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. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_Hollmann.The_Master_of_Signs.2011.
Part 1. The Vocabulary of Signs, Their Transmission, Reception, and Interpretation
1.1 The Sign
1.1.2 σύμβολον, συμβόλαιον
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.  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).  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.  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.  It is one of several examples in the Histories where the audience is left to complete an interpretation suggested by Herodotus. 
Human behavior and ritual, νόμοι, are signs with accompanying codes that may be read and interpreted, and nowhere is this made clearer than here. 
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.  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.
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.  As objects associated with the king, their presence is a sign of the presence of the king himself. 
1.2 Transmission of Signs
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.  As I will point out below (ch. 18.104.22.168), 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:
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.  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).
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:
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. 
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).  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.
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: 
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.  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. 
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:
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.
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”). 
1.3 The Reception, Decoding, and Interpretation of Signs
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:
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.
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:
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.  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. 
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.
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:
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).  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.  He brings the two halves together like σύμβολα:
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.
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.  The message is thus read altogether in terms of the traditional Persian symbol of submission, the handing over of earth and water:
Gobryas’ reading assumes a metaphoric relationship between sign and signified:
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:
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.  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. 
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.  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:
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. 
Another interesting example concerns the precocious daughter of Kleomenes, Gorgo, who is able to detect signs where others are unable to see any.  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: 
Signs of quite a different nature, clothing used as a sign of identity, occur in the conversation of Artabanos and Xerxes in which the former categorically denies the status of signs to dreams, claims that if he were to put on Xerxes’ clothes, no dream would be so stupid as to think that he were Xerxes, judging purely by the clothes he was wearing (τῇ σῇ ἐσθῆτι τεκμαιρόμενον, 7.16.γ.2).