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The Historical Narrativity of Herodotus

The recounting by Herodotus of Cyrus' childhood in the Histories reveals not only the sociopolitical bias under which the author was necessarily writing, but also the differences between his historical composition and that of other contemporary forms of narration. Even a brief comparison to the Oedipus myth casts great insight into these differences, and upon closer examination, the techniques of narrativity and the transformation from story into history gain clarity as well. While it is highly improbable that the historian Herodotus deliberately made use of these techniques, it is nonetheless noteworthy that they appear in his work and complement its historical value, thus making it a work well-deserving of further examination.

An obvious technique which Herodotus uses to transform the mythological facts underlying the story of Cyrus' youth into the realistic and logical discourse of the narration is to remove one of the most fantastic elements: the gods. In the myth of Oedipus the gods play an active role throughout the entire story; from the original oracle given to Laius and Jocasta, and through to the end of Oedipus' life, when he is blissfully removed from this earth by the very gods who had earlier tormented him, religious and supernatural overtones permeate the tale. In the story of Cyrus these overtones are noticeably absent. Certainly the gods have something to do with the dreams of Astyages, or so the reader is given to assume, but it is never explicitly stated. In fact, in many places throughout the story where one might expect there to appear indications of a religious tradition, exactly the opposite occurs: all non-human references are specifically avoided, and instead we see generic social ones. Perhaps the best example of this is the justification Harpagus supplies as to why he will not kill the infant Cyrus; here, where we would most expect there to be a judgment passed on the 'wrongness' of the act or an appeal to the will of the gods, there appear instead a number of purely human (and self-serving) concerns:

 There are many reasons why I will not do it - he is related to me by blood, and Astyages is old and has no son. Suppose, when he dies, Mandane - whose child I am to be the instrument of murdering - should succeed to the throne: shouldn't I be in the utmost peril? For my own safety's sake the baby must be killed. But one of Astyages' servants must do it, not one of mine. (§ 109)


Another way in which Herodotus intentionally avoids mention of deities and mythological figures is to base his story in fact and history. This is of course natural, since the story does indeed appear in an historical work, but the effect of this historicity deserves further consideration. In the numerous tragedies based on the story of Oedipus, including the version by Sophocles, the author takes for granted that his audience is already familiar with the events in the story, and that the primary material he has to play with is the discourse and the dialogue, not the plot. The material, then, is a myth - passed down from generation to generation, with differences in minor details certainly arising, but the basic storyline remaining the same. This is not true of the tale of Cyrus' childhood. Here, the tale is presumably new to most audiences, and it is the story itself which captivates the interest of the readers, as well as the discourse. This eliminates, then, the mythological basis of narration from becoming an issue in Herodotus, and removes yet another reference to the fantastic.

The story of Cyrus has also had many of its references to fate and the inevitability of destiny removed, especially when compared to the story of Oedipus. In the latter, the focus is undeniably stated: Oedipus, no matter how he struggles, cannot avoid his fate. Were one to know only the bare facts of the Cyrus story, one could possibly come up with a similar judgment: Astyages tries to fight against the prophecies given to him and fails. However, all such conclusions regarding the focus or central theme rely on the actual telling of the tale, and as such, they do not hold true for the version Herodotus gives us. Here, the moral of the story is not at all about the inevitability of fate, or anything even remotely similar. In fact, in harmony with the absence of references to the gods, almost no indications of predestination are evident in the narration. Certainly Astyages confronts his oracles directly and tries to fight against them. However - and the distinction here is a vital one - the Magi who interpret the dream are wrong; thus there is no sense that the gods have meted out a fate on Astyages that cannot be avoided, but only that his pretentious advisors have wrongly interpreted his dream and thus have indirectly caused their master's downfall.

The socialization and politicalization of almost all events in the story is another narrative technique evident in Herodotus, one which draws the reader's attention away from the mythological and fantastic elements and focuses it instead on the mundane and realistic world of the characters. The entire surroundings of Astyages and Cyrus are extremely social: not only is the king shown at court and the servant shown in the servant's quarters, but we are given a true and sympathetic feeling for each of the scenes described. Thus, for instance, we are told that Astyages told his dream at court to the Magi, "whose business it was to interpret such things" (§107). This is quite a telling phrase: we learn, all at once and from eight words, of several phenomena: there is a predetermined social order at court; certain talents exist, which have been delegated to the point of solidifying into occupations; and the whole atmosphere is very much as we would expect to see in a modern government office, with a separate department for each different activity deemed necessary.

The world of these men is also highly political. Here, perhaps, is where the work fits best into Hayden White's thesis: due to the tale's central theme of conflict and power struggles, it "presupposes the existence of a legal system ... on behalf of which the typical agents of a narrative account militate." (White, p. 13) Indeed, the entire work of Herodotus proves admirably White's next assumption, which is that "narrative in general, from the folktale to the novel, from the annals to the fully realized "history," has to do with the topics of law, legality, legitimacy, or, more generally, authority." (White, p. 13) This is unquestionably the case in the tale of Cyrus and the events surrounding it - the struggle for authority between the Medes and the Persians, or more generally, between the Greeks and the barbarians. The central question is obvious: who is to eventually become legitimized? As the moral at the end of the section on Cyrus' childhood reminds us, the outcome is forever changing; nonetheless, the author's sympathies are made quite clear, and Harpagus is firmly rebuked for letting the barbaric Persians gain the ascendancy. This relates strongly to White's discussion: Herodotus is exhibiting here the sociopolitical bias under which he necessarily produced his work, and thus proving White's point. The work can and should be analyzed as a work of narrative history which displays the author's sociopolitical bias.

In the process of transforming the given story of Cyrus' childhood into a true historical narrative, Herodotus makes use not only of the discursive techniques mentioned above, but also of narrative and storytelling devices which make his work seem to the modern reader truly "historical." One such method is shown by the great detail in which the descriptions of people, places, and things are given. Place names are specifically stated, as are the names of people and the stories behind their origins; also, a great amount of time is devoted simply to specifications and lengthy digressions, revealing to us the customs or characteristics of the group under discussion. This story is not told by a bard, it is obvious: there is little dramatic tension, and the events do not unfold in a manner that allows us to truly become caught up in the story. Instead, the author gives us certain pieces of information in seemingly random succession, or at least in an order that simply follows his own whims. This leads, then, to the sense of an imminent presence of the author - the presence of an ego in a work which otherwise does not possess one. A certain subjectivity is betrayed here, beyond doubt, which lends yet more support to White's theory of a sociopolitical bias exhibited by any historical author.

There are, of course, obvious similarities between the historical story of Cyrus and the mythological tale of Oedipus. Just as importantly, however, there are differences in their presentation by Herodotus and Sophocles. In the Oedipus tragedy, following the conventions of Greek drama, there was no violence exhibited on stage; thus the death of Jocasta and the blinding of Oedipus are all merely related to us by a messenger. In the work of Herodotus, the same conventions do not apply, and this allows for a much greater freedom of description. We see, therefore, the butchering of Harpagus' son by Astyages, and we are forced to witness the dreadful consequences as well. It could be argued, of course, that the author is simply serving here as a messenger, and that there are no independent characters in this work who could carry out their own actions; however, some characters do indeed speak and act for themselves, and it cannot be denied that Herodotus serves a role far greater than that of any mere messenger. In any case, the liberty which Herodotus has to discuss any subject deemed by him to be important lends a greater factuality and historicity to the work, by means of the completeness and extensiveness of the descriptions, and the inclusion of all relevant historical details.

The story of Cyrus, then, although certainly possessing mythological and non-narrative elements, is portrayed by Herodotus as an overtly narrated history. As such, it has undergone a process of transformation and factualization, aided by the avoidance of religious overtones, the construction of a highly socialized and politicized society, and by the clarity and detail of description. All of these devices bring to light the sociopolitical prejudices that Herodotus carried with him, and support Hayden White's thesis about the presupposition of a legal system in a narrative history. This bias, though, far from making the work more subjective, adds a greater objectivity to it in terms of a study of Herodotus' own society: we see the clear and sharply defined standards he uses for measuring other cultures, which in turn reveal to us the unstated historical portrayal of Ancient Greece.





Written and © Nancy Thuleen in 1992 for Literature 10a at Pomona College.

If needed, cite using something like the following:
Thuleen, Nancy. "The Historical Narrativity of Herodotus." Website Article. 15 November 1992. <http://www.nthuleen.com/papers/L10herodotus.html>.