Clinton K.

Clinton Kinkade

Title The Role of the Divine in Herodotean Characterization


Emily Baragwanath begins her 2015 Essay, “Characterization in Herodotus,”  with the claim that “Herodotus is constantly concerned to depict frames of mind and psychology and to indicate the myriad forces that by shaping character influence human motivation and action” (18). One of the forces that she hints at in this paper is the role of the divine in shaping characters’ motivations, a force that we have seen most recently and vividly in the divine apparition of Book 7 but also through such media as prophecies and omens. Such divine forces can provoke a radical change in a character’s frame of mind (as in the case of Artabanus and the divine dream) but also bolster a character’s motivations (as in Croesus’ reliance upon the Delphic prophecies).

I am interested in exploring the different ways these divine forces color our understanding of how character is expressed in Herodotus, especially by considering to what extent the motivations behind moral actions can have significance in a seemingly deterministic world governed by divine will and prophecy. Given the similarities that Baragwanath points out between Herodotus’ methods of characterization and those seen in Attic tragedy (and also epic poetry) it may also be worthwhile to consider how much the interaction between divine will and mortal motivations differs across these genres.

Annotated Bibliography

* Baragwanath, E. (2015). “Characterization in Herodotus.” In Fame and Infamy: Essays on Characterization in Greek and Roman Biography and Historiography, 17-37. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gives an analysis of the methods Herodotus uses to portray characterization in his history, how it tends to be shown more through the speeches and actions (especially patterns of action) of historical characters rather than through direct authorial assertion. It shows how, for example, Herodotus juxtaposes character and phusis or nomoi to highlight potential relationships between the two factors. Most importantly Baragwanath shows how, in Herodotus character is often overdetermined and conflicting, leading the reader to an ambivalent position in which they may question the connection between character and action. Understanding how Herodotus constructs character (or asks the reader to construct it) in general will provide the necessary background for how he does it in the realm of the divine in particular. She also brings up the important similarities between Herodotus’ characterization method and that of tragedy.

* Barker, E. (2006). “Paging the oracle: interpretation, identity and performance in Herodotus’ History.” Greece and Rome 53 (1): 1-28.

Focuses on the use and interpretation of oracles in Herodotus largely from a performative perspective, showing how Herodotus presents oracles in such a way as to get his readers engaged in the process of interpreting them just as the characters in his history do. This is done, Barker argues, as a way for Herodotus to speak authoritatively as an author without the institutional authority afforded to other genres like epic.  By inviting the reader to engage directly with the process of interpreting oracles like his characters, he shifts some of the authority from himself to them, mitigating any fears as to his ability to speak on such material. In more general terms he also discusses how receiving oracles is inherently an agonistic process, requiring interpretation due to their ambiguity, though this reputation may be the creation of figures like Herodotus and Heraclitus rather than one belonging to the historical oracle at Delphi. He uses the specific examples of Croesus, the Spartans and the bones of Orestes, and the Athenians with the wooden wall to discuss how oracles ought to be interpreted and how Herodotus gets the reader involved in the investigation. This article may be useful if I continue my intention to start looking at Croesus’ interpretation of his dream and how his reaction to that divine intervention relates to the later and more famous story of his reaction to the oracles from Delphi.

* Blok, J. H. (2000). “Phye’s procession: culture, politics and Peisistratid rule.” In Peisistratos and the tyranny: a reappraisal of the evidence, 17-48. Amsterdam: J. C. Gieben.

This article ended up being much less useful than originally hoped, as it offers more of a historical reconstruction of the events of the Peisistratid dynasty and the Phye procession in particular rather than a critique of Herodotus’ historiographical craft with regard to that event. I may look back to this paper, though, for information regarding how Herodotus describes Peisistratus making use of oracles during his lifetime.

* Boedeker D. (1988). “Protesilaos and the end of Herodotus’ Histories.” Classical Antiquity 7: 30-48.

Provides a close reading of the logos of Artayktes at the end of the Herodotus’ work, a logos that I may wish to investigate as an instance of mortal-divine interaction occurring at a crucial point in the composition of the histories. Issues discussed here are resonances between the deeds and eventual punishment of Artayktes and the myth of Protesilaos (as preserved outside Herodotus), the purpose of this logos at the end of the work, and the extent to which divine punishment is ever actually performed by divine forces in Herodotus (i.e., Artayktes here is actually crucified by the Athenians). Particularly interesting for me is the notion that Herodotus chooses to center this interpretation of a divine omen around a relatively minor character, Artayktes, who serves as both a literal and figurative proxy for Xerxes. To what extent can his characterization of Artayktes be forced to reflect back onto Xerxes through the positioning of this logos both before and after the Persian expedition into Greece?

* Byre, C. S. (2004). “Failed inquiry: Xerxes and his scout in Herodotus 7.208-209.” Mouseion 4 (1): 1-16.

Byre’s argument here is that Herodotus emphasizes proper inquiry and understanding of divine will and human nature as a tool for judging human character and that Xerxes serves as a strong example of an individual that Herodotus characterizes negatively due to his inability to do so. This is due to Xerxes’ actions before the expedition (being subject to cherry-picked prophecies, ignoring or misinterpreting strange omens, not understanding Mardonius’ motivations, etc.) and especially at Thermopylae where, after asking a scout to investigate the Spartans, he shows a marked inadequacy in how he performs an inquiry and how he reacts to the information that he receives. Byre does not comment too much here on Herodotus’ conception of the divine, except to say that, for Herodotus, concepts of free will/human responsibility cannot be cleanly divided from divine will/predestination, meaning that Byre does not find it contradictory for Herodotus to speak of both simultaneously. This article offers a worthwhile case study for one look at how Herodotus characterizes one of the most famous individuals of his work in light of his interactions with the divine world. One possible step forward for this work would be to consider where these divine interactions fall on the timeline of Xerxes’ invasion and whether Herodotus uses the different divine media (oracles, omens, dreams, sacrilege) in different ways within the work.

Chiasson, C. C. (2003). “Herodotus’ Use of Attic Tragedy in the Lydian Logos.” Classical Antiquity 22 (1): 5-35.

* de Jong, I. J. F. (2006). “Herodotus and the dream of Cambyses (Hist. 3. 30, 61-65)” in Land of Dreams: Greek and Latin studies in honour of A.H.M. Kessels, 3-17, edited by A. P. M. H. Lardinois, M. G. M. van der Poel and V. J. C. Hunink. Leiden: Brill.

An analysis of the dream of Cambyses that leads to the death of his brother Smerdis, particularly how it fits within the models for dreams presented by prior scholars and what the dream tells us about Herodotus’ opinion of the gods and their hand in fate. This article is most useful in offering a summary of how dreams are discussed elsewhere in Greek literature and the sorts of models that are used to describe them (e.g., symbolic vs. messenger dreams, the five elements of point of time, dream, reaction, fulfillment and evaluation), using Cambyses’ dream here as an example. Most importantly she points out how defining the dream along these lines helps us to understand what Herodotus is trying to say here by including the dream (something that she insists is important due to its absence from the Behistun inscription that records the same historical event). She also interrogates what this outcome tells us about Herodotus’ opinion of the gods and fate: in short, why did the gods send the dream to Cambyses? After evaluating the claims presented by previous scholars, she leans towards the idea that it represents a fatalistic-tragic view, in which the gods are not just concerned with bringing fate to its necessary conclusion, but also in getting individuals involved in their own fate, increasing their responsibility. She does acknowledge, though, the tension between these various viewpoints (fatalistic, moralistic, tragic) on the involvement of the gods and fate through the media of dreams. A very useful paper that I would like to build off of for my investigation of Croesus’ role as the first to receive a prominent dream in the work.

* Desmond, W. (2004). “Punishments and the conclusion of Herodotus’ Histories.” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 44 (1): 19-40.

Less helpful than originally anticipated, although it does offer a different perspective on the end of Herodotus’ work, seeing its use of repeated punishments in the final sections of the work as a microcosm of the way that Herodotus treats the theme of punishment (and many other themes) throughout the work as a whole. However, I find his use of the theme of punishment somewhat Procrustean at times, especially when he tries to apply it to the final logos of Artembares (is there later degeneration, despite Cyrus’ advice, really a “punishment”?). He is also more assertive than other authors (such as Boedeker (1988) or Baragwanath (2015)) in the extent to which he believes Herodotus truly believes in divine intervention in mortal affairs. I will need to come to some consensus of just how much Herodotus believes the gods are really getting involved in things.

* Fowler, R. L. (2010). “Gods in early Greek Historiography.” In The gods of ancient Greece: identities and transformations, 318-334, edited by J. Bremmer and A. Erskine. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Offers a perspective on how the gods interact with the world of Herodotus’ histories and what thought process of Herodotus lies behind this particular presentation. Fowler shows how Herodotus’ choice to depict the gods as distant and disconnected (either through the reliability of reports concerning them or through the means by which they interact with humans) sets him apart not only from other genres, which show the gods openly acting on the stage of the text, but also other historiographers, who still allow for direct divine intervention through intermarriage or other means. Fowler sees this understanding of the divine as a part of Herodotus’ overall historiographical project of asking “what is history.” Understanding Herodotus’ perspective on the divine is essential to understanding how the handling of divine matters characterizes the individuals of Herodotus’ history.

* Harrison, T. (2002). Divinity and History: The Religion of Herodotus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

I haven’t yet worked through this entire book, but I have read the Introduction as well as the chapters on fate and human responsibility and on oracles and divination. In the introduction Harrison lays out the basic intent of the book as an attempt to understand Herodotus’ religious beliefs  and worldview, largely in order to refute the trend of modern scholars who would consider Herodotus to be more of a skeptic and see his expression of divine matters as a distraction from the more “historical” parts of his work or as accommodations to popular religious belief that he himself does not hold. Harrison is keen to show what traditional views Herodotus does maintain and, more importantly, how he manages to maintain them in light of the occasional contradictions and skepticism that he raises. Harrison’s work is useful in that it takes Herodotus’ religious convictions seriously and does not attempt to separate the “historical” elements from the “entertaining” ones and also in that he brings forward a vast store of examples from throughout the work that speak to different aspects of the divine and man’s relation to it. Where the work becomes more problematic for me in particular is Harrison’s reluctance to see any sort of rationalization behind Herodotus’ religious convictions. In resisting the portrait of an overly (even “sinisterly”, as Harrison himself says (1)) clever Herodotus, Harrison does not go the extra step of trying to synthesize the information he has gathered or show how these vast swaths of examples correlate. He calls Herodotus’ worldview on fate an “unrationalized collection of attitudes and responses” (228) and in speaking of oracles and divination says, “Any attempt to excavate the network of such principles will tend to lend them an artificial impression of coherence” (156). And so while Harrison’s work useful in its categorization of divine material in Herodotus (especially of examples that I had not been so familiar with) I believe that his refusal to see any method behind Herodotus’ religious thought leaves much lacking. Herodotus may have been an average Greek in some respects, but we must believe that his position as a historian and the care with which he has collected his material and composed his work must have led him to think critically about the relationship between man and the divine (especially given the sheer quantity of divine material, as Harrison’s work itself shows) and to choose to express that relationship in different ways throughout his work. Thus I hope to make much use of Harrison’s examples, but I will try to expect more from Herodotus’ work than “an unrationalized collection of attitudes and responses.”

* Holt, P. (1998). “Sex, tyranny, and Hippias’ incest dream: (Herodotos 6.107).” Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies 39 (3): 221-241.

One of several articles that I looked at for examples of how the various dreams in Herodotus have been interpreted and how Herodotus uses this particular kind of divine interaction within the work. In it Holt claims that Hippias’ incest dream is supposed to remind the readers of tyrannical sexual practices and, more specifically, the acts of Hippias’ father Peisistratus. Thus Herodotus characterizes Hippias as a “would-be” tyrant on the eve of his landing at Marathon, one made more forceful by the fact that Peisistratus himself landed at Marathon when he returned to Athens. Holt dedicates more space here to how we should see the particular act of committing incest with one’s mother as a tyrannical act than to what Herodotus’ inclusion of the dream here says about Hippias or the story in general, but it’s a useful comparandum for the type of paper I might write.

* Hornblower, S. (2001). “Epic and epiphanies: Herodotus and the new Simonides.” In The new Simonides: contexts of praise and desire, 135-147, edited by D. Boedeker and D. Sider. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This article was largely interested in a discussion of new Simonides papyrus fragments and the poetic description of the battle of Plataea that some contain, for which Herodotus serves as a useful comparandum. In distinguishing the genres of poetry and history, Hornblower points to their differing use of ephiphany as a guide, with poetry employing more direct and personal epiphanies that “forward the action” of the work while history uses more subtle epiphanies in parts of the work that do not directly impact the main action (cp. Scullion’s (2006) distinction between Herodotus’ two conceptions of the divine in his work). His main piece of evidence is the two works’ descriptions of how the Dioscuri accompanied the Spartans into battle, with Simonides describing the Dioscuri going with the army in person (along with Menelaus) while Herodotus says it was their statues or images that went with the army. Not so useful to the general scope of this article, but it does have a useful discussion of epiphanies in Herodotus in general and how the Pan episode stands out among them as being unusually “poetic” in its form, which may be useful as a way of talking about one type of divine interaction and how Herodotus uses it within his work.

* Mikalson, J. (2002). “Religion in Herodotus.” In Brill’s Companion to Herodotus, 187-198, edited by E. J. Bakker, I. J. F. de Jong, and H. van Wees. Boston: Brill.

Like the article beneath by Scullion (2006), this offers a general overview of Herodotus’ perspective on Greek religion, this one differing in that it portrays Herodotus as reflecting a more popular conception of Greek religion, focused not so much on “beliefs” or on a poetic or philosophical conception (as Scullion does) but rather on the prayers, vows, sacrifices, and dedications that Herodotus describes the Greeks as making. Mikalson states that Herodotus offers an explicitly religious explanation for the causes of the Persian war and its outcomes, a position that stands slightly at odds with Scullion’s perspective. For this argument he points to the burning of the sanctuaries by both the Greeks and the Persians, Xerxes’ deeds at the Hellespont, and Themistocles’ speech to the Greeks that the gods would punish Xerxes and his army for their impiety. He also points to how frequently Herodotus describes the Greeks as attributing certain outcomes to the gods (the destruction of the Persian fleet at Artemision, for example) and then dedicating to these gods. This article offers a good counter-perspective to the more skeptical position that Scullion takes, though I believe it is overly simplistic in assuming that Herodotus simply shares the opinions of the Greeks that he describes and that he, as a historian, simply records the facts as they are without any form of interference. Specifically, Mikalson makes nothing of the fact that the idea that the Persians will be punished for their impiety is not brought forward by Herodotus himself, but rather by Themistocles in a speech designed to persuade the Greeks, as pointed out by Scullion. Mikalson’s article is helpful, though, in pointing out the variety of ways that the divine can be interacted with (oracles, omens, manteis, dreams, direct retribution, etc.) and lists many of the relevant examples.

* Pelling, C. (1996). “The Urine and the Vine: Astyages’ Dreams at Herodotus 1.107-8.” The Classical Quarterly 46 (1): 68-77.

Analyzes the narrative logic of Astyages’ two dreams (his daughter urinating and flooding Asian and then the vine growing from her genitals) and his shifting actions (first to marry her off to someone unimportant and then to kill the child). Pelling emphasizes that Herodotus has not confused his sources here in reporting two different dreams with very different responses, but rather shows that the dream of the urine would have been understood to be ambiguous, and only the later dream proved to be a definite threat. He also shows that Herodotus is not merely echoing his sources, but that he has a deliberate hand here in making the pair of dreams more unified, as can be seen in his diminishing of the character of Cambyses and not mentioning what exactly the advisers had told Cambyses in response to his first dream, making his decision to marry his daughter to Cambyses a less suspicious one. At the end of the paper he comments on some of the resonances that this incident and its aftermath has within the text and outside of it: repeated dreaming (Xerxes and Artabanus), tragic irony of dreams (Croesus and Atys), divided/troubled households (Deianeira, banquet of Thyestes, return of Oedipus). He doesn’t go into great detail here about the impact of all of these resonances, but he hints at the notion that Herodotus presents simplified versions of events earlier in the work that become more elaborate and nuanced later on, which may be worth pursuing in an investigation of Croesus and his dream.

* Scullion, S. (2006). “Herodotus and Greek religion.” In The Cambridge Companion to Herodotus, 192-208, edited by C. Dewald and J. Marincola. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Attempts to probe Herodotus’ feelings with regard to Greek religion, specifically grouping him in the skeptical theological school of Protagoras and others. This is based largely on Scullion’s argument that Herodotus’ discussion of the divine can be broken into two separate types: a more abstract notion (a slightly personified conception of τυχη, as Scullion describes it) that comes up in the general course of the war, and an anthropomorphic conception of the divine (more in line with “normal” Greek understanding) that appears outside of the war narrative, especially in descriptions of divine retribution of sacrilege. He does not see the description of Xerxes’ bridging and punishment of the Hellespont as an instance of sacrilege, but rather compares it to Herodotus’ favorable descriptions of other bridging attempts and considers the punishment strictly an instance of Xerxes’ tyrannical outrage and hubris. To Scullion, Herodotus does not consider such a haughty act deserving of divine retribution by an anthropomorphized deity, but only more narrow acts of sacrilege, such as Artayktes’ abuse of Protesilaos. In general Scullion argues that Herodotus has difficulty accepting Greek polytheism as an active element of his historical project, but will consider it within the realm of possible νομοι to be respected. This article is useful for considering Herodotus’ perspective on Greek religion, but I’m not sure if I follow all of Scullion’s arguments, especially in that they rely partly on a somewhat arbitrary division of the work into the “general course of the war” and everything else. 

* Struck, P. (2003). “The Ordeal of the Divine Sign: Divination and Manliness in Archaic and Classical Greece.” In Andreia: Studies in manliness and courage in classical antiquity, 167-186. Leiden: Brill.

A look at one type of interaction with the divine (divination of omens, dreams, etc.) in different literary sources and how those interactions allow us to judge the andreia or “manliness” of the individuals performing the divination. Although the scope is limited to four instances from different genres (one from Herodotus, Themistocles and the “wooden wall”) and I take issue with some of the conclusions pertaining to the individuals in question, Struck raises several interesting points of interpretation that I may pursue, such as how to judge the conflict between the interpretations of those skilled in divination (e.g. χρησμολόγοι) and of the everyday man and the relationship between divine speech and human speech.

* van Lieshout, R. G. A. (1970). “A dream on a καιρος of history: An Analysis of Herodotos Hist. VII 12-19; 47.” Mnemosyne 23: 225-249.

An in-depth analysis of various aspects of the dream(s) shared by Artabanus and Xerxes on the eve of the expedition against Greece. Much of the space here is devoted to the language Herodotus uses to describe the dream (how did it appear, was it a man vs. a god, what did they actually see, etc.), the “ritual” used to cause its repetition, and the source of the dream (internal emotional state vs. external divine force vs. some combination). At the end he discusses how the dream factors into the rational considerations of whether or not to invade Greece, namely how it overrides those rational considerations in compelling Xerxes and Artabanus to complete the expedition. In this van Lieshout is taking a position contrary to that of some scholars (e.g., Harrison) in believing that the dream here is not deceptive but simply coercive and that Artabanus is responsible for mistaking the dream’s command as being an indication of the Persian success. He also comments on how the dream and its impact on the deliberations affects how we judge the actions of Xerxes and Artabanus on an ethical level, stating that we are invited here to judge Xerxes and Artabanus with regard to the proper anxiety and care that they take with regard to interpreting the portents of the gods which seem to control all of human fate, and that it is the presence or absence of this σωφροσυνη (or rather δεισιδαιμονια, as van Lieshout puts it) that allows us to judge some of their later actions.