Questioning the Authority of Myth in The Histories
History can be defined as the systematic study of and writing about the past (Cartledge Paul The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others Oxford University Press Oxford 1993). Does this mean anything that happened or that was believed to have happened in the past can be recorded as history? Or does one need proof? In Herodotus The Histories the narrative is arranged in a dramatic form. Modern historians also arrange their narrative in dramatic form but he or she uses footnotes endnotes and citations to show proof; the raw data of his or her work is validated. These notes allow the historian to share sources of details and present tangible information. Herodotus however was not able to use such conventions as footnotes or endnotes. In The Histories Herodotus includes as much primary material as he can but obviously does not fully trust his sources. He takes special care to let his readers know when he is saying what has been told to him by other people and often includes accounts that he believes to be false. Cartledge states that historians all create their own distinctive selective pasts (Cartledge 19). In including all accounts and stating which he believes to be true Herodtus in fact creates his own past.
But was Herodotus telling the truth? He uses many techniques in his writing to make the reader believe that what he is saying is fact. Herodotus uses story and myth in such a way that it lends credibility to his writing. Why did he include stories and myths? Cartledge makes the claim that Myths were virtually all that Herodotus could possibly have used to recount and account for the origins development and outcome of his chosen subject (Cartledge 21). First of all Herodotus used the stories to tell the history of the time because he often only had stories
to tell as no concrete facts were available to him. Secondly the people of his day were used to literature filled with myth and symbolism. It may have been that Herodotus wrote his books using many stories because he felt it was the only way to properly tell the history of the people of Persia and Greece.
I am not going to come down in favor in this or that account of events…I will cover major and minor human settlements equally because most of those which were important in the past have diminished in significance by now and those which were great in my own time were small in times past. I will mention both equally (Waterfield Robin Herodotus The Histories Oxford University Press Oxford 1998 Book 1 Chapter 15).
In order to understand how Herodotus arrives at conclusions about the events he discusses it helps to examine specific instances where his methods of narration and analysis are illustrated. By looking carefully at these examples we are able to draw conclusions that help define what constitutes proof for Herodotus. A good example of his method of historical analysis can be found in the story of Helen (2.113-120). Her familiar story is reconstructed to show the reader a different outlook on the causes and historical facts which make up the event. Herodotus begins by telling the above story as related to him by the priests. However he does not take myth as truth. Herodotus questions the validity of the myth by using tools of logic and reason. He examines the situation surrounding the myth and evaluates it rationally. Herodotus uses two major tools to prove his outlook. He begins by using the fact that the statue of Aphrodite now standing at the former site of Proteus’ court is referred to as “the stranger.” As this is the only statue of Aphrodite referred to in this way he concludes that there must be a reason why. He believes that it is because of the story of Helen. Here Herodotus takes anthropological details into account and through his own observations he manages to
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supplement the myth. Herodotus then uses a form of literary analysis in order to validate the story of the priests further and in doing so he lays out the difference between Homer’s use of myth and his own practice of rational analysis. In looking at three passages from the Iliad and the Odyssey he pulls out details that point to Homer acknowledging Helen s being at Proteus’ court (2.116). And though this does not outrightly prove Herodotus’ account it is certainly an effective critical tool in analyzing the event and adding much validity to his analysis.
The mere fact of Herodotus questioning the authority of the myth is remarkable at least reference to earlier writers. In fact he seems in complete rebellion of myth when he writes “Now I think that Homer had heard this story as well because although he omitted it on the grounds that it was not suitable for an epic poem as the other one (the one he used) he still showed that he knew this alternative story too (2.115).” He is attacking Homer for his subjectivity by implying that he gives a false account of the story for the sake of poetry. There is a direct contradiction between Homer’s account of Helen s story and of Herodtus objective telling of the tale.
In the story of Cyrus youth Herodotus transforms the mythological facts underlying the tale into a realistic narrative. He does this by removing an element that had not ever been removed in earlier works–the gods. They are very noticeably absent. In many places throughout the text where one might expect there to be implications of religion it simply does not happen although the reader is assuming that the gods have something to do with the dreams of Astyages it is never explicitly stated. The best example of this is the justification Harpagus gives as to why he will not kill the baby Cyrus–normally the reader would most assume there to be a judgment passed on the unjustness of the act or at least an appeal to the gods: instead several human concerns appear:
There are plenty of reasons why I won t kill the child not least of which he s a relative of
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mine. Also Astyages is old now but has no male offspring. Suppose when he dies that the tyranny devolves on to Mandane whose son he is now using me to kill. The only possible outcome for me will be that my life will be in danger. Still for the sake of my own safety the child has to die but it must be one of Astyages men who commits the murder and not one of mine (1.109).
This avoidance of the mention of appealing to gods lends credibility and validity to the story.
In the process of making Cyrus story into history Herodotus makes use of narrative and storytelling devices which make his work seem truly “historical” to the modern reader. A method repeated in the text is shown by the great detail in which the descriptions of people places and things are given. The names of people places and things are are specifically stated as are the stories behind their origins. That is not to mention the a great amount of time that is devoted to lengthy digressions that reveal customs and traits of the group under discussion to the reader. The liberty which Herodotus has to discuss any subject he deems important lends a greater factuality and credibility to the The Histories by means of the inclusion of all relevant (and irrelevant) historical details.
The story of Cyrus is portrayed by Herodotus as a narrated history although it contains non-narrative elements and mythology. The mythology is ignored by Herodotus and therefore makes the work far more believable by means of objectivity.
There are instances in The Histories where Herodotus is even scientific in his reasoning. In Book Two he makes educated guesses as to why the Nile floods. He outlines the theories held by three scientific beliefs and continues by refuting them with his own theory. He argues each one systematically to disprove it. When he explores the argument that the flooding of the Nile is caused by winds he writes:
Two of these views would not be worth mentioning in my opinion except I do want to give some idea of what they are. The first claims that the Etesian winds prevent the Nile from flowing out into the sea and so cause it to flood. However the fact is that the Nile carries on as usual even when the Etesian winds are not blowing…and the same thing would happen to any other rivers that run counter to these winds…the second theory is even more ignorant than the one I have just mentioned…the idea that it rises in snowy regions makes no sense at all (2.20-21).
Instead of merely dismissing the theory as myth Herodotus logically and scientifically refutes the claim of the winds being the cause of the flood.
In this paragraph we see yet another explicit mention of the myth versus reason. Herodotus attacks those who accept facts without questioning when he writes As anyone capable of rational though could realize (2.21). He continues attacking myth when he writes about the author of a certain theory contending that It is impossible to argue against…because the tale is based on something which is obscure and dubious (2.23). It is language such as “obscure and dubious” that shows Herodotus’ distaste for claims that are not based on logic.
The only way for Herodotus to report on the past was to tell the stories from oral tradition that existed and to then rationalize on whether he believed them or not. He told all sides of the story so that the reader could make up their own mind about which was true and told which answer he personally found the most truth in. Herodotus also realized that it was important to tell all of the stories if he wanted to properly represent history whether true or not. He wrote his Histories filled with stories and myths but it was not in the end so different from any other historian throughout history–even without raw facts and footnotes. Anyhow we must remember what Cartledge said: Whether it is true or not in terms of actual historical fact is beside the point (Cartledge 26).
1. Cartledge Paul The Greeks: A Portrait of Self and Others Oxford University Press Oxford 1993.
2. Waterfield Robin Herodotus The Histories Oxford University Press Oxford 1998.