The Curious Case of Herodotus’ India

Herodotus 3.98-102

“The great amount of gold which the Indians are said to 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


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.

Herodotus, 3. 102-105

“Other Indians live near the city Kaspatyrus and the Paktyic country, north of the rest of Indian, and these Indians live most like the Bactrians and are most bellicose. These are the Indians sent for gold in the area made desolate by the sands.

In that desert there are ants who are not quite as large as dogs but are larger than foxes. There are even some of these who have been caught and taken to the Persian king. These ants make their home underground, digging sand the way ants do in Greece—and they are similar in shape—but the sand they carry up is mostly gold.

Indians are sent into the desert for this sand. They yoke three camels together each, tying a female in between two males—the rider sits atop her, and she was harnessed as soon as possible after giving birth. Their camels are no less speedy than horses, but they are better at carrying burdens. I won’t describe what a camel looks like, because the Greeks know these things; but they don’t know this: the rear-legs of a camel have four thighbones and four knees; their genitals are turned back near the tail between their rear-legs.

The Indians use these camel teams and drive toward collecting the gold when the weather is hottest, because this is when the ants are out of sight under the ground. In this part of India, the sun is hottest in the morning and near noon like other places, but right from sunrise until dusk. During this time it burns hotter than in Greece at noon,  so the story is that men drip water on themselves during this time. At noon, the sun’s heat is almost the same for the Indians as it is for other people. After noon, the sun has the power it has in the morning in other lands. It cools as it sets, making it very cold at sunset.

When the Indians come to this land with their sacks, they fill them with sand as fast as possible and drive back again. For as soon as the ants smell them, as the Persians report, they chase them. They claim that there is nothing equal to their speed with the result that if the Indians do not start well ahead, none of them will escape. They cut the male camels out because they are slower once they begin to hold back. The females never get tired, because they remember the offspring they have let behind. This is the story. The Persians claim that the Indians gather most of their gold this way. The do get some from their own lands, but rather less.”

Herodotus’ Ants Make B-Movie Gold (from Them!, 1954)

. ῎Αλλοι δὲ τῶν ᾿Ινδῶν Κασπατύρῳ τε πόλι καὶ τῇ Πακτυϊκῇ χώρῃ εἰσὶ πρόσοικοι, πρὸς ἄρκτου τε καὶ βορέω ἀνέμου κατοικημένοι τῶν ἄλλων ᾿Ινδῶν, οἳ Βακτρίοισι παραπλησίην ἔχουσι δίαιταν. Οὗτοι καὶ μαχιμώτατοί εἰσι ᾿Ινδῶν καὶ οἱ ἐπὶ τὸν χρυσὸν στελλόμενοί εἰσι οὗτοι· κατὰ γὰρ τοῦτό ἐστιἐρημίη διὰ τὴν ψάμμον.

᾿Εν δὴ ὦν τῇ ἐρημίῃ ταύτῃ καὶ τῇ ψάμμῳ γίνονται μύρμηκες μεγάθεα ἔχοντες κυνῶν μὲν ἐλάσσω, ἀλωπέκων δὲ μέζω· εἰσὶ γὰρ αὐτῶν καὶ παρὰ βασιλέϊ τῷ Περσέων ἐνθεῦτεν θηρευθέντες. Οὗτοι ὦν οἱ μύρμηκες ποιεύμενοι οἴκησιν ὑπὸ γῆν ἀναφέρουσι [τὴν] ψάμμον κατά περ οἱ ἐν τοῖσι ῞Ελλησι μύρμηκες κατὰ τὸν αὐτὸν τρόπον, εἰσὶ δὲ καὶ τὸ εἶδος ὁμοιότατοι· ἡ δὲ ψάμμος ἡ ἀναφερομένη ἐστὶ χρυσῖτις. ᾿Επὶ δὴ ταύτην τὴν ψάμμον στέλλονται ἐς τὴν ἔρημον οἱ ᾿Ινδοί, ζευξάμενος ἕκαστος καμήλους τρεῖς, σειρηφόρον μὲν ἑκατέρωθεν ἔρσενα παρέλκειν, θήλεαν δὲ ἐς μέσον· ἐπὶ ταύτην δὴ αὐτὸς ἀναβαίνει, ἐπιτηδεύσας ὅκως ἀπὸ τέκνων ὡς νεωτάτων ἀποσπάσας ζεύξει· αἱ γάρ σφι κάμηλοι ἵππων οὐκ ἥσσονες ἐς ταχυτῆτά εἰσι· χωρὶς δὲ ἄχθεα δυνατώτεραι πολλὸν φέρειν. Τὸ μὲν δὴ εἶδος ὁκοῖόν τι ἔχει ἡ κάμηλος, ἐπισταμένοισι τοῖσι ῞Ελλησι οὐ συγγράφω· τὸ δὲ μὴ ἐπιστέαται αὐτῆς, τοῦτο φράσω· κάμηλος ἐν τοῖσι ὀπισθίοισι σκέλεσι ἔχει τέσσερας μηροὺς καὶ γού-νατα τέσσερα, τά τε αἰδοῖα διὰ τῶν ὀπισθίων σκελέων πρὸς τὴν οὐρὴν τετραμμένα. Οἱ δὲ δὴ ᾿Ινδοὶ τρόπῳ τοιούτῳ καὶ ζεύξι τοιαύτῃ χρεώμενοι ἐλαύνουσι ἐπὶ τὸν χρυσὸν λελογισμένως ὅκως [ἂν] καυμάτων τῶν θερμοτάτων ἐόντων ἔσον-ται ἐν τῇ ἁρπαγῇ· ὑπὸ γὰρ τοῦ καύματος οἱ μύρμηκες ἀφανέες γίνονται ὑπὸ γῆν. Θερμότατος δέ ἐστι ὁ ἥλιος τούτοισι τοῖσι ἀνθρώποισι τὸ ἑωθινόν, οὐ κατά περ τοῖσι ἄλλοισι μεσαμβρίης, ἀλλ’ ὑπερτείλας μέχρις οὗ ἀγορῆς δια-λύσιος· τοῦτον δὲ τὸν χρόνον καίει πολλῷ μᾶλλον ἢ τῇ μεσαμβρίῃ τὴν ῾Ελλάδα, οὕτω ὥστε ἐν ὕδατι λόγος αὐτούς ἐστι βρέχεσθαι τηνικαῦτα· μεσοῦσα δὲ ἡ ἡμέρη σχεδὸν παραπλησίως καίει τούς <τε> ἄλλους ἀνθρώπους καὶ τοὺς ᾿Ινδούς· ἀποκλινομένης δὲ τῆς μεσαμβρίης γίνεταί σφι ὁ  ἥλιος κατά περ τοῖσι ἄλλοισι ὁ ἑωθινός· καὶ τὸ ἀπὸ τούτου ἀπιὼν ἐπὶ μᾶλλον ψύχει, ἐς ὃ ἐπὶ δυσμῇσι ἐὼν καὶ τὸ κάρτα ψύχει. ᾿Επεὰν δὲ ἔλθωσι ἐς τὸν χῶρον οἱ ᾿Ινδοὶ ἔχοντες θυλάκια, ἐμπλήσαντες ταῦτα τῆς ψάμμου τὴν ταχίστην ἐλαύνουσι ὀπίσω· αὐτίκα γὰρ οἱ μύρμηκες ὀδμῇ, ὡς δὴ λέγεται ὑπὸ Περσέων, μαθόντες διώκουσι. Εἶναι δὲ ταχυτῆτα οὐδενὶ ἑτέρῳ ὅμοιον, οὕτω ὥστε, εἰ μὴ προλαμβάνειν τοὺς ᾿Ινδοὺς τῆς ὁδοῦ ἐν ᾧ τοὺς μύρμηκας συλλέγεσθαι, οὐδένα ἄν σφεων ἀποσῴζεσθαι. Τοὺς μέν νυν ἔρσενας τῶν καμήλων, εἶναι γὰρ ἥσσονας θέειν τῶν θηλέων, παρα-λύεσθαι ἐπελκομένους, οὐκ ὁμοῦ ἀμφοτέρους· τὰς δὲ θηλέας ἀναμιμνησκομένας τῶν ἔλιπον τέκνων ἐνδιδόναι μαλακὸν οὐδέν. Τὸν μὲν δὴ πλέω τοῦ χρυσοῦ οὕτω οἱ ᾿Ινδοὶ κτῶνται, ὡς Πέρσαι φασί· ἄλλος δὲ σπανιώτερός ἐστι ἐν τῇ χώρῃ ὀρυσσόμενος.

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