Barry Baldwin ~ Herodotean Hat-Trick

Reprinted with kind permission of Barry Baldwin himself, who years ago had to endure yours truly as a student. Errors in transcription naturally accrue to the latter.

Justin Marozzi’s splendid The Way of Herodotus, 2008 (potted version, Spectator, 21 Nov 2009) inspires updated expansion of my previous (FT179:16, 180:18) inspections. Further impetus from the Herodotus-loving character in Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient, and the film thereof.

(Page references to Penguin translation; Herodotus (below) is abbreviated to H).

80-1: H’s claim, often doubted, that the Etruscans were descended from Lydia (Turkish Anatolia), is vindicated by geneticists’ studies of mitochondrial DNA from Tuscan residents and cattle.

214: H’s previously unattested story that Persian King Cambyses’s army was engulfed by a sandstorm as they picnicked in Egypt’s Western Desert is allegedly confirmed by the recent excavations of Italian archæologists Alfredo and Angelo Castiglioni (FT261:22-23).

246-7: H’s gold-digging Indian ants are explained by French anthropologist Michel Peissel as the Himalayan marmots that dwell in Pakistani Kashmir, from whose burrows the locals gather gold [FT97:9); cf. ER Bevan, ‘India in Early Greek & Latin Literature, in (ed. EJ Rapson) Ancient India (CUP, 1922), pp396-424 for rationalisation of similar Indian stories.

275: H accepts Aristeas’s poetic account of the Griffins that guarded Northern tribes’ gold (a commonplace in ancient literature and art – FT170:50-55), a tale now explained as folklore preserving the memory of some indigenous prehistoric beast.

332: A spring at Siwa is strangely cold by day, extraordinarily hot by midnight, a claim repeated by many authors down to Augustine (City of God, bk21 ch5), not realising that it was the desert air that underwent such dramatic temperature changes.

Herodotus would have enjoyed the local tourist come-on that Antony and Cleopatra bathed naked in it. Likewise, the modern claim that Queen Artemisia (she built the Mausoleum) sprinkled hubbie’s ashes into her wine before fucking, to have his dead body inside her.

221: Polycrates, tyrant of Samos, flung a valuable ring into the sea, only to discover it in the belly of a fish served at dinner. Fort (Books, p864) concedes: “It could be that once upon a time somebody did get a ring back fishwise.”

Herodotus himself frequently rationalises guides’ yarns. For instance, he (280-1) explained the supposed thick falls of feathers in Scythia as simply heavy snow – a winter in Canada would have reinforced this conclusion.

So far, so sober. FT readers’ thoughts on the following are invited:

112: Athene’s priestess at Pedasus thrice warned inhabitants of impending danger by growing a beard.

403: Many of the 20,000 Persian sailors wrecked at Athos were devoured by local sea monsters – perhaps ancestors of the famous modern monks.

241-2: Darius was elected King when his horse neighed at the spot it had previously mounted a mare, this portent enhanced by thunder and lightning from a clear sky.

536: Coming to loot the Temple at Delphi, Xerxes’s soldiers were frightened off by sacred weapons moving spontaneously, a strange cry from within the shrine, a hail of thunderbolts, and for good measure two crushingly huge boulders from Mount Parnassus.

Lots of sex in Herodotus: Nasamonian brides gang-banged before wedding (329); Babylonians fumigate their genitals after sex (121); Cheops’s prostitute daughter (179) builds the second Giza pyramid from bricks, one per customer – considering its size (447 feet high, 690 square footage), she was a busy girl.

“There is a fictional coloration to every body’s account of an ‘actual occurrence’, and there is at least the lurk somewhere of what is called the actual’ in everybody’s yarn” – Fort,  p864.

Classical Corner 144: Fortean Times 282 (December, 2011), p. 19.