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Letters to Dead Poets: To Herodotus

by Andrew Lang

To Herodotus of Halicarnassus, greeting.—Concerning the matters set forth in your histories, and the tales you tell about both Greeks and Barbarians, whether they be true, or whether they be false, men dispute not little but a great deal.  Wherefore I, being concerned to know the verity, did set forth to make search in every manner, and came in my quest even unto the ends of the earth.  For there is an island of the Cimmerians beyond the Straits of Heracles, some three days’ voyage to a ship that hath a fair following wind in her sails; and there it is said that men know many things from of old: thither, then, I came in my inquiry.  Now, the island is not small, but large, greater than the whole of Hellas; and they call it Britain.  In that island the east wind blows for ten parts of the year, and the people know not how to cover themselves from the cold.  But for the other two months of the year the sun shines fiercely, so that some of them die thereof, and others die of the frozen mixed drinks; for they have ice even in the summer, and this ice they put to their liquor.  Through the whole of this island, from the west even to the east, there flows a river called Thames: a great river and a laborious, but not to be likened to the River of Egypt.

The mouth of this river, where I stepped out from my ship, is exceedingly foul and of an evil savour by reason of the city on the banks.  Now this city is several hundred parasangs in circumference.  Yet a man that needed not to breathe the air might go round it in one hour, in chariots that run under the earth; and these chariots are drawn by creatures that breathe smoke and sulphur, such as Orpheus mentions in his “Argonautica,” if it be by Orpheus.  The people of the town, when I inquired of them concerning Herodotus of Halicarnassus, looked on me with amazement, and went straightway about their business—namely, to seek out whatsoever new thing is coming to pass all over the whole inhabited world, and as for things old, they take no keep of them.

Nevertheless, by diligence I learned that he who in this land knew most concerning Herodotus was a priest, and dwelt in the priests’ city on the river which is called the City of the Ford of the Ox.  But whether Io, when she wore a cow’s shape, had passed by that way in her wanderings, and thence comes the name of that city, I could not (though I asked all men I met) learn aught with certainty.  But to me, considering this, it seemed that Io must have come thither.  And now farewell to Io.

To the City of the Priests there are two roads: one by land; and one by water, following the river.  To a well-girdled man, the land journey is but one day’s travel; by the river it is longer but more pleasant.  Now that river flows, as I said, from the west to the east.  And there is in it a fish called chub, which they catch; but they do not eat it, for a certain sacred reason.  Also there is a fish called trout, and this is the manner of his catching.  They build for this purpose great dams of wood, which they call weirs.  Having built the weir they sit upon it with rods in their hands, and a line on the rod, and at the end of the line a little fish.  There then they “sit and spin in the sun,” as one of their poets says, not for a short time but for many days, having rods in their hands and eating and drinking.  In this wise they angle for the fish called trout; but whether they ever catch him or not, not having seen it, I cannot say; for it is not pleasant to me to speak things concerning which I know not the truth.

Now, after sailing and rowing against the stream for certain days, I came to the City of the Ford of the Ox.  Here the river changes his name, and is called Isis, after the name of the goddess of the Egyptians.  But whether the Britons brought the name from Egypt or whether the Egyptians took it from the Britons, not knowing I prefer not to say.  But to me it seems that the Britons are a colony of the Egyptians, or the Egyptians a colony of the Britons.  Moreover, when I was in Egypt I saw certain soldiers in white helmets, who were certainly British.  But what they did there (as Egypt neither belongs to Britain nor Britain to Egypt) I know not, neither could they tell me.  But one of them replied to me in that line of Homer (if the Odyssey be Homer’s), “We have come to a sorry Cyprus, and a sad Egypt.”  Others told me that they once marched against the Ethiopians, and having defeated them several times, then came back again, leaving their property to the Ethiopians.  But as to the truth of this I leave it to every man to form his own opinion.

Having come into the City of the Priests, I went forth into the street, and found a priest of the baser sort, who for a piece of silver led me hither and thither among the temples, discoursing of many things.

Now it seemed to me a strange thing that the city was empty, and no man dwelling therein, save a few priests only, and their wives, and their children, who are drawn to and fro in little carriages dragged by women.  But the priest told me that during half the year the city was desolate, for that there came somewhat called “The Long,” or “The Vac,” and drave out the young priests.  And he said that these did no other thing but row boats, and throw balls from one to the other, and this they were made to do, he said, that the young priests might learn to be humble, for they are the proudest of men.  But whether he spoke truth or not I know not, only I set down what he told me.  But to anyone considering it, this appears rather to jump with his story—namely, that the young priests have houses on the river, painted of divers colours, all of them empty.

Then the priest, at my desire, brought me to one of the temples, that I might seek out all things concerning Herodotus the Halicarnassian, from one who knew.  Now this temple is not the fairest in the city, but less fair and goodly than the old temples, yet goodlier and more fair than the new temples; and over the roof there is the image of an eagle made of stone—no small marvel, but a great one, how men came to fashion him; and that temple is called the House of Queens.  Here they sacrifice a boar once every year; and concerning this they tell a certain sacred story which I know but will not utter.

Then I was brought to the priest who had a name for knowing most about Egypt, and the Egyptians, and the Assyrians, and the Cappadocians, and all the kingdoms of the Great King.  He came out to me, being attired in a black robe, and wearing on his head a square cap.  But why the priests have square caps I know, and he who has been initiated into the mysteries which they call “Matric” knows, but I prefer not to tell.  Concerning the square cap, then, let this be sufficient.  Now, the priest received me courteously, and when I asked him, concerning Herodotus, whether he were a true man or not, he smiled and answered “Abu Goosh,” which, in the tongue of the Arabians, means “The Father of Liars.”  Then he went on to speak concerning Herodotus, and he said in his discourse that Herodotus not only told the thing which was not, but that he did so wilfully, as one knowing the truth but concealing it.  For example, quoth he, “Solon never went to see Croesus, as Herodotus avers; nor did those about Xerxes ever dream dreams; but Herodotus, out of his abundant wickedness, invented these things.”

“Now behold,” he went on, “how the curse of the Gods falls upon Herodotus.  For he pretends that he saw Cadmeian inscriptions at Thebes.  Now I do not believe there were any Cadmeian inscriptions there: therefore Herodotus is most manifestly lying.  Moreover, this Herodotus never speaks of Sophocles the Athenian, and why not?  Because he, being a child at school, did not learn Sophocles by heart: for the tragedies of Sophocles could not have been learned at school before they were written, nor can any man quote a poet whom he never learned at school.  Moreover, as all those about Herodotus knew Sophocles well, he could not appear to them to be learned by showing that he knew what they knew also.”  Then I thought the priest was making game and sport, saying first that Herodotus could know no poet whom he had not learned at school, and then saying that all the men of his time well knew this poet, “about whom everyone was talking.”  But the priest seemed not to know that Herodotus and Sophocles were friends, which is proved by this, that Sophocles wrote an ode in praise of Herodotus.

Then he went on, and though I were to write with a hundred hands (like Briareus, of whom Homer makes mention) I could not tell you all the things that the priest said against Herodotus, speaking truly, or not truly, or sometimes correctly and sometimes not, as often befalls mortal men.  For Herodotus, he said, was chiefly concerned to steal the lore of those who came before him, such as Hecatæus, and then to escape notice as having stolen it.  Also he said that, being himself cunning and deceitful, Herodotus was easily beguiled by the cunning of others, and believed in things manifestly false, such as the story of the Phoenix-bird.

Then I spoke, and said that Herodotus himself declared that he could not believe that story; but the priest regarded me not.  And he said that Herodotus had never caught a crocodile with cold pig, nor did he ever visit Assyria, nor Babylon, nor Elephantine; but, saying that he had been in these lands, said that which was not true.  He also declared that Herodotus, when he travelled, knew none of the Fat Ones of the Egyptians, but only those of the baser sort.  And he called Herodotus a thief and a beguiler, and “the same with intent to deceive,” as one of their own poets writes.  And, to be short, Herodotus, I could not tell you in one day all the charges which are now brought against you; but concerning the truth of these things, you know, not least, but most, as to yourself being guilty or innocent.  Wherefore, if you have anything to show or set forth whereby you may be relieved from the burden of these accusations, now is the time.  Be no longer silent; but, whether through the Oracle of the Dead, or the Oracle of Branchidæ, or that in Delphi, or Dodona, or of Amphiaraus at Oropus, speak to your friends and lovers (whereof I am one from of old) and let men know the very truth.

Now, concerning the priests in the City of the Ford of the Ox, it is to be said that of all men whom we know they receive strangers most gladly, feasting them all day.  Moreover, they have many drinks, cunningly mixed, and of these the best is that they call Archdeacon, naming it from one of the priests’ offices.  Truly, as Homer says (if the Odyssey be Homer’s), “when that draught is poured into the bowl then it is no pleasure to refrain.”

Drinking of this wine, or nectar, Herodotus, I pledge you, and pour forth some deal on the ground, to Herodotus of Halicarnassus, in the House of Hades.

And I wish you farewell, and good be with you.  Whether the priest spoke truly, or not truly, even so may such good things betide you as befall dead men.

Book: Shattered Sighs