιον

1.1.2 σύμβολον, συμβόλαιον

The related term συμβόλαιον is used once, at 5.92.η.3, in a context involving the transmission of signs, or, more accurately, the refusal to transmit signs. [9] Unlike the sumbola of Glaukos, the sumbolaion in this passage is not a physical token, but rather consists of a coded utterance. Periandros consults his dead wife Melissa at the Thesprotian nekuomantêion in order to find the location of some hidden money (παρακαταθήκης πέρι). [10] Melissa refuses to make an oracular pronouncement (note Herodotus’ use of the verb σημαίνω, for which see below, ch. 1.2.1). She does however give an indication (μαρτύριον) that it really is her ghost and that the message is authentic by means of a sign, which Herodotus refers to later as a συμβόλαιον:

μαρτύριον δέ οἱ εἶναι ὡς ἀληθέα ταῦτα λέγει, ὅτι ἐπὶ ψυχρὸν τὸν ἰπνὸν Περίανδρος τοὺς ἄρτους ἐπέβαλε. ταῦτα δὲ ὡς ὀπίσω ἀπηγγέλθη τῷ Περιάνδρῳ (πιστὸν γάρ οἱ ἦν τὸ συμβόλαιον, ὃς νεκρῷ ἐούσῃ Μελίσσῃ ἐμίγη), ἰθέως δὴ μετὰ τὴν ἀγγελίην κήρυγμα ἐποιήσατο ἐς τὸ Ἥραιον ἐξιέναι πάσας τὰς Κορινθίων γυναῖκας.


As a marturion for him that this was true, she said that Periandros had put his loaves into the oven when it was cold. When this was reported back to Periandros (the token [sumbolaion] was a trustworthy one to him, since he had had intercourse with Melissa when she was dead), he put out a proclamation immediately after this message that all the wives of the Corinthians should go to the temple of Hera.

Melissa’s reply that Periandros put his loaves into the oven when it was cold is a coded message, directed solely to the recipient, who is the only one in a position to decode it, thus making it absolutely genuine, πιστόν. [
11] He fits together signifier and signified, the words of Melissa and the real message they carry, just as one fits together the two halves of a material token (σύμβολον). [12] Herodotus tells us only that Periandros finds the συμβόλαιον true or reliable, “since he slept with her when she was dead.” He makes us follow the same process of decoding and reading that Periandros has gone through: the cold oven is the dead body of Melissa, the loaves the seed of Periandros. [13] Since Melissa and the oven are cold, neither the seed nor the loaves will grow or rise. The interpretation of this sign lies in seeing the metaphorical relationship between the sign elements which make up the συμβόλαιον and the events of the past. [14] It is one of several examples in the Histories where the audience is left to complete an interpretation suggested by Herodotus. [15]

1.1.3 τεκμήριον

Similarly, relying on his knowledge of Persian behavior and custom, Herodotus reads the behavior of Xerxes, when the latter has the corpse of Leonidas mutilated, as a sign of the great wrath he must have had for the man when he was alive:


It is clear to me from many other tekmêria and in particular the following one that Xerxes was angered above all others by Leonidas when he was alive: otherwise he would never have committed these outrages against his corpse, since Persians most of all the peoples I know have the custom of honoring men who have proved themselves brave in battle.

The mutilated body then acts as a sign, which Herodotus reads against his knowledge of Persian νόμοι, which in themselves constitute another set of signs. [
25] At 2.104.4 mutilation of the body is also read as a sign (μέγα… τεκμήριον) and used as proof: Herodotus relies on the fact that Phoenicians who have become assimilated to Greek culture no longer practice circumcision to prove his point that circumcision among the Phoenicians is not a native practice, but one copied (μιμέονται) from the Egyptians.

1.1.4 μαρτύριον

Objects used as signifiers and μαρτύρια play a role in another passage, 8.120. The context is again a dispute, and this time Herodotus is directly involved as one of the disputants. [30] Herodotus rejects as false the logos (8.118) that Xerxes returned to Asia separately from his army and by sea, but affirms the other logos, namely that he went by land with the rest of his army. As a μαρτύριον, he points to the guest-friendship (ξεινίη) which Xerxes showed the people of Abdera, whose city lay on the route of his march homeward, and, in particular, to two distinctive objects:

μέγα δὲ καὶ τόδε μαρτύριον· φαίνεται γὰρ Ξέρξης ἐν τῇ ὀπίσω κομιδῇ ἀπικόμενος ἐς Ἄβδηρα καὶ ξεινίην τέ σφι συνθέμενος καὶ δωρησάμενος αὐτοὺς ἀκινάκῃ τε χρυσέῳ καὶ τιήρῃ χρυσοπάστῳ.


And this too is a great marturion: for Xerxes clearly did come to Abdera on his return voyage, both concluding an agreement of guest-friendship with them and giving them as presents a golden akinakês and a Persian hat sprinkled with gold.

These objects are able to work as a μαρτύριον for the logos that Herodotus endorses and become signs invested with a particular meaning: both are characteristically Persian items, as Herodotus makes clear elsewhere, and the fact that the one is made of gold, the other sprinkled with gold, presumably marks them further as royal, and so likely to have been given by the king. [
31] As objects associated with the king, their presence is a sign of the presence of the king himself. [32]

A sign of a different kind lies behind the μαρτύριον that appears at 5.92.η.3, a passage we have already looked at above (ch. 1.1.2) in connection with the συμβόλαιον. Melissa gives Periandros a μαρτύριον that it is really her ghost by means of a riddling utterance, which Herodotus then refers to as a πιστὸν συμβόλαιον. The sign is an enigma which only Periandros can solve, but Herodotus intervenes for us and provides the key with which to solve it.

The verbal expression μαρτυρέει μοι functions as an equivalent to Herodotus’ usage of the noun μαρτύριον with the dative of the personal pronoun. An oracle, itself a complex of signs, acts as a μαρτύριον for Herodotus’ theory about the true extent and borders of Egypt:

μαρτυρέει δέ μοι τῇ γνώμῃ, ὅτι τοσαύτη ἐστὶ Αἴγυπτος ὅσην τινὰ ἐγὼ ἀποδείκνυμι τῷ λόγῳ, καὶ τὸ Ἄμμωνος χρηστήριον γενόμενον, τὸ ἐγὼ τῆς ἐμεωυτοῦ γνώμης ὕστερον περὶ Αἴγυπτον ἐπυθόμην.


The oracle of Ammon, which I learned about after I had come to my own opinion, acts as witness for my opinion that Egypt is the size which I show it to be in my logos.

A line (epos) of Homer can have the same authority, [
33] as is shown when Herodotus expounds his theory that heat encourages the growth of horns: [34]

δοκέει δέ μοι καὶ τὸ γένος τῶν βοῶν τὸ κόλον διὰ ταῦτα οὐ φύειν κέρεα αὐτόθι. μαρτυρέει δέ μοι τῇ γνώμῃ καὶ Ὁμήρου ἔπος ἐν Ὀδυσσείῃ ἔχον ὧδε·

καὶ Λιβύην, ὅθι τ’ ἄρνες ἄφαρ κεραοὶ τελέθουσι.


It seems to me that the hornless variety of cattle for this reason [i.e. the cold] do not grow horns in that region [Scythia]. A line (epos) of Homer in the Odyssey acts as witness for my opinion:

And Libya, where the lambs are born with horns forthwith.

1.2 Transmission of Signs

1.2.1 σημαίνω

Herodotus uses different terms for different stages of the transmission and reception process: as a marked verb indicating the transmission of a sign, of whatever sort, he often uses σημαίνω. As its derivation from the stem sêm– suggests, the basic meaning of this verb is to convey a message through the medium of a sign, but a number of developments of this general meaning can be distinguished in the text. σημαίνω of encoding and transmission of sign

In the Histories σημαίνω can refer to both the encoding and the subsequent transmission of a message, where the receiver of the transmission must perform the operation of decoding in order to understand the message. So, for example, the Persian Artayktes claims that by means of the τέρας of the jumping fish, the hero Protesilaos is conveying an encoded message addressed to him alone: [35]

οὐ γὰρ σοὶ πέφηνε, ἀλλ᾿ ἐμοὶ σημαίνει ὁ ἐν Ἐλαιοῦντι Πρωτεσί-λεως . . .


[This portent] is not intended for you, rather Protesilaos of Elaious is sending a sign to me.

Or, to use an example involving another sign system, that of dreams, Kroisos reports having a dream which relays (σημαίνει, 1.34.2) to him the message that his son will die after being hit by an iron spear. The verb is also often used of the communication of prophetic or oracular messages. In these instances the verb carries with it the idea of authoritative communication “from a metaphorically superior vantage point” informed by a connection with the divine. [
36] As I will point out below (ch., Herodotus’ first-person use of this verb harnesses some of this feeling of divine authority. We have already seen above how Melissa, the dead wife of Periandros, refuses to deliver oracular utterances to him (οὔτε σημανέειν ἔφη ἡ Μέλισσα, 5.92.η.2) via the Thesprotian oracle of the dead. The verb is also used to describe the encoded communication of Apollo and the Delphic oracle, just as in the famous fragment of Herakleitos:

ὁ ἄναξ οὗ τὸ μαντεῖόν ἐστι τὸ ἐν Δελφοῖς οὔτε λέγει οὔτε κρύπτει, ἀλλὰ σημαίνει.

DK 22 B 93

The lord whose oracle is in Delphi neither speaks nor conceals, but indicates.

At 6.123.2, for example, the Pythia (though here corrupted by the Alkmaionidai) is said to προσημαίνειν, and at 7.142.2, “the god” is said to indicate by the term “wooden wall” that the Athenians are to trust in their fleet: οἱ δ᾿ αὖ ἔλεγον τὰς νέας σημαίνειν τὸν θεόν. [
37] Herodotus does not, however, invariably use this verb of oracles: other verbs used of the Delphic oracle and other oracles are, for example, the marked φράζω and χράω, and (pace Herakleitos) the unmarked λέγω (see ch. 2.3 below). σημαίνω as relaying or retransmission of already transmitted sign

Similar instances occur at 8.37.2 and 8.41.3. In the former passage, as the Persians move toward Delphi, the προφήτης of the Delphic oracle finds weapons, which no one is allowed to remove from the temple, piled up outside it, and then communicates this portent to the Delphians:

ὁ μὲν δὴ ἤιε Δελφῶν τοῖσι παρέουσι σημανέων τὸ τέρας.


He went off to convey the teras to those of the Delphians who were present.

Here it is not the τέρας itself that signifies (σημαίνει), as is however the case in the passage where sacred ambassadors are sent by Kroisos to the Telmessians to find out what message the τέρας of the snakes and horses in Sardis conveys, τὸ θέλει σημαίνειν τὸ τέρας (1.78.2). The verb is instead applied to the relaying of the coded message by the προφήτης, who is only the conveyer of the message (as he indeed is when it comes to the oracle), not its originator. The same is true for the portent involving the sacred snake on the Athenian akropolis, which for the first time refuses to touch its honey-cake. The priestess communicates this sign to those of the Athenians still remaining in the city:

σημηνάσης δὲ ταῦτα τῆς ἱερείης μᾶλλόν τι οἱ Ἀθηναῖοι καὶ προθυμότερον ἐξέλιπον τὴν πόλιν ὡς καὶ τῆς θεοῦ ἀπολελοιπυίης τὴν ἀκρόπολιν.


After the priestess had indicated these things, the Athenians began to leave the city considerably more eagerly, on the basis that even the goddess had deserted the akropolis.

It is not the goddess who is described as transmitting a message via the sign of the snake’s refusal to eat (though that is certainly how the citizens interpret it): instead, the subject of the verb is the priestess, who relays the original sign. [
44] Herodotus’ use of σημαίνω in first person

An important subset of σημαίνω in the sense of relaying an already transmitted sign, or an interpretation of a sign, is Herodotus’ own usage of the verb in the first person, where he becomes an intermediary between the signs he relates and his audience. He is thus in a position to control this flow of information for which he is a conduit. As Nagy has well described, the connotations of this verb are of someone speaking “from a metaphorically superior vantage point, as when an authoritative person makes a pronouncement that arbitrates between contending points of view.” [46] The example Nagy goes on to cite is in fact Herodotus’ first use of the verb in the work (1.5.3), which is also his first use of the verb in the first person. In this first great narrative act after dismissing the accounts of the stealing of various women by Easterners and Greeks, he relays the name of the man he considers responsible for initiating hostilities against the Greeks:

ἐγὼ δὲ περὶ μὲν τούτων οὐκ ἔρχομαι ἐρέων ὡς οὕτως ἢ ἄλλως κως ταῦτα ἐγένετο, τὸν δὲ οἶδα αὐτὸς πρῶτον ὑπάρξαντα ἀδίκων ἔργων ἐς τοὺς Ἕλληνας, τοῦτον σημήνας προβήσομαι ἐς τὸ πρόσω τοῦ λόγου, ὁμοίως μικρὰ καὶ μεγάλα ἄστεα ἀνθρώπων ἐπεξιών.


Concerning these matters I am not going to say that they happened in this way or some other way, but rather, having indicated the man I know to be the first to undertake unjust acts against the Greeks, I shall advance to the further part of the logos, going alike through the small and the great cities of men.

The authority Herodotus demonstrates here is seen partly in the proud pronouncement of οἶδα (Apollo’s claim to know the number of grains of sand and the measure of the sea will also be prefaced by an emphatic οἶδα, 1.47.3) but also in his use of σημαίνω (also used, as we have seen above, of Apollo’s communication with mortals). [
47] This striking collocation with Kroisos (whose name is, however, postponed for effect until 1.6.1) as the direct object of the verb presents us with the sign of his name but also hints that Kroisos himself forms the nexus of a complex of signs.

A striking example of the control wielded by Herodotus as transmitter comes in the Egyptian logos, at 2.20.1. [48] Here he says he will indicate (σημῆναι) two interpretations formulated by Greeks wanting to become ἐπίσημοι (“signaled out, marked”) for their σοφίη, which here consists in interpreting and explaining the peculiar behavior of the Nile. [49] He seems to play on the term: these Greeks are attempting to become ἐπίσημοι, “marked by a sign”, precisely for their work in decoding and interpreting signs. What he relays is an already decoded message in the form of readings made by certain Greeks of a set of geographical phenomena, namely the yearly flooding of the Nile in summer, a phenomenon not observable in the case of any other river. But Herodotus does not act as an uncritical conduit: at the same time as transmitting the readings, he interferes with the process in two ways. As controller of the channel, he withholds the names of those responsible for the interpretations (as he does, but only temporarily, with the name of Kroisos at 1.5.3, discussed above), passing on only their theories:

τῶν τὰς μὲν δύο οὐκ ἀξιῶ μνησθῆναι εἰ μὴ ὅσον σημῆναι βουλόμενος μοῦνον.


Two of these theories I do not deem worthy of reproducing here, except only to indicate them.

By not mentioning their names in his narrative, he is withholding from them both recognition and immortality, the bestowal of which we know to be one of Herodotus’ aims: [

…ὡς μήτε τὰ γενόμενα ἐξ ἀνθρώπων τῷ χρόνῳ ἐξίτηλα γένηται, μήτε ἔργα μεγάλα τε καὶ θωμαστά, τὰ μὲν Ἕλλησι, τὰ δὲ βαρβάροισι ἀποδεχθέντα, ἀκλεᾶ γένηται.


…so that the things which arise from humankind not become evanescent with time, and works and deeds both great and wondrous, some displayed by Greeks, others by barbarians, not become without kleos.

The following is another example of Herodotus’ narrative use of the verb in the first person: for those who have not seen the figureheads the Phoenicians have on the prows of their ships, Herodotus will relay what these look like: ἐγὼ δέ σημανέω (3.37.2). Herodotus is not simply relaying an image or visual sign, but in a sense also decoding it for his audience, since he only mentions the Phoenician figureheads as an aid to understanding what the ἄγαλμα of Egyptian Hephaistos looks like. And what does the Phoenician figurehead look like? Herodotus answers with another comparison: it is a representation (μίμησις) of a pygmy. [
51] He is able to offer the reader not just one but two equivalences, lending him an air of control and superior knowledge. As panhellenic traveler, he is in a position to interpret and draw explanatory parallels between the exotic and the familiar for a parochial audience, as he does, for example, when describing the shape of the Crimean peninsula in terms of either Attika with Sounion at its tip or, for those that have not been there, the heel of Italy (4.99.4–5). As will be argued in ch. 3.2, this is a typical feature of Herodotus’ distinctive narrative persona: not only is he interested in the ability of others to encode, transmit, and decode signs, but he himself engages in this activity, at the same time drawing attention to his own competency. [52]

1.2.2 φράζω

Herodotus’ use of the verb φράζω in many ways parallels his use of σημαίνω: both are used to describe the transmission of signs, and in fact φράζω seems to act at times as a functional equivalent of σημαίνω, as will be discussed later. That the main meaning is that of showing or pointing out is clear from its use in Homer and the Suda’s gloss (φράζουσι· σημαίνουσι, δηλοῦσι). Its connection with signs and communication by signs is demonstrated already in the Odyssey, where it is used several times with σήματα as its object. Odysseus, for example, by describing the construction of their marital bed, conveys to Penelope unmistakable signs of his identity:

Odyssey 23.205–206

Thus he spoke: and right away her knees gave way and her heart, too, when she recognized the sure signs [sêmata] which Odysseus had shown her.

In Herodotus, the association of the verb with signs and communication is also clear. In an episode already discussed above this is the verb he uses to describe oracular activity of the eidôlon of Periandros’ dead wife, Melissa, when, satisfied by new offerings, she finally decides to reveal through the Thesprotian nekuomantêion the whereabouts of the money Periandros has been looking for:

ταῦτα δέ οἱ ποιήσαντι καὶ τὸ δεύτερον πέμψαντι ἔφρασε τὸ εἴδωλον τὸ Μελίσσης ἐς τὸν κατέθηκε χῶρον τοῦ ξείνου τὴν παρακαταθήκην.


When he had done this and sent to her a second time, the ghost of Melissa relayed to him the place where he had put his guest-friend’s deposit.

Here ἔφρασε functions as an equivalent of σημαίνω, the verb with which, as we have seen, Herodotus describes the oracular activity that Melissa initially refused to perform.

The two verbs also appear in the same context in a passage already discussed above under σημαίνω: the meeting of a Scythian youth and an Amazon. There, φράζω describes the transmission of a message by means of sign language, and σημαίνω appears in a participial clause referring to the girl’s transmission of another message in sign form that the youth should bring a companion (σημαίνουσα δύο γενέσθαι, καὶ αὐτὴ ἑτέρην ἄξειν, 4.113.2).

When the citizens of Apollonia consult the oracles both at Delphi and at Dodona about the sudden sterility of their animals and land, the verb with which Herodotus describes the reply of the προφῆται, who base their responses on signs from the god, is φράζω: [54]

πρόφαντα δέ σφι ἔν τε Δωδώνῃ καὶ ἐν Δελφοῖσι ἐγίνετο, ἐπείτε ἐπειρώτων τοὺς προφήτας τὸ αἴτιον τοῦ παρεόντος κακοῦ, οἱ δὲ αὐτοῖσι ἔφραζον ὅτι ἀδίκως τὸν φύλακον τῶν ἱρῶν προβάτων Εὐήνιον τῆς ὄψιος ἐστέρησαν.


They received prophesies both in Dodona and at Delphi, and when they asked the prophêtai the cause of the present evil, they indicated to them that they had unjustly deprived Euenios, the guard of the sacred sheep, of his sight.

Likewise, the verb used of the Pythia’s revelation to Lykourgos of a new κόσμος for the Spartans is a form of φράζω (φράσαι αὐτῷ τὴν Πυθίην, 1.65.4). We also find the verb in connection with the transmission of a sign in the form of name when Krios the Aeginetan tells Kleomenes his name (ὁ δέ οἱ τὸ ἐὸν ἔφρασε, 6.50.3), and Kleomenes plays on its etymology: Ἤδη νῦν καταχαλκοῦ, ὦ Κριέ, τὰ κέρεα, ὡς συνοισόμενος μεγάλῳ κακῷ (“Better cover your horns in bronze, Mr. Ram, because you’re in for big trouble”). [
55] φράζω used of retransmission of signs φράζω used in first person by Herodotus

1.3 The Reception, Decoding, and Interpretation of Signs

1.3.1 συμβάλλομαι

The process of comparison by analogy is frequent in Herodotus’ work. In geographical contexts, he mostly uses the active συμβάλλω when comparing rivers and other topographical features with each other; in historical contexts, figures may be compared and contrasted with one another. [61] Sometimes the purpose of comparison is to explain: the familiar may help one to understand the unknown, as for example when Herodotus explains the origins of the Nile on the basis of its supposed resemblance to the Istros: [62]

καὶ ὡς ἐγὼ συμβάλλομαι τοῖσι ἐμφανέσι τὰ μὴ γινωσκόμενα τεκμαιρόμενος…


And as I conjecture by inferring what is not known from what is manifest…

Or the small may illuminate the big, as when he compares the delta regions of rivers in Asia Minor with the Nile delta (ὥς γε εἶναι σμικρὰ ταῦτα μεγάλοισι συμβαλεῖν [2.10.1], “to compare small things with great ones”) or the Crimea with Sounion:


I say this comparing small things with great ones, as it were. The Crimea is of this sort. For anyone who has not sailed past these parts of Attika, I shall explain it another way: it is as if some other people and not the Iapygans were to cut off the area for themselves, starting from Brindisium as far as Tarentum, and to inhabit this promontory.

An Athenian can thus understand the shape and population distribution of the Crimea if he imagines Cape Sounion (4.99.4): or if someone has not sailed around that part of the world, Herodotus can explain it using the model of Cape Iapygia in southern Italy (4.99.5). Herodotus is in a central position, controlling the comparison, issuing the pieces of information and putting them together, as his use of forms in the first person (λέγω, δηλώσω) and the emphatic use of the personal pronoun ἐγώ underline.


1.68.3 (Likhas interprets oracle about the bones of Orestes);

5.1.3 (Paionians interpret oracle about Perinthians calling them by name);

6.80 (Kleomenes interprets conditions of oracle’s fulfillment at Argos);

7.143.1 (Themistokles says the khrêsmologoi do not interpret the oracle about the wooden walls correctly);

7.189.2 (Athenians come to interpretation that the “son-in-law” in the oracle is Boreas).


7.57.1 (Herodotus reckons a portent ignored by Xerxes was εὐσύμβλητον);

8.94.2 (Corinthians at Salamis interpret mysterious ship as πρῆγμα θεῖον).


6.107.2 (Hippias interprets dream about intercourse with mother as sign he will return to his native land);

6.108.1 (Hippias interprets that this dream has been fulfilled).

Human behavior:

3.68.2 (Otanes concludes the Smerdis on the throne is not the son of Kyros because he never leaves the palace and allows no visitors);

4.111.1 (Scythians unable to understand behavior of Amazons);

7.209.1 (Xerxes unable to interpret meaning of Spartans’ combing out their hair).

Writing (or lack of writing):

Most of these passages will be discussed individually in the chapters corresponding to these sign types. For the present let us focus on one example to illustrate Herodotus’ use of the verb. In the yard of a Tegean blacksmith’s shop Likhas the Spartan is able to discover the bones of Orestes, which he confirms as being those of Orestes by reading an oracle (1.67.4) against the surroundings in which they were found (1.68.3). This process is described by Herodotus using the verb συμβάλλομαι in a point-by-point breakdown of Likhas’ interpretation:


Realizing what was being said, he conjectured that this [skeleton] was Orestes according to the oracle, conjecturing as follows: seeing the two bellows of the blacksmith he found the two winds, in the anvil and hammer he found the “blow and counterblow,” and in the iron being hammered out he found the “woe upon woe,” reasoning it out along the following lines, that the discovery of iron was to the detriment of mankind.

What is interesting about Likhas’ interpretation is that the relationships he perceives between the words of the oracle and the environment surrounding the bones are all of a particular kind, one of cause and effect. The “two winds” are the product of the smith’s bellows, “blow and counterblow” result from the hammer being applied to the anvil, and “woe upon woe” results from the use of iron as weapon by man. [
68] In other words, Likhas’ reading has its chief basis in the figure of metonymy: instead of looking for two winds, or something similar to them, he looks at what might be associated with them, what might cause them. As we will note during the course of this book, the successful interpretation of a sign or set of signs in the Histories often depends on seeing the relationship between signified and signifier in a way that is not immediately obvious, involving an ability to move from the figurative to the literal or vice versa, or from one type of figurative relationship to another, metaphor to metonymy or vice versa. [69] Herodotus’ use of συμβάλλομαι in first person

Finally, let us consider a group of passages which constitutes Herodotus’ own use of the verb συμβάλλομαι in the first person:


Herodotus compares known facts about the Nile with the Istros to derive information about unknown parts of the Nile (ὡς ἐγὼ συμβάλλομαι τοῖσι ἐμφανέσι τὰ μὴ γινωσκόμενα τεκμαιρόμενος).


Herodotus works out the relative period of Aristeas’ mysterious disappearance by comparison of different accounts (συμβαλλόμενος… εὕρισκον).


Herodotus works out the site of Dareios’ crossing of the Bosphoros (ὡς ἐμοὶ δοκέειν συμβαλλομένῳ).


Herodotus calculates average daily journey traveling in Scythia (ἡ δὲ ὁδός… συμβέβληταί μοι).


Herodotus deduces that Xerxes’ excavations at Athos must arise from his μεγαλοφροσύνη (ὡς μὲν ἐμὲ συμβαλλόμενον εὑρίσκειν).


Herodotus works out food supply needed for Xerxes’ army (εὑρίσκω… συμβαλλόμενος).


Herodotus deduces that the only reason the Phocaeans did not medize was their hatred of the Thessalians (ὡς ἐγὼ συμβαλλόμενος εὑρίσκω).

It is interesting that these passages, the majority of which come from the second and fourth books of the work, the books which feature the largest number of first-person statements by Herodotus, do not in fact involve the interpretation of the kind of signs we see in the examples listed in ch. 1.3.1 above (oracles, portents, and so forth). Nevertheless, all show a process of authoritative deduction based on comparison and represent a display of mastery and control. As with the examples of his use of σημαίνω and φράζω in the first person, these instances show Herodotus involved in the same process that the figures in his work use.

1.3.2 νόος

In discussing the Massagetan custom of sacrificing horses to the sun (1.216.4), for example, Herodotus tells us what the νόος behind this strange practice is: to the swiftest of the gods they apportion the swiftest of all mortal things. [75] He distills this meaning for us from the strange and unfamiliar ritual practice, and shows that there is a rationale to be decoded, another instance of his narrative persona of the interpreter of signs. He also uses the term νόος in connection with the process of decoding a sign, employing the expression νόῳ λαμβάνειν, or the verb ἐννοέω. So, for example, the older of the two sons of Periandros claims he cannot remember what his maternal grandfather said to him and his brother about their mother because he could not “grasp” it in his νόος: ἅτε οὐ νόῳ λαβών, οὐκ ἐμέμνητο (3.51.1). The parting words of his grandfather, “Do you know, my lads, who killed your mother?” hold no significance for this brother, but the younger brother, Lykophron, is able to distinguish the real message behind them, which is that Periandros killed their mother. [76] If the older brother cannot grasp the νόος behind the old man’s question with his own νόος, then Lykophron can. [77] Once the older brother is eventually able to call to mind (but still not decode) his grandfather’s question, Periandros also decodes the purport of the words, and acts accordingly:

Περίανδρος δὲ νόῳ λαβὼν [καὶ τοῦτο] καὶ μαλακὸν ἐνδιδόναι βουλόμενος οὐδέν, τῇ ὁ ἐξελασθεὶς ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ παῖς δίαιταν ἐποιέετο, ἐς τούτους πέμπων ἄγγελον ἀπηγόρευε μή μιν δέκεσθαι οἰκίοισι.


Periandros, comprehending this too, and not wanting to show any weakness, sent a message to the people where the son whom he had exiled was living and forbade them to receive him in their homes.

It is not the last time we see Periandros using νόος to decode signs. Further on in the Histories, Herodotus (through the mouth of Sokles the Corinthian) relates how Periandros is able to interpret Thrasyboulos’ non-verbal reply to his question about how best to ensure the safety of his tyranny. The bearer of the message, like the older son of Periandros in the previous example, has no idea of the real significance of the signs he relates (Thrasyboulos wades into a field of wheat and cuts off the tallest ears), but Periandros perceives it well enough:


… having comprehended the action and grasped in his mind that Thrasyboulos was advising him to kill those prominent among the citizens.

The role of νόος in decoding is also seen in Herodotus’ use of the verb ἐννοέω, which in two of its three instances in the work relates directly to the interpretation of signs. The first has to do with Likhas’ discovery of the bones of Orestes, a feat he achieves by a mixture of chance and skill, συντυχίη and σοφίη (1.68.1). [
79] Likhas’ σοφίη lies in his ability to register the points of contact between the signs of the oracle and the signs in the blacksmith’s story, and then to acquire the blacksmith’s land without suspicion and lay claim to the bones. [80] He brings the two halves together like σύμβολα:

ἐννώσας τὰ λεγόμενα συνεβάλλετο τὸν Ὀρέστεα κατὰ τὸ θεοπρόπιον τοῦτον εἶναι.


Having grasped in his noos what was said, he concluded that this [skeleton] was Orestes, according to the oracle.

He recognizes a significance behind the man’s words, namely that the bones of supernatural size must belong to a hero, and that that hero may be Orestes.

1.3.3 εἰκάζω

Herodotus uses this verb of the process of decoding and interpreting signs on the basis of comparison and of what is probable, οἰκός. [83] The idea of comparison is confirmed by the collocation of the word with a form of συμβάλλομαι at 1.68.3, discussed above (ch. 1.3.1). There, the verb εἰκάζω is used to describe Likhas’ decipherment of the last part of the oracle about the location of the bones of Orestes, which turns on the perception of the metonymic relationship between the “woe upon woe” (πῆμα ἐπὶ πήματι) of the oracle and the iron of the blacksmith as well as the realization of the significance of iron in the ‘language’ of metals: [84]

εὕρισκε… τὸν δὲ ἐξελαυνόμενον σίδηρον τὸ πῆμα ἐπὶ πήματι κείμενον, κατὰ τοιόνδε τι εἰκάζων, ὡς ἐπὶ κακῷ ἀνθρώπου σίδηρος ἀνεύρηται.


He found… in the iron being hammered out the “woe upon woe,” reasoning it out along the following lines, that iron the discovery of iron was to the detriment to mankind.

At 4.132.1–2, the verb is used of both Dareios’ and Gobryas’ readings of the Scythians’ gift of the bird, mouse, frog, and five arrows, where once again the interpretation of each man depends on the perception of a certain relationship between the sign and that which it signifies. For Dareios, the relationship is chiefly one of metonymy: the mouse stands for earth, because it lives in the earth, the frog for water, because water is its habitat, the bird is “most like a horse,” and the five arrows represent the Scythian submission of their military might to the Persians. [
85] The message is thus read altogether in terms of the traditional Persian symbol of submission, the handing over of earth and water:

Δαρείου μέν νυν ἡ γνώμη ἦν Σκύθας ἑωυτῷ διδόναι σφέας τε αὐτοὺς καὶ γῆν τε καὶ ὕδωρ, εἰκάζων τῇδε, ὡς μῦς μὲν ἐν γῇ γίνεται καρπὸν τὸν αὐτὸν ἀνθρώπῳ σιτεόμενος, βάτραχος δὲ ἐν ὕδατι, ὄρνις δὲ μάλιστα ἔοικε ἵππῳ, τοὺς δὲ ὀϊστοὺς ὡς τὴν ἑωυτῶν ἀλκὴν παραδιδοῦσι.


Now Dareios’ opinion was that the Scythians were handing themselves as well as [the gift of] earth and water over to them, and he reasoned along the following lines, namely that a mouse lives in earth and eats the same food as man, a frog lives in water, a bird is most comparable to a horse, and that by surrendering their arrows to him they were also surrendering their own strength.

Gobryas’ reading assumes a metaphoric relationship between sign and signified:

συνεστήκεε δὲ ταύτῃ τῇ γνώμῃ ἡ Γωβρύεω, τῶν ἀνδρῶν τῶν ἑπτὰ ἑνὸς τῶν τὸν μάγον κατελόντων, εἰκάζοντος τὰ δῶρα λέγειν· “ἢν μὴ ὄρνιθες γενόμενοι ἀναπτῆσθε ἐς τὸν οὐρανόν, ὦ Πέρσαι, ἢ μύες γενόμενοι κατὰ τῆς γῆς καταδύητε, ἢ βάτραχοι γενόμενοι ἐς τὰς λίμνας ἐσπηδήσητε, οὐκ ἀπονοστήσετε ὀπίσω ὑπὸ τῶνδε τῶν τοξευμάτων βαλλόμενοι.” Πέρσαι μὲν δὴ οὕτω τὰ δῶρα εἴκαζον.


The opinion of Gobryas, one of the seven men who deposed the Magos, was in direct opposition to this one. He reckoned that the gifts were saying, “If you do not become like birds and fly up into the heavens, o Persians, or become like mice and sink under the earth, or become like frogs and leap into the lakes, you will not return home again, being shot at with these arrows.” This is how the Persians went about interpreting the gifts.

An interesting use of εἰκάζω in this sense of interpretation on the basis of comparison occurs in Herodotus’ rationalization of the Scythian view that the land to the north of them is full of feathers. Herodotus’ reading of their story (τήνδε ἔχω περὶ αὐτῶν γνώμην, 4.31.1) is that the feathers are simply snowflakes:

τὰ κατύπερθε ταύτης τῆς χώρης αἰεὶ νίφεται, ἐλάσσονι δὲ τοῦ θέρεος ἢ τοῦ χειμῶνος, ὥσπερ καὶ οἰκός· ἤδη ὦν ὅστις ἀγχόθεν χιόνα ἁδρὴν πίπτουσαν εἶδε, οἶδε τὸ λέγω· ἔοικε γὰρ ἡ χιὼν πτεροῖσι· καὶ διὰ τὸν χειμῶνα τοῦτον ἐόντα τοιοῦτον ἀνοίκητα τὰ πρὸς βορέην ἐστὶ τῆς ἠπείρου ταύτης. τὰ ὦν πτερὰ εἰκάζοντας τὴν χιόνα τοὺς Σκύθας τε καὶ τοὺς περιοίκους δοκέω λέγειν.


The uppermost regions of this land have continual snow, a little less in the summer than in the winter, as one might expect. Now anyone who has seen thickly falling snow knows what I mean: for snow looks like feathers. Because this winter is of such a nature, the northern reaches of this continent are uninhabitable. And so I think that the Scythians and their neighbors say [that the region is full of feathers] because they are comparing the snow to feathers.

What the Scythians have done is to make a metaphorical connection between snowflakes and feathers (τὰ ὦν πτερὰ εἰκάζοντας τὴν χιόνα) and then to refer to the reality by the metaphorical equivalent of the snowflakes, ‘feathers’. ‘Feathers’, then, instead of having its normal referent, points to the snowflakes that fall thick and fast. [
86] What Herodotus does is to understand the true nature of the sign and match up once again what is signified with its signifier: another instance of Herodotus’ expertise in, and control over, signs. [87]

At 2.104, he discusses the Egyptian idea that the Colchians are their descendants, but proudly claims that he himself had come to this interpretation on his own, before hearing it from anyone (νοήσας δὲ πρότερον αὐτὸς ἢ ἀκούσας ἄλλων λέγω, 2.104.1). A little further on, he makes a statement in the same tone, this time using a form of the verb εἰκάζω. He emphasizes the superiority of his interpretation and reasoning, which relied not on inconclusive signs, but on the evidence of a ritual marking of the body practiced only by the Colchians, Egyptians, and Ethiopians:

αὐτὸς δὲ εἴκασα τῇδε καὶ ὅτι μελάγχροές εἰσι καὶ οὐλότριχες (καὶ τοῦτο μὲν ἐς οὐδὲν ἀνήκει· εἰσὶ γὰρ καὶ ἕτεροι τοιοῦτοι), ἀλλὰ τοισίδε καὶ μᾶλλον ὅτι μοῦνοι πάντων ἀνθρώπων Κόλχοι καὶ Αἰγύπτιοι καὶ Αἰθίοπες περιτάμνονται ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς τὰ αἰδοῖα.


I myself conjectured thus, on the basis that they are both black-skinned and woolly-haired (though this amounts to nothing, because there exist other such peoples) but especially for the following reason, namely that the Colchians, Egyptians, and Ethiopians are the only peoples to have practised circumcision right from the start.

Once more, Herodotus marks himself off from others in the reading and use of signs. What seems to matter is not simply the conclusion that is reached, that the Egyptians and the Colchians are related, but Herodotus’ novel use of a sign which others have not noticed. [
88] Another example of behavior subjected to the process of comparison and interpretation denoted by verbs with the εἰκ- stem is the unfamiliar tactics of the Athenian hoplites at Marathon that the Persians in terms of their own code can only read as insanity:

οἱ δὲ Πέρσαι ὁρῶντες δρόμῳ ἐπιόντας παρεσκευάζοντο ὡς δεξόμενοι, μανίην τε τοῖσι Ἀθηναίοισι ἐπέφερον καὶ πάγχυ ὀλεθρίην, ὁρῶντες αὐτοὺς ἐόντας ὀλίγους, καὶ τούτους δρόμῳ ἐπειγομένους οὔτε ἵππου ὑπαρχούσης σφι οὔτε τοξευμάτων. ταῦτα μέν νυν οἱ βάρβαροι κατείκαζον.


When the Persians saw them starting the attack at a run, they prepared themselves to receive them and put the Athenians’ actions down to an utterly fatal madness, seeing that their numbers were few and that they were advancing at a run with neither cavalry nor archers with them. This, then, was the interpretation the barbarians gave.

1.3.4 φράζομαι

The middle, and, in the aorist, the passive forms of φράζω are sometimes used to describe the process of reception and interpretation of signs, in contrast to the active forms, which, as we have seen above, are used of the transmission of signs. The middle points toward a process of internal reflection, as does the verb’s etymological connection with φρήν, the organ of mental perception and sense. [89] Φράζομαι shows the meaning of decoding most clearly in oracular contexts, where it is often found in the imperative. [90] The instruction has a meaning that works on two levels: the recipient is instructed to perceive and interpret the contents of the oracle, but also to recognize when a particular set of conditions has been fulfilled (often expressed by the formula ἀλλ᾿ ὅταν, “but when”). [91] So, for example, the Delphic oracle given to the Siphnians in response to their question as to whether their newfound wealth will last long calls for an ἀνὴρ φράδμων (3.57.4) to recognize the sign of (φράσσασθαι) a wooden ambush and a red herald (3.57.4). [92] A similar usage occurs in one of the oracles given to the Bakkhiadai of Corinth: [93]

αἰετὸς ἐν πέτρῃσι κύει, τέξει δὲ λέοντα καρτερὸν ὠμηστήν· πολλῶν δ’ ὑπὸ γούνατα λύσει. ταῦτά νυν εὖ φράζεσθε, Κορίνθιοι, οἳ περὶ καλὴν Πειρήνην οἰκεῖτε καὶ ὀφρυόεντα Κόρινθον.


An eagle in the rocks is pregnant and will give birth to a lion, a mighty eater of raw flesh: he will loosen the knees of many. Look out for this carefully, men of Corinth, who live around fair Peirene and Corinth of the high ridges.

The Bakkhiadai are not, however, able to εὖ φράζεσθαι: Herodotus tells us that the oracle remained ἄσημον (5.92.β.3) and ἀτέκμαρτον (5.92.γ.1), both of which adjectives contain roots prominent in Herodotus’ vocabulary relating to signs. The oracle is ἄσημον not in the sense that it has no meaning, but that it seems impossible to move from the surface meaning to the code lying underneath, to which the imperative φράζεσθε draws attention, effectively marking the utterance as coded. [

The compound ἐπιφράζομαι (‘contrive’, ‘guess’) also demonstrates a connection with the perception and interpretation of signs: it describes the formation of a plan on the basis of (ἐπι-) information from signs. This is strikingly demonstrated in Herodotus’ narrative of the siege of Barke, where, thanks to the clever plan of a blacksmith, the inhabitants of the city are quite literally able to undermine the attempts of the besieging army to dig tunnels underneath the city walls: [97]

τὰ μέν νυν ὀρύγματα ἀνὴρ χαλκεὺς ἀνεῦρε ἐπιχάλκῳ ἀσπίδι, ὧδε ἐπιφρασθείς· περιφέρων αὐτὴν ἐντὸς τοῦ τείχεος προσῖσχε πρὸς τὸ δάπεδον τῆς πόλιος· τὰ μὲν δὴ ἄλλα ἔσκε κωφὰ πρὸς τὰ προσῖσχε, κατὰ δὲ τὰ ὀρυσσόμενα ἠχέεσκε ὁ χαλκὸς τῆς ἀσπίδος· ἀντορύσσοντες δ’ ἂν ταύτῃ οἱ Βαρκαῖοι ἔκτεινον τῶν Περσέων τοὺς γεωρυχέοντας.


A blacksmith discovered the tunnels by means of bronze-covered shield, working it out as follows: he carried the shield around the inner circuit of the wall and kept applying it to the ground. In all the other places to which he applied it, the sound given off was dull, but in the places where there were tunnels, the bronze portion of the shield would echo. The people of Barke would then dig a counter-tunnel in this place and kill the Persian sappers.

Another interesting example concerns the precocious daughter of Kleomenes, Gorgo, who is able to detect signs where others are unable to see any. [
98] Demaratos sends a tablet containing a warning to the Spartans of the imminent Persian invasion, but instead of writing on the wax surface, writes on the tablet itself and then covers it with wax, so that his message will escape detection by the Persian roadblocks. The Spartans can find no message or sign in the blank tablet, but Gorgo is able to read a sign in the tablet itself: [99]

ἐπεὶ δὲ καὶ ἀπίκετο [sc. τὸ δελτίον] ἐς τὴν Λακεδαίμονα, οὐκ εἶχον συμβαλέσθαι οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι, πρίν γε δή σφι, ὡς ἐγὼ πυνθάνομαι, Κλεομένεος μὲν θυγάτηρ Λεωνίδεω δὲ γυνὴ Γοργὼ ὑπέθετο, ἐπιφρασθεῖσα αὐτή, τὸν κηρὸν ἐκκνᾶν κελεύουσα, καὶ εὑρήσειν σφέας γράμματα ἐν τῷ ξύλῳ. πειθόμενοι δὲ εὗρον καὶ ἐπελέξαντο, ἔπειτα δὲ τοῖσι ἄλλοισι Ἕλλησι ἐπέστειλαν.


When the tablet arrived in Sparta, the Spartans were unable to interpret it, until, as I find out, Gorgo, the daughter of Kleomenes and wife of Leonides, worked it out herself and made the following suggestion, ordering them to rub off the wax and find the letters on the wooden surface.

1.3.5 τεκμαίρομαι


[ back ] 1. There are of course other words in Herodotus’ work which refer to particular types of sign or sign systems. Thus the vocabulary of portents includes τέρας, ὄρνις, and οἰωνός, that of dreams ὄνειρος, ὄψις, ἐνύπνιον, that of oracular signs μαντήιον, χρησμός, and χρηστήριον: see chapters 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3 below. For the moment, however, we are only concerned with general words for the concept of a sign.

[ back ] 2. Also used in the meaning of a device or design is ἐπίσημον: 1.195.2 (on top of a staff); 8.88.2 (on a ship); 9.74.2 (on a shield).

[ back ] 3. For the double meaning of σῆμα in Homer, see Nagy 1990a:202–222, who sees a tomb/sign connection in the portent of the preserved fish that come to life in the presence of Artayktes: cf. discussion below and references in ch. On the Nasamones and their σήματα, see Benardete 1969:126. The passage is discussed in ch. 2.4 below.

[ back ] 4. Thucydides 1.6.2; 1.10.1; 1.21.1; 1.132.1; 2.41.4; 2.42.1; 4.120.3. Cf. Thomas 2000:191–192: “Another common word for evidence, or signs from which you can infer, is semeion, which takes on the technical meaning of ‘symptom’ in medical works. But Herodotus retains its primary meaning of ‘mark, sign’.” According to Fowler 1996, σημεῖον appears only once in the authors he lists as contemporaries or predecessors of Herodotus (62–69), in a fragment of Herodoros (FGH 31 F 22a). Further discussion in ch. 3.2.2 below.

[ back ] 5. See Struck 2004 and Müri 1976 for the history and evolution of this term.

[ back ] 6. On the sumbolon as token marking the bearer as subject to the duties and privileges of guest-friendship, cf. Müri 1976:2–7. On the plural form, see Müri 1976:15, who explains it as referring to the agreement itself resulting from the creation of the markers, and compares the plural usage in the terms σπονδαί, ὅρκια, ὅρκοι, δεξιαί. See Struck 2004; Steiner 1994:30–31; and Müri 1976 on the general concept and for literary examples. Struck (77–110), following Müri, argues that in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE sumbolon is confined to this narrower meaning of ‘contract marker’, with additional specialized senses in Pythagoreanism, the mysteries, and divination, and only takes on broader and more expanded meanings beginning in the third century.

[ back ] 7. See Müri 1976:14, who shows that the neuter form is a nomen rei qua agitur: “Sumbolon muss dann sein: das konkrete Ding, an dem die Vereinbarung sich auswirkt und sichtbar wird. In ihm stellt sich das Vertagsverhältnis dar.” See also Struck 2004:90–94 for the idea that sumbolon is also connected with sumballein in the sense of meeting, bumping into someone or something. He cites for example [Aeschylus] Prometheus Bound 487, Aeschylus Suppliants 502, Homeric Hymn to Hermes 30, where sumbolos and sumbolon have the sense of ‘ominous chance meeting’.

[ back ] 8. The link between understanding, or the ability to decode, a sign and memory may be seen in 3.51.1, discussed below in ch. 1.3.2.

[ back ] 9. The word chiefly occurs in the meaning of ‘an arrangement, transaction’ (e.g. Hesychius s.v. and see Müri 1976:14n11: “Für den kaufmännischen Verkehr ist in Attika sumballein terminus technicus, das Substanstiv dazu heisst to sumbolaion”), but here as at Euripides Ion 411 seems to have the meaning of a ‘sign or token’.

[ back ] 10. The set-up of this story is thus similar to the Glaukos episode, where a deposit of money (παραθήκη, 6.86.β.1) is also at issue. Both stories are told by narrators other than Herodotus, and in both contexts the speaker is attempting to persuade his audience of a particular point: here Sokles the Corinthian tries to convince the Spartans of the evils of tyranny.

[ back ] 11. The self-concealing and self-directing nature of the cryptic utterance is thus like the ainos, for which see below, ch. 2.5. It also functions like the sumbolon in the sense of the mystic password among initiates which identifies them to each other but which also represents special knowledge gained through initiation into the mysteries. On this sense of the sumbolon, see Müri 1976:37–44; Struck 2004:104–107; and Levaniouk 2007.

[ back ] 12. As an example of a σύμβολον which consists of the signs of language rather than signs residing in a physical object, Steiner 1994:31 cites Plato Epistles 13 (to Dionysios of Syracuse), which begins with what he says will be a σύμβολον of the fact the letter is from him, an anecdote which is known both to himself and Dionysios (360a).

[ back ] 13. For a different kind of oven also used metaphorically in an oracular context, see the oracle given to Arkesilaos at 4.163.3, discussed in ch. 2.3 below. Cf. Pellizer 1993 for an analysis of the narrative structure of the story using the approach of Greimas.

[ back ] 14. For metaphorical relationships between signifier and signified, cf. e.g. 1.78.1–3 (discussed in ch. 2.1.6), 4.163.3 (discussed in ch. 2.3.3), 4.132.2–3 (discussed in ch. 2.8.2).

[ back ] 15. Cf., for example, 4.79.1–2 and 7.57.2 as discussed in ch. 2.1.6 on portents; 3.58.2 as discussed in ch. 2.3.3 on oracles.

[ back ] 16. LSJ s.v. τεκμήριον (I.1), citing Herodotus 2.13 and 9.100. Cf. Thomas 2000:191: “Tekmeria … one may wish to translate as ‘proof’ in the sense of decisive evidence which, given the limits of the evidence, can lead to a conclusion. For Aristotle later, it denoted conclusive proof that is formally valid, a philosophically rigorous formulation which would be inappropriate and anachronistic at this earlier stage. Sometimes in Herodotus (as well as other fifth-century writers) we would prefer to translate it as ‘evidence’—and a similar blurring is visible in English usage, when one says ‘I have evidence’ in such as way as to mean ‘I have proof, I have evidence which is decisive’. But it usually implies in the Histories more than simply evidence, something closer to probative evidence (or even ‘argument’).”

[ back ] 17. Characteristically construed with the first person singular of the personal pronoun in the dative: τεκμήριον δέ μοι τόδε. Instances: 2.13.1; 2.43.2; 2.58; 2.104.4; 3.38.2 (here without μοι); 7.238.2; 9.100.2 (without μοι).

[ back ] 18. The two stems sêm– and tekmr-, while of course quite distinct in origin, do overlap in meaning in the sense that both refer to a mark of some kind (cf. Herodotus’ parallel use of the adjectives ἄσημος and ἀτέκμαρτος, discussed below). σῆμα in the Homeric corpus can be used in the sense that Herodotus uses τεκμήριον, namely of a proof in the form of a sign, e.g. when Odysseus proves his identity to Eumaios and a herdsman by revealing his scar to them as a σῆμα ἀριφραδές (Odyssey 21.217–220). On this meaning of σῆμα in Homer, see Nagy 1990a:203–207. In later authors, σημεῖον can bear this meaning: see note above under σημήιον, 1.1.1. For τεκμήριον and other forms of this root in Herodotus’ predecessors and contemporaries, see ch. 3.2.2 below and Thomas 2000 and Fowler 1996.

[ back ] 19. On portents and the divine, see ch. 2.1 below.

[ back ] 20. Herodotus uses the expression “many tekmêria” in several other places in the work (2.43.2, 3.38.2, 7.238.2) invariably in a self-confident and even polemical tone. The expression τεκμήριον καὶ τόδε (2.13.1, 2.104.4) also implies the existence of further tekmêria that the author could mention. As Thomas points out (2000:192, 199), one sometimes wonders what these many other tekmêria on which he never chooses to elaborate are. For the polemical tone and a comparison with other writers, see ch. 3.2.2 below.

[ back ] 21. Other instances of κληδών at 5.72.4 (priestess of Athene on the Athenian akropolis tells Kleomenes to leave the sanctuary because he is a Dorian) and 9.91.1. Nomen est omen: the name of a Samian envoy, Hegesistratos, is accepted by the Spartan commander Leotykhides as a good omen for the forthcoming battle at Mykale. See further ch. 2.1 on portents and ch. 2.6 on names and naming.

[ back ] 22. See ch. 2.8.3 on objects as signs and the metonymic relationship between deity and objects associated with the deity.

[ back ] 23. Cf. Munson 2005:76–78: “This dialogue includes three sets of participants, each using three different types of cultural codes: a linguistic code, a code of communication (how things are said, including expressions and gestures), and a code of customs, the last representing the substance of the discourse.” Cf. also Thomas 2000:193–194, who likewise characterizes this passage, together with the others mentioned here, as an inference from custom. See ch. 2.7 below for further on behavior as sign system. Note the linking in this passage of τεκμήρια with a verb of inference, σταθμῶμαι, and cf. the collocation συμβάλλομαι τεκμαιρόμενος (2.33), discussed below, ch. 1.3.1.

[ back ] 24. For an evaluation of three instances of Persian behavior as described by Herodotus (the attempted immolation of Kroisos by Kyros; the lashing of the Hellespont by Xerxes; Xerxes’ branding of the Thebans after Thermopylai), see Keaveney 1996. Strangely enough, Keaveney sees Xerxes’ mutilation of Leonidas as, “in a perverted fashion,” a paying of tribute to him (46n120).

[ back ] 25. See ch. 2.8.6 and ch. below for the body used as sign-bearer and for mutilation of the body as a semiotic act.

[ back ] 26. According to Fowler 1996:74 the word does not occur in any of the extant fragments of Herodotus’ predecessors or contemporaries. If, however, the search is broadened to include writers on subjects beyond the field of history, one finds numerous instances in the Hippocratic corpus, along with τεκμήριον, and the verbal form is found in a fragment of Alkmaion of Kroton (FGH 24 B 1): see ch. 3.2.2 below.

[ back ] 27. Thomas 2000:191.

[ back ] 28. Powell counts 10 instances of the noun, if μαρτύριον instead of τεκμήριον is read at 2.104.4, a fact which underlines the occasionally overlapping nature of the words (cf. Thomas 2000:191n5 on this “blurredness”). Instances of μαρτύριον (* marks usage by Herodotus himself): 2.22.2* (direction of winds provide μέγιστον μαρτύριον that the origin of Nile flooding cannot be melted snow); 4.118.4 (μέγα μαρτύριον that the Persians are out to conquer Scythia rather than just take revenge for their previous enslavement); 5.45.1 (bis) and 5.45.2 (μαρτύρια provided by Sybarites and Crotoniates in form of objects and sanctuaries); 5.92.η.2 (Melissa provides Periandros with a μαρτύριον that it really is her talking); 7.221* (dismissal of Megistias is μαρτύριον that Leonidas wanted all kleos for Spartans); 8.55 (olive tree and spring on akropolis planted as μαρτύρια by Athena and Poseidon); 8.120* (akinakês and tiara as μαρτύριον that Xerxes took land route back to Persia). In three of these nine instances Herodotus himself provides the μαρτύριον. Instances of μαρτυρέω: 2.18.1*, 4.29*, 5.24.3, 8.94.4.

[ back ] 29. The combination with verb ἀποδείκνυμι draws attention to the fact that these previously existing objects are now invested with a meaning and function differently. See Bakker 2002, esp. 22 on the difference between epi-deik and apo-deik: “The object of epideixis is always shown as it is; it existed before it was shown or displayed and is not changed or modified by it…. What is ‘shown’ in an act denoted by apo-deik, by contrast, is always changed in the act, and may not even have existed before. The person or thing pointed at in an act of apodeiknunai acquires a new function according to the requirements of the context.”

[ back ] 30. See Nagy 1990b:314–321 on the combination of dispute and investigation by historia using marturia and marturiai.

[ back ] 31. The akinakês is specifically described at 7.54.2 as a “Persian sword” (though Scythians have them too, 4.62.2–3 and 4.70, as do the Kaspioi 7.67.1) and appears almost exclusively in connection with Persians (1.132.1; 3.12.4, 7.61.1). At 9.80.2 golden akinakai are found on the Persian dead at Plataiai. Masaracchia 1990 ad8.120 compares Xenophon Anabasis 1.2.27: δῶρα ἃ νομίζεται παρὰ βασιλεῖ τίμια . . . καὶ ἀκινάκην χρυσοῦν καὶ στολὴν Περσικήν, “gifts which are considered honorable by the king… a golden akinakês and a Persian garment.” For the object in gift exchange as signifier, see below, ch. 2.8.2. For other golden objects, and the function of gold as a signal of the special status of the object, see the same chapter, esp. on 4.5.3–4 (golden objects fall from the sky in Scythia), 4.162.5 (Euelthon’s gift of a golden spindle and distaff), and 3.22.2 and 3.23.4 (golden chains). Cf. also Kurke 1995 and 1999 on the “language of metals” in Herodotus.

[ back ] 32. Cf. the gold coins Dareios issues as a mnêmosunon of himself as associated directly with the person of the king himself, 4.162.1–2: discussion in ch. 2.8.8 below.

[ back ] 33. In Thucydides, Homer is also used as evidence, but is adduced as a tekmêrion and never as a marturion: 1.3.3 (Homer as evidence [τεκμηριοῖ] that the term Hellenes postdates the Trojan War); 1.9.4 (Homer as evidence for great size of Agamemnon’s navy, εἴ τῳ ἱκανὸς τεκμηριῶσαι); 3.104.6 (Homeric Hymn to Apollo acts as evidence [ἐτεκμηρίωσεν] of antiquity of festival to Apollo on Delos). The implication is that for Thucydides the authority of Homer can be used only as inferential evidence but not as a direct proof. For epos in Herodotus as significant or authoritative utterance, cf. Hollmann 2000.

[ back ] 34. At 2.41.4, the horns of dead bulls act as another kind of sign: the Egyptians mark the location of the cattle they bury by leaving one horn (or both) projecting above the earth σημηίου ἕνεκα.

[ back ] 35. The passage is discussed at greater length in ch. below.

[ back ] 36. See Nagy 1990b:165 (who relies here on Hartog 1988 for the metaphor): “In Greek usage someone sêmainei ‘indicates’, that is, ‘makes a sign [sêma]’, when speaking from a superior vantage point, as when a scout goes to the top of a hill and then comes back down to indicate what he saw (Herodotus 7.192.1, 7.219.1). By extension, someone sêmainei ‘makes a sign [sêma]’ when he or she speaks from a metaphorically superior vantage point, as when an authoritative person makes a pronouncement that arbitrates between contending points of view (Herodotus 1.5.3). But the ultimate voice of authority belongs to the god of the Oracle at Delphi, whose supreme vantage point confers upon him the knowledge of all things, even the precise number of all grains of sand in the universe (Herodotus 1.47.3; cf. Pindar Pythian 9.44–49).”

[ back ] 37. More on the latter passage in ch. 2.3.3. Complete list of instances of divine or supernatural communication using σημαίνω: 1.45.2 (god προεσήμαινε to Kroisos); 1.78.2 (Telmessians work out what τέρας of snakes and horses σημαίνει); 4.179.3 (prophetic utterance of Triton); 5.92.η.2 (Melissa refuses to σημανέειν); 6.27.1 (gods are wont to προσημαίνειν); 6.123.2 (corrupted Pythia); 7.142.2 (the god Apollo through his oracle at Delphi); 9.120.2 (the hero Protesilaos).

[ back ] 38. Instances: 1.21.2; 1.116.4; 6.77.3; 7.8.δ.1; 8.11.1(bis); 9.42.4; 9.56.1; 9.118.2.

[ back ] 39. See discussion in ch. 2.7. below. As will be seen there, the Scythians’ incomprehension of the Amazons lies in the field of both behavior and culture, the signs of which they cannot interpret or understand (οὐκ εἶχον συμβαλέσθαι τὸ πρῆγμα, 4.111.1).

[ back ] 40. For another instance of σημαίνω applied to gestures, cf. 5.20.2, where the Persian guests at the court of Amyntas are encouraged to signal out (ἀποσημανέετε) those women they wish to sleep with. On gesture as a sign system, see ch. 2.7.

[ back ] 41. List of instances of σημαίνω applied to the relaying of an already transmitted sign, both in coded and decoded form: 1.108.2 (dream-interpreters of Astyages relay meaning of his dream); 1.209.3 (Kyros relates proof from dream); 2.2.4 (herdsman relates to Psammetikhos the first word of children in cave); 2.53.2 (Homer and Hesiod relay the εἴδεα of gods); 2.57.2 (Dodonians indicate by detail of blackness that priestess was Egyptian); 3.14.8 (Psammenitos’ strange behavior reported to Kambyses); 3.69.6 (Otanes’ daughter relays details of earless nature of Smerdis); 4.76.5, 4.79.5 (Scythian spies report foreign rites and clothing of Anakharsis and Skyles); 5.51.3 (Aristagoras prevented from relaying further details on his map); 7.18.3 (Artabanos tells Xerxes to relay to the Persians details of dream); 8.37.2 (Delphic prophêtês relays to Delphians the teras he has seen); 8.41.3 (priestess of Athena relays portent of honey-cake untouched by snake in temple); 8.138.1 (courtier relays to Macedonian king Perdikkas’ action of circling the sun’s image on the floor).

[ back ] 42. With the following instances of σημαίνω the meaning of relaying or reporting becomes primary, while the connection with sign encoding may become secondary or not apparent: 1.43.3 (messenger tells Kroisos of death of his son); 2.109.2 (klêros holder tells king of erosion of land by Nile); 3.72.3 (Dareios suggests one of the Seven request to relay epos to the Persian king); 7.173.3 (messengers from Alexander convey size of Persian army and fleet); 7.192.1 (watchers report details of Persian shipwreck off Artemision); 7.219.1 (messengers report movement of Persian army); 8.8.3 (Skyllias the swimmer reports Persian shipwreck); 8.21.1 (Polyas under orders to report any Persian naval disaster to troops at Thermopylai); 8.62.1 (Themistokles conveys his plan in a speech); 8.75.3 (Sikinnos relays Themistokles’ message to the Persians); 8.79.4 (Aristeides orders message to be relayed that the Greek fleet is surrounded); 8.80.2 (Themistokles asks Aristeides to relay message to the fleet); 8.110.3 (Sikinnos and others relay Themistokles’ message to Xerxes); 9.1 (Alexander relays Athenian response to Mardonios); 9.33.4 (Melampous relays offer to Spartans); 9.49.1 (herald relays Spartan response to Mardonios).

[ back ] 43. The dream is discussed below, ch. 2.2.3.

[ back ] 44. These two portents are discussed below, ch. 2.1.

[ back ] 45. For the motif of messengers carrying signs without understanding them, cf. e.g. 1.123.3–124.3 (message of Harpagos to Kyros concealed in hare carried by messenger) and discussion in ch. below. On the bekos passage, cf. Gera 2003:68–111 and Munson 2005:19–23.

[ back ] 46. Nagy 1990b:165, who cites Hartog 1988 for this image.

[ back ] 47. Cf. Hartog 1999:193–196 on sêmainein, esp. 195: “By endowing himself with the capacity to sêmainein, the first historian retains something (not the content, but rather the form) of the ancient knowledge of the diviner.”

[ back ] 48. This is in keeping with the general increase in first person, polemical, and methodological statements in book 2, as noted by e.g. Marincola 1987, Thomas 2000, and Darbo-Peschanski 1987:108–109 (cf. also 107–112 on first-person statements in the Histories).

[ back ] 49. For other instances in the work of the connection between σοφίη and the ability to interpret and manipulate signs, see e.g. discussion of 1.68.3 and συμβάλλομαι, below ch. 1.3.1, and 4.131.1, where the Persians are told that they will be able to find the νόος behind the gifts of the Scythians if they are σοφοί (see discussion below, chs. 1.3.2 and 2.8.2).

[ back ] 50. The general connection between “remembering” in a literary form (stem μνη-: cf. e.g. οὐκ ἀξιῶ μνησθῆναι, 2.20.1) and fame, kleos, is essential to the poetics of the epic tradition, which Herodotus clearly draws on: cf. e.g. Nagy 1979:95–97. See below ch. 2.6 on names and kleos, ch. 2.8.8 on the idea of the monument (μνημόσυνον) as perpetual conveyer of kleos, and cf. also Bakker 2002 on this, esp. 26–28.

[ back ] 51. On mimêsis and mimeisthai in Herodotus cf. ch. 2.6 on Kleisthenes of Athens imitating Kleis-thenes of Sikyon (5.67.1, 5.69.1) and ch. 2.8.8 on Aryandes’ imitation of Dareios’ coinage (4.166.1). As Munson (2001a:52n30) comments, the verb “does not necessarily imply awareness or intention to imitate.” It is rather that Herodotus directs our attention to similarities that may not have been noted before.

[ back ] 52. List of passages where Herodotus uses σημαίνω in first person: 1.5.3* (H. will indicate [σημήνας προβήσομαι] the one he knows to be responsible for beginning unjust actions against the Greeks); 1.75.1* (H. will relay the reason [αἰτίη] Kyros overthrew Astyages); 2.9.2* (H. will relay distance from sea to Thebes); 2.20.1* (H. will relay, but not reproduce in full, theories about Nile); 3.37.2* (H. will relay appearance of statue of Egyptian Hephaistos); 3.106.2* (H. relays account of snatching of gold from Indian ants); 4.99.2* (H. will go ahead and relay [ἔρχομαι σημανέων] measure of Scythian coastline); 5.54.1* (H. will relay exact measurement of distance to Sousa); 6.39.1 (H. will relay how death of Kimon occured); 7.77* (H. will at a later stage relay description of Cilician σκευή); 7.213.3* (H. will later relay another αἰτίη for Athenades’ murder of Epialtes); 9.71.2* (H. unable to mark out [ἀποσημήνασθαι] outstanding group at Plataiai). See esp. Nagy 1990b:228–249 for Herodotus’ use of the terms αἴτιος and σημαίνω and his authoritative pronouncements. Further discussion and bibliography in ch. 3.2.2.

[ back ] 53. For φράζω + σήματα in the Odyssey, see also Odyssey 19.250 (details of Odysseus’ cloak) and 24.346 (Odysseus’ scar and details of Laertes’ orchard). Cf. also the expression σῆμα ἀριφραδές, e.g. Iliad 23.326 (Nestor’s advice on the turning post of the chariot race, which is a σῆμα in the sense of a tomb, but which also has a broader meaning); Odyssey 23.73 (scar of Odysseus). Cf. discussion of φράζω in Svenbro 1993:15–17 and Steiner 1994:16–29.

[ back ] 54. I deviate here from the text of Hude, who follows Stein in bracketing both τοὺς προφήτας and οἱ δὲ αὐτοῖσι ἔφραζον. Cf. here the collocation of αἴτιον and ἔφραζον with ait– and sêmain– above.

[ back ] 55. Further discussion of this passage in ch. 2.6.1 on names and naming.

[ back ] 56. See ch. 2.4.1 below on this incident.

[ back ] 57. Here the rivers themselves are portrayed as doing precisely what the human beings singled out by Herodotus for inclusion in his work do; cf. ἔργα μεγάλα τε καὶ θωμαστά, τὰ μὲν Ἕλλησι, τὰ δὲ βαρβάροισι ἀποδεχθέντα (proem), “works and deeds both great and wondrous, some displayed by Greeks, others by barbarians.” For erga megala and the concept of apodexis, see Bakker 2002, esp. 24–28.

[ back ] 58. On the prevalence and distribution of this term in other writers, see discussion in ch. 3.2 below.

[ back ] 59. Cf. the following usages of the similarly prefixed verbs συλλαμβάνω and συνίημι, where a process of combination is likewise involved, and where signs and their decoding are also involved. συλλαμβάνω: oracular decoding (1.63.1: Peisistratos understands Amphilytos’ oracle about the tuna; 1.91.4–5: Kroisos fails to understand oracle, understands his mistake; 3.64.5: Kambyses understands oracle about Agbatana; 7.143.2: correct understanding of referent in oracle about Salamis); decoding of language (2.56.3: priestess at Dodona; 4.114.1: Scythians and Amazons); use of ritual (2.49.1: Melampous). συνίημι: oracles (5.80.1: anonymous Theban interprets; 5.92.γ.1: Bakkhiadai interpret); decoding language in general (1.47.3: Delphic oracle understands the deaf; 3.46.1: Spartans cannot understand words of Samian exiles; 4.113.2, 4.114.2: Scythians and Amazons; 5.19.2: Amyntas and words of Alexandros).

[ back ] 60. On συμβάλλομαι and the idea of combination and comparison see Hohti 1977:10; Lloyd 1966: 341–343; Lloyd 1979:134n47; Thomas 2000:200–211; Munson 2001a:83–85.

[ back ] 61. 2.10.1 (comparison of reclaimed land around Ilion, Teuthrania, and Ephesos and the plain of the Maiandros River with Nile delta: ὥς γε εἶναι σμικρὰ ταῦτα μεγάλοισι συμβαλεῖν, “to compare these trifles with great things, as it were”). The comparative method is also used with plotting the course of the Nile (2.33), using the known to explain the unknown (see below and under τεκμαίρομαι, ch. 1.3.5). Here, however, the middle of συμβάλλω is used. At 2.10.2 the context is the same, but a negative comparison is used: the other rivers mentioned are not “worthy of comparison” (ἄξιος συμβληθῆναι). 3.125.2: no other Greek tyrant can be compared to Polykrates in terms of magnificence; 3.160: no Persian dares to compare himself to Kyros; 4.50.1: comparison of volumes of Nile and Istros; 4.53.1: comparison of rivers; 4.99.4: comparison of Crimea with region around Sounion (ὡς εἶναι ταῦτα σμικρὰ μεγάλοισι συμβαλεῖν: cf. 2.10.1, translated above). The purpose of the comparison here is not to find an unknown, but simply to explain an unfamiliar region in terms of a familiar one. On analogy and comparison in Herodotus cf. Corcella 1984; Lloyd 1992; Thomas 2000; and Munson 2001a:45–133.

[ back ] 62. On explaining the unseen by means of the seen, see ch. 3.2.2 below and Thomas 2000:200–212 and Corcella 1984.

[ back ] 63. This interchangeability of the large with the small can be related to Herodotus’ famous observation on the fates of cities: τὰ γὰρ τὸ πάλαι μεγάλα ἦν, τὰ πολλὰ αὐτῶν σμικρὰ γέγονε, τὰ δὲ ἐπ᾿ ἐμεῦ ἦν μεγάλα, πρότερον ἦν σμικρά (1.5.4), “For as for those that were of old mighty, most have become small, and those that in my time were mighty were previously small.”

[ back ] 64. Palmer 1980:292. This also applies to the verbs φράζομαι and τεκμαίρομαι, discussed below.

[ back ] 65. Apart from a fragment of Herakleitos (μὴ εἰκῆ περὶ τῶν μεγίστων συμβαλλώμεθα [DK B 47], “Let us not conjecture rashly about the most important matters”), συμβάλλομαι is not often attested, though not as rarely as Hohti 1977:5, 14 suggests: see ch. 3.2.2 for some interesting examples from the Hippocratic Corpus. Pausanias’ use of συμβάλλομαι, especially in combination with τεκμαίρομαι, follows a Herodotean model. Cf. e.g. εἰ δὲ Λυσίππου τοῦ ποιήσαντος τὴν εἰκόνα τεκμαιρόμενον τῇ ἡλικίᾳ συμβάλεσθαι δεῖ με τὸν πόλεμον ἔνθα ὁ Χίλων ἔπεσεν… (6.4.7), “If using as evidence the age of Lysippos, who made the statue, I must make an inference about the war in which Khilon was killed…”; εἰ δὲ Ὁμήρου χρὴ τεκμαιρόμενον τοῖς ἔπεσι συμβαλέσθαι γνώμην, τὸν ὄφιν τοῦτον δράκοντα εἶναι πείθομαι (8.8.5), “If I must come up with an opinion using as evidence the poetry of Homer, then I am convinced that this snake was a drakôn.” This is a direct imitation of Herodotus’ style and method: cf. e.g. καὶ ὡς ἐγὼ συμβάλλομαι τοῖσι ἐμφανέσι τὰ μὴ γινωσκόμενα τεκμαιρόμενος (Histories 2.33.2). On Pausanias as an imitator of Herodotus, see Habicht 1985:97 with references.

[ back ] 66. See discussion under φράζομαι and ἐπιφράζομαι, below ch. 1.3.4, and also ch.

[ back ] 67. See discussion under νόος (ch. 1.3.2) for combination of ἐννοέω and συμβάλλομαι, and ch. 1.3.3 for εἰκάζω.

[ back ] 68. The pair τύπος-ἀντίτυπος occurs elsewhere in a context of sign-reading, in Aeschylus Seven against Thebes 488 and 521, where the devices on the shields of the Seven attacking Thebes are subjected to semiotic analysis. Discussion in Zeitlin 1982:85 and Steiner 1994:54–55, though neither compares the Herodotean passage.

[ back ] 69. See, for example, discussion below (ch. 2.8.2) of the interpretation of the Scythian gifts to Dareios (4.132.1–2), where Dareios’ reading relies on metonymy, while that of Gobryas depends on metaphor.

[ back ] 70. On this passage, see Burkert 1985a:130 and ch. 2.6 below on names and naming.

[ back ] 71. As it does in Homer, for which see Nagy 1990a:202–222.

[ back ] 72. Herodotus uses the verbal form νοέω when describing Artayktes’ ruse to obtain leave from Xerxes to appropriate the shrine of the hero Protesilaos as his own property: ἐπὶ γῆν δὲ τὴν βασιλέος στρατεύεσθαι Πρωτεσίλεων ἔλεγε νοέων τοιάδε· τὴν Ἀσίην πᾶσαν νομίζουσι ἑωυτῶν εἶναι Πέρσαι καὶ τοῦ αἰεὶ βασιλεύοντος (9.116.3), “He said that Protesilaos was marching against the king’s land using the following rationale: the Persians consider that the whole of Asia belongs to them and whoever is king at the time.”

[ back ] 73. Discussed below in ch. 2.8.2.

[ back ] 74. Cf. Nagy 1990a:202–222 on noos as the ability not only to encode and decode signs, but to recognize them in the first place, esp. 205: “the verb noéô conveys simultaneously the noticing of signs and recognition of what they mean.”

[ back ] 75. The reading νόος is the conjecture of Krüger adopted by Hude and Rosén in their texts; the mss. have νόμος. Other instances of νόος in this sense have been contested at 7.162.2 (considered to be an intrusive gloss by Hude following Wesseling) and 9.98.4 (deleted by Krüger, but retained by Hude).

[ back ] 76. The coded question can be considered as an ainos, designed to be intelligible only to those who are the correct and intended recipients: on this passage and the ainos in general, see ch. 2.5 below.

[ back ] 77. For the pattern of two brothers, one of whom has impaired ability to interpret signs, cf. the two sons of Kroisos, one of whom is mute, the other normal (1.34.2). Paradoxically, it is the unimpaired son, Atys, who because of a faulty and biased reading of a sign (Kroisos’ dream that Atys will be destroyed by something made of iron) ends up paying for it with his life, while the nameless and dumb brother saves Kroisos’ life precisely by the ability to speak. When a Persian soldier is about to kill Kroisos, his son cries out, “Don’t kill Kroisos!” On the two brothers and their relative abilities to communicate, see Sebeok and Brady 1979. On the Kypselidai and their sign-reading skills, see Gray 1996.

[ back ] 78. That the bearer of a coded message may transmit without understanding it is an irony that seems to interest Herodotus: see discussion of ἐννοέω below and ch. 3.2.1 on messengers and interpreters. The passage is also discussed in ch. 2.7.2.

[ back ] 79. For the role of chance (which seems linked sometimes to divine providence) in the interpretation (and sometimes the manipulation) of signs, cf. the stories of Dareios, his groom, and his horse (3.85–86, esp. ὥσπερ ἐκ συνθέτου, 3.86.2) and of Zopyros and the chance remark about a mule giving birth (3.151–153, esp. σὺν γὰρ θεῷ, 3.153.2). The first passage is discussed in chs. 2.1.4 and, the second in ch. 2.1.6.

[ back ] 80. The connection between σοφίη and νόος is also clear from the passage concerning the gift of the Scythians (4.131–132), just discussed above. On σοφίη and the ability to encode and decode signs see chapters and 3.2.2 below.

[ back ] 81. On the ἑρμηνεύς and other professional interpreters in the Histories, see ch. 3.2.1 below and Munson 2005:74–76.

[ back ] 82. ἄσημος is elsewhere applied to the pre-verbal cries of the children of Psammetikhos’ linguistic experiment (ἀσήμων κνυζημάτων, 2.2.3) that simply have no meaning and are not signs. Their first verbal cry of bekos (described as a φωνή), though now a sign, will also appear meaningless to the messengers and the king until it is discovered to be Phrygian for ‘bread’. At 5.92.β.3, the adjective is used of an oracle relating to Aetion, which the Bakkhiadai cannot understand in the sense that the deeper or concealed meaning of the enigmatic speech is impenetrable to them, so that it is as if it has no meaning. A second oracle (5.92.β.2) provides the key to understanding it. The terms used by Herodotus stress the idea of combination and comparison (and note the use of ἀτέκμαρτον as a variation on ἄσημον): τοῦτο μὲν δὴ τοῖσι Βακχιάδῃσι πρότερον γενόμενον ἦν ἀτέκμαρτον, τότε δὲ τὸ Ἠετίωνι γενόμενον ὡς ἐπύθοντο, αὐτίκα καὶ τὸ πρότερον συνῆκαν ἐὸν συνῳδὸν τῷ Ἠετίωνος (5.92.γ), “When the Bakkhiadai first got this oracle it was uninterpretable, but when they learned of the oracle which Aetion had received, they immediately understood the previous one too as being consonant with Aetion’s oracle.” Cf. Kurke 2009:434 on this passage as “a speech permeated with συν-compounds that designate the putting together of evidence and the process of human interpretation” with n39: “Within four-and-a-half OCT pages, we find συμβαλέσθαι, συνῆκαν, συνῳδόν, συνέντες, συνείς, συμβόλαιον(Hdt. 5.92α2–η5).” Further discussion of this passage in ch. 2.3.2 below.

[ back ] 83. On Herodotus’ use of to oikos cf. e.g. Thomas 2000:168–212.

[ back ] 84. Iron and conflict are associated with the Fifth Age of man in Hesiod Works and Days 174–179. For the idea of a language of metals in Herodotus influenced by the Hesiodic account of the five ages of man and their associated metals, cf. Kurke 1995 and 1999:154–155, who notes that φυσίζοος αἶα in the first part of this oracle (1.67.4) evokes the necessity of agricultural labor associated with the Age of Iron and forms a contrast to βαλανηφάγοι with its evocation of the Golden Age (note also its association with Arkadia, which has its own Golden Age associations) in the first (disastrously misinterpreted) oracle to the Spartans about Tegea (1.66.2). On gold and its role in significant objects, see below ch. 2.8.1–3.

[ back ] 85. Discussed again in ch. 2.8.2.

[ back ] 86. Cf. Benardete 1969:101, who compares λευκόπτερος νιφάς, “white-winged snow” (Aeschylus Prometheus Bound 993). Benardete sees this as a general tendency of the Scythians to confound “the sign with the object of the sign.” For criticism of this view, cf. Munson 2005:40.

[ back ] 87. There is an interesting parallel for the confusion between the literal and the figurative in the two accounts (διξοὺς λόγους, 9.74.1) which Herodotus knows about Sophanes of Dekelea in Attika. According to one, he carried an anchor on a chain attached to his belt, and would bring it with him into battle, anchoring it in the earth so that the enemy could not move him from his position (9.74.1). According to the other, the anchor was a design (ἐπίσημον) on his shield (9.74.2).

[ back ] 88. Cf. ch. 2.7 below on ritual as a sign system, and cf. ch. 2.8.6 on markings of the body as signs. The passage concludes with another argument based on signs: Herodotus contends that the Colchians must have adopted circumcision through interaction with the Egyptians (and not the Phoenicians), which he proves by means of a μέγα τεκμήριον: when Phoenicians intermarry with the Greeks, they do not circumcise the sons of these unions (2.104.4).

[ back ] 89. Discussion in Steiner 1994:18–19.

[ back ] 90. Parke and Wormell 1956:2.xxviii note the frequency of the verb, especially the imperative φράζου (also φράζευ and φράζεο), in imitations of the oracular style (e.g. Aristophanes Knights 1030). See also Fontenrose 1978:170–171 and ch. 2.3.2. below. For the same meaning in a non-oracular context, cf. Hesiod Works and Days 448, a passage in which the poet advises his brother to look out for the cry of the crane (φράζεσθαι δ᾿ εὖτ᾿ ἂν γεράνου φωνὴν ἐπακούεις), a σῆμα that it is time to plough.

[ back ] 91. For the formula, cf. 1.55.2 and (without ἀλλά) 8.20.2. Further discussion in ch. 2.3 below.

[ back ] 92. Further discussion of this oracle in ch. 2.3. Asheri et al. 2004 ad loc. compare the wordplay with Iliad 24.354: φράζεο, Δαρδανίδη· φραδέος νόου ἔργα τέτυκται, “Reflect, son of Dardanos: the action at hand requires a wary mind.”

[ back ] 93. Cf. also the oracle given to the Euboeans: φράζεο, βαρβαρόφωνος ὅταν ζυγὸν εἰς ἅλα βάλλῃ | βύβλινον, Εὐβοίης ἀπέχειν πολυμηκάδας αἶγας (8.20.2), “Take care, when one of foreign speech casts a yoke of papyrus onto the sea, to keep the much-bleating goats away from Euboia.”

[ back ] 94. For a similar instance in which the adjective ἄσημος refers to the fact that the surface meaning is baffling but that the message contains a deeper meaning, cf. 1.86.4 (Kroisos’ reply to Kyros’ messengers), discussed in ch. 1.3.2 above and ch. 3.2.1 below.

[ back ] 95. Detienne and Vernant 1978:18n32 characterize φράζεσθαι as “one of the verbs associated with mêtis.”

[ back ] 96. For tears and other non-verbal behavior as signs, see ch. 2.7.4 below.

[ back ] 97. The enemy replies with a countermove, which equally depends on the use (or, more accurately, the manipulation) of signs: the Persian commander tricks the inhabitants by means of a false oath into opening the gates of the city (4.201). Cf. ch. below.

[ back ] 98. Gorgo’s intelligence is demonstrated earlier in the Histories (5.51), where she rescues her father from falling prey to corruption.

[ back ] 99. Cf. treatment of this passage in ch. below.

[ back ] 100. Uses of the verb by Herodotus himself: 1.57.1–2* bis (Herodotus infers on the basis of surviving Pelasgian communities and place names that the Pelasgians spoke a barbarian language); 2.33.2* (Herodotus on the course of the Nile, described above). Other instances: 7.16.γ.2 (dream uses clothing as key to identity, described above); 7.234.1 (Xerxes infers that Demaratos is a good man on the basis that everything he has said so far has come to pass).

[ back ] 101. Lloyd 1989 ad loc. compares Solon (Stobaeus 1.79.β Meineke): τὰ ἀφανῆ τοῖς φανέροις τεκμαίρου, “Infer what is unseen on the basis of what is seen.” Cf. ch. 3.2.2 below on Herodotus’ connection to the language of signs in archaic poetry.

[ back ] 102. Other instances of dress and personal ornament as signs in chs. 2.8.5 and below.