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Spoofing Herodotus

Thomas Harrison

This paper seeks to raise questions about our own engagement with Herodotus’ text through an exploration of one element of his reception: the rich tradition of Herodotean ‘spoofs’ from Lucian to the present day.  There is a vast variety of such acts of translation, in a range of media and languages: from Punch cartoons purporting to show sections of Herodotus’ work (with commentary) preserved in some future Egyptian excavation; through (more or less humorous) re-enactments of sections of his work (such as the notorious language-test of Psammetichus in Book 2: Sulek 1989, Vannicelli 1997); to the contemporary artist Rick Shelley’s re-construction of a ‘wunderkammer’ of gold-digging ants, so crucial to the historian’s reputation for veracity.  The largest single corpus of such Herodotean spoofs, however, is the body of surviving prose compositions (most well-known of which is Beazley 1907), in most cases produced for University competitions such as Oxford University’s Gaisford prize, and detailing the historian’s travels across time as well as space, to the sources of the Nile, Aztec Mexico, or to the India of the so-called ‘Mutiny’ of 1857.    

The paper first seeks to introduce the less well-known of these works, and the milieu in which they were produced (in the case of the prose compositions, for example, socially highly exclusive, and exclusively male).   It then seeks to answer a number of questions. 

It looks first at the exploration in these works – an exploration which is frequently oblique or implicit - of Herodotus’ methodology, in particular his approach to sources.  It will be shown that, even in less academic contexts, they reveal a frequently sophisticated understanding of a number of themes at the forefront of recent scholarly approaches: Herodotus’ rhetoric of proof, for example, or the presentation of foreign peoples through polarity and schematization (e.g. Redfield 1985, Hartog 1988, Thomas 2000, Munson 2001).  

Secondly, the paper looks at what happens when the focus of the fictional Herodotean ethnographer is turned onto ‘our own’ cultures, when the Herodotean mirror is held up to ourselves.  In many instances, it will be shown, this narrative conceit allows for the generation of different forms of in-group humour.  In other cases, however, it can be seen to be more productive: allowing for a critique of (for example) British colonialism in India (Richardson 1915), of contemporary trends in Herodotean scholarship, or – more fundamentally – reflecting on the limitations of our own ethnographic perspectives.   In general, this varied and eccentric subgenre will be shown to reveal political and methodological anxieties in ways that contemporary scholarship typically elides.    





Session/Panel Title:

Herodotus at 2500

Session/Paper Number

4.1

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