Herodotus and His Travels
Herodotus and His Travels
Significance . By the fifth century b.c.e., geographical and ethnographical writings were taking a newer, more scientific turn, in which real information about distant lands was prized, not just bizarre traveler’s tales. Herodotus of Halicarnassus was an early ethnographer and travel writer, a wealthy and well-educated man. He had much curiosity and interest in the affairs of countries outside Greece, especially in matters concerning religion. His History of the Persian Wars includes a description of the physical geography of different lands, as well as plentiful ethnography which, while not always accurate, serves in the tradition of such writing to refresh the reader and add intriguing information about the region in question.
New Approach . Besides providing new information about the customs of different peoples of the inhabited world, Herodotus subjected known geography to a detailed reexamination. He rejected, for instance, the old ideas about Ocean (“I know of no river called Ocean and I think that Homer or some other of the early poets invented the name and inserted it into his poetry”), which represented a dramatic shift from earlier authors, who assumed as a matter of course the existence of this vast river.
Observations . Herodotus made several small voyages: to southern Italy and Sicily, Tyre in Phoenicia, Thasos, the Black Sea, and as far East as Babylon. However, the largest ethnographical portion of his book is devoted to his travels in Egypt, where he went not to view Egyptian art and architecture but to continue his research into deities and temples (he does mention the pyramids, a destination for tourists in Egypt today, but only to speculate on the time, the work gangs, and the cash outlay needed to build such monuments). Herodotus inquires, for instance, the way bulls were sacrificed to the Egyptian goddess Isis; the ritual attitude toward pigs; which foods were considered unclean for priests; available types of embalming; and whether Greek divinities were derived from Egyptian or vice versa. He claims the Ethiopians worship Dionysus; examines past oracles; and describes the ritual practices of tribes in northern Russia. Yet, Herodotus does not merely give scholars information on religious matters: he reported on everything that he found interesting or significant in the inhabited world, from a type of cloth woven from hemp made in southern Russia, to the candy made in a certain town in Asia Minor, to the marriage practices of the Babylonians (they auction off the beautiful girls to the highest bidders and use the money as dowries for the less attractive women). Nor is Herodotus resistant to the wonders of the East: in Arabia he reports that flying snakes guard incense trees and that certain types of birds build their nests with cinnamon sticks. In his description of India, he lists such wonders as giant snakes, dog-headed men, headless men with eyes in their breasts, and other wild men and women. He also recounts a story of ants bigger than
foxes, who dig for gold in the Indian desert (although Herodotus is doubtful as to the truth of this and tells his audience he got the story from the Persians). As for northern Russia, Herodotus repeats information about the existence of griffins, goat-footed people, and men who sleep six months out of the year; even further north, he says, lives a race of cannibals. Although Herodotus claims he does not believe such accounts himself, it is significant that he repeats them: the reader expected such bizarre and diverting anecdotes in the genre of ethnographical writing.
Doubtful Knowledge . By the fifth century b.c.e. the well-educated or well-traveled Greek (and there were not many of these), then, was knowledgeable about the whole of the Mediterranean and Black Sea areas and had some idea of size and outlines. Nonetheless, the geographical knowledge of the Greeks was never extensive: they were vague, for example, about regions remote from urban areas and where exactly the people they called the Celts lived. They knew something of southern Russia (a people called the Scythians lived there), but nothing north of the Black Sea except some fantastic tales that Herodotus repeats (further north was a terrain they called “the snowy desert”). Africa remained largely mysterious, although the Greeks did know it was surrounded by water. Their knowledge of Asia included Arabia and as far east as the Indus valley: east of India was all burning desert (a hypothesis repeated by Herodotus); the Greeks did not know of the existence of China.
The Massagetae wear the same kinds of clothes as the Scythians and live much the same. . . These are their customs: each of them marries a wife, but the wives they have in common, . . There are no definite limits to life other than this: when a man grows very old, all his relatives come together and kill him, and sheep and goats along with him, and stew all the meat together and have a banquet of it. This is regarded as the happiest lot; any man who dies of disease they do not eat, but bury him in the ground, lamenting that he did not come to being eaten. They do not sow land but live off cattle and also fish, which they have in abundance from the river Araxes, They are drinkers of milk. Of the gods, they worship the sun only, to whom they sacrifice horses, and their argument for the sacrifice is this: to the swiftest of all gods they assign the swiftest of all mortal things.
Source: Herodotus, The History, translated by David Greene (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
Lionel Casson, Travel in the Ancient World (Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974).
James S. Romm, The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992).