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The urine and the vine: Astyages' dreams at Herodotus 1.107–8

  • Christopher Pelling (a1)
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Astyages, son of Cyaxares, now inherited the throne. A daughter was born to him, whom he called Mandane; and Astyages dreamed that she urinated so much that the urine filled his city, then went on to flood all of Asia. He consulted the dream-experts among the magi, and was alarmed by the details which he heard from them. Later, when this Mandane was already old enough for marriage, he did not give her as wife to any of the Medes who were worthy of him, because he was fearful of the dream; instead he gave her to a Persian named Cambyses, who, he discovered, belonged to a good house and was mild in nature, but was still—he thought—far inferior to a Mede of even middling status.

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1 Aly, W., Volksmärchen, Sage und Novelle bei Herodot und seine Zeitgenossen (Göttingen, 1921), p.49, elaborated by Erbse, H., Studien zum Verständnis Herodots (Berlin and New York, 1992), pp. 34–5; cf. Asheri on 1.107, ‘I due sogni…sono analoghi e trasmettano il medesimo messaggio’. Contra, Reinhardt, K, Vermächtnis der Antike (Göttingen, 1940), p. 149, arguing that both dreams are necessary to suggest the duality of Cyrus, both boon and curse. If the argument pursued below is correct, that duality is already suggested by the urination dream.

2 Cf. esp.Fritz, K. von,Die griechische Geschichtsschreibung (Berlin, 1967), p. 286;Fehling, D, Herodotus and his sources (revised edition; tr.Howie, J. G [Liverpool, 1989]), p. 200 (who does make one crucial point clear: below, n. 28);Evans, J. A. S,Herodotus, explorer of the past (Princeton, 1991), p. 53; Erbse (n. 1), pp. 34–5.

3 Von Fritz (n. 2), pp. 286–7.

4 But it is difficult to go much further in reconstructing Ctesias' account from Nicolaus. For instance, the graphic embellishment and the rationalization of supernatural details are both recurrent features of Nicolaus' narrative, and may well reflect his own technique. See M. Toher, CA 8 (1989), 159–72.

5 By ‘suggestions’ I here mean the suggestions sensed by an ancient audience, culturally primed to interpret dreams as potentially (though not universally: see S. R. West, CQ 37 [1987], 264) predictive of the future. I am not here concerned with those felt by post-Freudian modern readers, primed as we are to interpret dreams as illuminating the present psyche of the dreamer. On this distinction cf. S. R. F.Price, in Before Sexuality, Halperin, D. M., Winkler, J. J. and Zeitlin, F. I. (edd.), (Princeton, 1990), pp. 365–88:Freud emphasized the point himself, e.g. The Interpretation of Dreams (1900: J. Strachey [tr., ed.], [Harmondsworth, 1976]), pp. 5961, 170;‘Five lectures on psycho-analysis’, in Two short accounts of Psycho-analysis (Harmondsworth, 1962: first pubished 1910), p. 61. I therefore resist the temptation to toy with psychoanalytic interpretations. Here a father's preoccupation with his daughter's genitalia would evidently be a promising theme, but such modern decodings are likely to obscure the original audience response.—It is true that even in the Greek world dreams could be used to illustrate the dreamer's current state of health: cf. especially [Hipp.] 4;Lloyd, G. E. R, Magic, reason, and experience (Cambridge, 1979), p. 43;Oberhelman, S. M, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 61 (1987), 4760, and ANRW ii.37.1 (1993), 121–56, esp. 127–36.But the interpretative register is on the whole substantially different (cf. also Langholf, V, Medical theories in Hippocrates [Berlin and New York, 1990], p. 246),and clearly unhelpful here: for instance a dream of a spring or cistern might point to a bladder disease, or a flood-dream might indicate an excess of bodily moisture ( 4.90 p. 656 L. pp. 438–40 J.). Herodotus' Astyages has his problems, but the audience will not conceive them as being of this sort.

6 Contrast Bichler, R, Chiron 15 (1985), 130, emphasizing the ‘eindeutig’ quality of both dreams.Even Immerwahr, H. R, Form and thought in Herodotus (APA Monographs 23, Cleveland, OH, 1966), p. 163, who is sensitive to the darker aspects of the urination dream, does not bring out its multivalence;nor does Devereux, G, Dreams in Greek Tragedy: an Ethno-Psycho-Analytical Study(Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1976), pp.,219–55, whose analysis is at once highly elaborate and highly reductionist.

7 Dr Heyworth also points to Ov. Fast. 3.27–38, where the pregnant Silvia dreams of two palm-trees (Romulus and Remus), and her uncle Amulius' frustrated attempt to fell the greater of the two.

8 Cf. the Old Testament parallels, emphasized by Devereux (n. 6), 229, and Bichler (n. 6), pp. 130–31: Genesis 40.9–13, Ezekiel 17, and the later Daniel 4. For detailed discussion of the first and last cases cf. E. L. Ehrlich, Der Traum im Alten Testament (Beihefte zur Zeitschrift fur die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 73, Berlin, 1953), pp. 65–73, 113–22.

9 Cf. Asheri on 1.107; Frisch, P, Die Träume bei Herodot (Meisenheim, 1968), p. 10.

10 This methodology provides a further reason (cf. n. 5) why I have passed over psychoanalytic explanations. The culturally specific features of such explanations are increasingly recognized: true, any decoding or symbolism will have such specific features, but it is precisely our modern assumptions which we should try to minimize or renuance—even if (of course) total escape is impossible.

11 Cf. the fascinating collection of material in Muth, R, Träger der Lebenskraft: Ausscheidungen des Organismus im Volksglauben der Antike (Wien, 1956), and his briefer summary in R-E Spb. xi (1968) s.v. ‘Urin’, pp. 1292–303.

12 Thus it was a Hottentot and Namaqua custom for a priest to urinate over a couple after marrying them, and a tradition in the Papuan Gulf for a chieftain to urinate into the mouth of a newly initiated warrior (Muth [n. 11], 21, and Donaldson, S. in Encyclopaedia of Homosexuality (W. R. Dynes [ed.], 1990), pp. 1353 – 5). The well-known (and in part scientifically confirmed: Muth [n. 11], p. 19, etc) value of urine as a folk-remedy is reflected in the tale of the Pharaoh Pheros at 2.111.2–3: cf. Lloyd, A. B ad loc, Harvey, F. D in Dawson and Harvey, BICS 83 (1966), 94 n. 34, and H. von Staden, Helios 19 (1992), 7–30.

13 Muth(n. 11), esp. pp. 18–22,64–70,129–43,154–60. For the contemptuous suggestions of urination cf. the dreams discussed by Artemidorus 4.44. Fehling, D, Ethologische Überlegungen aufdem Gebiet der Altertumskunde (Zetemata 61, Munich, 1974), p. 34 collects further evidence.

14 Cf. especially Vernant, J.P, Myth and Society in Ancient Greece (Janet Lloyd [tr.], Brighton and New Jersey, 1980), pp. 125–6;Parker, R. C. T, Miasma (Oxford, 1983), 233–4. Von Staden (n. 12) brings out that this nexus of ideas is particularly strong when women, often constructed as ‘dirty’, are in point: thus faeces are prescribed in the Hippocratic corpus as a treatment for female diseases. The feminity both of Mandane and of‘Asia’ may therefore be relevant; but the suggestions of urine admittedly seem less gender-specific than those of faeces (von Staden [n. 12], 11–12).

15 Oppenheim, A. L, The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East (Trans. Am. Philosoph. Society 46.3, Philadelphia, 1956): the quotation is from p. 265.Cf. J. Bottéro, Ktéma 7 (1982), 11–16; Asheri on 1.107. For more recent parallelscf.Lincoln, J. S, The Dream in Primitive Cultures(London, 1935), pp. 107–8: among the Ashanti a dream of falling into a latrine, or in China a dream of a lavatory, could be taken as a sign of good luck,‘you will get money’ but in many cultures similar dreams also signify both death or loss. If one searches for a rationalized explanation, Stephanie West points out to me that latrines have proved a fruitful source for medieval archaeologists: a user was unlikely to search for anything valuable dropped while in action. So where there is muck, there may genuinely also be brass.

16 Or in the tale of the generous old woman who, on her death, transformed into a Brahman's urine as a way of giving birth to a hundred posthumous children:Chavannes, E., Cinq cent contes et apologues: extraitsdu Tripitaka Chinois (Paris, 1910–34) i.8081cf.Thompson, Stith, Motifindex of Folk Literature (Copenhagen, 1955‐8) T.512.2. In that case the urine was drunk by a doe, and the doe became pregnant: for two similar tales cf. Chavannes ii.283 and iii.233–4, in each of which a doe drinks a hermit's urine and becomes pregnant. The doe then typically begins the nurture of the human baby, who turns out to have miraculous qualities. There is a possibility, but no more, that a similar story-pattern underlies the Herodotean case, with human urine linked to the birth and animal-nurturing of a wonder-child. If so, that would imply a version in which the miraculous urination was real (though doubtless less spectacular), not merely dreamed.

17 As Bichler (n. 6), 132 n. 30 remarks. Besides the Minos story to be discussed in a moment, Muth (n. 11), 154–60 and R-E Spb. xi 1300–303 mentions only the Boeotian myth of the parentage of Orion, where in one version three gods urinate into an animal hide: as Muth emphasizes, etymological speculation () has here evidently played a part.

18 Cf. Immerwahr (n. 6), 163, concentrating on urine as a pollutant. Herodotus was aware that the Persians thought of urine as unclean: cf. 1.133.3, 1.138.2 with the commentaries.

19 Simon Swain reminds me of the Athenian ‘Ephebus’, who in one spectacular orgasm produced a ‘furry creature walking quickly with its many legs’ (Plut. Mor. 733c). Plutarch tells this immediately after a similar urination tale, though that need not in itself mean an assimilation of orgasm to urination.

20 Cf. the material collected by Dundes, A, Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology 9 (1986), 359–72 (reprinted in his collection The Flood Myth [Berkeley and London, 1988], pp. 151–65). Dundes argues that flood myths of the Noah-Deucalion type represent, via urinary /genital assimilation, a myth of male procreation without female assistance, with male urination mimicking the female breaking of the waters in childbirth. This emphasis would seem to ignore the greater frequency of female urination in such myths (below, nn. 22–3), as here.

21 Most familiar to us from the embarrassing behaviour of domestic cats and dogs, but the phenomenon seems to have wider anthropological parallels and significance: cf. Muth (n. 11), p. 24; Donaldson (n. 12), p. 1354. The use of ithyphallic Herms to demarcate territory may be a related phenomenon (Burkert, W, Structure and history in Greek mythology and ritual [Berkeley etc, 1979], pp. 3941, 45).

22 Frobenius, L, Atlantis (Jena, 1921–8), vi.219: cf. some other instances among those listed by Stith Thompson (n. 16), A.933. Notice the confusion of vagina and urethra, on which see Devereux (n. 6), p. 228, and for classical Greece especially Lesley Ann Dean-Jones, Women's bodies in Classical Greek Science (Oxford, 1994), pp. 8083, observing that Aristotle made the same mistake (PA 689a6–9). This confusion might aid the urinary/genital assimilation discussed above.

23 R. H Codrington, The Melanesians: Studies in their Anthropology and Folk-lore (Oxford, 1891), pp. 372–3: cf. Sebillot, P, Le folk-lore de la France (Paris, 1905), ii.327–8 for parallels in French folk-lore; Róheim, Géza, The Gates of the Dream (New York, 1952), pp. 448–9 (The Flood Myth [n. 20], pp. 152–3) for parallels from the New Hebrides, the Narrinyeri, and the Heiltsuk; and more generally Stith Thompson (n. 16) A.923.1, 933.2, 1012.2.

24 I have discussed this ‘land and sea’ theme in Georgica: Greek studies in honour of George Cawkwell (M. Toher [eds.], BICS Supplement 58, 1991), pp. 136–9. Immerwahr (n. 6), p. 163 was not far astray in connecting this with the ‘river-motif’ which his book emphasized

25 Hoffmann, G, La jeune fille, le pouvoir et la mart (Paris, 1992), pp. 205‐6.

26 26 Erbse (n. 1), 34 compares the marriage of Euripides' Electra to a peasant fanner, where Aegisthus and Clytemnestra could similarly hope that any offspring would be politically negligible. That comparison is more apt for Herodotus' presentation, with Cambyses as a middle-class quietist, than for any version which acknowledged Cambyses' royal status: cf. below. Devereux (n. 6), 223 suggests that Euripides is here borrowing from Herodotus

27 Oppenheim (n. 15), 208–9; Immerwahr (n. 6), 163 n. 39. Such serial dreaming is of course familiar in real life, and has attracted psychoanalytic attention: cf. Devereux (n. 6), p. 225, with further bibliography

28 Fehling (n. 2), p. 200 makes this important point clearly. (Justin 1.4.2–4 thus abbreviates incomprehensibly when he suppresses the first dream and represents the second as the inspiration for the marriage to Cambyses.) But John Moles may be right in putting to me that this second dream is also phallic, and intrudes some suggestive and disquieting blurring of male and female roles. The vagina produces the equivalent of a male member; its product is described by words () more usually used of the male. If so, the challenging male-female play is another ‘tragic’ element to add to those discussed below.

29 Cf. especially Fehling (n. 2), pp. 110–11, 198–9. The most notable Greek elements are the word-play at 1.122.3 and the ‘Thyestes banquet’ of 1.119–20: cf. Aly (n. 1), 50; Burkert, W, Homo Necans (P. Bing [tr.], Berkeleyetc, 1983), pp. 108–9; Erbse (n. 1), p. 33. However, it is bad method to infer a Greek origin for the whole of the Cyrus narrative. It is almost inconceivable that Persian stories about Cyrus were not circulating (cf. Gera, D. L, Xenophon's Cyropaedia: style, genre, and literary technique [Oxford, 1993], pp. 1617), and it is likely both (a) that Greek elements had already combined with Persian before Herodotus, and (b) that Herodotus' own filtering of any ‘Persian’ material continued the process of contamination, in particular streamlining to highlight elements which would be most familiar to a Greek audience. The Märchenmotiven of the exposure and salvation of a wonder-child have an international and cross-cultural background (cf. von Fritz [n. 2], 284–5), and it is rash to claim them either as Greek or as Oriental. Brian Lewis, The Sargon Legend (American Schools of Oriental Research Dissertation Series 4, Cambridge, MA, 1980), pp. 262,265 tentatively identifies a Mesopotamian or Western Asian origin for the wonder-child folktale; but (a) it is uncertain whether the quest for an Ur-form is methodologically sound, and perhaps we should think of polygenesis; and (b) even if Lewis is right, the folktale motifs will have spread from their place of origin at least a millennium before Cyrus.

30 Cf. above, pp. 68–9.

31 That version is rejected, without argument, by e.g. Hinz, W., Reallexikon der Assyriologie vi.5 (1985) s.v. ‘Kyros’, 401, apparently followed by Bichler (n. 6), 134. It is accepted, equally without argument, by e.g. I. M. Diakonoff and M. Mallowan in Cambridge History of Iran ii (I. Gershevitch [ed.], 1985), 144 and 404. The most judicious comments are those of Rawlinson ad loc.

32 Such a marriage would admittedly be less plausible if the historical Astyages genuinely had no male heir, as Herodotus claims, and if Mandane was the only daughter and hence, presumptively, wife or mother of the heir. But, immediately we accept the possibility that the story's details have been manipulated by Herodotus and/or his source, then it is just as likely that some other offspring of Astyages have slipped out of the tale. They would only complicate the story. Cf. Erbse (n. 1), p. 34.

33 For discussion cf. Pelling (n. 24), pp. 130–31 and 139–40, with bibliography: add G. E. M. de Ste Croix, G&R 24 (1977), 143–5.

34 This emerges clearly from Frisch (n. 9), though much of his treatment is superficial (cf.Marg', W.s review, Gnomon 42 [1970], 515–17). The phenomenon of the ‘self-fulfilling oracle’ is evidently related.

35 Including, a little later, the involvement of Harpagus. That is hard to explain realistically: why could not Astyages directly order a minion to carry out the execution, rather than involve the vizier (cf. Erbse [n. 1], 32–3)?

36 Cf. the material collected by Brian Lewis (n. 29), summarized at his pp. 211–12.

37 Cf. the ‘great pleasure’ which Harpagus has just twice felt, in each case tragically deluded (1.119.1, 6). Elsewhere cf. Croesus at 1.54.1, 1.56.1: later e.g. Cambyses at 3.34.5, Polycrates at 3.42.2, 123.1; Xerxes at 7.37.3, 44, 9.49.1, 109.1: H. Bischoff, Der Warner bei Herodot (Diss. Marburg, 1932), p. 36n. 1; C. C Chiasson, GRBS21 (1986), 249–62; S. P Flory AJP99 (1978), 145–53, esp. 150; D. Lateiner, TAPA. 107 (1977), 173–82.

38 As has often been observed: cf. especially H. Schwabl, Gymn. 76 (1969) 269 and n. 15; Fehling(n. 2), 110–11.

39 As the ring of Croesus' story closes, that initial presumption of Gyges–his ‘going astray’, .—is recalled a few sentences before this mention of the ‘mule’ Cyrus and the similar ‘going astray’ ( again) which he inspired in Croesus (1.91.1 ⃜ 5–7). Both form part of Apollo's explication of the riddling divine will: the symmetrical beginning and end of the Lydian dynasty are simultaneously made clear.

40 Cf. the case of Cypselus, as elucidated by Sourvinou-Inwood, C, Opuscula Atheniensia 17.11 (1988), p. 181 and n. 122 (Reading Greek culture [Oxford, 1991], p. 266 and 282–3 n. 122). Stephanie West also reminds me of the versions that Apries' daughter was Cambyses' mother (3.2.1) and that Nectanebos was the real father of Alexander. An intersting variation, she observes, is Stalin as an illegitimate son of a Georgian prince (R. Conquest, The Great Terror [revised edn., 1990], p. 55): has the Georgian royal line here taken the place of the Romanovs?

41 This paper has been improved in various ways by West, Stephanie, Sourvinou-Inwood, Christiane, Simon Swain, Michael Comber, Michael Flower, Nicholas Purcell, Brian McGing, the editors, and particularly John Moles, whose thorough critique stimulated a complete rewriting. Thanks are also due to the Leverhulme Trust for funding the research on which this article is based.

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