BMCR 2001.06.22

Divinity and History: The Religion of Herodotus

, Divinity and History: The Religion of Herodotus. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 320.

1 Responses

Harrison’s study sets out to answer those critics who have either undervalued the religious component in Herodotus’ thought or, conversely, have expressed dissatisfaction with Herodotus’ credulity. Harrison maps out Herodotus’ ‘religious beliefs’—a formulation he successfully defends against the recent scholarly trend of subordinating belief to ritual in Greek religion. Its main purpose is to demonstrate that they are central to Herodotus’ interpretation of history and founded on a number of strategies that made them plausible in the face of apparently contradictory empirical evidence. Given the breadth of the Histories, Harrison argues that such an analysis sheds light on Greek religion in general. Herodotus’ religion in fact reflects the diversity of positions which coexisted in the culture of his time, from the most traditional assumptions to the skeptical tendencies we especially associate with the late fifth century. In successive chapters Harrison deals, in this order, with the influence of the divine in reversals of fortune, miracles, divine retribution, oracles and other forms of divination, the issue of the unity and multiplicity of the divine, the extent to which Herodotus considers the gods a proper object of historical inquiry, the status he attributes to foreign religions and, finally, the difficult problem of fate and human responsibility. There are two appendixes: one evaluates Cooper’s description of the oblique infinitive (Harrison does not believe in its function as a distancing technique),1 and the other contributes to the ongoing scholarly discussion of the name of the gods in Herodotus.

Herodotus’ religion is indeed a marvelous construct. It is based on the specificity and open-endedness of Greek traditional polytheism, but it also adapts these features to Herodotus’ special understanding of human history everywhere and to his validation of different foreign representations of the divine. Harrison’s book is well-documented and well-researched.2 It takes advantage of several insights of modern anthropological theory formulated in the works of Evans-Pritchatd, Lienhardt, Geertz and others. But the study of an individual thinker requires a methodology somewhat different than the study of an entire culture and, when it comes to the religion of Herodotus, Harrison misses some of the most exciting aspects of his own fascinating subject. The problem is partly that Harrison resists the idea of an overly clever Herodotus (‘…he has emerged as a figure almost sinisterly clever, creating patterns of reciprocity, setting up expectations which he then subverts, manipulating his characters and their preoccupations like puppets’, p. 1). He prefers to see many aspects of Herodotus’ work as stemming from a culturally determined ‘Herodotean unconscious’ (p. 2). He maintains that Herodotus’ religious views in particular, no doubt like the views of his audiences, have not been fully worked out (pp. 11, 12, 15) and are not, therefore, something from which we should expect great consistency (p. 16). One could object that, whatever Harrison means by ‘ordinary Greeks’, Herodotus was probably not one of them. His concern with whether the gods approve or disapprove of certain human actions, whether they productively communicate with men, or intervene in the human world cross-culturally and according to intelligible criteria are certainly based on cultural assumptions, as Harrison maintains. This does not mean, however, that they spill out willy-nilly from some fuzzy area of the unconscious. They pervade the work precisely for the opposite reason: they are for Herodotus professional concerns and the object of repeated verification in the light of the available data. Inconsistency, when it occurs in the Histories, is often produced by the messy nature of the historical evidence itself. By assuming that Herodotus’ religious views were largely unexamined, Harrison precludes following the vicissitudes of that strand of Herodotus’ inquiry that examines the work of the divine.

The evidence the Histories present for the way in which god influences human lives includes more or less reliable logoi, the different opinions uttered by speakers within the logoi, and the narrator’s own interpretation of the meaning of events. Harrison, however, tends to devalue these distinctions (cf. also his discussion of the oblique infinitive in Appendix 1). He does so especially in reference to characters that employ ‘proverbial religious language which cannot be paralleled in any of Herodotus’ direct statements’.3 In such cases, he says, unless the characters’ utterances serve some other purpose such as, for example, characterization, they are likely to reflect Herodotus’ own opinions (p. 28). This approach lacks subtlety and accounts for Harrison’s rather shapeless discussion in chapter 2 of the role which Herodotus attributes to the divine in relation to the instability of human fortune, a central concern of the Histories. In book 1, Solon theorizes that the divine is envious and will bring to ruin those who are especially powerful and prosperous. Later in the work other characters, notably Amasis and Artabanus, express similar views. What function can these generalizations have, Harrison argues, if not to convey Herodotus’ own beliefs? At the same time, Harrison cautions that divine envy and other related ideas are commonplace in Greek thought and ‘unlikely to reflect long theological reflection on Herodotus’ part’. He thinks that ‘it would be absurd to expect too high a level of consistency in his reiteration of this “Solonian philosophy”‘ (p. 39). Thus, many other reversals of fortune in the Histories result from men’s erroneous choices or reveal the punishing hand of the divine, while yet others appear to be unmotivated (e.g. those of the Chians at 6.27). Divine envy for men’s greatness, divine retribution for human wrongdoing, and the wretchedness of human life in general are three strands of traditional thought which Herodotus could not possibly have distinguished as clearly as modern readers do (p. 40).

Harrison’s low expectations with regard to Herodotus’ power of reflection lead him to underestimate, for example, the importance of the statement with which Herodotus concludes the narrative of Croesus’ encounter with Solon: ‘After Solon left nemesis came upon Croesus, as far as one can reckon because he considered himself to be the most fortunate of all men’ (1.34). Here Herodotus is not simply validating Solon, though with characteristic inconsistency, as Harrison thinks (see p. 36 and cf. note 23 on p. 36). Rather, Herodotus agrees with Solon in attributing the cause of Croesus’ loss of prosperity to a superior force (nemesis from god); but at the same time he also attempts to interpret Solon’s speech in a moralistic way. The emotional word nemesis (found nowhere else in the Histories) strikes a compromise between Solon’s ethically problematic φθόνος (envy) and the judicial terms τιμορίη and τίσις, which Herodotus uses elsewhere to denote retribution. Thus Croesus, in Herodotus’ interpretation, is a morally guilty agent (cf. αἴτιος at 1.5.3), and not the embodiment of mysterious human chance (Solon’s συμφορή at 1.32.4; cf. Artabanus at 7.49.3) or the victim of a divine power that prevents men from having too many good things. Harrison, of course, recognizes that Herodotus’ narrative attributes to Croesus a share of responsibility for his reversal (p. 43). He does not, however, emphasize the deliberate and self-conscious way in which, here and throughout the Histories, Herodotus evaluates and subtly critiques the available evidence, including the various gnomic remarks of his speakers.

One could argue, in fact, that at 1.34 and elsewhere Herodotus is teasing out a moral strand already embedded in Solon’s speech to Croesus. By using words like ἄτη and ἐπιθυμίη (1.32.6), Solon appears to allude to the rich man’s propensity for irrational desire and moral folly, which in turn will lead to disaster. But Solon, like Artabanus (7.46.3 and 7.10e), is speaking to a king; Amasis is, in addition, himself a king (3.40.2; cf. 3.43.1). It makes sense that these characters would emphasize a connection between calamity and greatness rather than between calamity and wrongdoing.4 On the other hand Harrison does not notice that Themistocles, the last speaker in the Histories who refers to the ‘envy’ of the gods, will interpret it as a response to culpable attempts to rival, antagonize and replace the divine (8.109.3). Nor does Harrison discuss in this chapter the only instance where Herodotus participates in the theological code of his speakers by using the φθον stem in connection with the calamities which god sends to man. This occurs at 4.205, where the narrator interprets Pheretime’s horrible death as divine punishment because excessive human vengeance is the ’cause of envy’ ( ἐπίφθονοι) on the part of the gods. Here the envy of the gods against Pheretime has nothing to do with her excessive power, but rather with the way in which she uses it. It constitutes the gods’ resentment against human usurpations of the divine prerogative to mete out devastating vengeance.

Throughout the Histories, Herodotus accumulates even minor cases of reversal not because he often slips ‘by reflex’ (p. 52) into what Harrison somewhat loosely calls a ‘Solonian mode of thought’, but because he is interested in what circumstances, by whose agency, and for what reasons reversals occur. In the world of nature, he sees divine providence as a rational principle of balance that prunes excessive growth (3.108.2). But in the sphere of human history Herodotus is generally not satisfied with the gods’ targeting greatness as such. When he is able to identify god as the cause of human downfall (which is not always the case: see e.g. 6.27; cf. 3.30), he rather looks for evidence of a divine participation that makes sense in ethical, other than cosmic, terms. He does so by verifying again and again in the course of his narrative that greatness often leads men to engage in unjust and unwise behavior, which is punishable by god as well as self-detrimental for natural causes. Harrison’s conclusions at the end of this chapter—that Herodotus is profoundly influenced by ‘Solonian’ ideas, that the theme of reversal of fortune is central throughout his work, and that every case of reversal in the Histories represents ‘an illustration of the force of the divine to disturb human affairs’—are unobjectionable. But they do little justice to the depth and self-consciousness of Herodotus’ inquiry into the causes of the rise and decline of individuals and states.

The discussion of human reversal would seem to lead naturally into the examination of divine retribution, as the only cause of human reversal of fortune which Herodotus is confident enough to generalize about (2.120.5 and 4.205); or it could be linked to a discussion of Herodotus’ notion of ‘fate’; or the role of oracles and divination could have been examined at this point, since these are arguably the means by which the divine counterbalances man’s uncertainty about his future.5 Harrison, however, postpones these topics and devotes chapter 3 to ‘Miracles and the Miraculous’, a category that overlaps with all types of divine intervention, especially divination and divine retribution. Here Harrison shows the extent to which Herodotus professes or implies his personal belief in the possibility of all sorts of miracles. He also lists various features (such as timing, coincidence and so on) that made it plausible for certain events to be regarded as miraculous by the Greeks. Unfortunately these two lines of argument—directed against the proponents of a rationalist Herodotus and against the critics of an overly credulous Herodotus respectively—constitute a distraction from the more interesting issue left suspended with Chapter 2: what are, according to Herodotus, the criteria of the divine for intervening, more or less miraculously, in human lives?

The opportunity for examining these criteria arises again with the next topic—divine retribution for human wrong-doing, discussed in Chapter 4—, but Harrison largely declines to take it. The crucial question about what are the actions which provoke divine retribution only leads to a tantalizing but crippled observation that in Herodotus religious and secular crimes frequently overlap. One wishes that Harrison had paid more attention to the nature and circumstances of this overlap, which would have provided illuminating evidence for the type of behaviors which Herodotus deemed especially worthy of divine punishment. One thinks of the number of times, for example, in which the desecration of a sanctuary, which attracts divine retribution, occurs in the context of a war of aggression. These topics remain unexplored, and Harrison generally prefers an approach analogous to that which he had applied to miracles: after demonstrating that the notion of divine retribution is central to the Histories (not hard to do), he wonders ‘ how Herodotus could have believed such a thing’ (p. 103). There were, says Harrison, ‘let-out clauses’ that would have made that belief sustainable.6 First divine vengeance often strikes indirectly, through human agency. Secondly, it may be delayed even to subsequent generations.

These two points (human agency and delay of retribution) are of great importance. They should be regarded, however, as results of Herodotus’ exploration of the work of the divine, rather than ‘let-out clauses’ adhered to in a not-fully-conscious, and therefore inconsistent, way (pp. 113 and 114). In particular, Harrison misinterprets the significance of the story of how Glaucus was punished by the gods for his attempt to obtain from the oracle permission to violate his binding agreement to return a certain deposit of money (6.86). This cautionary tale is told by Leotychides to the Athenians who, in the same way as Glaucus intended to steal the money, are trying to avoid returning the Aeginetan hostages which the Spartans had entrusted to them. The fact that Herodotus has already presented Leotychides himself as a paradigm of crime and punishment (6.72) is deliberately ironical (correct knowledge, it turns out, is no guarantee of appropriate action; preaching to others is easier than behaving well). It does not, however, affect the objective moral value of the story. More importantly, the fact that the Athenians’ dishonesty is unpunished within the time frame of the Histories need not imply that it will remain so. Harrison rightly compares the situation of the Athenians in this case to that in which they find themselves with the killing of Persian heralds (p.118), but he misses the consequences of this parallel. Herodotus cannot think of an appropriate punishment for the Athenian killing of Darius’ heralds (7.133.2). On the other hand, in a ‘flash-forward’ which reports the last datable event in the Histories, he notices that it took a generation for the divine to exact retribution from the Spartans for the same crime (7.137.1-2). Like the belated punishment of Aegina, described with striking moral vocabulary at 6.91 (a fundamental passage Harrison does not mention), the killing of the Spartan heralds in 430 confirms that retribution will come, albeit in due course. This case illuminates the episode of the hostages that frames the story of Glaucus by projecting into the future what is now, at the time of narration, present Athenian vulnerability in the face of the divine.7 More than as a subliminal ‘let-out clause’, the principle of delayed divine retribution, repeatedly verified in the course of the narrative, makes the message of the Histories especially relevant to the audiences of Herodotus’ own time.

Does history show, according to Herodotus, that the gods give people the means to cope with the instability of fortune and the likelihood of divine retribution in case of wrongdoing? What guidelines do the gods provide for successful action and moral behavior? In his discussion of the pervasive role of oracles, prophecies, omens and dreams in Herodotus (Chapter 5), Harrison avoids these questions. His purpose is rather to show the equivalent and complementary nature of different forms of divination, the extent of Herodotus’ belief in them, and the means by which such belief was sustained and reinforced among the Greeks (p. 122; cf. p. 130). These let-out clauses are similar to those discussed in chapters 3 and 4 as sustaining belief in the miraculous effectiveness of prayer and the ineluctability of divine retribution. They include the possibility of delayed fulfillment, corrupt prophecies, faulty consultation of the oracle, misunderstanding of the response, and failure to adhere properly to the prescriptions upon which a given prophecy is contingent. For Harrison all these factors constitute unconscious and ad hoc ‘legalistic loopholes’ (p. 150) which, in addition to ‘a degree of wishful thinking’ (p. 155), allowed Herodotus and the Greeks to deceive themselves about the reliability of proper divinatory procedures. This is much too ethnocentric and condescending a viewpoint. It prevents Harrison from emphasizing how deliberately Herodotus collects and evaluates all sorts of oracles and prophecies, records the manner and timing of their fulfillment, and provides instances of correct and incorrect interpretation. Occasionally Herodotus himself steps to the fore as the expert interpreter. This happens, for example, with the spectacular history lesson that interprets the earthquake of Delos (6.98), one of the passages that one wishes Harrison had examined in greater detail. Each case bears its own message and all cumulatively enhance Herodotus’ and his audience’s understanding of how men can obtain divine guidance for their actions and what, in what way, and on the basis of which principles the gods are willing to communicate to men.

Harrison’s analysis now turns to Herodotus’ view of the nature of the divine, the extent to which Herodotus regarded divine knowledge as attainable for men, and the status he attributes to foreign gods and religions. These topics belong together and are rightly examined in three successive chapters (6-8), though one would wish these did not cut a wedge between the previous discussion of oracles and the section about Herodotus’ notion of fate that follows. Fate is treated in Chapter 9, beginning with an examination of the Delphic oracle that explains how Croesus’ downfall was due both to his personal failings and to the fatal necessity, predicted earlier by the Pythia, of his atoning for the crime of Gyges (1.91; cf. 1.13). This double causality, already masterfully discussed by Immerwahr,8 constitutes for Harrison a blatant contradiction. Yet it is not unreasonable that historians should view historical individuals both as independent moral agents and the heirs of previous policies, masters of their own decisions and not fully in control of events. For Herodotus, who believed in the inevitability of divine retribution, the dynasty of Croesus, founded by an act of aggression, was inherently vulnerable. Croesus himself was the most expansionistic exponent of that dynasty, hence the most ‘unjust’ (see 1.5.3), hence bound to come to a bad end at some point. This does not constitute a perfect explanation of the double causality of Croesus’ downfall. There is no denying a measure of aporia on the part of Herodotus in the face of the works of the divine. It may be, however, the beginning of an explanation, preferable at any rate to Harrison’s predictably defeatist assumption that, ‘in so far as we can talk at all of a single “belief in fate” on Herodotus’ part—this was not a worked-through thesis but an unrationalized collection of attitudes and responses’ (p. 228).

Modern criticism of ancient Greek texts has long been plagued by references to some undefined notion of fate as a transcendent force that debilitates men for no intelligible reason. Harrison turns down the opportunity to bring some clarity into the issue by adequately analyzing what is fate for Herodotus, by what language he denotes transcendent, as opposed to natural or logical, necessity, and under what circumstances he does so. On the contrary, Harrison allows the English term ‘fate’ to swallow up a number of different factors, both transcendent and not. Herodotus’ belief in fate is supposedly signaled, for example, by the ‘pattern of human error’ in the Histories —men’s predisposition to commit wrongdoing and to misunderstand divine communications. The fact that Herodotus frequently represents different human motivations and natural causes as converging to produce a given result also demonstrates that he believed in fate. Even the narrator’s remark that the Athenians’ sending of twenty ships to Ionia was the ‘beginning of evils’ for both Greeks and barbarians (5.97.3)—to take a specific example—represents an indication of Herodotus’ fatalistic outlook (p. 232). One could argue that, by these standards, Thucydides too might be regarded as a fatalist. But for Harrison, the mere fact that in Herodotus (as most scholars would agree) ‘human agency and motivation are not incompatible with parallel divine causes’ makes it impossible to disentangle the ones from the others (p. 240).

When Harrison turns to transcendent causes, he argues that in the Histories typically the divine protects the status quo in nature, punishes wrongdoing and sanctions human nomoi. This is certainly right, and would seem to point to Herodotus’ tendency to view ‘fate’ as a divine response to human choices, a set of results that men can understand and, to some limited extent, learn to control to their own advantage. Yet once again Harrison mistrusts his own evidence and dogmatically objects to attempting to ‘draw together the different strands of Herodotus’ fatalism’ (p. 240). Even the moralistic element in Herodotus’ view of divine action, he believes, should not be overemphasized. Arguing against what many scholars have maintained, Harrison insists that it carries no useful message against war, tyranny or aggression. The Histories are not prescriptive but resignedly descriptive, and what they describe is that ‘men cannot act to avert fate’ (p.242). So why, one wonders, is Herodotus so interested in ‘razor’s edge’ situations (see 6.14), in which human beings are fighting against the odds or what is apparently fated, as at Lade, Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea? There is no way to answer, because with Harrison, once again, the pervasive semantics of the term ‘fate’ lead to a hermeneutic dead end.9

Of the three chapters that suspend the examination of divine participation in history in favor of more abstract theological concerns, the first (Chapter 6, ‘The Unity and Multiplicity of the Divine’) examines the terms used by Herodotus to denote transcendent forces.10 Here Harrison demonstrates the difficulty of always making clear distinctions between Herodotus’ notion of ‘hero’ and that of ‘god’, between his use of the terms θεός and δαίμων, and among expressions such as ‘the gods’, ‘the god’, ‘god’, and ‘the divine’. Harrison attributes this fluidity to the casual and unrationalized thinking that was supposedly typical of the Greeks in general, without noticing the consequences of an important fundamental distinction that emerges from Herodotus’ text: on the one hand, there is the divine as a unifying concept, on the other hand its different cultural manifestations—be they individual gods, ‘daimones’, or heroes. The latter represent individual channels of power, as it were, which in some cases (but cautiously, and by no means in most cases) Herodotus names as the specific source of divine intervention. Status distinctions among them, in any case, are perhaps not as important as the fact the they all are projections of ‘the divine’, which is called TO QEI=ON, O( θεός without specific referent, or οἱ θεοί, ‘the gods’, as an undifferentiated collectivity. Herodotus is not a closet monotheist, as Harrison rightly says (p. 179); on the contrary, he confirms the ontological validity of the specific gods of cult. But within this traditional polytheism, Herodotus’ historical experience suggests to him that the divine is unified in the sense of harmonious and consistent, as opposed to embattled and tension-ridden. This view may not be unique to Herodotus, but is nevertheless theologically interesting: other texts, from Homer to Euripides, show that it was not the only one available.

Herodotus’ view of the nature of the divine partially hinges on the meaning of his statement at 2.3.2 that he will refrain from talking about ‘divine things’ ( θεῖα), because he believes that ‘all men know equally about them’. In Chapter 7 (The Limits of Knowledge and Inquiry’) Harrison reviews Herodotus’ deliberate omissions of religious material and, rejecting the distinctions formulated by Linforth,11 concludes that the policy of exclusion of 2.3.2 is entirely due to the same pious reticence required by Greek mysteries, a reticence which Herodotus applies specifically to the Egyptian religious material. The second part of the statement at 2.3.2, Harrison argues, has a more general import. Here the attribution of equal knowledge to all men refers to the impossibility of human knowledge about the divine and is paralleled by cautionary statements we find elsewhere in the Histories when Herodotus speculates about divine intervention (e.g. 9.65.2) or factual information concerning the gods (2.146.2).

Statements about the unknowability of the gods, however, are common even in the most traditional texts and therefore, Harrison seems to imply, one should not take them too seriously. Herodotus’ expressions of uncertainty are in contradiction with the many passages where ‘neither knowledge of the divine nor knowledge derived from the divine are envisaged as being in any way of a different order to what we may call ordinary human knowledge’ (p. 194). People, for example, interpret oracles and prophecies in a rational manner, just as they approach any other practical question; Herodotus’ investigation of Heracles (2.43-45) follows the same procedure and uses the same language as any other historical inquiry. In his concern to show that Herodotus’ view about the unknowability of the gods does not make him a skeptic, Harrison even objects to the modern canonical opinion that Herodotus has liberated history from myth, that he distinguishes between mythical and historical time (on the basis of 1.5.3 and 3.122.2), or that Croesus (1.5.3) constitutes a firm boundary between myth and history.12

Harrison’s argument is here not entirely misguided. In some important sense it is true that Herodotus ‘envisages the past as a continuous whole’ (p. 202). But Harrison’s ultimate concession that at best ‘it is certainly possible that…there is a weak and unconscious feeling on Herodotus’ part that pre-human history was inherently unverifiable’ (p. 204) is almost absurd. More importantly, Harrison’s polemic against those scholars who have emphasized Herodotus’ mistrust of myth leads him farther and farther away from what was supposed to be the initial question of this chapter—what aspects of the divine are proper objects of human inquiry and which ones are not. It is obvious that Herodotus thought that the meaning of oracles and prophecies was accessible to human reason. I would even argue that one of Herodotus’ goals is to accumulate evidence that would illuminate the ways in which the divine communicates with men. But there is a big difference between an inquiry of this sort and one concerning the nature of the divine or, to be more specific, the reliability of different peoples’ stories about the gods. It is probably these more metaphysical issues (as opposed to the ways of divine intervention in human history) that constitute the ‘divine things’ he declines to discuss (2.3.2).13

Harrison’s minimalist interpretation of the second part of 2.3.2 is also questionable: to attribute to all men equal knowledge about the divine is not exactly the same as saying that knowledge of the divine is humanly impossible (especially if, as Harrison maintains, Herodotus did not really mean such a thing). In comparison to Protagoras’ famous denial of the knowability of the gods (DK 80, B4), Herodotus’ positive formulation seems rather designed to emphasize the epistemological validity of the different cultural beliefs around the world. These include, theoretically, the religion of the monotheistic Getai as well as that of the Egyptians, with its remarkable complexities, variations, and theriomorphic strangeness that Herodotus seems here determined to protect against the derision of the Greeks. ‘All men know the same about the divine’ means that they all really know something, an indeterminable equal amount.

This is a remarkable generalization, consistent with Herodotus’ sense of the ultimate mysteriousness of the divine, his inclusive outlook on foreign religions, and his refusal to privilege that of the Greeks (2.53). Unfortunately Harrison’s Chapter 8, devoted to the status of foreign religions in the Histories, is perhaps the most disappointing of all.14 Harrison auspiciously begins by acknowledging evidence of Herodotus’ universalism. Beside recording many differences in foreign cult practices, which often mirror Greek assumptions in an inverted form, Herodotus also draws direct parallels between Greek and foreign religion or, through a diffusionistic model, traces the origins of the ones from the others. He assumes that different cultures worship largely the same divinities, though with different names, and promotes the moral that all religions are equally worthy of respect (3.38). After making these concessions, however, Harrison argues that ‘this picture of tolerant universalism must be qualified’ (p. 214). According to him, Herodotus’ frequent use of expression such as ‘Greek gods’, ‘local gods’, ‘Egyptian gods’, and so on, and his mention of as number of untranslatable foreign divinities defeat the notion of a unified divine world. Other signs of Greek prejudice appear when Herodotus communicates distaste for human sacrifice and other foreign religious practices, such as Babylonian ritual prostitution (1.199.1). Herodotus also shows the peril of worshipping foreign divinities (e.g., in the cases of Anacharsis and Scyles at 4.76-80). He attributes religious intolerance and sacrilegious behavior to foreign peoples more often than to the Greeks. He allows traditional Greek polytheistic assumptions to distort his account of the religious practices of monotheist societies, such as the Getai and the Massagetai.

A few of the observations mentioned above are simply silly and based on a baffling use of the evidence (see e.g. pp. 215, and Harrison’s discussion of 4.94 on pp. 218-9). Other features which, according to Harrison, appear to contradict Herodotus’ tolerant universalism, are more interesting. When, why, and under what circumstances, for example, does Herodotus’ narrative indicate that worshipping a divinity belonging to a different society is not a good thing? In what sort of cases does Herodotus allow himself to dislike or even condemn foreign religious practices? These issues, however, remain unexplored. Just as Harrison seems to deny that Herodotus could have been more thoughtful than the least thoughtful in his audience, so in this chapter he also appears reluctant to consider that he did not share—let alone intended to correct—some of the prejudices of the general public.

I can hardly disagree with Harrison’s conclusions at the end of his study that Herodotus is neither a skeptic nor a credulous and archaizing author, that his religious views are complex, and that the assurance with which he hold them confirms that traditional religion—in spite of recent changes, differing attitudes and rationalistic trends—was still deeply rooted in contemporary Greek culture as a whole. But all this is much too general. The complexity Harrison attributes to Herodotus is rather a massive confusion of traditional, if still lively, religious views. His book fails to examine how Herodotus’ inquiry negotiates the contradictions of contemporary thought. As a matter of principle he denies us permission to do so.


1. See G. L. Cooper, ‘Intrusive Oblique Infinitives in Herodotus’, TAPA 104 (1974) 23-76.

2. I found a few trivial errors which I record here in case of a future revision. On p. 68, next to last line, ‘Protesilaus then attempts to evade its fulfilment’, the name Protesilaus should be replaced by Artayctes. In note 30, p. 112, 7.143.3 should be replaced by 8.143.3 and ‘failure to avenge the Persians’ should be replaced by ‘failure to seek revenge against the Persians’. In note 114, p. 154, ‘the Argives’ contemplation of an alliance with the Persians, in contravention of the oracle, 7.148-9′, should probably be replaced by ‘the Argives’ contemplation of an alliance with the Greeks…etc.’

3. On the function of gnomic expressions in Herodotus, see recently S. O. Shapiro, ‘Proverbial Wisdom in Herodotus’, TAPA 130 (2000) 89-118.

4. So does the epinician poet in his praise of prominent individuals and tyrants. J. F. McGlew, Tyranny and Political culture in Ancient Greece (Ithaca 1993) 41; G. Nagy, Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past (Baltimore and London 1990) 274-313. Artabanus finally reveals his moralizing at 7.18.2.

5. References to these topics, sometimes with promises of future discussion, appear in fact in Harrison’s Chapter 2 (see pp. 42 and 60-61).

6. Harrison’s concept of let-out clauses is indebted to modern anthropological studies of primitive religions and magic.

7. Especially since it is the Athenians, still perhaps unpunished for killing the Persian heralds, who kill the Spartan heralds. As P. Georges observes ( Barbarian Asia and the Greek Experience, Baltimore and London, 1994, 161-163), the very same action which frees the Spartans from their debt also serves to compound the guilt of Athens. In the case of the failed return of the Aeginetan hostages, already H. Immerwahr ( Form and Thought in Herodotus, Cleveland 1966, 214) suggested that punishment was still in store for the Athenians, but Harrison (note 53, p. 119) rejects his opinion as fanciful.

8. ‘Aspects of Historical Causation in Herodotus’, TAPA 87 (1956) 247-280.

9. Cf. some of the Oxford undergraduates in the classic article by E. R. Dodds. ‘On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex’, G & R 13 (1966) 37-49.

10. The fundamental study on this topic is I. M. Linforth, ‘Named and Unnamed Gods in Herodotus’, University of California Studies in Classical Philology 9/7 (1928), 201-43.

11. I. M. Linforth, ‘Herodotus’ Avowal of Silence’, University of California Studies in Classical Philology 7/9 (1924), 269-92, esp. 278-81.

12. On such a separation, see especially B. Shimron, ‘ πρῶτος τῶν ἡμεῖς ἴδμεν‘, Eranos 71 (1973) 45-51.

13. See A. B. Lloyd, Herodotus Book II. Commentary 1-98 (Leiden 1976) 17.

14. For excellent studies of this topic, see for example, I. M. Linforth, ‘Greek Gods and Foreign Gods in Herodotus’, University of California Publications in Classical Philology 9/1 (1926) 1-25; W. Burkert, ‘Herodot als Historiker fremder Religionen’, in W. Burkert et al., Hérodote et les peuples non-grecs, Fondation Hardt Entretiens 35 (Geneva 1990)1-39.