Tag Archives: giant ants

A Very Different World

I’ve been reading Herodotus again, who died in 425 B.C. after writing his comprehensive history of the wars between the Greeks and Persians–part history, part travelogue, all entertainment: that’s why it’s been in print for 2,400 years.

The thing that strikes me most powerfully is how unimaginably different his world was from ours. As widely traveled as he was, Herodotus had no idea of lots of things we take for granted. His world was bounded on the south by the Sahara Desert; on the east by the Indian desert; on the north by cold countries where feathers fell from the sky; and on the west by the Strait of Gibraltar. Beyond those boundaries, nothing was known for sure.

North of the Alps, north of the Danube River, Herodotus’ Europe might as well have been on Mars. Those unknown countries–Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Russia–were said to be inhabited by giants, monsters, dog-headed people, and headless people with eyes in their chests. “I do not vouch for the truth of those accounts,” he admits.

I love reading about the giant ants the size of terriers, from which enterprising Indians stole gold dust, the squeaking “troglodytes” hunted by Libyan nomads, the fantastic treasures stored in assorted public places, and the know-it-all oracles whose advice is never understood but always turns out to be right; and colorful historical characters like Cyrus and the other Persian kings, rich Croesus, wise Solon, and all the rest.

Herodotus repeated so many tall tales that it harmed his reputation; Plutarch called him not “the father of history,” but the “father of lies.” But some of the tallest tales–which Herodotus said he didn’t believe, but were worth writing down as he heard them–have turned out to be shockingly true: like the Carthaginian mariners who circumnavigated Africa 2,000 years before Bartolomeo Dias did it, and the Sarmatians’ women warriors who weren’t allowed to marry until they’d killed an enemy in battle.

His was a colorful, crazy world. And you couldn’t find a MacDonald’s anywhere in Scythia.


The Father of Tall Tales

I have been reading Herodotus–called by Cicero “the Father of History,” and by other ancient commentators “the Father of Lies.” I don’t know which side to come down on, but one thing’s for sure: Herodotus was definitely the Father of Tall Tales. Davy Crockett was a mere exaggerator, compared to him.

Herodotus’ Histories, written sometime around 450 B.C., is one of the most entertaining books in the world. Boy, could that old man spin yarns! The book is supposed to be about the wars between the Greeks and the Persians, but Herodotus crams it full of stories about anything and everything you could imagine.

Here we find the giant ants of India, as big as foxes, and the flying serpents of Arabia, not to mention griffins that guard huge stores of gold, the first circumnavigation of Africa by a Phoenician sailor–a story which Herodotus himself was unable to believe because it only makes sense if you consider the world to be a globe with an Equator–and a treasury of historical curiosities, from the character and riches of Croesus to the homicidal madness of Cambyses, son of Cyrus the Great. Open the book at random, and on any page you’ll find either an eye-popping marvel or a desperate adventure.

Warning: once you start reading Herodotus, you’ll find it very hard to stop. And I defy you to read it only once. I come back to it again and again, every few years.

If we had a cottage by the bay, and a stretch of rainy winter nights too cold for fishing, my wife and I agree that nothing would suit us better than to have old Herodotus visit for a time and treat us to several dozen hours of his tales.

No fantasy writer who ever lived was able to top Herodotus for flights of the imagination.


The Wacky World of Herodotus

What do you say about a guy whose books are still in print 2,400 years after he wrote them? Who has two nicknames–“the father of History” and “the father of lies”?

Herodotus wrote the history of the wars between Greece and Persia, but people still read him for all the cool stuff he included in his “researches.” What kind of cool stuff? How about: giant ants as big as dogs; gold guarded by griffins; female warriors; how to practice the art of mummification; bedroom politics in the Persian royal court; incredibly barbaric  customs of people you never heard of?

All this and more!

I’ve been re-reading Herodotus lately. The man couldn’t pass up a tall tale. Some of them are even true.

For those who like to read fantasy, the “real world” described herein is not too far removed from the worlds of Narnia or the Arabian Nights. And for those who want to write fantasy–well, you won’t find many better role models than Herodotus.


%d bloggers like this: