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.