13 Bizarre Descriptions of the Ancient World According to Herodotus's Histories

iStock.com/shishic
iStock.com/shishic

Widely considered one of the first serious works of history, Histories—written in the 5th century BCE by the Greek scholar Herodotus—is a highly influential account of the Greco-Persian wars, and offers one of the best glimpses into ancient cultures. Herodotus was remarkably scrupulous with his research, traveling across Europe and the Middle East to interview countless people. “[M]y rule in this history is that I record what is said by all as I have heard it,” he’d write.

Unfortunately, many of those people, it appears, lied to his face: Despite its merits, Histories is stuffed with whimsical inaccuracies. Consequently, some scholars have given Herodotus—dubbed the “Father of History”—a second sobriquet: “The Father of Lies.” As Tom Holland, a Herodotus translator, told The Telegraph: “The Histories are a great shaggy-dog story.” Here are some colorful passages (some of which may stretch the truth).

1. It was an honor to be eaten after your (sacrificial) death.

Herodotus had this to say of the Massagetae, a group who lived east of the Caspian Sea. “[W]hen a man is very old, all his relatives give a party and include him in a general sacrifice of cattle; then they boil the flesh and eat it. This they consider to be the best sort of death. Those who die of disease are not eaten but buried, and it is held a misfortune not to have lived long enough to be sacrificed.”

2. Egyptians loved cats so much they’d save them from a burning building.

Any devout cat-lover can imagine the following scene: “What happens when a house catches fire is most extraordinary: Nobody takes the least trouble to put it out, for it is only the cats that matter: every one stands in a row, a little distance from his neighbor, trying to protect the cats.”

3. In fact, they mourned their pet's death by shaving their eyebrows.

Perhaps the Egyptians loved their pets a little too much: “All the inmates of a house where a cat has died a natural death shave their eyebrows, and when a dog dies they shave the whole body including the head.”

4. In Babylon, women were auctioned into marriage based on looks.

“Once a year all the girls of marriageable age used to be collected together in one place, while the men stood round them in a circle; an auctioneer then called each one in turn to stand up and offered her for sale, beginning with the best-looking and going on to the second best as soon as the first had been sold for a good price.” (However, Herodotus noted that this practice was obsolete by his time; as with his other "facts," the veracity is debated.)

5. The desert was full of gigantic, terrifying ants.

Herodotus had this to say about India: “There is found in this desert a kind of ant of great size bigger than a fox, though not so big as a dog … These creatures as they burrow underground throw up the sand in heaps, just as our own ants throw up the earth, and they are very much like ours in shape.” (In 1996, a team of explorers theorized that Herodotus's ants, which were also said to dig up gold, were actually large marmots—which have been known to kick up gold dust in an area near the Indus River as they build their burrows.)

6. And hippos were basically a big, leathery horse.

Consider this description of a hippo, which Herodotus clearly never saw: “This animal has four legs, cloven hoofs like an ox, a snub nose, a horse’s mane and tail, conspicuous tusks, a voice like a horse’s neigh, and is about the size of a very large ox. Its hide is so thick and tough that when dried it can be made into spear-shafts.” (To say the least, Histories is not a very good biology resource.)

7. In Babylon, strangers were required to give you unsolicited medical advice.

Babylon sounds like an ill introvert’s nightmare: “They have no doctors, but bring their invalids out into the street, where anyone who comes along offers the sufferer advice on his complaint, either from personal experience or observation or similar complaint in others … Nobody is allowed to pass a sick person in silence; but one must ask him what is the matter.”

8. The Persians were extremely good at delivering mail.

“No mortal thing travels faster than these Persian couriers," Herodotus writes. "The whole idea is a Persian invention, and works like this: riders are stationed along the road, equal in number to the number of days the journey takes—a man and a horse for each day. Nothing stops these couriers from covering their allotted stage in the quickest possible time—neither snow, rain, heat, nor darkness.” (If that sounds familiar, it's because these lines inspired the USPS’s unofficial "neither snow nor rain ..." motto [PDF]).

9. Some women in Libya wore adornments indicating their number of sexual conquests.

Herodotus describes the Gindane people of Libya like this: “The women of this tribe wear leather bands round their ankles, which are supposed to indicate the number of their lovers: each woman puts on one band for every man she has gone to bed with, so that whoever has the greatest number enjoys the greatest reputation because she has been loved by the greatest number of men.” (Incidentally, Herodotus also believed the Gindanes lived among the mythical Lotus Eaters, who were famous for their apathy.)

10. In Bulgaria, death was a cause for celebration!

According to Herodotus, the Trausi, a tribe living in the Rhodope mountains of southeastern Europe, celebrated birth and death a little differently: “When a baby is born the family sits round and mourns at the thought of the sufferings the infant must endure now that it has entered the world, and goes through the whole catalogue of human sorrows; but when somebody dies, they bury him with merriment and rejoicing, and point out how happy he now is and how many miseries he has at last escaped.”

11. Ethiopia was full of hole-dwelling people who shrieked like bats.

The Garamantes were a tribe in Libya. According to “The Father of History,” they passed their time by hunting quick-footed trolls: “[They] hunt the Ethiopian hole-men, or troglodytes, in four-horse chariots, for these troglodytes are exceedingly swift of foot—more so than any people of whom we have information. They eat snakes and lizards and other reptiles and speak a language like no other, but squeak like bats.”

12. Egyptians overcame baldness with the power of the sun.

“I noticed that the skulls of the Persians are so thin that the merest touch with a pebble will pierce them, but those of the Egyptians, on the other hand, are so tough that it is hardly possible to break them with a blow from a stone. I was told, very credibly, that the reason was that the Egyptians shave their heads from childhood, so that the bone of the skull is hardened by the action of the sun—this is also why they hardly ever go bald, baldness being rare in Egypt than anywhere else.”

13. Sea nymphs could save the day! (Maybe.)

Even for Herodotus, some stories were just too crazy to accept—like this tale describing a naval fleet caught in a rough weather: “The storm lasted three days, after which the Magi brought it to an end by sacrificial offerings, and by putting spells on the wind, and by further offerings to Thetis and the sea-nymphs—or, of course, it may be that the wind just dropped naturally.”

There you have it: If you want to know where Herodotus draws the line, it’s weather-conjuring sea-nymphs.

Why Does Santa Claus Give Coal to Bad Kids?

iStock/bonchan
iStock/bonchan

The tradition of giving misbehaving children lumps of fossil fuel predates the Santa we know, and is also associated with St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and Italy’s La Befana. Though there doesn't seem to be one specific legend or history about any of these figures that gives a concrete reason for doling out coal specifically, the common thread between all of them seems to be convenience.

Santa and La Befana both get into people’s homes via the fireplace chimney and leave gifts in stockings hung from the mantel. Sinterklaas’s controversial assistant, Black Pete, also comes down the chimney and places gifts in shoes left out near the fireplace. St. Nick used to come in the window, and then switched to the chimney when they became common in Europe. Like Sinterklaas, his presents are traditionally slipped into shoes sitting by the fire.

So, let’s step into the speculation zone: All of these characters are tied to the fireplace. When filling the stockings or the shoes, the holiday gift givers sometimes run into a kid who doesn’t deserve a present. So to send a message and encourage better behavior next year, they leave something less desirable than the usual toys, money, or candy—and the fireplace would seem to make an easy and obvious source of non-presents. All the individual would need to do is reach down into the fireplace and grab a lump of coal. (While many people think of fireplaces burning wood logs, coal-fired ones were very common during the 19th and early 20th centuries, which is when the American Santa mythos was being established.)

That said, with the exception of Santa, none of these characters limits himself to coal when it comes to bad kids. They’ve also been said to leave bundles of twigs, bags of salt, garlic, and onions, which suggests that they’re less reluctant than Santa to haul their bad kid gifts around all night in addition to the good presents.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

12 Thought-Provoking Gifts for History Buffs

The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon
The Unemployed Philosophers Guild / LEGO / Amazon

If you're looking for a gift for the person who can't get enough history in their life, we think you'll find something on this list. From an atlas of the United States's National Parks to a book that will allow one to record their own family genealogy, these presents will both enlighten and entertain even the history buffs who already own every Theodore Roosevelt biography and Titanic exposé.

1. Atlas of the National Parks; $59

National Parks atlas
National Geographic / Amazon

This stunning atlas from National Geographic invites armchair explorers into all 61 national parks, from Gates of the Arctic to Dry Tortugas, American Samoa to Acadia. Each entry features a brand-new map and information about the park’s character, covering archaeology, geology, human history, wildlife, and more. All of which are illustrated with amazing photographs. You can order it now, and according to Amazon, the book will be in stock December 24.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Homesick Library Candle; $30

Library candle
UncommonGoods

Remind your favorite history buff of that book project they've been working on for many years with a library scent that doesn’t evoke mildewed paper and anxiety. Homesick’s hand-poured soy wax candle features spicy notes of orange, nutmeg, sandalwood, and amber.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

3. Spectacular Women Ornaments; $22 Each

Spectacular women ornaments
UncommonGoods

Your giftee will need to make some space on the Christmas tree for these ornaments depicting amazing women in history. Artist Gulnara Kydyrmyshova and her team of textile artisans in Kyrgyzstan make each ornament by hand from local wool. You can choose Florence Nightingale, Jane Austen, Harriet Tubman, Susan B. Anthony, or all four.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

4. Homemade Gin Kit; $50

Gin making kit
UncommonGoods

Just in time for holiday parties, this DIY gin-making kit includes two elegant bottles, stoppers, a selection of dried herbs and spices, and mixing tools. The giftee supplies the vodka, which acts like a blank slate, to be flavored with juniper berries, coriander seeds, rosemary, rose hips, and more.

Buy It: UncommonGoods

5. Genealogy Organizer Book; $9

Genealogy organizer book
Amazon

Here’s a genealogy gift for the holidays that doesn’t require handing over genetic data to private corporations! This handy book includes organizational charts for tracing one’s family tree back five generations. Plus, there are fill-in family group pages and sheets to record personal memories.

Buy It: Amazon

6. Great Lakes 3D Wood Nautical Chart; $178

Great Lakes 3D nautical chart
Amazon

Up to eight layers of wood are used to demonstrate the depths of each of the five Great Lakes in this unusual topographical map, which also depicts the major rivers and towns of the region. If these lakes don’t float your boat, 3D maps of Cape Cod, the Hawaiian Islands, Puget Sound, the Chesapeake Bay, and other waterways are available.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Black Lives 1900: W.E.B. Du Bois at the Paris Exposition; $35

W.E.B. Du Bois art book
Amazon

With colorful, hand-drawn infographics, civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois illustrated the progress and challenges of African Americans in the South at the beginning of the 20th century. This beautiful volume pairs his maps and charts, which were displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, with contemporary photographs of black people and communities.

Buy It: Amazon

8. Three Mini Notebooks; $15

Three map notebooks
Amazon

An explorer should always have a pen and paper at the ready. Make your giftee’s travels memorable with this set of three pocket-sized notebooks, each bound with a vintage map design on the cover and blank, lined, or graph pages.

Buy It: Amazon

9. Penny-Farthing Watch; $40

Penny-farthing watch
Amazon

It’s been said that bicycles kickstarted the women’s equality movement by giving ladies the means to explore their world. Celebrate that history by giving your fave cycling enthusiast this cute watch, which depicts a penny-farthing, the Victorian precursor to modern bikes. The leather band and analog face complete the watch’s old-timey look.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Shakespearean Insults Mug; $14

Shakespearean insults mug
New York Public Library Shop

This 14-ounce ceramic mug includes 30 Elizabethan insults that you can feel free to use any morning pre-coffee—but you may need to reassure you gift recipient that you’re not actually calling them a “canker-blossom” or a “lump of foul deformity” when they open the box.

Buy It: New York Public Library Shop

11. LEGO White House; $222

LEGO White House
LEGO / Amazon

This LEGO set is based on the White House design by James Hoban, which was selected by George Washington back on July 16, 1792. And now, with over 500 pieces, you can recreate your own version of this iconic building. And when you're done, the set also includes a booklet highlighting interesting facts about the White House.

Buy It: Amazon

12. A History of New York in 27 Buildings; $20

NYC buildings book
Amazon

Stories behind such famous NYC icons as the Flatiron Building or the Empire State Building are well known. Those skyline staples appear in this book, but author Sam Roberts also dives deeper into other notable buildings that changed the course of the city’s history—like the Tweed Courthouse, the Marble Palace, and the Coney Island Boardwalk. (For a similar approach to urban history, see the new book The Seine: The River That Made Paris).

Buy It: Amazon

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