HERODOTUS, FIRST ORIENTALIST ?
One needs to scratch the outer skin of Herodotus’ historical account of Egypt to start noticing the more ideological, if not political, perspectives of his discourse. We could first notice how Herodotus, quite regularly, describes at length ethnographic observations or stories containing sexually explicit, if not trash material. While talking of animal sacrifice, he adds that “Moreover in my lifetime there happened in that district this marvel, that is to say a he-goat had intercourse with a woman publicly, and this was so done that all men might have evidence of it” (14). He later briefly mentions practices of necrophilia by corpse embalmers (21). The insistence on (deviant) sexual practices is in fact a feature of the modern Orientalist, for instance with Gustave Flaubert: “On the road from Cairo to Shubra some time ago a young fellow had himself publicly buggered by a large monkey—as in the story above, to create a good opinion of himself and make people laugh” (Flaubert 1996, 44). The two stories are almost interchangeable: Herodotus and Flaubert display the same curiosity and amusement, if not delight, at seeing a public sexual act, of perverse bestiality moreover. Between the lines, it is clear that the two travelers find such acts to be absolutely dishonorable, especialy in the public sphere, and that they denigrate a society that establishes such as acceptable practices. As Martin (1990) notes, “a chief index of the Other or of barbarity in Herodotus is sexual excess, the extreme case being sexual or “bestial” intercourse in the open or public sphere, since the beasts, like tyrants, are with out nomos” (518).
Another intriguing feature of Herodotus’ Account of Egypt is his repeated refusal to mention certain specific topics. Discussing the resemblance of Gods with animals, he comments that “the cause however why they represent him in this form I prefer not to say” (Herodotus 2006, 14), and later, on another fact, “this story I know, but it is not a seemly one for me to tell” (14). Discussing a religious ceremony, he explains that “for whom they beat themselves it is not permitted to me by religion to say” (17). Herodotus, for his defense, explains that it is indeed for religious reasons that he censures himself:
But if I should say for what reasons the sacred animals have been thus dedicated, I should fall into discourse of matters pertaining to the gods, of which I most desire not to speak; and what I have actually said touching slightly upon them, I said because I was constrained by necessity (17).
Is it the only reason? When it came to mention sexually explicit facts, there did not seem to be any customs or manners Herodotus better had not to disrupt. And what or who “constrained” him? Whose manners would we be talking about? Perhaps that of is his readership, back in Greece. Such self-censorship reveals, if need be, that Herodotus is not the impartial and neutral observer that he gladly wished to portray himself as. He had a cultural background, and his travel accounts were prepared for a certain purpose.
As Chase highlights, the most probable hypothesis is that of a political purpose behind Herodotus’ undertaking. Pericles and other contemporary rulers would have undoubtedly had a great interest in the travel accounts of Herodotus, which all took place in countries of geopolitical importance for Greece in that era.
George H. Chase, in a series of lectures from the beginning of the century, noted that the purpose of the wide-ranged travels of Herodotus were not clear. There are various hypotheses on the matter. One is that Herodotus was a merchant, with his Histories as a side story, almost a past time besides his main business activities. This hypothesis is discredited in virtue of the general absence in Herodotus’ texts of any particular position, favorable or unfavorable, regarding the class of merchants. Others have argued that Herodotus was simply a professional reciter, going to foreign lands only to practice his talent. But, as Chase highlights, the most probable hypothesis is that of a political purpose behind Herodotus’ undertaking. Pericles and other contemporary rulers would have undoubtedly had a great interest in the travel accounts of Herodotus, which all took place in countries of geopolitical importance for Greece in that era. The most troubling fact is the sum of ten talents Herodotus received from the Athenian Assembly. Chase equates this amount to more than $ 10,000, in other words a fantastic sum in 1915 standards, around the time period of Chase’s lecture. Undoubtedly, such an amount of money could come from the Greek political authority only as “a reward for political services,” as is noted by the author (Chase 1909-1914). Seen in this light, Herodotus had an ideological and political environment hardly different from that of the European colonialists of the 19th century. Herodotus could well be the first Orientalist.
Image courtesy: Aaron Macks
|Herodotus, First Orientalist ?|
|EXPLORE THE SERIES|
|Herodotus, First Orientalist ?|
|Part 1.1||Part 1.2|
|Orientalism : The Theory||Orientalism : Influences|
|Part 1.3||Part 2.1|
|Orientalism : Resistances||Ancient Greece and the Barbaros|
|Part 2.2.1||Part 2.2.2|
|An Account of Egypt –
Where is the Orientalist Hiding ?
|On the Neutrality of the Historian|
|Herodotus, or the Contagion of Foreignness||Becoming Foreigner|