By Kalev Pehme
I am struck by how little is said about the overture of Herodotus’s great work, Inquiries. Even the young Seth Benardete goes to the punch-line of the joke very quickly without giving an detailed analysis of what is going on in the beginning of the work, which is ostensibly about why there was such an antagonism between “Asia” and “Europe.” The explanation seems almost farcical in character and there is a great silence about a vast part of what is going on. It is this silence that needs to be recognized for the overture to be understood properly. In almost all classical writers, what is not said is just as important as what is said, and frequently with some writers even more important. The scholars whom I have read about Herodotus, not that many, tend to treat him as some kind of rudimentary historian in the modern sense, someone who does some research and is partially reliable about the past, while in others totally deceived about what is going on.
I would suggest instead that Herodotus is not a historian, but a pre-Socratic philosopher, the one of which we have more writing any other and whose work is one of the great works of philosophy of the ancient world. Herodotus is not interested in history in the way moderns are. He is much more interested, for example, in how people understand themselves, even if the stories they make up about themselves and their past are totally ludicrous at times. Not that Herodotus doesn’t investigate things himself. He inquires about the size of the great pyramid, and his inquiry holds up today. But to speak of Herodotus as if he were a historian in the modern sense, a man who attempts to find contemporary sources of the past and to make sense of them with some kind of objectivity is a waste of time, because that is not his intent.
There is a modern argument that the Greek historians were unhistorical. That view is true, but only if taken properly. They did not believe that there were historical forces that molded men. If there is any historical time, it is usually a very board cyclical one: things come to be and they pass away and then things come to be and pass away. We find in ancient times, not only Greece, but elsewhere, an attempt not to understand the chronology of events as they have sequential meaning, but thy want to understand the origins. Herodotus investigates what people believe their origins to be, and it must be said that the mere chronology of events, even if they go back to some king of beginning, the Declaration of Independence, for example, does not provide an origin. That doesn’t mean that the Greek historians avoided historical criticism. For example, Thucydides criticizes Homer and the notion that the Trojan War was the greatest war. But what is common in the Greek historians is their effort to understand the origins of things in the traditions, myths, conventions, customs, and so on. However, where they often differ is the extent of how much critique is necessary of these conventions, customs, myths, etc.. Herodotus, for example, puts a far greater effort at simply recording these things, rather than deciding whether a particular people story is factually possible. That something is factually impossible does not mean that it does not speak to the origin or character of a people and their beliefs. For example, it is well known that the story of George Washington admitting to his father that he cut down the cherry tree because George cannot tell a lie is not true historical event: It never happened. However, the story itself says something very strongly about what Americans of a particular time and place believed about Washington and what they origins of the USA are.
Herodotus’s inquiries go into a realm of the unknown in a way that modern historiographers do not and cannot, simply because of the method of investigation that they have chosen precludes Herodotean inquiry. Moreover, Herodotus does something that is unthinkable today: He prefers the oral transmission of knowledge to the written, in part, because he had no access to some of the writings, but for the most part, because the oral traditions can be unusually true. For example, as a journalist, I wrote extensively about New York politics and contemporary New York history. However, in a great sense, it was an official history. What I didn’t write was the oral history that was far more interesting and far more true, but could not be written either because there was no available confirmation or because in some cases it was a very dangerous thing to do. But to be able to get some oral truth into a written document was one of the great pleasures of my life when I was young. Herodotus no doubt experienced that same pleasure, which is why he concentrated so much oral history.
Yet, today, and throughout time, Thucydides was and is considered a far better historian. One might say that the reason that is true is the approach that Thucydides took: He did not wander around the world, and he didn’t record what a priest in some remote place had said. No, Thucydides concentrated on political life exclusively centered around an immense struggle between the Spartans and Athenians (and involving the Persians as well), in a way that the cosmopolitan Herodotus did not. There is a clear and marked influence and conflict contemporary sophists, and that doesn’t exist in Herodotus. Historical research for Thucydides is far more an investigation of the politics of his day with no real recounting of religious practices, ethnography, economics, art, and so on. The second thing Thucydides did was to attempt to take as much responsibility for his reporting, i.e., wanted to find witnesses, read archival material, and so on. Thucydides is far more the journalist than Herodotus, and is thus more to our taste today. The second-hand or even absurd recounting that we often find in Herodotus is never a part of Thucydides.
Needless to say, that also means that Herodotus is a lot funnier than Thucydides. You would never find the comic treatment that Herodotus gives the tyrant Pisistratus in his return to Athens in the company of a tall woman dressed as Athena to deceive the population. Herodotus treats it as a grand joke, Thucydides would not. Politics and war is a very serious business in Thucydides, while for Herodotus it is often ridiculous and should be treated as such. At the same time, no matter how ridiculous a man’s beliefs, Herodotus never belittles the terrible tragedies that arise of such ridiculousness.
In any event, the Inquiries begins with (Benardete’s translation): “Here is the showing-forth of the inquiry of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, so that neither what human beings have done might disappear in time, nor the deeds great and admirable, partly shown forth by the Greeks and partly by the barbarians, might be without fame; his inquiry shows forth both other things and through what cause they warred against each other.”
In the overture, Herodotus goes to the problem of why there was such antagonism and strife between Asia and Europe. Europe, tradition tells us, is named for Europa, who was taken from Sidon in Phoenicia by Zeus, but that is a Greek story. We don’t get that Greek or Hellene story in the overture. Instead, Herodotus writes that the Persians blame the Phoenicians for the years of enmity and warfare that was fought by the Europeans against the Asians. In this case, the Europeans are primarily the Greeks, including those Greeks who lives on the Western edge of Asia Minor and up through the Hellespont to Byzantium and Chalcedon. The Asians are the various barbarians who live in Asia Minor and in what we call the Middle East, including and especially the great empire of the Persians that struggled back and forth to incorporate the Greeks into their empire for good.
Herodotus notes that the Persians believe that the Phoenicians were highly successful world travelers and merchants who went to Argos in Greece. They were traders who sold and bartered goods for nearly a week when the Phoenicians decided to abduct a number of women, including the King’s daughter. “Her name,” Herodotus writes, “according to what the Hellenes also say, was Io daughter of Inachos.” The Phoenician traders took the women and Io off to Egypt, and Io is deeply associated with Egypt, which is something the normal reader of Herodotus would know, while others, particularly today, would not.
In turn, Herodotus tells us that the Persians then recalled that the Hellenes or Greeks committed a second crime, i.e., that a group of Greeks went to Colchis and there stole the king’s daughter, Medea. Her father sent an envoy to Hellas demanding that she be sent back. In answer, the Hellenes refused, because the Phoenicians never returned Io to Argos.
The next great crime, according to the Persians, comes about because Alexandros (i.e., Paris), a Prince of Troy, (Andrea L. Purvis translation from now on) “quite confident that he would pay no penalty since the other side had not paid either,” abducted Helen from Sparta. The Persians charges that the Greeks sent envoys to Troy demanding Helen’s return, but the Trojans refused noting that the Hellenes had not returned Medea to Colchis.
Herodotus then notes that there was a basic tit-for-tat in offenses, but that afterwards the Hellenes were more responsible for wrongs, as the Greeks started making major wars on Asia. The famous punch-;line comes at this point: “Now the Persians think\ that the abduction of women is certainly an act only unjust men would perform, and yet once they have been abducted, it is senseless to [only fools] make a fuss over seeking vengeance. It is the way of sensible people to make no concern for abducted women; it is quite obvious that the women would not be abducted if they had not been compliant.” Of course, the woman who just happened to be taken against her will always has the obvious alternative to kill herself. Otherwise, the women are basically whores.
The Persians take umbrage, Herodotus says, that for the sake of a woman who obviously is a whore, Helen, the Hellenes destroyed Troy and the power of Priam. (Not that the Greeks really wanted the great treasures of Troy and used Helen as an excuse. I mean, after all…) The Persians considered Troy their own, and they decided that this destruction of Troy made the Hellenes their enemies.
Herodotus ends his overture with the following: “The Persians claim that this is how it happened, and they find in the sack of Troy the origin of their hostility toward the Hellenes. But the Phoenicians disagree with the Persians about Io. They say that it was not by abduction that they brought her to Egypt, but rather she had intercourse with the captain of the ship in Argos, and when she realized she was pregnant, she was ashamed to face her parents and she voluntarily sailed with the Phoenicians so that she would not be found out.”
There is a time problem here with the Phoenicians, if we are to truth the Persians, because it was only a time of a few days that Io could have had sex with the captain, and it would have taken her far longer to know that she was pregnant. Either Io went because she wanted, or because she did not want.
Herodotus gives the Persian side of the story, and I would suggest that the wise Greek reader instantly could reconstruct the Greek side of the story that Herodotus deliberately keeps to himself. What is not said is exceptionally important, sometimes even more than what is said, not only in Herodotus, but in most of the great ancient writers. According to Lycrophon, “merchant wolves” from Phoenicia abducted the tauroparthenos from Argos (Alexandra, 1293-97). Io was a virgin dedicated to the bull. But the story goes a deeper than that. It was said that Io was the daughter of Inachos, which was also the name of the local Argive river god. Argos was a particularly goddess-oriented land and very dedicated not only to the bull, but to Hera as well. There in Argos was a sorceress Iynx. One day, Iynx offered a potion to Zeus to drink,, and he drank it. The first women he saw was Io, a priestess of Hera who was wandering around Hera’s sanctuary in Argos. It is, like all love, at first sight.
There are consequences, many consequences. One of them was Hera’s revenge on Iynx. The goddess transformed the sorceress into a bird known as the wryneck, a “delicious, multicolored bird,” says Pindar, because the bird twists its neck with a sudden jerk. This bird was attached to a wheel, and it had an amazing power. This bird, however, has very great importance in another myth, that of Jason and the Argonauts, the very Jason who abducts Medea, another cause for war between Asia and Europe. The problem is that Jason wanted Medea, but she was a very powerful sorceress, and to defeat one you need an even stronger potion. Aphrodite gave Jason a wryneck to help him bewitch the witch, so to speak.
Enchanted by the vast power of the wryneck, Medea lost all consideration of her parents and her country. She became obsessed by the distant land of Hellas. This potent potion, the iynx, not surprisingly is in the hands of Aphrodite, not any the god, including Dionysos, another god of possession. Erotic possession is the most fundamental of all forms of possession. It is also reported that at Delphi, the worshippers of Apollo, another god of possession, would see small wheels hanging from the ceiling, small wheels on which small birds were attached. The birds on the wheels apparently had a very seductive voice or call. They were the Enchantresses, Pindar says in the Pythian Odes, that link the human mind to the circular motion of the heavens.
However, the main problem with Io, the great, great grandmother of Europa, was this sudden love from Zeus. She was the priestess of the Heraion, the oldest shrine in Greece that gave the Greeks their sense of time from generation to generation. In her dreams, Zeus instructed Io to go into the fields where her father kept his animals, and there she would become a heifer. Zeus would hide her away, as he meanwhile lied to Hera that he was in love with Io.
[Although the following story is irrelevant to my reading, it is too rich a story not to tell. As everyone knows, Hera is the goddess of marriage, but what is little known today is that she is the goddess of the bed, the erotic playpen. It is well known from Homer that when Zeus and Hera found each other, brother and sister engaged in sexual fun for some 300 years. Hera is, like a good wife should be, a goddess of sex. At the Heraion, there was a statue of the goddess Hera with the erect phallus of her husband in her mouth. No goddess, not even Aphrodite, had the nerve or even the inclination to shown in fellatio. Such is the power of Hera’s shameless sexual desire, a desire directed to her husband and brother.]
In Io’s dreams, Zeus told the priestess to go the fields of Lerna, where her father’s animals grazed. Io would be transformed from a virgin consecrated to a goddess to an animal consecrated to a god. With a gadfly at her back, Io, now a heifer, began to become insane. She continued to wander about until she met another victim of Zeus, the titan Prometheus, who, like the human Io, wanted to die, but could never do so. There are additional variants. For example, once Io became a cow, Hera put Argus, the 100-eye monster, to watch over her. But Zeus sent Hermes to release her. But here one only need to know Zeus removed her madness and united with her once again. It was done by a slight motion of Zeus’s hand over her, whose memory was preserved by Io in her naming her son Epaphus, “a hand’s light touch.” Epaphus would later become Egypt’s king, and it believed that he became the bull-headed god Apis. Herodotus reports that the Persian king who had conquered Egypt would later attempt to kill this god by stabbing him.
That slight touch of the hand was also used by Zeus to infatuate Europa
What happened between Zeus and Io and Hera was the first adultery. What is remarkable about this adultery is that Zeus becomes involved with a woman who is the complete imitation of the “ox-eyed” Hera. In effect, Zeus’s adultery was with a woman who was a copy of Hera; the copy, the image, of Hera was something he fell in love with. I once fell in love with an actress, because of her image, not because of what she was. Images seem so perfect and ideal, while the original is often so sad and imperfect. Images of what turn us on often make for better sex than the presence of the original in our arms.
Europe receives her name from a princess of Phoenicia, an Asian country. Asia is like a sister of Europa. Europa also had a brother, Cadmus, who has an impact on our lives even today. For it is Cadmus who carried the magical letters that became the alphabet of the Europe. After his sister was taken by Zeus, Cadmus wondered about trying to find her. He had many adventures, including his most famous one, where he rescued Zeus from the monster Typhon. The most important thing about Cadmus, however, for the Greeks, was that he was given Harmony to marry, a wonderful woman. Their wedding celebration was the last time the gods and goddesses celebrated a wedding together. It was a very happy occasion. It also turned out that all the gifts that the immortals gave to Harmony tended to work out into terrible problems, but that is another story.
The marriage of Cadmus and Harmony is paralleled by another marriage, that of Peleus to Thetis (the mother of Achilles). There, the Olympians and a host of other immortals were enjoying the wedding when the one goddess who, for good reason, was not invited, Eris, the goddess of strife, decided to show up. During the festivities, she threw out a golden apple at three goddesses who were gossiping at the feast table: Athene, Hera, and Aphrodite. The apple was inscribed, “To the fairest.”
The story has been told in many ways, but in effect each of the three goddesses wanted to lay claim to the apple. A contest or a judgment had to be made, and Zeus chose a young herder of oxen named Paris to do so. Before his birth, Paris was seen by the seers to be the ruin of Troy, and his father Priam chose an ox-herder to kill the boy. Instead, the ox-herder, Agelaus, decided to bring up the boy as his own. Paris, thus, at the time when Hermes brought the three goddesses down for judgment, Paris had no idea he was of royal birth, something he would learn later and be welcomed back by Priam. Paris had become known as Alexander, protector, one who wards off, as he routed a group of cattle rustlers and managed to bring back the animals. After extracting a promise from the future losers not to vex him for choosing incorrectly, Paris was set to judge. It is said he suggested that the goddesses remove their clothing, and, well, why not? How else does on judge the beauty of a woman except when she is naked? One can just imagine how poor, shy virgin Athene, flat-chested, hiding behind her shield, finally comes out to be seen by Paris. Of course, the goddesses were not above bribery. Hera promised great armies and leadership, Athene wisdom and victory in all battles, and Aphrodite, who had to remove her magic girdle that makes her irresistible to any man, promised Paris the most beautiful woman on earth.
Paris chose badly and he bound to take Helen away from her husband, with the help of Aphrodite. And, of course, from this little incident at a wedding, the war against Troy was set into action.
The Persian analysis of the origins of the conflict between Asia and Europe and the one Phoenician correction of the Persian account, as given by Herodotus in his overture, is in part made possible by the fact that the Persians don’t believe in the human gods of the Greeks. In great part, the incidents chosen by the Persians, all have very profound mythological meanings and variants that are rooted in the Greek gods and goddesses at least for the Hellenes. The Persian approach is very much like a Christian who takes the rites, rituals, and stories of another religion and repeats them without any reference to the alien god. The immediate reaction of a modern is that the Persians are telling it as it is, i.e., without the intervention of the gods into everyday life which is all nonsense anyway. But, that would be a very bad reading of Herodotus. What Herodotus is showing is the Persian approach to the problem of the hostilities between Asia and Europe, not an atheistic approach to the Greek myths that form the Hellene approach to these stories, including that of Homer’s Iliad.
The Persian approach is one of justice on a very human basis. It is wrong to steal women from their rightful owners, but to wage war and destroy whole cities because of women who are whores is foolish, not to mention very destructive. On a very primitive level, one might say that the Persian argument is one where people ought to take individual responsibility for their actions, while at the same time recognizing that there are irrationalities that have to be dealt with moderation.
But if we look at the Hellenes and their various stories about these incidents demythologized by the Persians, the very actions that Jason or Paris or whoever undertake are done in a state of mental debility that is rooted in the fact that a god or goddess is present to create and bring an event or happening to its (illogical) end. The goddess Ate, divine infatuation, presided over all these events. This infatuation, moreover, ate, eventually becomes a new synonym, ruin. And it is only through ate that any great acts are performed.
In the Greek version of the stories that the Persian blame for the conflicts between Asia and Europe, the divine, the gods and goddesses, are constantly undermining human order, i.e., the kind of order that the Persians attempt to use to explain the warfare between the continents. Men would like their order and have their little corner of the world without any interference from the gods. For example, I live in Southern California, and as much as I admire Poseidon the last god I want to visit us is Poseidon, because when he visits there are earthquakes and tsunamis. What is interesting here in the overture of Herodotus is that the incidents that are mentioned are all involved with unruly erotics. A man who is possessed by Helen, the most beautiful woman on earth, cannot be expected to live by normal human order. In fact, the last thing he wants is that. He wants all that Helen means.
Thus, the Greek side of the Persian appeal to justice is a vindication of injustice, i.e., an injustice which is rooted in a man’s inability to be humanly just, because he is divinely infatuated. While the Persians call for moderation and justice, the Greeks end up in gross tragedies.
In any event, Herodotus does not in any way take sides on argument of the Persians, but it is obvious why. After a while, there are no real means by which to sift out who really is right or wrong or what really happened. You need a stronger standard, and instead goes to a man he knows clearly was the first to commit injustices on the Greeks, and that is the story of Croesus, which in many ways makes a lot of Greek mythology seems very unsophisticated. No man ever had a stronger “relationship” with an oracle than Croesus. It was a true divine infatuation.