- Reading Herodotus: A Guided Tour through the Wild Boars, Dancing Suitors, and Crazy Tyrants of The History by Debra Hamel
“But hold! I hear you cry. I had a cup of bull’s blood with my breakfast this morning and I’m just fine. And so you are. Because in fact bull’s blood isn’t poisonous. . . .” So Hamel writes in just one of the witty passages in this loose retelling of Herodotus’ History. Her book, she promises, will contain only the “juicy bits,” leaving the “boring bits” safely out of sight on the cutting-room floor. Hamel delivers this and more: the “guided tour” of her title is in fact undergirded by considerable scholarship—just enough to introduce readers to alternative accounts of important elements in Herodotus’ work (the usurpation of Gyges, the death of Croesus) but not more than the general reader will be game for, and [End Page 558] giving due consideration to occasions when Herodotus may have been misled by his sources. I learned from reading the book several things that I had not known—that a mule, for example, had in fact foaled in Colorado in the spring of 2007! (This was confirmed by DNA testing. So much for the impossibility of such a thing.) And speaking of animals, the discussion of woman-on-goat (or goat-on-woman) sex in Egyptian Mendes, also mentioned in Pindar fragment 201, gives rise not only to a discussion of Mendesian goats and Satanism but inspired Hamel to include (65) a remarkable 1854 drawing by Eliphas Lévi of the “Baphomet of Mendes,” a memorable hybrid goat/human figure—with wings.
Hamel constantly draws her reader in with her use of first-and second-person pronouns—“you guessed it” appears frequently. The language is colloquial throughout. A man is often a “guy,” children “kids,” and lots of stuff is, well, “stuff.” One of her favorite words is “hightail.” Some readers will find this grating; others will be charmed (as I was). Chapter and section titles are designed to keep interest alive: the equine contest that led to Darius’ accession is labeled “The Neighs Have It.” Her reconstruction (39) of the conversation between Spako and Mitridates when Mitridates brings the infant Cyrus home and tells Spako of his orders to kill the baby is hilarious. (Spako: You can’t kill it! You just can’t! Mitridates: I must! Spako: You mustn’t. Mitridates: If I don’t, Harpagus will kill me. Spako: Okay, okay, I’ve got a plan. . . . )
Although the book has much to say to scholars, it is directed primarily to the general reader, and, at over 300 pages, of such readers it asks a lot. I myself hit the proverbial brick wall on page 206—not that there was anything wrong with page 205, but I had just had enough. Why, I said to myself in full Hamelesque mode, reading this book is a Marathon! Pruning by a good editor might have made it a better book, although, to be fair, much the same has been said of Herodotus, and with that I would not agree. Perhaps I am selling the general reader short.
The body of the text is preceded by a time line adapted from Robert Strassler’s Landmark Herodotus, plus a breakdown of each book of The History and four very clear maps. Still more welcome are the chronologies at the outset of each chapter. Hamel also includes, in addition to footnotes and a very full bibliography, a brief appendix on Xerxes’ Heralds and the Medizing of the Greek States (7.131–132). One minor drawback is the poor paper quality, but this is only an issue where there are illustrations, which are few and not central to the narrative (although one would not want to miss the electrifying Baphomet of Mendes).