She-dog Foster Mothers

This will be just a short post on something that I recently noticed that I find interesting, that I am sure has been pointed out somewhere by someone before, but this blog is about my own journey of learning and not someone else’s, thereby sparing me from the charge of  being unoriginal or of stealing other people’s work or ideas.

In both Livy and Herodotus there are stories of sons born who are a threat to the current regime: Remus/Romulus in early Rome (Livy Book 1), and Cyrus in Persia (Herodotus Book 1). In both cases, a male relative with power decided to have the male offspring killed in case they present a threat to their power, spurred on of course my oracles and dreams and the like. And of course the boys are spared because the male relatives cannot commit such acts themselves, so they hired others to do it, who then get cold feet and can’t bring themselves to do it.

Then the boys end up with foster parents of a kind. Herodotus reports that Cyrus had been interred into the care of foster parents in the countryside, Mitrades and his wife “Spako.” Herodotus then carefully explains that “spako” in the Median language means “kyno” or “she-dog” in Greek.

Likewise in the Romulus and Remus story. Livy tells two stories, first about the actual she-wolf who adopted them and fed them, or the more likely story of a woman who took care of them whose name in Latin (or the ancient Etruscan/Oscan or whatever equivalent) was “she-wolf.” In both cases, the connotations are not positive. For certain in the Livy version, the name implies that she is a sexual predator. Herodotus makes no such implications for the foster mother of Cyrus; in his more detailed version, she is a good mother who begs her husband not to expose the child because he was beautiful and deserved to live. She happened to have just given birth to a stillborn child, who replaces the baby  Cyrus, and is taken back to “prove” that the infant was exposed.

Of course in both cases, the boys prove to be naturally kingly, especially Cyrus, and they end up fulfilling the prophecies despite the measures taken to prevent it. It is an interesting trope that appears from time to time in literature. I may have more comments about that later, but that’s all I have for now.


Herodotus as Ethnographer…and his audience as Peeping Toms

Herodotus is famous for telling strange or slightly shocking stories in his Histories, and at times that can seem utterly gratuitous, like the stupid love scene in a movie that doesn’t otherwise have a love story, or a gossip magazine that sells itself on shocking stories. Except it is history, and it’s alright to read Herodotus and his scandalous stories because he’s writing history, right?

But is there a theme here to all this haphazard scandal literature of often dubious accuracy? I want to suggest that perhaps there IS an overarching theme here underlying the stories. Herodotus does not merely wish to entertain, but also to instruct his perceptive readers in a memorable way.

The opening of the Histories is mystifying if we don’t have some higher method of understanding it. Otherwise, Herodotus cheapens his own work simply by telling silly stories with no higher purpose, and that is an unlikely and undesirable alternative.

The first stories he tells in his opening are stories about women-snatching, beginning with the Phoenicians who kidnapped Io, and then the Greeks who kidnapped Medea, and so on and so forth until Paris steals Helen away and starts the Trojan War. It seems like a curious way to start things off, though it is purportedly the ultimate cause of the East-West conflict. However, following that fairly closely on its heels is the story of Kandaules and Gyges. This one of the most famous anecdotes from Herodotus. Kandaules was the king of Sardis, and had fallen deeply in love with “his own wife.” (Always a recipe for disaster and probably should not be emulated). Because he was so in love with his wife, he felt the need to prove to someone else that she was in fact the most beautiful woman in the world (a common enough affliction, I’m led to believe). He then asks his right-hand man Gyges to sneak into their bedroom so he could see Kandaules’ wife naked, since you have to “see it to believe it,” which is essentially what Kandaules tells Gyges.
Gyges of course is horrified and tells Kandaules that it is not right to look upon that “which is not your own.” But Gyges eventually relented, and spied on Kandaules’ wife as he was asked. Kandaules’ wife knew about it, and later she tells Gyges that he must either be executed for seeing he undressed, or kill Kandaules and replace him as king and her husband. Naturally Gyges chooses the latter option, and starts a dynasty of his own which would later become Lydia.

Herodotus goes on at length about Gyges and his descendants and how they finally came to build their kingdom. Then he tells us another story, taking us to Corinth in the Peloponnese. He then tells us the story of Arion, reputed to be the best singer in the world, who sailed from Corinth to Italy and Sicily to make his fortune. After making a large sum of money in Italy and Sicily, he then hires some Corinthians to take him back to Corinth, but they plot to steal his money and throw him overboard. He eludes them by singing on the stern of the ship and jumping overboard, and then is carried by a dolphin back to Corinth.

All three stories involve some element of removal from one’s own culture, either willingly or unwillingly, and an element of desiring or taking something that does not belong to you. I believe these are examples of what we as readers are NOT supposed to do. But before I get ahead of myself, I will first explain what I mean.

I think part of what is going on in this work is a marriage of two themes: the Greco-Persian Wars, and a study in the customs of other people groups that are decidedly NOT your own. The first 4-5 books are like an Odyssey of sorts, wherein Herodotus takes his reader on a journey through many lands and many different cultures, pointing out similarities and differences to Greek culture. He invites the reader to place themselves outside of their own cultural group and loyalties, and to look at things that are not their own, like Gyges looking at Kandaules’ wife.

In our tribal loyalties (I chose that particular word quite deliberately), we are inclined to think that our own culture is the most beautiful, and even think it is somehow wrong to look at another culture and admire it. And yet, this is exactly what Herodotus invites us to do. He describes customs and items in detail, so we can see them and believe. He facilitates drawing a mental picture by giving us an array of sights, colors, smells, and other sensations. He wants us to see another culture, and by seeing it, believe it. But this is a dangerous practice, as it can lead to more than mere spectating, but to trying to snatch things that do not belong to you, and eventually to shame, defeat, and death. And this is where the Persians enter the picture.

The Persians are not just spectators, they are snatchers. Rather than being inquirers and appreciators of other cultures, as Herodotus entreats us to be, they are the kidnappers, the destroyers of culture. They want to make other cultures like them; they want to enslave others and force others to acknowledge them as the best or “most beautiful.” They want to enslave the Greeks, and to crush the beauty of their uniqueness, just as they had over Asia Minor and Egypt. It began when the Athenians came to the Persians asking for help against the Spartans, and foolishly offered them the gift of earth and water, inadvertently signifying their enslavement to the Persians. When the Athenians then refused to make good on this promise, the Persians sought vengeance. The Persians had demanded submission from the very beginning of the conflict, regardless of the various motives that came afterward.

Herodotus asks us to be appreciators like himself, who see but do not snatch. We see what it is lawful for us to see, appreciate the differences and the similarities, but allow others to have their own beauty. Be curious and look, but be aware that it can lead you into danger like it did for Gyges. A lack of appreciate for the uniqueness of other lands and peoples can lead you into the sort of attitude that the Persians embody: arrogance, blindness, and a lust for power. And that sort of attitude is exactly what leads you into shame and defeat, just like the Persians.

Barbarians and false etymology…?

Strabo in his “Geography” wrote an interesting passage purporting to give us an etymology of the word “barbarian” or “barbaros” as the Greeks would have it (found in book 14, section 28). Strabo says that it is onomatopoeia for some of the harsh manners of speaking found (ironically) among the Greeks. Strabo cites a bunch of Greek words to illustrate this sort of harsh speaking.

People seem to cite this particular explanation (whether they realize it is Strabo or not) as THE explanation for it, but it  does not answer where exactly the word comes from. But I was wondering if perhaps it could be explained in another way, that most people might not even consider.

First of all, there is a Sanskrit word “barbara” which means “stammer.” This would be found then in the languages of ancient India, maybe hinting at a Near-Eastern origin for the word. Secondly, I noticed that Old Persian builds its words off of sounds like “ba” “da” “ta” “ra” and the like. A word with repeating syllables like “ba” could easily inspire someone to come up with the word “barbaros.”

For example, “ba-ga” is the Old Persian word for “god” or “va-ca-ba-ra” which means “shield-bearer.” I don’t yet know enough words in Old Persian to offer more examples.

It seems reasonable to infer that this language, like all languages, was built on a similar predecessor, and that predecessor was not all that different from Old Persian. Old Persian dates to between the 6th and 4th centuries BC, and Strabo lived between 65BC and 23AD. The word “barbaros” was commonly used by the time of Herodotus, writing around the time of the Persian wars, which took place from 499-449 BC. Exposure to Persians or earlier peoples such as the Assyrians could have easily taken place well before then, leading to the invention of the term “barbaros.”

Who knows? I’m not sure anyone has come up with a definitive answer to the question of where that word comes from. I’m beginning to develop my own theory about it, which may require a lot more research before I can speak more certainly.



Research Ventures #2 – Cadmus, Melampus, and Dionysus


As I may have said before, I am venturing out a little in my research by getting outside of the text and looking at different types of sources rather than mere literary analysis.

I have been looking at Herodotus Book 2, which is the book about Egypt and its various customs and quirks. Herodotus has a lot of interesting, though often contradictory, information to provide about Egyptian religious customs, so I have been looking at that and chasing down other literary sources as well as some archaeological sources. I have no real thesis yet for a paper, but I have been gathering a lot of information. There are a LOT of rabbit trails to pursue if you really want to get lost in this subject.

The characters of Cadmus and Melampus have particularly caught my attention, as they appear in Herodotus. Herodotus attributes the Greek alphabet to Cadmus, who was of Phoenician origin and brought the Phoenician letters to the Greeks. I have discovered that there at least used to be very bitter debates about whether the alphabet actually  came from the Phoenicians and by extension the Canaanites (or perhaps even the Israelites). Before World War 2, much of this debate was spurred on by anti-Semitism, which is far less of a problem now than it once was. Many scholars now believe that Herodotus was right to identify the alphabet as being of Phoenicia origin, because the evidence for it is fairly compelling (see Martin Bernal, Cadmean Letters, 1990). The fascinating part about that is that  Herodotus attributes it to a mythological figure named Cadmus.

According to legend, Cadmus was the founder of Thebes who arrived in Greece because he was searching for his sister Europa, who had been kidnapped by Zeus. Upon arriving in Greece, Cadmus founded Thebes and wed Harmonia, the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares. Their daughter was named Semele, and Semele was the mother of Dionysus. The most common version of the story is that Zeus was the father of Dionysus by Semele.

Melampus shows up not too long after Herodotus mentions Cadmus, and Herodotus reports that Melampus was the one who established the worship of Dionysus in Greece, which he had learned while he was in Egypt. Herodotus also reports that Melampus learned it “para Kadmou te tou Turiou kai ton sun auto ek Phoinekes…” Hdt. 2.49.3. “Melampus learned it from Cadmus of Tyre, and from those who came from Phoenicia into the land now called Boeotia.”

In the mythology, Melampus was a healer with the ability to understand animals. There is one story from Herodotus Book 9 about how Melampus had cured some Argive women whom Dionysus drove mad because they refused to take part in his orgies.


If you have paid close attention to this, you might have realized that there appears to be a chronological discrepancy, or at least, some vital piece of information appears to be excluded. It is plausible that he could have learned it from the Phoenicians who apparently settled in Boeotia, which is in northwestern Greece. These people could have been several generations removed from Cadmus and Harmony, and remembered the origins of Dionysus from generations earlier. But why does Herodotus say Melampus learned it from Cadmus? If Herodotus believes the myth about Cadmus and Harmony, and Semele, then the chronology of this seems dubious. Cadmus would have to be a very old man, especially giving Dionysus time to grow up and for his religious cults to grow into their mature form. The other question is this: Melampus apparently brought worship of Dionysus from Egypt into Greece though he learned of it from the Egyptians; Herodotus does mention that the Egyptians had learned of Dionysus though for them he had a different name. Herodotus does not explain much further.

This is an irritating problem to have, since there is no clear chronology to make sense of how the two characters relate. Herodotus, unfortunately, is not always very accurate about this sort of thing. The connection between these two relatively obscure mythological figures is interesting, though. Both are connected to the god Dionysus, though they have different origins.

What about Dionysus’ real origins as a deity? Well, as far as I can tell, the word is actually derived from Linear B, di-wo-nu-so, which means “son of Zeus.” di-wo” means “Zeus,” and is a precursor to the Greek genitive form of Zeus’ name, which is “Dios.” This suggests that he existed in Minoan culture:

Further corroboration of the Minion connection is that Dionysus in several places is connected with bull imagery (Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, 1985, pp. 64, 132), which is one of the prominent motifs in Minoan art, as seen on the right. Perhaps the Greeks adopted the deity from the Minoans, and kept some of this bull imagery in some places, specifically Kyzikos, which is in Anatolia, so it is fairly far removed from our immediate area, though it is still a significant piece of information to keep in mind.MinoanBull

Dionysus could have actually come from early Greek or Minoan sources, or perhaps even Luvian sources earlier than that, depending on how far one would like to speculate. I have my own argument about how some of that cultural cross-contact could have happened, which is too long to detail here.

This suggests a Greek origin for Dionysus circa 1200 BC or before. Again, the argumentation for this is fairly complex, but the Greek of Linear B and some other surrounding factors in the ancient Aegean in the Middle to Late Minoan period point to a Greek invasion of Crete, and perhaps Greek introduction of an early form of Dionysus there. I am not sure enough yet to be able to settle this for myself, since I am still trying to find evidence, but these are my thoughts so far.

The question then becomes,  how Dionysus become so intimately connected with Cadmus and Melampus? Where did these characters come from? What can we learn about them from archaeology and other literary sources? More on that to come later.

Research Ventures

Not only have I been busy lately, but also feeling dry of good ideas for blog posts. So I decided that I could perhaps write on the saga of my biggest research paper this semester, which is on the vague topic of religious crossover between Ancient Egypt and Greece.

As a part of my venture in this area, I have picked up some Old Persian and Luwian, in my attempts to expand my knowledge eastward, so I will probably post some updates on that soon. Luwian will be very time consuming since it is based on mostly pictograph symbols and a few phonetic symbols, but memorizing the syllabary for Old Persian shouldn’t be terribly daunting. This is all a part of my attempt to understand how some ideas were translated from one culture to another over time. Persian religion, particularly Zoroastrianism, had a sacred text called the Avesta which was written in Old Persian, and it seems to derive some of its ideas from Jewish religion. It is monotheistic in character, with its supreme creator god Ahura-Mazda and a Satanic figure called Ahriman who are opposed, almost in a Manichean dark-vs-light dichotomy. According to the famous Behistun inscription in what is now Afghanistan, Persian emperor Darius set himself up as the messiah of Zoroastrianism by claiming to be the chosen one of Ahura-Mazda, who would conquer the world and turn it into one enormous garden, after vanquishing Ahriman. (The word “paradise” is derived from a Persian word which means “garden,” which brings to mind the original garden of Eden, which the Persians may have liked and sought to create in their empire). The parallels to the Christian narrative are interesting, and I wonder if some of these ideas may have been taken from Judaism during the time of Nehemiah, when Artaxerxes allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their walls. If I ever get around to reading the Avesta, I wonder if there would be more parallels. If I could read the Avesta in Old Persian especially and not in translation, I may find more linguistic parallels.

I am also learning more about Egyptian religion and a notion I have found in Herodotus that seems prevalent through Book 2 of the Histories, which is that all the gods are the same and have different names in different cultures. For example, Zeus is Ammon in the Egyptian pantheon, and has similar functions. But it is probably not nearly that simple, and it appears that many of the previous religious identities were subsumed under Greek gods later on, not just in Egypt but in other cultures as well. For example, there is a Phoenician temple that is apparently dedicated to Heracles, but was originally dedicated to a now mostly-unknown Phoenician deity named Melqart. This sort of thing happens all of the time, as other cultures gain ascendancy and ideas of other religions slowly begin to seep in, which is one of the basic tenets of sociological theory (thinking of a sociologist named Peter Berger, who is one that I have actually read who develops this idea). Over time, it becomes impossible to maintain the purity of one’s own religious beliefs when there is constant contact between different people groups (speaking of pagan religion only in this case, because Christianity is manifestly different). This is especially the case if there are no sacred writings, in the sense that the Avesta or the Torah are sacred. The Greeks had Homer and Hesiod, but these are not given nearly the amount of reverence that other texts are.

Other interesting quirks in this area of pagan religion are the presences of characters like Cadmus, Melampus, and Linus, who all appear in Greek mythology as minor but still impotant figures. They also exist in Egyptian mythos as well, so I hope to uncover some more information about how those identities entered Egyptian culture and how they appropriated them for their own use, especially in citing them as the causes (aitia) for some of their customs.

Information on those specific characters is sparse so far, but they are important enough to merit citation in Herodotus’ work, so I am curious why I cannot find more information. But on the other hand, there could be a relatively interesting discovery yet to be made that perhaps has not been made yet. This area is very messy and multi-faceted, so it is hard to tell at this point.