Tea With Herodotus

By Karl Schudt, Seminar Host 

I fell asleep reading Herodotus last week. I awoke in his study in Halicarnassus. He's wide-eyed, insistent, takes me by the hand, and leads me into his study. Once there, he gets me a cup of tea. I'm more of a coffee guy, but it's good tea. Herodotus shows me to a seat in between two precarious piles of scrolls.

“Be careful! They tend to fall, and if they get messed up. I’ll have Hades’ own time sorting them out,” he says, pushing the chipped mug into my hands.

“Would you like some help sorting them?” I ask, waiting for the tea to cool.

“No, certainly not! They’re already sorted!” Herodotus looks offended.

I glanced around the cluttered room, the ink-pots, the discarded styluses. The rolls of unmarked papyrus (brought back from Egypt!), the scraps with notes jotted on them, the other scraps with notes jotted over the previous notes like a palimpsest.

“Sorted,” I ask. “How?”

“Up here,” Herodotus says, moving his unkempt hair aside to tap his forehead, “and in here!” as he taps his heart. “The notes are every bit as organized as my book. I presume you’ve read it?”

“Are you serious? Organized? I read your book. You go from a history of the origins of Lydia (a kingdom that didn’t take part in the war) to a discourse on ancient languages, to a history of Sparta, to some battles, to a history of Lydian customs, to a story of the leaders of the Medes, who no longer have any power, to the family troubles of Astyages, to Cyrus’ life story, to a discourse on Caunus and Lycia’s customs, to a description of famous Babylonian women, to agriculture, some battles, the death of Cyrus, and the customs of the Massagetai. This was all in Chapter One. It doesn’t seem very sorted!”

Herodotus grinned at me, “You’ve missed the point. There is a guiding principle, but it isn’t the events. How could any retelling of human events be straight forward? You might as well herd cats in Egypt as an attempt to sort out human events.”

He broke off, a gleam in his eye: “Did I ever tell you what the Egyptians say about cats?”

I held up my hand to stop him, afraid I’d be stuck listening to a three-hour dissertation on Egyptian beliefs and customs about cats. “But if the recording of the events isn’t the plan, what is? What’s the point of the book?”

“Are all people in the future this forgetful? I told you in the first paragraph!” He grunted. “You were probably too busy with your long-distance talking device to pay attention.” He pointed to my phone. “Did Hephaestus make that?”

I tried to model good behavior to Herodotus and stayed on topic. “Do you mean this part?” I pointed to the scroll.

May the great and wonderful deeds–some brought forth by the Hellenes, others by the barbarians– not go unsung, as well as the causes that led them to make war on each other. (1.1)

“That’s it!” cried Herodotus. “The main point is the great deeds. The causes are secondary, important because they are the reasons for the great deeds. But I want people to remember that such men and women existed.”

I sensed he wanted to go on, so I prompted him. “But did you need to tell the story of the man riding the dolphins? Or the magic urine that cures blindness? Do you really believe all that stuff?”

“Ha! No, I don’t believe it all, but how do I know if it happened or not? You tell me men walked on the moon! I don’t believe it. But there’s more to it. I’m interested in great deeds, and the causes of great deeds. If you believe something to be true, doesn’t that cause you to act?”

“Sure,” I said.

“So you ‘Americans’ do things because you think you walked on the moon?” Herodotus continued.

“I suppose we do. It’s part of our history.”

Herodotus reached down to pick up a fallen scroll. “Does it matter, then, if it happened, any more than whether the man rode dolphins or not? The people believed it happened. They even put up a statue!”

I acknowledged his point. “But we really did go to the moon!”

“Of course you did,” he said, patting me on the shoulder and refilling my cup. “If you believe you did.”


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