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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: Zoology and Ecology in Herodotus’ Histories

Colin MacCormack

University of Texas at Austin

Among ancient historical works, Herodotus’ Histories stand out in the unusually large amount of space dedicated to discussions of animals. Whereas only 42 animal references occur in Thucydides, Herodotus furnishes readers with a massive 804 references to at least 111 different animal terms (Smith 1992). These many references primarily fall into one of two categories: an archaic register wherein Herodotus thinks with animals and a late fifth-century register, the topic of this paper, wherein Herodotus thinks about animals. Some references to animals in Herodotus clearly channel archaic poetic conventions, namely symbolic usages within puns, oracles, portents and myths, (thinking with animals), but the majority of references to animals in the Histories comment on behavior, reproduction and ecology (thinking about animals). These zoological inquiries not only furnish additional evidence for Herodotus’ close engagement with contemporary intellectual trends, they reveal the close connection between landscape, animals and humans running throughout his work.

Scholarship from the last two decades has convincingly shown that Herodotus, through his proclivity for schematization, rationalization, and causation, actively engages with contemporary political, scientific and philosophical thought (Raaflaub 2002; Thomas 2000). Concerning animals, his theories on physiology and reproductive habits have much in common with natural philosophy and medical texts from the fifth and sixth centuries. For example, he attributes the absence of horns among Scythian cattle to the region’s extreme cold, pointing to the opposite situation in Libya to support his argument (4.28-9). A very similar idea, also in explicit reference to Scythian livestock, runs throughout Airs, Waters, Places (18-21) and Democritus postulated how cold affects the humors influencing horn and nail growth (DK 68A153-5). However, these echoes do not become mere parroting; Herodotus also inserts evidence that complicates such models, such the inexplicable absence of mules in Elis, which climatological theory alone cannot account for (4.30).

Similarly, Herodotus’ division of creatures into having either many offspring (πολύγονα) or few (ὀλιγόγονα; 3.108) and the various mechanisms behind these characteristics likewise reflect his engagement with contemporary intellectual trends. Though Democritus, Empedocles and Hippocratics all addressed some aspect of πολύγονα, this dichotomy of prolific and non-prolific species appears first in Herodotus (Thomas 2000). Furthermore, instead of anatomical explanations for fertility normally offered (number or shape of wombs, under/overabundance of sperm, etc.), Herodotus alone points to behavior as influencing population. According to him, without the habit of male cats killing kittens (2.66) or of baby vipers killing their mothers (3.108), both populations would explode in number. He attributes this natural self-regulation to a divine insight (τοῦ θείου ἡ προνοίη) overseeing the world, a theory reminiscent of the Prometheus myth from Plato’s Protagoras (321b5-6). More generally, unlike the macroscopic speculations on cosmology or matter of the natural philosophers, Herodotus instead prefers observation (opsis) on mundane subjects, such as geology, flora and fauna (Romm 2006).

Aside from its modernity, these zoological investigations also reveal an underlying methodology: the interconnectivity of humans and their environment. Biological investigations almost exclusively occur within ethnographic sections and operate to comment on both a landscape and its people. For example, the discussions of horns and climate mentioned above underscore the harshness of Scythia and, by extension, its people. Similarly, as he describes the outer limits of the known world, Herodotus folds in increasingly fantastic creatures. Giant snakes and dog-headed men inhabit the outer reaches of Libya  (4.191-2) while the far north is home to griffins and werewolves (4.13, 27, 105). The fabulous resources of Arabia and India are guarded by equally fabulous creates like giant ants and flying snakes (3.107-11). Notably, the most developed animal catalogue occurs as part of a description of Egyptian religious customs (2.65-76). Herodotus’ commentaries on animals allow him to develop a rich tapestry of the world and its people as well as reflect the unique, even progressive position his work holds in the evolution of Greek thought.

Session/Panel Title

Herodotus and Thucydides

Session/Paper Number

60.4

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