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Myth and History Entangled: Female Influence and Male Usurpation in Herodotus

Emily Baragwanath

The notion of a firm history/myth polarity is in large part a modern construction, since to the Greeks, the body of their traditional tales was their past, and one that formed a powerful and ever-relevant continuum with the present. At the same time, our surviving historical texts are eloquent witnesses to the recurrent interaction of Greek mythological and historical traditions—mythic stories and schemata are pervasive throughout Herodotus’ Histories (Vandiver, Boedeker 2002, Baragwanath and de Bakker, Wesselmann)—and some Greek thinkers wrestled with the problematic historicity of conspicuously mythic material. Taking Herodotus as a case study, this paper probes further the nature of this interaction by addressing the mythic themes of women’s value within the household and the presumptuous exercise by men of power to which they are not entitled.

Herodotus’ historiographical narrative is a ‘specific and idiosyncratic’ kind of diachronic narrative that privileges reality and offers ‘a multi-subjective, contingency-oriented account’ (Dewald 2002, Meier). This remains true even where Herodotus includes fantastical or mythical logoi, provided he firmly distinguishes between his own voice and others’ voices. But he does not always so distinguish: on occasion he includes lurid detail about inaccessible realms, and far from privileging contingency and temporal change, follows the forms of traditional narratives (Immerwahr, Dewald 2012). He may also deploy and juxtapose apparently heterogeneous and incompatible modes of discourse (so Griffiths 1999: 169 n.2), the predictable ‘mythical’ discourse, ‘dominated by traditional components’, and ‘historical’ discourse, whose ‘elements are individually selected and disposed in a compositional process which is not fundamentally predetermined by inherited routines’. 

A fresh look at Herodotus’ narratives of the demise of three audacious individuals—King Candaules (1.7-13), the imposter Smerdis (3.68-88), and the Persian Noblemen in Macedonia (5.17-22)—will reveal the historian developing and spotlighting a contrast between mythic and historical narrative modes, as he explains the transmission of power through stories involving women and male presumption. These narratives follow two basic plotlines: the presumptuous king or interloper killed by the wife’s agent(s) in a private chamber, or the presumptuous nobles, killed by men disguised as women, in a sympotic context. The two plots share affinities in narrative patterning and motifs. Events unfold in the inaccessible locales of private rooms in foreign courts. There is a focus on details such as doors and murder weapons, and spatial and temporal movement, as in the narrative of Phaidyme’s discovery of her earless interloper husband (3.69, which even describes how the man sleeps). The depiction of spatial and temporal settings invites one to visualize the domestic setting, and highlights the transgression of realms.  Each narrative gives intimate access to the words and thoughts of its protagonists. The males’ transgressive mindset is exposed in an illicit demand. And yet each story remains idiosyncratic: differences surface in how the different women relate to the men, and how power works afterwards.

Each tale comments implicitly on the implausibility of such a vivid account of inaccessible material, by inviting reflection on problems of evidence and truth. Each transitions into the mythical discourse and out again: thus in the tale of the murders in Macedon, we transition into a mythical register with the mention of the ‘seven’ messengers sent by Darius (5.17), and the significantly named mountain ‘Dysoron’ (5.17.2), or ‘hard to watch over’ (cp. Iliad 10.183-9, with Fearn 110-112); and then back into historical mode with Herodotus’ remark that ‘these things somehow (κῃ) in this way turned out’ (5.23), where the expression casts a shadow of doubt back over the entire story. The mythical accounts also contribute to patterns in the text that other episodes suggestively qualify.

At the same time, the mythic mode importantly contributes to the historian’s objective of preserving historical events in memory, and the mythical narratives turn out also to be part of history, for they have a profound determinative effect on the direction and outcome of historical events.

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Men and War

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