The Greek Herodotus was the first historian of ancient times. Nearly 2500 years after its publication, what is the significance of his book The Histories today?
We could discuss at length the benefits of delving into the lecture of the immortal work of Herodotus, as well as contemplate why we should be happy each time the volume is reprinted. First of all, let’s recall that not only researchers can reap benefit from The Histories. This intricately composed text can still be read with pleasure, although, amazingly enough, it was written nearly 2500 years ago, therefore in times when the art of writing was still in its infancy – for example, words or sentences were not separated then, because notation methods had not yet been developed.
Herodotus was in fact the first historian of ancient times. As such, he had one foot placed in the world of myth when he wrote about oracles and the power of destiny, but his other foot solidly stood on the side of facts and probability, and he would frequently negatively assess legendary versions of events, stating that they were ‘nonsense’.
The Histories circulate around the war between the Greeks and the Persians (for Herodotus, this meant the war between Civilization and Barbarism, the very beginning of what Edward Said referred to as ‘Orientalism’ in our times). The Greek historian devoted most of his attention to these two nations, yet his work addresses a much wider number of peoples.
What’s exceptional here is that Herodotus was not able to build his story based on old sources or the texts of his predecessors; he made use of his own knowledge, things that he had heard or seen for himself. So he was not only a historian, but actually a pioneer of ethnology – his travels to the Middle East were by all means of an ethnographic nature. He was interested not only in the history and beliefs of a certain people. He was virtually a modern researcher in how he focused on all the factors that were key in the life of a given society: its natural resources, the quality of the soil cultivated, diet, etc. The Histories are a priceless repository of many forgotten mores. For example, it was thanks to Herodotus that the description (and may I add, an utterly head-spinning description) of the procedure of mummification in Egypt made it to our times (no Egyptian sources on the subject were preserved).
Finally, we cannot forget the one thing that immediately comes to my attention – at least when I spend time with The Histories – and that’s the enormous wealth of stimulating tales. If we open the volume to any random page, it is quite likely that we will discover some breath-taking ancient legend. Such as the story of a king who, influenced by his dreams, killed his brother, or about the vindictive princess who organized a sumptuous party in a cave, only for it to be flooded with water at the high point of the event, thereby drowning all the participants, or the story of the wizard who through a clever ploy seized power after the Persian king was murdered by posing as that same king. He never left the palace and saw only mistresses who had never had the opportunity to meet the real king (the deception was revealed when one of the mistresses noted that he had no ears, just like a certain wizard who was known at the time).
Translated from the Polish by Mark Ordon
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