Sunday, May 13, 2007


Herodotus is the doyen of historians, the patriarch of Western history. Along with Homer and Hesiod he formed the venerable Trinity [the three Hs] of Greek literature. His history of the Persian Wars is not only enchanting but also a stunning portrayal of gender and sexuality and, not to mention the sexual deviations of that era. Strange as it may seem, the sexual perversions depicted in his history had quite a lasting impact in the rise and fall of the fortunes of various nations at that time. At certain places Herodotus’ narrative verges on the absurd; but for an understanding of our vanished yesterdays, specially the long forgotten Ionia and Golden Greece, there is nowhere else to look.

In book one, also called Cleo, there is the story of Canduales, King of Lydia. Candaules was passionately in love with his wife and considered her the most beautiful woman on Earth. Being bewitched by her beauty he spoke of her to his close confidante and bodyguard, Gyges, extolling the various features of her body and requested him to view her naked. Aghast at so unseemly a proposal, Gyges politely turned down the offer but the King persisted. At last Gyges relented and following his master’s advice hid in the royal bedchamber at night. The Queen, who suspected nothing, disrobed herself before retiring to bed and Gyges who had seen the Queen in her nakedness slunk away. The Queen however had seen Gyges and chose to remain silent for the time being but understood that it was her husband who was behind this mischief. On the morrow she called Gyges to her presence and told him that he had seen what was forbidden for another man to see and now only two courses remained in front of him. He had either to kill the King or to kill himself. With a heavy heart Gyges chose the former, and, aided by the Queen, he murdered the King with a knife while he was sleeping in the Royal bedchamber. Later on Gyges married the Queen and possessed the kingdom of Lydia.

At that time the tyrant, Peisistratos, who had been driven out of Athens earlier by the commons, ruled Athens. He had regained his despotism with the help of a prominent citizen Megakles, and as per the agreement he had to marry Megakles’ daughter. Peisistratos was already married and had grown up sons and not desiring to have any further issue he had commerce with his new wife but not of the usual kind, a fact that infuriated his father-in-law. Peisistratos fearing for his life fled Athens once again but this charismatic individual regained his despotism by guile. Sodomy was not unknown in Athens then.

The Prophetess at Delphi called Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire, a mule. A mule is the hermaphrodite offspring of a mare and a male donkey. It signifies a hybridisation; the ovum of a superior female uniting with the sperm of an inferior male. The production of the ‘human’ mule is abhorrent to many. During apartheid in South Africa it was not only unthinkable but also illegal for a black man to marry a white woman, the ‘Othello phenomenon’. The great Mughal Emperor Akbar had legislated that no woman born in the royal family could marry, as she was superior to all other men. Now the mother of Cyrus was a Medean Princess while his father was a Persian nobleman and at that time Persia was a subject nation to the Medes. Thus the Prophetess of Delphi considered Cyrus a mule.

In the Second Book also called Euterpe, where Herodotus describes Egypt in considerable detail there is the strange story of the ‘Deserters’. These deserters were originally soldiers of Egypt, two hundred and forty thousand in number, and were manning a garrison in the remotest southern tip of Egypt bordering Ethiopia. They were on duty for three consecutive years at a stretch and yet they were not relieved. Ultimately they all revolted and transferred their allegiance to Ethiopia. When the Egyptian king personally requested them not to do so which would tantamount to deserting their country, wives and family, one of the deserters approached the King and displaying his virile member assured him that wherever this member stayed they would always have wives and family. How touching and true: for certainly if a man is in possession of youth he can invariably have a wife and family wheresoever he may be.

Herodotus mentions that in Egypt the women passed water standing and the men crouching. I am not sure if he was writing with his tongue in cheek or he had personally witnessed a woman doing so unnatural a thing. Or perhaps, Mother Nature specially endowed women of Egypt in those bygone days and I believe, if such rumours can be believed, one woman of more recent memory was able to do the same. She is a former Prime minister of England; but that is simply preposterous if, indeed, not a calumny.

Elsewhere he states that during his sojourn in Egypt a male goat had intercourse with a woman publicly! Must have been a very interesting sight.

The corpses of the rich and the aristocrats were embalmed soon after death and then stored in a sepulchral chamber. But in cases of women the corpses are handed over for embalming after four or five days lest the embalmers perform an unholy act on the dead body. Thunder of Jupiter! Necrophilia was not unknown to the ancients.

The Egyptians were the first to forbid commerce with women in the precincts of a temple and also to perform proper ablution before entering a temple after intercourse with a woman.

Herodotus mentions the wondrous tale of the Egyptian king Pheros who was struck blind as a divine punishment for arrogantly shooting a spear into the river. For ten years he was tormented by his disease and when the time for his deliverance came he was asked to wash his eyes with the water of a woman who knew her husband and no other. First he made a trial of his wife’s and finding no improvement he tried with all the ladies of the court and after many endeavours he regained his sight. Adultery has never been out of fashion it seems!

Another Egyptian king, Amasis, had married a Greek woman Ladlike but was unable to consummate his marriage. He was however able to have commerce with his other wives. At last, being exasperated, he told her that she was practicing magic on him and would certainly face his vengeance one day very soon. Ladlike, seeing the predicament she was in, prayed to Aphrodite for succour and that very night Amasis was able to have intercourse with her much to his liking. From then on whenever he lay with her he was mighty pleased and Ladlike dutifully sent the votive offerings to Aphrodite.

Cambyses was the son of the illustrious Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire. On being King after the death of Cyrus, he wished to take his sister as his wife. As marriage between brother and sister was unheard of, he asked the Royal Judges for opinion. The Judges were in a tight corner and chose to reply diplomatically. They answered that such a marriage was not a custom among the Persians but the King of the Persians was above the Law and was free to do anything. Now Cambyses was free to marry his sister! The Roman Emperor Caligula who had commerce with all his sisters must have read his Herodotus aright.

Reckon no feathers will be ruffled and no eyebrows will be raised when Herodotus’ account of how Darius {Darieous in Greek} became King of the Persians after Cambyses death is narrated. Cambyses, although having numerous wives, died issueless. A non-Persian usurper, Smerdis, seized the throne by treachery. Seven Persian nobles conspired to oust Smerdis. Smerdis and his bodyguards were assassinated in the uprising and power once again returned to the Persians. Who among the seven nobles would be the King was to be decided by lots. The nobles were to ride their horses at sunrise on the morrow and the horse that neighed first would be honoured as carrying the King on it’s back. Darius had an ostler, well versed in the tricks of the trade. Darius confided in him the wager and the ostler readied his act. At daybreak he rubbed his hand on the private parts of the mare that the stallion of Darius was enamoured of and when the seven nobles commenced their ride on horseback the wily ostler brought his hand to the nose of Darius’ stallion. The horse smelling the hand sneezed and neighed, and Darius was proclaimed King!

Herodotus narration is remarkably wonderful and highly meticulous of details. A study of his history not only invigorates the mind but also reminds us the plenitude of human follies that have always accompanied the march of man.

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