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 2. Sign Systems

2.1 Portents and Their Interpretation in Herodotus

2.1.1 Definition

Portents are aberrations and departures from the norm which by reason of their unusual nature and unexpected appearance are interpreted as signs declarative or prescriptive of some present or future action. We shall elaborate on the elements of this definition a little later, but let us look first at the vocabulary which Herodotus uses to describe the field of signification which in English is subsumed by the term “portent.” “Portent” or “omen” may point to a wide variety of phenomena, and Herodotus also uses such general terms as σημήιον, τέρας, and φάσμα, which can refer to various manifestations (earthquakes, sudden illness, abnormal animal births or behavior, eclipses, disasters, thunder and lightning), together with terms that have a narrower and more specific field of reference: φήμη and κληδών refer to auditory signs, for example. [1]

I return now to the definition advanced above, namely that portents are events interpreted as signs declarative or prescriptive of some present or future action, and more specifically, the notion that an event may be regarded as having a significance beyond itself and that it is somehow indicative of something that obtains in the world or that will in the future obtain.

2.1.2 Recognition

A particular phenomenon must be recognized as a portentous sign. [2] This recognition is not always automatic, nor is it always universal. In some of his narratives about portents Herodotus stresses the fact that portents are in the eye of the beholder through the use of verbs such as δοκέω while also concentrating on the moment of realization. Thus the strange appearance of snakes in Sardis and the strange behavior of the horses who eat them “appeared to Kroisos to be a teras , as was in fact the case” (ἰδόντι δὲ τοῦτο Κροίσῳ, ὥσπερ καὶ ἦν, ἔδοξε τέρας εἶναι, 1.78.1). Similarly, the appearance at night of Phocian soldiers whitened with chalk seems in the eyes of the panic-struck Thessalian sentries to be some kind of teras (δόξασαι ἄλλο τι εἶναι τέρας, 8.27.3). Recognition that the unusually high rising of bread baked for one of his workers, Perdikkas, who eventually usurps his throne, is a teras portending “something big” suddenly “comes upon” the Macedonian king (ἐσῆλθε αὐτίκα ὡς εἴη τέρας καὶ φέροι ἐς μέγα τι, 8.137.3). [3] In speaking of the Egyptians and their practice regarding portents, Herodotus comments that more terata have been “found” (ἀνεύρηται) by them than by the rest of humanity (2.82.2). [4] The verb implies a process of careful recognition, selection, and recording. [5] As noted above, this method of interpretation according to precedent and comparison is not one that Herodotus shows the Greeks using.

2.1.3 Code

2.1.4 The Question of the Sender

Benardete is the first scholar I know of to approach this passage from an explicitly semiotic point of view, and points out the appropriation by the divine of events which are then made to bear a different meaning. He is however inaccurate in his description of what precisely is used as the signifier or sign vehicle in this example. He argues that both activities in which the two sets of children were engaged involved sets of signs:

The Chians sent the chorus to dance and perhaps to sing at Delphi; it was designed to propitiate Apollo and gain his favor: and the schoolchildren were learning to read and write the language of their city. As the chorus was meant to signify something to a god, so the schoolchildren were learning what the letters of the alphabet signified. What were already signs with a human sense became signs with another meaning: “the god” made the conversion. The god ignored their original significance—the dance addressed to Apollo and the alphabet to men—and made them foretell the future. He converted human things to a divine end.

Benardete 1969:161

But it is not the signs with which the children were originally involved that the god converted to his own end, rather the fact of their deaths while engaged in these activities, and it is precisely this that acts as the signifier or sign vehicle in the semiotic communication which Herodotus describes.

According to Benardete, in this passage and again in his description of the earthquake on Delos (6.98), Herodotus views the portents alternately as intentional signs, with a divine sender, and as non-intentional signs, that is to say with no sender. [14] It is true that both at 6.27 and 6.98 Herodotus expresses himself in two different ways when he comes to speak of the portentous nature of the Chian disasters and the earthquake on Delos. He at first uses an impersonal construction:

φιλέει δέ κως προσημαίνειν, εὖτ’ ἂν μέλλῃ μεγάλα κακὰ ἢ πόλι ἢ ἔθνεϊ ἔσεσθαι· καὶ γὰρ Χίοισι πρὸ τούτων σημήια μεγάλα ἐγένετο.


There is usually a foreshadowing in some way whenever great evils are about to befall a city or nation: for indeed there were great signs for the Chians before these events [the Chians’ disastrous naval defeat].

The addressee is clear enough, but the impersonal construction (φιλέει . . . προσημαίνειν) does not specify the sender. When, however, Herodotus rounds off his account of the σημήια μεγάλα (the deaths of the children on the choral tour to Delphi and of those killed by the collapsing school building), he varies the construction:

ταῦτα μέν σφι σημήια ὁ θεός προέδεξε.


The god showed them these things in advance as signs [sêmêia].

Here sender and addressee are clearly mentioned, and the incidents are presented squarely in the tradition of Homeric portents, where there is no doubt about the fact that the gods are sending a message. But the impersonal construction Herodotus uses to introduce the passage need not exclude the presence of the divine sender, whom as we see Herodotus refers to so clearly at the end of the passage. In general, such impersonal constructions are not as impersonal as they might seem: the absence of a grammatical subject does not necessarily imply the absence of a logical one. [
15] The sentence ταῦτα μέν σφι σημήια ὁ θεός προέδεξε seems in any case designed to round off the passage in typical ring-composition style, except that the introductory clause is not repeated verbatim, but with variatio (προσημαίνειν-προέδεξε).

What Herodotus does is to look at the matter from another angle: given the magnitude of subsequent events, it was entirely consistent and reasonable that Delos suffered an earthquake. This observation made post factum need not exclude an interpretation of the sign as intentional. In fact, the observation seems intended rather as a confirmation of the intentional nature of the sign, using an argument based on what is probable, εἰκός (Ionic οἰκός). [19] Once again Herodotus is rounding off a point he begins with the statement, and so 6.98.3 should be seen as a confirmation of that view, not the introduction of a fundamentally different one. He offers in addition another piece of evidence, drawn from another sign system, the oracle spoken by the same god who sent the teras:

κινήσω καὶ Δῆλον ἀκίνητόν περ ἐοῦσαν.


I shall shake Delos too, unshaken though it be.

In these two passages, then, Herodotus states that the divine is the sender in the chain of communication. Nowhere else is this expressed quite as clearly by Herodotus as narrator. [
20] In fact, the general construction he uses when characterizing something as a teras or phasma is τέρας (φάσμα) ἐγένετο (ἐφάνη) (“a teras/phasma happened/appeared”). This construction does not mention the divine explicitly, but cannot be said to exclude the divine as ultimate sender either. Two figures in Herodotus’ narrative speak explicitly of divine senders: Dikaios, son of Theokydes, who witnesses and interprets for Demaratos the mysterious dustcloud and φωνή coming from Eleusis (8.65), and Artayktes the Persian, in a passage we shall return to below when discussing the question of addressee (9.120.2).

2.1.5 Recipient

Let us move now from the question of sender to that of addressee. The term “addressee” implies, however, a model of communication in which a specific person or group is targeted. Portents in the Histories may indeed be presented as directed at a particular person or people, but it is also possible to view them as being presented to a wider audience, namely, all mankind (ἀνθρώποισι, 6.98.1), among whom certain individuals may be affected more than others. In this case we might speak of a recipient, one who happens to witness the portent, rather than an addressee. As we have seen above, a typical construction in Herodotus’ portent narratives is “a teras happened” (τέρας ἐγένετο), with the person affected or witnessing the event appearing in the dative. The occurrence of a portent in the immediate vicinity of someone creates a presumption that the portent is directed at that person. Thus when at Olympia, in the presence of Hippokrates, the contents of a cauldron spontaneously begin to bubble, with no fire underneath, Khilon interprets this teras as referring to Hippokrates himself (1.59.1–2).

2.1.6 Interpretation

Once a portent has been recognized as such, the next stage is to interpret or decode it. We have already refered to the kind of code involved in portents and the fact that Herodotus specifically points out the culturally determined nature of this code in a number of places. Now let us look at the content of this code, and how its decoding is presented by Herodotus. First, the decoders themselves. It is an interesting fact that while professional decoders and interpreters of portents appear in the work, they do so always in a non-Greek context, for reasons which we will presently explore. [25] For example, Herodotus mentions the Egyptian practice of committing terata and their outcomes to writing in order to make use of them to predict the outcome of similar portents in the future:

γενομένου γὰρ τέρατος φυλάσσουσι γραφόμενοι τὠποβαῖνον, καὶ ἤν κοτε ὕστερον παραπλήσιον τούτῳ γένηται, κατὰ τὠυτὸ νομίζουσι ἀποβήσεσθαι.


When a teras occurs, they watch for the outcome and write it down, and if something like this ever happens again, they consider that the outcome will be the same.

The use of writing in an Egyptian context implies a professional group of scribes and interpreters. This method of interpretation, an approach which seems to involve the strict use of precedent, is mentioned only here in Herodotus. Nowhere else in the Histories do we find reference to the decoding of portentuous signs by reference to written or oral records. [
26] In those instances where an explanation of a particular reading or decoding of a portent is offered, or even in cases where an explanation is not offered, the portent seems in each case to be addressed on the basis of its own internal logic, without resorting to a body of collected portents. This is not to say that the Egyptian practice of interpretation according to precedent was unfamiliar to the Greek world: Herodotus simply shows more interest in a technique that calls for skill in perceiving systems of oppositions, similarities, and analogies, and not on the application of precedent. This is in fact a general Herodotean characteristic to be found not just in connection with portents, but with other sign systems as well, as subsequent chapters will make plain.

Other professional interpreters mentioned in the context of portents are the Persian magoi (7.37.2) and the Telmessian exêgêtai (1.78.2), both of whose interpretations we will look at shortly. [27] But apart from these figures, all the remaining interpreters of portents we encounter in the work are lay people. Some of these may be distinguished by a reputation for sophiê, as, for example, Thales (1.74.2), or may demonstrate sophiê in their interpretations and use of them, such as Kleomenes (6.82.2) or Zopyros (3.153.1), and it is in these figures that Herodotus shows a particular interest, as we will see over the course of this investigation and in particular ch. 3.2. There is one important interpreter who should not be passed over, and that is Herodotus himself. All the interpretations of portents in the work derive in some sense from Herodotus, whether he relates his own or those of others, and the question of Herodotus’ identification with the figures who advance them is one we will encounter later. For the moment, however, we shall focus on those places where he delivers an interpretation in his own voice. [28] Lastly, not all portents receive an explanation, or their explanation may be somehow incomplete, with the audience expected to supply a step in the reasoning. [29] As we shall see, the missing step invariably assumes the knowledge of a cultural convention which is unexpressed. This once more reinforces the fact that portents depend always on a conventional code.

We begin our investigation with one of the few professional interpretations of a portent that Herodotus chooses to relate and that also happens to be one of the most completely presented decodings in the work. The Telmessians, known for their skill in this area, explain, quite correctly as it turns out, a teras observed by Kroisos at Sardis:

ταῦτα ἐπιλεγομένῳ Κροίσῳ τὸ προάστιον πᾶν ὀφίων ἐνεπλήσθη. φανέντων δὲ αὐτῶν οἱ ἵπποι, μετιέντες τὰς νομὰς νέμεσθαι, φοιτῶντες κατήσθιον. ἰδόντι δὲ τοῦτο Κροίσῳ, ὥσπερ καὶ ἦν, ἔδοξε τέρας εἶναι.


The narrative fully describes the transmission by messengers of the details of the teras from Kroisos to the Telmessians, and the transmission of their reply back to the king. The interpretation of the experts is quite correct, but arrives too late to be of use to Kroisos, who has already been captured by the Persians and who seems fated to derive no benefit from expert advice, whether through his own lack of comprehension (cf. the famous encounter with Solon, 1.29–33) or a failure to receive messages in time. This narrative motif may be contrasted with another scenario (7.37.2), to be discussed below, where advice from experts is provided immediately, without any interference in the chain of communication, but the interpretation advanced by the magoi is flawed.

How do the Telmessians interpret the portent? Herodotus, no doubt for greater narrative effect, presents us with their interpretation first, postponing slightly the presentation of their reasoning:

Τελμησσέες μέντοι τάδε ἔγνωσαν, στρατὸν ἀλλόθροον προσδόκιμον εἶναι Κροίσῳ ἐπὶ τὴν χώρην, ἀπικόμενον δὲ τοῦτον καταστρέψεσθαι τοὺς ἐπιχωρίους, λέγοντες ὄφιν εἶναι γῆς παῖδα, ἵππον δὲ πολέμιόν τε και ἐπήλυδα.


This was the reading of the Telmessians, that Kroisos could expect a foreign army to come against his country and that once it arrived it would defeat the native inhabitants. They said that a snake was the child of the earth and that a horse was hostile and an invader.

In the report of the reasoning behind their interpretation what is presented is the significance of the agents in the portent, the snakes and the horses. We are left to ourselves to combine the elements: no great task, to be sure, but nevertheless a narrative technique that we encounter elsewhere in Herodotus’ narratives concerning the interpretation of signs. [
31] What could be regarded as a separate teras in its own right, the sudden appearance of snakes in Sardis, is passed over in favor of the even more striking teras of the horses devouring the snakes, and it is this that forms the object of the interpreters’ attention. Three separate terata combine to form a complex here: the appearance of snakes in Sardis, the horses’ desertion of their normal pastures and their arrival in the proastion, and, thirdly, their devouring of the snakes.

The key to the decoding of this complex, as presented by Herodotus’ narrative, lies in making a connection between the snakes and the Lydians on the one hand, and the horses and the enemy on the other. The stress in Herodotus’ account may thus be said to fall on the axis of selection (or substitution) and the relation between individual elements in the terata and what they correspond to. [32] The first connection is made via the identification of snakes with “children of the earth” (ὄφιν εἶναι γῆς παῖδα, 1.78.3). This does not receive any further elaboration, but the point in common must be the autochthonous origin of both snakes and the Lydians. Once pointed out, the transference is a natural and instinctive one for a Greek audience at least, since the claim of national autochthony and the serpentine appearance and chthonic origins of autochthonous ancestors are familiar themes in Greek mythology and art. [33] One could say that snakes are literally children of the earth, but that as applied to the Lydians the expression is metaphorical. [34] The semantic marker of autochthony thus links the two. This marker becomes clear if one considers the teras from the point of view of space and a system of oppositions of types of space. The snakes do not come from anywhere, but simply are suddenly there, filling the proastion (τὸ προάστιον πᾶν ὀφίων ἐνεπλήσθη, 1.78.1). If one views the physical layout of the situation described by Herodotus in terms of the opposition foreign vs. native, or rural vs. urban, the proastion here falls into the latter category. [35] In this way, it becomes easy to understand the identification of the horse as an enemy and invader (ἵππον δὲ πολέμιόν τε καὶ ἐπήλυδα, 1.78.3). The horses abandon their normal areas and normal activities and frequent an unaccustomed area, and indulge in abnormal behavior, the eating of snakes (οἱ ἵπποι μετιέντες τὰς νομὰς νέμεσθαι, φοιτῶντες κατήσθιον, 1.78.1). [36] The horse in this interpretation thus has the semantic marker |foreign|. Once the necessary substitutions have been made, the elements can be combined and read horizontally along the axis of combination to produce the total message (Figure 2).

axis of selection

snakes fill proastion horses leave normal horses eat snakes
Lydians παῖδες γῆς strangers come into land strangers defeat Lydians

  axis of combination

Figure 2. Diagram of the teras of 1.78

Herodotus’ account of the φάσμα ignored by the philhellenic Scythian king Skyles illustrates well his occasional practice of omitting a full explanation of elements of the portent, leaving it to the audience to make the final connection. As we have already seen with the portent of the snakes at Sardis, these connections are perhaps easier for an ancient Greek audience to make than a contemporary one, and are interesting for what they reveal of the cultural conventions and code according to which the portent is understood. Herodotus sets the portent squarely in a framework of divine warning: ἐπείτε δὲ ἔδεέ οἱ κακῶς γενέσθαι, ἐγένετο ἀπὸ προφάσιος τοιῆσδε (4.79.1), “A misfortune was bound to befall him, and it came about for the following reason.” A lightning bolt (Herodotus chooses to frame the sentence with ὁ θεός, “the god,” as subject of an active verb) strikes and destroys Skyles’ town house, built in Greek style, just as he is preparing to be initiated into the rites of Dionysos:

μέλλοντι δέ οἱ ἐς χεῖρας ἄγεσθαι τὴν τελετὴν ἐγένετο φάσμα μέγιστον. ἦν οἱ ἐν Βορυσθενεϊτέων τῇ πόλι οἰκίης μεγάλης καὶ πολυτελέος περιβολή . . . τὴν πέριξ λευκοῦ λίθου σφίγγες τε καὶ γρῦπες ἕστασαν· ἐς ταύτην ὁ θεὸς ἐνέσκηψε βέλος· καὶ ἡ μὲν κατεκάη πᾶσα, Σκύλης δὲ οὐδὲν τούτου εἵνεκα ἧσσον ἐπετέλεσε τὴν τελετήν.


As he was about to undertake his initiation a most striking manifestation [phasma] took place. He owned in the city of the Borysthenites a large and costly walled house . . . about which were placed sphinxes and griffins made of marble. Onto this [house] the god let fall a bolt of lightning, and it burned down entirely, but despite this Skyles still went ahead with his initiation.

Skyles is eventually put to death by the Scythians for his desertion to foreign ways (ξεινικοὶ νόμοι, 4.80.5).

There is a detail of Skyles’ house that Herodotus provides in his description that seems to be relevant but is not explained: the sphinxes and griffins of white stone. How do these sphinxes and griffins function in the sign complex? The connection between signifier and signified seems to be one between an item associated with the cult of a god and the cult itself: since the phasma occurs just before Skyles’ initiation into the rites of Dionysos, it might be natural to assume the sphinxes and griffins are symbols of Dionysiac cult. [38] Yet griffins and sphinxes are not the first creatures which spring to mind as part of Dionysiac iconography of the fifth century at any rate. [39] We must either revise our opinions about Dionysiac iconography of the fifth century in the light of this passage, or seek an alternative explanation. More likely is that the combination of sphinxes and griffins constitutes a typically Greek decorative motif, and that they are in this way linked to Greek culture and cult, and thus to Dionysiac cult, which in this narrative is viewed by Scythian eyes as somehow representative and typical of Greek culture (4.79.3). The connection to Dionysos according to this model would then be a more indirect one. It is interesting that what for the Scythians is most typically Greek, the rites and madness of Dionysos and his followers, or, in the account of Anakharsis (4.76.1–5), those of the Great Mother, is precisely that which the Greeks themselves could at times choose to depict as foreign and “other.” [40] There are in fact several examples of sphinxes and griffins depicted together (a naturally attractive combination for an artist, since both are Mischwesen), both in vase painting and in the plastic arts, dating from the Archaic to the Classical periods. [41] The griffin admittedly is not Greek in origin, nor the sphinx, but they are common decorative motifs on Greek artifacts of the archaic and classical periods, and it is in this way that they can act as symbols of Greekness. [42] As symbols, the link between them and what they signify is based on convention, on a fashion in the Greek decorative arts which here becomes a sign of Greek culture. [43]

A more direct link between cultic item and divinity exists in two other portents in the Histories, both relating to the goddess Athena and the Athenian akropolis. As with the mysterious dust-cloud seen coming from Eleusis (8.65), they are all portents in which the code against which they are to be read is a local and narrow one, one which must be explained to a panhellenic audience. In the first, the sacred snake in the temple of Athena leaves its honey-cake untouched:

λέγουσι Ἀθηναῖοι ὄφιν μέγαν φύλακα τῆς ἀκροπόλιος ἐνδιατᾶσθαι ἐν τῷ ἱρῷ. λέγουσί τε ταῦτα καὶ δὴ καὶ ὡς ἐόντι ἐπιμήνια ἐπιτελέουσι προτιθέντες· τὰ δ᾿ ἐπιμήνια μελιτόεσσά ἐστι. αὕτη δ᾿ ἡ μελιτόεσσα ἐν τῷ πρόσθε αἰεὶ χρόνῳ ἀναισιμουμένη τότε ἦν ἄψαυστος.


The Athenians say that a great snake lives in the sanctuary as guardian of the akropolis. They also say they perform a rite of setting out monthly offerings for it, believing it to exist: the offerings consist of honey-cake. This honey-cake, which up till then had always been consumed, at that time remained untouched.

When this is announced by the priestess (as has already been noted in ch., σημηνάσης as applied to the priestess refers rather to the secondary conveying of sign information than to interpretation, which the Athenians seem to provide for themselves), the Athenians are all the more willing to abandon the city “since the goddess too had left the akropolis” (ὡς καὶ τῆς θεοῦ ἀπολελοιπυίης τὴν ἀκρόπολιν, 8.41.3). Thus the snake functions as an index of the goddess, being a guardian (φύλαξ, 8.41.2) of her sanctuary. [

Another example of a portent involving the relationship between an item associated with the goddess and the goddess herself follows soon after his account of the snake. Again, in order to explain the portent, Herodotus must explain the cultural code against which it is to be read. Thus he explains the significance of the sacred olive tree in the Erekhtheion, before relating the portent of the tree:


There is on this akropolis a temple which is said to be that of Erekhtheus the Earthborn, and in it there is an olive-tree and a source of salt water, which the story told by the Athenians says Poseidon and Athena set up as marturia when they fought over the area. Now it happened that this olive tree was set on fire along with the rest of the sanctuary by the barbarians. On the second day after the fire, when those Athenians who were commanded by the king to offer sacrifice went up to the sanctuary, they saw that a shoot, as long as a cubit, had shot up from the stump.

Here the olive tree functions as a sign in several ways: firstly, the tree itself is metonymically a symbol of Athena and a marturion testifying to her gift of the tree to the Athenians, her victory over Poseidon, and her claim to be their goddess. [
46] It also acts as an index, since its rapid growth from seeming destruction presumably points to the renewed presence of the goddess. We may think for example of the Homeric Hymn to Dionysos and the sudden appearance and growth of the vegetation associated with that divinity when the ship on which he has been kidnapped by pirates is suddenly overrun with vines and ivy (38–41). Herodotus does not need to label this explicitly as a thôma or teras, but the narrative steers us in this direction, with the introductory sentence “I shall now relate why I mentioned these things” (τοῦ δὲ εἵνεκεν τούτων ἐπεμνήσθην, φράσω, 8.55) promising us a good story, and the details of the account are suggestive and portentous enough in themselves. [47]

Finally, let us consider an interpretation advanced by Herodotus himself. After describing the Persian crossing of the Hellespont, he relates the teras of a mare giving birth to a hare, which he characterizes as εὐσύμβλητον (7.57.1), “easy to interpret,” an adjective formed from the verb συμβάλλομαι, one of the verbs he uses in particular to describe the process of decoding a sign by a process of analogy. [48] The incident contains a variation of a narrative motif common in Herodotus’ descriptions of the interpretation of signs: a breakdown in communication between interpreter and recipient of signs. The reason for breakdown varies: so, for example, one could compare the narrative of 7.57.1 with that of 1.78, the portent of the snakes at Sardis. In both accounts, powerful leaders cannot avail themselves of valuable information afforded by an interpretation of a portent. In the case of Kroisos, the distance between Sardis and the abode of the Telmessians and the time this journey takes conspire against him, though he has of course the desire to interpret the portent; Xerxes, on the other hand, is simply not interested in the portent, considering it of no account (τὸ Ξέρξης ἐν οὐδενὶ λόγῳ ἐποιήσατο, 7.57.1). Herodotus claims the portent is easy to interpret, but one suspects this is more a rhetorical tactic on his part ad maiorem Herodoti gloriam: his ingenious interpretation shines all the more brightly for the disclaimer. His reading revolves around the transference of both the horse’s and the hare’s traditional characteristics to the army, and the realization that the horse and the hare are tangible and actual manifestations of a metaphorical and figurative description of Xerxes and his army:


A horse gave birth to a hare. This was easy to interpret: Xerxes was going to lead an expedition against Greece in a most proud and magnificent fashion, but would return to his own land running for his own dear life.

The relationship between signifier and signified is thus seen by Herodotus as an iconic relationship, where characteristics of the horse and the hare are shared by the army of Xerxes. [
50] But this is only part of the reading, a consideration only of the elements of the total message and the relationship between signifier and signified in terms of the axis of selection or substitution. What is vital to Herodotus’ reading is his combination of the elements of the teras (along the axis of combination) and his revelation that the horse and the hare are in fact one and the same, or, to put it another way, that they are two different signs in the complex that ultimately have the same referent. The action of birth then does not just function to create a separate entity, a hare out of a horse, a cowering, timorous, and fugitive army out of a proud and majestic one, but is also an equation of two disparate and seemingly contradictory elements. For Herodotus, the difference in level or hierarchy between parent and offspring in the teras functions on a temporal level to show the present and the future.

Herodotus caps his tour-de-force exposition by listing another portent to which Xerxes could have paid attention had he chosen to: a mule gives birth to a mule, which in itself is enough to constitute a portent, as the story of Zopyros and the siege of Babylon (3.153.1) makes clear. [51] Not only does the offspring of this teras bear a double set of genitalia, male and female, but the male genitalia appear above the female (7.57.2). Herodotus never explains the portent, presumably considering it to be as εὐσύμβλητον as the preceding one, another manifestation of his technique of leaving the audience to make connections for themselves. We are probably intended to transfer patterns of thought and oppositions that Herodotus uses in his discussion of the portent of the horse and the hare. The motif of birth does not seem to be used in the same way, however, to mediate temporally between a “before” and an “after” picture of Xerxes and his army and to draw an equivalence between two different creatures: instead, the adunaton of a mule giving birth simply seems to draw attention to the theme of inversion and abnormality. The motif of the possession of two opposite qualities by one individual, rather than being expressed, as in the first teras, by the device of two separate entities (the horse and the hare) with a common referent (Xerxes and his army), is here expressed in the dual nature of the offspring with its double identity as male and female (διξὰ ἔχουσαν αἰδοῖα, τὰ μὲν ἔρσενος, τὰ δὲ θελέης, 7.57.2). The qualities associated with the horse in the first teras may here be viewed in the male nature of the creature, while the negative connotations of the hare are expressed in the female sexual identity of the mule. Finally, the relative physical positioning of two sets of genitalia, male above female (instead of female above male, one presumes?) suggest the function of inversion, and through inversion, the disastrous outcome of the expedition, the conversion of the army from the proud horse to the cowardly hare. [52]

2.2 Dreams and Their Interpretation in Herodotus

2.2.1 Herodotean Dreamers

The prominence accorded to the dreams of absolute rulers is thus in direct proportion to the prominence of the latter in the narrative structure of the work. The position of the dreams themselves in the narrative shows that for Herodotus they are a vital narrative tool for marking transitions in power and exploring choices. The dreams generally occur at highly significant and critical junctures in the narrative, a prime example being the complex of three dreams (though, as it appears, it is actually one and the same dream) that dramatizes in striking fashion the making of Xerxes’ decision to invade Europe. [56] The insistent dream that demands that Xerxes mount an expedition against the Greeks forms one pole of the debate, while Artabanos, ever the counselor of restraint, moderation, and good sense, forms the other. “Debate” is perhaps not the correct word, since the interpretative issue is not resolved by the triumph of one γνώμη over another, as is the case, for example, with the discussion between Dareios and Gobryes about the meaning of the Scythian gifts (4.132.3, discussed in ch. 2.8 below), but by the sheer force of terror and power of the dream, which with its threats of hot irons and torture bullies even the sceptical Artabanos into supporting the expedition (7.18.1). The divine origin of the dream is not explicitly stated by Herodotus: instead we see in his speech to Xerxes after seeing this dream how Artabanos has come haltingly to this conclusion: [57]

ἐπεὶ δὲ δαιμονίη τις γίνεται ὁρμή, καὶ Ἕλληνας, ὡς οἶκε, φθορή τις καταλαμβάνει θεήλατος, ἐγὼ μὲν καὶ αὐτὸς τράπομαι καὶ τὴν γνώμην μετατίθεμαι.


Since some kind of divine impulse has come about and some kind of god-driven destruction seizes hold of the Greeks, so it seems, I am turned and am changing my mind.

In the account of Kroisos’ downfall, the first manifestation of divine nemesis begins with a dream:

ἔλαβε ἐκ θεοῦ νέμεσις μεγάλη Κροῖσον . . . αὐτίκα δέ οἱ εὕδοντι ἐπέστη ὄνειρος, ὅς οἱ τὴν ἀληθείην ἔφαινε τῶν μελλόντων γενέσθαι κακῶν κατὰ τὸν παῖδα.


A great divine vengeance overtook Kroisos. . . . A dream stood over him as he slept and revealed to him the truth of the evils which were going to happen with regard to his son.

The downfall of the Medes and the rise of Persians are marked by Astyages’ dreams about his daughter (1.107.1; 1.108.1). Kyros’ dream about the rise of Dareios (1.209.1) occurs shortly before his fatal encounter with Tomyris’ army and has the narrative function of signaling firstly Kyros’ insecurity and unrestrained desire for power: he does not realize that the dream signifies not an attempt on the part of Dareios to seize power, but a vision of what will be after his death, which is close at hand. Secondly, the dream acts as a pointer forward toward Herodotus’ subsequent account in book 3 about Dareios’ rise to power. [

Even those dreams about whose contents Herodotus tells us nothing function to provide motivation for certain types of actions. These are actions in which the behavior of the agent seems in some way surprising, unusual, or irrational, so that the influence of a dream is invoked by Herodotus to explain it. The Persian commander Datis, for example, while at Mykonos on his way back to Asia, is suddenly moved by a dream to seek out a gilded statue of Apollo amongst his spoils and have it returned to the temple from which it was plundered (6.118.1). The influence of the divine is not specifically mentioned, but is not far away: after all, the dream occurs to Datis just a few miles from Apollo’s sacred island of Delos, and the name of the sanctuary in Boiotia from which the statue was stolen is Delion. Xerxes’ request, on the day after he has set fire to Athens, that the Athenian exiles in his army go up onto the akropolis and sacrifice (presumably to the goddess Athena) “according to their own fashion” (τρόπῳ τῷ σφετέρῳ θῦσαι τὰ ἱρά, 8.54) can be explained by Herodotus only in terms of a dream (ὄψιν τινὰ ἰδὼν ἐνυπνίου) or a sudden scruple (ἐνθύμιον) after burning the temples. Similarly, the Persian general Otanes, who ignores Dareios’ command to spare the lives of the Samians and kills the male population even in temples and sanctuaries, is motivated to resettle the island of Samos by a strange combination of factors, a dream and an illness which affects his private parts (ἔκ τε ὄψιος ὀνείρου καὶ νούσου ἥ μιν κατέλαβε νοσῆσαι τὰ αἰδοῖα, 3.149). [59]

2.2.2 Vocabulary of Dreams

Herodotus refers to the dream itself variously as ὄνειρος, ὄνειρον (stem ὀνειρατ- in oblique cases), ἐνύπνιον, ὄψις ὀνείρου, ὄψις ἐνυπνίου, ὄψις ἐν τῷ ὕπνῳ, or simply ὄψις on its own. The different words for “dream” do not seem to indicate any fundamental difference in type. As far as the masculine and neuter forms ὄνειρος and ὄνειρον are concerned, both may be used to describe the same dream (e.g. ὄνειρον at 7.14, but ὄνειρος at 7.16.β.1), but the two forms may have different connotations. Kessels suggests the masculine form may be perceived as more Homeric and “poetic” (1978:178), on the basis of the fact that three of the five instances of the masculine form appear in the narrative describing the dream of Kroisos, which is particularly Homeric in its vocabulary and presentation. [60] He concludes (183) more generally that, apart from Homer and the lyric poets, “the masculine form was sometimes used as an epic reminiscence, but was generally replaced by the neuter.” This may explain why in the narrative at 7.14 the dream of Xerxes is referred to as an ὄνειρον (neuter), but Artabanos refers to it as an ὄνειρος (masculine) θεοῦ τινος πομπῇ (“a dream [sent] through the guidance of some god”) at 7.16.β.1. Artabanos is arguing against the divine nature of this particular dream, and emphasizes the vague nature of most dreams by referring to them as “wandering” (ἐνύπνια . . . πεπλανημένα, 7.16.β.2) and as “visions of dreams” (ὄψιες ὀνειράτων), contrasting this with Xerxes’ belief in its divine origin. In this context it would make perfect sense for Artabanos to characterize Xerxes’ belief with the marked form ὄνειρος, further emphasizing this with the expression θεοῦ τινος πομπῇ, while himself using more neutral expressions.

2.2.3 Structure of Dreams

Herodotus’ dreams fall into two main structural types: the first relies predominantly on signs of an auditory nature, the other on visual signs. [63] I say “predominantly” because every dream in Herodotus has a visual component: after all, in the Greek idiom one “sees” a dream, εἶδον ὄνειρον, or “a vision of a dream,” ὄψιν ὀνείρου. [64] The dream is something seen, but what is seen? In the first type, a male figure, sometimes described as being of preternatural size and beauty (ἀνὴρ μέγας τε καὶ εὐειδής [65] ), stands over the dreamer (ἐπιστῆναι: 1.34.1, 1.38.1, 2.139.1, 2.141.3, 5.56.1, 7.12.1, 7.14; ὑπερστῆναι: 7.17.1) [66] and addresses him, sometimes with a challenging reproach. [67] As a type, these dreams correspond extremely closely to dreams in the Homeric corpus, where a dream-figure typically stands at the dreamer’s head and addresses him, and where the message of the dream is conveyed through signs in an auditory medium, not a visual one. [68] The dream-figure is personified to such an extent that at 7.13.1 and 7.15.3, for example, the dream can be described as flying up to (ἐπιπτήσεται) or away from (ἀποπτάσθαι) the dreamer. [69] Artabanos, while expressing skepticism about the divine nature of the dream visiting Xerxes, in fact credits the apparition, “whatever it be,” with the ability to distinguish between him and Xerxes and not be misled by judging simply on the basis of attire:

οὐ γὰρ δὴ ἐς τοσοῦτό γε εὐηθίης ἀνήκει τοῦτο, ὅ τι δή κοτέ ἐστι τὸ ἐπιφαινόμενόν τοι ἐν τῷ ὕπνῳ, ὥστε δόξει ἐμὲ ὁρέων σὲ εἶναι, τῇ σῇ ἐσθῆτι τεκμαιρόμενον.


Whatever this thing is that keeps appearing to you in your sleep, it has not reached such a level of stupidity that it will see me and think it is you, making an inference on the basis of your attire.

The subject of the verb τεκμαίρεσθαι, to which attention has been drawn in ch. 1.3.5 as a term connected to drawing of conclusions on the basis of signs, is here none other than the dream itself, which is imagined as able to use the signs conveyed by royal clothing, or rather, not to rely exclusively on these signs as indices of the royal presence. [

The appearance of the dream-figure acts as an authentication and sign of dream-status (though not necessarily, as we shall see, of the dream’s veracity), but the actual message of the dream is conveyed through the dream-figure’s speech, not through any action or visual signs. Artabanos’ dream, however, forms a striking exception, since it combines speech with action: [71]

ταῦτά τε δὴ ἐδόκεε Ἀρτάβανος τὸ ὄνειρον ἀπειλέειν καὶ θερμοῖσι σιδηρίοισι ἐκκαίειν αὐτοῦ μέλλειν τοὺς ὀφθαλμούς.


The dream seemed to Artabanos to make these threats and to be on the point of burning out his eyes with hot irons.

In the second type of Herodotean dream, the message is conveyed purely through a complex of visual signs, with no dream-figure framing the dream or delivering a pronouncement. Examples of this type are Astyages’ dreams involving his daughter Mandane (1.107.1; 1.108.1), or Kyros’ dream of Dareios as a winged figure, overshadowing with his wings both Europe and Asia (1.209.1). The difference between the two types of dreams explains, for example, the different use of the word ὄνειρος: in the first type, the dream is the figure that appears to the sleeper (e.g. αὐτίκα δέ οἱ εὕδοντι ἐπέστη ὄνειρος, ὅς οἱ τὴν ἀληθείην ἔφαινε τῶν μελλόντων γενέσθαι κακῶν κατὰ τὸν παῖδα, 1.34.1), while in the second, ὄνειρος refers to the dream experience as a whole (e.g. Hippias’ dream about intercourse with his mother, 6.107.1–2). Thus, even though the dreams that Xerxes and Artabanos experience have different contents, Herodotus refers to them as the same dream (τὠυτὸ ὄνειρον, 7.14), since the dream-figure is the same.

The dreams of the great Median and Persian leaders Astyages, Kyros, Kambyses, and Xerxes (with the exception of the dream at 7.12 and 7.14) all fall into the second type of dreams, depending as they do on visual, not acoustic, signs. [72] But they are linked by more than the simple fact of their dependence on visual signs: the Median and Persian kings all dream in a remarkably similar way. The distinctive feature their dreams share is their sheer scale and extent as well as the image of power spreading from a central point. They take place on a stage that has as its limits the continents of Asia and Europe, or even the sky, and at the center stands a figure that seems to dominate this landscape. Let us consider the first of Astyages’ two dreams about his daughter:

καί οἱ ἐγένετο θυγάτηρ τῇ οὔνομα ἔθετο Μανδάνην, τὴν ἐδόκεε Ἀστυ-άγης ἐν τῷ ὕπνῳ οὐρῆσαι τοσοῦτον ὥστε πλῆσαι μὲν τὴν ἑωυτοῦ πόλιν, ἐπικατακλύσαι δὲ καὶ τὴν Ἀσίην πᾶσαν.


He had a daughter named Mandane, whom Astyages seemed to see in a dream urinating so much that his city was filled with it and the whole of Asia inundated.

In the second dream the imagery is once again on a cosmic scale:

ἐδόκεε οἱ ἐκ τῶν αἰδοίων τῆς θυγατρὸς ταύτης φῦναι ἄμπελον, τὴν δὲ ἄμπελον ἐπισχεῖν τὴν Ἀσίην πᾶσαν.


It seemed to him that a vine was growing from the private parts of this daughter and that the vine was overshadowing the whole of Asia.

Read along the axis of combination, the syntax of the dreams is the same, even if different elements have been substituted along the axis of selection (the all-encompassing urine becomes the spreading vine in the second dream). [
73] The same combination of elements is at work in Kyros’ dream of Dareios, where Dareios stands in the center like a winged genie:

ἐδόκεε ὁ Κῦρος ἐν τῷ ὕπνῳ ὁρᾶν τῶν Ὑστάσπεος παίδων τὸν πρεσβύτατον ἔχοντα ἐπὶ τῶν ὤμων πτέρυγας καὶ τουτέων τῇ μὲν τὴν Ἀσίην, τῇ δὲ τὴν Εὐρώπην ἐπισκιάζειν.


Here the physical scope of the dream is even wider, including Europe, as is fitting for Kyros’ role as the founder of the Persian empire.

In the fourth of the dreams which Xerxes experiences, the motif of the all-encompassing figure returns: this time, however, the figure is none other than the dreamer himself and the ambit of the dream is wider still:

ἐδόκεε ὁ Ξέρξης ἐστεφανῶσθαι ἐλαίης θαλλῷ, ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς ἐλαίης τοὺς κλάδους γῆν πᾶσαν ἐπισχεῖν, μετὰ δὲ ἀφανισθῆναι περὶ τῇ κεφαλῇ κείμενον τὸν στέφανον.


Xerxes seemed to be crowned with the bough of an olive-tree, whose branches seemed to overshadow the whole world, but later the wreath about his head disappeared.

The selection of the olive as the overshadowing and dominating element is significant, given its role elsewhere in the Histories as symbol of Greekness. [
75] There is an additional variation in the syntax of the dream, ignored by the magoi in their interpretation, and left to speak for itself by Herodotus: the wreath disappears from Xerxes’ head, pointing to the ultimate failure of his domination. The magoi, too easily satisfied with a reading that on the face of it seems favorable, do not bother (or dare) to read further along the axis of combination and consider the syntax of the entire dream. [76] They treat it as if it is like the dreams of Astyages and Kyros, which present only one picture, a kind of tableau endlessly repeating the same action, without taking into account the change in the dream’s movement and the fact that there is a sequence of elements that need to be combined.

2.2.4 Interpreters and Interpretation of Dreams

In the case of the interpretation of Astyages’ two dreams, the magoi at first advance the correct interpretation, since with hindsight we know that Mandane’s offspring, Kyros, will eventually control all of Asia in his stead. When they are asked to reexamine their interpretation (1.120.1), after the young Kyros has been discovered to be still alive and elected king by his playmates, their new interpretation that all the dream referred to was that Kyros would one day be called “king” in a children’s game (1.120.2–3) proves to be incorrect. They read the sign complex of the dream against a much smaller background—a children’s playground, rather than the continent of Asia—ignoring the vastness of its range. As with the interpretation of the portent of the eclipse at 7.37.2–3, here too the magoi seem to be led to their interpretation by an eagerness to please and an instinct for self-preservation. Herodotus devotes a fair amount of space to an interesting dialogue (1.120.4–6) between Astyages and the magoi after the latter deliver their revised reading. The dialogue reveals the stake the magoi have in Astyages’ continued rule, suggesting the problem of conflict between political interests and interpretation of signs. Astyages asks them to consider their advice to him carefully, adding perhaps not without a touch of menace, that they should consider what is “safest” (ἀσφαλέστατα, 1.120.4) both for him and them. [81] The magoi hastily assure the king that they have a personal stake in the preservation of his rule:

καὶ νῦν εἰ φοβερόν τι ἐνωρῶμεν, πᾶν ἂν σοὶ προεφράζομεν.


Few, then, of the dreams we find in Herodotus are interpreted by professionals, and we have seen that their results either are ignored by those who consult them, or are flawed because of relations of power and dependency in which the interpreters are caught up.

What of interpretations by the dreamers themselves? They fare hardly better than the professionals: Kroisos is persuaded not to observe the dream’s warning by the sophistic arguments of his son Atys, who is then killed in a hunting accident (1.34.1–43.3); Kyros misunderstands the appearance of Dareios in his dream as a usurper, not a successor after his death (1.209.1–5); Kambyses, as we have seen, assumes that the Smerdis reported to have “touched the sky” is his brother, and has him murdered (3.30.2–3); the misgivings of the daughter of Polykrates about a dream in which she sees him suspended in midair being washed by Zeus and anointed by the sun (3.124.1) are dismissed by him at the cost of his life; Hipparkhos ignores a dream on the eve of the Panathenaia and refuses to accept it and is assassinated the next day (5.56.1–2); Hippias’ optimistic interpretation of his dream about intercourse with his mother as meaning his successful return to exile is shattered by a sneeze and the sinking of his loose tooth into the earth, the only piece of Attica he will obtain (6.107.1–4); Xerxes and Artabanos are forced by the insistence of their common dream to go ahead with the invasion of Europe, with disastrous consequences. Only the Ethiopian king of Egypt, Sabakos, as will be seen below, both correctly interprets his dream and takes appropriate action (2.139.1–3). Can the unfortunate consequences following upon the other dreams be ascribed wholly to errors in interpretation? In the case of Xerxes, the dream is so powerful, and threatens such dire consequences if not obeyed, that he might appear to have little choice in the matter. Yet, as Munson has pointed out, “Divine prescriptions as such . . . do not eliminate the agent’s freedom to decide as he wishes.” [83]

The one instance where Herodotus presents more fully the process of self-interpretation of a dream, namely in his account of the dream of Hippias, is of interest for a number of reasons, the first being the use of the term συμβάλλομαι to describe Hippias’ decoding of the dream. In this dream, Hippias sleeps with his own mother. In his interpretation, he perceives an iconic relationship between the sign-element “mother” (τῇ μητρὶ τῇ ἑωυτου) and the idea of one’s native land (ἐν τῇ ἑωυτοῦ), while safely defusing the potentially troubling image of intercourse by reading this too as a metaphoric expression of reunion:

ἐδόκεε ὁ Ἱππίης τῇ μητρὶ τῇ ἑωυτοῦ συνευνηθῆναι. συνεβάλετο ὦν ἐκ τοῦ ὀνείρου κατελθὼν ἐς τὰς Ἀθήνας καὶ ἀνασωσάμενος τὴν ἀρχὴν τελευτήσειν ἐν τῇ ἑωυτοῦ γηραιός.


Hippias, then, is far from ignoring the signs of his own dream, unlike his brother Hipparkhos (5.56.1–2), and applies to them a process of decoding by analogy (συνεβάλετο . . . ἐκ τοῦ ὀνείρου). [
85] This is the only dream related by Herodotus in which the dreamer’s interpretive activity is characterized using the verb συμβάλλομαι: here, as generally in instances of sign interpretation, it describes the perception of connections between signifier and signified and the drawing of conclusions from this recognition. [86] All this Hippias does, but he adduces additional meaning which the sign complex of the dream does not itself necessarily support: as presented by Herodotus, there is nothing in the details of the dream to suggest that Hippias will die peacefully and at a ripe old age (γηραιός), only his own wishful thinking. [87]

The second point of interest in the narrative is Hippias’ judgment on landing at Marathon that the dream has been fulfilled, and not in the way in which he envisaged. On disembarking with the Persians at Marathon, he sneezes so violently that from his aged mouth a tooth flies out, which hides itself somewhere in the sand. Hippias’ reaction is one of distress: he searches for the tooth, is unable to find it, and then declares that the land will never be his, and that the sum total of his share in it consists of the portion his tooth now holds (6.107.3–4). [88] His recognition of completion or fulfillment of the dream is described with the same verb Herodotus uses of Hippias’ decoding of his dream:

Ἱππίης μὲν δὴ ταύτῃ τὴν ὄψιν συνεβάλετο ἐξεληλυθέναι.


Hippias in this way conjectured that his dream had reached its fulfillment.

What is being decoded here are not the signs of the dream’s sign complex, but signs of a different kind. There is firstly the sneeze, whose unusual magnitude (μεζόνως ἢ ὡς ἐώθεε, 6.107.3) and suddenness point firmly in the direction of the portentous, then the disappearance of his tooth into the sand. The putting together of these signs draws from Hippias a groan (ἀναστενάξας, 6.107.4), a non-verbal marker that elsewhere in the Histories introduces moments of dramatic revelation and sudden recognition of the meaning of signs. [
89] But there is no authorial confirmation of Hippias’ reading: Herodotus lets it stand without comment, and just as Hippias constructs his hopes on the basis of his interpretation of signs, so too does he relinquish them on the basis of signs of a different kind. [90] In this instance, and in the case of Kleomenes, the self-interpreters seem to stand alone on the narrative stage, and Herodotus leaves us to decide whether the signs that these characters react to, and accept as signs, really are such.

Herodotus does not, as a rule, provide interpretations of dreams in his own right, preferring to let the figures of his work provide their own, which subsequent events confirm or deny. The dream of Polykrates’ daughter forms an exception, where it is Herodotus himself who explains the significance of the dream. [91] In the dream she sees her father suspended in midair, washed by Zeus and anointed by the sun (3.124.1). Herodotus structures his narrative of Polykrates’ end at the hands of the unscrupulous Oroites so that the dream and its final interpretation frame Polykrates’ death, acting as almost the final word on the life of Polykrates after his unusually long epitaph (3.125.2–4). Polykrates’ daughter reacts instinctively to the dream and attempts to prevent her father from leaving, but at this stage no interpretation is advanced (3.124.1–2). [92] It is only after reporting the impalement of Polykrates by Oroites that Herodotus reveals the connections between the dream’s complex of signs and what they signify. The actions of washing and anointing are removed from the context in which they most naturally belong, that is, the reception and honoring of a guest, and placed in a plainer and more literal one: the “washing” refers only to the action of the rain, and “anointing” only to the appearance of exudations on Polykrates’ corpse as it is exposed to the sun (3.125.4). [93] Herodotus reveals that the connection between the signifier and its signified is one of metonymy, an association of cause and effect: “Zeus” turns out not be the god himself, but that which he causes, namely rain, while “Helios” likewise is not the god himself, but that which is caused by his activity, sweat and moisture drawn out of the body.

2.2.5 Dreams and the Divine

As with Herodotean portents, the hand of the divine is often revealed in the dreams that appear in the work, sometimes implicitly, on occasion explicitly. [94] If dreams are viewed against the background of a convention that presents them as a means of communication between the divine and the human, then the divine itself may be presented as the sender in this chain of communication. [95] This is exceptionally explicit in the dream of the Egyptian king Sethon (2.141.3), where it is not simply any dream-figure who appears to him in his dream, but the god Hephaistos himself, who acts both as sender and sign-carrier. [96] Elsewhere, the dream is presented as a sign-carrier sent by the divine, almost like a messenger: this is the case, for example, with the dream that visits both Xerxes and Artabanos. The dream is described by them as “divine” (θεῖος, 7.16.γ.2), and it claims to carry with it a knowledge of “what must happen” (τὸ χρεὸν γενέσθαι, 7.17.2). Kroisos’ dream about Atys is also placed in a divine context, appearing as it does after Herodotus’ ominous comment that divine nemesis overtook him after Solon’s visit (ἔλαβε ἐκ θεοῦ νέμεσις μεγάλη Κροῖσον, 1.34.1). When described, the appearance of the dream-figures points in the direction of the divine: they are remarkable for their size and beauty (μέγας τε καὶ εὐειδής), a combination which elsewhere in Herodotus also signifies the divine (or at least the appearance of the divine, as 1.60.4, the Peisistratid parading of the woman Phye as the goddess Athena, demonstrates) and the supernatural. [97]

Connected with the convention of the divine origin of dreams is the convention that dreams contain signs not simply of what is, but of what will be. Herodotus introduces the dream of Kroisos as one “that revealed to him the truth of the evils to come with respect to his son” (ὅς οἱ τὴν ἀληθείην ἔφαινε τῶν μελλόντων γενέσθαι κακῶν κατὰ τὸν παῖδα, 1.34.1). But the divine nature of the sender does not necessarily guarantee the ἀληθείη of the message: the divine is equally capable of sending signs which are deliberately false and designed to mislead, like Agamemnon’s ὄνειρος in Iliad 2.6, described variously in the manuscripts as θεῖος (“divine”) or οὖλος (“destructive”). [99] A most striking example of this in Herodotus is the dream of Sabakos, the Ethiopian king of Egypt, who is advised by a dream-figure to assemble the priests of Egypt and chop them in half (2.139.1). [100] There is a plan behind this potentially destructive advice, as Sabakos realizes, namely to contrive the downfall of his kingship, in order that he may not exceed the time allotted by fate to his reign. It is interesting that Sabakos resists falling into the gods’ trap because he has knowledge derived from another sign system, an Ethiopian oracle which sets the limit of his rule at fifty years. By reading the two messages against each other, he is able to withdraw voluntarily (ἑκών, 2.139.3) and unscathed by the gods, a remarkable figure in Herodotus, and a testament to the benefits of an ability to interpret signs.

2.3 Oracles and Their Interpretation in Herodotus

2.3.1 Oracle as Mediator between Divine and Recipient

Oracles have in common with other mantic sign systems the assumption of a chain of communication between the sphere of the divine and that of the human, with the sender being the divinity itself and the receiver the consultant. [106] The communication takes place by means of signs, as with the other mantic systems, but the flow of communication between god and man is mediated by an important intermediary, the oracular institution (χρηστήριον, μαντήιον) and its personnel, the πρόμαντις and προφήτης. While portents and dreams present themselves directly to their recipients, the oracular system requires the mediation of a figure who communicates directly with the divinity on the one hand, and with the human realm by means of the sign system of language on the other. The oracle encodes the god’s response into a system of signs intelligible to men, translating, but not, however, interpreting. The foundation myth (2.55) which Herodotus claims to have heard from the Dodonian προμάντιες about the oracles of Zeus at Dodona and at Siwah in Libya perfectly demonstrates in mythic fashion the ability of the πρόμαντις to communicate in both non-human and human form. According to this version, two black doves fly from Egyptian Thebes, the one to Dodona, the other to Libya. The doves speak in human speech (αὐδάξασθαι φωνῇ ἀνθρωπηίῃ, 2.55.2) to the inhabitants of both places and instruct them to found an oracle of Zeus. In Herodotus’ rationalizing interpretation of the myth, we may view the avian identity of the mythic figures as a metaphor of their “otherness.” For Herodotus, their “otherness” lies in the fact that they are swarthy Egyptian priestesses, who at first cannot speak the local language (ἐβαρβάριζε, 2.57.2) and whose foreign speech is characterized as bird-like (ὄρνιθος τρόπον), hence their appearance in the reports of the locals as black doves:

μέλαιναν δὲ λέγοντες εἶναι τὴν πελειάδα σημαίνουσι ὅτι Αἰγυπτίη ἡ γυνὴ ἦν.


In saying that the dove was black they indicate that the woman was Egyptian.

Blackness is interpreted by Herodotus as a sign of the priestess’ Egyptian origin, just as it is for his theory that the Colchians are Egyptians (2.104.2), and it is a sign which the Dodonians transmit (σημαίνουσι) even if they do not recognize it as such. [
107] One might say that at the root of the myth lies an expression of the dual nature of the oracle, its ability to communicate with the divine (the language of birds is characteristic not only of barbarians, but also of the divinely inspired poet) and simultaneously speak a language intelligible to humans. [108]

How the oracle communicates with the divinity is not explored by Herodotus. The oracle at times displays the omniscience of a god, as when at Delphi the Pythia anticipates a consultant’s question before it has escaped his lips (5.92.β.2), or when she knows precisely what Kroisos is doing with a tortoise and a cauldron:

οἶδα δ᾿ ἐγὼ ψάμμου τ᾿ ἀριθμὸν καὶ μέτρα θαλάσσης,
καὶ κωφοῦ συνίημι καὶ οὐ φωνεῦντος ἀκούω.
ὀδμή μ᾿ ἐς φρένας ἦλθε κραταιρίνοιο χελώνης
ἑψομένης ἐν χαλκῷ ἅμ᾿ ἀρνείοισι κρέεσσιν,
ᾗ χαλκὸς μὲν ὑπέστρωται, χαλκὸν δ᾿ ἐπίεσται.


I know the number of grains of sand and the measure of the sea, and I understand the dumb and hear the one who does not speak. A smell comes to my senses of a hard-shelled tortoise being boiled with lamb in bronze which has bronze underneath it and bronze on top.

Even more striking is the πρόμαντις of Apollo Ptoos, who is suddenly able to dispense with translators and delivers a response in perfect Carian to the consultant, Mys (8.135.2). This might be taken as some form of possession by the god, but there is no specific description of the prophetic μανία for which the Pythia, for example, is elsewhere so renowned. [
109] Herodotus’ description of the oracle of Apollo at Patara in Lykia (1.182) mentions the physical association of the god and the πρόμαντις, who is locked in the temple overnight whenever the god visits, the only time at which the oracle is active. [110] Only in Herodotus’ description of Amphilytos, the χρησμολόγος ἀνήρ who relates to Peisistratos the oracle of the swarming tuna, is there what seems to be an explicit reference to divine presence: [111]

ὁ μὲν δή οἱ ἐνθεάζων χρᾷ ταῦτα.


He delivered the following oracle while in a state of possession.

The conduit-like nature of the oracle means that its identity may at times be depicted as bound up with that of the god. Thus in the Histories the deliverer of an oracle may be presented as the oracular medium (e.g. ἡ Πυθίη ἔχρησε, 4.156.2), but also as the god himself (e.g. δοκέω . . . τὸν θεόν χρῆσαι, 5.80.1). [
112] This is also reflected in the use of the verb σημαίνω in connection with oracles, which may have as its subject the god or the oracle. [113] The “I” of oracular utterances is sometimes indistinguishable from that of the god, as in the Pythia’s reply to the Spartans: [114]

Ἀρκαδίην μ’ αἰτεῖς; μέγα μ’ αἰτεῖς· οὔ τοι δώσω.


Do you ask me for Arkadia? You ask much of me. I shall not give it to you.

In other instances, however, Herodotus chooses to distinguish the identity of the god from that of his oracle. This is what he does in his presentation of the confrontation between Kroisos and Apollo, where the Pythia justifies the ways of the god to the defeated and disgruntled Lydian. She makes no reference to her own identity, but speaks of Apollo in the third person:

προθυμεομένου δὲ Λοξίεω ὅκως ἂν κατὰ τοὺς παῖδας τοῦ Κροίσου γένοιτο τὸ Σαρδίων πάθος καὶ μὴ κατ’ αὐτὸν Κροῖσον, οὐκ οἷός τε ἐγένετο παραγαγεῖν Μοίρας.


Though Loxias was eager that the disaster at Sardis happen in the time of Kroisos’ descendants and not during Kroisos’ time, he was not able to dissuade the Fates.

Reference to the god in the third person by an oracle is also found in the oracle given to Arkesilaos:

ἐπὶ μὲν τέσσερας Βάττους καὶ Ἀρκεσίλεως τέσσερας, ὀκτὼ ἀνδρῶν γενεάς, διδοῖ ὑμῖν Λοξίης βασιλεύειν Κυρήνης.


For four Battoi and four Arkesilaoi, eight generations of men, does Loxias grant you rule of Cyrene.

The oracular chain of communication is not exclusively unidirectional, flowing only from god to mortal. It does, in a limited fashion, at times allow for interchange between human and divinity, since the oracle comes in response to a question from the consultant, unlike portents and dreams, which appear, in Herodotus at any rate, unsolicited. [116] There are a number of occasions in the work where the format of question and response even approaches something like a dialogue, as when Kroisos complains through the Delphic oracle about Apollo’s ingratitude and deception and receives a lengthy discourse on fate, the gods, and human responsibility for interpretation (1.91.2), or when Mykerinos in a similar fashion protests against the fact that his impious predecessors were granted years of rule, while he, a pious man, has been granted only six more years of life, and receives the reply that the end of his life has been quickened because he has not played his part in fulfilling Egypt’s destiny to suffer one hundred and fifty years of ills (2.133). In the case of Aristodikos of Kymai, who questions Apollo’s oracular instruction to deliver the refugee Paktyes into the hands of the Persians, the dialogue is an even more confrontational one. Interchange between god and mortal leaves the oracular format and enters the realm of direct communication in unmediated human speech when Aristodikos, by driving away all the sparrows and injured birds sheltering in the god’s temple at Didyma, provokes a vocal response in the form of a voice (φωνή, 1.159.3) which issues from the aduton. Aristodikos then challenges the god to explain why he comes to the aid of his suppliants (ἱκέται) in this case, but not in the case of the ἱκέτης Paktyes, and receives the reply, “So that the Kymaioi may perish the more quickly for their impiety.” [117] In all these instances, the oracular system seems to step outside itself, revealing information about the methods of the gods and the link between their actions and fate. [118]

Herodotean oracles, for the most part, are directed toward a specific recipient, and the question of the correct addressee is an important one. In several oracles in verse form the name of the recipient is woven into the oracular utterance, acting as a kind of stamp which has the double function of marking off something, showing possession or destination, and protecting the contents against access by an inappropriate person. [119] The question of correct recipient arises when Herodotus, in speaking of an oracle which Mardonios takes as relating to the Persians, is concerned to point out that it actually had to do with another group entirely, the Illyrians and Enkheleans:

τοῦτον δ’ ἔγωγε τὸν χρησμόν, τὸν Μαρδόνιος εἶπε ἐς Πέρσας ἔχειν, ἐς Ἰλλυριούς τε καὶ τὸν Ἐγχελέων στρατὸν οἶδα πεποιημένον, ἀλλ’ οὐκ ἐς Πέρσας.


But I know that this oracle, which Mardonios said related to the Persians, was composed with reference to the Illyrians and Enkheleis, not the Persians.

By pointing out this mistake, Herodotus demonstrates that Mardonios’ confidence in the oracle is unfounded, and in this way he is able to strike yet another note of imminent doom in his narrative leading up to the Battle of Plataiai. [
120] The proud and emphatic first-person usage (ἔγωγε . . . οἶδα) [121] echoes the Delphic oracle’s proud reply to Kroisos:

οἶδα δ’ ἐγὼ ψάμμου τ’ ἀριθμὸν καὶ μέτρα θαλάσσης.


I know the number of grains of sand and the measure of the sea.

2.3.2 The Oracular Code

The sign system of the oracle is one based on linguistic signs, involving not simply encoding into the sign system of language, but also an additional level of encoding into a special language, marked by its format, lexis, and a figurative and, at times, ambiguous and riddling mode, which in turn calls for recognition and an additional process of decoding on the part of the recipient. Roughly half of the oracles in the Histories are of this type, though not all are of equal difficulty. It is clear from the attention that he devotes to such oracles that Herodotus has a great interest in the potential for difficulties and misunderstanding that such a double-encoding carries with it. Let us look in more detail at how this language is marked. One immediately perceptible feature is the poetic format of certain of the oracles, which are framed in dactylic hexameter or iambic trimeter. [122] Connected with this format is a particular dialect and lexis, the language of epic and didactic poetry. It is a language which is panhellenic, incorporating the features of distinct and local dialects, but aiming at the widest possible Greek audience. [123] Thus, by adopting this language, the oracle is able to address all Hellas using a common dialect. In some instances, the oracle may go further than this and adapt its language to the dialect or language of the recipient. The Pythia addresses Battos and his colonists partly in the Doric dialect:

αἰ τὺ ἐμεῦ Λιβύην μηλοτρόφον οἶδας ἄμεινον,
μὴ ἐλθὼν ἐλθόντος, ἄγαν ἄγαμαι σοφίην σευ.


If you, who have never been there, know sheep-raising Libya better than I, who have been there, then I greatly admire your sophiê.

The Pythia’s general appeal for colonists in Libya is also partially in Doric:

ὃς δέ κεν ἐς Λιβύην πολυήρατον ὕστερον ἔλθῃ
γᾶς ἀναδαιομένας, μετά οἵ ποκά φαμι μελήσειν.


Whosoever comes to lovely Libya after the land has been portioned out, I warrant that he will regret it one day.

If one subscribes to Herodotus’ opinion, the oracle at 4.155.3 contains one word in Libyan, βάττος, having the meaning ‘king’ in that language. The oracle of Apollo Ptoos in Boiotia is even able to speak to a non-Greek in his own tongue: the πρόμαντις speaks directly to Mardonios’ ambassador, Mys, in his native Carian, dispensing with the intermediary figures of the local citizens (8.135.2).

All of these examples demonstrate the adaptability of oracles and their ability to speak with the tongues of men. They seem to offer the possibility of understanding by all men, yet, on the other hand, the message of the god may be encrypted in a fashion which seems more designed to hide than to reveal. This brings us to the ambiguous, riddling style for which oracles (in literary contexts, at any rate) are notorious. A glance at the epithets used by figures in the Histories as well as by Herodotus himself to describe oracular pronouncements is revealing: κίβδηλος (‘false’, ‘counterfeit’), ἀμφιδέξιος (‘cutting two ways’), ἄσημος (‘meaningless’), ἀτέκμαρτος (‘insoluble’), ψευδής (‘false’). Yet in many instances the oracles described with these epithets are not in themselves ‘counterfeit’. Of the three oracles described as κίβδηλος (1.66.3; 1.75.2; 5.91.2), only in the last instance is the oracle absolutely false to the core or counterfeit in the sense of a forged coin with a center of base metal covered over by a slip of precious metal: the Alkmaionidai have corrupted the Pythia in order to produce oracles which will persuade the Spartans to depose the Peisistratidai (5.63.1). In the other two oracles referred to (the Spartans will measure the Tegean plain with chains [1.66.2–3]; Kroisos will destroy a great empire [1.53.3, 1.75.2]), the oracle is true, and the description reflects the gap between what the oracle actually means and the recipient’s interpretation. [124] What links them, as Kurke points out, is the “failure of deliberation.” [125] As applied to oracles (and other matters) she finds in the term κίβδηλος the traditional Greek idea that the good and the bad, the false and the true are so mixed and so resemble each other, or are so concealed, the one under or over the other, that it is extremely difficult to distinguish one from the other and find a touchstone to make a test of authenticity. [126]

The terms ἀμφιδέξιος (5.92.ε.1), ἄσημος (5.92.β.3), and ἀτέκμαρτος (5.92.γ.1) cluster around the oracles concerning the birth and fate of Kypselos and the fortunes of the Bakkhiadai. ἀμφιδέξιος means here I think not so much “ambiguous” (the definition advanced by How and Wells), nor “favorable” (Nenci 1994). The literal meaning―“cutting both ways” (Powell), “sharp on both sides” (cf. Euripides Hippolytus 780, where it is used of a sword)―and its context in Herodotus―the oracle which promises success to Kypselos, but limits power to the second generation―show that it refers to the positive and negative aspects of the message, as Kirchberg (1965:77) points out. We are here again close to the idea of the package delivered by the gods to mortals in which both good and ill are mixed in such a way that mortals cannot separate them out clearly. ῎Ασημος and ἀτέκμαρτος are terms used by the Bakkhiadai to describe an oracle that seems to them to have no sense, but which they are in fact later able to decode by placing alongside a subsequent oracle (5.92.γ.1). [127] As Kurke points out, it is no accident that these terms attach themselves to this part of the work, the speech of Sokles the Corinthian to the Spartans (the longest given to any individual), in which he asks them not to install tyranny in Athens and in which oracular and sign interpretation figures four times (the above-mentioned passages involve oracles from Delphi, as well as Periandros’ encounter with Melissa at the Thesprotian nekuomantêion [5.92.η.2–4]). She characterizes this as “a veritable disquisition on the reliability of oracles—even those that seem most opaque—given the proper interpretation” and underlines its paradigmatic nature:

The term ψευδής is used by Amasis at 2.174.2 in opposition to “true oracles” (ἀληθέα μαντήια). Once again, the term reflects the point of view of the user: here, ψευδής in Amasis’ eyes refers to the fact that a particular oracle has not succeeded in detecting the thefts he has made, not to any deception on its part, and ἀληθής is here literally the sum of its components (α-privative and λαθ-), since the thefts do not escape the notice of the oracle.

The god’s encoding forces the recipient in effect to construct his own response. [133] The additional level of encoding ensures that the response is capable of being understood only by those whom it is to benefit and becomes on occasion a test of the worthiness of the consultant. [134] There is much in common between the format of the oracle and that of the riddle (αἴνιγμα) and, related to it, the ainos, a genre which, as Nagy has demonstrated, also relies on a second encoding, a deeper level of meaning which underlies a surface meaning and is decipherable only by those who are σοφοί. [135] In Plutarch’s dialogue “Why the Pythia no longer gives oracles in verse,” the interlocutor Theon refers to the connection between the riddle (αἴνιγμα) and oracle and Apollo’s discrimination between the σοφοί and the stupid (σκαιοί):

εὖ γὰρ εἰδέναι χρὴ τὸν θεὸν, ὥς φησι Σοφοκλῆς [=Sophocles fr. 771 Radt], σοφοῖς μὲν αἰνικτῆρα θεσφάτων ἀεί, σκαιοῖς δὲ φαῦλον κἀν βραχεῖ διδάσκαλον.

Moralia 406E

One should be well aware that the god, as Sophocles says, is always a riddler of prophecies for the wise, but for the stupid an inferior though concise teacher.

In Herodotus, the connection between σοφίη and the interpretation of oracles is drawn at 1.68.1, where Likhas is credited with decoding the oracle about the bones of Orestes by a mixture of συντυχίη and σοφίη. [
136] The Delphic oracle’s disdain for the Libyan colonists’ σοφίη may also reflect disdain for their ability to interpret the signs of the oracle (4.157.2, quoted above). The oracle itself at times draws attention to this double-encoding and by means of internal clues reminds the recipient of the need for careful consideration: a Delphic oracle to the Siphnians calls for a φράδμων ἀνήρ to φράσσασθαι (3.57.3), to recognize the signs of the fulfillment of oracle. [137] Similarly, an oracle of Bakis to the Euboians begins with the imperative of the same verb, φράζεο (8.20.2; see ch. 1.3.4, n93 above). The Bakkhiadai are instructed in an oracle to “watch out for these things carefully” (ταῦτά νυν εὖ φράζεσθε, 5.92.β.3). The command seems to work on two levels, constituting both advice to do something (for the Siphnians, to look out for a “wooden ambush” and a “red herald,” for the Euboians, to keep their goats away from the island) as well as a coded instruction to look closely and to interpret both the signs of the oracle and the signs of its fulfillment.

2.3.3 Decoding and Interpreting Oracles

Responsibility for the interpretation and decoding of the oracle thus rests with the recipient, who must judge whether the oracle has only one level of encoding and so may be understood at face value, with no further decoding, or whether it is doubly encoded and thus demands further interpretation. There are few professional interpreters of oracles in the Histories: the προφήτης seems only to relay the message of the god, not to interpret it. [138] Χρησμολόγοι, however, are also interpreters: we will shortly see their role in the Athenian debate about the oracle of the wooden wall, a debate in which their γνώμη is defeated and, as events prove, rightly so. [139] Onomakritos, the χρησμολόγος and arranger (διαθέτης, 7.6.3) of the oracles of Mousaios, is able to influence the interpretations of others, not so much through his own interpretations, as by his interference with oracular messages. This he achieves in two ways, either by inserting spurious material into the body of oracles regarded as authoritative, as he does when he introduces an oracle that the islands off Lemnos will vanish beneath the sea (7.6.3), for which he is expelled by the Peisistratidai, or by presenting only the favorable parts of an oracle, as he does at the court of Xerxes:

εἰ μέν τι ἐνέοι σφάλμα φέρον τῷ βαρβάρῳ, τῶν μὲν ἔλεγε οὐδέν, ὁ δὲ τὰ εὐτυχέστατα ἐκλεγόμενος ἔλεγε . . .


Whenever there was something in [an oracle] spelling disaster for the Persians, of this he would make no mention, but would select the most optimistic parts and recite those.

We find, in short, what we have already found to be the case with other professional interpreters in the Histories, namely that professional interpreters of oracles are either wrong or corrupt. [
140] The majority of Herodotean oracles, when their interpretation is described, are interpreted by nonprofessionals, who enjoy both success and failure in their interpretative endeavors. As has been mentioned above, successes in the interpretation of oracles in the Histories far outweigh failures.

How do the figures of Herodotus’ work go about interpretation? In a number of the interpretations found in the Histories, the process of decoding is described using the verb συμβάλλομαι, a verb often used by Herodotus in other contexts involving the decoding of signs. [141] Likhas’ interpretation of the Delphic oracle relating to the location of the bones of Orestes is described with this verb (1.68.3) and the activity is one of “putting together” signifier and signified, and perceiving the relationship between them, which is there one of cause and effect. The verb is used of the Paiones’ recognition of the fulfillment of the oracle given to them, which instructs them to attack the Perinthioi when they hear them call out their name. In this case, the Paiones are able to recognize the sign of their name in the victorious shouts of the Perinthioi as they sing the paean:

νικώντων δὲ τὰ δύο τῶν Περινθίων, ὡς ἐπαιώνιζον κεχαρηκότες, συνεβάλοντο οἱ Παίονες τὸ χρηστήριον αὐτὸ τοῦτο εἶναι.


When two [of the three sets of] Perinthian [fighters] were gaining the upper hand and the Perinthians in their joy began to sing the paean, the Paiones reckoned that this was exactly what the oracle meant.

They are able to separate the signifier from the signified, dissociating the sound |paion| from its context in the Perinthians’ cry of triumph to the god Apollo, and associating it with the signification it carries in another sign system involving the god, namely his oracle. [

Συμβάλλομαι is also the verb used by Kleomenes to describe his recognition of the fulfillment of the oracle that he would take Argos: he realizes that the Argos of the oracle refers to not the city of the Argives but the hero Argos, whose sacred grove he has just destroyed, in other words that as a signifier, |Argos| has more than one referent (6.75.3).

The oracle of the “wooden wall” shows the process described by συμβάλλομαι being practiced in two different ways: the χρησμολόγοι (the only reference in Herodotus to interpreters of oracles as a group) identify the referent of the term ξύλινον τεῖχος as the ancient fence which once encircled and protected the Athenian akropolis, while an opposing group, for which Themistokles becomes the spokesman, sees its referent as the ships of the Athenian fleet:

οὗτος ὡνὴρ οὐκ ἔφη πᾶν ὀρθῶς τοὺς χρησμολόγους συμβάλλεσθαι.


This man said that the χρησμολόγοι were not putting this together correctly at all.

In other words, the readings (γνῶμαι, 7.142.1) of the two groups rest respectively on a literal connection between signifier and signified (a wall is a wall), and on a figurative one, in which the ships substitute metaphorically for the wooden wall, both wall and ship having the function of defense and being composed of wood. [
143] Themistokles’ contribution is not the drawing of this metaphoric connection between signifier and signified (from the passage cited immediately below it is clear that this type of connection had already been suggested), but his appeal to the internal consistency of the oracular text to resolve a question of reference on which previous attempts to argue this interpretation had foundered: [144]

τοὺς ὦν δὴ τὰς νέας λέγοντας εἶναι τὸ ξύλινον τεῖχος ἔσφαλλε τὰ δύο τὰ τελευταῖα ῥηθέντα ὑπὸ τῆς Πυθίης.


What kept on tripping up those who said that “wooden wall” meant “ships” were the two things said by the Pythia at the end of the oracle.

The reference is to the second oracle given to the Athenians, in which the Pythia addresses the island of Salamis:

ὦ θείη Σαλαμίς, ἀπολεῖς δὲ σὺ τέκνα γυναικῶν
ἤ που σκιδναμένης Δημήτερος ἢ συνιούσης.


O divine Salamis, you will destroy the children of women either when the corn is being sown or when it is being brought in.

Themistokles resolves the disturbing expression “You will destroy the children of women” by a semiotic sleight of hand: he simply transfers the referent of “children” from the Athenian people to the enemy. His argument is hardly based on divine inspiration or on a special vision, but on a rhetorical appeal to the internal logic and consistency of the text: if the referent of τέκνα γυναικῶν is the Athenians, then Salamis could hardly be addressed as θείη (“divine”) but would be called σχετλίη (“cruel”). As Manetti comments,

Interpretation by debate occurs also amongst the Thebans, who are in fact instructed by the oracle to put their question about the possibility of revenge on the Athenians to their own assembly:

ἡ δὲ Πυθίη ἀπὸ σφέων μὲν αὐτῶν οὐκ ἔφη αὐτοῖσι εἶναι τίσιν, ἐς πολύφημον δὲ ἐξενείκαντας ἐκέλευε τῶν ἄγχιστα δέεσθαι.


The Pythia said that they would not get vengeance on their own and ordered them to bring the matter to the assembly and ask their nearest for help.

Here, too, Herodotus presents the debate as one in which the connection between signifier, the expression τῶν ἄγχιστα δέεσθαι (“ask your nearest”), and signified is explored first as a literal one (“nearest” referring to the Thebans’ neighbors) and then as a figurative one (“nearest” in terms of kinship, referring to the island of Aigina, named after one of the daughters of Theban Asopos). He does not merely report the debate, but dramatizes it as two successive speeches in oratio recta, with an anonymous Theban citizen (εἶπε δή κοτε μαθών τις, 5.80.1) presenting the winning reading (γνώμη, 5.80.2). Just as in the case of the oracle about the wooden wall, the assembly must vote on which is the better of the two interpretations, as if an ultimate interpretation cannot be reached: [

καὶ οὐ γάρ τις ταύτης ἀμείνων γνώμη ἐδόκεε φαίνεσθαι, αὐτίκα πέμψαντες ἐδέοντο Αἰγινητέων . . .


As nobody seemed to have a better interpretation than this, they sent to the Aiginetans immediately and asked them for help.

ταύτῃ Θεμιστοκλέος ἀποφαινομένου Ἀθηναῖοι ταῦτα σφίσι ἔγνωσαν αἱρετώτερα εἶναι μᾶλλον ἢ τὰ τῶν χρησμολόγων.


Herodotus shows himself directly as interpreter in his account of an oracle given to the inhabitants of wealthy Siphnos. The oracle is given in response to the question whether the Siphnians’ prosperity will be long-lasting:

ἀλλ’ ὅταν ἐν Σίφνῳ πρυτανήια λευκὰ γένηται
λεύκοφρύς τ’ ἀγορή, τότε δὴ δεῖ φράδμονος ἀνδρὸς
φράσσασθαι ξύλινόν τε λόχον κήρυκά τ’ ἐρυθρόν.


But when on Siphnos the buildings of state turn white, and the marketplace white-browed, then there is need of a shrewd man to look out for a wooden ambush and a red herald.

The account contrasts the Siphnians’ lack of understanding of the oracle, both upon receiving it and upon its fulfillment (τοῦτον τὸν χρησμὸν οὐκ οἷοί τε ἦσαν γνῶναι οὔτε τότε ἰθὺς οὔτε τῶν Σαμίων ἀπιγμένων, 3.58.1), with the interpretative skills of Herodotus, who is able to provide the solution. The form of the oracle is a familiar one (ἀλλ᾿ ὅταν . . . τότε δή, “but when . . . then”), demanding the appearance of a sign as condition for its fulfillment. The task of the interpreter thus becomes not just the interpretation of the oracle, but also the recognition of the set of circumstances which signify the coming into being of the predicted action. [
148] The oracle itself draws attention to this and to the double-encoding of the utterance by calling for a “shrewd man” (φράδμων ἀνήρ) to “be on the lookout” (φράσσασθαι). As at 5.92.β.3 and 8.20.2, the verb φράζομαι can itself be taken as a coded utterance, alerting the recipient to the necessity of reading the oracle on two levels. [149]

On the one hand, the recipients are told to be beware of (φράσσασθαι, cf. φυλάξασθαι, 3.58.2 as gloss and variatio) a “wooden ambush” and a “red herald,” on the other, they are also instructed to decipher the meaning of these two phrases. No φράδμων ἀνήρ appears among the Siphnians, and so they do not recognize the conditions of the oracle in the arrival of the Samian ships and their dispatch of one ship with ambassadors to extort payment from the Siphnians (3.58.2). In effect it is now Herodotus who assumes the role of φράδμων ἀνήρ as he unravels the enigma. [150] There is much to unravel: as Manetti points out, by means of a double enallagê the adjective “wooden” has been detached from its logical referent, the ship in which the Samian ambassadors first approach the Siphnians (3.58.2), and applied to the “ambush” which the Samians have prepared for them, while the redness of their ships becomes a property of those that sail in them, the Samian ambassadors (the “red herald” referred to by the oracle). [151] Furthermore, a relationship of metonymy joins the signifiers “wooden” and “herald” with the idea of “ship” and “ambassadors,” wood being the material from which the ship is made, and heralds and ambassadors both being associated with the process of negotiation in hostilities. But Herodotus does not in fact provide a complete reading in these terms. He does what we have seen him do elsewhere, namely, provide a key piece of information from which the rest of the puzzle may be solved: [152]

τὸ δὲ παλαιὸν ἅπασαι αἱ νέες ἦσαν μιλτηλιφέες· καὶ ἦν τοῦτο τὸ ἡ Πυθίη προηγόρευε τοῖσι Σιφνίοισι φυλάξασθαι τὸν ξύλινον λόχον κελεύουσα καὶ κήρυκα ἐρυθρόν.


Long ago all ships were painted with ochre: it was this that the Pythia was warning the Siphnians about in advance when she ordered them to look out for a wooden ambush and a red herald.

The oracle given to Arkesilaos III of Cyrene also contains elements which remain uninterpreted, though clear enough when read against Greek cultural conventions:

ἢν δὲ τὴν κάμινον εὕρῃς πλέην ἀμφορέων, μὴ ἐξοπτήσῃς τοὺς ἀμφορέας ἀλλ’ ἀπόπεμπε κατ’ οὖρον· εἰ δὲ ἐξοπτήσεις τὴν κάμινον, μὴ ἐσέλθῃς ἐς τὴν ἀμφίρρυτον· εἰ δὲ μή, ἀποθανέαι καὶ αὐτὸς καὶ ταῦρος ὁ καλλιστεύων.


If you find the oven full of amphorae, do not fire them, but send them on their way with a fair wind. If you fire the oven, do not go to the place surrounded by water. If you do, you will die, both you and the finest-looking bull.

It becomes clear what the oven and amphorae refer to when Arkesilaos has several of his opponents, who have barricaded themselves in a tower, burned alive: the connection between signifier and signified is a metaphorical one, with the tower substituting for the oven, and the unfortunate men for the pots within it. [
153] Arkesilaos realizes the connection too late, but attempts to comply with the rest of the oracle’s conditions by avoiding “the place surrounded by water” (ἡ ἀμφίρρυτος). Here perceiving the signified is not the difficulty, since, as it turns out, Arkesilaos is quite right in his assumption that the feminine adjective ἀμφίρρυτος qualifies a city, but rather determining the referent (which city?). [154] He understands the referent to be Cyrene, and so avoids this city and goes to Barke, the city of his father-in-law, where both men are, however, recognized and killed in the marketplace by exiles from Cyrene. The “finest-looking bull” (ταῦρος καλλιστεύων) is never explained by Herodotus, but clearly refers to Alazeir, Arkesilaos’ father-in-law. [155] As with Skyles’ griffins (4.79.1, discussed in ch. 2.1.6 above), here too Herodotus takes for granted the cultural code against which the animal imagery of the oracle must be read, [156] a code in which the mention of the physically perfect bull, the largest and costliest victim offered in cult, would be likely to activate associations of sacrifice and the well-known image of the death of Agamemnon, slain like a bull at the manger (βοῦς ἐπὶ φάτνῃ, Odyssey 4.534–535=11.411). [157]

Arkesilaos’ dilemma is different from that of the Siphnians, who are simply unable to make sense of the Pythia’s utterance. The former is able to achieve partial comprehension, at least, moving through a state of ignorance, then knowledge, and ignorance once more. At first, he ignores the oracle because of his desire to gain power again (ἐπικρατήσας τῶν πρηγμάτων τοῦ μαντηίου οὐκ ἐμέμνητο, 4.164.1). He then realizes too late the meaning of the oracle’s warning and attempts to comply with the oracle’s warning by voluntarily removing himself from Cyrene, but because of his misinterpretation of the referent of ἡ ἀμφίρρυτος, ends up fulfilling the oracle:

Ἀρκεσίλεως μέν νυν εἴτε ἑκὼν εἴτε ἀέκων ἁμαρτὼν τοῦ χρησμοῦ ἐξέπλησε μοῖραν τὴν ἑωυτου.


And so Arkesilaos, whether deliberately or unwillingly, fell short of the oracle and fulfilled his own fate.

Herodotus underscores the connection between Arkesilaos’ involuntary mistake in interpretation (ἁμαρτὼν τοῦ χρησμοῦ) and his own death, and referring to his willful disregard of the oracle on the one hand (cf. οὐκ ἐμέμνητο, 4.164.1), and his attempt to comply with it on the other by willingly keeping away from Cyrene (ἔργετο ἑκὼν τῆς τῶν Κυρηναίων πόλιος, 4.164.3).

These are elements and patterns also recognizable in Herodotus’ accounts of Kroisos and Kambyses, both of whose errors in interpretation also involve confusion concerning the referent of the oracular signifier. In the case of the oracle given to Kroisos about destroying a mighty empire (1.91.4), what is signified is clear enough; it is the particular referent of the expression “great empire” (μεγάλη ἀρχή) that is at stake. In the case of Kambyses, the referent of the signifier “Agbatana” provides the difficulty: he receives an oracle that he will die in Agbatana (3.64.4), and he assumes that refers to the imperial capital in Persia. By a strange turn of events he finds himself lying mortally wounded outside a city in Syria and asks what it is called, only to find out that it is Agbatana. In all three instances (Kroisos, Kambyses, Arkesilaos), the involuntary error in interpretation is described using a form of the root ἁμαρτ-:

Κροῖσος δὲ ἁμαρτὼν τοῦ χρησμοῦ . . .


Kroisos, failing to understand the oracle . . .

παντὸς δὲ τοῦ μέλλοντος ἔσεσθαι ἁμαρτών . . .


[Kambyses,] failing to understand what was going to happen . . .

ἁμαρτὼν τοῦ χρησμοῦ ἐξέπλησε μοῖραν τὴν ἑωυτοῦ.


This combination of hamartia and involuntariness is at the heart of Aristotle’s formulation of the hero of tragedy in the Poetics (1453a8–10), and is one of the several ways in which Herodotus’ work and tragedy in general overlap. [
159] The statement of Kroisos after he has listened to Apollo’s self-defense of his actions is revealing for its assessment of the role of personal responsibility borne by humans for the interpretation of signs:

ὁ δὲ ἀκούσας συνέγνω ἑωυτοῦ εἶναι τὴν ἁμαρτάδα καὶ οὐ τοῦ θεοῦ.


After he heard this he recognized that the mistake was his own and not caused by the god.

The limitations of human knowledge and the obscure and sometimes unknowable plans of the gods are familiar themes both in the Histories and in Greek literature of the Archaic and Classical periods. Yet figures in the Histories are nevertheless able to avail themselves of information sent by the gods via oracular signs.

2.4 Other Types of Mantikê

2.4.1 Mantikê by Animal Sacrifice

The workings of the system are never shown or explained. This is presumably because it is a cultural “given” for a Greek audience, and, as a general rule, Herodotus passes over details of ritual unless they are particularly striking and differ from standard Greek practice. [165] Questions of the interpretation of a set of signs obtained by this form of mantikê are never entered into as they are in the case of oracles. We are shown the mantis Megistias on the eve of battle at Thermopylai “looking into” the sacrificial victims (ἐσιδὼν ἐς τὰ ἱρά, 7.219.1) and then relaying (ἔφρασε) the message of his coming death, but are not told what the signs are from which he derives his reading. [166] Herodotus gives us only the results of readings, never the process of decoding. Perhaps this is because as an art or discipline (τέχνη), this kind of mantikê has its own set of rules and uses a more straightforward application of principles (a certain shape in a certain quadrant of the liver is either favorable or not) that appears as unremarkable when compared to the decoding of an oracle. [167] Making the connection between the signs glimpsed in the sacrifice and what they signify appears to be unproblematic; no polysemy, ambiguities, or confusions between literal and figurative referents are presented, and no aporia in decoding is ever shown―quite the opposite of what we have seen in the case of portents, dreams, and oracles. The readings resulting from this form of divination yield “yes/no” responses: we learn only that a particular sacrifical consultation has been favorable or unfavorable, or at most, as happens at Plataiai, that the signs for one side are favorable for defending, but not for attacking. [168] The sole and striking exception to this may be the case of Megistias, mentioned above, who is able to foresee in the victim something quite specific: the death of the Spartan contingent in the battle to come at Thermopylai (τὸν μέλλοντα ἔσεσθαι ἅμα ἠοῖ σφι θάνατον, 7.219.1). The pathos of the story of the seer who knows his own imminent death but nevertheless chooses to fight (of which the mythical paradigm is the seer Amphiaraus) may well explain this exception.

2.4.2 Manties

Herodotus seems to reserve his interest for the professional interpreters of these signs, the manties, but not for their interpretations. This is not to say that the results of their interpretations are of no importance: the services of Herodotean manties are in high demand, as the remarkable biographies of the figures discussed below show, and the concern on both sides at Plataiai about the unfavorable signs for attack (9.38.2) and their repeated sacrifices under ever-increasing hardship show that such consultations are not an empty formality either for the participants or for the narrator. [169] Mardonios’ eventual decision to say “to hell with the sacrifices” (τὰ σφάγια ἐᾶν χαίρειν, 9.41.4) and to proceed with the attack is directly characterized by Herodotus as an overly forceful, ill-considered, and inflexible plan of action (γνώμη . . . ἰσχυροτέρη τε καὶ ἀγνωμονεστέρη καὶ οὐδαμῶς συγγινωσκομένη, 9.41.4). Mardonios’ dismissal of the σφάγια finds a parallel in his boast that an unfavorable oracle, which predicts the total destruction of the Persians after their occupation of the Delphic sanctuary, will not come to pass, since the Persians will not attempt to seize the holy site (9.42.3). This is immediately undermined by Herodotus with his revelation that this oracle was meant for the Illyrians and Enkheleans, not the Persians (9.43.1–2). [170] In discussing the Greek contingent at Plataiai, Herodotus by way of contrast stresses Pausanias and the Spartans’ scrupulous attention to the σφάγια and shows them sacrificing again and again to obtain favorable signs, but making no offensive action, despite the heavy loss of men under the steady hail of Persian arrows (9.61.3). Only the use of a different kind of sign communication, in the form of prayer to Hera (9.61.3–62.1), is able to produce a change in the visual signs of the σφάγια.

Herodotus thus presents this form of mantikê as a familiar part of Greek experience, as his omission of details seems to indicate. Only in a few instances do we see non-Greeks using sacrifice as a means of divination, and in each of these cases Herodotus draws attention to how these sacrifices differ from Greek practice or how, in the case of Mardonios, Greek practice is consciously and explicitly adopted. Thus the Carthaginian general Amilkas is shown performing divinatory sacrifice, and while his actions are described using verbs familiar to Greek ears (ἐθύετο καὶ ἐκαλλιερέετο, 7.167.1), the manner of sacrifice shown is the holocaust, the consumption of the entire victim by fire (ἐπὶ πυρῆς μεγάλης σώματα ὅλα καταγίζων), a practice that is not used by the Greeks in divinatory sacrifice, and that seems designed to give the scene a wholly exotic and non-Greek atmosphere. [171] Before the Persian army under Xerxes crosses the Strymon, the magoi pause for sacrificial consultation. Once again a familiar and unmarked verb is used of their sacrifice (ἐκαλλιερέοντο σφάζοντες, 7.113.2), but here the sacrificial victims are white horses, which do not form part of the repertory of animals used by Greeks for this kind of sacrifice. Furthermore, the blood from their throats flows directly into the waters of the river, as opposed to over the stone of an altar or over a hearth or into a pit: ἐς τὸν [sc. Strymon] οἱ μάγοι ἐκαλλιερέοντο σφάζοντες ἵππους λευκούς (7.113.2). Finally, when the Persian commander Mardonios consults the omens on the eve of the battle of Plataiai, he uses Greek sacrificial practices (Ἑλληνικά ἱρά, 9.37.1), and has specifically engaged a Greek mantis, Hegesistratos, for this purpose.

Apart from these descriptions of non-Greek mantikê, Herodotus nowhere else devotes attention to the mechanism of mantikê or the interpretative process. It is rather the professional interpreters of such signs, the manties, on whom the spotlight falls. Herodotus mentions ten Greek manties by name, a substantial number of whom are members of famous mantic families. [175] There is firstly the prototypical figure of Melampous of Pylos, whom Herodotus credits as the founder of mantikê for the Greeks:

ἐγὼ μέν νύν φημι Μελάμποδα γενόμενον ἄνδρα σοφὸν μαντικήν τε ἑωυτῷ συστῆσαι καὶ πυθόμενον ἀπ’ Αἰγύπτου ἄλλα τε πολλὰ ἐσηγήσασθαι Ἕλλησι καὶ τὰ περὶ τὸν Διόνυσον, ὀλίγα αὐτῶν παραλλάξαντα.


It is my opinion that Melampous was a wise man who acquired a knowledge of mantikê and after learning a good many things, including the rites of Dionysos, brought them from Egypt to the Greeks, making a few changes.

Amphiaraus is also mentioned briefly in connection with his oracle in Boiotia and his presenting the Thebans with the choice of having his services either as an ally (σύμμαχος) or as a mantis (8.134.2). Descended from Melampous (7.221) is Megistias of Akarnania, who, as we have seen, foresees his own death and that of others at Thermopylai, but will not leave the field. Elis is the place of origin of several of the manties who are all members of one of the two great mantic families, the Telliadai and the Iamidai: Tellias (presumably a Telliades, 8.27.3); Kallias (Iamides, 5.44.2); Hegesistratos (Telliades, 9.37.1); Teisamenos (Iamides, 9.33.1). [
176] Other manties are Hippomakhos of Leukas (9.38.1); Kleandros of Phigaleia in Arkadia (6.83.2); Euenios and his son, Deiphobos, of Apollonia in Illyria (9.92.2). All the manties mentioned by Herodotus thus have their origin in the western part of mainland Greece and the central Pelo-ponnese, ranging from Apollonia to Phigaleia. [177] These manties have however much more in common than their place of origin and lineage: many are distinguished by a mixture of ingenuity verging on the unscrupulous and an extreme courage, and find themselves driven into exile because of unfavorable readings they have given the ruler or city by whom they are employed. [178]

Melampous’ bargaining technique with the Argives is precisely what Teisamenos uses when the Spartans approach him at the time of Xerxes’ invasion to act as their mantis (9.35.1). They offer him the position of commander (ἡγεμών) alongside the Heraklid kings, but he demands full Spartiate status. As in the case of the Argives, there is initial reluctance on the part of the Spartans, but eventual agreement to these terms, and, in a fashion similar to Melampous, Teisamenos is fully conscious of his position of strength and extracts from them Spartiate status for his brother Hagias as well. We do not see Teisamenos at work as a mantis, but he is shown interpreting signs of a different sort in the form of an oracular response. It is ironic that Teisamenos, expert in mantikê, misinterprets this oracle, which tells him that he will win five great “contests” (ἀγῶνες). These “contests,” as the Spartans are the first to realize, must not be read against the background of athletic competition, but have as their referent military combat:

Λακεδαιμόνιοι δὲ μαθόντες οὐκ ἐς γυμνικοὺς ἀλλ’ ἐς ἀρηίους ἀγῶνας φέρον τὸ Τεισαμενοῦ μαντήιον, μισθῷ ἐπειρῶντο πείσαντες Τεισαμενὸν ποιέεσθαι ἅμα Ἡρακλειδέων τοῖσι βασιλεῦσι ἡγεμόνα τῶν πολέμων.


Once the Spartans realized that the oracle given to Teisamenos referred not to athletic contests but to military ones, they attempted by means of money to persuade him to become a military commander alongside the Heraklid kings.

Herodotus’ account of Euenios of Apollonia (9.92.2–9.94.3) provides an interesting variation of this narrative pattern of the cunning mantis who tricks the king or community, where this time it is the mantis who is outsmarted in the deal. [
184] The citizens of Apollonia put out Euenios’ eyes for failing to watch over the flock of sheep sacred to Apollo, but, after a period of infertility and crop failure, they are now instructed by the god to give Euenios whatever compensation he chooses. The Apolloniates approach Euenios, and, without telling him anything of the god’s instructions, ask him hypothetically what compensation he would accept. Euenios chooses, and the Apolloniates then reveal the reason they have asked him, and hold him to his word, though he is furious and considers himself cheated (ἐξαπατηθείς, 9.94.3). Compensation from the gods follows, however, in the form of an inborn mantic ability (ἔμφυτον μαντικήν, 9.94.3).

Hegesistratos, a member of the same genos, the Telliadai, acts as mantis for Mardonios at Plataiai out of a mixture of hatred (ἔχθος) for the Spartans, from whom he has barely escaped with his life, and a desire for profit (κέρδος):

μεμισθωμένος οὐκ ὀλίγου ἐθύετό τε καὶ προεθυμέετο κατά τε τὸ ἔχθος τὸ Λακεδαιμονίων καὶ κατὰ τὸ κέρδος.


Receiving a considerable wage, he read the sacrificial omens [for the Persians] and supported them keenly both because of his hatred for the Spartans and because it was profitable.

Herodotus’ narrative stresses the man’s ingenuity as well as his courage: Hegesistratos runs afoul of the Spartans, possibly because of his unfavorable readings or possibly because of manipulations of readings, and is condemned to death by them. [
187] He devises a plan which Herodotus describes in language he reserves for exceptional acts of cunning and bravery: [188]

αὐτίκα δὲ ἐμηχανᾶτο ἀνδρηιότατον ἔργον πάντων τῶν ἡμεῖς ἴδμεν.


He contrived the bravest deed of any that we know of.

Using a knife that has somehow come into his possession, he calculatedly cuts off part of his foot which has been clamped in the stocks, digs his way out of the room, and manages to reach Tegea, traveling by night and successfully avoiding Spartan search parties. It is quite remarkable how Hegesistratos carefully calculates (σταθμησάμενος, 9.37.2) how much of his foot to cut off. [
189] The verb σταθμάομαι is used several times by Herodotus of his method of interpretation and conclusion on the basis of comparison, as when he introduces Dareios’ famous experiment in comparative anthropology:

ὡς δὲ οὕτω νενομίκασι τὰ περὶ τοὺς νόμους οἱ πάντες ἄνθρωποι, πολλοῖσί τε καὶ ἄλλοισι τεκμηρίοισι πάρεστι σταθμώσασθαι, ἐν δὲ δὴ καὶ τῷδε . . .


That all men have this custom concerning their practices may be measured by many tekmêria, and in particular by the following . . .

Especially comparable for the element of cunning intelligence and calculation is Herodotus’ account of the Assyrian thieves in the city of Ninos, who dig a tunnel leading from their homes to Sardanapallos’ underground treasure-chambers, computing the distance exactly (σταθμούμενοι, 2.150.3). Teisamenos’ decision to cut off part of his own body finds a parallel in the story of the Egyptian master thieves, one of whom gets caught in a trap in an underground treasure-chamber and instructs his brother to cut off his head, so that they will not at least be identified (2.121.β.2). [
190] Equally courageous is the action of Megistias, who sees (ἐσιδὼν ἐς τὰ ἱρά, 7.219.1) the unfavorable outcome of the coming action at Thermopylai, clearly recognizing “the goddesses of Doom approaching,” as the epitaph attributed to Simonides by Herodotus puts it (Κῆρας ἐπερχομένας σάφα εἰδώς, 7.228.3), but does not leave the field, even though he is not a Spartan, and has been excused from the battle by Leonidas (7.221). [191] This is one of several places in the Histories where the gap between knowledge of the future gained through the interpretation of signs and the inability (or, as here, willing refusal) of those who possess this knowledge to avoid the foreseen evil evokes a pathos which functions much like tragic irony. [192]

The account of Kallias of Elis demonstrates simultaneously the motifs of persecution and gain we have already come across in Herodotus’ treatment of manties. [193] Kallias has to flee (ἀποδράντα, 5.44.2) Telus, the tyrant of Sybaris, because of unfavorable readings for the city’s campaign against Kroton (ἐπείτε οἱ τὰ ἱρὰ οὐ προεχώρεε χρηστὰ θυομένῳ ἐπὶ Κρότωνα, 5.44.2), and assists the Crotoniates in their successful campaign against Sybaris. For this he receives a grant of land for himself and his descendants:

οἱ δ’ αὖ Κροτωνιῆται ἀποδεικνύουσι Καλλίῃ μὲν τῷ Ἠλείῳ ἐξαίρετα ἐν γῇ τῇ Κροτωνιήτιδι πολλὰ δοθέντα, τὰ καὶ ἐς ἐμὲ ἔτι ἐνέμοντο οἱ Καλλίεω ἀπόγονοι.


The Crotoniates for their part point to many plots of land in Croto-niate territory set aside and given to Kallias of Elis, areas which the descendants of Kallias were still working up to my time.

Finally, as an example of the influence and negative power of persuasion of manties, there is Kleandros of Phigaleia (6.83.2). After the destruction of most of the adult male population of Argos by the Spartans under Kleomenes, the Argive slaves assume and keep control of the state, until the sons of the Argives who lost their lives in battle grow to adulthood and take back their power, expelling the slaves. The slaves retreat to Tiryns and manage to capture it, and from then on a state of peaceful relations exist between the two groups, which is broken, however, by Kleandros, a mantis who persuades the slaves to attack their masters once more (6.83.2). Kleandros is thus responsible for the lengthy war which follows after this and in which the freeborn Argives eventually gain the upper hand with difficulty.

What emerges strongly from a consideration of these Herodotean manties is that, for Herodotus, their skill does not seem to lie so much in the interpretation of mantic signs (of which we see almost nothing) as in the manipulation of signs of various kinds. This does not involve the falsification of signs on the part of the manties (there is no direct mention of this by Herodotus), but rather exploitation of the demand for their services and semiotic competency to obtain power and gain. Their ability is much sought after, as we have seen in the case of Melampous, Teisamenos, and others, and carries with it the possibility of power and profit (κέρδος), but this ability and power also contain a potentially lethal charge that may at any time blow up in the face of the user. An unfavorable reading, or the perception of an unfavorable reading, can result in the expulsion (Kallias) or even execution (Hegesistratos) of the mantis.

Nowhere are these high stakes made clearer than in Herodotus’ ethnographic excursus on Scythian mantikê, where the themes associated with Greek manties manifest themselves in extreme form, perhaps another instance of Herodotus’ principle that the extremes of the earth are accompanied by extremes in terms of climate, natural resources (gold, spices), and human behavior. [194] Scythian manties wield vast power, but at the same time they are subject to the ultimate penalty of death if they are shown to be false diviners (ψευδομάντιες, 4.69.2). Whenever the king falls ill, the three most prominent manties are sent for, who by divination normally establish that someone has sworn falsely by the king’s hearth (4.68.1). [195] Their function here is to determine the cause of illness and to recommend a cure, just as Melampous is asked to do in the case of the frenzied women of Argos (9.34). But as Hartog has commented, their function then changes from healer to judge as divination is now used to ascertain the identity of the culprit, who is then arrested and brought in (4.68.2). [196] If he denies the charge, a second set of manties, six in number, are summoned, and if their consultation confirms the guilt of the suspect, he is immediately executed by decapitation, and his goods become the property of the first manties (4.68.3). If, however, their reading establishes his innocence, then still more manties are summoned (4.68.4), and if a majority reading still maintains his innocence, then the first set of manties are condemned to death as ψευδομάντιες (4.69.2).

This use of mantikê to determine the king’s illness and sniff out the offending oath-breaker is described by Herodotus as a foreign practice, yet despite its exotic dress and the gruesome descriptions of execution (the ψευδομάντιες are shackled, bound, gagged, and strapped to a oxcart piled high with fuel, which is then lit and sent on its way [4.69.1]), it contains the very elements we have already seen as associated with Greek manties: the potential for power, profit, and ruin.

2.5 The Ainos

Perhaps the most well-known Herodotean ainos is Kyros’ logos (so described by Herodotus, 1.141.1) about the aulos-player and the fish. [199] When the Ionians and Aeolians approach Kyros and ask to be on the same terms with him as they were with Kroisos, Kyros by way of answer tells them a story:

ὁ δὲ ἀκούσας αὐτῶν τὰ προΐσχοντο ἔλεξέ σφι λόγον, ἄνδρα φὰς αὐλητὴν ἰδόντα ἰχθῦς ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ αὐλέειν, δοκέοντά σφεας ἐξελεύσεσθαι ἐς γῆν. ὡς δὲ ψευσθῆναι τῆς ἐλπίδος, λαβεῖν ἀμφί-βληστρον καὶ περιβαλεῖν τε πλῆθος πολλὸν τῶν ἰχθύων καὶ ἐξειρύσαι, ἰδόντα δὲ παλλομένους εἰπεῖν ἄρα αὐτὸν πρὸς τοὺς ἰχθῦς· “Παύεσθέ μοι ὀρχεόμενοι, ἐπεὶ οὐδ’ ἐμέο αὐλέοντος ἠθέλετε ἐκβαίνειν ὀρχεόμενοις.”


After he heard what they were proposing, he told them a logos, saying that an aulos-player once caught sight of some fish in the sea and began to play his pipe, thinking that they would come out onto the land. When he was cheated of his expectation, he took a net and cast it around a great number of the fish and hauled it out, and upon seeing them leaping about, he said to the fish, “Stop dancing for me: you didn’t want to come out and dance before, when I played my aulos.”

Herodotus immediately steps in to explain the point of Kyros’ story: when Kyros had previously asked the Ionians and Aeolians to revolt from Kroisos’ control, they did not do so, but now that everything has changed and Kroisos been deposed, they are prepared to obey him. The Ionians and Aeolians are thus the fish, and Kyros the aulos-player. [
200] But this is not the whole of the message: what are its implications for the Ionians and Aeolians? How do they understand Kyros’ logos? Kyros does not say what he will do to them, but we hear that their reaction is to build walls around their cities and gather at the Panionion (1.141.4), and we are later told of Harpagos’ subjugation of the Ionian cities, the second enslavement of Ionia (1.169.2). The verb used by Herodotus to decribe the Ionians’ construction of city walls, περιεβάλοντο, literally to ‘cast around’, cleverly mirrors the verb used by Kyros to describe the aulos-player’s casting of a net about the fish, περιβαλεῖν, translating the figurative into the literal. Instead of waiting for the net of Kyros to surround them, they surround themselves with a wall, showing that they received and understood the message in Kyros’ ainos. [201]

Much the same technique of threatening via the medium of the ainos is used by Kroisos in his message to the people of Lampsakos when he learns that they are holding Miltiades (grandfather of the famous Miltiades, commander at Marathon) captive:

πυθόμενος ὦν ὁ Κροῖσος ταῦτα πέμπων προηγόρευε τοῖσι Λαμψακηνοῖσι μετιέναι Μιλτιάδην· εἰ δὲ μή, σφέας πίτυος τρόπον ἀπείλεε ἐκτρίψειν.


When Kroisos heard this, he sent the following message to the people of Lampsakos and warned them to let Miltiades go: if they did not, he threatened to wipe them out like a pine tree.

It is clear that Kroisos wants Miltiades released, but the expression “like a pine tree” throws the Lampsacenes into confusion. What does it mean? An old man eventually provides the key: [


While the citizens of Lampsakos were adrift in their discussions about what the message [epos] behind Kroisos’ utterance was in which he threatened to wipe them out like a pine tree, one of the elders at last understood it and said what it really meant: the pine is the only tree which if chopped down does not send forth any new shoot but is completely destroyed.

In fear they release Miltiades. [
205] As in the case of Kyros’ logos, Kroisos’ epos is told in a diplomatic context, an exchange between two foreign powers, and is related by the stronger to the weaker. Once again, the threat lies in the imagery used, drawn this time not from the animal but the plant world, which communicates more effectively than direct and unmarked speech. [206] In this instance the ainos is not framed, as with other ainoi, as an extended metaphor, but resides concisely in a simile (πίτυος τρόπον). [207]

Tacit understanding between speaker and recipient and expectation of understanding according to a common code are also at the basis of a remark made by Prokles, the father of Periandros’ murdered wife, Melissa, to his grandchildren. He knows that Periandros murdered Melissa and wishes to convey this fact to his grandchildren. At the end of a visit to their grandfather, he asks them a parting question: “Do you know who killed your mother?” (3.50.3). The reactions of the two grandsons demonstrate precisely the coded nature of the utterance (described here as an epos, as in the case of Kroisos’ utterance at 6.37.2), [209] which is more than a simple question. The elder of the two pays no attention to it, but the younger, Lykophron, immediately perceives that his grandfather is in fact telling him that Periandros murdered his mother, as is clear from his reaction of distress and his refusal to speak to his father on his return home:

ἤλγησε ἀκούσας οὕτω ὥστε ἀπικόμενος ἐς τὴν Κόρινθον ἅτε φονέα τῆς μητρὸς τὸν πατέρα οὔτε προσεῖπε.


Upon hearing this he became so aggrieved that on his return to Corinth he did not address his father because he was his mother’s murderer.

The grandfather uses the question as an ainos to convey his message for two reasons: he must obviously use caution in so sensitive a matter, and he must be sure that the message falls on suitable ears. The allusive nature of Prokles’ speech acts as an automatic device of testing and selection, since only the one who feels concern at the mother’s death and the identity of the killer will decode the surface question not as a question but as a statement of Periandros’ guilt. The distinction between the two brothers lies in this ability to decode, and it is clearly shown when Periandros asks the elder brother what his grandfather said to them:


He did not remember the utterance [epos] which Procles had made when seeing them off because he did not comprehend it [literally, ‘grasp it with his noos’].

Eventually he remembers, and repeats his grandfather’s words, still presumably with no understanding, but Periandros has noos enough to realize the encoded nature of the utterance and the message lying under the surface: [

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 receive him in their homes.

When in the hands of the stronger the ainos may threaten, as in the case of Kyros and Kroisos, but it may also warn and persuade in a more diplomatic fashion when the encoder of the ainos is in a weaker or equal position. [
212] The Spartan king Leotykhides, for example, who wishes to persuade the Athenians to release a group of Aeginetan hostages which they are refusing to return, resorts to the rhetorical strategy of an extended ainos and tells the story of Glaukos the Spartan. [213] Glaukos accepts a deposit of money from a wealthy Milesian and retains a set of σύμβολα, tokens. He undertakes to turn over the deposit to anyone who produces a matching set of σύμβολα (6.86.α). After a number of years, the sons of the Milesian come to Sparta to reclaim the money (6.86.β.1). When they produce the σύμβολα, Glaukos claims that he remembers nothing of the agreement and the deposit, and sends them away, telling them to come back after four months, during which time he will investigate whether or not he ever accepted such a deposit (6.86.β.2). He asks the Delphic oracle whether he should keep his oath to the Milesian and return the money to the bearer of the σύμβολα. The oracle tells him that he can certainly pretend to know nothing of the agreement and profit by it, but reminds him that his descendants may be visited with the awful consequences of oath-breaking. He then asks the god for forgiveness, but the Pythia tells him that to have considered breaking his oath is the same as having actually done so (6.86.γ.1–2).

Kroisos cannot interpret Solon’s ainos, as is shown by his indignant reproach at having his own great good fortune and prosperity so lightly dismissed (1.32.1). In a lengthy speech, Solon attempts to make clear what ὄλβος really entails and how it differs from material wealth and from good fortune (εὐτυχίη). His warning lies in the fact that material prosperity may at any time disappear and that even if it is present and endures up to the moment of death, one may still not be called ὄλβιος unless one has ended one’s life well, εὖ (1.32.7). This message Kroisos chooses to ignore, being convinced only of Solon’s stupidity (1.33).

But there is something further in Solon’s words: what he leaves unsaid is how this may affect Kroisos and what the consequences of thinking oneself ὄλβιος are. Atê, destruction as a result of hubristic thinking, is mentioned indirectly in Solon’s statement that the very rich man is better able to endure its attack than the fortunate man (εὐτυχής) who is moderately well off (1.32.6), but Solon gives no direct warning to Kroisos, “Beware of hubris and its attendant atê!” [218] Rather, as Nagy has pointed out, the hubris and atê are shown in direct action as narrated by Herodotus, beginning with the story of Atys and Adrastos: [219]

μετὰ δὲ Σόλωνα οἰχόμενον ἔλαβε ἐκ θεοῦ νέμεσις μεγάλη Κροῖσον, ὡς εἰκάσαι, ὅτι ἐνόμισε ἑωυτὸν εἶναι ἀνθρώπων ἁπάντων ὀλβιώτατον.


After Solon’s departure, a great divine nemesis took hold of Kroisos, because, to make a conjecture, he considered himself to be the most olbios of all mankind.

Kroisos fails to understand both Solon’s explicit statements about the nature of ὄλβος and the implicit warning about his conduct, both the surface meaning and the underlying meaning. Understanding, revelation, and the final solution to Solon’s ainos come only later, as Herodotus shows in the dramatic scene of Kroisos on the pyre, when he calls out Solon’s name and recalls his teaching (1.86.3–5). The interaction between Kroisos, the interpreters, and Kyros now reminds one of that first interchange between Solon and Kroisos. Kroisos’ utterances on the pyre are just as puzzling as Solon’s once were, and to the interpreters (ἑρμηνέες), who can translate his language but not the meaning of his words, what he says is ἄσημα, without meaning or sense (1.86.4). [
220] Yet Kyros is able to make sense of Kroisos’ words, to grasp the message in his noos (1.86.6). [221]

2.6 Names and Naming

2.6.1 Meaning of Names, Action of Naming

It has long been recognized that personal names form a distinctive and special type of linguistic sign. They mark out and point to a particular individual, just as personal pronouns are indexical signs whose function it is to point to a referent. But names, unlike personal pronouns, which have no semantic content, have the capacity to convey additional information in that they do not simply point beyond themselves but have sense in their own right. [223] This is especially observable in the case of Greek names, which are made of elements readily recognizable and understandable to speakers. [224] A connection may therefore be perceived to exist between the meaning of a name and its bearer or referent, and a transference of qualities made from the meaning of a name to its bearer which may reflect positively, negatively, or ironically on the person so named. [225] Krios is the name of an individual from Aigina, yet his name has a meaning quite apart from its function of indicating and marking out its bearer: it means ‘ram’, and it is on this connection that Kleomenes the Spartan king seizes when, stung by Krios’ rejection of his authority, he makes the following threat:

ἤδη νῦν καταχαλκοῦ, ὦ κριέ, τὰ κέρεα, ὡς συνοισόμενος μεγάλῳ κακῷ.


Herodotus thus shows himself fully aware of the double capacity of names both to point and identify and to have meaning in themselves, drawing our attention to the possibility of connections between the bearer and the meaning of the name. [
227] That comparison between the two may reveal an ironic or humorous dissonance has already been seen in the case of Krios, but the experience of Leon shows that the connection may have more serious consequences. Leon (“Lion”) is the name of an Aeginetan sailor on the first Greek ship to be captured by the Persian fleet near Skiathos. As the finest looking on board, he is executed over the ship’s prow by the Phoenician crew as a kind of sacrificial victim:

καὶ ἔπειτα τῶν ἐπιβατέων αὐτῆς τὸν καλλιστεύοντα ἀγαγόντες ἐπὶ τὴν πρῴρην τῆς νεὸς ἔσφαξαν, διαδέξιον ποιεύμενοι τὸν εἷλον τῶν Ἑλλήνων πρῶτον εἶναι κάλλιστον.


Then they led the finest looking of the crew to the prow of the ship and slit his throat, considering it a favorable omen that their first Greek captive should be the finest.

Herodotus grimly suggests, “Perhaps he benefited to some extent from his name as well” (τάχα δ’ ἄν τι καὶ τοῦ οὐνόματος ἐπαύροιτο, 7.180), presumably meaning that just as the man’s beauty marked him out for slaughter in the way in which the finest animal in a herd is chosen as a sacrificial victim, so too did the nobility of his name, “Lion,” contribute to the Phoenicians’ decision, being a kind of omen. [
228] The ominous connection between the meaning of a name and its bearer may also be experienced in a more positive and less baneful fashion, as with the name of Hegesistratos (‘Leader of the army’). When Hegesistratos of Samos asks Leotykhides for assistance, Leotykhides asks for his name and upon hearing it accepts it as a (good) omen (δέκομαι τὸν οἰωνόν, 9.91.2) and so agrees to give his help. [229] As Munson (2005:49) puts it, “Herodotus’ etymologies have the mantic character of Leotychides’ discovery of Hegesistratus’ name and of the creation and interpretation of names as represented in Plato’s Cratylus.”

A subsequent naming may supplant an original naming, as in the case of Oiolykos and Battos, where a by-name reflects a connection between the bearer of the name and the circumstances surrounding him. Oiolykos’ original name (not preserved by Herodotus) is changed when he refuses to follow his father, Theras, to found a colony on the island, subsequently named after him. Theras warns that he will be left as a sheep among wolves (ὄϊς ἐν λύκοισι, 4.149.1), and from this utterance a name arises which somehow becomes dominant, taking over from his original name. In the case of Battos, according to Herodotus at least (ὡς μέντοι ἐγὼ δοκέω, 4.155.1), he is renamed by the Delphic oracle:

Βάττος δὲ μετωνομάσθη, ἐπείτε ἐς Λιβύην ἀπίκετο, ἀπό τε τοῦ χρηστηρίου τοῦ γενομένου ἐν Δελφοῖσι αὐτῷ καὶ ἀπὸ τῆς τιμῆς τὴν ἔσχε τὴν ἐπωνυμίην ποιεύμενος. Λίβυες γὰρ βασιλέα βάττον καλέουσι, καὶ τούτου εἵνεκα δοκέω θεσπίζουσαν τὴν Πυθίην καλέσαι μιν Λιβυκῇ γλώσσῃ, εἰδυῖαν ὡς βασιλεὺς ἔσται ἐν Λιβύῃ.


The action of naming goes beyond simply attaching a new sign to the bearer, but may constitute a speech act, since it produces an actual result, making him king (or at least predicting that he will be). Herodotus shows us naming as an act which produces or confirms the status of kingship also in his account of the rise of Kyros. The giving of the name “king” (βασιλέος ὀνομασθέντος, 1.120.4) to Kyros in a children’s game has far-reaching consequences, since by various twists and turns it ends up fulfilling Astyages’ dream that the offspring of his daughter will rule in his stead. To Astyages and the magoi, the context of Kyros’ being named king―a children’s game―limits the sense in which he is “king” and safely defuses the dream’s prophecy (ἐς ἀσθενὲς ἔρχεται, 1.120.3), but Herodotus seems to show that the naming is an absolute act which, once performed (under whatever circumstances), has an enduring effect.

The same logos shows another facet of names and the uses to which they may be put. When Kyros has been restored to his true parents, Kambyses and Mandane, they discover that the name of the herdsman’s wife who brought up Kyros in his infancy is Kuno (‘Bitch’). Kuno, as Herodotus points out, is a translation of the Median “Spako” (1.110.1), and from this they weave a story that Kyros was raised by a bitch:

οἱ δὲ τοκέες παραλαβόντες τὸ οὔνομα τοῦτο, ἵνα θειοτέρως δοκέῃ τοῖσι Πέρσῃσι περιεῖναί σφι ὁ παῖς, κατέβαλον φάτιν ὡς ἐκκείμενον Κῦρον κύων ἐξέθρεψε.


His parents adopted this name so that their son might seem to the Persians to have survived through providence, and they broadcast a report that a bitch had raised Kyros when he was exposed.

Their manipulation consists in the appropriation (παραλαβόντες) and conversion of a proper name into an ordinary noun, from Κυνώ to κύων, just as Kleomenes converts Κριός to κριός. In the former instance, the distinction is reflected in a formal change, the change from a form with a suffix indicative of a female personal name (cf. Γοργώ) to one with a suffix indicative of a common noun. With the Κριός to κριός change there is no formal change observable, but the context (the mention of horns) makes the change clear. In both cases, the referent is no longer regarded as a person but the very thing which is signified by the signifier. In other words, there is no longer a distinction between the signified (“dog,” “ram”) and the referent (the woman Kuno, the man Krios), and the manipulators reduce the referents to the position of animals, each for their own purposes.

Herodotus directly addresses the issue of the connection between the meaning of a name and its referent or bearer precisely in the case of Persian names, which all, without exception, end in sigma, and which resemble their bearers in terms of physical appearance (σώματα) and magnificence (μεγαλο-πρεπείη):

καὶ τόδε ἄλλο σφι ὧδε συμπέπτωκε γίνεσθαι, τὸ Πέρσας μὲν αὐτοὺς λέληθε, ἡμέας μέντοι οὔ· τὰ οὐνόματά σφι ἐόντα ὅμοια τοῖσι σώμασι καὶ τῇ μεγαλοπρεπείῃ τελευτῶσι πάντα ἐς τὠυτὸ γράμμα, τὸ Δωριέες μὲν σὰν καλέουσι, Ἴωνες δὲ σίγμα. ἐς τοῦτο διζήμενος εὑρήσεις τελευτῶντα τῶν Περσέων τὰ οὐνόματα, οὐ τὰ μέν, τὰ δὲ οὔ, ἀλλὰ πάντα ὁμοίως.


Persian names, then, do not simply identify or mark their bearers, but describe them, presumably not necessarily as they are but as they would like to be regarded. In other words, there is a natural relationship between sense and referent. Herodotus in fact illustrates this principle of Persian onomastics later in the Histories when he gives Greek equivalents for the names Dareios, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes, all of which are fitting names for kings and leaders:


These names have the following meanings in Greek: Dareios means “doer,” Xerxes means “warrior,” and Artaxerxes means “great warrior.”

These are the only Persian names whose significance he reveals (apart from the Median Spako), but there are indications that he treats certain other Persian names as if they contained Greek roots, and plays on connections between these familiar roots glimpsed in foreign names and the referents of these names. [
234] μεγαλοπρεπείη (‘magnificence, grandeur’) is visible in the numerous Persian names in Herodotus beginning in Mega-, to the Greek ear suggestive of μέγας (‘great’), e.g. Megabates as if from μέγα- and βαίνω (‘walk’), Megadostes as if from μέγα- and δίδωμι (‘give’), or in those ending in –phrenes, suggestive of Greek φρήν and its plural, φρένες (‘mind, senses’), e.g. Artaphrenes as if ἀρτίφρων (‘sound of mind’). [235] The name Harpagos resembles the Greek ἅρπαγος (‘hook’) and other words built on the root ἁρπ- (‘grasp, seize’), a not inappropriate description of his character. [236] The first element of the name of Prexaspes suggests Ionic πρηξ- (πρήσσω, ‘do, act’), as found in the Greek names Πρηξίλεως (9.107.2) and Πρηξῖνος (7.180), and Herodotus seems in one place to play on this perceived connection:

Πρήξασπες, οὕτω μοι διέπρηξας τό τοι προσέθηκα πρῆγμα.


The pronouncing of a name, whether as an initial act of bestowal (ὀνομάζειν, οὔνομα τιθέναι) or as an act of recollection (μνῶμαι, ἐπιμνῶμαι, μνήμην ποιέεσθαι), is a highly significant, not to say semiotic, activity. To bestow a name is to bring about a certain change in reality, or at least to attempt to bring about a change, as when parents harness the glory of a former bearer of a name to the present bearer: so the Athenian tyrant is named Peisistratos after the famous son of Nestor (5.65.4). [
238] The renaming of tribes by Kleisthenes of Sikyon and, in imitation of his maternal grandfather, by Kleisthenes the Athenian demonstrates the connection between naming and the exercise of power and imposition of will. Kleisthenes of Sikyon changes the traditional names of the four Doric tribes (φυλαί), used also in Argos, because of his hatred of Argos and all things Argive:

ἵνα δὴ μὴ αἱ αὐταὶ ἔωσι τοῖσι Σικυωνίοισι καὶ τοῖσι Ἀργείοισι, μετέβαλε ἐς ἄλλα οὐνόματα.


So that the Sicyonians might not have the same tribes as the Argives, he changed their names to different ones.

Three of the four names which he substitutes, however, are, according to Herodotus at least, an expression of tyrannical caprice, designed to humiliate his own citizens (πλεῖστον κατεγέλασε τῶν Σικυωνίων, 5.68.1). He names them after the swine, the ass, and the sucking pig: [

ἔνθα καὶ πλεῖστον κατεγέλασε τῶν Σικυωνίων· ἐπὶ γὰρ ὑός τε καὶ ὄνου <καὶ χοίρου> τὰς ἐπωνυμίας μετατιθεὶς αὐτὰ τὰ τελευταῖα ἐπέθηκε, πλὴν τῆς ἑωυτοῦ φυλῆς· ταύτῃ δὲ τὸ οὔνομα ἀπὸ τῆς ἑωυτοῦ ἀρχῆς ἔθετο. οὗτοι μὲν δὴ Ἀρχέλαοι ἐκαλέοντο, ἕτεροι δὲ ῾Υᾶται, ἄλλοι δὲ Ὀνεᾶται, ἕτεροι δὲ Χοιρεᾶται.


And then he enjoyed a big laugh at the Sicyonians’ expense, for he gave [the tribes] names based on the words “pig,” “ass,” with just a change in the endings, all except his own tribe: to this he gave a name based on his own rule [arkhê]. And so these were called the Arkhelaoi, while the others were called the Hyatai [“Swinites”], Oneatai [“Assites”], and the Khoireatai [“Piglingites”].

The grandson named for him also brings about changes in the names of the four traditional φυλαί in Athens, and also does so in order not to use the same names as a despised people, in this case the Ionians in general (5.69.1). The name changes involved are, however, different in that they are accompanied by structural changes: not only are the names changed (to those of nine Attic heroes and the Aeginetan hero, Aias) but the number of the φυλαί are increased to ten and their composition changed, with the demes being distributed among the ten φυλαί in such a way as to break up local allegiances (5.69.2). The results of their renaming are thus quite distinct. As Benardete puts it,

While the tyrant gives meaningful names, the democrat gives names that have a local rather than an etymological significance; and while the tyrant attempts to alienate the people from themselves, the democrat imposes on them a stronger sense of belonging to Athens.


Both use names and renaming as a form of social engineering. [
240] The fact that Kleisthenes the Athenian is named after Kleisthenes of Sikyon (ὁμώνυμος, τὸ οὔνομα ἐπὶ τούτου ἔχων, 5.69.1) goes hand in hand with, and seems to explain, his “imitation” (ἐμιμέετο, 5.67.1) of his name changing. [241] Identity of name is intimately connected with identity of behavior: this may be seen in Herodotus’ treatment of the two queens named Nitokris, one of whom is Babylonian, the other Egyptian. [242] Apart from sharing the same name, they also have in common a cunning scheme (μηχανή): both lure unsuspecting but deserving victims into a trap involving a closed space. [243] In the case of the Babylonian Nitokris, it is a trap which operates after her death: she has her tomb built into one of the city gates of Babylon with an inscription inviting any future king of Babylon to open her tomb if he be in need of money, but not to open it otherwise (1.187.1–2). When Dareios conquers the city, he is inflamed by the inscription and opens the tomb, only to find a body and a further inscription telling him that if he were not insatiate and sordidly avaricious he would not open the tombs of the dead (1.187.3–5). The Egyptian Nitokris’ trap is more deadly: in order to revenge her husband, she invites his murderers to a feast in an underground chamber, which she suddenly floods with water through a hidden pipe. [244]

That the bestowal of names brings with it a corresponding change and division in reality may be seen in the relationship between the names of the gods and the gods themselves, something especially prominent in the second book of the Histories. The Pelasgians of old, Herodotus tells us, used to sacrifice to the gods without using any names, knowing and using only the general term θεοί, so called because of their function in establishing the kosmos (κόσμῳ θέντες, 2.52.1), until they adopted the names of the Egyptian gods with the approval of the oracle at Dodona (2.52.2–3). It seems clear that Herodotus does not mean that they simply began to use the sounds and forms of Egyptian divine names, applying them to their gods: after all, he does not think the names Artemis, Apollo, etc., are Egyptian, since he provides the actual Egyptian names of many of these deities. [245] The passage should be understood in a different sense, suggested already by Stein and Linforth and more recently persuasively defended by Burkert, whose arguments and insights will be found paraphrased here: the acquisition of the οὐνόματα of the gods involves the transference of the peculiar types, characters, and cults of the Egyptian gods (following Stein) and the mapping of this system of distinctions and divisions onto the undifferentiated θεοί of the Pelasgians. [246] That the οὔνομα of a god carries with it a recognition of the existence and distinctive character of that god is clear from another passage in book 2, where Herodotus says that the Egyptians do not know the names of Poseidon or the Dioskouroi:

Αἰγύπτιοι οὔτε Ποσειδέωνος οὔτε Διοσκούρων τὰ οὐνόματά φασι εἰδέναι, οὐδέ σφι θεοὶ οὗτοι ἐν τοῖσι ἄλλοισι θεοῖσι ἀποδεδέχαται.


The Egyptians deny any knowledge of the names of either Poseidon or the Dioskouroi, and say that these gods have not been received among the other gods.

Ignorance of their names goes together with the fact that there is no place for them in the Egyptian pantheon. In addition, according to Herodotus, the names of Hera, Hestia, Themis, the Kharites, and the Nereidai are unknown to the Egyptians (2.50.2): the implication is that the deities themselves are not worshiped either and that the Egyptians do not have divisions in their system of gods corresponding to the bearers of these names. Furthermore, Herodotus says that all these gods were named by the Pelasgians, except Poseidon, and this god they learned of from the Libyans:

τῶν δὲ οὔ φασι θεῶν γινώσκειν τὰ οὐνόματα, οὗτοι δέ μοι δοκέουσι ὑπὸ Πελασγῶν ὀνομασθῆναι, πλὴν Ποσειδέωνος. τοῦτον δὲ τὸν θεὸν παρὰ Λιβύων ἐπύθοντο· οὐδαμοὶ γὰρ ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς Ποσειδέωνος οὔνομα ἔκτηνται εἰ μὴ Λίβυες, καὶ τιμῶσι τὸν θεὸν τοῦτον αἰει.


Those gods whose names they claim not to know seem to me to have been named by the Pelasgians, with the exception of Poseidon. This god they learnt of from the Libyans: for no one else except for the Libyans has used the name of Poseidon right from the start, and they have always worshiped this god.

So Poseidon was named by the Libyans: but then Herodotus says they learned of the god (he does not say name) from the Libyans. To learn the name of a god is to also to recognize his existence as a distinct entity and recipient of cult: in one sentence Herodotus can say that the Libyans named Poseidon, and in another that they gave the knowledge of the god himself to the Pelasgians. It is in this sense that the Pelasgians, and thus the Hellenes, took the names of the gods from the Egyptians: as Burkert puts it, we are not dealing with the individual and precise correspondence of phonemes, but the fact that one system of signification and meaning clearly reflects another. [
247] Burkert links Herodotus’ statement about the origin of the names of the gods (οὐνόματα τῶν θεῶν) with another passage in the Histories where Herodotus uses οὐνόματα in a context of dividing and defining. Herodotus cannot understand (συμβαλέσθαι, 4.45.1) amongst other things why there should be three names (Europa, Libya, and Asia) for what is one undifferentiated object, the earth (ἐπ’ ὅτεο μιῇ ἐούσῃ γῇ οὐνόματα τριφάσια κεῖται, 4.45.1). [248] He does not believe that the divisions made by the names correspond to any divisions in reality. From this it appears that for each name there ought to exist an appropriate category, an approach which Burkert rightly says must be viewed against the background of contemporary fifth-century speculation about the philosophy of language and the belief in the natural and correct relationship between signifier and signified. Burkert compares two passages from Anaxagoras and the Derveni Papyrus in which the actions of differentiation and naming are clearly linked. [249] Herodotus on one occasion draws attention to a certain correctness or rightness (ὀρθότης) in the relationship between name and bearer which is reminiscent of the doctrine of the “correctness” of names mentioned above: in relaying the Scythian names of various divinities, he comments that Zeus is most correctly called Papaios in Scythian (ὀνομάζεται δὲ σκυθιστὶ . . . Ζεὺς . . . ὀρθότατα κατὰ γνώμην γε τὴν ἐμὴν καλεόμενος, Παπαῖος, 4.59.2). The name probably suggests to Herodotus πάππας (‘papa’, e.g. Odyssey 6.57) and so Zeus’ role as father of gods and men. In this sense, the application of the name Papaios to the deity reflects the nature of the god accurately, and so is “correct.” [250]

2.6.2 Transmission of Names

So much for the assignation and bestowal of names, the primary act of signification when signifier is attached to referent. Let us now consider the secondary act of signification, the transmission of names by figures in the Histories and by Herodotus himself as narrator, in whose hands the ultimate control of the channel of communication lies. Herodotus’ narrative power over the transmission of names will be discussed shortly, but for the moment we consider the control exercised by figures within the work. The instances under consideration all have to do with the suppression of the transmission of names. The desire for suppression results from the close connection between the name as signifier and the bearer of the name. Just as the meaning of a name may act on the bearer, whether positively (Peisistratos, 5.65.4) or negatively (the names of the tribes given by Kleisthenes of Sikyon, 5.68.1–2), so too the actions of the bearer may be seen to act upon the name, investing it with associations both good and ill. Names may inspire such fear and hatred through recollection of the actions of the bearer that they become subject to suppression. Because of such a hatred (ὑπὸ μίσεος, 2.128), the Egyptians refuse to mention the names of Kheops and Khephren, during whose combined reign of 106 years every type of ill befell the Egyptians and the temple precincts remained closed. They accordingly say that the pyramids of these kings belong to a local herdsman, Philitis, who used to pasture his animals in the area (2.128). By so doing, the Egyptians frustrate the intentions of those who built these pyramids, since they are no longer monuments to them and no longer perpetuate their name and memory. [251] This is not all that the Egyptians do, since besides simply suppressing the names of Kheops and Khephren and denying them recognition after death, they actively insult them by attaching to their magnificent monuments the name of one on the opposite end of the social scale, a mere herdsman.

Hatred for past deeds is according to Herodotus the reason why Carian women married to Ionians did not address their husbands by name (or eat with them):

διὰ τοῦτον δὲ τὸν φόνον αἱ γυναῖκες αὗται νόμον θέμεναι σφίσι αὐτῇσι ὅρκους ἐπήλασαν καὶ παρέδοσαν τῇσι θυγατράσι μή κοτε ὁμοσιτῆσαι τοῖσι ἀνδράσι μηδὲ οὐνόματι βῶσαι τὸν ἑωυτῆς ἄνδρα, τοῦδε εἵνεκα ὅτι ἐφόνευσαν σφέων τοὺς πατέρας καὶ ἄνδρας καὶ παῖδας καὶ ἔπειτε ταῦτα ποιήσαντες αὐτῇσι συνοίκεον.


On account of this killing [by the first Ionian settlers in Karia], these women, instituting a custom amongst themselves, swore and handed down to their daughters oaths that they would never take food together with their husbands and would never address their husband by name out loud, because they had slain their fathers, husbands, and children, and having done so, had taken them as wives.

Name taboo may lie behind Herodotus’ curious report of a Libyan tribe, the Atarantes, who are said to be the only people who are without names (ἀνώνυμοι, 4.184.1). It is not that the tribe as a whole has no name, merely that they do not have personal names (ἑνὶ δὲ ἑκάστῳ αὐτῶν οὔνομα οὐδὲν κεῖται, 4.184.1). Herodotus suggests no reason for this (just as he has no further comment on the Libyan tribe that has no dreams, 4.184.4) but behind it may lie the practice of name-avoidance, attested in several cultures, and in particular among the Tibbus, a people living in the Tibesti range, the very area which Herodotus is describing here. [

Prohibition of a different sort may be encountered in regard to names of divinities, where the divine name is so closely identified with its divine bearer that it becomes the subject of religious taboo. Herodotus subjects himself to such a prohibition concerning the name of Osiris, but in a limited fashion. Since he preserves the name of Osiris a number of times in both its Egyptian form (2.42.2, 2.144.2, 2.156.4) and its Greek “translation,” Dionysos (e.g. 2.144.2), it is not a question of an outright Namenverbot. What is at issue is the context in which the god is mentioned. Herodotus suppresses the name in four instances: when mentioning the festival of Isis in Bousiris, during which tens of thousands beat their breasts for one whom “it is not holy for me to mention” (οὔ μοι ὅσιόν ἐστι λέγειν, 2.61.1); when describing the costliest form of mummy decoration, which represents “the one whom I do not consider it holy to name in such a matter” (τοῦ οὐκ ὅσιον ποιεῦμαι τὸ οὔνομα ἐπὶ τοιούτῳ πρήγματι ὀνομάζειν, 2.86.2); when talking of the statue of the kneeling cow at Sais which is brought out every year “when the Egyptians beat their breasts for the god who is not named by me in such a matter” (τὸν οὐκ ὀνομαζόμενον θεὸν ὑπ’ ἐμέο ἐπὶ τοιούτῳ πρήγματι, 2.132.2); and when he describes tombs in the precinct of the temple of Athena of “the one whose name I consider it not holy to pronounce in connection with such a matter” (τοῦ οὐκ ὅσιον ποιεῦμαι ἐπὶ τοιούτῳ πρήγματι ἐξαγορεύειν τοὔνομα, 2.170.1). In all of these passages it is clear that the prohibition (οὐκ ὅσιον) is on mentioning Osiris’ name, which is replaced by a tabu periphrasis, either in the form of an extended articular phrase (τὸν οὐκ ὀνομαζόμενον θεὸν ὑπ’ ἐμέο ἐπὶ τοιούτῳ πρήγματι, 2.132.2) or a relative clause (τοῦ οὐκ ὅσιον ποιεῦμαι τὸ οὔνομα ἐπὶ τοιούτῳ πρήγματι ὀνομάζειν, 2.86.2). This occurs precisely in connection with the death of Osiris and the mourning for him at religious festivals in his or Isis’ honor, a connection Herodotus paraphrases with an expression which itself is a circumlocution, ἐπὶ τοιούτῳ πρήγματι (“in connection with such a matter,” 2.170.1). [253]

That Herodotus exercises a conscious choice in this activity will be shown shortly, but first a brief look at the implications of the retransmission of names. To mention a name in a public context is to reactivate and perpetuate the actions of the bearer of that name. This is the concern of epic and praise poetry, the due recognition and transmission of the glorious actions of men (κλέα ἀνδρῶν), in the case of epic those of the remote past, and in the case of praise poetry, those of the present as well. Both perpetuate the fame and glory of men (kleos) through the medium of poetry, which acts as intangible monument, recollecting and transmitting the kleos of the hero or laudandus every time it is performed. Herodotus follows in this tradition. Already in the prooemium to his work he shows his concern that the great deeds (ἔργα μεγάλα) of men not become without kleos (μήτε . . . ἀκλέα γένηται, proem). This is also seen in places where Herodotus makes it a point to preserve the names of those who have “shown great deeds” (ἀποδέξασθαι) and “become brave men” (ἄνδρες ἀγαθοὶ γενόμενοι). [254] After each of the great battles described in the Histories, Herodotus devotes attention to relaying the names of those who were the most distinguished in the action (ἄριστοι): for example, after his description of the battles of Marathon (6.114), Artemision (8.17), Thermopylai (7.224–228), Salamis (8.93), and Plataiai (9.71–75). The proper assignment and perpetuation of kleos necessarily involves the recollection of names, which act as focal points for kleos, ensuring that it reaches the appropriate recipient. [255] Name and kleos may become so intimately connected that a certain name, because of its association with the kleos of a previous bearer, is bestowed on a subsequent bearer in an attempt to harness the predecessor’s kleos. [256]

The verbs used by Herodotus for the recollection and mentioning of names (μνῶμαι, ἐπιμνῶμαι, παραμνῶμαι, μνήμην ποιεῦμαι) all bear the same root that is found in words describing physical monuments and funerary markers (μνῆμα, μνημήιον, μνημόσυνον), and so Herodotus’ text in those places where he mentions names using these verbs may be said to constitute a verbal monument in itself. [257] In several places he consciously draws attention to the mentioning of names in his work, especially when passing over the mention of certain people in favor of others. [258] Thus, in moving his narrative from Gyges to Ardys, Herodotus says:

ἀλλ’ οὐδὲν γὰρ μέγα ἀπ’ αὐτοῦ ἄλλο ἔργον ἐγένετο βασιλεύσαντος δυῶν δέοντα τεσσεράκοντα ἔτεα, τοῦτον μὲν παρήσομεν τοσαῦτα ἐπιμνησθέντες, Ἄρδυος δὲ τοῦ Γύγεω μετὰ Γύγην βασιλεύσαντος μνήμην ποιήσομαι.


But because no other great deed was done by him in his reign of thirty-eight years, we will bypass him after mentioning this much about him, and I will make mention of Ardys, son of Gyges, who came to power after Gyges.

In talking of the predecessors of Sesostris he says:

παραμειψάμενος ὦν τούτους τοῦ ἐπὶ τούτοισι γενομένου βασιλέος, τῷ οὔνομα ἦν Σέσωστρις, τούτου μνήμην ποιήσομαι.


Passing these by, I will make mention of the king who came to power after them, whose name was Sesostris.

He may also express his discretion and freedom in mentioning the names of some but not others by saying that he is under no compulsion (ἀνάγκη) to mention the names of all. So, for example, in his discussion of the commanders of ships and infantry on the Persian side, he says the following:

τούτοισι πᾶσι καὶ τοῖσι ἐς τὸν πεζὸν τεταγμένοισι αὐτῶν ἐπῆσαν ἑκάστοισι ἐπιχώριοι ἡγεμόνες, τῶν ἐγώ, οὐ γὰρ ἀναγκαίῃ ἐξέργομαι ἐς ἱστορίης λόγον, οὐ παραμέμνημαι· οὔτε γὰρ ἔθνεος ἑκάστου ἐπάξιοι ἦσαν οἱ ἡγεμόνες, ἔν τε ἔθνεϊ ἑκάστῳ ὅσαι περ πόλιες τοσοῦτοι καὶ ἡγεμόνες ἦσαν.


Each of these [units], including those assigned to the infantry, had native commanders, whom I will not mention, since I am not under compulsion to include them in the account of my research: for not every nation had commanders worthy of mention, and amongst every nation there were as many commanders as there were cities.

For the same reason, he will not mention (οὐ παραμέμνημαι, 7.99.1) the names of all the commanders of ships, but will single out Artemisia. [

Just as Herodotus, by being the ultimate conduit for the transmission of names, is in a position to select and then pass on the names of the worthy, he also has the power to exclude the unworthy from his narrative by refusing to transmit their names. Those excluded by Herodotus may be unworthy of mention for reasons other than the absence of remarkable and outstanding deeds. We have already seen in ch. Herodotus’ deliberate omission of the names of the three Greeks who proposed theories about the flooding of the Nile in summer, and how Herodotus by not transmitting their names refuses to contribute to their desire to become famous for their σοφίη:

ἀλλὰ Ἑλλήνων μέν τινες ἐπίσημοι βουλόμενοι γενέσθαι σοφίην ἔλεξαν περὶ τοῦ ὕδατος τούτου τριφασίας ὁδούς, τῶν τὰς μὲν δύο οὐκ ἀξιῶ μνησθῆναι εἰ μὴ ὅσον σημῆναι βουλόμενος μοῦνον.


But some Greeks, wanting to be marked out for their ingenuity, relate three paths of explanation concerning this water, of which two I do not deem worthy of mention, except for those parts I am willing to indicate.

Rendering one’s opponents anonymous while at the same time criticizing their ideas is one of the chief weapons in the arsenal of any polemicist. Herodotus also refuses to transmit the names of certain Greeks who pass off as their own doctrines about the immortality of the soul and reincarnation, which the Egyptians thought of a long time before them:

τούτῳ τῷ λόγῳ εἰσὶ οἳ Ἑλλήνων ἐχρήσαντο, οἱ μὲν πρότερον, οἱ δὲ ὕστερον, ὡς ἰδίῳ ἑωυτῶν ἐόντι· τῶν ἐγὼ εἰδὼς τὰ οὐνόματα οὐ γράφω.


There are certain Greeks who have made use of this doctrine, some further back in time, others more recently, as if it were their own: though I know their names, I [will] not write them down [here].

The suppression of names is an attempt to distribute credit (and kleos) where it is due, but also throws Herodotus’ own contribution, the recognition that these are in fact Egyptian beliefs, into relief, a tactic we have seen in the previous example. In the case of the Delphian who attaches an inscription claiming the Spartans as dedicants of a golden lustral basin that is actually a gift of Kroisos (1.51.4), and the Samian who seizes the property that the eunuch of Sataspes has absconded with upon learning of his master’s execution (4.43.7), Herodotus stresses that he perfectly well knows the name of the person responsible (τοῦ ἐπιστάμενος τὸ οὔνομα, 1.51.4, 4.43.7), but will not mention it (οὐκ ἐπιμνήσομαι, 1.51.4; ἑκὼν ἐπιλήθομαι, 4.43.7). Here I think suppression cannot simply be termed “a purposive desire to consign a small, foul act to oblivion.” [
260] For how can Herodotus assign an act to oblivion precisely by relating it in his Histories? It is rather the agents who are consigned to oblivion, perhaps not because of any distaste on Herodotus’ part. [261] The effect of the omissions is to draw attention to the narrator’s position of superior knowledge by the very act of his withholding the names.

All those whose names Herodotus does not formally mention suffer the fate that he fights against in the introduction to his work: their achievements become without kleos (ἀκλεᾶ), and, by extension, they themselves become ἀκλέες. That names are powerful signs is shown by the place they occupy in the Histories and the way they are used by the figures within the work, but especially by Herodotus himself, their ultimate interpreter, transmitter, and controller.

2.7 Action, Ritual, and Gesture as Signs

The actions, ritual, and gestures of human beings can act as bearers of meaning which call for interpretation as much as any portent or oracle. [262] In Herodotus’ work we are constantly reminded of this in a number of ways. [263] To begin with, there is the sheer number of and variety in the customs of the ethnea that populate the Histories. Each group has its own set of nomoi, codes of behavior according to which certain actions assume certain significances among that group. The link between the action as signifier and what the action signifies among that people rests on convention (nomos): νόμος πάντων βασιλεύς (“king of all is custom”), as Herodotus says, roughly quoting Pindar (fr. 169 S.–M.). The context of Herodotus’ remark shows both the universal power which nomos exerts over each society and, more importantly, that the content of nomos is not identical from group to group. He demonstrates this by recalling Dareios’ famous experiment, in which he assembled Greeks and Indians and asked the former for what price they would eat their dead parents and the latter at what price they would burn theirs. The answer: a resounding refusal from both sides, the Indians crying out and bidding him be silent (3.38.4). As Munson (2005:76–77) notes, there are in fact three different cultural codes used in this dialogue:

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. . . . In this narrative, the cultural codes of communication stand out. The Persian Darius expresses himself in monetary terms, similar to those of his Lydian predecessor Croesus [1.86.4]. . . . The Greeks respond, as we would say, in a “normal” way, and answer the question courtroom-style in the same terms in which it is asked. The Indians (and this is an orientalistic detail) display emotion. As for the code of customs, what the three parties are talking about is funeral rites, in which again each differs from the other two. Finally, the reference to interpreters draws attention to the languages—Persian, Greek and Callatian—specifying that the Greeks had the means to understand these codes, and that this item of difference is the least problematic of all. At the level of the nomoi, sacred to the ones and repulsive to the others, the exchange reaches a dead end. Cultural translation is difficult when people find difference from themselves disturbing.

2.7.1 Reading Encounters

Many more examples could be cited for the relativity of nomos in Herodotus, but let us concentrate first on a number of passages in which he describes the moment of encounter between different peoples and the aporia which the encounter produces (generally experienced by only one of the two parties). These examples demonstrate how Herodotus applies to the reading of human action verbs that he uses elsewhere to describe the interpretation of signs.

Xerxes experiences a problem in finding the correct connection (συμβαλέσθαι, 7.208.3) between Spartan behavior and the significance of that behavior when he hears from a spy who is observing the Greek encampment at Thermopylai that the Spartans are sitting outside their defensive wall, exercising and combing their hair. Here Herodotus uses the verb συμβάλλομαι of Xerxes’ failure to decode their behavior correctly. To the latter, it only seems to indicate absurdity (γελοῖα), but, as Herodotus and then Demaratos (7.209.3) tell us, it is actually a sign that they are preparing for battle to the death:

ἀκούων δὲ Ξέρξης οὐκ εἶχε συμβαλέσθαι τὸ ἐόν, ὅτι παρεσκευάζοντο ὡς ἀπολεόμενοί τε καὶ ἀπολέοντες κατὰ δύναμιν· ἀλλ’ αὐτῷ γελοῖα γὰρ ἐφαίνοντο ποιέειν, μετεπέμψατο Δημάρητον τὸν Ἀρίστωνος.


When Xerxes heard this he could not comprehend [their behavior] for what it was, namely that they were preparing themselves to be killed and to kill with all their might: because to him they appeared to be doing ridiculous things, he sent for Demaratos son of Ariston.

When the Persians first encounter the Greek style of hoplite warfare at Marathon, they are at a loss to interpret their tactics: the Athenians are few in number, and they advance at a run, without the covering support of cavalry or archers. This the Persians can only construe as destructive madness (μανίην . . . πάγχυ ὀλεθρίην, 6.112.2). [
264] Here the only thing such actions can signify in the Persians’ eyes is behavior devoid of sense.

The actions of unfamiliar peoples may challenge interpretation and result in aporia in contacts between different groups, but action itself in the form of gesture may also form a deliberate means of communication between parties who cannot communicate with linguistic or written signs. Mutual unintelligibility of language or distance may make communication by linguistic means impossible or impractical. In Herodotus’ account of the origins of the Sauromatai, for example, the Scythian youth and Amazon maiden who meet and have sex have no other means of communication between them save sign language: [265]

καὶ φωνῆσαι μὲν οὐκ εἶχε (οὐ γὰρ συνίεσαν ἀλλήλων), τῇ δὲ χειρὶ ἔφραζε ἐς τὴν ὑστεραίην ἐλθεῖν ἐς τὠυτὸ χωρίον καὶ ἕτερον ἄγειν, σημαίνουσα δύο γενέσθαι, καὶ αὐτὴ ἑτέρην ἄξειν.


She was not able to speak (for they did not understand one another), but with her hand she indicated that he should come to the same spot the following day and bring another with him, signifying there should be two, and that she would bring another with her.

The verbs φράζω and σημαίνω are already familiar as verbs describing the transmission of a message by signs (cf. ch. 1.2.1, 1.2.2 above). As Munson (2005:73) points out, “Just as sex replaces war, here the universal language of gestures overcomes the language barrier.” Non-linguistic signs also solve the problem of distance: while the range of linguistic signs is limited, because with increasing distance words can no longer be distinguished and perceived clearly, the non-linguistic sign can travel further. [
266] The signals used by heralds to communicate orders to troops, a puff of smoke, or the showing of a shield are all detectable at a much greater distance. [267]

2.7.2 Actions as Encoded Message

Actions constitute a deliberately encoded message in Thrasyboulos’ reply to Periandros’ question about how best to secure his tyranny. Thrasyboulos’ answer is well known: he takes Periandros’ messenger into a cornfield and proceeds to dock any ear of corn which stands above the rest until he has rid the whole field of the finest and tallest of the crop (5.92.ζ.2). His reply does not consist of any utterance (ὑποθέμενος ἔπος οὐδέν, 5.92.ζ.3) but lies entirely in a set of actions, which the messenger, accustomed to conveying messages based on linguistic signs, whether spoken or written, is not able to recognize as meaningful signs. As with the Persians when they view the tactics of the Athenians for the first time and consider this destructive madness (6.112.2), the gestures seem senseless:

ὁ δὲ οὐδέν οἱ ἔφη Θρασύβουλον ὑποθέσθαι, θωμάζειν τε αὐτοῦ παρ’ οἷόν μιν ἄνδρα ἀποπέμψειε, ὡς παραπλῆγά τε καὶ τῶν ἑωυτοῦ σινάμωρον.


He said that Thrasyboulos had given no advice to him, and said that he was surprised at Periandros for sending him to such a man, because he was a madman and a wanton destroyer of his own property.

Like many of the messengers in the Histories, he carries a message without understanding that it is a message or what the message is. [
269] Only the intended recipient is in a position firstly to recognize the actions as a set of signs and, secondly, to decode the encoded message, which Periandros readily does:

Περίανδρος δὲ συνεὶς τὸ ποιηθὲν καὶ νόῳ σχὼν ὥς οἱ ὑπετίθετο Θρασύβουλος τοὺς ὑπερόχους τῶν ἀστῶν φονεύειν, ἐνθαῦτα δὴ πᾶσαν κακότητα ἐξέφαινε ἐς τοὺς πολιήτας.


2.7.3 Gestures as Performative Signs

Action of a ritual nature accompanies the swearing of oaths, the effectiveness of which depends not only on linguistic signs (the words spoken by the parties to the oath) but also on ritual activity to ensure irreversibility: as Herodotus himself puts it, ἄνευ γὰρ ἀναγκαίης ἰσχυρῆς συμβάσιες ἰσχυραὶ οὐκ ἐθέλουσι συμμένειν (1.74.4), “Without firm compulsion agreements do not usually remain firm.” [272] What could be more irreversible than the sinking of an iron ingot? This is the action to which the inhabitants of Phokaia, who are about to set sail to found a colony on the island of Corsica, attach the words of their oath: [273]

ἐποιήσαντο ἰσχυρὰς κατάρας τῷ ὑπολειπομένῳ ἑωυτῶν τοῦ στόλου· πρὸς δὲ ταύτῃσι καὶ μύδρον σιδήρεον κατεπόντωσαν καὶ μοσαν μὴ πρὶν ἐς Φώκαιαν ἥξειν πρὶν ἢ τὸν μύδρον τοῦτον ἀναφανῆναι.


They pronounced severe curses on anyone deserting their expedition: in addition to these curses, they also sank an iron ingot and swore not to return to Phokaia before this ingot would appear again.

The pledging of oaths forms an important category in Herodotus’ ethnographic descriptions, and in each case he pays attention to the ritual acts which accompany the verbal component of the oath. Ritual connected with oaths made by Greeks is generally not described by Herodotus, except in the case of the oath of the Phocaeans (described above), the oath of the people of Barke with Amasis the Persian (4.201.2–3: cf. ch. 3.1 on the manipulation involved therein), and the oath of Demaratos’ mother to her son (6.68). [
274] There is good reason in each of these instances for Herodotus to describe the accompanying ritual: the sinking of the iron ingot dramatically demonstrates the resolve of the Phocaeans never to return; Amasis’ manipulation of the ritual accompanying the oath by which he tricks the people of Barke into opening their city gates is crucial for Herodotus’ story; and the thrusting of the entrails of a bull into the hands of his mother demonstrates the intensity of Demaratos’ desire to find out the truth about his parentage and heightens the tone of the account. Otherwise, Herodotus’ description of the oaths of Greeks is confined to their contents. The ritual activity connected with oaths is described precisely where it differs from the familiar Greek practice, hence mainly in non-Greek contexts, or where it is particularly striking. Thus Herodotus says of the oaths of Lydians and Persians:

ὅρκια δὲ ποιέεται ταῦτα τὰ ἔθνεα τά πέρ τε Ἕλληνες, καὶ πρὸς τούτοισι, ἐπεὰν τοὺς βραχίονας ἐπιτάμωνται ἐς τὴν ὁμοχροίην, τὸ αἷμα ἀναλείχουσι ἀλλήλων.


These peoples conclude oaths in the same way as the Greeks, and in addition to this, whenever they make an incision into the surface of the skin on their arms, they lick up each other’s blood.

A similar tendency may be observed in his description of sacrifice in general: non-Greek sacrificial practice is described in detail and is a constant category in the ethnographic portions of Herodotus’ work, but we learn of Greek sacrificial ritual only inasmuch as it is the implicit model against the background of which Herodotus presents the sacrificial practice of non-Greeks. [

Most involve the letting of blood in some way or another: the Lydians and Medes cut their arms to the quick and lick each other’s blood (1.74.6), the Arabs cut their hands and then paint seven stones with a bloodied scrap of their clothing (3.8.1), the Scythians mix the blood of the parties to the oath with wine in a large kylix, then dip a dagger, arrows, battle-axe, and javelin in the mixture, then pray, then drink from the kylix, both the parties themselves and important members of their entourages (4.70). [276] Herodotus’ description of the Nasamones’ manner of making oaths mentions nothing about blood, but the idea of touch is still important: they swear their oaths while holding on to the tombs of those considered to be the bravest and most just (4.172.3). As with their system of divination, the tomb acts as a sign interface between this world and the realm of the ancestors, who act both as witnesses and guarantors, and, in the case of mantikê, as transmitters of signs revelatory of the future. [277] Marking of the body by cutting and the marking of things external to the body (stones and weapons) with blood leave visible traces of the oath, while the blending and ingestion of fluids from both participants effect in physical fashion the binding of the two parties to each other. The actions are symbolic, but this does not mean that they are without effect: just as the words of the oath as speech acts bring about a change in reality, so do the ritual actions which accompany them.

2.7.4 Laughter and Tears as Signs

Especially interesting are the instances of laughter and tears in the Histories: they are exterior indications of interior states, happiness or unhappiness, but just as a single medical symptom may be a sign of a complex internal condition, so too Herodotus uses the laughter and tears of the figures in his work to indicate to his audience a particular pattern of thought and network of associations.

In the case of laughter and smiles, Lateiner has well pointed out that these, for the most part, “suggest not innocent pleasure and benign joy, but arrogance and self-delusion.” [278] Laughter in Herodotus generally involves either laughing at the customs of others, often derisively, or the expression of contempt for one’s opponents or enemies. [279] The only innocent or good-natured laughter is that of the infant Kypselos, who smiles up at those sent to kill him (5.92.γ.3), possibly that of the soldiers watching the Egyptian master thief (2.121.δ.4) (though he has the last laugh on them: cf. 2.121.δ.6), and that of Kroisos at the sight of Alkmeon stuffing his clothes, his boots, and finally himself with gold from the royal treasury (6.125.5). [280] Kambyses and Xerxes are the two figures whom Herodotus most often depicts as laughing. [281] The laughter of the former is a clear indication of his madness: he laughs as he explains to Prexaspes, whose child he has just used as a target and killed with an arrow straight through the heart, that it is the Persians who are mad and not he, since a madman could not shoot so accurately (3.35.3–4). For Herodotus, the decisive sign is Kambyses’ laughter at the rites and customs of the Egyptians. Not only does he stab an incarnation of the Egyptian god Apis and laugh at the Egyptians for worshiping gods who have flesh and blood and may be wounded by swords (3.29.1–2): he also laughs at the cult image of Egyptian Hephaistos and those of the Kabeiroi, even burning the latter (3.37.2–3). His laughter is a highly significant indicator in Herodotus’ eyes:

πανταχῇ ὦν μοι δῆλά ἐστι ὅτι ἐμάνη μεγάλως ὁ Καμβύσης· οὐ γὰρ ἂν ἱροῖσί τε καὶ νομαίοισι ἐπεχείρησε καταγελᾶν. εἰ γάρ τις προθείη πᾶσι ἀνθρώποισι ἐκλέξασθαι κελεύων νόμους τοὺς καλλίστους ἐκ τῶν πάντων νόμων, διασκεψάμενοι ἂν ἑλοίατο ἕκαστοι τοὺς ἑωυτῶν· οὕτω νομίζουσι πολλόν τι καλλίστους τοὺς ἑωυτῶν νόμους ἕκαστοι εἶναι. οὐκ ὦν οἰκός ἐστι ἄλλον γε ἢ μαινόμενον ἄνδρα γέλωτα τὰ τοιαῦτα τίθεσθαι.


It seems clear to me in every way that Kambyses was seriously deranged: he would not otherwise have attempted to ridicule the rites and practices [of others]. For if one were to present all men with the order to choose out of all customs the finest, after examining them, each would choose his own people’s laws: to such an extent does every people consider their own laws to be by far the finest. It is not therefore likely that any one other than a madman mocks such things.

Laughter at the customs of others characterizes Xerxes as well, and acts as an effective token of his folly and ultimate failure. He consistently laughs at Demaratos’ description of Spartan mettle and his assessment of them as a threat to the Persians (7.103.1, 7.105, 7.209.2), and when the Spartans send heralds to him in accordance with an oracle to demand compensation for the killing of Leonidas at Thermopylai, his reaction is a strange mixture of laughter and silence:

ὁ δὲ γελάσας τε καὶ κατασχὼν πολλὸν χρόνον, ὥς οἱ ἐτύγχανε παρεστεὼς Μαρδόνιος, δεικνὺς ἐς τοῦτον εἶπε· “Τοιγάρ σφι Μαρδόνιος ὅδε δίκας δώσει τοιαύτας οἵας ἐκείνοισι πρέπει.”


He gave a laugh and kept silent for a long time, and since Mardonios happened to be standing by him, he pointed to him and said, “Mardonios here will give them such compensation as they deserve.”

His words turn out to be true, but not in the sense he intends, since the compensation (δίκη) that Mardonios gives the Spartans is his own life, when he is killed at the Battle of Plataiai:

ἐνθαῦτα ἥ τε δίκη τοῦ φόνου τοῦ Λεωνίδεω κατὰ τὸ χρηστήριον τὸ τοῖσι Σπαρτιήτῃσι ἐκ Μαρδονίου ἐπετελέετο.


Then the compensation for the killing of Leonidas was brought to fulfillment by Mardonios in accordance with the Spartans’ oracle.

Xerxes’ laugh and the lengthy silence which precedes his answer to the Spartans alert us to the ominous nature of the words which follow, and the double-edged nature of the answer is played upon in Herodotus’ description of the Spartan herald’s response: he “accepts” Xerxes reply (ὁ μὲν δὴ δεξάμενος τὸ ῥηθὲν ἀπαλλάσσετο, 8.115.1), just as the oracle instructs them to do (Ξέρξην αἰτέειν δίκας τοῦ Λεωνίδεω φόνου καὶ τὸ διδόμενον ἐξ ἐκείνου δέκεσθαι [8.114.1], “Ask Xerxes for compensation for the killing of Leonidas and accept what is given by him”). [
282] The verb δέκομαι (“accept, receive”), as we have seen (ch. 2.1), may be used in the sense of recognizing and accepting something as a portent or sign. What Herodotus points out explicitly in the case of Kambyses he indicates silently with respect to Xerxes by means of the mere mention of his laughter.

Tears in Herodotus often represent pain mixed with understanding and insight won through suffering: a particularly striking passage is the one in which the reactions of the defeated Egyptian king Psammenitos and those of his captors are described. [283] Psammenitos is forced to see his daughter enslaved and his son led off to execution, yet he shows no outward signs of grief apart from bowing his head (3.14.2–6). When, however, he sees an elderly companion now reduced to begging, he wails, calls out his companion’s name, and beats his own head in lamentation (3.14.7). Asked by Kambyses to explain his behavior, he gives the following reply:

ὦ παῖ Κύρου, τὰ μὲν οἰκήια ἦν μέζω κακὰ ἢ ὥστε ἀνακλαίειν, τὸ δὲ τοῦ ἑταίρου πένθος ἄξιον ἦν δακρύων, ὃς ἐκ πολλῶν τε καὶ εὐδαιμόνων ἐκπεσὼν ἐς πτωχηίην ἀπῖκται ἐπὶ γήραος οὐδῷ.


Son of Kyros, my own affairs were evils too great to give grief to, but the grief of my companion was worthy of tears, one who having fallen from much good fortune has come to a state of beggary on the threshold of old age.

After this explanation a chain reaction follows: first Kroisos (whose presence Herodotus hastily explains and who is there for good reasons) weeps, then the Persian bystanders, and finally Kambyses himself:

ὡς δὲ λέγεται ὑπ᾿ Αἰγυπτίων, δακρύειν μὲν Κροῖσον (ἐτετεύχεε γὰρ καὶ οὗτος ἐπισπόμενος Καμβύσῃ ἐπ᾿ Αἴγυπτον), δακρύειν δὲ Περσέων τοὺς παρεόντας, αὐτῷ τε Καμβύσῃ ἐσελθεῖν οἶκτόν τινα καὶ αὐτίκα κελεύειν τόν τέ οἱ παῖδα ἐκ τῶν ἀπολλυμένων σῴζειν καὶ αὐτὸν ἐκ τοῦ προαστίου ἀναστήσαντες ἄγειν παρ᾿ ἑωυτόν.


According to the Egyptians, Kroisos (for he happened to have followed Kambyses to Egypt) wept, the Persian bystanders wept, and a certain pity came upon Kambyses himself, and he immediately gave orders to rescue Psammenitos’ son from those being executed, get him on his feet, and conduct him from the area in front of the city to himself.

All of this happens without words: there is no explanation given by Herodotus for the reactions, only the fact of their tears is recorded, with the verb of weeping twice placed in emphatic position at the beginning of its clause: δακρύειν μέν . . ., δακρύειν δέ . . . Yet behind the simple fact of tears there is a network of connections: each participant “reads” the emotional response of the other, interprets it, and produces his own reaction after comparison, which is then in turn taken up by another. [
284] Kroisos makes a connection between Psammenitos and himself and weeps: he, too, was a king in defeat and subject to the “testing” of another; [285] he, too, cried out a name after lengthy silence and was asked by his tormentor the reason for this. [286] When the Persian bystanders see Kroisos weep, as Persians they know his history and the reason for his tears, and they, too, weep in pity in contemplation and comparison of the twin fates of the two men. At the end of the chain Kambyses himself experiences pity as he completes the equation: if Kroisos stands in the same position as Psammenitos, then he is to Psammenitos as his father, Kyros, was to Kroisos. This prompts him to act with mercy, as his father did, and he orders the execution of the son to be stayed.

The tears of the participants in this scene are not just shed but “read.” More than being simply the physical expression of a state of distress, these tears act both as signs for others (Kroisos, Persian spectators, and finally Kambyses) through which insight is gained and as signs in a chain of communication between author and audience. Herodotus invites us to draw the connections for ourselves between Kroisos’ experience on the pyre set by Kyros with Psammenitos’ suffering at the hands of Kambyses, eschewing the use of writing. Just as Herodotus is capable of transmitting and decoding for us the signs that reside in the things men do, so too is he able to leave signs of his own for us to interpret.

2.8 Objects as Signs

2.8.1 Transformation of Objects and Their Meaning

The melting and recasting of an object also accompany change in signification in the case of the golden footbath of Amasis, which is refashioned as an image of a divinity (ἄγαλμα δαίμονος, 2.172.3). When Amasis sees the Egyptians honoring this image, he reveals its humble origin and uses this to make a connection to his own status and identity:

συγκαλέσας Αἰγυπτίους ἐξέφηνε φὰς ἐκ τοῦ ποδανιπτῆρος τὤγαλμα γεγονέναι, ἐς τὸν πρότερον μὲν τοὺς Αἰγυπτίους ἐνεμέειν τε καὶ ἐνουρέειν καὶ πόδας ἐναπονίζεσθαι, τότε δὲ μεγάλως σέβεσθαι. ἤδη ὦν ἔφη λέγων ὁμοίως αὐτὸς τῷ ποδανιπτῆρι πεπρηγέναι· εἰ γὰρ πρότερον εἶναι δημότης, ἀλλ’ ἐν τῷ παρεόντι εἶναι αὐτῶν βασιλεύς· καὶ τιμᾶν τε καὶ προμηθέεσθαι ἑωυτὸν ἐκέλευε.


After assembling the Egyptians, he made a revelation, saying that the statue had been made from a footbath, in which in former times the Egyptians used to vomit and urinate or wash their feet, but which they now greatly revered. And so the same thing, he said, that had happened with the footbath had now happened to him: for if he had previously been a commoner, now he was their king. And he ordered them to honor him and to hold him in respect.

Amasis thus constructs an object which acts as a signifier in two ways, firstly as an iconic representation of a god, which is interpreted as such by the Egyptians and accordingly becomes an object of worship (σέβεσθαι), and secondly as the bearer of an encoded message which has to be revealed (ἐξέφηνε) by Amasis to his subjects. [

2.8.2 Gift-Objects

Kambyses, wanting to annex the land of the Long-lived Ethiopians, sends spies to the territory, who present the king with gifts of friendship, a purple garment, a necklace and bracelets of gold, a container of myrrh, and a jar of palm wine (3.20.1). The king of the Ethiopians treats the Persian gifts as objects with a particular meaning: the gift of purple cloth is a sign of the trickiness of the Persians (δολερούς, 3.22.1), since their garments are based on deceit, having no natural color of their own but deriving it from the dye in which they are dipped. [294] The gold torque and bracelets are interpreted not as decoration (κόσμος) but as chains designed to enslave and bind (3.22.2): “The king gave a laugh and, thinking that they were shackles, said that they had stronger shackles than these.” Gold, being so much in abundance, is precisely the material from which the Ethiopians make chains for their prisoners, as the messengers are subsequently shown (3.23.4). [295] The container of myrrh is interpreted in the same way as the purple garments (3.22.3): full of deceit, presumably because the myrrh is used to give to the wearer a scent which is not his own. Only the jar of wine receives the king’s approbation, but is followed by a scathing remark about the diet of the Persians (3.22.4). [296] The Ethiopian king decodes from the objects a message which Kambyses did not intend to encode. His intended message, as his interpreters, the Fish-eating Ethiopians, relay, is friendship, and the basis for selecting the gifts their high status in the Persian king’s eyes:

Βασιλεὺς ὁ Περσέων Καμβύσης, βουλόμενος φίλος καὶ ξεῖνός τοι γενέσθαι, ἡμέας τε ἀπέπεμψε ἐς λόγους τοι ἐλθεῖν κελεύων καὶ δῶρα ταῦτά τοι διδοῖ τοῖσι καὶ αὐτὸς μάλιστα ἥδεται χρεώμενος.


Kambyses, king of the Persians, wishing to become your ally and friend, has sent us to come and speak with you, and gives you these gifts in which he himself takes the greatest delight.

The Ethiopian’s interpretation nevertheless strikes at the truth: Kambyses simply wishes to take their land:

οὔτε ὁ Περσέων βασιλεὺς δῶρα ὑμέας ἔπεμψε φέροντας προτιμῶν πολλοῦ ἐμοὶ ξεῖνος γενέσθαι, οὔτε ὑμεῖς λέγετε ἀλήθεα (ἥκετε γὰρ κατόπται τῆς ἐμῆς ἀρχῆς) οὔτε ἐκεῖνος ἀνήρ ἐστι δίκαιος· εἰ γὰρ ἦν δίκαιος, οὔτ᾿ ἂν ἐπεθύμησε χώρης ἄλλης ἢ τῆς ἑωυτοῦ, οὔτ᾿ ἂν ἐς δουλοσύνην ἀνθρώπους ἦγε ὑπ᾿ ὧν μηδὲν ἠδίκηται.


The king of the Persians did not send you here with gifts because he sets great store on becoming my guest-friend, nor are you telling the truth (for you have come here to spy on my kingdom), nor is he a just man. For if he were a just man, he would neither have desired a land other than his own, nor would he try to bring into slavery men at whose hands he has suffered no injustice.

Kambyses’ gift does not go unreciprocated. Even before he decodes Kambyses’ gifts, the Ethiopian king bids the messengers give Kambyses a bow and relay a verbal message (ἔπεα) to accompany it:


The king of the Ethiopians advises the king of the Persians: whenever Persians will be able to draw a bow of this size with this much ease, at that moment to march against the Long-lived Ethiopians with superior forces, but until that time to be thankful to the gods for not putting it in the minds of the sons of the Ethiopians to seek to add another territory to their own.

His message thus uses three different sign media: the bow itself as significant object, the gestures made by the king (the expressions οὕτως εὐπετέως and τόξα ἐόντα μεγάθεϊ τοσαῦτα are deictic in nature and depend on demonstration for their comprehension), and, accompanying them, the words of his utterance (ἔπεα). The bow then disappears from the narrative, but not for good. It makes an appearance once more when Herodotus describes the mounting madness of Kambyses. Kambyses sends his brother, Smerdis, back to Persia out of jealousy (φθόνῳ), because he alone of the Persians is able to draw the Ethiopian bow, albeit only two fingers’ breadth (3.30.1). It is this very bow that effectively sets off the chain of events which will culminate in Kambyses’ murder of his brother, the first of his evils (πρῶτον . . . τῶν κακῶν, 3.30.3), [
298] since once Smerdis arrives in Persia, Kambyses has a dream that his brother is sitting on his throne and that his head touches the sky (3.30.2), and so decides to have him assassinated. [299] The bow thus again plays a role as significant object, carefully placed in the narrative to evoke the Ethiopian king’s words on giving it and, by extension, his penetrating remarks about the injustice and greed of Kambyses (3.21.2).

While Herodotus in his description of the gifts given to the king of the Ethiopians and given by him to Kambyses does not use any of the vocabulary specifically associated with signs and the transmission and decoding of signs, it is clear that, at least for the Ethiopian, gifts are more than gifts. The gifts of the Scythians show this semiotic potential even more clearly: they are given to Dareios, another Persian monarch bent on conquest, quite deliberately in order to convey a message in terms of a different code, so that their primary function, unlike the gifts and code Dareios is familiar with, is neither to honor nor to flatter nor to convey willingness to submit:

οἱ Σκυθέων βασιλέες . . . ἔπεμπον κήρυκα δῶρα Δαρείῳ φέροντα ὄρνιθά τε καὶ μῦν καὶ βάτραχον καὶ ὀϊστοὺς πέντε.


The Persians understand that the gifts must be treated as signs standing for something: they ask the messenger what the νόος of the gifts is (4.131.2). The messenger confirms that the gifts do stand for something, but will not reveal what it is: if they are sophoi, they will realize what the gifts “say” (λέγει, 4.131.2). [
301] The gifts are presented as talking objects, replacing the herald himself, whose function here is to deliver only the gifts, and not any direct message. [302] Despite Dareios’ realization that these are gifts of a different kind, his interpretation of them is nevertheless based on the type of gifts and code familiar to him, those of earth and water, tokens of submission: [303]

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.

Dareios therefore pursues a reading which is based in part on seeing a metonymic connection between signifier and signified (a mouse lives in the earth and so represents the earth, the element with which it is associated; a frog lives in water and so represents water itself). [
304] Gobryas, his advisor, draws a connection based largely on metaphor between each sign object and its significance (the Persians must become birds and fly off into the sky, become mice and sink under the earth, become frogs and jump into the lakes, or be struck by the arrows of the Scythians). [305] He expresses his interpretation in the form of an actual address on the part of the gifts, making them speak (λέγει), just as the Scythian herald advised:

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.


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.

The series of gifts given by King Euelthon of Salamis in Cyprus to Phere-time of Cyrene culminate in a gift which is designed to put a stop to her requests for a gift which he will not give. Pheretime asks him for an army as a gift, in order that her son may be restored to power. The gift of an army, as we learn from a later passage in the Histories, is a thoroughly typical gift for a Persian to give, even to a woman (this is what Xerxes offers Artaynte instead of the cloak Amestris has given him):

ἀλλὰ πόλις τε ἐδίδου καὶ χρυσὸν ἄπλετον καὶ στρατόν, τοῦ ἔμελλε οὐδεὶς ἄρξειν ἄλλ’ ἢ ἐκείνη· Περσικὸν δὲ κάρτα ὁ στρατὸς δῶρον.


But he gave her cites and abundant gold and an army which no one save her would command: the army was a thoroughly Persian gift.

Euelthon refuses her request, but does so indirectly by giving her another gift. [
306] The process is repeated a number of times, with Pheretime replying on each occasion that the gift is fine, but finer still would be what she asked for, an army (4.162.4). [307] So far, the gifts of Euelthon only have significance by virtue of the fact that they are not what Pheretime has asked for. His final gift, however, is designed to deliver a message in itself:

τελευταῖόν οἱ ἐξέπεμψε δῶρον ὁ Εὐέλθων ἄτρακτον χρύσεον καὶ ἠλακάτην, προσῆν δὲ (οἱ) καὶ εἴριον.


As a final gift Euelthon sent her a spindle of gold and a distaff, and there was wool on it too.

She is unable to recognize the objects as signs and their encoded message until Euelthon spells it out:

ἐπειπάσης δὲ αὖτις τῆς Φερετίμης τὠυτὸ ἔπος ὁ Εὐέλθων ἔφη τοιούτοισι γυναῖκας δωρέεσθαι ἀλλ’ οὐ στρατιῇ.


When Pheretime once again made the same comment, Euelthon said that these were the sort of gifts which women were given, not an army.

The spindle and distaff, instruments used in the womanly task of spinning, stand metonymically as signifiers for the sphere of female competence, while the material from which they are fashioned, gold, raises them from the status of common objects, marking them as gifts and symbolic objects. [

2.8.3 Objects Formed or Touched by the Gods

The golden objects which, according to Scythian tradition, fell from the sky in front of the three proto-Scythian brothers are also marked as symbolic and, in this case, divine by the material from which they are made:

ἐπὶ τούτων ἀρχόντων ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ φερόμενα χρύσεα ποιήματα, ἄροτρόν τε καὶ ζυγὸν καὶ σάγαριν καὶ φιάλην, πεσεῖν ἐς τὴν Σκυθικήν, καὶ τῶν ἰδόντα πρῶτον τὸν πρεσβύτατον ἆσσον ἰέναι βουλόμενον αὐτὰ λαβεῖν, τὸν δὲ χρυσὸν ἐπιόντος καίεσθαι. ἀπαλλαχθέντος δὲ τούτου προσιέναι τὸν δεύτερον, καὶ τὸν αὖτις ταὐτὰ ποιέειν. τοὺς μὲν δὴ καιόμενον τὸν χρυσὸν ἀπώσασθαι, τρίτῳ δὲ τῷ νεωτάτῳ ἐπελθόντι κατασβῆναι, καί μιν ἐκεῖνον κομίσαι ἐς ἑωυτοῦ· καὶ τοὺς πρεσβυτέρους ἀδελφεοὺς πρὸς ταῦτα συγγνόντας τὴν βασιληίην πᾶσαν παραδοῦναι τῷ νεωτάτῳ.


During the reign of these men objects made of gold, a plough and yoke, a sagaris, and a phialê, came out the sky and fell to earth in Scythia, and the eldest of the brothers was the first to see them, and approached them, wanting to take them, but the gold began to burn as he drew forward. When he withdrew, the second brother went forward, and he did precisely the same thing. The gold kept them away with its burning, but it extinguished itself when the youngest brother approached it, and he took it away to his own domain: at this, the elder brothers gave way and made over the kingdom in its entirety to the youngest brother.

They also function metonymically as signifiers, each object being drawn from one of the three spheres of society: the plough and yoke, taken together as a pair (τε καί), from agriculture, the sagaris (battle-axe) from the military realm, and the phialê (for making libations) from the priestly section. [
310] Of the three Scythian brothers, only the youngest is able to approach the flaming objects and take them into his possession (4.5.4). [311] His elder brothers recognize this action as a sign (συγγνόντας) and give the entire kingship to him, and since then the Scythian kings (members of clan called the Paralatai, descendants of the youngest brother, Kolaxaïs) have retained control of the sacred gold objects (4.7.1), as if the king is subsuming all the functions of society within his own person. [312]

Significant objects and control over them also play a role in the alternate, Greek version of the origins of the Scythians. According to the Greek inhabitants of the Black Sea region, Herakles founded the Scythian race by having intercourse with a half-woman, half-snake (μειξοπάρθενος, 4.9.1). After giving her three sons, Herakles is finally allowed to leave, but must leave her directions about their upbringing (4.9.4). He leaves one of his bows (Herodotus’ source hastily explains that at that time Herakles used to carry two of them) and his belt behind with the following instructions:

ἐπεὰν ἀνδρωθέντας ἴδηαι τοὺς παῖδας, τάδε ποιεῦσα οὐκ ἂν ἁμαρτάνοις· τὸν μὲν ἂν ὁρᾷς αὐτῶν τόδε [τὸ] τόξον ὧδε διατεινόμενον καὶ τῷ ζωστῆρι τῷδε κατὰ τάδε ζωννύμενον, τοῦτον μὲν τῆσδε τῆς χώρης οἰκήτορα ποιεῦ· ὃς δ’ ἂν τούτων τῶν ἔργων τῶν ἐντέλλομαι λείπηται, ἔκπεμπε ἐκ τῆς χώρης. καὶ ταῦτα ποιεῦσα αὐτή τε εὐφρανέαι καὶ τὰ ἐντεταλμένα ποιήσεις.


As in the Scythian version of the foundation myth, it is the youngest of the three sons who passes the test, and once again the golden phialê figures as a significant object. [
314] On the clasp of the belt is a golden phialê, presumably a depiction (ζωστῆρα ἔχοντα ἐπ’ ἄκρης τῆς συμβολῆς φιάλην χρυσέην, 4.10.1), which the mother then transforms into an actual phialê that she hangs from the belt. It is because of this Ur-phialê that Scythians wear phialai suspended from their belts (4.10.3). [315]

The landscape itself acts as a surface capable of bearing signs like a wax tablet or piece of clay. In Thessaly, the god Poseidon leaves traces of his presence in the form of a narrow passage or “pipe” (αὐλών) in the ring of mountains that surround the Thessalian plain and through which the Peneios River flows. Without this gap Thessaly would be an inland sea, and indeed formerly was so. The earth-shaking activity of Poseidon (if it is Poseidon who shakes the earth) alone is responsible for creating the gap in the mountains:

αὐτοὶ μέν νυν Θεσσαλοί φασι Ποσειδέωνα ποιῆσαι τὸν αὐλῶνα δι᾿ οὗ ῥέει ὁ Πηνειός, οἰκότα λέγοντες· ὅστις γὰρ νομίζει Ποσειδέωνα τὴν γῆν σείειν καὶ τὰ διεστεῶτα ὑπὸ σεισμοῦ τοῦ θεοῦ τούτου ἔργα εἶναι καὶ ἂν ἐκεῖνο ἰδὼν φαίη Ποσειδέωνα ποιῆσαι· ἔστι γὰρ σεισμοῦ ἔργον, ὡς ἐμοὶ ἐφαίνετο εἶναι, ἡ διάστασις τῶν ὀρέων.


Now the Thessalians themselves say that Poseidon made the passage through which the Peneios flows, and what they say is reasonable: for anyone who believes that Poseidon shakes the earth and that separations caused by earthquake are the work of this god would also say upon seeing this that Poseidon had done it.

Just as the presence of Herakles is inferred from an impression of his foot, so in Egypt, in the town of Khemmis, where there is a temple and sanctuary to Perseus, the presence of that hero is deduced from the appearance of one of his sandals, of precisely the same dimensions as Herakles’ footprint, two cubits (all heroes, it seems, take this size shoe). In this instance, the sign does not point back to the remote past but rather to the present:

οὗτοι οἱ Χεμμῖται λέγουσι τὸν Περσέα πολλάκις μὲν ἀνὰ τὴν γῆν φαίνεσθαι σφίσι, πολλάκις δὲ ἔσω τοῦ ἱροῦ, σανδάλιόν τε αὐτοῦ πεφορημένον εὑρίσκεσθαι, ἐὸν τὸ μέγαθος δίπηχυ, τὸ ἐπεὰν φανῇ, εὐθενέειν ἅπασαν Αἴγυπτον.


These people of Khemmis say that Perseus often appears to them in the countryside and often within the sacred precinct, and that a sandal worn by him, two cubits in length, is found: they say that whenever it appears, all of Egypt will enjoy prosperity.

Objects closely associated with a hero play a vital role in the account of Demaratos’ conception. His mother swears that on the third night after her first night of marriage an apparition (φάσμα, 6.69.1) resembling her husband, Ariston, appeared to her, slept with her, and left the garlands which he was wearing behind him, placing them about her. When her husband returned and questioned her about them, she said that he had given them to her himself after sleeping with her (6.69.2). Ariston then recognizes the hand of the divine (ἔμαθε ὡς θεῖον εἴη τὸ πρῆγμα, 6.69.3) since the garlands were clearly from the nearby shrine of the hero Astrabakos. The garlands, objects originally intended as expressions of devotion in the hero’s cult, and the gift of some worshiper, now become signs of the presence of the one himself worshiped.

Presence of the divine is again inferred through presence of an object closely attached to the divine in Herodotus’ description of events just before the Battle of Mykale. A herald’s staff (κηρυκήιον, 9.100.1) appears on the beach at Mykale. As at 2.91.3, the object makes a sudden appearance, like the epiphany of a divine being (φάνῃ; ἔφανη, 9.100.1). [318] Herodotus does not elaborate on the significance of the object, which is presumably interpreted as the staff of the messenger god Hermes or perhaps the staff of the hero Talthybios, patron of heralds, but he stresses the supernatural nature of the appearance of the object by linking it with a mysterious φήμη, a rumor that “flies into the camp” saying that the Greeks have beaten Mardonios’ army in Boiotia. The two signs, one in the form of an object, the other made up of linguistic signs, appear in conjunction:

ἰοῦσι δέ σφι φήμη τε ἐσέπτατο ἐς τὸ στρατόπεδον πᾶν καὶ κηρυκήιον ἐφάνη ἐπὶ τῆς κυματωγῆς κείμενον· ἡ δὲ φήμη διῆλθέ σφι ὧδε, ὡς οἱ Ἕλληνες τὴν Μαρδονίου στρατιὴν νικῷεν ἐν Βοιωτοῖσι μαχόμενοι.


As they were advancing, a rumor flew through the whole camp and a herald’s staff appeared lying on the beach: the rumor spread amongst them that the Greeks were victorious in battle against the army of Mardonios in Boiotia.

These signs are tekmêria as far as Herodotus is concerned, signs as evidence for the involvement of the divine: [


Divine involvement in [human] affairs is clear on the basis of many tekmêria, especially if on that occasion, during the same day, when the defeat [of the Persian] took place at Plataiai and the one in Mykale was about to happen, a rumor reached the Greeks at Mykale, so that the army’s spirit picked up considerably and they were all the more eager to undertake danger.

Not only do objects associated with the divine―the things worn, carried, or received by gods or heroes―act as signs for their presence: the bones of heroes themselves make their appearance in Herodotus’ narrative. In the aftermath of the Battle of Plataiai, the bones of a man five cubits in length are discovered (ἐφάνη, 9.83.2). As with the herald’s staff discussed above, Herodotus provides no interpretation of these bones, but the size of the skeleton suggests that it belongs to a hero (a height of four cubits is already sufficiently tall enough to be considered appropriate for a goddess, 1.60.4), and one is led to think of this as evidence for a hero’s presence on the side of the Greeks, just as at Marathon, the figure of an enormous man (φάσμα, 6.117.3), whose beard cast a shadow over his entire shield, is said to have been seen by Epizelos, blind ever since that time. [

2.8.4 Objects as Bearers of Identity

Identity of the individual may be marked by a number of significant objects in close proximity to the individual or, as will be seen later in this chapter, by the body itself. Babylonians carry with them signet rings (σφρηγῖδες) and staffs (σκῆπτρα), each topped with a different emblem which acts as symbols identifying the bearer:

σφρηγῖδα δὲ ἕκαστος ἔχει καὶ σκῆπτρον χειροποίητον· ἐπ’ ἑκάστῳ δὲ σκήπτρῳ ἔπεστι πεποιημένον ἢ μῆλον ἢ ῥόδον ἢ κρίνον ἢ αἰετὸς ἢ ἄλλο τι· ἄνευ γὰρ ἐπισήμου οὔ σφι νόμος ἐστὶ ἔχειν σκῆπτρον.


Each man has a signet ring and a finished staff: on top of staff there is represented either a fruit or a rose or a lily or an eagle or some other thing, for it is not their custom to have a staff without a distinguishing mark [episêmon].

The sphrêgis, or signet ring, works in the same way, not only marking out the bearer by its distinctive device, however, but also leaving visible and tangible marks in the form of impressions made in clay or wax, signs which may mark off and define an object or invest a document with the authority of the seal’s owner.

Before turning to the ability of the sphrêgis to make signs by leaving an impression of itself, let us explore its function as signifier in its own right. Herodotus’ description of the Babylonian nomos concentrates on the sphrêgis and skêptron as external markers of identity, each individual having a different and distinctive device, but the story of Polykrates and his ring, which is precisely a sphrêgis (3.41.1), brings to the fore the close connection between ring and bearer and the ability of the one to represent the other. For Polykrates, the ring is the one thing he can think of that is most valuable to him in both financial and emotional terms, as his friend and advisor, Amasis, puts it:

πλείστου ἄξιον καὶ ἐπ’ ᾧ σὺ ἀπολομένῳ μάλιστα τὴν ψυχὴν ἀλγήσεις.


Polykrates, acting on Amasis’ advice to undergo a voluntary loss and suffering in order to break the cycle of good fortune which he predicts will bring the envy (φθόνος) of the divine upon him, sails out to the open sea and, with the crew as witness, throws the object into the deep (3.41.2). [
325] The apparent irreversibility of the action [326] suggests a ritual dimension to the act in which Versnel sees the ring as a substitute for Polykrates himself, a pars pro toto “sacrifice.” [327] On this model, then, the sphrêgis becomes much more intimately connected with the wearer than simply being a beloved possession.

That is not, however, the end of Polykrates’ ring: a fisherman brings Polykrates an especially large fish as a token of honor, which, when split open, is found to contain the very ring Polykrates had gone to such lengths to get rid of (3.42.1–4). Polykrates interprets the return of the ring as a divine intervention (θεῖον εἶναι τὸ πρῆγμα, 3.42.4), and it is clear that this is not an occasion for celebration for him, in sharp contrast to the mood of the servants, who in a state of joy bring him what they think will be welcome news (ἔφερον κεχαρηκότες παρὰ τὸν Πολυκράτεα, 3.42.4). The gods, so it seems, have picked up the ring which Polykrates made use of as a sign, and now themselves use it as a sign of a different kind, transmitting back to him a message which Amasis, who plays the role of confidante and advisor to Polykrates, is able to decode:


When Amasis had read the letter which had come from Polykrates, he realized that it was impossible for one man to remove another man from an action that was going to come about and that Polykrates, though enjoying good fortune in all respects, a man who even found what he cast away, was going to die in a bad way. He sent a messenger to him in Samos and said that he was ending their friendship.

As often in Herodotus, an object used for one purpose or as one kind of signifier becomes used as a different kind of signifier: the ring itself obstinately endures while the meaning invested in it changes. [

2.8.5 Clothing and Ornament

Sign vehicles similarly close to the human body are clothing and ornament, which convey information about both individual and group in terms of ethnos, status, and gender. Herodotus devotes attention to the category of dress in his ethnographic descriptions generally and particularly in his catalogue of Xerxes’ forces (7.61–99), detailing how the clothing and adornment of a particular group distinguish them from others. As will be explored below in ch. 3.1, he also shows how clothing as a key to identity, status, and gender may easily be manipulated. A woman can be passed off as a goddess if tall enough and provided with the attributes of the goddess (Phye, the tall, good-looking woman whom Peisistratos and Megakles deck out with Athena’s panoply, 1.60.4), men can dress up as women in order to break out of jail (the Minyai, 4.146.2–4) or in order to take revenge on those who have tried to handle their womenfolk (5.20.3–5).

2.8.6 Body as Sign-Bearer

The metaphor of the stamping or engraving of a coin is used by Herodotus in his portrayal of Astyages’ recognition of Kyros. A number of factors alert Astyages to the true identity of the boy, one of them being the features, which Herodotus describes as the “stamp” or “marking” (χαρακτήρ), of his face: [334]

ταῦτα λέγοντος τοῦ παιδὸς τὸν Ἀστυάγεα ἐσήιε ἀνάγνωσις αὐτοῦ, καί οἱ ὅ τε χαρακτὴρ τοῦ προσώπου προσφέρεσθαι ἐδόκεε ἐς ἑωυτὸν καὶ ὑπόκρισις ἐλευθεριωτέρη εἶναι, ὅ τε χρόνος τῆς ἐκθέσιος τῇ ἡλικίῃ τοῦ παιδὸς ἐδόκεε συμβαίνειν.


When the boy said this, recognition of him came upon Astyages, and the stamp of his face seemed to him like his own and his answer rather free-spoken, while the time of the exposure seemed to tally with the boy’s age.

Peisistratos and Zopyros both rely on the capacity of the mutilated body to signify when they inflict wounds upon themselves: by so doing, Peisistratos manages to convince the Athenians dêmos to provide him with a bodyguard as protection against his enemies, whom he claims have tried to kill him (1.59.4), and Zopyros is able to convince the Babylonians by the marks on his body and his missing ears that he has been maltreated by Dareios and is genuinely deserting to their side (3.154.2). The false Smerdis has no ears because they were cut off as the result of an offense against the king (3.69.5), who marks those who commit crimes against him with signs visible to others in the form of mutilations. The presence of these signs, which, read in terms of the Persian penal code, indicate those who have committed a wrong, acts in turn as a sign of a different kind for Otanes: this Smerdis cannot be the brother of Kambyses, since the latter had both ears intact. In this way Otanes, already suspicious on the basis of other signs in pseudo-Smerdis’ behavior, is able to confirm the identity of the imposter. [

For the Scythians, too, the human body can be used, like any other object, as a signifier. Warriors present the heads of those they have killed in battle to the king as a token enabling them to claim a share of the booty. Without producing these heads, they are not allowed any share of the spoils (4.64.1). The skulls of one’s enemies (especially one’s personal enemies, defeated in the king’s presence), encased in leather or covered with an additional layer of gold, serve as drinking cups and as objects of proud display produced for visitors, demonstrating their nobility and bravery (4.65.2). The Issedones also make objects of the dead, but not, in this instance, of their enemies. They take the skulls of their dead parent and gild them. The skull then represents the parent, becoming an image in the context of worship (ἄγαλμα) and the recipient of great yearly sacrifices (4.26.2).

At the other limit of the earth, the Long-lived Ethiopians also perform a reification of their dead, turning the body into a representation of itself and what it looked like while alive:

γυψώσαντες ἅπαντα αὐτὸν γραφῇ κοσμέουσι, ἐξομοιοῦντες τὸ εἶδος ἐς τὸ δυνατόν.


After covering all parts of it with gypsum, they adorn it with a painting, making it look as much like the person in appearance as possible.

In addition, the corpse becomes its own funerary monument when it is encased in a hollowed-out column of transparent crystal, so that the whole becomes a stêlê, a marker which, among the Greeks at any rate, is normally an entity separate from the corpse itself: [

ἔπειτα δέ οἱ περιιστᾶσι στήλην ἐξ ὑάλου πεποιημένην κοίλην (ἡ δέ σφι πολλὴ καὶ εὐεργὸς ὀρύσσεται). ἐν μέσῃ δὲ τῇ στήλῃ ἐνεὼν διαφαίνεται ὁ νέκυς, οὔτε ὀδμὴν οὐδεμίαν ἄχαριν παρεχόμενος οὔτε ἄλλο ἀεικὲς οὐδέν· καὶ ἔχει πάντα φανερὰ ὁμοίως αὐτῷ τῷ νέκυϊ. ἐνιαυτὸν μὲν δὴ ἔχουσι τὴν στήλην ἐν τοῖσι οἰκίοισι οἱ μάλιστα προσήκοντες πάντων τε ἀπαρχόμενοι καὶ θυσίας οἱ προσάγοντες· μετὰ δὲ ταῦτα ἐκκομίσαντες ἱστᾶσι περὶ τὴν πόλιν.


Then they place a hollowed-out stêlê made of crystal (this is dug up amongst them in large quantities and is easily worked) about the body. The corpse, being in the middle of the stêlê, shows through and does not give off any unpleasant smell or anything else unseemly: and each part shows as clearly as the corpse itself. The closest relatives keep the stêlê in their homes for one year, offering it first-fruits of everything and setting sacrifices before it: after this they carry it out and set it up near the city.

Just as Kambyses does with the skin of Sisamnes, the Scythians treat the skin of their enemies as if it is the hide of an animal, scraping and burnishing it with the rib of an ox. From it napkins (χειρόμακτρα, 4.64.2) are made and suspended from the bridles of their horses, acting, like the cups made of skulls, as indicators of the bravery of the one displaying them: whoever has the most of them is judged the bravest (ἀνὴρ ἄριστος, 4.64.2). The entire skin of the enemy may be made into a kind of effigy, an iconic representation which is then mounted on a pole and carried on horseback (4.64.3). As with the corpses of the Ethiopians, the body is made into an icon of itself.

Even the divine is capable of using the human body as signifier: the inhabitants of Amathous on Cyprus decapitate the corpse of Onesilos, who had besieged their city, and suspend his head above the city gates. They intend the head as one kind of sign, an expression of their triumph and revenge over Onesilos (like the breasts of the womenfolk of Pheretime’s enemies, which she has displayed at intervals along the city wall of Barke, 4.202.1), but it begins to function in quite another sign system when bees take up residence in it and fill it with honeycombs (5.114.1). The Amathousioi interpret this as a portent, and consult an oracle, which tells them to sacrifice to Onesilos as hero (θύειν ὡς ἥρωι, 5.114.2) annually.

2.8.7 Objects as Indicators of Size and Status

The mounds left by Dareios and his army on the banks of the river Arte-skos function differently, but have nevertheless a semiotic component. These mounds (‘hills’, κολωνοί μεγάλοι) are composed of hundreds of stones, each stone acting as a token representing one soldier in Dareios’ vast host:

ἀποδέξας χωρίον τῇ στρατιῇ ἐκέλευε πάντα ἄνδρα λίθον ἕνα παρεξιόντα τιθέναι ἐς τὸ ἀποδεδεγμένον τοῦτο χωρίον. ὡς δὲ ταῦτα ἡ στρατιὴ ἐπετέλεσε, ἐνθαῦτα κολωνοὺς μεγάλους τῶν λίθων καταλιπὼν ἀπήλαυνε τὴν στρατιήν.


After showing a site to his army he ordered every man to pass by and place one stone on the designated spot. When the army had accomplished this, leaving great hills of stones behind he marched the army away.

Taken collectively, the stones constitute on the one hand a kind of census, and on the other a monument to the greatness of Dareios’ endeavor. Neither purpose, however, is explicitly attributed to Dareios by Herodotus, yet up to this point the narrative of Dareios’ campaign against the Scythians has already been punctuated by a number of monuments: that of Mandrokles, architect of the bridge over the Bosporos, which is in both iconic form (a picture depicting the bridge and the progress of Dareios and his army across it, 4.88.1) and the form of written signs (an inscription, relayed by Herodotus at 4.88.2); and that of Dareios himself in the form of a stêlê honoring the healthful springs of the Tearos and the fact that they have been visited by so distinguished a visitor (4.91.1–2). [

The motif of the monument constructed from the contributions of individuals surfaces in the story Herodotus relays about the daughter of Kheops, but is given a highly unusual and erotic direction. The Egyptian king Kheops, when the funds in his treasury run low, presses his own daughter into prostitution in order to provide him with money. The daughter complies, but asks each of her customers to give her (in addition to her fee) a stone, intending to leave a monument (μνημήιον) behind her:

τὴν δὲ τά τε ὑπὸ τοῦ πατρὸς ταχθέντα πρήσσεσθαι, ἰδίῃ δὲ καὶ αὐτὴν διανοηθῆναι μνημήιον καταλιπέσθαι, καὶ τοῦ ἐσιόντος πρὸς αὐτὴν ἑκάστου δέεσθαι ὅκως ἂν αὐτῇ ἕνα λίθον [ἐν τοῖσι ἔργοισι] δωρέοιτο· ἐκ τούτων δὲ τῶν λίθων ἔφασαν τὴν πυραμίδα οἰκοδομηθῆναι τὴν ἐν μέσῳ τῶν τριῶν ἑστηκυῖαν, ἔμπροσθε τῆς μεγάλης πυραμίδος.


She carried out her father’s commands, but privately came up with a plan to leave behind a monument for herself, and demanded of each man who visited her that he present her with one stone: from these stones [the Egyptians] said that the pyramid which is the middle one of the three in front of the great pyramid, was built.

The piquancy of the narrative resides in the fact that each stone represents not one warrior or one royal subject, as in the case of Dareios’ mounds of stones or Ariantas’ arrowheads, but each man with whom Kheops’ daughter has slept, so that the total number of stones indicates the number of times the daughter of Kheops has prostituted herself. But she treats the stones exactly as Dareios and Ariantas regard the stones and arrowheads brought by those under their power, as tokens brought by subjects to their ruler: from what is potentially a record of her shame, she constructs a pyramid which stands besides others (ἐν μέσῳ τῶν τριῶν ἑστηκυῖαν, ἔμπροσθε τῆς μεγάλης πυραμίδος, 2.126.2) and acts as no less proud a monument (even though it is smaller than the others). Collectively, then, the individual tokens function together as a new significant object, a μνημήιον which honors her memory for generations to come.

It is interesting that one of two other women in the Histories to leave a physical monument behind her is also a prostitute, but this time a professional. Rhodopis, a Greek courtesan operating in Egypt who has amassed for herself a large amount of money, wishes to leave behind a monument to herself. Unlike the daughter of Kheops, her monument does not take the form of a pyramid, since her funds will not run to one (2.135.2). More important is the desire to leave behind a monument of a completely different kind:

ἐπεθύμησε γὰρ Ῥοδῶπις μνημήιον ἑωυτῆς ἐν τῇ Ἑλλάδι καταλιπέσθαι, ποίημα ποιησαμένη τοῦτο τὸ μὴ τυγχάνοι ἄλλῳ ἐξευρημένον καὶ ἀνακείμενον ἐν ἱρῷ, τοῦτο ἀναθεῖναι ἐς Δελφοὺς μνημόσυνον ἑωυτῆς.


For Rhodopis conceived a desire to leave a monument to herself in Greece, to create a work which had not chanced to be thought of and dedicated in a temple by anyone else, and to set up this work in Delphi as a monument to herself.

No matter that Rhodopis’ μνημήιον is only a collection of iron cooking spits big enough to spear an ox (ὀβελοὶ βούποροι, 2.135.4): the novelty of her monument ensures that her memory will be perpetuated, and Herodotus, as with his descriptions of all the other monuments in the Histories, subsumes and weaves her monument into his text, making the objects speak. [

2.8.8 Objects as Memorials and Monuments

The semiotic ability of objects to point back to the past and glorify the one associated with the object lies at the heart of the memorial (μνημόσυνον, μνημήιον, μνῆμα). It is an ability that any object of any type and size may assume, ranging from the pyramids and colossal statues of the Egyptian kings to the iron spits of Rhodopis. Common to all these monuments is the desire of the builder (in both literal and figurative senses) to leave a perceptible trace of himself or herself on the surface of the world, and in so doing to surpass the achievements of others. [344] This competitive element, seen already in Rhodopis’ desire for an unprecedented type of monument, one not to be found in any other temple precinct (τὸ μὴ τυγχάνοι ἄλλῳ ἐξευρημένον καὶ ἀνακείμενον ἐν ἱρῷ, 2.135.3), is also evidenced in Aryandes’ desire to issue a new type of coin, in silver, rivaling Dareios’ famous gold coin. Dareios’ reasons for issuing such a coin are presented as a desire to leave behind a monument to himself which no other king has ever wrought (ἐπιθυμέοντα μνημόσυνον ἑωυτοῦ λιπέσθαι τοῦτο τὸ μὴ ἄλλῳ εἴη βασιλέϊ κατεργασμένον, 4.166.1). [345] Aryandes’ action is on the one hand pure imitation (ἐμιμέετο), [346] since his coin is modeled on Dareios’, but on the other hand he creates a new coin which is issued by his authority and to which his name becomes attached:

πυθόμενος γὰρ καὶ ἰδὼν Δαρεῖον ἐπιθυμέοντα μνημόσυνον ἑωυτοῦ λιπέσθαι τοῦτο τὸ μὴ ἄλλῳ εἴη βασιλέϊ κατεργασμένον, ἐμιμέετο τοῦτον, ἐς οὗ ἔλαβε τὸν μισθόν. Δαρεῖος μὲν γὰρ χρυσίον καθαρώτατον ἀποψήσας ἐς τὸ δυνατώτατον νόμισμα ἐκόψατο, Ἀρυάνδης δὲ ἄρχων Αἰγύπτου ἀργύριον τὠυτὸ τοῦτο ἐποίεε· καὶ νῦν ἐστὶ ἀργύριον καθαρώτατον τὸ Ἀρυανδικόν.


Having learned and seen that Dareios was keen to leave a monument to himself which no other king had effected, Aryandes imitated him, until he paid the price for it. Dareios had struck a coinage of gold which he had refined to the highest possible degree, and Aryandes, when he was in charge of Egypt, did the same thing with silver coinage: even now the Aryandic is the purest silver coin.

Aryandes achieves his immortal monument at the cost of his own life, because he trespasses on the prerogative of the king, who has the exclusive right to strike and mark coinage, just as he alone has the right to mark and mutilate his slaves. [
347] Anyone else who does so is either suspected of treason and executed, as are Aryandes and Intaphrenes, who usurps the king’s right by disfiguring the servants of Dareios when they refuse to let him in for an audience while the king is with a woman (3.118.1–119.2).

The desire of the Egyptian Asykhis to outdo (ὑπερβαλέσθαι) his predecessors, a frequent motif in such descriptions, as we have seen above, leads him to erect a pyramid made of mud bricks instead of stone, and so that the monument may indicate his greatness not just by its mere presence, he endows it with a voice in the form of a talking inscription in which it proclaims its own superiority (and by extension, that of its maker):

“μή με κατονοσθῇς πρὸς τὰς λιθίνας πυραμίδας· προέχω γὰρ αὐτέων τοσοῦτο ὅσον ὁ Ζεὺς τῶν ἄλλων θεῶν. κοντῷ γὰρ ὑποτύπτοντες ἐς λίμνην, ὅ τι πρόσσχοιτο τοῦ πηλοῦ τῷ κοντῷ, τοῦτο συλλέγοντες πλίνθους εἴρυσαν καί με τρόπῳ τοιούτῳ ἐξεποίησαν.”


Monuments, being signs, require, or at least attract, interpretation, as Herodotus has already shown in the case of the μνημήιον of Rhodopis and in a number of other instances where he corrects the readings of others. Those who interpret (εἰκάζουσι, 2.106.5) the figure of a man carved in rock as a representation (εἰκών, 2.106.5) of Memnon are “far short of the truth” (πολλὸν τῆς ἀληθείης ἀπολελειμμένοι, 2.106.5): it is in fact Sesostris. Herodotus is also able to interpret the stêlai which Sesostris left behind him along the route he followed in returning to Egypt from his campaign against those living in the area of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf and which commemorate his own prowess and his enemies’ weakness. According to Herodotus, the stêlai fall into two types, the one containing only an inscription, and the other an inscription together with a representation of a woman’s genitalia. Herodotus produces a reading of the two types. In those countries where Sesostris encountered spirited resistance, he erected stêlai with an inscription with his name, country, and the fact that he had subdued them by his might; in those countries where no resistance was given, he put up stêlai of the second type, having the same inscription as those erected in the countries of brave men, but in addition the depiction of a woman’s genitalia, which Herodotus interprets as a contemptuous sneer at the cowardice of his opponents (2.102.4–5). Herodotus thus interprets the stêlai according to a code in which the exposure of the female genitalia indicates contempt, as it does, for example, in the festival of Artemis at Boubastis, where female participants traveling to the festival on barges display themselves in ritual obscenity to those on the shore, to the accompaniment of mocking remarks (2.60.2). [

Those who say that that the large wooden cow in the city of Saïs is in fact the coffin of Mykerinos’ daughter, that the twenty wooden images represent his concubines, and that their lack of hands commemorates the fact that Mykerinos’ wife chopped off the hands of the models for these statues for allowing Mykerinos to sleep with his daughter are talking nonsense, says Herodotus (2.131.3). According to him, the hands of the images have merely fallen off because of the passage of time, and lie there at their feet for anyone to see (2.131.3). In other words, they simply do not act as signifiers of the message these people believe to be encoded in the statues.



[ back ] 1. Herodotus also uses the term οἰωνός, which stricto sensu refers to the behavior of birds as a means of signification, but in its single occurrence in Herodotus is used in the general sense of an omen: δέκομαι τὸν οἰωνόν (9.91.2), “I accept the omen,” says the Spartan Leotykhides when he hears that the name of the Samian messenger is Hegesistratos (see ch. 2.6 below on names and naming). The term κληδών is also, however, used in the same passage. The distinction between τέρατα and φάσματα in Herodotus seems to lie in the following: the five instances of φάσμα in the sense of a portent (it may also refer to an apparition) all involve some kind of meteorological phenomenon (rain, 3.10.3; thunderbolt, 4.79.1; eclipse, 7.37.2 and 7.38.1; κεραυνοί, 8.37.2). It should be noted, however, that the phenomena described at 8.37.2 include non-meteorological phenomena (βοή τε καὶ ἀλαλαγμός, “a shout and war-cry”). In all but one (3.10.3), the expression ἐκ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ “from the sky” or the mention of the divine, ὁ θεός, as agent further confirms the connection with the heavens. On the divine in portents, see discussion below. Τέρατα may include meteorological phenomena (thunder and lightning, 4.28.3) but can involve many other types of portents, such as peculiar animal behavior, earthquakes, and the automatic movement of inanimate objects. Τέρας thus seems a broader term than φάσμα, at least in Herodotus. Cf. Bloch (1963:15–16), who surveys Greek literature in general and comes to the same conclusion, pointing out that the term φάσμα is not confined exclusively to metereological phenomena.

[ back ] 2. Here Peirce’s formulation bears repeating: “Nothing is a sign unless it is interpreted as a sign” (Peirce as quoted in Nöth 1990:42). Cf. Harrison’s definition of “omen” as “a miracle with a message” (2000:65). Note the Greek idiom “to receive” (δέκομαι: 1.63.1, 4.15.3, 7.178.2, 8.115.1, 9.91.2) an omen or oracle, which again underlines the process of recognition and acceptance.

[ back ] 3. Other instances of the ingressive aorist of this verb in cases of sudden recognition and realization: 1.116.1 (anagnôsis that the shepherd boy is Kyros comes upon Astyages), 3.42.4 (it comes upon Polykrates that the appearance of his ring in the belly of a fish is a sign from the gods).

[ back ] 4. Powell s.v. glosses ἀνεύρηται in this passage as “invent, devise.” This understanding of the word appears to be a subjective projection on the scholar’s part onto Herodotus of a certain skepticism about the Egyptians and their religious practices.

[ back ] 5. On Greek awe at the vast span of time encompassed by Egyptian record keeping, cf. Herodotus’ (and Hekataios’) encounter with the priests at Thebes, who show 345 generations of priests (1.143.1–4), and cf. Plato Timaeus 22b4–5, where the Egyptian priest cries to Solon that the Greeks are always children.

[ back ] 6. The locus classicus for Egyptian inversion is 2.35.2–36.4. Cf. Lloyd 1992. On Scythian inversion cf. Hartog 1988.

[ back ] 7. Amasis enjoys great success as a reader and manipulator of signs: cf. e.g. his object lesson in signs involving a golden footbath recast as a holy image (2.172.3–5), discussed below in ch. 2.8.1. See also ch. 3.1 on the manipulators of signs and their general success in the world of the Histories.

[ back ] 8. Mikalson (2003:43) notes that in the case of solar phenomena Egyptians do not recognize these as terata (2.142.3–4), whereas the Persians and Greeks do.

[ back ] 9. Cf. Ferrari 1997:5 on the culturally specific nature of metaphor. As will be clear from this chapter, the imagery of terata overlaps with the metaphorical imagery of oracles and ainetic speech, explored in chapters 2.3 and 2.5.

[ back ] 10. Noted by Benardete 1969:165.

[ back ] 11. See Harrison 2000:69–70 on this as an example of what he calls an omen mixed with divination: “Dicaeus—and here is the variation—then puts the apparition to use in a form of impromptu divination: from the direction the procession takes, towards Salamis rather than the Peloponnese, he calculates that it is Xerxes’ fleet rather than his land force that would soon suffer.” Harrison thus takes this as an instance of someone hijacking a teras, much as I do in the case of Artayktes and the teras of the fish in the passage discussed below. But one might argue that there is always a divinatory sense to omens.

[ back ] 12. 1982:142; italics mine. Scholes presumably uses the term “mythic” in the sense of “religious” or “supernatural.”

[ back ] 13. ὁ θεός is generally taken here to mean gods in general: cf. 1.31.3 (“God showed man how it might be better to die than to live,” though the specific deity involved in the story is Hera) and Mikalson 2003:43 on the question of the specificity of the divine agent: “Herodotus does not specify the divine agents of such omens. We may think that for a thunderbolt it was Zeus (4.79.2), for the earthquake on Delos Apollo (6.97–98), and for the omen we shall see on the Thriasian Plain Demeter (8.65), but the assignment of agent is ours, not Herodotus’. The large majority of omens, whether miraculous or not, cannot be assigned to any specific god or divine agency.”

[ back ] 14. Ibid. The term “non-intentional sign” is mine; Benardete does not make clear what he understands as a contrast to an intentional sign. Possibly he has in mind so-called natural or diagnostic signs.

[ back ] 15. Kühner-Gerth II.I §352 and Smyth 934 talk of quasi-impersonal constructions where the subject is clear from the context. Meteorological phenomena in Greek may be expressed by a verb without a subject, or by the same verb with ὁ θεός or a particular deity as a subject. To take an example from Herodotus: cf. ὕει “it rains” (2.22.3; 3.125.4; 4.28.2; 4.50.3; 4.185.2) with ὁ θεὸς ὕει lit. “(the) god rains” (3.117.4). Cf. also ὁ θεὸς ἐνέσκηψε βέλος (4.79.1), “(The) god hurled a dart (of lightning),” as opposed to the impersonal ἀστραπή . . . ἐγένετο (3.86.2), “There was a bolt of lightning.” The context of 4.79.1, the destruction of part of Skyles’ Greek-style townhouse as a forewarning of his fate, probably determines Herodotus’ choice of this highly poetic expression (cf. Pindar Nemean 10.8; Aeschylus Prometheus Bound 360): further discussion of this passage below.

[ back ] 16. The same combination of earthquakes, divine agency, and ta oikota occurs again in Herodotus’ discussion of the gorge of the Peneios in Thessaly, where he describes the belief of the local inhabitants that Poseidon caused this gorge as “reasonable” (7.129.4). Cf. Harrison’s warning (2000:15) against taking this as a rationalizing explanation that excludes “a parallel divine cause.”

[ back ] 17. The indefinite κου does not imply doubt or irony here, but simply seems to be a prefatory softening of an ambitious and bold statement. Cf. Denniston 1996:491n1: “Herodotus is fond of divesting himself of the historian’s omniscience, and assuming a winning fallibility . . . This often comes out in his use of κου: cf. i113.3, 114.2.” Cf. the similar use of κως at 6.27.1, discussed above, where Herodotus also makes a pronouncement about the participation of the divine as sender of portents. Cf. Powell s.v. κως 5. “it seems, in hesitant statement”.

[ back ] 18. Benardete 1969:161.

[ back ] 19. For the eikos argument as characteristic of the fifth-century techniques of argument and debate, cf. Thomas 2000:168n1.

[ back ] 20. Mikalson 2002:195 notes: “Prophecies from omens and dreams might be credited to ‘the gods’ or ‘the divine’ (e.g., 6.27.1–3, 7.12–18), but often involve no deity. For omens the location and circumstances might offer a clue (Demeter near Eleusis? 8.65), but even here we, not Herodotus, make the connection.”

[ back ] 21. See Stockinger 1959:16n8 for discussion of Homeric use (Iliad 2.318) of the adjective ἀρίζηλος in connection with terata.

[ back ] 22. I raise the question of Artayktes’ belief in the agency of Protesilaos, because, as will be suggested below (ch., Artayktes attempts to manipulate the situation to his own benefit by his particular interpretation of the portent, but ends up bringing about his own death. On this passage see Nagy 2001.

[ back ] 23. Contrast this with an unambiguous portent of Homeric magnitude and clarity that appears to the seven conspirators on their way to dethrone the false Smerdis (3.76.3): seven pairs of eagles pursue, pluck, and savage two pairs of vultures.

[ back ] 24. The question of the recipient vs. ultimate audience of this portent is discussed by Nagy (2001:xx), who does not seem to view Artayktes as the ultimate recipient: “The non-Greek speaker can claim that the meaning of Protesilaos is intended for him, not for the Athenian, let alone the native Greeks of the Chersonesus who worship Protesilaos as their local hero. Who, then, is the intended receiver, the destinataire, of the meaning of Protesilaos? The historian does not say, and in this regard his meaning, too, is opaque.”

[ back ] 25. The prophêtês at Delphi is mentioned in connection with the θῶμα and τέρας of the mysterious appearance outside the temple of Apollo of weapons normally kept inside the temple (8.37.1–2), but σημανέων (8.37.1) here could simply mean that he relayed the teras and not that he interpreted it. See discussion in ch. above on this sense of σημαίνω, and compare 8.41.3, where the priestess of Athena is depicted as relaying, but not necessarily interpreting, the portent of the sacred snake refusing its honey-cake.

[ back ] 26. Interpretation by reference to collected precedents in written form fits in with what we know of Near Eastern treatment of portents: cf. e.g. Oppenheim 1974, Maul 2003.

[ back ] 27. The magoi are not, of course, exclusively interpreters of portents, but are consulted in the decoding of other sign systems, such as dreams (cf. ch. 2.2 below).

[ back ] 28. For example, 4.79.1; 6.27; 6.98; 7.57.1; 8.37; 8.55.

[ back ] 29. Cf. Mikalson 2002:195 on how in the case of portents at 8.65 and 4.79.2 “we, not Herodotus, make the connection” between deity and portent.

[ back ] 30. Cf. the intriguing thesis of Griffiths (2001:162–164), who claims that this interpretation is a retrofitting to suit the facts and that “no halfway intelligent person confronted with the prodigy could do other than assume that the horses symbolized the Lydians” (162), since horses are the Lydians’ strong suit (cf. 1.27.3–4), whereas the Persians with their scale armor are like snakes. Seen this way, “the interpretation ascribed to the Telmessians prophets can only be understood as a deliberately perverse, paradoxical, and sophistic reversal of the surface meaning of the omen” (163). Griffiths views this manipulation as in fact the work of Herodotus, who for narrative purposes did not want to present the account as a case of Kroisos presuming that horses=Lydians and snakes=Persians, only to find out that he had made the wrong assumption after his disastrous defeat. Griffiths suggests that this was because Herodotus had already used this motif with Kroisos’ famous misinterpretation of the “You will destroy a great empire” oracle. I am not convinced by this part of Griffiths’ argument, but the idea that the Telmessians’ interpretation is paradoxical and that this ultimately reflects on Herodotus’ ingenuity is attractive.

[ back ] 31. Cf. e.g. below on the portent of the mule giving birth (7.57.2).

[ back ] 32. “Axis of selection” and “axis of combination” are terms developed by Jakobson (1960) on the basis of the two structural relations in language, which Saussure characterized as paradigmatic and syntagmatic relations. Paradigmatic relations (envisaged along a vertical axis) exist between elements which can be substituted for each other in a particular sign complex (e.g. between the snakes of the portent and the Lydians, or the horses and invaders), the “possible alternatives of and oppositions to a sign” (Nöth 1990:444). Syntagmatic relations, envisaged along a horizontal axis, govern the combination of the elements of a sign complex (e.g. horses eat snakes = enemy overrun Lydians). Cf. Munson 2001a:46 in the context of Herodotus’ use of analogy: “Comparison and analogy may be activated ‘horizontally’ to bind overlapping, concentric, or parallel classes of similar objects. But they also work ‘vertically,’ through indices and symbols across different levels of reality, as in inductive prophecy.”

[ back ] 33. For discussion of this motif in an Athenian context, cf. Loraux 1993 (introduction, and ch. 1). The contrast between αὐτόχθονες “autochthonous people” and ἐπήλυδες “immigrants” is made by Herodotus in discussing the population of Libya (4.197.2), also at 8.73.1–2 in connection with the peoples of the Peloponnese. He speaks of Erekhtheus as “earthborn” (γηγενής, 8.55).

[ back ] 34. There is in fact a tradition of autochthonous origin linked to the city of Sardis in which it is described as πρωτόχθων (e.g. SEG 36, 1096 where Sardis is ἡ πρωτόχθων καὶ μητρόπολις τῆς Ἀσίας καὶ Λυδίας ἁπάσης, “the first land and mother-city of Asia and all of Lydia”) and αὐτόχθων: epigraphic and literary references in Chuvin 1991:104 and Herrmann 1993:238–239. I am grateful to Prof. C. P. Jones for these references.

[ back ] 35. The proastion is of course capable of being contrasted with the astu or polis proper, as it is indeed at 4.78, where Skyles pursues his Greek lifestyle in the polis, while his Scythian comrades are left behind in the proastion. Cf. Audring 1981:223–224: “Man darf sich daher eine unsichtbare Grenzlinie denken, die das proastion von der eigentlichen Stadt, im speziellen Falle des Skyles das Skythische vom Griechischen, schied.” This opposition does not seem to be at work here, and the proastion should be regarded rather as space associated with the city. Audring, surveying evidence referring to the Archaic period, defines the proastion as “Landzone in unmittelbarer Nähe der Stadt” (228), so that it is an area capable of being viewed alternatively as outside the city or as closely linked with it.

[ back ] 36. Apart from the etymological connection between νομή and νέμεσθαι which Herodotus plays upon here, there is of course a play on νόμος (“custom”) and νομή (“pasture, customary area”).

[ back ] 38. Interestingly enough, a marble statue of what is either a sphinx or a griffin (head and upper thorax missing), dating from the fifth century, was found in excavations at Olbia at the beginning of the century. Description in Koshelenko et al. 1984:213 and photograph ibid., tab. 98.1. Koshelenko et al. see the object as an example of the influence of local environment on art.

[ back ] 39. In Herodotus, griffins are associated with Apollo as guardians (χρυσοφύλακες} of the hyperborean gold from the one-eyed Arimaspoi: 4.13.1 and 4.27. Griffins are found in Dionysiac iconography of the fourth century, as animals who draw his chariot (e.g. fourth-c. pelike in Paris [Louvre MNB 1036] and situla in New York [MMA 56.171.64], reproduced in LIMC s.v. Dionysus, 461 and 462), as well as in other Dionysiac contexts of the same period which seem to suggest their role as guardians of the dead (discussion in Delplace 1980, esp. 365–385). But Delplace 1980 (who does not, however, consider this passage) maintains that this development is to be found only in the Hellenistic period. Sphinxes seem even less likely as Dionysiac symbols. It is true that Chian coinage from the fifth century depicts a sphinx in front of an amphora covered by grapes, which seems to argue a connection with the cult of Dionysos, but this seems an isolated practice, and there does not seem to be any extant representation of sphinxes and griffins together in a Dionysiac context. For examples of this motif on the coins of Chios see Kraay 1976, nos. 888–892.

[ back ] 40. See Corcella 1993:293–294; Hartog 1988:61–84; Henrichs 1994:47–51.

[ back ] 41. “Kolonnettenkrater” (Attic) British Museum B 101, Naukratis (Abb. 41 in Dierichs 1981); pyxis (Corinthian) St. Louis, Collection of Washington University 600.WU 3263 (Abb. 13 in Dierichs 1981); “Kesselkrater mit Ringhenkeln” (northern Ionia), Paris, Louvre E659 (Abb. 76 in Dierichs 1981); gold sheet from Delphi (Abb. 110 in Dierichs 1981); terra cotta plaque from Lokroi, Sackler Museum 1980.2, ca. 570 BCE (LIMC s.v Sphinx, ill. 232).

[ back ] 42. The “white stone” (i.e. marble) from which the sphinxes and griffins are sculpted also acts as an indication of Greekness. Herodotus himself mentions griffins as decorative devices on a Greek artifact: a bronze vessel like a krater which is decorated with the heads of griffins in a row (4.152.4), a description which matches well with finds of protomoi in the shape of griffins (examples in Delplace 1980 and Dierichs 1981). My use of the term symbol follows the definition established by Peirce and followed by Sebeok of an arbitrary and conventional sign, where the link between the sign and what it denotes is based on convention and not on similarity or contiguity (discussion in Nöth 1990:108 and 115–120).

[ back ] 43. Sphinxes and griffins are found on Scythian artifacts (a gold mirror, for example, from the kurgan of Kelermes in southern Russia shows that the motif of the griffin and the sphinx was popular in Scythian art as early as the seventh/sixth c. BCE [reproduction in Corcella 1993, ill. 4–5]).

[ back ] 44. I use the term index of a sign which points to the presence of something else by virtue of association with the signified either through contiguity or a relationship of part and whole. This is the sense established by Peirce and followed by Sebeok (discussion in Nöth 1990:107–114).

[ back ] 45. This sign is linked by Herodotus’ narrative to a sign of a different nature: Herodotus tells us Xerxes had ordered Athenian exiles in his retinue to make sacrifices on the akropolis, giving as a reason two alternatives, one of which suggests as a motivation a dream, 8.54 (cf. discussion of this motif in ch. 2.2 below).

[ back ] 46. See ch. 1.1.4 above on marturia.

[ back ] 47. On Herodotus’ use of the verb φράζω in contexts of sign transmission, see above, ch. 1.2.2.

[ back ] 48. See ch. 1.3.1 above.

[ back ] 49. The characteristics of the proud horse and timorous hare need not necessarily be regarded as specific to the Greek cultural tradition, but there is much in the image of both horse and hare that is reminiscent of Homeric descriptions. Cf. Iliad 6.506–514, Paris’ return to battle, where he is compared to a magnificent horse (ὡς δ᾿ ὅτε τις στατὸς ἵππος . . . ), supremely confident in himself (ἀγλαΐφι πεποιθώς; cf. Histories 7.57.1: ἀγαυρότατα καὶ μεγαλοπρεπέστατα) and with shining armor (τεύχεσι παμφαίνων), but who is elsewhere also quick to display the characteristics of a hare (though he is not specifically compared to one). The hare appears in a famous simile from Iliad 22, where in another example of how one entity can bear two different images, Hektor is imagined as an eagle about to pounce on a cowering hare (ἁρπάξων . . . πτῶκα λαγωόν, 22.310), but elsewhere is portrayed as just such another timorous creature, a dove (τρήρων πέλεια, 24.140) or a fawn (νέβρος, 24.189), “cowering down under a thicket,” καταπτήξας ὑπὸ θαμνῷ (24.191), a man running for his life (περὶ ψυχῆς, 24.161; cf. περὶ ἑωυτοῦ τρέχων, Histories 7.57.1).

[ back ] 50. On iconic relationships and similarity (real, or recognized by convention) between signifier and signified cf. Nöth 1990:121–127.

[ back ] 51. During Kyros’ siege of Babylon the Persian Zopyros is inspired when, after hearing a taunt that the Persians will only take the city when a mule gives birth, he learns of a teras: the actual birth of a mule from a mule. Cf. discussion below, ch. 2.8, of another semiotic aspect to this story, Zopyros’ use of self-mutilation, to produce the impression that he has been punished by the Persians, in order to penetrate the ranks of the Babylonians.

[ back ] 52. For the dominance of female over male as ominous, cf. the opening of the oracle given to the Milesians and Argives: ἀλλ᾿ ὅταν ἡ θήλεια τὸν ἄρσενα νικήσασα | ἐξελάσῃ καὶ κῦδος ἐν Ἀργείοισιν ἄρηται, | πολλὰς Ἀργείων ἀμφιδρυφέας τότε θήσει (6.77.2), “But when the female conquers and drives off the male and wins glory among the Argives, then this will cause many of the Argives to tear both their cheeks in mourning.”

[ back ] 53. Cf. the characterization of these dreams in Bichler 1985 as “Reichsträume” and the more specific classification in Köhnken 1988:24 of “Königsträume.” The only dream of a “democratic” ruler is the dream of Agariste (Perikles’ mother) in which she gives birth to a lion (6.131.2). Dareios is the only Persian king not to appear in the work as a dreamer (see below for further comment on this). He does, however, appear as the subject of Kyros’ dream (1.209.1).

[ back ] 54. Iliad 2.80–82 and Artemidorus 1.2, who cites among others Panyasis of Halikarnassos (not, it seems, the Panyasis who was Herodotus’ uncle) for this proposition. Panyasis does however recognize the significance of a dream dreamed by many members of the dêmos.

[ back ] 55. Mikalson 2003:41–42 considers the question, “Why does Herodotus give most and the most elaborate dreams to the Persians?” His answer is that this “may have been for literary reasons” (he does not elaborate on this here) but also considers the possibility that this reflects actual Persian practice: “as Georges . . . notes, Persian gods apparently had no voice or form (and hence no oracles), and ‘therefore the dream is the characteristic medium of divine communication among Medes and Persians.’ ”

[ back ] 56. Cf. Baragwanath 2008:249–253 on the role of this dream in the account of Xerxes’ motivations for invasion.

[ back ] 57. Note the use of the indefinite τις and ὡς οἶκε and cf. Herodotus’ use of particle κως in his conclusions about the presence of the divine and the portents involving Delos (φιλέει δέ κως προσημαίνειν, εὖτ’ ἂν μέλλῃ μεγάλα κακὰ ἢ πόλι ἢ ἔθνεϊ ἔσεσθαι, 6.27.1), discussed above in ch. 2.1.3. Cf. Mikalson 2003:42 on the two strands of divine and human motivation for the campaign, with references in n115 to Harrison 2000:132–137 and 231; Evans 1991:15, 28, and 37; Pelling 1991:139–140; Fornara 1990:36–37, 43–45; Lloyd-Jones 1983:61–63; Pritchett 1979:96–98; Pohlenz 1973:117–118, Immerwahr 1954:33–36. Munson 2001b examines the vocabulary of necessity and compulsion in this account, in particular the expression τὸ χρέον γενέσθαι (7.17.2). On the basis of her investigation of ἀναγκ- words and constructions using δεῖ and χρή (35) she concludes (43) that this expression, which is used by the dream to Artabanos (“You will not escape with impunity, averting that which is supposed to happen”), “is likely to include a non-supernatural component and indicate ‘what is supposed to happen’ according to the predispositions of the parties involved.” For Munson it is the force of nomos (in particular, the Persian royal nomos of expansion and increase of power) that is the compulsion here, focalized through Artabanos.

[ back ] 58. Another dream which has a major narrative function is the dream of Kambyses about his brother Smerdis (3.30.2), which leads Kambyses to have him killed, an act which is described as the first of his evils (πρῶτα τῶν κακῶν, 3.30.1). A similar phrase marking a decisive moment in a narrative is seen again in the account of the Ionian Revolt, where Herodotus says the ships the Athenians sent were the ἀρχὴ κακῶν (5.97.3) for both Greeks and barbarians.

[ back ] 59. The dream and the disease are presented as two distinct factors, but they are probably joined by an aetiological connection: the dream explains to Otanes the cause of his illness. Mikalson 2003:42 with n111 comments that these dreams involving religious expiation are an exception to the general tendency in Herodotus for dreams to be signs or causes of future misfortunes.

[ back ] 60. Cf. Herodotus’ description of Kroisos’ dream about Atys, whose figure stands over him as he sleeps (αὐτίκα δέ οἱ εὕδοντι ἐπέστη ὄνειρος, 1.34.1) with similarly hovering Homeric dream-figures, e.g. κακὸν γὰρ ὄναρ κεφαλῆφιν ἐπέστη (Iliad 10.496).

[ back ] 61. In Artemidorus (1.1) there is a distinct difference in meaning between the two, the ἐνύπνιον being a dream about present conditions (what one is at present occupied with, cf. Artabanos’ theory at Histories 7.16.β.2), the ὄνειρος being revelatory of future events.

[ back ] 62. Cf. the similar conclusion of Vinagre 1996:274–275.

[ back ] 63. The two types are equally represented in Herodotus’ work, occurring seven times each (unlike Frisch 1968:60, I see the dream of Sabakos as belonging to the first type: further discussion below), with neither type being privileged and with no sense that the one is more reliable than the other. As Frisch (1968:60) points out, Herodotus uses both types within a short space of each other in the complex of dreams seen by Xerxes at 7.12–19, “als wollte die Gottheit alle ihre Möglichkeiten ausschöpfen, ihn beim Kriegsentschluss zu halten.” The typology is found in Artemidorus and has been used by scholars of ancient Near Eastern dreams: see Noegel 2007:6–7, who cautions against excessive reliance on this typology and shows that there is overlap between the types.

[ back ] 64. ὁρᾶν ὄψιν ἐν τῷ ὕπνῳ (2.139; 3.30; 6.107; 6.118; 6.131); ὁρᾶν ὄψιν ἐνυπνίου (3.124; 5.55; 8.54); ὁρᾶν ὄψιν (1.108; 1.209; 7.12); ἐνύπνιον ὁρᾶν (4.172.3; 4.184.4). The other construction used by Herodotus is δοκεῖν with nominative or accusative plus infinitive: 1.107; 1.108; 1.209; 2.139.1; 2.141.3; 3.30; 3.64; 5.56; 6.107; 7.12.1. The use of δοκεῖν implies nothing about the validity of the dream or the dreamer’s report, as Kessels 1978:200–203 and van Lieshout 1980:26–27 demonstrate. Particularly interesting is Kessels’ comparison (202) of Herodotus’ usage with that found in the inscriptions from the Asklepieion at Epidauros, where much the same terminology appears.

[ back ] 65. ἀνὴρ μέγας τε καὶ εὐειδής: 5.56.1; 7.12.1. See discussion below of the presence of the divine in Herodotean dreams.

[ back ] 66. The choice of ὑπερστῆναι (stand over) as opposed to the more commonly found (in Herodotus) ἐπιστῆναι (stand near) expresses the exceptionally threatening and insistent nature of the dream-figure which appears to Artabanos. But cf. Homeric ὑπὲρ κεφαλῆς (Iliad 2.20, 2.59, 23.68; Odyssey 4.803, 6.21, 20.32, 23.4).

[ back ] 67. The series of dreams which visit Xerxes and Artabanos all begin with an address and challenging question: μετὰ δὴ βουλεύεαι, ὦ Πέρσα, στράτευμα μὴ ἄγειν ἐπὶ τὴν Ἑλλάδα, προείπας ἁλίζειν Πέρσῃσι στρατόν; (7.12.1), “Are you changing your decision, Persian, so as not to lead an army against Greece?”; ὦ παῖ Δαρείου, καὶ δὴ φαίνεαι ἐν Πέρσῃσί τε ἀπειπάμενος τὴν στρατηλασίην καὶ τὰ ἐμὰ ἔπεα ἐν οὐδενὶ ποιεύμενος λόγῳ ὡς παρ’ οὐδενὸς ἀκούσας; (7.14), “Son of Dareios, are you manifestly renouncing the campaign in front of the Persians and paying no attention at all to my utterances, as if you have heard from a nobody?”; σὺ δὴ κεῖνος εἶς ὁ ἀποσπεύδων Ξέρξην στρατεύεσθαι ἐπὶ τὴν Ἑλλάδα ὡς δὴ κηδόμενος αὐτοῦ; (7.17.2), “Are you the one who is advising Xerxes against invading Greece, as if you are concerned for him?”

[ back ] 68. E.g. Iliad 2.20: στῆ δ᾿ ἄρ᾿ ὑπὲρ κεφαλῆς Νηληίῳ υἷι ἐοικώς, “It stood above his head, looking like the son of Neleus”; Iliad 10.496: κακὸν γὰρ ὄναρ κεφαλῆφιν ἐπέστη, “An evil dream stood over his head”; Iliad 23.68: στῆ δ᾿ ἄρ᾿ ὑπὲρ κεφαλῆς καί μιν πρὸς μῦθον ἔειπεν, “He stood above his head and spoke to him” (=Iliad 24.682; Odyssey 4.803; Odyssey 6.21). Challenging reproach: Iliad 2.23–25: εὕδεις . . . οὐ χρὴ παννύχιον εὕδειν βουληφόρον ἄνδρα . . ., “You are sleeping . . . a man who gives counsel ought not to sleep all night . . .” and Iliad 23.69: εὕδεις, αὐτὰρ ἐμεῖο λελασμένος ἔπλευ, Ἀχιλλεῦ, “You are sleeping, but you have become forgetful of me, Achilles.” Penelope’s dream about the geese and the eagle (Odyssey 19.535–553) is the one Homeric dream which uses visual signs as opposed to purely acoustic ones. It is also exceptional in that it offers its own decoding when the eagle speaks and identifies itself with Odysseus and the geese with the suitors: nothing like it is found in Herodotus. On the interpretation of this dream, see now Levaniouk 2011. Herodotean dream-figures differ from Homeric ones in one important respect: while they have a strong connection with the divine, as is the case with Homeric dream-figures, their appearance is different. In the Homeric corpus, as Kessels 1978:219–221 and van Lieshout 1980:15–16 point out, emphasis is placed on the dream-figure’s resemblance to the person whose appearance it assumes: Iliad 2.20 (the dream-figure assumes the likeness of Nestor); Odyssey 4.796 (Athena looks like Iphthime); Odyssey 6.22 (Athena looks like the daughter of Dumas), whereas in Herodotus the dream-figures are generally of a supernatural size and beauty, and unidentified (the one exception being the dream-figure in Sethon’s dream [2.141.3], who is said to be the god Hephaistos). Such supernaturally large and beautiful dream-figures, which do appear in authors other than Herodotus (e.g. Aeschylus Persae 181–199, Plato Crito 44a–44b), are closer to the dream-figures found in dream records from the Near East, who sometimes have gigantic proportions and are also depicted as standing at the bedside of the dreamer. There are examples of both features in Oppenheim 1956:129, e.g. an Akkadian dream (§8 no.14 in his collection), in which the dream-figure is “a man, surpassing in size, of glorious form, beautifully [?] clad.”

[ back ] 69. Again, this owes much to the Homeric presentation of dreams: cf. Agamemnon’s dream, . . . ὣς ὁ μὲν εἰπὼν | ᾤχετ᾿ ἀποπτάμενος (Iliad 2.70–71).

[ back ] 70. For clothing functioning as signifier elsewhere in the Histories, see ch. 2.8.

[ back ] 71. The dream sequence has been identified by some (e.g. Reinhardt 1966:171; Solmsen 1982:89–90) as having “Oriental motifs” or, as Baragwanath 2008:251 sees it, distinctly Persian motifs: these include the exchange of clothing, the donning of the king’s robe, and the terrible punishments the dream threatens.

[ back ] 72. As has been mentioned above, no dreams experienced by Dareios are recorded by Herodotus. The major crisis of interpretation which he confronts in the Histories is a different one, and in terms of a different sign system: how to understand the gifts of the Scythians (4.131–132): cf. ch. 2.8 below. As with Xerxes’ dreams, the crisis of interpretation is linked to a major decision, whether to continue with the expedition or not.

[ back ] 73. I agree with Asheri 2004 on 1.107.1 that the two dreams are similar, but not that they transmit the same message. As Pelling (1996) points out, the two dreams should be viewed as a series, with the second building on the first, clarifying and specifying (the same phenomenon occurs with the dreams of Xerxes and Artabanos in book 7). The motif of urination is one which has an ambiguous significance, to judge from a fragment from an Assyrian dream-book which analyzes dreams about (male) urination, ranging from the negative to the positive: e.g. “If his urine [expands(?)] in front of (his) penis and [ ] the wall: [he will not have] sons; If his urine ex[pands] in front of (his) penis and [ ] the wall, the street: he will h[ave] sons.” Of special interest are the following: “If his urine expands in front of (his) penis and f[ills(?) all] the streets: his property will be robb[ed] and given to the city [ ]; If his urine expands in front of (his) penis [and] he does obeisance in front of his urine: he will beget a son and he (the son) will be king” (Oppenheim 1956:265) and “If he drinks his wife’s urine: he will live in great prosperity” (Bottéro 1982:12, citing Oppenheim).

[ back ] 74. The imagery of the dream can be seen as authentically Persian, as Asheri 2004 ad loc. shows, citing iconographic evidence for the motif of winged male figures in Achaemenid art and for its significance as symbol of the king chosen by Ahura-Mazda.

[ back ] 75. “Suspiciously Greek” is the comment of How and Wells. The olive wreath as prize for ἀρετή at the agônes of the Greeks comes in for particular Persian scorn and ridicule (8.26.2). Köhnken (1988:35) also points to the Spartans’ award of olive wreathes to Eurybiades and to Themistokles after Salamis (8.124.2). He rejects the connection many commentators make between the olive crown in Xerxes’ dream and the olive shoot that miraculously appears on Athena’s olive tree in the Erekhtheion after it has been burned down (8.55): cf. his arguments at 30–32.

[ back ] 76. Cf. discussion above, ch. 2.1, of their interpretation for Xerxes of the portent of the eclipse of the sun (7.37.3) as possibly motivated by a desire to please the king. Köhnken (1988:29) compares the simple passing over of these dream elements by the magoi with Onomakritos’ manipulative reading of the oracles of Mousaios to Xerxes, where he surpresses any negative passages and only reads those that forecast success for the Persians (7.6.4).

[ back ] 77. See ch. 2.6 below on the special nature of names as signs, which as markers of personal identity have an indexical quality, pointing to a particular individual, but which at the same time may point to other bearers of that name, and also may have referents beyond the individual or individuals names: cf. the incident of the Aiginetan Krios and the play Kleomenes makes on its meaning “ram” (6.50.3). The general possibility of more than one referent for a linguistic sign comes into play in the dream of Sethon, the Egyptian king (2.141.3–6). The dream turns on the god’s use of the word “avengers, helpers” (τιμωροί), the significance of which remains clear, but whose referent turns out unexpectedly not to be armed men, but mice, who destroy the invaders’ weapons. A similar play on the possibility of more than one referent for a linguistic sign is present in Herodotus’ account of Aristodikos and his challenging encounter with Apollo (1.158.1–159.4), which revolves around the word “suppliant” (ἱκέτης).

[ back ] 78. The problem of name and identity will arise again later in the same book with the coup of the false Smerdis, who just as he seizes power by the manipulation of signs, will be detected and dethroned thanks to the interpretation of signs. Otanes, judging on the basis of other signs besides (τῇδε συμβαλλόμενος, 3.68.2), has his daughter ascertain whether or not the Smerdis she lives with has ears, and thus establishes that this Smerdis is not the real Smerdis (3.69).

[ back ] 79. At 1.107.1, 1.108.1–2, 1.128.2, the terms ὀνειροπόλοι and μάγοι are used interchangeably, the latter being a more general term (as the expression τῶν μάγων οἱ ὀνειροπόλοι [1.107.1; 1.108.2; 1.128.2] makes clear) used also of the priestly caste in their capacity as interpreters of portents and interpreters of religious and secular law. Like ὄνειρος, ὀνειροπόλος has distinctly Homeric connotations (Iliad 1.63; 5.149). According to Vinagre’s study (1996:261–262), the word is not attested (except in Herodotus) after Homer until the first century CE, in Philon of Alexandria (On Dreams 2.42). He cites Philostratos Life of Apollonius 2.37 as evidence for the specifically poetic connotations of the word: οἱ γοῦν ἐξηγηταὶ τῶν ὄψεων, οὒς ὀνειροπόλους οἱ ποιηταὶ καλοῦσι, “Expounders of dreams, whom the poets call oneiropoloi.” Vinagre’s argument is that Herodotus used ὀνειροπόλος faute de mieux because the term ὀνειροκρίτης, which subsequently became one of the most popular terms used to describe interpreters of dreams, did not yet exist in his Ionic dialect (262). As evidence, he cites the fact that Herodotus uses the verb κρίνω in the context of dream interpretation exclusively with ἐνύπνιον (1.120.1) or ὄψις (1.120.1; 7.19.1) or intransitively (7.19.2). But the decision to use ὀνειροπόλος (if ever consciously articulated) could have been made purely on stylistic grounds, just as with ὄνειρος.

[ back ] 80. Herodotus does not actually tell us what the ὀνειροπόλοι said to Hipparkhos, merely that he “rejected” (ἀπειπάμενος, 5.56.2) the dream, and went ahead with the procession. As Mikalson 2003:16 comments, this is an unusual dream for Herodotus: “contrary to his usual practice, he neither has another interpret them nor attempts to do so himself. . . . This prophetic dream is uncharacteristically enigmatic.” Some (van Groningen 1949; LSJ s.v. ἀπεῖπον; van Lieshout 1980:172 and 243n97) have seen in the expression ἀπειπάμενος a reference to apotropaic ritual by means of prayer to deflect the ill omen, comparing the Latin averruncare.

[ back ] 81. They pay dearly for their interpretation: after Kyros stages a successful uprising against Astyages, Astyages’ first act is to have them all impaled, only then to arm those Medes still faithful to him (1.128.2).

[ back ] 82. The magoi use the verb προφράζω (found in the work only here), whose simplex, φράζω, is often associated with sign communication, whether referring to the sending of an encoded message or the relaying of an already transmitted message (ch. 1.2): it is thus a highly appropriate verb for the magoi to use of themselves, being concerned as they are with the interpretation of signs. The use of the prefix προ- is reminiscent of its use with προδείκνυμι (e.g. 6.27.3, 7.37.3), προσημαίνω (e.g. 1.45.2, 6.27.1), and προλέγω (e.g. 1.53.3), verbs used of divine foreshadowing by means of signs.

[ back ] 83. Munson 2001b:35.

[ back ] 84. In Caesar’s dream of intercourse with his mother, which receives a positive interpretation from the coniectores, the figure of his mother also represents the earth, which will subject itself to him (Suetonius Life of Julius Caesar 7.2).

[ back ] 85. The Peisistratidai are presented by Herodotus as particularly interested and involved in the interpretation and manipulation of signs: cf. 5.93, where Hippias is described as τοὺς χρησμοῦς ἀτρεκέστατα ἀνδρῶν ἐξεπιστάμενος, “of all men the one who knew the oracles the most accurately,” and cf. their association with the notorious Onomakritos the χρησμολόγος (7.6.3–5). Further discussion in ch. 2.3 and esp. ch. 3.1.

[ back ] 86. Instances and usage discussed in ch. 1.3.1 above.

[ back ] 87. That an ancient audience might not have dismissed Hippias’ favorable reading of his dream as completely misguided is demonstrated by Artemidorus’ discussion of such dreams (1.79). He stresses that the actual act of intercourse with one’s mother does not in itself imply anything bad or good: one has to consider the positions (αἱ συμπλοκαὶ καὶ τὰ σχήματα τῶν σωμάτων) involved. Circumstances surrounding the act in the dream are also important, e.g. whether the mother in the dream is alive or a corpse. If the mother is dead, then such a dream means death for the dreamer. Artemidorus, like Hippias, makes a connection between the figure of the mother and one’s native land, saying that such a dream can be favorable for a politician. As Vernant (1990:110–111) points out, it is possible that in Sophocles Oedipus Rex Iocasta refers to this sort of positive interpretation when she attempts to reassure Oedipus by saying that many men have slept with their mothers in dreams: “according to Iocasta, either this sign has no meaning that men can possibly interpret in advance (cf. 709) and so should not be given too much importance or, if it does indeed predict something, it is more likely to be a favorable event.”

[ back ] 88. Artemidorus 1.31 discusses dreams about teeth falling out, and says that they represent the loss of possessions.

[ back ] 89. Kroisos on the pyre finally understanding Solon’s use of the term ὄλβιος (1.86.3); Kleomenes realizes that the Argos mentioned in the oracle refers not to the city but to the grove he has just destroyed (6.80). The parallel to Hippias’ groan is particularly close in the case of Kleomenes, since here too συμβάλλομαι is used in connection with judging the fulfillment (συμβάλλομαι δ’ ἐξήκειν μοι τὸ χρηστήριονἐξήκειν, 6.80; cf. ἐξεληλυθέναι, 6.82.1, 6.108.1) of one sign on the basis of another sign (in the case of Kleomenes, the response that the name of the place he has destroyed is Argos).

[ back ] 90. Similarly, in the case of Kleomenes (6.80), cited in the previous footnote, Herodotus does not confirm or deny Kleomenes’ reading, and states this explicitly: “I cannot definitively say whether he was lying or telling the truth” (οὔτε εἰ ψευδόμενος οὔτε εἰ ἀληθέα λέγων, ἔχω σαφηνέως εἶπαι, 6.82.1). Kleomenes claims to receive an additional sign in the form of a flame projecting forth from a cult image of Hera (6.82.2): see discussion above, ch. 2.1.3.

[ back ] 91. Mikalson (2003:16n2) notes the rule and its exceptions.

[ back ] 92. She attempts to restrain her father by means of signs of a different kind, with words of ill omen (ἐπεφημίζετο, 3.124.2) spoken in a context where they should carry even greater power, the beginning of a journey by sea.

[ back ] 93. The combination of λούειν and χρίειν occurs frequently in the Odyssey in the context of the reception of guests and the treatment of honored persons: e.g. 3.466, 4.252, 8.364, 19.320, 23.154. But it is also relevant that these verbs can also be used of the care of a corpse: cf. e.g. Zeus’ orders that the body of Sarpedon be removed from the battlefield and washed and anointed (λοῦσον ποταμοῖο ῥοῇσι χρῖσον τ᾿ ἀμβροσίῃ, Iliad 16.669–670). The imagery of the dream thus plays on the two contexts in which the verbs may be used.

[ back ] 94. Cf. above, ch. 2.1.4.

[ back ] 95. Mikalson 2003:42n110 refers to Fornara 1990 and Frisch 1968:47–52 for the claim that a divine origin would have been assumed for all dreams in the Histories.

[ back ] 96. The account of the dream is, however, related by Herodotus at one remove, since he is repeating in extensive indirect discourse what the Egyptian priests say (2.136.1 and 2.99.1).

[ back ] 97. Supernatural figures: the φάσμα of the gigantic hoplite at Marathon (6.117.3); Phye, who plays the part of Athena in Peisistratos’ procession (1.60); two hoplites “having a greater than human appearance” terrify the Persians at Delphi and are regarded as sent by the divine (cf. θεῖα, 8.38). In the case of the dream-figure which appears to Hipparkhos, Nenci 1994 ad 5.56 argues that this is in fact the ghost (εἴδωλον) of Harmodios, just as he would have appeared in the famous sculptural group of the Tyrannicides. But given the ambiguous quality of the dream-figure’s words, it seems unlikely that the dream-figure should be so clearly defined and have so specific an identity. The height and beauty of the figure should simply be seen as generic attributes of the divine. Height and beauty are common features in descriptions of divine epiphanies in Greek literature in general: cf. passages collected by Richardson 1974 in his commentary on lines 188–190 and 275–280 of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

[ back ] 98. Nor should this be necessarily seen as Herodotus’ own view, as is assumed by van Lieshout (1980:41): “The very mention of this theory in its generality—admittedly to give a dramatic turn to his story—can well betray that for Herodotus dreams were taken to be significant only in exceptional cases.” Cf. Harrison 2000:135 on the fruitlessness of attempting to determine whether Herodotus subscribes to Artabanos’ view.

[ back ] 99. Likewise, the vividness (ἐνάργεια) of a dream has nothing necessarily to do with its veracity (ἀληθείη) or its comprehensibility: the latter is clear from Hipparkhos’ dream, which is described as extremely vivid (ἐναργεστάτην, 5.55), but which is couched in the riddling language of the ainos and oracle (cf. αἰνίσσεσθαι, 5.56.1). Cf. discussion in van Lieshout 1980:18–19. On the ainos see ch. 2.5, and on ambiguity in oracles, ch. 2.3.2.

[ back ] 100. Compare also the account of the oracle of the Brankhidai to Aristodikos (1.159.4), which deliberately seeks to mislead him, as Apollo admits: ναὶ κελεύω, ἵνα γε ἀσεβήσαντες θᾶσσον ἀπόλησθε, ὡς μὴ τὸ λοιπὸν περὶ ἱκετέων ἐκδόσιος ἔλθητε ἐπὶ τὸ χρηστήριον, “Yes, I order [thus], so that you may act impiously and be destroyed all the sooner, so that in future you will not consult the oracle about giving up suppliants.”

[ back ] 101. Other oracles associated with Kroisos: 1.47; 1.85.2. For the idea that oracles in the Histories not only confer meaning on the narrative action, but also have a cognitive function, compensating for the shortcomings of prose in a work that aspires to be epic, cf. Calame 2003:153.

[ back ] 102. Roughly a third of those who consult oracles in the work are non-Greeks.

[ back ] 103. Discussed further below, ch. 2.3.2. The Athenians are also shown on two occasions deciding the meaning of an oracle by debate: 7.142.1–143.3 and 7.189.1.

[ back ] 104. Other instances of the expression in connection with the performance of ritual activity: colonization of Sardinia by citizens of Phokaia (1.165.1); foundation of sanctuary of Erinyes by the Aigeidai of Sparta (4.149.2); return of cult image of Apollo to Boiotia (6.118.3); institution of hero cult of Artakhaies by Akanthioi (7.117.2); sacrifice to Boreas by Athenians (7.189.1); ritual exclusion of descendants of Athamas from prytaneum by Akhaioi (7.197.1); attempted sacrifice of Athamas as scapegoat (καθαρμός) by Akhaioi (7.197.3); guarding of sheep sacred to Apollo by leading citizens of Apollonia (9.93.1). Cf. also the expression ἐκ τῶν λογίων, “on the basis of oracles” at 1.64.2 (purification of Delos by Peisistratos).

[ back ] 105. 4.150.3; 4.151; 4.155.3; 4.157.2; 4.159.3; 4.161.2; 4.163.2–3. Other examples in the Histories of oracles relating to colonization: 1.165.1 (Kyrnos); 4.178 (Phla); 5.43 (Herakleia in Sicily). On colonization oracles, see Malkin 1987; Malkin 1989 (on Cyrene: 139–140); Malkin 2003; Parker 1985:306–307; and Dougherty 1992.

[ back ] 106. Mikalson (2002:195) makes the point that “[o]nly oracles have a named divine agent.” On the unspecified divine in portents and dreams, see chapters 2.1.4 and 2.2.5 above.

[ back ] 107. Discussed in ch. 3.2.1 below. For σημαίνω in the sense of the transmission of a sign without decoding it, see ch. above.

[ back ] 108. Cf. Munson 2005:67–69 on this passage, and esp. 68n3, presenting evidence for the voice of birds as metaphor for the voice of the poet, “who produces speech that is abnormal but close to that of the gods.” She cites Alcman PMG 39, 40 as an example, referring to Nagy 1990b:88. The combination of birdsong, foreign women, and prophecy is especially vivid in Aeschylus Agamemnon 1050–1052 and the picture of Cassandra. Cf. Harrison 2000:128n26 for further passages that make this association.

[ back ] 109. For an etymological link between μαντική and μαίνομαι cf. Plato Phaedrus 244b6–c5. The question of the Pythia’s μανία and what it amounts to is still a vexed one. Maurizio 1995 has recently surveyed the problem and evidence, and convincingly argues that it was the Pythia herself, and not her male attendants, who issued the oracular response directly, without intervention, and in the form in which it eventually reached the consultant. She also accepts that the Pythia had the ability to prophesy in verse form, and suggests that the Pythia’s altered state was not one of uncontrollable raging and maenadic frenzy.

[ back ] 110. According to Parker 1983:93n77, “The conception of the prophetess as the god’s bride . . . is hinted at mythologically, esp. in the figure of Cassandra . . . , but was certainly not enacted ritually in Greece; the sacred marriage in Patara is for Hdt. a foreign custom, tinged with charlatanism.”

[ back ] 111. χρησμολόγοι are normally purveyors and interpreters of oracles whose authority derives from an oracular source such as Bakis, Mousaios, or Laios, but not themselves creators of mantic utterances (with the exception of fraudulent practitioners, such as the notorious Onomakritos, 7.6.3, discussed in ch. 3.1 below). The passage could be interpreted to mean that the selection and subsequent performance of an apposite oracle was made under divine influence. Cf. 1.62.4 ἐνθαῦτα θείῃ πομπῇ χρεώμενος παρίσταται Πεισιστράτῳ Ἀμφίλυτος ὁ Ἀκαρνὰν χρησμολόγος ἀνήρ, “Then, under divine guidance, Amphilytos, the seer from Akarnania, stood by Peisistratos.” What strikes Peisistratos is the timing and circumstance of the oracle’s utterance by Amphilytos, and this is reflected in Herodotus’ description of his actions: he “receives” (δέκεσθαι, 1.63.1) the oracle, the expression used of the recognition of an utterance as a κληδών or omen (discussion and references in ch. 2.1.2 above). The craft of the mantis Euenios is described as “inborn” (ἔμφυτος, 9.94.3): for more on this figure cf. ch. 2.4.2 below.

[ back ] 112. Other instances of the god as subject of the verb: 1.69.2; 1.91.5; 1.159.2; 5.1.2; 6.80. The majority of these instances occur in the direct or reported speech of figures in the work, with 5.1.2 and 1.159.2 being spoken by Herodotus himself. Cf. Mikalson 2003:55 on the question of oracular voice: “In the first of the two oracles to the Athenians the Pythia orders the Athenians to ‘leave my sanctuary,’ and in the second she says, ‘I will tell you this.’ The question here and elsewhere is who is the ‘I’ of the oracular voice from Delphi. In some cases it is umistakably Apollo; in others, as for the ‘wooden wall’ oracle, recipients react as though it is Apollo; and in no case need we assume it is the Pythia herself. Clearly the oracular ‘I’ is Apollo. . . . [The Pythia] spoke the words, but the words were Apollo’s.”

[ back ] 113. The Pythia (albeit corrupted by the Alkmaionidai, on which see ch. 3.1) is said to προσημαίνειν (6.123.2), while the god is said to σημαίνειν (7.142.2) by the term “wooden wall” that the Athenians are to trust in their fleet.

[ back ] 114. The oracular first person is also found in the reply of the Delphic oracle to Kroisos: οἶδα δ’ ἐγὼ ψάμμου τ’ ἀριθμὸν καὶ μέτρα θαλάσσης (1.47.3), “I know the number of grains of sand and the measure of the sea.” Parke and Wormell 1956:2.xxii–xxiii take this as a sign of authenticity in oracles: “Again, at any rate until period VII [i.e. down to 300 BCE] the Pythia when prophesying was regarded as possessed by the god. Her own personality was lost and replaced by that of Apollo. It was not she but the god in her who spoke. Thus authentic oracles down to period VII always allude to Apollo in the first person, and any which refer to him in the third person may confidently be rejected.” The vexed question of “authenticity” and dating of oracles is probably incapable of resolution in this manner.

[ back ] 116. An exception is formed by collections of oracles of figures such as Bakis (8.20; 8.77; 8.96.2; 9.43), Mousaios (7.6.3; 8.96.2; 9.43), and Laios (5.43), which relate to a wide variety of matters and are not promulgated in response to any particular question. Another exception is the phenomenon of the ἐπίκοινον χρηστήριον, an oracle given at the same time to the Argives and Milesians (6.19; 6.77.2). Herodotus presents the two oracles as distinct and unrelated to each other, but they are delivered simultaneously, the one relating to the Milesians being unrequested and delivered in their absence, and described as an addition (παρενθήκη) to the main body, which relates to the Argives (6.19.1). Cf. Piérart 2003 on this, who sees it as “a single oracle bearing upon a single theme,” originally aimed at the Milesians, here termed “Argives” in the Homeric sense of Greeks in “general.”

[ back ] 117. Are we to imagine this response too to have been delivered by the mysterious voice coming from the temple, or is this once more an oracular communication? In any case, Herodotus creates the impression of a direct and unmediated dialogue between Aristodikos and Apollo.

[ back ] 118. Another instance is the Athenian request (backed by a threat not to leave the temple) for a more favorable oracle after they have received an unremittingly gloomy response from the Pythia (7.140.2–3). The second oracle explains Athena’s attempts to persuade Zeus to arrange a better outcome for the Athenians: οὐ δύναται Παλλὰς Δί’ Ὀλύμπιον ἐξιλάσασθαι, | λισσομένη πολλοῖσι λόγοις καὶ μήτιδι πυκνῇ (7.141.3), “Pallas is not able to placate Olympian Zeus, though she begs him with many speeches and shrewd cunning.” Cf. Apollo’s attempts to intercede with the Moirai on Kroisos’ behalf (1.91.2).

[ back ] 119. Cf. e.g. the Pythia’s address to Kroisos as a “big fool” (μέγα νήπιε Κροῖσε, 1.85.2), the form and tone of which recall the Hesiodic μέγα νήπιε Πέρση (WD 633, noted by Parke and Wormell 1956:2.xxv) and the Hesiodic tradition of advice and blame by means of ainos. On the figure of Kroisos and the ainos tradition, see Nagy 1990b:274–313. For literal stamps and seals (σφρηγίς, σήμαντρον) in Herodotus and their function as sign-bearers, see ch. 2.8.4 below.

[ back ] 120. Another foreshadowing: the banquet of Thebans and Persians in which a Persian guest weeps in impotent foreknowledge of the disaster about to befall them (9.16.3).

[ back ] 121. Cf. Herodotus’ avowal that he knows “these and many other similar oracles of Mousaios relating to the Persians” (ταῦτα μὲν καὶ παραπλήσια τούτοισι ἄλλα Μουσαίου ἔχοντα οἶδα ἐς Πέρσας, 9.43.2) and cf. ch. 3.2 on Herodotus’ self-presentation as a master of signs. In a way, Herodotus does know the “measurements of the sea” (μέτρα θαλάσσης): at 4.86.4, he gives the dimensions of the Black Sea (ὁ μέν νυν Πόντος οὗτος καὶ Βόσπορός τε καὶ Ἑλλήσποντος οὕτω τέ μοι μεμετρέαται), as noted by Nagy (1990b:235).

[ back ] 122. 25 total, the majority from Delphi. The sole oracle in iambic trimeter is at 1.174.5. Of the remaining oracles reported in indirect speech by Herodotus it is difficult to say whether we are invited to assume an “original” in prose or in verse form. At 4.163.2–3, for example, Herodotus presents the oracle to Arkesilaos III as direct speech and in prose form, but Parke and Wormell (1956) see evidence of metrical patterns here, and reproduce the passage (no. 70 in their collection) in reconstructed verse form (the handiwork of Diels 1897:19–20). The interlocutor Theon in Plutarch’s dialogue about why the Delphic oracle no longer prophesies in verse reminds us that prose oracles were issued as well as ones in verse (Moralia 403A).

[ back ] 123. Cf. Colvin 1999:60 on epic-Ionic in quotations of poetry and oracles.

[ back ] 124. See now Kurke 2009, an incisive exploration of the connections between coinage and oracles and the term κίβδηλος.

[ back ] 125. Kurke 2009:436: “If we return to the passages in Book 1 to see what these counterfeit oracles have in common with the sequence in Book 5, we find that, paradoxically, it is the failure of deliberation that makes them counterfeit. In both cases in Book 1, the text exposes what a counterfeit oracle lacks by retroactively supplying a twofold process of deliberation or consultation: first, the recipient of a riddling or ambiguous oracle should consult the god again; second, the recipient should engage in communal discussion and interpretation (or, at the very least, accept advice from human advisors). Thus both narratives reveal the need for the same dual intervention—both divine and human, inextricably implicated in each other (like phusis and nomos wedded in civic coin).”

[ back ] 126. Cf. Kurke 2009:426, citing Theognis 117–124 on the κίβδηλος ἀνήρ, esp. 123–124 on the gods themselves as counterfeiters: τοῦτο θεὸς κιβδηλότατον ποίησε βροτοῖσιν | καὶ γνῶναι πάντων τοῦτ᾿ ἀνιηρότατον, “This is the most counterfeit thing the divine has contrived for mortals, and the hardest of all to find out.”

[ back ] 127. For discussion of the term ἄσημος, see ch. 1.3.2 above.

[ back ] 128. Kurke 2009:433.

[ back ] 129. Kleomenes also protests against Apollo’s deception: ὦ Ἄπολλον χρηστήριε, ἦ μεγάλως με ἠπάτηκας φάμενος Ἄργος αἱρήσειν (6.80), “O Apollo of the oracles, you have deceived me greatly indeed, claiming that I would take Argos.”

[ back ] 130. Cf. Mikalson 2002:195: “Oracles in particular might appear misleading and be so initially, but in the most flagrant such cases Herodotus takes pains to have the recipients themselves ultimately acknowledge the oracle’s correctness (e.g. 1.91.4–6, 6.76.1 and 80).”

[ back ] 131. Dougherty 1992:43, summarizing the view of Vernant 1974.

[ back ] 132. The misinterpretation of oracles in the Histories is sometimes overstated in secondary literature, e.g. Harrison 2000:61 (“frequent misinterpretation”). Cf. ch. 3.2.1 below.

[ back ] 133. Parker 1985:301. See also Maurizio 1997:316–317 on 7.140–144; interpretation by the community as a “collection of experts” who validate the oracle, cf. Kurke 2009, esp. 434–436.

[ back ] 134. This idea is articulated clearly in Plutarch’s dialogue “Why the Pythia no longer gives oracles in verse.” One of the participants, Theon, develops the idea that in previous times the god cloaked his message in ambiguity: τούτοις οὖν περιέβαλον ὑπονοίας καὶ ἀμφιλογίας, αἳ πρὸς ἑτέρους ἀποκρύπτουσαι τὸ φραζόμενον οὐ διέφευγον αὐτοὺς οὐδὲ παρεκρούοντο τοὺς δεομένους καὶ προσέχοντας (Moralia 407E), “He surrounded these things [information in his oracles] with hidden meanings and ambiguities, which hid the message from others but did not escape them or deceive those who needed to know and who concentrated.” Note Plutarch’s use of φράζομαι to describe the encoded message of the god: see ch. 1.3.4 above on this verb as marker and discussion of the oracle of the Siphnians (3.7.3) below.

[ back ] 135. Thus at 5.56.1 the verb αἰνίσσεσθαι is used of the words of a dream-figure which delivers a message in oracular dactylic hexameters to Hipparkhos on the eve of the Panathenaia. Though riddling, the dream itself can be referred to as “extremely clear” (ἐναργεστάτην, 5.55). See ch. 2.2 above and cf. Munson 2001a:196: “These words exemplify both the value of verbal signs from the gods and the problems they create for the inquirer.” On the ainos, double-encoding, and the σοφός, see Nagy 1990b, esp. 146–150, and on the connection between αἴνιγμα and the oracle, Pucci 1996:9–16; Manetti 1993; Struck 2005:160–165.

[ back ] 136. For σοφίη and the interpretation of signs, see ch. 1.3.2 above. Cf. Struck 2004:90–96 on the idea of coincidence and meaningfulness involved in the term σύμβολον. He notes (90) that the verb συμβάλλειν “also carries with it a notion of meeting, as in bumping into someone or something.”

[ back ] 137. See ch. 1.3.4 for discussion of φράζομαι and its use by Herodotus in contexts relating to the interpretation of signs. The oracle is discussed shortly below.

[ back ] 138. Instances: 7.111.2 (προφητεύοντες, whose activity is clearly contrasted with that of the πρόμαντις); 8.36.2; 8.37.1; 8.135.3; 9.93.4. At 8.135.3 it may seem as if the πρόμαντις of the oracle of Apollo Ptoos is identical with the προφήτης: καὶ πρόκατε τὸν πρόμαντιν βαρβάρῳ γλώσσῃ χρᾶν. καὶ τοὺς μὲν ἑπομένους τῶν Θηβαίων ἐν θώματι ἔχεσθαι ἀκούοντας βαρβάρου γλώσσης ἀντὶ Ἑλλάδος, οὐδὲ ἔχειν ὅ τι χρήσωνται τῷ παρεόντι πρήγματι· τὸν δὲ Εὐρωπέα Μῦν, ἐξαρπάσαντα παρ’ αὐτῶν τὴν ἐφέροντο δέλτον, τὰ λεγόμενα ὑπὸ τοῦ προφήτεω γράφειν ἐς αὐτὴν, φάναι δὲ Καρίῃ μιν γλώσσῃ χρᾶν, “And straightaway the promantis began to deliver an oracle in a foreign language, and those of the Thebans that had accompanied [Mys] were greatly astonished to hear a foreign language instead of Greek, and did not know what to make of the present situation. But Mys snatched the writing tablet which they were carrying and began to write down the words of the prophêtês and said that he was speaking in Carian.” The expression τὰ λεγόμενα ὑπὸ τοῦ προφήτεω could refer to repetition by the prophêtês of the authoritative oracular utterance of the promantis. The verbs of speaking used to describe the utterance of each (χρᾶν and λέγω respectively) reflect this, λέγω, as opposed to χρᾶν, showing unmarked speech. λέγω can of course be used of oracular speech (1.47.2; 1.65.2; 1.67.3) (cf. εἰπεῖν: 1.85.2; ἔφη: 5.79.1, 6.86.γ.2) but in such cases the context rather than the verb of speaking always makes the oracular nature of the utterance clear. Maurizio 1995:70 (who does not mention this passage) argues against “the division of labor” between Pythia and προφήτης, pointing to the fact that the Pythia may be called προφῆτις (e.g. Euripides Ion 42, 321, 1322; Plato Phaedrus 244b) as well as πρόμαντις and that the distinction is perhaps “one of emphasis, rather than function. The word prophetes emphasizes the announcement of the divine message, while mantis emphasizes contact with the divine” (70n14). See also Nagy 1990b:162–167, who explores how the distinction between προφήτης and μάντις can sometimes be collapsed, and cf. Mikalson 2003:56n164 on promantis.

[ back ] 139. I return to the χρησμολόγοι in ch. 3.1. On their role and status, see Dillery 2005; Bowden 2003; Pritchett 1971–1979:3.318–321; Shapiro 1990, and Garland 1990:82–85. Bowden (2003:261n30) considers the possibility that the reference to οἱ χρησμολόγοι in 7.142.3–143.3 can be “analysed as a construction of definite article with plural adjective, referring to an indefinite group of people, ‘those who engaged in oracle interpretation.’ ”

[ back ] 140. Cf. Mikalson 2002:195n18: “Interpreters of oracles and dreams, whether Greek chresmologoi or Persian priests, however, are often in error.”

[ back ] 141. See ch. 1.3.1 above.

[ back ] 142. Munson 2005:83, who comments that the Perinthians sing the paean “oblivious to the language of the Paeonians. They only hear pure Greek as conveying meaning.” She compares the position of the Thereans and Cyrenaeans, who can only see in the name Battos the Greek meaning of ‘stutterer’ (4.155.1–3), while Herodotus insists that the word is actually the Libyan for ‘king’. For names and naming see ch. 2.6 below.

[ back ] 143. One could also argue that an additional relationship of metonymy is at work, since wood, the material from which the ship is made, comes to represent the idea of ship, as in the oracle given to the Siphnians, discussed below.

[ back ] 144. Cf. Johnston and Struck 2005:22 and Dillery 2005 on Plutarch’s presentation of Themistokles’ actions and use of sign interpretation.

[ back ] 145. Manetti 1993:34. For the use of reasoning in forecasting the future, cf. Euripides F973 N (μάντις δ᾿ ἄριστος ὅστις εἰκάζει καλῶς) and Thucydides on Themistokles (τῶν μελλόντων ἐπὶ πλεῖστον τοῦ γενομένου ἄριστος εἰκαστής, Histories 1.138.3). Cf. ch. 1.3.3 above on εἰκάζω and interpretation in Herodotus. Cf. Harrison 2000:245: “As for the alleged erosion of divination by democracy, the interpretation of oracles in no way precludes such rational deliberation but rather depends upon it. As is illustrated most graphically by the story of Themistocles and the wooden wall, the democratic assembly of Athens—the sanctum sanctorum of Greek secular rationality—was also a fitting venue for the textual analysis of the advice of Apollo. . . . There is no necessary reason then why democratic decision-making and divination should have been incompatible.” See also ibid., 194–195.

[ back ] 146. Cf. Manetti 1993:23, who notes that “the formula normally used by the oracle when giving ritual advice reflects that which was used to record decisions of democratic assemblies.” See also Kurke 2009 and Maurizio 1997:316–317 on interpretation by the community as a sign of authenticity: “[T]he community is a collection of experts who, in some crucial sense, author this oracle and in so doing deem it authentic—that is, they accept it as a divine utterance with predictive value, and their acceptance facilitates the remembrance and introduction of this oracle into the Delphic tradition. Authenticity as defined by the ancient audience/authors of oracles, then, was implicitly conferred (or denied) during the complex and contested exchanges of an oracular performance. In this context, authenticity means that an oracle was judged relevant or true and hence a bona fide member of the Delphic tradition.”

[ back ] 147. At 7.189, the Athenians’ interpretation of an oracle that instructs them to call upon their brother-in-law as an ally is also presented as a collective endeavor, and their association of the γαμβρός of the oracle with Boreas, husband of Erekhtheus’ daughter, Oreithyia, is once more described by the verb συμβάλλομαι.

[ back ] 148. Other examples in Herodotus: 1.55.2; 6.77.2; 8.77.1; and, without ἀλλά, 8.20.2. See Fontenrose 1978 (“Definite Signs”) 166–170 and 185 for examples of this construction, which is one of the most highly imitable stylistic features of the oracular style, as its parodic use by characters in Aristophanic comedy demonstrates (e.g. Birds 983–988; Knights 198). Pace Crahay 1956:200 and Parke and Wormell 1956:2.xxii (“Without prejudice to their authenticity all such responses [i.e. beginning with ἀλλά] must be held to be incomplete in their present form”), ἀλλά need not indicate that the oracle is part of a larger text. On the question of fulfillment of oracles cf. Harrison 2000:138–139 and index s.v. fulfilment.

[ back ] 149. Again, cf. ch. 1.3.4 on φράζομαι.

[ back ] 150. The comment of Crahay (1956:260) on the φράδμων ἀνήρ could thus be applied to Herodotus: “Il y a dans cette prophétie un élément qui n’apparaît pas dans la solution de la devinette: δεῖ φράδμονος ἀνδρός. Le sens en paraît clair: seul un sage peut comprendre les menaces et les pièges de la prosperité. Tel est biên l’enseignement qui se dégage de toutes les fictions analogues. Et n’expriment-elles pas toutes les leçons de morale pratique qui constituent la doctrine des Sept Sages?”

[ back ] 151. Manetti 1993:26. The “ambush” (λόχος) works on two levels. On one level it is the place of concealment, reminding one of the famous κοῖλος λόχος, the wooden horse at Troy (Odyssey 4.277), and on another it includes the group of men who perpetrate the “ambush”.

[ back ] 152. Cf. discussion of 7.57.2 in ch. 2.1.6.

[ back ] 153. For another instance of an oven to be taken in a metaphorical sense, cf. the marturion and sumbolaion which the ghost of Melissa sends to Periandros, 5.92.η.2 (referred to in ch. 1.1.2 and 1.1.4 above).

[ back ] 154. The feminine gender of the expression in Greek and its general use in the poetic tradition (e.g. Odyssey 1.50; Pindar Isthmian 1.8) would most naturally lead one understand it as an adjective qualifying an island.

[ back ] 155. For Manetti (1993:27), however, the referent remains a mystery: “This is never explained and thus remains incomprehensible to us, too.”

[ back ] 156. Cf. Munson 2001a:244–251 on cultural code and animals.

[ back ] 157. Corcella (Asheri et al. 2007 ad loc.) compares Iliad 2.480–481, comparison of Agamemnon to the finest-looking bull of the herd, where the sacrificial overtones are not however as obvious. For καλλιστεύω in a sacrificial context, again involving a human victim, compare Histories 7.180, where the Persians sacrifice the most handsome. See further ch. 2.6 below. For an actual example of βόες καλλιστεύοντες in a sacrificial context in a fourth-century BCE inscription from Athens, see Sokolowski 1969 (33B 21).

[ back ] 158. Cf. also Teisamenos’ error (ἁμαρτὼν τοῦ χρηστηρίου, 9.33.2) in interpreting the oracle which tells him that he will win five “contests” (ἀγῶνες). Teisamenos takes the referent of ἀγῶνες to be athletic contests, not military ones. On Teisamenos as mantis, see ch. 2.4 below.

[ back ] 159. Cf. Schütrumpf 1989 on this passage and the combination of hamartia and involuntariness in Aristotle and this tradition in earlier authors. For a summary of scholarship on Herodotus, tragedy, and the tragic, see Saïd 2002.

[ back ] 160. For this distinction in antiquity, cf. e.g. Servius on Aeneid 6.190, where a distinction is made between auguria impetrativa (solicited signs) and auguria oblativa (unsolicited signs).

[ back ] 161. Other types of mantikê are surveyed in Halliday 1913 and Bouché-Leclerq 1879-1882, still the fullest account of divination in the ancient world. Recent overview of Greek divination by Bremmer 1996; cf. Johnston and Struck 2005 and now Flower 2008b.

[ back ] 162. θύεσθαι (5.44.2; 7.134.2; 7.167.1; 9.10.3, 9.33.1; 9.38.1; 9.62.1), σφαγιάζεσθαι (6.76.1; 7.180; 9.61.2; 9.72.1), καλλιερέεσθαι (6.82.2; 7.113.2; 7.167.1; 9.92.2). For descriptions of and distinctions between these terms, see Jameson 1991:200–201.

[ back ] 163. The distinction between ἱρά and σφάγια is discussed by Pritchett 1971–1979:1.109–115 and 3.73–90. According to him, the former are “for divination purposes, which might be taken in camp before setting out, in the course of which the omens had to be interpreted as favorable before the action could be begun,” while the latter are “of a propitiatory nature, performed immediately before the action began and sometimes even after the troops had been committed” (3.73–74); “σφάγια were not necessarily, if at all, for divination purposes” (1.110). He is forced to admit, however, that this distinction will not hold for Herodotus, where the same consultation of sacrificial signs can be described at 9.37.1. as ἱρά, but is referred to as σφάγια at 9.41.4. Jameson (1991:201) suggests the following relationship between the two terms, in which ἱρά may have both a broader sense, covering a variety of practices, including σφάγια: [ back ] hiera “rites” [ back ] hiera “special parts of the victim” sphagia “rites focused on bloodletting” [ back ] hiera “signs derived from the parts of the victim” sphagia “signs derived from bloodletting [ back ] Jameson also rejects the idea that σφάγια were propitiatory rather than divinatory in nature (204) and stresses the concentration on the action of the killing of the victim and bloodletting (205): “In effect, the sphagia narrow down to a single action and an observation—the killing of the victim with a stab into the neck and the observing of the flow of blood that results.” See now Flower 2008b:159–165, who thinks one distinction between the two may be that in the case of σφάγια “the nature of the ritual may have necessitated that the seer slit the animal’s throat with his own hands” (163) and thinks that the seer wore different clothing and acted differently for each type (165). On the spirit surrounding the σφάγια, cf. Henrichs 1981:215–216.

[ back ] 164. Further examples in Pritchett 1971–1979:3.73–78. Pritchett (1971–1979:3.83) believes that the σφάγια of Pausanias at Plataiai (9.61.3, discussed below) did not involve extispicy, and from this attempts to derive a general theory: “Clearly, the method of taking omens from the sphagia was entirely different from the complicated procedure involved in extispicy.” Granted, to sacrifice and inspect the σπλάγχνα (“vital organs”) must have been extremely difficult under a hail of arrows, but is this not precisely the point of Herodotus’ mentioning this detail, to show Pausanias’ piety under extreme conditions, and contrast it with Mardonios’ decision to dispense with the σφάγια (τὰ σφάγια ἐᾶν χαίρειν, 9.41.2)? This is not to say that other signs connected with sacrifice may not have been noted, such as the movement of the victim or the flow of blood, perhaps; discussion and evidence in Pritchett 1971–1979:3.83–87.

[ back ] 165. See ch. 2.7 on ritual accompanying oaths. Cf. Burkert 1990 in general on the implicit Greek model that Herodotus notes variances from but does not articulate, and Mikalson 2002:197: “Standard features of his many ethnological surveys of non-Greek peoples are descriptions of the gods they worshipped, their major sanctuaries, and unusual cultic or burial practices, all usually noted because of their variance from the Greek.”

[ back ] 166. For another instance of “looking into” the mantic signs, cf. 4.68.3, where Scythian manties are shown ἐσορῶντες ἐς τὴν μαντικὴν, “looking into the divination”: here the signs do not reside in animal organs but sticks of willow. Possibly Herodotus transfers the familiar image of looking into the insides of a victim to the unfamiliar Scythian practice of rhabdomancy.

[ back ] 167. A distinction between natural or intuitive divination (μαντικὴ ἄτεχνος, i.e. “inspired” divination through dream, vision, and divine possession, mania) and artificial divination (μαντικὴ τεχνική, interpretation of portents, extispicy) is drawn by Plato in the Timaeus (71e–72b) and in the Phaedrus (244c–d). (The Greek terms I have used do not occur in exactly this form in these texts.) In these passages, Plato dismisses artificial divination and champions inspired divination in accordance with his theory of knowledge. For discussion of this distinction and caution against taking it as a hard and fast one, see Flower 2008b:84–91. In Herodotus, absence of detail about artificial divination is motivated perhaps not by disdain, but, as I have suggested above, by the fact that the interpretation of other types of signs is more challenging and of greater interest.

[ back ] 168. Μαρδονίῳ δὲ προθυμεομένῳ μάχης ἄρχειν οὐκ ἐπιτήδεα ἐγίνετο τὰ ἱρά, ἀμυνομένῳ δὲ καὶ τούτῳ καλά (9.37.1), “Though Mardonios was keen to begin battle the sacrificial signs were not favorable for this, but they were favorable for resisting an attack.”

[ back ] 169. Nor, as Pritchett well points out, should it be assumed that if generals abandoned or delayed an enterprise because of unfavorable signs this was merely a tactic. Thus Pritchett 1971–1979:3.68 mentions Macan’s interpretation of Kleomenes’ aborted crossing of the Erasinos into Argive territory (6.76), who says that Herodotus here has given “in this passage an imperfect and distorted tradition of a brilliant and strategic combination, projected and carried out by Kleomenes, the demonstration of the Erasinos being a feint to draw the Argives from the city.” Again, Pausanias’ refusal to give battle until the σφάγια are favorable has also been seen as a manipulatory tactic to draw the enemy infantry closer or keep his men in hand (see collection of quotations in Pritchett 1971–1979:3.78–80, which includes Nilsson, Hignett, and Burn). But neither in the case of Kleomenes at the Erasinos nor in that of Pausanias at Plataiai is there the slightest hint of this in Herodotus’ presentation. Herodotus is perfectly aware that signs can be manipulated (see ch. 3.1 below), but he points to this quite plainly when he wants us to see it (for example, by his use of the verb μηχανάομαι and its compounds, e.g. 1.59.3: other instances discussed in ch. 3.1). See also Flower 2008b in general for the necessity of taking ancient divination “seriously.”

[ back ] 170. Cf. ch. 2.3.1 on the question of correct recipient.

[ back ] 171. It may be used in descriptions of Greek sacrifice in hero cult: cf. καταγίζω used of thigh pieces burned to ashes and deposited in the tomb of Opis and Arge (4.35.4), ἐναγίζω used of sacrifice to heroized Phocaean dead on Kyrnos (1.167.2) and to Herakles ὡς ἥρωι (2.44.5). These are not divinatory sacrifices. All other instances of καταγίζω in Herodotus are found in the context of non-Greek ritual practices. This may be compared with Herodotus’ general descriptions of Egyptian, Persian, and Scythian sacrifice, which are presented explicitly and implicitly as departures from Greek sacrificial ritual, and which also increase the impression of exoticism: cf. e.g. Burkert 1990 on Herodotus’ accounts of non-Greek religion and ritual.

[ back ] 172. Cf. Corcella in Asheri et al. 2007 ad loc.

[ back ] 173. Herodotus’ description of the Immortalizing Getai, who every four years dispatch an unfortunate messenger with a list of requests to the god Salmoxis, might be included as another instance of non-Greek mantikê, though he does not explicitly describe it as such. They throw the messenger up into the air above a set of three spears pointed upwards. If the man is killed, it is a sign that the god is pleased and has accepted the messenger; if he is not killed, they take this as a sign that he is a bad man and expell him (4.94.2–4).

[ back ] 174. Noted by Benardete 1969:126. For Homeric interplay between σῆμα as grave marker and as sign in a broader sense, see Nagy 1990a:202–222. As mentioned in ch. 1.1.1 above, in Herodotus σῆμα does not generally appear in the general sense of “sign” as it does in Homer, but this usage should not be excluded as a possibility. The tombs and ancestors function in another process of signification mentioned in the very same passage by Herodotus, that of oath-making. Cf. ch. 2.7 for ritual accompanying oath and ch. 3.1 for manipulation by oath.

[ back ] 175. Burkert (1992:41–46) discusses the organization of seers into family-like groups, where the relationship between members is by either natural or artificial affinity, and provides Near Eastern parallels for this type of structure. See also Flower (2008b:37–50), who is insistent that membership in mantic families was more a matter of blood descent and not adoption (38): “In the case of seers, however, adoption could not have been as acceptable a substitute for biological descent. This was because mantic knowledge was inherently different from medical knowledge; like medical knowledge is was technical and teachable, but unlike medical knowledge it was also an innate gift.” But see 46: “The qualification of descent, however, does not exclude the possibility of adoption, which was common in ancient Mesopotamia.” On the prosopography of manties, see Kett 1966. Cf. Dillery 2005 on the independent diviner in myth and in the Archaic and Classical periods.

[ back ] 176. The other famous mantic family of Elis, the Klutiadai (Cicero De Divinatione 1.41.91), is not mentioned by Herodotus. Κλυτιάδην at 9.33.1 is generally agreed to be spurious. Cf. Dillery 2005:174, 192 on the three families of seers and Flower 2008a on the Iamidai.

[ back ] 177. On this interesting phenomenon cf. Dillery 2005:184, who notes that this region lacks large urban settlement and connects this with the independence of the mantis (or chresmologue): “His activities might be in the service of powerful chiefs, or, in the case of fifth-century Athens and Sparta, of an entire polis, but he seems always positioned outside the political structure of the state, essential to but also separate from the governance of the polis.”

[ back ] 178. Cf. Johnston’s general remarks (Johnston and Struck 2005:19) on the friction between diviner and ruling elite, both in mythic accounts and in accounts from the Archaic and Classical periods, where the problem of the authority of the independent diviner in the context of the polis arises (for which cf. Dillery 2005:183–219, esp. 208–209). On the mobility of the Greek seers, see Burkert 1992:41–46. On the mantis as “problem-solver,” see Bremmer 1996:98, and on his bravery see ibid., 99. Cf. also Munson 2001a:59–73 on Herodotus’ three seer narratives and Dillery 2005, esp. 183–219. The resourcefulness of seers forms part of what Burkert (“migrant charismatic specialists,” 1992:42) and Flower (2008b:29–30) have termed the seer’s “charisma”.

[ back ] 179. The connection between σοφίη and the ability to interpret and manipulate signs has already been raised in ch. 1.3 in connection with Likhas the Spartan, and is discussed again in ch. 3.1 and 3.2. For the application of the phrase ἀνὴρ σοφός to a mantis, cf. a fourth-century BCE funerary inscription from the deme of Myrrhinous in Attika in honor of Kalliteles, son of Meidoteles, himself a mantis: μάντεος ἐντίμο μάντιν, σοφὸν ἄνδρα, δίκαιον (SEG 23.161), “a mantis, son of a respected mantis, a wise man, just.”

[ back ] 180. Cf. Munson 2001a:52n30 on mimêsis statements in Herodotus, and 60–61 on this mimêsis and 52–59 on the mimêsis of the two Kleisthenes (5.67.1, 5.69.1). She argues that in both cases, the analogy between imitated and imitator works vertically and that they both involve an analogy between the citizen of a Greek polis and a monarchical ruler: “By using Melampus to interpret Tisamenus, the text emphasizes the invasive character of Tisamenus’ request and paradoxically transforms his achievement of citizenship into a metaphor for the acquisition of kingly power” (61).

[ back ] 181. Cf. Burkert 1985b:147: “The god of purifications must also be an oracle god.”

[ back ] 182. On healing as part of a seer’s competency, for which there is more evidence in the Archaic period than in the Classical, see Flower 2008b:27–29.

[ back ] 183. Cf. ch. 2.6 below on the introduction of the names of the gods from Egypt.

[ back ] 184. Cf. Munson 2001a:70–73 on the episode and in particular her observation (70) that the narrative concerning Euenios separates this issue of compensation from the profession of seer, but “maintains the theme of the individual’s blackmail of the city by translating it into an ethical and juridical question of dike.” She points out that the episode differs from the others in its closer connection to mythical motifs, such as the Cattle of the Sun (Odyssey 12.127–133) and the punishment of the community by the gods (cf. Hesiod Works and Days 242–244).

[ back ] 185. See ch. 3.1 for other instances of σοφίη in connection with the manipulation of signs, and cf. 9.37.2 for the similar concept of μηχανή, discussed shortly below.

[ back ] 186. Also discussed in ch. 2.1.2 above. The figure of the strategically resourceful mantis emerges again in Thucydides, who describes (3.20.1–4) how the ἀνὴρ μάντις Theainetos, son of Tolmides, and Eupompides come up with a plan of escape from the besieged city of Plataiai. The attempt involves the making of ladders, but the length of these has to be calculated by counting the layers of bricks in the enemy’s siege-wall and estimating (εἰκάσαντες τὸ μέτρον, 3.20.4) the height of an average course of bricks. The themes of resourcefulness, measuring, and conjecture are highly reminiscent of Herodotean manties.

[ back ] 187. The reasons for the Spartans’ anger are not spelled out by Herodotus: the idea that Hege-sistratos may have given unfavorable readings, whether deliberately or not, is my interpretation, based on the case of Kallias (5.44.2). All Herodotus says is that the Spartans sentenced him to death because, according to them, they had suffered many terrible things (πολλά τε καὶ ἀνάρσια, 9.37.1) at his hands.

[ back ] 188. For the formula τῶν ἡμεῖς ἴδμεν used to flag the remarkable cf. e.g. 3.60.4 (temple of Hera on Samos the largest ever); 8.105.1 (Hermotimos’ revenge the greatest ever); 9.64.1 (victory at Plataiai the finest ever). On μηχανάω and μηχανή in contexts involving cunning and sometimes the manipulation of signs, see ch. 3.1 below.

[ back ] 189. Cf. the calculation of the mantis Theainetos in Thucydides 3.20.1–4, mentioned above.

[ back ] 190. The verb μηχανᾶσθαι, often an indication of σοφίη in the Histories (see ch. 3.1), figures prominently in this account (2.121.α.1; 2.21.γ.2; 2.121.ε.1).

[ back ] 191. For the theme of the mantis who foresees his own death, but does not leave his post, cf. Dillery 2005:204–206 on the anonymous mantis in Xenophon Hellenica 2.4.18–19 at the Battle of Munychia in 403 and the mythical figures of Amphiaraus and of Idmon (Apollonius Rhodius Argonautica 1.140, 143).

[ back ] 192. Cf. the tearful remarks of Thersandros’ Persian neighbor at a dinner given at Thebes some time before the Battle of Plataiai (9.16.4–5). Other places where a similar sentiment occurs are: 1.91.1; 3.43.1; 3.65.3; 7.17.2. Cf. ch. above on oracles and the tragic.

[ back ] 193. The motif is also found in accusations hurled against seers in tragedy: e.g. Sophocles Oedipus Rex 380–389, Euripides Bacchae 255–257; and cf. Dillery 2005:199, 208–209 on the themes of greed, misthos, and self-interest in descriptions of what he terms “independent religious experts.”

[ back ] 194. Cf. 3.106.1 for the theme of the extremities (ἐσχατιαί), which contain both the most precious and finest things and the largest and most monstrous animals and the strangest human beings and customs. Cf. in general Romm 1994 on this theme.

[ back ] 195. Here oath-making and divination are once again connected: cf. discussion of Nasamones (4.172) above.

[ back ] 196. Hartog 1988:129.

[ back ] 197. For the use of the term ἔπος in Herodotus, see Hollmann 2000. Whenever Herodotus uses the term (81 instances) it always refers to some kind of “marked” speech, that is, utterances set aside from normal speech either by form (verse, whether Homeric, oracular, or that of Aristeas’ Arimaspeia) or, by far the larger category, by content (e.g. gnomic utterance, ainos, insult, promise, threat, bon mot). What all of these instances have in common is that they are utterances which have consequences of some sort or another: thus, for example, the words purporting to be those of Dareios and ordering the killing of Oroites are described as ἔπεα (3.128), and the analogy Kambyses’ sister draws between the fight of a lion cub and a puppy and Kambyses’ murder of Smerdis is described as an ἔπος and leads directly to her death (3.32; and see n212 below). Looked at this way, ἔπος when used of an utterance in verse implies more than the simple fact that words have been arranged in a metrical pattern but refers to the authority that resides in it, as in the case of the pronouncement of an oracle or a line of Homer used as a μαρτύριον (e.g. 4.29).

[ back ] 198. The first definition is that of Verdenius (1962:389), and the second that of Nagy (1990b:148). Pindar’s praise poetry refers to itself as ainos or epainos, but “ainos can also refer to the narrower concept of a speech of admonition, or parainesis . . . or it can designate animal fables, such as those by Archilochus to admonish his friends or blame his enemies” (Nagy 1990b:149). Other modern definitions of ainos are listed by van Dijk (1997:78–82).

[ back ] 199. For logos as a designation for fable, see e.g. Aristophanes Wasps 1399: further references in van Dijk 1997:82–83. Ancient rhetoricians specifically cite this Herodotean passage as an example of muthos (in the sense of fable: cf. other examples in van Dijk 1997:84–88) used by historians: Theon Progymnasmata 2 (=van Dijk G20b), Doxapater Commentarium in Aphthonium (II 147 Walz = van Dijk 31T2), scholiast in Aphthonium (II 10 Walz = van Dijk 31T3). Doxapater claims that Herodotus used muthos in many places (ἐν πολλοῖς), Thucydides rarely (σπανίως). Ainos, logos, and muthos may all be used of fables.

[ back ] 200. As Hirsch 1985:226 notes, the structural opposition between sea and land in the ainos corresponds to dominance of the Greeks as a sea power and of the Persians as a land power, so the link between the signifier (fish, aulos-player) and signified (Ionians and Aeolians, Kyros) is not a difficult one to make. Hirsch (223) also points out the Near Eastern evidence for referring to conquered people as being captured like fish, especially a document of Sargon II in which he boasts that he “drew the Iamanean (i.e. Ionian) from out of the sea of the setting sun, like a fish.” Cf. also Ceccarelli 1993.

[ back ] 201. Meuli 1975:2.729 sees the mention of the net as an allusion to the Persian military practice of using the net to round up prisoners (σαγηνεύειν, described at 6.31.1–2, the Persian capture of Khios, Lesbos, and Tenedos).

[ back ] 202. The ainos is also used as a weapon of the weaker against the stronger, as will be seen in instances below, but here it is a tool used by the stronger against the weaker. Cf. Meuli 1975: 2.744: “Besonders als Waffe des Kleinen, Schwachen gegenüber dem Mächtigen haben wir die Fabel kennengelernt; nun bedient sich aber auch der Mächtige gelegentlich dieser Redeform, die er so oft hat hören müssen, gegenüber dem Kleinen, und dann nimmt sie gern ironisch drohenden Ton an.”

[ back ] 203. For the pattern of general confusion and subsequent resolution by an anonymous τις, cf. the debate concerning the oracle received by the Thebans (discussed in ch. 2.3 above): τοιαῦτα ἐπιλεγομένων εἶπε δή κοτε μαθών τις . . . (5.80.1), “While they were discussing such matters, someone came up with an idea and said . . .” and cf. 6.52.5–7. Cf. Harrison 2000:194: “The old man, the outsider, coming forward with the correct interpretation is almost a cliché of the interpretation of oracles.”

[ back ] 204. The βλαστός, or shoot, appears as a sign in a different sign system, in the portent of the olive tree on the Athenian akropolis (8.55), where it signifies the regrowth of the city and the return of the goddess: see ch. 2.1 above. Cf. also the verbs βλαστάνω and ἀναβλαστάνω, used exclusively in the Histories in a metaphorical sense of the flourishing of a city (7.156.2) but also of the blooming of evil (3.62.4, 5.92.δ.1). Vegetal imagery is also at play in the ainos about Glaukos, whose line is destroyed “root and branch” (πρόρριζος, 6.86.δ; and in Solon’s ainos to Kroisos, 1.32.9).

[ back ] 205. Fear as a reaction to an ainos is also found at 6.2.1: Histiaios flees in fear (δείσας) after Artaphrenes delivers his metaphor about Histiaios stitching the shoe of the Ionian Revolt (see below).

[ back ] 206. Ancient discussions of the ainos mention the plant realm as well as the animal world as settings: cf. the definition in e.g. Eustathius on Iliad 11.430 (= van Dijk 4T35): ὁ μὲν αἶνος λόγος ἐστὶ μυθικὸς ἐκφερόμενος ἀπὸ ἀλόγων ζῴων ἢ φυτῶν πρὸς ἀνθρώπων παραίνεσιν . . . (“An ainos is a made-up [muthikos] story transferred from speechless animals or plants for the instruction of men”); cf. Munson 2001a:240–241 on discussion of Kallimakhos’ dispute of the laurel and the olive, which is in a specifically Lydian setting (Mt. Tmolos). Cf. Munson 2001a:244 (cf. 251) on the role of animals in metaphors and symbolic code between divine and human: “As a field on which god operates more directly, the animal world represents an intermediary between the divine and human realms. Translated into historical terms, this view encompasses the idea that, on the one hand, animal events reflect human events and, on the other hand, the ways in which they do so mysteriously register divine reaction.”

[ back ] 207. Benardete (1969:168) notes that “the simile of the pine-tree becomes a real threat when the deed which it suggests is grasped.” Both Macan 1895 and How and Wells 1928 seem to miss the point of the image of the pine tree: “No adult Lampsakene could have been at a loss for an explanation of the bitter jest of Kroisos: nor could Hdt. had he read—or remembered—the passage in Charon.” The relevant passage in Kharon of Lampsakos (FGH i.33 fr.6; Strabo 589) tells us that the old name of Lampsakos was Pituousa, “the place of pines,” but, while appropriate for Kroisos’ image, it does not explain the threat behind the simile: if anything, it helps to mask it. ’’

[ back ] 208. The connection between the verb ῥάπτω (‘stitch together’) and δόλος (‘guile, trick’) is made for example at Odyssey 3.118–119: εἰνάετες γάρ σφιν κακὰ ῥάπτομεν ἀμφιέποντες παντοίοισι δόλοισι, “For nine years we carefully contrived evil for them with all sorts of tricks.” At Histories 9.17.4 ῥάπτω is combined with φόνος: ἀλλὰ μαθέτω τις αὐτῶν ὅτι ἐόντες βάρβαροι ἐπ᾿ Ἕλλησι ἀνδράσι φόνον ἔρραψαν, “But let one of them know that they, barbarians, have contrived murder against Greeks.” One may also compare the role that stitching plays in Harpagos’ secret message to Kyros (1.123.4, discussed further in ch. 3.1). Weaving and cunning are combined in the figure of Amestris, the wife of Xerxes, who weaves an intricately embroidered cloak for her husband by means of which she tricks her husband into revealing his infidelity, 9.109.1: ἐξυφήνασα Ἄμηστρις ἡ Ξέρξεω γυνὴ φᾶρος μέγα τε καὶ ποικίλον καὶ θέης ἄξιον διδοῖ Ξέρξῃ, “Amestris, the wife of Xerxes, wove a great cloak, embroidered and worth seeing, and gave it to Xerxes.” Cf. discussion in ch. 2.8 and 3.1 below. For the shoe in a context of deception one may compare Hermes’ sandals in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes. Hermes, the arch-trickster, plaits (διέπλεκε, 80) a pair of sandals for himself in order to conceal his own baby footprints when stealing Apollo’s cattle (cf. καταπλέκω, 4.205 and discussion in ch. 2.8 below). As Detienne and Vernant (1978:302) show, the weaving of the sandals is intimately connected with the weaving of wiles: “the metis of Hermes at no time makes any distinction between the most sophisticated methods of twisting plant fibres together and the construction of the traps he intends to set.”

[ back ] 209. Cf. Hollmann 2000.

[ back ] 210. The elder brother is later referred to as νωθέστερος (3.53.1), “stupid.” The motif of two brothers, one in some way “handicapped” in terms of the ability to communicate by signs, the other unimpaired and even talented in this regard, can be seen in the two sons of Kroisos, Atys and his brother, who is mute. But which of these is impaired and which is not is put into question by subsequent events: Atys produces a reading of Kroisos’ dream by which he convinces his father that the death by an iron spear which the dream warns of cannot possibly arise in a hunting context. As it turns out, this is precisely where Atys meets his death, and his reading of the dream is in a way responsible for his death. The son who is “damaged” and “dumb” (διέφθαρτο, ἦν γὰρ δὴ κωφός, 1.34.2; Sebeok and Brady [1979:289n5] suggest that the problem would today be diagnosed as autism) and who seemingly has no ability to use signs (and is given no name in the narrative) ends up saving his father’s life when he shouts to a Persian soldier not to kill Kroisos (1.85.4).

[ back ] 211. As has been shown in ch. 1.3.2 above, the ability to decode is often associated with noos. Periandros proves himself a competent reader of signs in several contexts: he decodes (συνεὶς τὸ ποιηθὲν καὶ νόῳ σχών [5.92.η.1], “understanding what had been done and grasping it in his noos”) the visual message which his friend and fellow tyrant, Thrasyboulos, sends him (walking through a field of wheat and cutting off the highest stalks). He is also able to decode the message which his dead wife sends him as an authentic guarantee that she is really the sender (πιστὸν συμβολαῖον, 5.92.η.3): she accuses Periandros of putting his loaves in a cold oven. Only Periandros is in a position to decode this message and only Melissa could have sent it, since it refers to his sexual violation of her corpse. In this sense it comes close to the “I know that you know that I know” kind of ainos which Artaphrenes relates to Histiaios. Cf. ch. 3.2 below on tyrants and signs.

[ back ] 212. For another example of this, cf. 3.32.1, a passage Munson (2001a:251n67) describes as an “enacted ainos”: in a fight staged by Kambyses, a puppy is set against a lion cub. The puppy’s brother breaks its chain to take part in the fight and they are able to subdue the lion. Kambyses’ wife and sister cries because her brother Smerdis has no one to come to his aid. This reply (significantly described as an epos) is in the Greek view directly responsible for her death at the hands of Kambyses (3.32.3).

[ back ] 213. The technique is that used by Phoinix in his attempt to persuade Akhilles to yield to the entreaties of Agamemnon (Iliad 9.434–605). He relates the story of Meleagros as an ainos, as Nagy (1979:105, 240) points out: just as Meleagros eventually yielded to the pleas of the one closest to him (his wife) when the enemy was already in the city, so too Akhilles should yield to the requests of those near to him. Phoinix’s inclusion toward the end of his speech of a description of the Litai (502–512) is paralleled by Leotykhides’ quotation of the oracle to Glaukos which speaks of the “child of Oath” (6.86.γ.2). Like Ate, who is associated with the Litai and who quickly pursues and finds those who spurn them (ἡ δ᾿ Ἄτη σθεναρή τε καὶ ἀρτίπος [505], “Ate is strong and sound of foot”), the child of Oath also moves swiftly and catches up with those who break their oaths: κραιπνὸς δὲ μετέρχεται, εἰς ὅ κε πᾶσαν ᾧ συμμάρψας ὀλέσῃ γενεὴν καὶ οἶκον ἅπαντα, “Swiftly he comes after them, until he seizes and destroys their entire line and house.”

[ back ] 214. For οὕτω as a characteristic bridge between the ainos and its application to the context in which it is told, cf. Nagy 1990b:310 and references there.

[ back ] 215. Cf., however, Munson 2001a:90: “But given the context, that omission does not necessarily imply that they have avoided divine punishment, nor does having the message on divine justice conveyed by an individual who will himself be a historical exemplum for it impugn its validity.”

[ back ] 216. Nagy 1990b:244.

[ back ] 217. It is interesting that Solon assigns Kleobis and Biton second place in terms of ὄλβος, yet he devotes much more attention to their achievements than to Tellos’ simple death; they seem to exemplify Solon’s message about ὄλβος and the end more clearly and in a more extreme form.

[ back ] 218. By contrast Hesiod, for example, in Works and Days 213–216 describes how not even the good man (ἐσθλός), let alone the inferior (δειλός), is capable of withstanding hubris combined with atê: this follows a direct warning to Perses not to incur hubris. The Herodotean Solon describes the visitation of atê (ἄτην μεγάλην προσπεσοῦσαν, 1.32.6) but never includes an explicit warning against the behavior that attracts it. Nagy 1990b:248 compares the Solon of his own poetry (F 13.11–18 W) with the Solon of Herodotus: “In the actual poetry of Solon, then, the teaching of the Sage about this topic is direct: hubris is a cause of atê . . . the atê and hubris of Croesus are not confronted directly by Solon in the encounter dramatized by Herodotus. In his own poetry, Solon can speak in his juridical role as lawmaker. In his encounter with a tyrant, however, he is more diplomatic.” On the Herodotean Solon and the poetry of Solon, cf. Chiasson 1986.

[ back ] 219. Nagy 1990b:248. Following Immerwahr 1966:157–158, he suggests that the names of Atys and Adrastos can be interpreted as pointing precisely to atê and nemesis, the former name because of its resemblance to the noun, the latter via a more indirect path: Adrastos suggests the adjective ἄδραστος, “from which one cannot run away,” which in turn suggests the idea of nemesis, who is in fact is called Ἀδράστεια in Aeschylus Prometheus Bound 936. On significant names in Herodotus, see ch. 2.6 below.

[ back ] 220. On these and other interpreters and their failure to interpret, see ch. 3.2.1 below.

[ back ] 221. See ch. 1.3.2 above on noos and the interpretation of signs.

[ back ] 222. Nagy 1990b:248.

[ back ] 223. See Peradotto 1990:95–99, summarizing the modern debate on names, meaning, and reference.

[ back ] 224. Cf. Svenbro 1993:18n46: “The nature of their onomastic system facilitated interpretation and reinterpretation, as most Greek proper names are composed of semantically identifiable elements.”

[ back ] 225. It is significant that ὄνομα may refer to both a common and a proper noun. Cf. Munson 2005:31–32, who notes (32n11) that Herodotus does distinguish the category of proper names of individual persons from that of ethnic names in his description of the Atarantes of Libya, described as ἀνώνυμοι (4.184.1).

[ back ] 226. Presumably the layer of bronze is meant as protection (instances of the adjective κατάχαλκος listed in LSJ all have to do with bronze used as an overlay for protective armor, e.g. Euripides Heraclidae 376, of a wicker shield, ἰτέα). Cf. Stein 1889–1896 ad loc.: “Krios soll seine Hörner zur Abwehr der ihm bevorstehenden Unglückes verstählen lassen.” The name is also played on by Simonides PMG 507 (referred to by Aristophanes Clouds 1355–1356): ἐπέξαθ᾿ ὁ Κριὸς οὐκ ἀεικέως | ἐλθὼν ἐς εὔδενδρον ἀγλαὸν Διὸς | τέμενος, “Krios got a proper shearing when he came to the well-wooded and splendid sanctuary of Zeus.” One of the scholiasts to Aristophanes explains that Krios was a wrestler (παλαιστής) from Aigina. Ἐπέξατο “was shorn” seems to be meant ironically, and Krios may be presumed to be an unsuccessful competitor against Simonides’ patron. Page (1951:140–142) argues that Simonides’ Aiginetan wrestler and Herodotus’ Aiginetan statesman are in fact one and the same man. The name also appears in an Attic verse inscription of about 400 BCE, which also seems to play on the double reference of κριός: οὗτος, ὃς ἐνθάδε κεῖται | ἔχει μὲν τὄνομα κριο, | φωτὸς δὲ ψυχὴν ἔσχε | δικαιοτάτο (GVI i.1785), “The one who lies here has the name Krios, but had the soul of a most righteous man.”

[ back ] 227. The significance of names is played upon already in the Homeric poems, where such genealogies as Phemios Terpiades (Odyssey 22.330) or Noemon, son of Phronios (Odyssey 2.386), appear. The etymology of Odysseus’ name, one version of which is explained at 19.407–409, plays an important role in the Odyssey as a whole: cf. e.g. Austin 1972; Peradotto 1990; and Breed 1999.

[ back ] 228. A comparison between a human being and a sacrificial victim, also revolving around the verb καλλιστεύω, lies behind the oracle given to Arkesilaos of Cyrene (4.163.3, discussed in ch 2.3 above), where the ταῦρος ὁ καλλιστεύων (“most handsome bull”) of the oracle turns out to be Arkesilaos’ father-in-law, who is killed by the people of Barke. Here Leon literally becomes a sacrificial victim. Lions are not of course sacrificial victims either in Greek or Persian tradition, but sacrificial victims are the finest (κάλλιστος) of their kind, and the lion enjoys the highest status amongst the animals, being the prey of kings in depictions of Persian hunting scenes and the animal which reigns supreme in Homeric similes (e.g. Iliad 3.23–26). In the Histories the lion appears as symbol for absolute ruler in the oracular dream of Hipparkhos (5.56.1) and in an oracle about Kypselos (5.92.β.3). Macan’s comment on 7.180 surveys the different possibilities in a way that does justice to Herodotus’ sense of humor and irony: “There is no doubt a touch of irony here, but how exactly does Hdt. mean it? Did the Phoenicians ascertain that the name of this Adonis was ‘Lion’ and did this discovery seal his fate? Or does not Hdt. mean that such grand names are dangerous, and provocative of φθόνος, νέμεσις? Or, short of that, does he simply mean, ‘much good his grand name did him!’ ” Immerwahr (1966:260n69) sees a play on Leonidas’ name at 7.225.2: “The significance of the name Leonidas, ‘son of Lion,’ is emphasized by the alliteration that occurs at the mention of his tomb: ὅκου νῦν ὁ λίθινος λέων ἕστηκε ἐπὶ Λεωνίδῃ.” Cf. also Munson 2005:47.

[ back ] 229. Cf. ch. 2.1.2 above on the recognition of omens and portents.

[ back ] 230. Compare the name of Alkinoos’ wife, Ἀρήτη, ‘Prayed for’ (discussion in Peradotto 1990:108, where he also considers the possibility of the meaning ‘Accursed’), and the epithet πολυάρητος, applied to the infant Odysseus by Eurykleia as she presents him to Autolykos for naming (Odyssey 19.403–404). Cf. discussion in Peradotto 1990:138–139, who points out the ambiguity: ‘Much-prayed-for’ but also ‘Much-cursed,’ a “close synonym . . . for the very word, odyssamenos, which motivates the name Autolycus chooses.” Considering Demaratos’ subsequent expulsion and rejection by the Spartan people (at the instigation of Kleomenes and Leotykhides), perhaps we may find the same ambiguity in his name as Peradotto sees in Ἀρήτη and πολυάρητος.

[ back ] 231. The other version, told by the people of Thera and Cyrene (4.155.1), which Herodotus preserves, is that Battos got his name from his stuttering.

[ back ] 232. That all Persian names end in –s is only true of course of the Hellenized forms of masculine names: Persian (masculine) names ending in –a or –â are regularly interpreted by Greeks as names of the second declension ending in -ης or -ος (see following footnote). The tone of Herodotus’ declaration (Πέρσας μὲν αὐτοὺς λέληθε, ἡμέας μέντοι οὔ, “It has escaped the Persians’ own notice, but not ours”) is typical of his “master of signs” persona: cf. ch. 3.2 below.

[ back ] 233. Herodotus’ translations, however, bear little resemblance to the actual meanings of these names (all translations from Schmitt 1967:120–121): Dârayavauß = “das Gute festhaltend”; Xßayârßâ = “über Helden herrschend”; Artaxßaça = “das Arta zur Herrschaft habend.” Cf. the ingenious treatment of this question in Chamberlain 1999:267–272; cf. also Munson 2005:48–51. Herodotus’ point about the magnificence (μεγαλοπρεπείη) of Persian names still holds though, as a glance through the names explained by Schmitt 1967 shows. The passage should also be considered in its context, coming as it does after Herodotus’ statement about the significance of the earthquake on Delos (6.98.1) and his report of the oracle that predicted this earthquake (6.98.3). As Munson (2005:49) puts it: “As a third order of signs, he inserts the passage cited above, with his translation of the mighty names that ‘name’ the epoch. The context is prophetic as is the substance of the narrator’s ‘beginning of evil’ pronouncement.”

[ back ] 234. Discussion in Schmitt 1967, esp. 142–143. Some suggestions as to how Persian names may have been subjected to Greek folk etymology are made by Armayor 1978:156 and passim, but a good many of these are simply too far-fetched (e.g. “GOBRYAS really was a wail-teemer as the father of Mardonius,” presumably from γόος and βρύω; and “HYMAIES thy-man?”). It may be argued that this is in the nature of folk etymologies (cf. those made by Socrates in Plato’s Cratylus), but even so, Armayor’s are often not based on any natural or probable basis.

[ back ] 235. The Mega– prefix is a hellenization of Persian baga– (‘god’): thus Megabates = *Bagapâta “von Gott geschützt” (Schmitt 1967:130). The –phrenes suffix is a hellenization of Persian –farnâ (‘fame’: thus Artophrenes = *Artafarnâ “das Arta als Ruhm habend” (Schmidt 1967:129). Both names have “magnificence” (μεγαλοπρεπείη), in both their Greek and Persian versions. For a name reflecting on the σῶμα of its possessor, at least to Greek ears, cf. the name Abrokomes, suggestive of ἁβροκόμης (‘delicate-haired’) and Greek notions of oriental softness (ἁβρότης) and luxury (τρυφή).

[ back ] 236. Armayor 1978:151 and 156.

[ back ] 237. Bencsik 1994:40; Powell 1937:104. Iranian form as yet (Schmitt 1967:135n124) unreconstructed.

[ back ] 238. The naming of the earlier Peisistratos can in turn be seen as a reflection of his father Nestor’s powers of leadership and persuasion and a transference of these powers to the child. Greek names are often comments on qualities of the parent rather than the child, as Peradotto 1990 and Svenbro 1993:64–79 show.

[ back ] 239. Herodotus’ interpretation of Kleisthenes’ motives is not the only one possible, and in fact seems unlikely. Nenci 1994 ad loc. notes that the names of the tribes properly interpreted refer not to the animals themselves but those who raise them and that these are not nomina foedantia “ma di denominazioni chi riflettono diversificazioni di carattere economico e probabilmente territoriale.” He compares the names of the old Athenian phulai (5.66.2): Ὅπλητες (‘warriors’), Ἀργαδῆς (‘laborers’), Γελέοντες (‘cultivators’), Αἰγικορεῖς (‘herdsmen and shepherds’). On the meaning of the name Ἀρχέλαοι, see Nagy 1990b:179–180.

[ back ] 240. In the case of Kleisthenes of Sikyon, the engineering extends to signs of a different sort: the attempted removal of the hêrôon and grave of the hero Adrastos the Argive. Herodotus frames this in the same terms as the expulsion of a living person: ἐκβαλεῖν ἐκ τῆς χώρης (5.67.1), “expel from the country.” Note also the control of signs of yet another sort: rhapsodic contests are stopped, because the Argos and the Argives are praised too much in the Homeric poems (5.67.1).

[ back ] 241. As another case of mimêsis cf. what Herodotus describes as Teisamenos’ imitation (ἐμιμέετο, 9.34.1) of Melampous’ trick in obtaining citizenship for his brother. The two do not share the same name of course, but they do share the same profession of mantis (see ch. 2.4). On homonymy as revelatory of a significant commonality between name-bearers cf. Munson 2005:47n83.

[ back ] 242. While the Egyptian Nitokris’ name is attested (Nt-ikr.ti, ‘Neith is excellent’; Lloyd 1989), there is (so far) no attestation of the name Nitokris in a Babylonian context. Asheri 2007 ad 1.185–187 discusses various possibilities: that this refers to Adad-guppi, mother of Nabonido, the last king of Babylon, who appears in inscriptions to have been an influential person at court; that this refers to Nebuchadnezzar (change of sex?) or to Naquî-a-Zakutun, wife of Sannacherib. It may be that comparison with the Egyptian queen reshaped the name into an identical form. In any case, it is clear that identities of name and of deed are connected in the Herodotean version.

[ back ] 243. Nitokris of Babylon: ἡ δ’ αὐτὴ αὕτη βασίλεια καὶ ἀπάτην τοιήνδε τινὰ ἐμηχανήσατο (1.187.1), “This same queen also contrived the following plan of deception.” Nitokris of Egypt: τὴν ἔλεγον τιμωρέουσαν ἀδελφεῷ . . . πολλοὺς Αἰγυπτίων δόλῳ διαφθεῖραι. ποιησαμένην γάρ μιν οἴκημα περίμηκες ὑπόγαιον καινοῦν τῷ λόγῳ, νόῳ δὲ ἄλλα μηχανᾶσθαι (2.100.2–3), “They said that out of revenge for her brother . . . she destroyed many of the Egyptians by a trick. For she had an enormous underground chamber built and held what was ostensibly an opening feast, but she plotted other things in her mind [noos].” Cf. discussion of ἀπάτη, δόλος, and μηχανή in ch. 3.1 below.

[ back ] 244. The Babylonian Nitokris is also renowned for her hydraulic engineering, and though this does not form part of her trap, it does form part of her defense of the city (1.185–186).

[ back ] 245. Zeus = Amun (2.42.5); Apollo = Horos (2.144.2; 2.156); Dionysos = Osiris (2.42.2; 2.144.2); Demeter = Isis (2.59.2; 2.156.1); Artemis = Boubastis (2.137.5; 2.156); Pan = Mendes (3.46.3); Epaphos = Apis (2.153.2). See the table in Harrison 2000:210–211 for a full list of Herodotus’ equations of Greek and foreign gods.

[ back ] 246. Stein 1889–1896 ad loc.; Linforth 1924:283–286; Burkert 1985a. Cf. Harrison 2000:251–264 for a reexamination of the question with further bibliography. I am unconvinced by Harrison’s objections to the broader significance of the term οὔνομα in the sense of a place or category to which a name corresponds. He argues (253), for example, that at 2.43.1–4 “it is surely very unlikely that he could mean that the Greeks picked up from the Egyptians ‘the practice of giving a name’ to a mortal already recognized as an individual.” But it does not seem unlikely at all if one understands by οὔνομα ‘place or category to which a name corresponds’: it is Harrison’s particular phrasing “the practice of giving a name” that makes the proposition unlikely. His conclusion is that the passage must mean that Herodotus really thought that the Greeks did borrow the Egyptian names, but that these names underwent significant change after they were borrowed (264): “The names of the gods that came from Egypt might, in Herodotus’ view, have arrived in a rather different form from that in which he knew them in his own day.” This is, I suppose, a possible theory, but an unnecessary and unlikely one, and requires one to believe that Herodotus could consider that from e.g. Boubastis the name Artemis came about a result of a series of phonological changes. Harrison cites (264n52) in support of this idea Hekataios FGH 1 F 21 (the Phoenicians pronounce Danaë as Dana), but this phonological change is nowhere near as extreme as the changes required to produce Artemis from Boubastis.

[ back ] 247. Burkert 1985a:130: “Es geht nicht um einzelne, punktuelle Entsprechung von Lautgebilden, sondern darum, dass ein System von Bedeutungen ein anderes eindeutig abbildet.”

[ back ] 248. As with the other instances of συμβάλλεσθαι discussed in ch. 1.3.1 above, the verb is used in the context of matching the signifier to referent.

[ back ] 249. Anaxagoras, DK 59 A 52 (Aristotle Physics 187b2): διό φασι πᾶν ἐν παντὶ μεμῖχθαι, διότι πᾶν ἐκ παντὸς ἑώρων γιγνόμενον· φαίνεσθαι δὲ διαφέροντα καὶ προσαγορεύεσθαι ἕτερα ἀλλήλων ἐκ τοῦ μάλισθ᾿ ὑπερέχοντος διὰ πλῆθος ἐν τῇ μίξει τῶν ἀπείρων, “For this reason [all writers on nature say] that everything was mixed up in everything else, because they saw that everything came from everything. But things appear different one from another and are called different things on the basis of the thing that predominates in terms of quantity in the mixture of limitless things.” Derveni Papyrus col. XVII 13–14 (ZPE 47 [1982]): ἦμ μὲγ γ[ὰρ καὶ πρ]όσθεν, ὠνομάσθη δὲ γενέσ[θαι] ἐπεὶ διεκρίθ[η. Burkert’s (1985a:129) translation: “Die Dinge waren schon vorher da, die Benennung aber, dass sie geworden seien, erhielten sie, als sie sich abgesondert hatten.” Creation and naming occur together, for example, in Herodotus’ description of Arion, inventor of the dithyramb, who is described as διθύραμβον πρῶτον ἀνθρώπων τῶν ἡμεῖς ἴδμεν ποιήσαντά τε καὶ ὀνομάσαντα καὶ διδάξαντα ἐν Κορίνθῳ (1.23), “the first man we know of to have created, named, and produced a dithyramb in Corinth.” The actions of invention (ποιήσαντα) and naming (ὀνομάσαντα) form a unit joined by the conjunctions τε and καί, with the second καί joining the activity of performance (διδάξαντα) to that of composition.

[ back ] 250. Cf. Munson 2005:43–46 on the idea of the correctness of names in Herodotus and in fifth-century thought about language.

[ back ] 251. For the pyramid as a means to perpetuate the glory and name of its builder (μνημόσυνον), cf. e.g. 2.136.3–4 (pyramid of Asykhis) and discussion below, ch. 2.8.

[ back ] 252. Carpenter 1956:237, following a report of the German explorer Nachtigal (from 1869): “A Tibbu married woman (who, like the Carian women in Herodotus, may not eat with her husband) turns her face away when she speaks to her man and will not utter his name in the presence of others. Save in direst emergencies, the woman’s sisters and parents will not allow the man’s name to pass their lips. In consequence, when a young man marries, his name is thenceforth so seldom uttered that it virtually disappears, to be replaced by some circumlocution.” Parallels in other cultures: the practice of isihlonipho among the Xhosa of South Africa, where a new wife may not use words containing any syllable of her husband’s name or those of his family (Finlayson 1995); North and South American Indian practices described in Austin 1972:3.

[ back ] 253. There is no need to speculate on Herodotus’ reasons for silence beyond his own statement that it is not holy to mention the name of the god in these circumstances, “an unmistakable religious scruple” as Linforth puts it (1924:281). Lateiner (1989:65), however, treats these passages together with places where Herodotus will not relay ἱροὶ λόγοι (‘sacred accounts’: 2.46–48; 2.51; 2.62; 2.65; 2.81) and calls his reticence “an elegant excuse for avoiding an excursus into the irrelevant.” Leaving aside the question of the ἱροὶ λόγοι, it does not appear irrelevant to mention directly the name of Dionysos-Osiris in the four instances discussed, something that would take up less space that the circumlocutions Herodotus resorts to. For examples of tabu periphrasis as a phenomenon in descriptions of ritual, cf. Nagy’s study of the fire ritual of the Atiedian Brethren, 1990a:164–170.

[ back ] 254. ἔργον + ἀποδείκνυσθαι: 1.16.2; 1.59.4; 1.174.1; 2.10.3; 3.134.3; 3.155.6; 6.15.1; 7.139.3; 8.17; 8.89.2; 8.90.4; 8.91; 9.71.3; 9.72.2; 9.72.3. ἀπόδειξις of ἔργα: 2.101.1. ἀνὴρ ἀγαθὸς γενέσθαι: 1.95.2; 1.169.1; 5.2.1; 5.109.3; 6.14.1; 6.14.3; 6.114; 6.117.2; 7.53.1; 9.17.4; 9.71.3; 9.75. On the meaning of apodexis in Herodotus, cf. Bakker 2002.

[ back ] 255. Thus Odysseus cannot help but shout his real name as he makes his escape from Polyphemos (Odyssey 9.502–5) so that kleos for his ingenious and daring exploits in the cave may be recognized as his alone. The episode simultaneously reveals the other use that names may be put to, namely as focal points for curses, since it is through his knowledge of Odysseus’ true name that Polyphemos is able to tell his father Poseidon who is responsible for putting out his eye and so ensure that Poseidon’s wrath will fall upon Odysseus. Cf. Austin 1972:4 on name magic in the Odyssey.

[ back ] 256. Hippokrates names his son Peisistratos the Athenian in memory of (ἀπεμνημόνευσε, 5.65.4) the son of Nestor. Note the use of the μνημ- stem and the idea of the name as monument activating kleos. As we have seen, Kleisthenes the Athenian is named after his Sicyonian grandfather and in fact “imitates” his actions. Cf. Svenbro 1993:77: “The name of Cleisthenes the Athenian was at once a mnêma and a hope; when spoken aloud, the name evoked the memory of Cleisthenes the Sicyonian, the grandfather whom it was necessary to resemble. And, Herodotus tells us, Cleisthenes ‘did imitate [emiméeto] his maternal grandfather, Cleisthenes’ in the realm of political organization. The hope to which the name testified was thus realized.” Cf. also Samios, the name of the son of Arkhias the Spartan who died fighting (ἀριστεύσας ἐτελεύτησε) on Samos (3.55.1–2) and Svenbro 1993:78 on this: “Far from being an indication of the ethnic origin of its bearer . . . the name Samios here sums up the most glorious of the exploits of the Spartan Archias, Samios’ father. Each time that Samios is addressed by name, the kléos of his father resounds.”

[ back ] 257. On this idea, cf. Immerwahr 1960 and Bakker 2002:26. For an instance of a verbal utterance directly characterized by Herodotus as a μνημόσυνον, cf. the bon mot of Dienekes the Spartan: if the hail of Persian arrows will block out the sun, then at least the fighting will be in the shade. Herodotus goes on to say: ταῦτα μὲν καὶ ἄλλα τοιουτότροπα ἔπεά φασι Διηνέκεα τὸν Λακεδαιμόνιον λιπέσθαι μνημόσυνα (7.226.2), “They say that these and other like utterances Dienekes the Spartan left as a monument for himself.” Cf. Bakker 2002:26 and Hollmann 2000 on the use of the term epos in Herodotus. The concept of the μνημόσυνον is further discussed in ch. 2.8. On μνῆμα as funerary marker and tomb, cf. Henrichs 1993:171–172 and references there.

[ back ] 258. This may also be illustrated by the expression ὀνομαστός, ‘renowned’, applied to someone whose actions are worthy enough for his name to be mentioned. Thus at 7.224.1 Herodotus mentions other Spartans besides Leonidas who are ὀνομαστοί and says he has found out their names (and those of all three hundred of the Spartans who fell at Thermopylai), even if he does not mention them. At 7.98 he does however list the names of those fighting on Persian vessels who were most worthy of mention (ὀνομαστότατοι).

[ back ] 259. Other instances: Herodotus can catalog (καταλέξαι, 8.85.2) the names of many of the commanders of the Greek ships, but will mention only Theomestor, son of Androdamas, and Phylakos, son of Histiaios; he will omit the names of other Egyptian kings, except for that of Moiris, because they displayed no great works (οὐδεμίαν ἔργων ἀπόδεξιν, 2.101.1), and pass on to Sesostris (τούτου μνήμην ποιήσομαι, 2.101.2).

[ back ] 260. Lateiner 1989:69. Cf. Dewald 1987:165.

[ back ] 261. Pace Lateiner 1989:69, I do not think ἑκὼν ἐπιλήθομαι can mean ‘gladly forget’. It is simply the functional equivalent of οὐκ ἐπιμνήσομαι (‘I will not make mention of’). The qualification ἑκών stresses that it is a conscious, voluntary omission (not a lapse of memory, in other words), and ἐπιλήθομαι here means only ‘I do not mention’, not ‘I forget’, just as ἐπιμνήσομαι, in this context, means ‘I shall mention’, not ‘I shall remember’. For λαθ- as an equivalent of οὐ μνη-, or οὐ λαθ- as an equivalent of μνη-, cf. Nagy 1990a:210n22.

[ back ] 262. By “action” I have in mind any kind of human activity considered apart from speech. “Ritual” and “gesture” are considered as subcategories of the blanket term “action,” both involving action of a formalized nature used and recognized by a particular group. “Gesture” may of course at times form part of “ritual” but may also be used spontaneously. Under “ritual” I will here consider δρώμενα (‘things done’) rather than λεγόμενα (‘things said’). For ritual considered as a sign system, cf. Burkert 1979:35–58, esp. 48–49. Bibliographical references to studies on non-verbal behavior in Lateiner 1987 and Nöth 1990.

[ back ] 263. Lateiner (1987) is the first to have recognized and collected these Herodotean instances under the rubric of what he has termed non-verbal communication. He does not distinguish, however, between types and levels of communication (for example, non-verbal communication between figures in the Histories as opposed to communication between author and audience by means of the description of non-verbal signs). Each instance he lists is a potential act of communication, but he does not show whether it actually functions as such in the text. There is nothing to suggest, for example, that suicide (Lateiner’s category II.Z, 114) is presented as an act of communication in the Histories (pace Lateiner 1987:93).

[ back ] 264. The verb used of the Persians’ reading is κατεικάζω: for the simplex εἰκάζω as one of the verbs characteristically used of sign interpretation by the conjectural matching of signifier to signified, cf. ch. 1.3.3 above.

[ back ] 265. Cf. Aeschylus Agamemnon 1060–1061 (Klytemnestra to Kassandra): εἰ δ᾿ ἀξυνήμων οὖσα μὴ δέχῃ λόγον | σὺ δ᾿ ἀντὶ φωνῆς φράζε καρβάνῳ χερί, “If you do not understand and cannot comprehend this speech, signify as much with foreign hand instead of voice.”

[ back ] 266. The problem of distance, as well as secrecy, is solved in another way while still relying on (written) linguistic signs during the siege of Poteidaia by the Persians. The traitor Timoxeinos, operating within the city, and Artabazos, the Persian general in charge of the siege, communicate with each other by wrapping messages around arrows and shooting them into an agreed–upon place (8.128.1). The plan goes awry when the arrow ceases to function as carrier of signs but resumes its natural function of weapon: Artabazos misses the target and hits one of the citizens instead (8.128.2). For arrows functioning as significant objects themselves, cf. 4.131–132 (arrows as part of message from Scythians to Dareios) and ch. 2.8.

[ back ] 267. Instances of σημαίνω applied to signals in a military context listed in ch. above. The Phoenician traders who travel beyond the Pillars of Herakles signal their arrival to the locals by a puff of smoke (4.196.1). They use other non-linguistic signs (objects: cf. ch. 2.8 below) to communicate with the inhabitants: placing their wares on the beach, they retreat to their ships, while the natives come forward, inspect the goods and leave what they consider to be an appropriate amount of gold next to them. They retreat in turn, the Phoenicians come forward, take the gold and leave the goods if they agree, or leave both if they desire more. Neither cheats the other. A shield is shown at Marathon to the Persian ships as a message to set sail for Athens at once in order to take it before the Athenian army returns (6.115, 6.121–124). A problem revolves around the question of the transmitter of the sign since the sign is transmitted in such a way that the transmitter remains concealed: ἀνεδέχθη μὲν γὰρ ἀσπίς, καὶ τοῦτο οὐκ ἔστι ἄλλως εἰπεῖν· ἐγένετο γάρ· ὃς μέντοι ἦν ὁ ἀναδέξας, οὐκ ἔχω προσωτέρω εἰπεῖν τούτων (6.124.2), “Now a shield was shown, and there is no other way of saying this, for it did happen: but who the person was that showed it, I cannot say further than this.” Herodotus defends the Alkmaionidai against accusations that it was they who showed the shield. Cf. discussion of other uses of shields in sign communication in ch. 2.8 below.

[ back ] 268. Cf. ch.3.1 below on manipulation involving signs.

[ back ] 269. Messengers and translators are discussed below in ch. 3.2.1.

[ back ] 270. The message can thus be regarded as the visual equivalent of an ainos, on which cf. ch. 2.4 above. For συνίημι and νόος as terms used as terms relating to the decoding of signs, see ch. 1.3.2 above.

[ back ] 271. Further discussion of this scene in ch. below.

[ back ] 272. Cf. Burkert 1996:173 on the oath as “language validated”: “The unseen, with all those superhuman witnesses, gods, and avenging powers, must be bound back again to obvious reality. Beyond the word is action, in the form of ritual to enact what is meant or felt in the linguistic exercise, to give validity to the assertions, imprecations, and curses, and to demonstrate irreversibility.” He discusses examples of oath rituals from various cultures, 173–175 (for which cf. also Faraone 1993).

[ back ] 273. An identical ceremony is performed by members of the Delian League in 478/477 BCE (Constitution of the Athenians 23.5 and Plutarch Life of Aristides 25.1). This is not the only possible interpre-tation of the act: cf. Faraone 1993:79n74, citing Jacobson 1975, who argues that the ritual has to do with the placing of self-curse upon the heads of the participants if they fail to comply.

[ back ] 274. Though this is not formally described by Herodotus as an oath, the fact that she takes the σπλάγχνα of a sacrificed ox in her hands (6.68.1) makes this clear. For parallels involving the handling of animal entrails or genitalia and the importance of touch, see Faraone 1993:66–72 and Burkert 1996:174n83.

[ back ] 275. Cf. discussion of this point in Hartog 1988:173–192 and Burkert 1990:19–21.

[ back ] 276. The dipping of weapons in blood can however be paralleled in a Greek context (though the other party consists of barbaroi): Xenophon Anabasis 2.2.4: ταῦτα δὲ μοσαν, σφάξαντες ταῦρον καὶ κάπρον καὶ κριὸν εἰς ἀσπίδα, οἱ μὲν Ἕλληνες βάπτοντες ξίφος, οἱ δὲ βάρβαροι λόγχην, “This they swore, slitting the throat of a bull, a goat, and a ram into a shield, the Greeks dipping a sword into it, the barbarians a lance.” Cf. Knippschild 2002 on ritual accompaniment to oath ceremonies in Greco-Roman and Near Eastern antiquity.

[ back ] 277. Cf. discussion of 4.172.4 in ch. 2.4 above.

[ back ] 278. Lateiner 1987:95. A more extensive discussion of laughter appears in Lateiner 1977.

[ back ] 279. Laughter at customs of others: 3.22.2, 4.79.4, 9.82.2, 9.82.3, and the laughter of Kambyses and Xerxes (references below, n281). Laughter as contempt for one’s opponents: 2.118.4, 3.155.2, 4.36.2 (Herodotus himself!), 5.68, 6.67.2, 7.9.1, 8.100.

[ back ] 280. To these should also be added the laughter (or smile) of Kyros (1.90.3) as he listens to Kroisos’ complaint against Apollo (pace Asheri et al. 2007 ad loc., who see it as an index of hybris).

[ back ] 281. Kambyses: 3.29.1, 3.29.2, 3.35.3, 3.37.2, 3.38.1, 3.38.2. Xerxes: 7.103.1, 7.105, 7.209.2, 8.114.2.

[ back ] 282. Cf. Odyssey 20.345–349 for the uncanny laughter induced in the suitors by Athena and which precedes their temporary madness: μνηστῆρσι δὲ Παλλὰς Ἀθήνη | ἄσβεστον γέλω ὦρσε, παρέπλαγξεν δὲ νόημα. | οἱ δ᾿ ἤδη γναθμοῖσι γελώων ἀλλοτρίοισιν, | αἱμοφόρυκτα δὲ δὴ κρέα ἤσθιον· ὄσσε δ᾿ ἄρα σφέων | δακρυόφιν πίμπλαντο, γόον δ᾿ ὠΐετο θυμός, “Pallas Athene stirred up an unextinguishable laughter in the suitors, and made their wits deranged. Now they laughed with jaws not their own and ate meat oozing blood. Then their eyes filled with tears, and their hearts thought of lamentation.” Discussion in Levine 1982/3 and Colakis 1986.

[ back ] 283. Cf. Lateiner 1987:95, speaking generally of weeping in Herodotus: “Weeping is a convenient literary shorthand for helpless inaction and suffering. These gestures reveal pain but, more pointedly, painfully won insight.” Other instances of weeping: the tears of Kroisos on the pyre as he understands Solon’s message and calls on Apollo to save him (1.87.2); the Athenian audience of Phrynikhos’ tragedy about the fall of Miletos (6.21.2); the tears of Xerxes on contemplating his army and realizing the brevity of life and human achievement (7.45–46); the tears of the Persian dinner guest at Orkhomenos (9.16.3) who knows what the outcome at Plataiai will be but is helpless to do anything about it.

[ back ] 284. The idea of shared grief and pity for others as a catalyst for one’s own tears is suggested by the Homeric quotation placed in the mouth of Psammenitos. When Psammenitos describes his companion as “on the threshold of old age” (ἐπὶ γήραος οὐδῷ, 3.14.10) we may think of Priam in Iliad 24.487, who attempts to elicit pity from Akhilles by having him bring to mind his own father. Each weeps for his own: Akhilles for Peleus, Priam for Hektor. Their grounds for weeping are separate and, to use Herodotus’ terminology, οἰκήια (“their own”), but the two share in common the action of weeping. Yet Akhilles also weeps for Patroklos (502–503): he makes the connection between his own father and Priam, who weeps for his son, then without Priam’s prompting makes the further connection between himself and Hektor via Patroklos, and finally releases the body of Hektor. In alluding to this paradigm of pity and shared humanity, Herodotus sets the tone for his own scene. Munson (2005:75n34) compares this scene with Kroisos’ communications on the pyre (1.86.4–6) as “structurally analogous” but lacking the “dimension of understanding or not understanding the hidden message of an utterance. Accordingly, no attention is drawn to language, and the role of intermediary, which in the scene with Croesus is fulfilled by interpreters, is assigned to an angelos (‘messenger’), with no suggestion of linguistic translation (3.14.8).” On interpreters and translators in the Histories, see ch. 3.2.1 below.

[ back ] 285. Cf. 1.86.2, where Kyros puts Kroisos on the pyre along with fourteen Lydian youths either as a victory sacrifice to some god or in fulfillment of a vow or in order to test the truth of Kroisos’ reputation for piety and to see if the gods will rescue him, and 3.14.1, where Kambyses inflicts indignities on Psammenitos in order to try his spirit (διεπειρᾶτο αὐτοῦ τῆς ψυχῆς ποιέων τοιάδε).

[ back ] 286. Cf. ἀναστενάξαντα ἐκ πολλῆς ἡσυχίης ἐς τρὶς ὀνομάσαι “Σόλων” (1.86.3), “[Kroisos] groaned out loud after much silence and called out Solon’s name three times,” and ὁ δὲ Ψαμμήνιτος ὡς εἶδε, ἀνακλαύσας μέγα καὶ καλέσας ὀνομαστὶ τὸν ἑταῖρον ἐπλήξατο τὴν κεφαλήν (3.14.7), “When Psammenitos saw this, he burst out crying loudly, called out his companion’s name aloud, and beat his own head.” Question by tormenter: καὶ τὸν Κῦρον ἀκούσαντα κελεῦσαι τοὺς ἑρμηνέας ἐπειρέσθαι τὸν Κροῖσον τίνα τοῦτον ἐπικαλέοιτο (1.86.4), “When Kyros heard this he ordered the interpreters to ask Kroisos who this person was whom he was calling,” and θωμάσας δὲ ὁ Καμβύσης τὰ ποιεύμενα πέμψας ἄγγελον εἰρώτα αὐτὸν λέγων τάδε . . . (3.14.8), “In astonishment at what was being done, Kambyses sent a messenger and asked him the following . . .”

[ back ] 287. Discussion in Lateiner 1987:95–100 (list of examples 115–116), Lateiner 1989, and most importantly Dewald 1993.

[ back ] 288. Further instances of phialai in semiotic contexts follow below. A helmet (κυνέη) also plays a role in Amasis’ rise to the throne: after one of the rebels whom Amasis has been sent to bring back to the king’s service places a helmet on his head and declares that he has done this to make him king (2.162.1), Amasis himself decides to gain power. Cf. Kurke 1995:55–57 on Psammetikhos and the bronze helmet, 57–63 on Amasis.

[ back ] 289. As Kurke 1995:57 puts it, “Within Herodotus’ overdetermined narrative, this act is more than just the fleeting exertion of control over the signification of objects; it is also a prophetic revelation of the tyrant’s own nature. The helmet stands as a metonym for the ruler: the instrument of war adapted to kingly rituals.” Dumézil’s triple function in connection with objects and metals is also seen in the objects that fall from heaven in the native Scythian version of their foundation myth (4.5.2–4), discussed below.

[ back ] 290. Cf. 2.8.7 below for more on this passage.

[ back ] 291. Cf. Dewald 1993, for whom this is a key passage in her treatment of significant objects in the Histories, and Kurke 1995:59–61 and 1999:93 on this point. The statue (ἄγαλμα) of Hera in the Heraion at Argos also acts as a double signifier when, apart from being a representation of the goddess, it acts as the bearer of a message for Kleomenes (or so he claims) when a flame flares up out of its breast (6.82.2): cf. discussion in ch. 2.1.3 above.

[ back ] 292. The third is between Euelthon of Cyprus and Pheretime of Cyrene (4.162.4–5), and is discussed further below in this section.

[ back ] 293. Cf. e.g. Romm 1994:77 on this phenomenon. It is noted and criticized by Plutarch, who accuses Herodotus of using Scythians, Egyptians, and Persians as mouthpieces for his own views (De malignitate Herodoti 40, 871d).

[ back ] 294. Thus in descriptions of the golden age, whether imagined in the past or the future, sheep have wool that is naturally of various hues, so that the deception of dyeing is not necessary, as in Vergil’s Golden Age description in Eclogues 4.42–45, where the wool will not learn how to falsify (mentiri) different colors, but the ram will by himself change the color of his fleece to purple or yellow.

[ back ] 295. Golden fetters are given by Dareios to Demokedes of Kroton as a “reward” for healing his badly injured foot (3.130.4), a gift which honors and enriches Demokedes inasmuch as the chains are made of gold, but which simultaneously perpetuates his status as the king’s slave, merely exchanging the ordinary chains and rags in which he is first brought before him (3.129.3) for shackles of a costlier type. The golden fetters are used by Herodotus as an effective device to introduce the gilded-cage theme that he will develop in his narrative of Demokedes, whose longing for his homeland eventually leads him to ask Atossa, Dareios’ wife, to persuade her husband to invade Greece, all so that Demokedes can have an opportunity to return home (3.133–136). Also of interest in this narrative is Dareios’ use of objects to persuade Demokedes to reveal his healing powers: when Demokedes pretends that he is not a doctor, Dareios orders whips and goads to be placed in the middle of the room (3.130.2), and Demokedes understands the message and changes his tune. With this can be compared the sack which the Samian exiles show to the Spartan magistrates as a request for help, though they cannot refrain from adding a verbal component to their otherwise silent request (3.46.2).

[ back ] 296. It is interesting that here at least wine is not associated with δόλος. Among another group on the fringe of the Persian world, the Massagetai, who have other stimulants of choice (1.202.2), wine is characterized as a φάρμακον used to trick and rob people of their senses. Cf. the words of Queen Tomyris to Kyros: ἀμπελίνῳ κάρπῳ, τῷ περ αὐτοὶ ἐμπιπλάμενοι μαίνεσθε οὕτως ὥστε κατιόντος τοῦ οἴνου ἐς τὸ σῶμα ἐπαναπλέειν ὑμῖν ἔπεα κακά, τοιούτῳ φαρμάκῳ δολώσας ἐκράτησας παιδὸς τοῦ ἐμοῦ, ἀλλ᾿ οὐ μάχῃ κατὰ τὸ καρτερόν (1.212.2), “With the fruit of the vine, with which you fill yourselves and become so frenzied that when the wine goes down into your body evil words float back up, with such a drug did you trick and overpower my son, but not by superior force in battle.”

[ back ] 297. The bow test (which has an obvious Homeric parallel) surfaces again in the account told by Greeks living in Scythia of Herakles’ bow (4.9.5): see further below, 2.8.3.

[ back ] 298. The significance of this event is signaled by the πρῶτος motif in Herodotus’ expression: cf. the death of the daughter of the Egyptian king Mykerinos as the beginning of the evils Egypt suffered under him (πρῶτον κακῶν ἄρξαι τὴν θυγατέρα ἀποθανοῦσαν αὐτοῦ, 2.129.3), and cf. the Athenian ships sent to aid the Ionians as the ἀρχὴ κακῶν (5.97.3) for Greeks and barbarians.

[ back ] 299. On the problem of interpretation involved in this dream, see above, ch. 2.2.

[ back ] 300. West 1988b discusses these and similar gifts with extremely interesting Central Asian parallels from the modern period.

[ back ] 301. Cf. discussion of this passage and other instances of the term σοφός used in connection with the ability to decode signs in chs. 1.3, 3.1, and 3.2.

[ back ] 302. I use the expression “talking (speaking) object” here of an object which relays a message without any accompanying explanation or inscription on it. For talking objects in the sense of objects which contain inscriptions which speak and in which the speaker is sometimes presented as the object itself, cf. 2.106.4 (rock engraving of Sesostris, first person); 2.136.4 (pyramid speaks and refers to itself in first person); 2.141.6 (inscription on statue of Sethos, first person); 3.88.3 (inscription on statue of Dareios on horseback, third person); 4.88.2 (inscription on picture of Dareios crossing Bosporos, third person); 4.91.1–2 (inscription on springs, third person); 5.59–60 (inscriptions on tripods speak in first person); 5.61 (inscription on tripod, third person); 7.228 (three epitaphs to the fallen at Thermopylai, two in third person, one in first); 8.22.1–2 (inscriptions on water sources speak with voice of Themistokles).

[ back ] 303. Other instances of the gift of earth and water: 5.17–21; 5.73.2–3; 6.48–49; 6.94.1; 7.32; 7.131; 7.133.1; 7.163.2; 7.233.1. The Athenians and Spartans play with signs of earth and water by throwing the Persian heralds into the pit at Athens, and a well at Sparta, telling them to take as much earth and water as they wish (7.133.1). Cf. Kuhrt 1988 on the meaning of this gift.

[ back ] 304. The other elements in the Scythians’ message, the bird and the arrows, seem to fall rather by the wayside in Dareios’ attempt to see in the signifiers the desired gift of earth and water. The connection between bird and horse appears forced, but seems to be made through the property of speed which both share: Corcella in Asheri et al. 2007 ad loc. compares Iliad 2.763–764, where the horses of Pheretiades are swift as birds.

[ back ] 305. Contra Benardete (1969:117–118) and Hartog (1988:55–56), who maintain that Dareios reads the objects as signs and metaphors, but that Gobryas reads them as neither signs nor metaphors at all. This seems a misreading of the passage: both Persians certainly read the objects as signs, but differ in their perceptions of the relationship between signifier and signified. One cannot collapse the distinction between the two.

[ back ] 306. ὁ δὲ Εὐέλθων πᾶν μᾶλλον ἢ στρατιήν οἱ ἐδίδου (4.162.4), “But Euelthon tried to give her everything except an army.” The passages recalls Xerxes’ attempts to wriggle out of giving Artaynte the gift she wishes: Ξέρξης δὲ παντοῖος ἐγίνετο οὐ βουλόμενος δοῦναι (9.109.3), “Xerxes tried everything to avoid giving [it to her].”

[ back ] 307. Pheretime’s hierarchy of priorities is thus the reverse of the one expressed in the famous fragment of Sappho, and thus emphasizes her unusual masculinity even more strongly: ο]ἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον οἰ δὲ πέσδων | οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖς᾿ ἐπ[ὶ] γᾶν μέλαι[ν]αν | ἔ]μμεναι κάλλιστον, ἔγω δὲ κῆν᾿ ὄτ | τω τις ἔραται (16.1–4), “Some say an army of horseman is the finest thing upon the black earth, others say one of soldiers, others one of ships, but I say it is whatever one loves.”

[ back ] 308. The combination of the everyday object with the rare and costly material is reminiscent of Dareios’ gift of golden fetters to Demokedes, mentioned above. In the Odyssey, Helen actually uses a golden distaff, which is a gift from Alkandre, wife of Polybos, king of Egyptian Thebes. West 1988a comments drily: “A golden distaff would be inconveniently heavy.” The details of the distaff may have influenced the Herodotean description: cf. esp. χρυσέην τ᾿ ἠλακάτην ταλαρόν θ᾿ ὑπόκυκλον ὄπασσεν | ἀργύρεον, χρυσῷ δ᾿ ἐπὶ χείλεα κεκράαντο (Odyssey 4.132–133).

[ back ] 309. The verb καταπλέκω is used metaphorically in one other place in the Histories, of Themistokles’ artful conclusion of a speech on the eve of the Battle of Salamis (8.83.2). On plaiting, in addition to weaving and sewing, as metaphors for cunning, sometimes in a negative sense, see Detienne and Vernant 1978.

[ back ] 310. A passage from Curtius Rufus (7.8.18–19) supports this interpretation, which finds strong parallels in the three functions and divisions of Indo-Iranian society made in Avestan and Vedic liturgy, as Dumézil (e.g. 1976:171–218) has shown. Dumézil is quick to point out, however, that the tripartite division, while undeniably present in this description, does not accord with the picture of Scythian society given by Herodotus in the rest of book 4 (or by other ancient writers). Except for the Enarees and the diviners (see ch. 2.4), there seems to be no priestly caste, and it is the king who performs the most important religious functions.

[ back ] 311. The same motif occurs in Herodotus’ account of the beginnings of the Macedonian dynasty: Perdikkas is the youngest of three brothers, who becomes king by appropriating for himself the patch of sunlight (golden, like the heaven-sent objects) which their master has contemptuously given to them in lieu of wages. There is also a divisio tripartita: the three Macedonian brothers work in three different sectors of husbandry, one looking after horses, another after cattle, and the third seeing to the lesser animals (8.137.2). This passage is discussed at greater length in ch. 3.1 below.

[ back ] 312. The identity of the Scythian king with the whole society, and especially with his hearth as extension of the king, is shown by the effects of false oaths on the king’s person: whenever someone swears falsely by the king’s hearth, the king falls ill and can be cured only by finding the perjuror, 4.86.1–2, as discussed in ch. 2.4 above.

[ back ] 313. The motif of the bow as test is familiar from the message of the Ethiopian king to Kambyses, discussed above, ch. 2.8.2. Here too the giver of the object uses gesture as well as words to demonstrate the test.

[ back ] 314. As we have seen, it also functions as a significant object in Herodotus’ description of Psam-metikhos’ rise to power (2.151).

[ back ] 315. As Corcella in Asheri et al. 2007 ad loc. notes, the depictions of Scythians that have survived show them with the rhyton, a different vessel entirely, but Scythian phialai have been discovered, one of which (from Kul’ Oba, fourth century BCE, Hermitage KO 31, illustration in Asheri et al. 2007, pl. 32) has rings attached to its edge, presumably for suspension, but whether from a belt as opposed to a peg is uncertain.

[ back ] 316. Cf. chs. 1.3.1 and 2.3 above on this passage.

[ back ] 317. Other examples of unusual size as an indication of the divine discussed in ch. 2.2.3 (dreamfigures), and further below in this section (sandal of Perseus). Footprints, not of Herakles himself, but of the cattle of Geryon stolen by him, are found on the opposite side of the world, in Sicily (Diodoros 4.24).

[ back ] 318. φαίνομαι in connection with the epiphany of a god: 2.91.3; 2.153; 3.27.1, 3; 4.95.5; 4.179.2, 6.106.1.

[ back ] 319. For tekmêria as signs, see ch. 1.1.3 above.

[ back ] 320. Pace Lateiner 1989:200, I see no reason why the adjective θεῖα must here be understood as meaning not “divine” (its normal meaning, as Lateiner himself concedes) “but here only ‘beyond human explication, remarkable’.” This is one of Herodotus’ clearest and most unambiguous statements about the involvement of the divine in human affairs (cf. also 6.27.1–3; 7.137.1–2; 9.65.2), and yet even here Lateiner denies that Herodotus presents this as a possibility (282n36): “9.100.2 seems exceptional, until one notes that the subject is the army’s superstition, and its effects, not Herodotus’ explanation.” Herodotus certainly describes the effect of the φήμη on the army, but there is nothing in his presentation to suggest that he regards it as a mere figment of the army’s imagination. More than once he uses the striking image of the φήμη “flying in” (ἐσέπτατο, 9.100.1, 9.101.3), and he does not abdicate narrative responsibility by presenting the occurrence at one remove (e.g. ὡς λέγουσι vel sim.).

[ back ] 321. The skeleton of Orestes is even longer: seven cubits (1.68.3).

[ back ] 322. Cf. ch. 1.1.2 above on sumbolon.

[ back ] 323. Cf. ch. 2.3 above on this passage.

[ back ] 324. Contra van der Veen (1996:6–17), who thinks that Polykrates’ choice of object is an attempt to comply with Amasis’ instructions only in a superficial way and that he suffers merely annoyance, not genuine distress at its loss. Polykrates’ action is thus ineffectual because he does not really mean it. This seems to me to destroy the whole thrust of the story, which is that, try as one might, one cannot escape the envy (φθόνος) of the gods, a repeated theme in the Histories beginning with the encounter of Solon and Kroisos (1.32.1; 1.32.9; 1.207.2; 3.40.2; 3.40.3; 3.65.3; 9.16.4). Van der Veen’s interpretation rests on what he sees as a significant variation on the words of Amasis’ instructions, particularly the use of the verb ἀσᾶσθαι (3.41.1) instead of ἀλγεῖν (3.40.4). The latter, according to van der Veen, refers to grief at a serious loss or life-altering experience, while the former represents an emotion of sadness which can be shaken off at will. Thus is not, however, borne out by Theognis 593 and 657, where it is associated with κακά and appears as the opposite emotion to joy. Even if the poet tells his addressee to put off this feeling, it need not imply (as van der Veen claims) that it is a trivial or easily manipulable emotion.

[ back ] 325. As Rosenberger (1995:71) notes, Polykrates makes sure to choose the open sea, and not simply the harbor, where it might stand a chance of being salvaged. The crew are witnesses to the proper performance of the act: πάντων ὁρώντων τῶν συμπλόων (3.41.2). I suggest that the detail is there not, as van der Veen (1996:13–14) claims, because it “characterises Polycrates as a man who loves to be in the public eye,” but to show the seriousness of Polykrates’ intent to rid himself of the object.

[ back ] 326. Cf. Amasis’ advice: τοῦτο ἀπόβαλε οὕτω ὅκως μηκέτι ἥξει ἐς ἀνθρώπους (3.40.4), “Cast this away in such a way that it will never more come before the eyes of men.” Cf. also the sinking of iron ingots by the people of Phokaia, 1.165.3 (for which cf. ch. 2.7 above).

[ back ] 327. Versnel 1977:25–37, who cites examples of rings as votive offerings, and adduces as a parallel Aelius Aristides’ substitution of a ring in place of the finger demanded by the god (Hieroi Logoi 2.26–27): “One need not go so far as to bracket Aelius Aristides’ sacrifice of the ring completely with Polycrates’ action. But at the very least it should be admitted that the two acts have much in common, particularly regarding the motivation of the ritual: in both cases life and luck are at stake, in both cases man offers a valuable possession, i.e. a ring, in order to save his life, in one of them this offering is explicitly described as a substitute.” I do not, however, follow Versnel’s suggestion in the second part of his article (37–45), in which he maintains that the throwing away of the ring is like the expulsion and drowning (καταποντισμός) of a scapegoat (φαρμακός) which carries away with it the curses and ills of the community. The φαρμακός is an animate creature (whether human or animal), not an inanimate object, at least in the examples cited by Versnel. See further discussion of possible magico-religious aspects of Polykrates’ ring by Rosenberger (1995), who compares a magical papyrus (PGM V.305–369) in which instructions are given for the burial of an iron ring and the pronouncement of a spell binding the victim as long as the ring stays buried. But the parallels are not as close as Rosenberger makes out: for one thing, the throwing of a ring into a disused well or the grave of one who has died an untimely death does not serve the same purpose as throwing it into the sea. The choice of a well or grave, both points of contact with the underworld, is important for the activation of the spell by the nekudaimôn: cf. Heintz 1998.

[ back ] 328. For Amasis as talented reader of signs, see Dewald 1985 and Kurke 1995:57–61 and 1999:89–100.

[ back ] 329. For another interpretation of the Polykrates logos, see Kurke 1999:101–129, which focuses on the themes of counterfeiting and (perverted) gift exchange.

[ back ] 330. The signs looked for are those which are the characteristic markings of the god Apis (black, with a white triangle on its forehead, the image of an eagle on its back, double hairs in its tail, and a scarab under its tongue, 3.28.3), and it is these signs that Kambyses ignores and mocks when he strikes the thigh of a manifestation of the god with his sword (3.29.1).

[ back ] 331. Fuller treatment of this passage in ch. 3.1.

[ back ] 332. As Jones 1987 makes clear, what is meant by στίζω in the ancient world is tattooing, not branding, as it is often translated.

[ back ] 333. Other examples of the physical concealment of signs in ch. 3.1.

[ back ] 334. Cf. coin as signifier with Dareios and his coinage below, ch. 2.8.8.

[ back ] 335. Other use of signs in this episode: Otanes is the first to suspect that the magos is not Kyros’ brother Smerdis. He conjectures (συμβαλόμενος, 3.68.2) this from the fact that he does not spend any time outside the palace complex and that he does not summon any of the Persian nobles into his sight.

[ back ] 336. For the connection between memory (μεμνῆσθαι, 5.25.2) and signs, see the discussion of memorials and monuments, chs. 2.8.7 and 2.8.8 below.

[ back ] 337. This gruesome episode has in fact a number of fascinating parallels in both Greek and Hittite sources, which Faraone (1993:71) has gathered together. I mention only one of them here: Diktys of Crete (1.15) says that Kalkhas bisected a boar and placed one piece on the west and the other on the east. Each soldier was then ordered to march between the halves with drawn sword and swear enmity to Priam. The idea behind the ceremony seems to be to ensure the loyalty of each member of the army by self-imprecation: they call down upon their own heads the fate of the animal (or man, in the case of the Herodotean passage) if they break their oath. The Herodotean passage does not however contain any mention of an oath, and the emphasis is placed rather on Xerxes’ cruelty.

[ back ] 338. Herodotus in his description of Egypt relates how the corpses of oxen act as their own grave markers (σημηίου εἵνεκεν, 2.41.4): they are buried with one or both of their horns protruding above the ground. The wonderful economy of the practice (which has some basis in reality, see Lloyd 1989 ad loc.) is rivaled only by the self-cooking oxen of the Scythians: the latter use the bones of oxen as fuel and their stomachs as cauldrons in which to boil their flesh (4.61.1–2).

[ back ] 339. Immerwahr (1960:265) remarks on this concern with measurement: “The idea that monuments afford a yardstick for measuring, quite literally, the greatness of persons underlies the mention of monuments in all the ethnographic logoi, especially the Egyptian.”

[ back ] 340. Cf. 2.97.1, where Herodotus describes how in the season of flooding the Egyptians cities stand out above the water like islands in the Aegean. Cf. ch. 3.2 on Herodotus’ techniques of comparison and analogy.

[ back ] 341. The verb καταλείπω, used of Dareios’ leaving behind of the piles as he moves his army onward (4.92), is used in a number of places (but in the middle voice) in the Histories for the leaving behind of a monument (the daughter of Kheops, 2.126.1; Rhodopis, 2.135.3; anonymous Persian guest, 9.16.2), discussed below, chs. 2.8.6 and 2.8.7. Cf. Bakker 2002:26 for μνημόσυνα in Herodotus and the fact that “the two phrases apodexasthai (erga megala) and mnêmosuna (lipesthai), in fact, are very much in each other’s semantic orbit.”

[ back ] 342. Immerwahr 1960:265–266: “The idea that a monument may represent its author is for us a strange one, since a monument does not tell us anything about the personality of the builder, but merely serves as an indicator for measuring that unmeasurable quality, human greatness. Greatness is then simply wealth and power, and these we measure by reckoning up the troubles undergone in the erection of monuments, and by the marvelous size of the surviving structures. The motivation attributed by Herodotus to the great builders is precisely that of arousing in the beholder a feeling of marvel, and thus perpetuating their fame.”

[ back ] 343. There is also a polemical thrust behind Herodotus’ account: he wishes to challenge the interpretation of certain people who claim that a small pyramid is the pyramid of Rhodopis (2.134.1). He not only disputes this reading on the basis of iron spits, from which he is able to calculate the extent of Rhodopis’ capital assets (the offerings represent a tithe) and finds them inadequate to pay for a pyramid, but explains to us where her true monument is to found: in the spits themselves! Lloyd in Asheri et al. 2007 ad loc. notes that a cache of these spits, each measuring 1.2 m., was found in the Heraion at Argos.

[ back ] 344. This also reflects on Herodotus’ own achievements and glory: see ch. 3.2 below.

[ back ] 345. Immerwahr 1960:266, surveying the use of the words ἔργον and μνημόσυνον in the Histories, remarks that “all mnêmosyna share the feature that the utilitarian purpose of the ergon is secondary, or even disregarded. Thus, in IV, 166, 1 Darius’ gold coinage is considered not under its practical aspect, but merely as a memorial sought by the king. The most famous instance of the disregard for the practical is the Mount Athos canal (VII, 24), which Herodotus considers merely as a memorial to Xerxes’ pride (μεγαλοφροσύνη). The motivation of the builder is again to create that very effect in the spectator which Herodotus attributes to him.”

[ back ] 346. For imitation as a linking and explanatory device in Herodotus, cf. e.g. 2.104.4 (Kolkhoi imitate Egyptians in matter of circumcision); 5.67.1 and 5.69.1 (Kleisthenes of Sikyon and Kleisthenes of Athens; cf. ch. 2.6.1 above); 9.34.1 (Teisamenos imitates Melampous; cf. ch. 2.4 above).

[ back ] 347. Kurke (1999:69) points out how the language of metals can also be seen here: “Refined gold signifies Darius’ own rightful sovereignty, while Aryandes’ silver imitation precisely reenacts the originary hubris of the silver race. . . . So here, the logic of the Hesiodic myth makes Darius’ conclusion eminently comprehensible: Aryandes’ silver coinage in immediately construed by Darius (and by our narrator) as a violent, unlawful bid for sovereignty—as an act of insurrection.”

[ back ] 348. Cf. the speaking dedicatory epigram, which might be termed a μνημόσυνον, of Mandrokles that accompanies his painting (μνημόσυνον σχεδίης, 4.88.2) of his bridge constructed for Dareios across the Bosporos, which itself could be called a μνημόσυνον: Herodotus speaks of mnêmosuna (plural) in the conclusion to the description (ταῦτα μέν νυν τοῦ ζεύξαντος τὴν γέφυραν μνημόσυνα ἐγένετο, 4.88.2).

[ back ] 349. Cf. examples of the use of body as sign vehicle, above 2.8.6.

[ back ] 350. The expression is Legrand’s (1932–54 ad loc.).