My hottest scholarly pursuit is my Herodotus theory, which has been growing into a passion unlike any I have experienced yet. I confirmed with my Greek history professor that there is something about Herodotus that has “left people confused.” No one has been able to write a definitive book on the structure or even the purpose of Herodotus.
I do not want to claim that I have done anything remarkable, since I have yet to definitively “prove” my newest theory, though I have been doing a lot of research in trying to find a scholar to confirm that I’m not the first one to have this thought: maybe we expect too much out of Herodotus in terms of the real “history” of things, but that does not discount the idea that he could have had something else in mind. I have yet to find any other scholar who has explicitly stated what I have so far come up with, except for one of my professors at school hinting at it once, which is what set me on this goose chase to start with.
I have noticed that Herodotus puts a special emphasis on the themes of stealing and looking at what isn’t “yours” to look at, or what isn’t meant to be seen. These are the first two stories told in the beginning of Book 1, and this theme can be found throughout. I can think of a handful of other examples: Heracles in Book 2, Rhampsinitus in Book 2, for starters.
This does not by any means solve all of the problems associated with Herodotus, but it might be an underlying thread in his own thinking that serves to explain at least some of what is going on.
So, more concisely stated I think this is what is going on:
Herodotus is building an interpretive paradigm for his readers through the first stories of Book 1 which serve as broad analogies for how cultures operate. Cultures operate through sharing and even “stealing” to a certain extent. The first story is about how different people groups were kidnapping women from others, which led to Paris kidnapping Helen. The second story is about Kandaules and Gyges, which is a paradigm for how tribalism works, and the tension between thinking one’s own culture is best and the idea that what is ours must be preserved from outsiders. It is the same tension that drove Persia into trying to conquer other peoples, despite their tendency to adopt foreign customs (1.135).
There seems to be an immediate contrast between Persia and Egypt and the kinds of customs that are examined, and how a culture’s relationship to custom determines their foreign policy. For example, Herodotus describes Persian customs and presents their religious customs as diametrically opposed to Greek customs and their everyday customs are more or less familiar. They consciously adopted different customs from the Medes, the Egyptians, and the Greeks (which are three of the biggest players in the Mediterranean history of that time, interestingly enough). But there is a conspicuous difference between the Persian custom and the Egyptian.
Herodotus presents Egyptian religion as being very similar to Greek religion in many ways (not all, but many), and their every day customs are diametrically opposed (in absurd ways that Herodotus could not have possibly known, too, which makes the contrast even more stark). The thread which seems to hold Egypt and Greece in a bond of peace is how they relate to each other with their customs. They have enough of their religion in common that it seems to transcend the need for war. The Persians, on the other hand having adopted customs of dress and pleasure seeking from other groups, war against them readily enough. The Egyptians and Greeks are portrayed as having many cultural links which consist of mythological figures connected to Greece, but not necessarily Egypt. Those characters tend to be ones who bridge cultural gaps, or more dramatic gaps. For example, Heracles figures into the story of Book 2 as a character who transcends the mortal/immortal bounds, while two other characters, Cadmus and Melampus, serve as characters who transcended cultural boundaries. Cadmus came from the Phoenicians and settled in Greece, while Melampus supposedly learned certain religious customs in Egypt and brought them into Greece, earning himself respect as a great teacher. The common tie there is religion, which is conspicuously absent in Greek dealings with the Persians. There are no transitional figures who bring religious customs from one to the other, and no mention (at least so far) of any Greek mythological figures. It is not that the Persians could not have known them (in Herodotus’ account of things) because they cite Paris as the cause of the Trojan war in the beginning of Book 1, so they are generally aware of those stories.
Herodotus’ account of history before the actual conflict of the Persian Wars is so heavily mythologized and filled with legend that I wonder if perhaps there is another purpose in mind, at least in part. Because of his mythologizing and storytelling, most ancients and many others have dismissed him as absurd and hardly worth their time. Perhaps there is a reason why his stated purpose in the proem of the whole work is so ambiguous, because at least in the first four books, he is working out a system for understanding what causes cultural clashes, in studying the “nomoi” of other peoples. He looks at which kinds of nomoi which are shared and which are not between different cultures, and that is what makes the difference. Being able to communicate with another culture religiously is important, even if you share none of the “everyday life” sorts of customs with them.
I’ve run out of time for now, but I will write more on this later.