Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Quote of the Day: Herodotus' Histories 3.21

In my class we are reading the kaleidoscopic multicultural literary monument of Herodotus' Histories. I personally really like Herodotus. While he often exoticizes the people he discusses, he breaks down any Helleno-centrism, undercuts difference at the same time he constructs it. He gives a message that not only should one respect one's own customs, religious or otherwise, but one must always respect others' as well. If not, then bad things will happen to you! So, in Book 3, Cambyses, the Persian King, takes over Egypt and does things that are sacrilegious to the EGYPTIANS, but would be perfectly normal in Greece, namely, burning the dead (Histories 3.16). He forces Greeks to think about basing what is acceptable and unacceptable upon local norms rather than their own (a lesson Odysseus learns the hard way). In fact, he notes that while the Greeks may think their customs are the best, so does everyone else! So, in that respect, Herodotus undercuts any sense of cultural superiority, leveling the playing field. By bringing in similarities and differences, convergences and divergences, between peoples, primarily the Greeks, Persians, and Egyptians (but others too), Herodotus sets up a system not only of some sort of cultural relativism, but cultural interrelationalism. Each group is unique in that they uniquely configure a set of practices that are partially shared by others, and interact with others.

The text also shows another form of breach. Not only must one respect other peoples' customs, one must respect their boundaries. So, getting to the quote of the day, we have the Ethiopian king commenting on territorial expansion of the type that Cambyses, and later Xerxes, undertakes:

If he [Cambyses] were a good man, he would not want to possess any land other than his own, and he wouldn't have enslaved people who have done him no wrong. (Herodotus 3.21; trans. Waterfield)

What happened to Cambyses according to Herodotus? Because he failed to respect religious customs and traditions (see 3.38) and political boundaries, he went insane, was overthrown by rebellion at home, and was wounded in the same way that he had sacrilegiously wounded a sacred Apis bull in Egypt (3.64)!

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