Review of The Histories (440 BCE)
Read in 2020.
Here’s a dirty joke, told in book 2, chapter 111. It’s about an Egyptian king named Pheros, who was probably not even a real person; the name suggests a corruption of the title “pharaoh” and is not found in Egyptian lists. Pheros goes blind throwing a spear at a thirty-foot flood of the Nile, and then:
When he had been blind for ten years, an oracle from the city of Buto declared to him that the term of his punishment was drawing to an end, and that he would regain his sight by washing his eyes with the urine of a woman who had never had intercourse with any man but her own husband. Pheros tried his own wife first; and, as he remained blind, all women, one after another.
Eventually, a faithful woman pisses in the king’s eyes. He marries her—possibly violating the predicate by which he found her—and kills all of the other women. It’s not a good punchline; it expresses the author’s misogyny and willingness to ascribe demeaning titillations to foreigners and the people of the past. Herodotus does not assert that it really happened, but he is not explicitly skeptical about it, as he is of some other myths, including the similarly misogynous story of Mycerinus’s servant girls or of hibernating humans living beyond the land of a bald-headed Scythian tribe in book 4, chapter 25.
Aside from how dirty it is, the Pheros episode is typical of Herodotus’ low points. The Histories is an amazing source of such anecdotes, myths and snatches of real history that bring the ancient world to life in a few short sentences, sometimes by illustrating its imagination. Notice, in the example of Pheros, how the natural world (the flood, the source of Egyptian wealth) is entangled with the supernatural (transgression, the curse, the oracle) and everyday human concerns (power, health, disability, hygiene, loss of face, fidelity, honesty, sexuality, marriage, legacy). It’s inelegant and anthropocentric fiction, but there’s a seductive quality to it; it still feels as if it makes sense on a basic human level.