The music is starting up. To my left: Herodotus, and on my ever faithful right: Robert B. Strassler. The party rages and I can’t help the boogie in my body as Herodotus continues his discursive account of the ancient world deep in Thrace, What about love, Herodotus? I ask. He offers me this tale:
The custom of those that live above the Krestonians are as follows. Each man has many wives, and whenever a man dies, a great contest with fierce rivalry is held among his wives and their families concerning which of them was the wife whom he loved the most. – The Landmark Herodotus (368, 5.6)
And the lucky winner of this competition gets her throat slit over her husband’s grave, while the losers grieve the misfortune of being unloved and alive. That is a misfortune indeed. Like most traditions, in its purest sense it is a beautiful thing, but when are we humans ever pure? How often is there true love that requires a merciful exit upon the death of our other half? I wish I had the answer.
Then again, these are the same people that grieve when a child is born. But even there, I find I can not seriously argue with the logic:
When a child is born to them, his relatives sit around him and grieve over all the evils he will have to endure later, recounting the things that humans must suffer. But when someone dies, they have fun and take pleasure in burying him in the ground, reciting over him all the evils he has escaped and how he is now in a state of complete bliss. (368, 5.4)
Seems a pragmatic response to reality, I was never one for sugarcoating, maybe by necessity as the candy coating of life relentlessly eludes me. Well, it’s a comfort at least that the living can dance. Herodotus and I take a turn around the room while he demonstrates his ancient version of googlemaps. Not only do I now know that the miles between Matiane and Kissia are 140, but, good news! there are 11 stations along the Persian King’s Royal Road as well. I’d ask where Kissia is, but we are deep into a dip- just keep dancing.
Cheek to cheek, Herodutus relates a beautiful tale: when an oracle (more on those later) warns the Bacchiads (Corinthian oligarchs) that a baby named Eetion will be their downfall, they agree: they must kill the babe. The ten men make a plan to go to the house to ask to hold the baby, the first man that is given the baby will cast him down on the ground with a lethal force.
But when Labda gave the child to one of the men, the child, by divine luck, smiled up at him, and the man felt constrained by a sort of pity from killing him. Moved by compassion, he gave the child to the second man, and then he to the third, and so on, until the infant passed through the hands of all ten, and not one of them was willing to kill him. (407, 5.92)
Needless to say, they were not pleased with themselves after this inconvenient display of humanity. Herodotus and I on the other hand are dazzled and float across the dance floor. I have serious questions about these oracles, they seem suspiciously cryptic. They say nothing, but lead a man to wade through the labyrinth of his own mind which directs him, it seems to me, whither he always intended to go. The spinning has left me breathless so I keep my notions to myself.
Herodotus and I get into the groove as he explains that the above story was told to the Spartans as a cautionary tale against the evils of tyranny. The Corinthian, Sokleas convinced all of the allies, and consequently the Spartans, not to impose tyranny on Athens. Sometimes sense and decency have an air of the miraculous, wouldn’t you agree, Herodotus?
But if history shows us anything it is the ongoing battle between an individual’s critical thinking and the power of the masses. We move to the beat, in the direction the crowd takes us. Occasionally however, gods bless us – some break out, and really dance.
For it would seem to be easier to deceive and impose upon a whole throng of people than to do so to just one individual (411, 5.97)
Herodotus Book One (Wisdom of the Pyre)
Herodotus Book Two (Wrong Again)
Herodotus Book Three (Bottoms Up.)
Herodotus book Four (Seducing Amazons: a how-to)
Herodotus Book Six, Seven, Eight, Nine (For Hippokleidas, no problem!)
The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories, edited by Robert B. Strassler translated by Andrea L. Purvis
*Title from page 374 section 5.18: For it would have been better for the women not to have come at all than to have them come and not seat beside the men, but opposite to them instead, so that the men’s eyes were painfully dazzled.
** oil pastel painting by Victoria Accardi