Sunday, 9 February 2014

Dress Down Sunday: The Histories by Herodotus



written between 450 and 420 BCE

this translation by Andrea L Purvis in 2007

Book 5


LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES







And on one day, [Periandros] had all the Corinthian women stripped of their clothing, for the sake of his own wife, Melissa. He had sent messengers to the Thesprotians on the Acheron River to consult the oracle of the dead there concerning a deposit of treasure belonging to a guest-friend. When Melissa appeared, she refused to tell him about it and said that she would not disclose where it was buried because she was cold and naked and could make no use of the clothes that had been buried with her since they had not been consumed by the fire. She said that the evidence for the truth of her claim was that Periandros had placed his loaves in a cold oven.

When her response was reported to Periandros, he found her token of its truth credible, for he had engaged in intercourse with Melissa’s corpse.

As soon as he heard the message, he made a proclamation announcing that all Corinthian women were to go to the sanctuary of Hera; and so they went there dressed in their finest clothes as though to attend a festival. Periandros had posted his bodyguards in ambush, and now he had the women stripped, both the free women and the servants alike. Then he gathered their clothes together and, taking them to a pit in the ground, said a prayer to Melissa and burned all the clothes completely. After doing that, he sent to consult Melissa a second time, and her ghost now told him the place where his guest-friend had deposited the treasure.

This, then, Lacedemonians, is what tyranny is like, and that is the sort of deeds it produces.



observations: We like a moral as much as the next person, but that’s not quite the one that we’d take from this story. And the reasons to resist tyranny are many and obvious, but don’t really include the fear that a ghost might complain to her husband that she has nothing to wear and he might then take this very obvious step.

It seems almost too much to add that Periandros had killed Melissa himself ‘perhaps accidentally’ – according to the footnotes:
the story goes that Periandros, after hearing false reports from concubines about his wife Melissa, gave way to anger and kicked her. She was pregnant and died.
This is a book full of seriously weird stories, but this one takes some kind of prize, with a special mention for the two sentences beginning ‘She said that the evidence for the truth of her claim…’

It would all make a very good No Clothes in Books entry. And is a good example of something we mentioned before: Herodotus gives the climax of the story first, then explains how it came about, contrary to modern ideas of dramatic tension.

For more Herodotus on the blog, click on the label below.

The image, from the athenaeum website, is The Women of Amphissa by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, who did very nicely out of pictures of lightly-draped classical women. The painting depicts an obscure story recorded by the first-century Greek writer Plutarch: a group of bacchantes from Phocis awaken after a night of celebrating the rites of Bacchus. They find themselves in the marketplace of Amphissa, a town at war with Phocis. The women of the town have been guarding the sleeping revelers, protecting them from attack by soldiers.

10 comments:

  1. Moira - Now that is an interesting approach to telling a story. And I have to say you're right; this is quite a weird story. It makes me wonder whether the translation had anything to do with some of the way this comes out. I mean, not the actual story (which is weird enough!) but the way it's expressed. Well, whether it did or didn't, this is definitely not your garden variety sort of story.

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    1. Yes - one of the reasons I like reading books like this is that sometimes it can seem quite modern, or understandable - and then something like this pops up to surprise and confound you....

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  2. Apologies another rain check here

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    1. Fair enough, though really, for hard-boiled gruesomeness and violence this book is hard to beat!

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  3. I love the image of the townswomen standing guard over the bacchantes, though they have a look of the Walking Dead...

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    1. I feel you could write whole books based on that picture, or a the very least run a few caption competitions.... some of their expressions are intriguing....

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  4. I am so excited I was able to recognize a painting by Alma-Tadema. I love his paintings.

    I think Herodotus is not for me.

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    1. I'm impressed by your art knowledge. He's an interesting painter, and I love this picture.

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  5. Rather different morals in Ancient Greece (or possibly Ancient Rome, depending on whether you suspect Herodotus made it up). Makes me wonder what people in 4500CE will think of our ideas...

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    1. Indeed. With Herodotus I decided just to go with the flow and not worry about truth. I like the way sometimes he tells a good story, and then says 'of course this isn't true.'

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