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The whispering slave and the wondering sage.

He is called “The Father of History” by the appreciative and the “Father of Lies” by the unappreciative because of the way he collected his information about the events he writes in his Histories, a word which in his day, meant “Inquiries.”

To my mind Herodotus is far more than both those designations. He is a Philosopher and Philosophy, I hold, as Plato does, with high esteem. Plato wanted philosophers to rule the nations -but that’s another story. The reason that Mythology is far more reliable than History is because Mythology’s most valued content is Philosophy. History might be written by all sorts of vagabonds and the main content there is lies. Lies and agendas and prejudices and covetings.

“History,” James Joyce’s Daedalus exclaimed “is a nightmare from which I am trying to get out.” I, on the other hand, say, “Mythology is a sweet dream from which I never want to awake.”

Herodotus relates the war which Darius I waged against the Greeks on the West coast of today’s Turkey, those whom historians call The Ionian Greeks. Darius I, amazingly, lost that war because the Athenians and the Eretrians sent forces to help the Ionians. Amazingly because this was Darius I, the great king of the great Persia, the great Emperor of the greatest empire on the then known world, the then known cosmos, even. Darius I could summon, equip, train and feed the biggest army of them all.

But, all of that amounted to nothing because, thanks to the Athenians and the Eretrians, he got nowhere with his attempts to subjugate those Ionian Greeks and, after his last attempt at Miletus which failed disastrously,

this great Darius I became consummately annoyed. Detonatingly so, even!

He asked his generals around him who were those damned Athenians. When he found out he got even more annoyed and shouted to his slaves, “fetch me my bow and arrow NOW!”

When these were brought and put into his hands he shot an arrow upwards, towards the heavens and anger still spurting fumes out of his nostrils, shouted at Zeus words to the effect, “grant me oh mighty Zeus the vengeance I deserve against those pesky Athenians!”

Then, to make sure he never forgot those pesky Athenians, he ordered one of his slaves to remind him every day, before his first mouthful of dinner of the calamity he had just suffered by whispering into his imperial ear, thrice:

“Lord, remember the Athenians!

Lord, remember the Athenians!

Lord, remember the Athenians!”

The rest, as they say, is History, one which Herodotus detailed in his “Histories”, the first ever book of History, a word which in its day, as I said meant “inquiries” and not “true and incontestable events” or some such fantasy.

I always say, I have more faith in mythology than I do in History.

History, as our lovely Norman Swan said, suffers deeply from -though he wasn’t talking about History, per se- “programmatic inefficiency.”

You gotta love our Norman Swan, one of our very few truly intelligent intellectuals.

Anyhow, the Great Darius The First gathered a huge force and, in 490 BC, headed towards Athens.

Alas, for the Great God-King, the bloody debacle of Miletus repeated itself in Marathon and elsewhere in Southern Greece and the great King, Emperor and self proclaimed god, Darius The First found himself tearing his hair out, lacerating his cheeks and shredding his golden robes while cursing the Athenians most profanely. History (or Zeus, or Fate or some other powerful entity) was brutal to that boy and to his boy, Xerxes also, who ten years later, tried to avenge his father by following his trail all the way to Greece. It ended up as a very dismal double demolition derby for the poor Persians. Huge, gory and shameful losses for them.

Aeschylus reminded the Greeks of the event, less than ten years later and warned them most direly about getting too hubristic about their victories against the Persians. In 472, Aeschylus wrote his splendid tragedy, The Persians.[1] “Darius,” he says in many more words, “was arrogant. He thought too much of himself and that is something that the gods hate with a great sizzling fervour.”

It’s a lesson for all humanity, the one about the whispering slave, wherever and whenever humans happen to be, especially those of us whose brain is beginning to lose its youthful prowess. We, of this feeble state of mind, must get someone or something to whisper in our ear, just before the first spoonful or forkful of dinner, to remind us who we are and what is the purpose of our existence or of tying our shoe laces, especially when the shoes have no laces.

In political terms, we should make it the job of the Presidents of both houses of our Parliament to begin each session, not with a useless, hypocritical and pregnant-with-bigotry and smugness act of uttering a prayer to god but with a loud and meaningfully uttered exhortation, uttered thrice, to everyone in the chamber, to all the law makers there:

“Remember, you bastards what you are here for!

Remember, you bastards what you are here for!

Remember, you bastards what you are here for!”

It just might help to get the beggars focused. They are there to serve everyone in the country and to serve everyone justly and not with all sorts of prejudices and personal covetings, like gold, or oil, or lithium, or opium, or pfizer vaccines. NSW is Victoria and Victoria is Western Australia and Tasmania and South Australia and Northern Territory and ACT and whatever other State and Territory slipped my mind. They, the politicians are there to distribute the wealth and the vaccines of the nation equitably, not to obey the media or mining moguls.

And it would be a very useful tool for all of us, that device which would whisper in our ear what and who we are and why we are walking towards the kitchen but have now stopped dead midway there.

Was I going to the kitchen or the bathroom, I often ask myself. Someone please tell me!

We, humans forget just too easily all of that simple and obvious stuff. We are not born to live for ever and nor are we born to conquer or to be nasty to anyone. There’s a golden rule: “Do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.” Bertrand Russell thought that it was quite a silly rule. “Don’t do that,” he told someone one rainy day, “those others just might not like what you like!”

And that, in essence is the key to humanity’s endless turbulence and disquiet. We covet too much. We think too much of ourselves. We are too greedy and too gluttonous. We never have enough of our own stuff so we take on the Darius system. We march with huge armies towards those who have it.

Darius I and his son Xerxes, ten years later! How compellingly reminiscent this is to the Bush I and Bush II expeditions (the second Bush called it “Crusade” -against the “Coalition of Evil,” against Iraq!

In his “Inquiries,” Herodotus has pointed out to us two vital lessons. The first was the one above, with the slave whispering the reminder in Darius’ ear. The second is the story of the meeting between Croesus, the emperor of Anatolia (roughly modern day Turkey) and Solon, one of the seven sages of Greece.

The Darius I-Xerxes story teaches us to understand the limits of memory (and physical power also, of course) and the Croesus-Solon story tells us to understand the limits of our sway over our fate and our useby date.

It would take too much time and space to tell the full story of the meeting of the king and the sage, so I encourage you to read it in Herodotus’ own words. It’s a delicious story, delicious enough to make you smack your mental lips.

Croesus was what we call today, filthy rich. His huge palaces in Sardis were clogged with gold and silver and gems and all sorts of extremely valuable things. When Solon came wondering by in his world tour after he had fixed (most Athenians said destroyed) the laws of Athens, Croesus invited him in and, in time asked him who the great sage thought was the happiest man on earth, anticipating that Solon would name him as the rightful owner of the accolade.

Cutting a long and scrumptious story short and morsel-like, Solon gave the king the relative maths: “Listen, Lord Croesus,” Solon said humbly, “we live around seventy years and, forgetting the intercalary months, we have some 25,200 days… add another 35 months, which make up 1,050 days, altogether 26,250 days, none of which will produce events the same as any of the others. So I can’t say who is happy and who is not until the very end of their life. Until they’re dead, in fact.”

Croesus, not being a sage -far from it in fact- was disgusted and angrily sent the Athenian away.

Not long after that, Solon’s observation began to come to fruition. Croesus’ favourite (of two) sons was killed in a hunting accident and not much later, Cyrus, the founder of the first Persian Empire brought his army to Sardis, waged a war against Croesus, won and had Croesus mounted on a pyre. Just as the flames began to lick Croesus’ feet, he remembered the Athenian and yelled, “Oh Solon, Solon, Solon!”

Cyrus wandered which was this god that Croesus was calling out to and asked to have Croesus taken down and brought to him.

When the two were next to each other, Croesus explained the story behind his cry. Cyrus became thoughtful and let Croesus live.

Two lessons today, both from Herodotus:

1) We need someone to whisper in your ear what we need to do, so that we won’t forget or get distracted, and

2) you never know where Fate’s endless pivoting will land you even a minute hence.

Indeed, Herodotus was a philosopher, a sage, a wise gatherer of wondrous stories.

Our heads and bookshelves and the heads and the bookshelves of those who dictate the laws of a nation, or a group of humans should be afforded his book.

[1] My translation of the play is here and on Amazon.com.

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  1. RosemaryJ36

    We can learn much of value from mythology.

  2. paul walter

    Mythologies are not sacrosanct though, as Roland Barthes demonstrated.

    Is there a single thing humans cannot pervert or twist to the very opposite of the original intention?

    But this is a cavil.

    I think George and Rosemary are stouthearted in their evocation of imagination, humility and possibility over pedantry misanthropy and false consciousness.

  3. BB

    All this indulgence and adulation of the past histories of mankind, of supposed learned men, and what has humanity learnt? Fuck all!

  4. ge

    Thanks, Paul.
    Barthes came to my attention during my Uni years, quite another era ago! From what I remember, in our tutorials, we had placed him among that group of nay-sayers like, for example, Aristotle and his Poetics. But I remember bugger all else. I should buy his books (especially his “Mythologies”) and check them out again… Some day, soon, I am hoping.

    BB, a very valid observation but it needs to be a little more nuanced.
    You are right, of course, when it comes to moral lessons, lessons to do with how we, as humans, should live in a state of Eudaimonia (happiness, fulfilment, etc) as Plato put it, we are far from educated, even though the Greeks had given us ample lessons. We mustn’t forget, however that the Greeks themselves paid little regard to those lessons and the greatest, the most iconic indication of this is the death sentence they’ve imposed on the greatest champion of morality, Socrates.

    But we have learnt a great deal, in fact, in the scientific fields. Most of the Maths, the physics, the chemistry we know now, has emerged from the work of the ancients, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians et al.

    So, yes, when it comes to understanding each other, we are still as hopeless as the troglodytes of yore but, regarding the sciences, Jeff Bezos would have no hope is taking his ten minute flight into space.

    And here I take the opportunity to air my beef about religion: My view is that one reason that we have learnt so little about each other, about Plato’s eudaimonia and suchlike is because Religion (a euphemism for fear) has taken over the role of its teacher and thereby enforced its own rules and dogmas on these subjects. Religion, in other words, especially but not exclusively the Abrahamic triad, has mightily hindered our progress in the studies of our psyche and so, alas, we are left still wandering through deserts and caves of education. We cannot see past the spinifex grasses of “thou shalt nots”.

    Personally, I can’t fathom this huge wall of ignorance and why we can’t drop it, just as we’ve dropped the Berlin one and just as we’ve dropped enormous towers. When it comes to enormous walls, we are obsessed by them. Not what the ancients taught us.

  5. BB

    Aye ge.

    “nuanced”, lol, 😀, I’m no diplomat, I prefer being candid, truthful. Gilding the lily is where most problems, bs stems from.

    Yes humans have done well in science, technology, but in human terms, in caring & loving for each other we are troglodytes.

    Indeed, religion, the biggest scam perpetrated upon mankind by mankind itself, brainwashing from the cradle to the grave!

    All about power and keeping the people dumb and subservient.

  6. Phil Pryor

    After this, I dozed off eventually re-reading Herodotus for some revised insights, few of which appeared and stayed.., but, the best ancients, especially of Greek cultures, gave us good guides to advance, at least ourselves, if we cannot influence life and others. I told our young ones, and students (sometimes) to think clearly, think ahead and think of others, It often assisted in developing attitude and “saved” a few.

  7. leefe

    ge, BB:

    We have stockpiled an enormous amount of facts and information. Wisdom, on the other hand, is in short supply. Especially amongst those who most need it.

  8. george theodoridis

    Quite so, leefe, I’m afraid you’re quite right. Wisdom, against all expectations, is weaker than personal, superficial gratification. Trillions in a bank are more sought after than trillions out of famine, extreme thirst, mass ill health and poverty!

  9. BB

    Yes leefe,
    I blame religions.
    They have robbed mankind of free thought, of original thought, and of wisdom and common sense.

  10. DW

    Thank you for this delightful essay. It reminded me of another.

    Guide to the classics: The Histories, by Herodotus, Julia Kindt, TC, 2016-05-23

    It is easy to see why Herodotus’ Histories may seem overwhelming. Too much is going on, right from the start. Yet they remain a classic testament to the pleasures of researching and learning.


  11. George Theodoridis

    You are most welcome DW.
    Both historiographers are a wonderful read of course but the styles are enormously different.
    Herodotus writes what he hears, some of which -like flying elephants and suchlike- challenge credulity whist others enlighten us about his world.

    Thucydides on the other hand delineated the event that led to and took place during the Peloponnesian War. He was a soldier and took part in that war, was an Athenian, lived in Athens and his readers would be Athenians.
    Interestingly, he tells us early on why he began writing the history of that war, ie, he wanted to know how morally the soldiers acted on the field.

    He was shocked, he says, to find how the moral compass had disappeared completely on the killing fields.

    I wonder what he’d say about today’s soldiering.

  12. Arnd


    “I blame religions.”

    I blame love of money. Mostly.

  13. DrakeN

    Arnd, it is from the love of money, power and priviledge that religions eventuate.
    …the longest existing and most successful of all confidence tricks.

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