Many Different People and Languages: Herodotus on India (Part 1)

Herodotus 3.98-102

“The great amount of gold which the Indians are said gather from dust for the Great King they gather in the following way. There is sand to the east of India where the sun rises. Of all those people we know of, even those of whom something certain may be said, they Indians well nearest the sun and its rays of the people in Asia. The part of India near the sun is deserted because of the sand.

There are many different peoples in India and they do not share a language. Some are nomads; some are not. Some live in the marches of rivers and eat raw fish which they catch while sailing on reed-boats. Each boat is made of a single piece of reed. These Indians bear clothes made of rush. When they harvest these rushes from the river, they weave them the weave would a mat and don them like breastplates.

Other Indians who live nearer to the sun than these and are nomads, they eat raw flesh and are called Padaei. They are reported as following these customs. Whenever one of their citizens is ill, whether it is a woman or a man, they men who live near him kill him, claiming that he will be ruined for meat by the sickness. Though the man himself denies that he is sick, they ignore him, kill him, and eat him up. When a woman is sick, just as with the men her closest friends kill her. They also sacrifice and eat a man who reaches old age—though few ever make it to this point, since most are killed when they get sick.

There are other Indians who kill nothing that lives, plant no seeds, and live in no houses.  They eat grass.  They have a great grain, near the size of millet, which grows by itself from the earth–they gather with the husk and boil it to eat. Whenever one of them grows sick, he goes into the desert and no one knows if he is sick or dies.

The Indians I have mentioned have sex in plain sight like animals and they have skin like the Ethiopians. Their seed which they release into women is not white like the rest of men but it is black like their skins, another similarity with the Ethiopians. These Indians live far to the south of the Persians and were not ruled by Darius.”


Τὸν δὲ χρυσὸν τοῦτον τὸν πολλὸν οἱ ᾿Ινδοί, ἀπ’ οὗ τὸ ψῆγμα τῷ βασιλέϊ τὸ εἰρημένον κομίζουσι, τρόπῳ τοιῷδε κτῶνται. ῎Εστι τῆς ᾿Ινδικῆς χώρης τὸ πρὸς ἥλιον ἀνίσχοντα ψάμμος· τῶν γὰρ ἡμεῖς ἴδμεν, τῶν καὶ πέρι ἀτρεκές τι λέγεται, πρῶτοι πρὸς ἠῶ καὶ ἡλίου ἀνατολὰς οἰκέουσι ἀνθρώπων τῶν ἐν τῇ ᾿Ασίῃ ᾿Ινδοί· ᾿Ινδῶν γὰρ τὸ πρὸς τὴν ἠῶ ἐρημίη ἐστὶ διὰ τὴν ψάμμον.

῎Εστι δὲ πολλὰ ἔθνεα ᾿Ινδῶν καὶ οὐκ ὁμόφωνα σφίσι, καὶ οἱ μὲν αὐτῶν νομάδες εἰσί, οἱ δὲ οὔ, οἱ δὲ ἐν τοῖσι ἕλεσι οἰκέουσι τοῦ ποταμοῦ καὶ ἰχθῦς σιτέονται ὠμούς, τοὺς αἱρέουσι ἐκ πλοίων καλαμίνων ὁρμώμενοι· καλάμου δὲ ἓν γόνυ πλοῖον ἕκαστον ποιέεται. Οὗτοι μὲν δὴ τῶν ᾿Ινδῶν φορέουσι ἐσθῆτα φλοΐνην· ἐπεὰν ἐκ τοῦ ποταμοῦ φλοῦν  ἀμήσωνται καὶ κόψωσι, τὸ ἐνθεῦτεν φορμοῦ τρόπον κα-ταπλέξαντες ὡς θώρηκα ἐνδύνουσι. ῎Αλλοι δὲ τῶν ᾿Ινδῶν πρὸς ἠῶ οἰκέοντες τούτων νομάδες εἰσί, κρεῶν ἐδεσταὶ ὠμῶν, καλέονται δὲ Παδαῖοι. Νομαίοισι δὲ τοιοισίδε λέγονται χρᾶσθαι. ῝Ος ἂν κάμῃ τῶν ἀστῶν, ἤν τε γυνὴ ἤν τε ἀνήρ, τὸν μὲν ἄνδρα ἄνδρες οἱ μάλιστά οἱ ὁμιλέοντες κτείνουσι, φάμενοι αὐτὸν τηκόμενον τῇ νούσῳ τὰ κρέα σφίσι διαφθείρεσθαι· ὁ δὲ ἄπαρνός ἐστι μὴ μὲν νοσέειν, οἱ δὲ οὐ συγγινωσκόμενοι ἀποκτείναντες κατευωχέονται· ἣ δὲ ἂν γυνὴ κάμῃ, ὡσαύτως αἱ ἐπιχρεώμεναι μάλιστα γυναῖκες ταὐτὰ τοῖσι ἀνδράσι ποιεῦσι. Τὸν γὰρ δὴ ἐς γῆρας ἀπικόμενον θύσαντες κατευωχέονται. ᾿Ες δὲ τούτου λόγον οὐ πολλοί τινες αὐτῶν ἀπικνέονται· πρὸ γὰρ τοῦ τὸν ἐς νοῦσον πίπτοντα πάντα κτείνουσι. ῾Ετέρων δέ ἐστι ᾿Ινδῶν ὅδε ἄλλος τρόπος· οὔτε κτείνουσι οὐδὲν ἔμψυχον οὔτε τι σπείρουσι οὔτε οἰκίας νομίζουσι ἐκτῆσθαι ποιηφαγέουσί τε, καὶ αὐτοῖσι <ὄσπριόν τι> ἔστι ὅσον κέγχρος τὸ μέγαθος ἐν κάλυκι, αὐτόματον ἐκ τῆς γῆς γινόμενον, τὸ συλλέγοντεςαὐτῇ τῇ κάλυκι ἕψουσί τε καὶ σιτέονται. ῝Ος δ’ ἂν ἐς νοῦσον αὐτῶν πέσῃ, ἐλθὼν ἐς τὴν ἔρημον κεῖται· φροντίζει δὲ οὐδεὶς οὔτε ἀποθανόντος οὔτε κάμνοντος. Μίξις δὲ τούτων τῶν ᾿Ινδῶν τῶν κατέλεξα πάντων ἐμφανής ἐστι  κατά περ τῶν προβάτων, καὶ τὸ χρῶμα φορέουσι ὅμοιον πάντες καὶ παραπλήσιον Αἰθίοψι. ῾Η γονὴ δὲ αὐτῶν, τὴν ἀπίενται ἐς τὰς γυναῖκας, οὐ κατά περ τῶν ἄλλων ἀνθρώπων ἐστὶ λευκή, ἀλλὰ μέλαινα κατά περ τὸ χρῶμα· τοιαύτην δὲ καὶ Αἰθίοπες ἀπίενται θορήν. Οὗτοι μὲν τῶν ᾿Ινδῶν ἑκαστέρω τῶν Περσέων οἰκέουσι καὶ πρὸς νότου ἀνέμου καὶ Δαρείου βασιλέος οὐδαμὰ ὑπήκουσαν.

Dionysus Went to India and Came Back Changed

So, Sententiae Antiquae will be running a good number of reruns over the next few weeks—because I am going to India with the family. (My wife is from Tamil Nadu.) Herodotus’ passage is one of the earliest accounts we have of India—and it is interesting to note that some of the generalizations Herodotus made are still part of the ethnographic stereotypes westerners hold about India: it is hot, there’s gold, the people are a mixture of savage and civilized.

India drew Herodotus’ interest because of its status at a geographic extreme which facilitated its use as a setting for fantastic and unverifiable tales. When we mention going to India today, it functions as the ethnographic ‘exotic’ in both positive and negative ways (yoga! Holistic medicine! Ancient Wisdom! vs. poverty, pollution, gender inequality and more).

And Herodotus’ first line certainly stands as the most important one: a land of many different peoples with different languages. In Greek myth, Dionysus went there (whence his epithet Ἱνδολέτης, “Indian-slayer”). In history, India ‘broke’ Alexander. There is a lot more to say about Greek and Roman use of India in literature as the distant, exotic ‘other’, but the pattern remains mostly the same. It is really not until the end of the last century that representations of India began to gain some nuance in the west.

Other texts on India: anything on Alexander usually has some good material.

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