A Ghost Story

The Met Bronze Veiled Masked DancerWe often tell scary stories not just to evoke screams and chills but with a message. The monsters of our creepy tales reflect our larger fears, but sometimes the point of the story is that the most frightening things are done by our fellow human beings, not by spooks or spectres. Such is the case with a ghost story told by Herodotus.

The source of this tale was a meeting of representatives from various Greek cities convened by the Spartans in the late 500s BCE to consider going to war against Athens. Athens had been in a state of political turmoil and the Spartans proposed invading the city and imposing a tyrant to restore order and stability.

The representatives of Corinth spoke out strongly against the proposal. Corinth had been ruled by tyrants for three generations, and Corinthians knew better than anyone what tyrants were like. Socles of Corinth told the story of Periander, the Corinthian tyrant. Periander had killed his own wife, Melissa. He then tried to consult her spirit when he mislaid a treasure that a friend had left with him:

He sent messengers to the oracle of the dead at the River Acheron in Thesprotia to inquire about his friend’s deposit, but when the spirit of Melissa appeared, she would not indicate, by speech or action, where the deposit lay, for she was naked and shivering. The clothes that had been buried with her were of no use to her since they had not been burned. As proof that what she said was true, she added that Periander had put his loaves in a cold oven.

When this message was reported to Periander, he knew it to be the truth, for he had had intercourse with Melissa when she was dead. He at once issued a proclamation that all the women of Corinth should gather at the temple of Hera. They came out dressed in their best as if for a festival, but Periander had his guards fall upon them and strip them all naked, ladies and servants alike. The clothes were heaped up in a ditch and Periander, with a prayer to Melissa, burned them all.

After this he sent a second time to the oracle, and the spirit of Melissa pointed out where the deposit lay.

– Herodotus, Histories 5.92.g

(My own translation.)

Some things are more frightening than ghosts.

Image: Bronze statuette of a veiled and masked dancer, from the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, bequest of Walter C. Baker in 1971, accession number 1972.118.95, by Eppu Jensen (Greek; 3rd-2nd century BCE)

Story Time is an occasional feature all about stories and story-telling. Whether it’s on the page or on the screen, this is about how stories work and what makes us love the ones we love.

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Custom is King

We often think of multiculturalism as a particularly modern virtue, but the ancient Greek historian Herodotus gave a pretty good argument for respecting other peoples’ cultures more than two millennia ago.

Here’s the story he tells:

When Darius was king [of Persia], he summoned the Greeks who were at his court and asked them how much money it would take to get them to eat the bodies of their deceased fathers. They replied that nothing would make them do so. Darius then summoned some Indians, called Kallatiai, whose custom it is to eat their dead parents, and asked them—in the presence of the Greeks, who had an interpreter to explain the Kallatiai’s words—how much money it would take to convince them to cremate their deceased fathers [as was the Greek custom]. The Kallatiai exclaimed that he should not even mention such an abomination. Custom dictates such things, and it seems to me that [the poet] Pindar got it quite right when he said that custom is king.

– Herodotus, Histories 3.38

Herodotus does not tell this story at random but to illustrate a point. Cambyses, a different Persian king, had mocked the Egyptians for worshiping a white bull, and Herodotus felt that Cambyses had been very wrong, even insane, to do so. This story about Darius’ cultural investigations was meant to drive the point home: everyone believes in their own way of doing things, and it is wrong to dismiss or disparage other peoples’ culture, even if you don’t share it or even understand it. We can respect other people’s culture just as we expect them to respect ours. No culture is right or wrong.

So, for those of you keeping score, that’s a Greek author standing up for Egyptian traditions against the scorn of a Persian king and citing another Persian king’s discussions with Greeks and Indians to do it. Herodotus’ defense of multiculturalism is itself multicultural.

Image: Relief sculpture of Darius via Wikimedia (Persepolis; sixth century BCE; stone)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Nitocris’ Vengeance

Here’s a story told by the Greek historian Herodotus about an ancient queen of Egypt, as told to him by the Egyptian priests he was interviewing about their country’s history:

The priests read out from a papyrus scroll the names of three-hundred and thirty kings. In all these generations there were eighteen Ethiopians and one Egyptian woman; the rest were Egyptian men. The woman’s name was Nitocris… They said that she avenged her brother. The Egyptians had killed him when he was their king and then given the kingship to her, so she slaughtered many Egyptians by a trick to avenge him. She had an underground chamber built and invited those Egyptians whom she knew to be most guilty of her brother’s death on the pretense of an inaugural feast, although she was actually planning something else. As they were feasting, she had the river let in to flood the chamber through a great hidden channel.

– Herodotus, Histories 2.100

My own translation

Like Herodotus’ other stories about Egypt, this shows an interesting mix of actual historical knowledge with folklore, probably both Egyptian and Greek.

It is very difficult to verify the number of kings Herodotus’ interviewees listed for him. Earlier Egyptian records of kings have survived only in very fragmentary forms and later writings about Egyptian history, even those by Egyptians, tended to rely on Herodotus. When Egyptian dynasties recorded the reigns of their kings, they had as much incentive as an other politicians to exaggerate some things and erase others. When Herodotus was traveling in Egypt, the country was under Persian rule and not particularly happy about it. The priests that Herodotus talked to had their own reasons to encourage a certain view of Egyptian history.

Nevertheless, in rough terms, 330 is a reasonable estimate of the number of kings who had ruled in Egypt over 3,000 years. The priests’ count also includes a number of “Ethiopian” kings, who correspond to the Twenty-Fifth Dynasty, when Egypt was conquered and ruled by Nubians for about a hundred years between the mid-eighth and mid-seventh centuries BCE.

That leaves Nitocris herself. The name may be a garbled form of a very early king who had otherwise been forgotten about by Herodotus’ time. We now know from ancient inscriptions that more than one woman ruled Egypt, whether as regents for their sons or as pharaoh themselves. The most famous of these female pharaohs is Hatshepsut, who ruled from 1478 to 1458 BCE, just over a thousand years before Herodotus visited Egypt. The “underground chamber” mentioned in the story may be a distorted recollection of Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple, which was built partially into the side of a cliff and which is surrounded by the underground tombs of later pharaohs who chose to be buried at the same site (now known as the Valley of the Kings).

Hatshepsut’s successor, Thuthmosis III, had her name stricken from monuments and her public statues destroyed—not necessarily out of any personal animosity, but simply because the existence of a female predecessor may have threatened the legitimacy of his own and his descendants’ reign. The erasure of her public memory, though, may have opened room for some of the more outlandish and dramatic elements of her legend to grow (and may explain the loss of her name).

At the same time, the themes of family chaos, murder, and revenge that run through this story are very much in tune with Greek mythology. Whether Herodotus invented them or the priests enlivened the tale, they seem calculated to appeal to a Greek audience. There may well be some of both: the priests may have adapted their native oral tradition to better suit their Greek interviewer, while Herodotus may have amplified the familiar elements of the story as he retold the story for his Greek readers.

It may best for us to see the story of Nitocris as a kind of collaborative Greco-Egyptian historical fiction.

Image: Portrait statue of Hatshepsut, photograph by Rob Koopman via Wikimedia (Rijksmuseum van Oudheden, Leiden; granite; c. 1450 BCE)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Herodotus on Resisting Tyranny

170220dancerThe ancient Greek historian Herodotus was deeply concerned with the question of how democratic societies can defend themselves from tyranny. In the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, cities all across Greece saw outbreaks of tyranny: wealthy aristocrats seized power by force and ruled without regard to law or tradition. A few of these regimes lasted for a few generations, but most were overthrown in a matter of years. In the fifth century, Greece faced the larger threat of conquest by the Persian empire, whose Great King the Greeks perceived as kind of tyrant writ large.

Herodotus wrote about this history in his account of the wars between Greece and Persia. He told the stories of how the Athenians ousted their tyrants and how the Greeks organized to repel the Persian invasions. Some of his lessons in resisting tyranny, however, come in less obvious ways. Consider, for example, the story of Hippocleides (Herodotus, Histories 6.129).

The tale is set in the Greek city of Sicyon, generations before the Greco-Persian wars. A rich man named Cleisthenes had made himself tyrant and was looking to marry off his daughter, Agariste, to some rich young man from another city who could be a useful ally. Young men of fortune from all around Greece came to Sicyon to compete for Agariste’s hand. Cleisthenes hosted them for a year in his house, testing them on their credentials and talents. After a year, an Athenian, Hippocleides, son of Teisandrus, emerged as the favorite and preparations were made for a wedding. The story picks up on the day of the wedding:

After dinner, the suitors held a competition in music and speaking before the assembled audience. As the drinking began, Hippocleides, holding the attention of the room, called for some pleasant music, and having gotten the flute player to play, began to dance. And while I suppose Hippocleides pleased himself with his dancing, Cleisthenes looked on the whole thing with distaste. After a while, Hippocleides called for a table to be brought in. Getting onto the table he first danced some Laconian figures on it, next some Attic ones, but for his third act he planted his head on the table and waved his legs in the air.

Now Cleisthenes, at the first and second performances, was horrified at the thought that he might still end up tied by marriage to such a shameless dancer, but he kept silent; yet when he saw the man’s legs waving about he could no longer contain himself and declared: “Son of Teisandrus, you have danced yourself out of a marriage!”

The young man replied: “Hippocleides doesn’t care.”

– Herodotus, Histories 6.129

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Fake News in Ancient Athens

170109athenaThere’s been a lot of talk lately about fake news and its effect on politics, but the phenomenon is not a new one. Consider this story about how the tyrant Peisistratus seized power in Athens in 556 BCE.

There had been long-simmering unrest between three broad groups in Attica: the wealthy farmers of the plains, the fishing and trading people of the coast, and the poor villagers of the hills. Peisistratos organized the hill people as his base of support, promising to represent their interests if they helped him take power. After a first attempt that fell apart when the plains and coast factions organized against him, Peisistratos made a second bid for power a few years later when the coastal faction switched sides and backed him. Here’s how Herodotus tells the story of how Peisistratus managed to take power the second time:

In Paeania [a hilly region of Attica] there was a woman named Phye who was very tall and beautiful. They dressed her in full armor and put her in a chariot, decking her out to make her the most impressive spectacle, and drove her to the city. Heralds ran on ahead and when they reached the city they proclaimed: “Athenians! Welcome Peisistratus, whom Athena has honored above all! She herself is driving him to the acropolis!” They went all around saying these things and the rumor spread at once throughout Attica that Athena was returning Peististratus to the acropolis. The people of the city believed the woman to be the goddess herself, so they worshiped her and received Peisistratus as their tyrant.

– Herodotus, Histories 1.60

My own translation

Were the people of ancient Athens really that gullible? We shouldn’t doubt that most of them believed that the goddess Athena existed and could intervene in human affairs, but it’s still a bit of a leap from there to believe that she would show up in person to deliver a controversial politician back into power. The idea of dressing up a woman like Athena and having her ride into town in a chariot was nothing strange, either. The Panathenaic Festival, one of the major holidays in the Athenian year, featured exactly that. In fact, many historians believe that Peisistratus was actually using the festival as the occasion for his comeback. In that case, everyone knew that Phye was not really Athena, just playing a role in the procession. It may actually be Herodotus who is the gullible one and the “fake news” is the story that anyone was fooled by Phye at all, as opposed to participating in a well-orchestrated bit of political theatre.

We know from modern research that people tend to change their beliefs to suit their politics, not their politics to suit their belief. If anyone in Athens really did believe that Athena was bringing Peisistratus to town, it’s more likely that they were already a backer of his faction and so were willing to accept the story than that believing the story made them back Peisistratus. Similarly, Herodotus was a firm anti-monarchist, so he was disposed to believe that the Athenians must have been tricked into welcoming Peisistratus rather than willingly choosing him to be tyrant.

Either way you cut it, there’s nothing new about people believing false reports that happen to suit their political outlook.

Image: Athena carrying Heracles in her chariot, photograph by Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikimedia (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Berlin; 420-400 BCE; red-figure pottery; by the Cadmus Painter)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

The Trouble Market

If all people came together, each one offering their own private troubles in exchange for someone else’s, everybody, having gotten a good look at their neighbors’ burdens, would happily go home with the same ones they had brought with them.

– Herodotus, Histories 7.152, translated by Erik Jensen

Herodotus, reminding us all not too judge others too harshly. Everyone has their own troubles that you may not see. We can all use a little compassion in our lives.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Ancient Models for Writing About Language Barriers

160718graffitoThe ancient Mediterranean was a multilingual place. Although a few languages were in common usage—Phoenician, Greek, Aramaic, Punic, and Latin, in different times and places—many other languages were spoken, including Iberian, Gaulish, Etruscan, Oscan, Hittite, Hebrew, Egyptian, and Numidian. Many people, especially in the great port cities like Carthage, Rhodes, and Alexandria, would have encountered numerous different languages in their daily lives. It is no surprise that this experience of a polyglot world was reflected in classical literature. The ways in which ancient writers represented multilingualism and language barriers offer some useful models for us as speculative fiction writers today.

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Quotes: Archers String Their Bows Only When They Need Them

This was how Amasis managed the affairs of the Egyptians: from dawn until midday he handled all the matters that were brought before him; the rest of the day he gave over to drinking and joking with his companions.

His advisers, being vexed by his behavior, admonished him: “Majesty, it is not right that you should behave so foolishly. You should be seated on your august throne throughout the day conducting affairs of state. Thus the Egyptians would be certain that they are ruled by a great man and you would have a better reputation. What you do now is not at all kingly.”

But he replied: “Archers string their bows only when they need them. If they were kept strung all the time, bows would snap and be of no use when needed. It is the same with people: if you try to be serious all the time and not allow yourself a share of relaxation, you will surely either go insane or fall dead of a stroke. Knowing this, I take both business and leisure in turn.”

– Herodotus, The Histories 2.173

 

The Egyptian king Amasis, as reported by Herodotus, giving some good advice about making time for yourself.

Recommended Reading: Herodotus, “The Tale of the Clever Thief”

150727ringWe learn to write by reading, and so I’d like to share with you some of the works of classical literature that have inspired me as a writer. There’s no better place to start than with the Greek historian Herodotus. Herodotus’ Histories is my favorite book of all time. I re-read Herodotus like some people re-read Tolkien. “The Tale of the Clever Thief” (that’s my own name for it; Herodotus didn’t give that particular story a name of its own) is one of the most delightful parts of the work.

Herodotus is popularly known as the Father of History. He is also known as the Father of Lies. Both titles are appropriate. Herodotus was the first (surviving) author in the western tradition to write about the past in terms of human actions and motivations, not the deeds of gods and heroes. He was also a storyteller who enjoyed spinning a good tale, even if he didn’t think it was true (and some of the things he did think were true are pretty outrageous).

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History for Writers: Introduction

640px-Herodotus_plate_in_Volissos_entranceWriters of fiction and writers of history have long had a kinship with each other.

It is a telling fact that Herodotus, founding father of western historiography, saw himself as carrying on the work of Homer, the great epic poet. Herodotus himself has often been accused of being better at spinning a yarn than at getting his facts right, and Homer tells us quite a lot about the real warlords and merchants of his day through his stories of epic battles and heroic wanderings. Fiction and history have always sat at the same table. As a professional historian and an amateur writer, I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about how the two go together.

Writing fiction means imagining people and worlds that do not exist. That, in its essence, is also what the study of history is about. Now, historians must keep our imaginations grounded in testable evidence and rational argument, but all those facts add up to nothing without imagination. We will never shadow the emperor’s agents as they crept the back streets of Rome sniffing out agitators, or break bread with a gang of workers in the shadow of a half-built pyramid and listen in to their work-camp gossip, or watch over Confucius’ shoulder as one petty, corrupt, minor official after another slowly drove him to consider whether there could be a better way to live. Those people and the times they lived in are gone, and if we are to make any sense of the evidence they left behind we must try to imagine the worlds in which they lived.

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