1, The Histories of Herodotus

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Greek Trireme

Written and read by Bertie, based on the Histories of Herodotus.
Proofed and audio edited by Jana Elizabeth
Picture by Shutterstock.

And if you are interested in the ancient world, check out our guide to the Greek gods. and our Greek Myths.

Herodotus - The Histories

This is Bertie, and I’m here to introduce something that we don’t normally do on Storynory - History. So why are we, a story podcast, doing History? Well one reason is that History is chockablock full of great stories.

In fact, our word History comes from an Ancient Greek word, ‘historia’ and I think you can hear that we get the word Story from it. So History and stories go together pretty well.

But History doesn’t involve just any old sort of stories. The Greeks understood that History is based on careful research, rather than just plucked out of somebody’s imagination. That’s why the Greek word for Histories is often translated as Inquiries - like the sort of inquiry a detective makes when he’s trying to find out the true facts of the case.

I’m going to be telling you stories from the oldest book of History that we have. It’s simply called, The Histories, and it was written two and a half thousand years ago by a Greek, named Herodotus. His aim, he tells us, was to keep alive the astounding events, and the glorious deeds on both sides of the Persian Wars. The Persian Wars was when the immense and powerful and fabulously wealthy Empire of Persia tried to crush its much smaller neighbour, Greece. Herodotus tells us that what he also wants, just as importantly, is to find out WHY the great clash between East and West happened in the first place.

He was born in Halicarnassus - which nowadays is a seaside town called Bodrum, in Turkey. Back in the time of Herodotus, Halicarnassus was a Greek city under the rule of the Persian Empire. It was and still is a place where East meets West. Even today, Greece is not far away. It’s just a 45 minute sea trip from Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos.

While he was investigating his Histories, he travelled all over Greece, and the Persian Empire, including Egypt, which we now think of as ancient Egypt. On his travels, he spoke to people about their customs, traditions, and stories. What he gives us is an eyewitness account of the ancient world - which is one reason why his work is so fascinating.

But you might think that some of his stories are not exactly true History. It’s possible you will say that sometimes they sound more like myths. For example, right at the beginning of the Histories, Herodotus discusses a much older clash between East and West - the Trojan War.

Perhaps you know at least some of the story. Maybe you’ve even heard it on Storynory. I’ll refresh your memory. A Trojan prince named Paris was out hunting when he met three goddesses. Aphrodite the goddess of Love, Athena the goddess of wisdom, and Hera, the Queen of the Gods. They asked him to judge which one of them was the most beautiful, and he picked Aphrodite. As a reward, she promised him that he could marry Helen the most beautiful woman alive. There was just one snag - Helen was already married to a Greek king called Menelaus. Paris went to stay with Menelaus in the City of Argos. While he was a guest of the king, he persuaded Queen Helen to run off with him back to Troy. The Greeks were so insulted by this bad behaviour that they declared war on Troy, a city in part of the world which we now call Turkey. The Greeks sailed there with a mighty army and demanded that the Trojans must return Helen to her husband. But King Priam of Troy refused. Instead of giving back Helen which he could have easily done to end his troubles, he prefered to fight a war for 10 long years against the Greeks, in which many of his own sons were killed. Eventually the Greeks pretended to give up and leave, but before they sailed away, they left behind a huge wooden horse that was secretly filled with soldiers. When the Trojans took the horse into their city, the Greek soldiers jumped down from its belly, opened the gates of the city, and let in their army who set fire to the glorious buildings of Troy.

Ok, so you know that story? It’s great, but it’s a myth, right? I mean you don’t just meet three goddesses when you’re out hunting in the hills. That sort of thing doesn’t happen. But Herodotus at least partly believed the story. And he gives us some background. He tells us about various other times when visitors to Greece kidnapped women. For instance, Princess Io of Argos was captured by the Phoenicians.

The Phoenicians were great sailors and merchants who came from the Middle East and a lovely place that we now call Lebanon on the coast famous for its hills and its cedar trees that's past Turkey and Syria and on the way to Egypt.

Some of their sailors called in at the Greek port of Argos and stayed for a while to do business. Everyday while they were there, Greek women came down to their ship to look through all the tempting goods that the Phoenicians had for sale. Perhaps they bought some clothes that had been coloured with the famous Phoenician purple dye. Well one day, when the ship was ready to leave, the sailors jumped out and captured some of the women, including Princess Io, the daughter of the king of Argos. They sailed away with these women as captives and took them to Egypt.

And then, as revenge, some Greek sailors kidnapped a Phoenician princess from their city of Tyre. Herodotus tells us that he’s talked to both sides and they both gave slightly different accounts of the story. The Phoenicians claimed that Princess Io was in love with the ship’s captain, and that she willingly ran away with him.

He concludes that Helen running off to Troy with Paris was just the latest in a whole series of similar real life events.

And that’s not all that he tells us about Helen, Paris and the Trojan War. He’s discovered that the Egyptians know a different version of the story that contradicts the Greek tale in some ways.

When Herodotus went to Egypt, he collected a lot of information from the priests in the city of Memphis on the river Nile. They told him about a sanctuary - a holy place of safety - dedicated to the hero Heracles. If any slave made his or her way to that sanctuary, and had their skin branded as the property of Heracles, they could escape their human masters. Now it happened that when Paris was fleeing from Greece with Helen, and a cargo of stolen treasure, a storm blew his ship off course and he was forced to land in Egypt, in the delta of the river Nile. He had some slaves with him presumably to row his ship. Anyway they heard about the sanctuary of Heracles, and fled there to escape from Paris and to claim their freedom. Once there, they told the story of how Paris had been a guest of King Menelaus, and had run off with his wife, also taking a whole pile of treasure. The warden of the sanctuary was so outraged by this scandalous story that he reported Paris to the then king of Egypt, whom Herodotus names as Proteus. King Proteus summoned Paris, Helen and the escaped slaves to his palace. He asked Paris for his side of the story, and when the Trojan could not explain himself properly, he spoke something like as follows:

“You are a scoundrel and you deserve death for the crimes that you have committed against King Menelaus who trusted you and gave you his hospitality. However, it has always been my custom to do no harm to guests in my country. You may go free, but you must leave Helen and the stolen treasure here with me. If King Menelaus comes here to ask for his property and his wife, I shall return them to him. Now go! And make sure you we never see your scandalous face here again.”

So Paris returned to Troy safely, but empty handed. Some time after that, the Greeks turned up in their ships with a great menacing army. Their leaders, including Menelaus, went into the city to talk to Paris’s father, the Trojan King Priam. They demanded the return of Helen and the treasure. King Priam however, said that he could not hand over Helen or the treasure for the very good reason that he did not have them. He advised the Greeks to sail to Egypt and to speak to King Proteus about the matter. The Greeks did not believe this story which sounded like an obvious lie. And that was why they immediately laid siege to Troy. After ten years of hard fighting and suffering on both sides, the Greeks eventually broke into Troy. Only then, when Helen and the treasure were nowhere to be found, did they finally understand that King Priam had been telling them the truth. So King Menelaus sailed to Egypt where he was reunited with both his wife and his riches.

So that is the version of the Trojan War told to Herodotus by the Egyptian priests of Memphis. It’s somewhat different from the usual story that’s come down to us from the Greek poet Homer. Herodotus believed it, because he thought it made good sense. After all, why would King Priam (who was known to be noble and wise) fight a war, risking and ultimately losing his city and all his children? It would have been much easier and wiser to return to the Greeks what rightfully belonged to them. So, Herodotus concludes that the Egyptian version of the Trojan war story is most probably the true one - something that would have come as quite a surprise to his fellow Greeks who grew up practically knowing Homer off by heart.

What do you think? You can let us know in the comments at Storynory.com.

I hope you’ve found this introduction to Herodotus interesting. I’m planning to tell you many more stories from his Histories. Next time I will relate a story that again involves some rough sailors who were practically pirates. The story also involves a highly intelligent and quite marvellous sea creature. You may or may not believe it, but it will be up to you to decide.

And if your family is able to support Storynory, please visit our website and follow the link to our Patreon page, and if you can commit to 5 dollars a month, we will thank you on the audio and say a little bit about you.
For now, from me Bertie at Storynory.com.