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26 June, 2013
Letters To Dead Authors|
by Lang, Andrew
|To Herodotus of Halicarnassus, greeting.--Concerning the matters set
forth in your histories, and the tales you tell about both Greeks
and Barbarians, whether they be true, or whether they be false, men
dispute not little but a great deal. Wherefore I, being concerned
to know the verity, did set forth to make search in every manner,
and came in my quest even unto the ends of the earth. For there is
an island of the Cimmerians beyond the Straits of Heracles, some
three days' voyage to a ship that hath a fair following wind in her
sails; and there it is said that men know many things from of old:
thither, then, I came in my inquiry. Now, the island is not small,
but large, greater than the whole of Hellas; and they call it
Britain. In that island the east wind blows for ten parts of the
year, and the people know not how to cover themselves from the cold.
But for the other two months of the year the sun shines fiercely, so
that some of them die thereof, and others die of the frozen mixed
drinks; for they have ice even in the summer, and this ice they put
to their liquor. Through the whole of this island, from the west
even to the east, there flows a river called Thames: a great river
and a laborious, but not to be likened to the River of Egypt.
The mouth of this river, where I stepped out from my ship, is
exceedingly foul and of an evil savour by reason of the city on the
banks. Now this city is several hundred parasangs in circumference.
Yet a man that needed not to breathe the air might go round it in
one hour, in chariots that run under the earth; and these chariots
are drawn by creatures that breathe smoke and sulphur, such as
Orpheus mentions in his "Argonautica," if it be by Orpheus. The
people of the town, when I inquired of them concerning Herodotus of
Halicarnassus, looked on me with amazement, and went straightway
about their business--namely, to seek out whatsoever new thing is
coming to pass all over the whole inhabited world, and as for things
old, they take no keep of them.
Nevertheless, by diligence I learned that he who in this land knew
most concerning Herodotus was a priest, and dwelt in the priests'
city on the river which is called the City of the Ford of the Ox.
But whether Io, when she wore a cow's shape, had passed by that way
in her wanderings, and thence comes the name of that city, I could
not (though I asked all men I met) learn aught with certainty. But
to me, considering this, it seemed that Io must have come thither.
And now farewell to Io.
To the City of the Priests there are two roads: one by land; and
one by water, following the river. To a well-girdled man, the land
journey is but one day's travel; by the river it is longer but more
pleasant. Now that river flows, as I said, from the west to the
east. And there is in it a fish called chub, which they catch; but
they do not eat it, for a certain sacred reason. Also there is a
fish called trout, and this is the manner of his catching. They
build for this purpose great dams of wood, which they call weirs.
Having built the weir they sit upon it with rods in their hands, and
a line on the rod, and at the end of the line a little fish. There
then they "sit and spin in the sun," as one of their poets says, not
for a short time but for many days, having rods in their hands and
eating and drinking. In this wise they angle for the fish called
trout; but whether they ever catch him or not, not having seen it, I
cannot say; for it is not pleasant to me to speak things concerning
which I know not the truth.
Now, after sailing and rowing against the stream for certain days, I
came to the City of the Ford of the Ox. Here the river changes his
name, and is called Isis, after the name of the goddess of the
Egyptians. But whether the Britons brought the name from Egypt or
whether the Egyptians took it from the Britons, not knowing I prefer
not to say. But to me it seems that the Britons are a colony of the
Egyptians, or the Egyptians a colony of the Britons. Moreover, when
I was in Egypt I saw certain soldiers in white helmets, who were
certainly British. But what they did there (as Egypt neither
belongs to Britain nor Britain to Egypt) I know not, neither could
they tell me. But one of them replied to me in that line of Homer
(if the Odyssey be Homer's), "We have come to a sorry Cyprus, and a
sad Egypt." Others told me that they once marched against the
Ethiopians, and having defeated them several times, then came back
again, leaving their property to the Ethiopians. But as to the
truth of this I leave it to every man to form his own opinion.
Having come into the City of the Priests, I went forth into the
street, and found a priest of the baser sort, who for a piece of
silver led me hither and thither among the temples, discoursing of
Now it seemed to me a strange thing that the city was empty, and no
man dwelling therein, save a few priests only, and their wives, and
their children, who are drawn to and fro in little carriages dragged
by women. But the priest told me that during half the year the city
was desolate, for that there came somewhat called "The Long," or
"The Vac," and drave out the young priests. And he said that these
did no other thing but row boats, and throw balls from one to the
other, and this they were made to do, he said, that the young
priests might learn to be humble, for they are the proudest of men.
But whether he spoke truth or not I know not, only I set down what
he told me. But to anyone considering it, this appears rather to
jump with his story--namely, that the young priests have houses on
the river, painted of divers colours, all of them empty.
Then the priest, at my desire, brought me to one of the temples,
that I might seek out all things concerning Herodotus the
Halicarnassian, from one who knew. Now this temple is not the
fairest in the city, but less fair and goodly than the old temples,
yet goodlier and more fair than the new temples; and over the roof
there is the image of an eagle made of stone--no small marvel, but a
great one, how men came to fashion him; and that temple is called
the House of Queens. Here they sacrifice a boar once every year;
and concerning this they tell a certain sacred story which I know
but will not utter.
Then I was brought to the priest who had a name for knowing most
about Egypt, and the Egyptians, and the Assyrians, and the
Cappadocians, and all the kingdoms of the Great King. He came out
to me, being attired in a black robe, and wearing on his head a
square cap. But why the priests have square caps I know, and he who
has been initiated into the mysteries which they call "Matric"
knows, but I prefer not to tell. Concerning the square cap, then,
let this be sufficient. Now, the priest received me courteously,
and when I asked him, concerning Herodotus, whether he were a true
man or not, he smiled and answered "Abu Goosh," which, in the tongue
of the Arabians, means "The Father of Liars." Then he went on to
speak concerning Herodotus, and he said in his discourse that
Herodotus not only told the thing which was not, but that he did so
wilfully, as one knowing the truth but concealing it. For example,
quoth he, "Solon never went to see Croesus, as Herodotus avers; nor
did those about Xerxes ever dream dreams; but Herodotus, out of his
abundant wickedness, invented these things."
"Now behold," he went on, "how the curse of the Gods falls upon
Herodotus. For he pretends that he saw Cadmeian inscriptions at
Thebes. Now I do not believe there were any Cadmeian inscriptions
there: therefore Herodotus is most manifestly lying. Moreover,
this Herodotus never speaks of Sophocles the Athenian, and why not?
Because he, being a child at school, did not learn Sophocles by
heart: for the tragedies of Sophocles could not have been learned
at school before they were written, nor can any man quote a poet
whom he never learned at school. Moreover, as all those about
Herodotus knew Sophocles well, he could not appear to them to be
learned by showing that he knew what they knew also." Then I
thought the priest was making game and sport, saying first that
Herodotus could know no poet whom he had not learned at school, and
then saying that all the men of his time well knew this poet, "about
whom everyone was talking." But the priest seemed not to know that
Herodotus and Sophocles were friends, which is proved by this, that
Sophocles wrote an ode in praise of Herodotus.
Then he went on, and though I were to write with a hundred hands
(like Briareus, of whom Homer makes mention) I could not tell you
all the things that the priest said against Herodotus, speaking
truly, or not truly, or sometimes correctly and sometimes not, as
often befalls mortal men. For Herodotus, he said, was chiefly
concerned to steal the lore of those who came before him, such as
Hecataeus, and then to escape notice as having stolen it. Also he
said that, being himself cunning and deceitful, Herodotus was easily
beguiled by the cunning of others, and believed in things manifestly
false, such as the story of the Phoenix-bird.
Then I spoke, and said that Herodotus himself declared that he could
not believe that story; but the priest regarded me not. And he said
that Herodotus had never caught a crocodile with cold pig, nor did
he ever visit Assyria, nor Babylon, nor Elephantine; but, saying
that he had been in these lands, said that which was not true. He
also declared that Herodotus, when he travelled, knew none of the
Fat Ones of the Egyptians, but only those of the baser sort. And he
called Herodotus a thief and a beguiler, and "the same with intent
to deceive," as one of their own poets writes. And, to be short,
Herodotus, I could not tell you in one day all the charges which are
now brought against you; but concerning the truth of these things,
YOU know, not least, but most, as to yourself being guilty or
innocent. Wherefore, if you have anything to show or set forth
whereby you may be relieved from the burden of these accusations,
now is the time. Be no longer silent; but, whether through the
Oracle of the Dead, or the Oracle of Branchidae, or that in Delphi,
or Dodona, or of Amphiaraus at Oropus, speak to your friends and
lovers (whereof I am one from of old) and let men know the very
Now, concerning the priests in the City of the Ford of the Ox, it is
to be said that of all men whom we know they receive strangers most
gladly, feasting them all day. Moreover, they have many drinks,
cunningly mixed, and of these the best is that they call Archdeacon,
naming it from one of the priests' offices. Truly, as Homer says
(if the Odyssey be Homer's), "when that draught is poured into the
bowl then it is no pleasure to refrain."
Drinking of this wine, or nectar, Herodotus, I pledge you, and pour
forth some deal on the ground, to Herodotus of Halicarnassus, in the
House of Hades.
And I wish you farewell, and good be with you. Whether the priest
spoke truly, or not truly, even so may such good things betide you
as befall dead men.