The Urine and the Vine:
Astyages' Dreams at Herodotus 1.107-8
By: Christopher Pelling
University College, Oxford
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.
In the first year of Mandane's
marriage to Cambyses, Astyages had another dream: he dreamed that a vine
grew from the genitalia of this daughter, and spread over the whole of
Asia. He again consulted the dream-experts on what he had seen, then sent
for his daughter to come to him from the land of the Persians. By now she
was pregnant. When she arrived he kept her under guard, planning to kill
the product of her womb: for the dream-experts among the magi interpreted
his dream as indicating that his daughter's offspring would take his place
upon the throne.
In this paper I shall discuss
the narrative logic of this passage, and its role within Herodotus'
presentation of Cyrus' story. In passing, but only in passing, I shall
graze a number of other issues: the origin (Greek or Oriental?) of these
items; one point of historical truth (was the historical Cyrus Mandane's
son, or an outsider?); and the ways we might reconstruct the symbolic
suggestions of urination for Herodotus' audience.
First, the narrative logic.
Here critics have generally been hard on Herodotus. The two dreams, it is
claimed, represent a simple doublet.(1) The resulting narrative has also
seemed to some to be inconsequential or inept: in Herodotus' account
Astyages has no male heir ([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]
1.109.3), so the notion of his daughter's offspring ruling all Asia or
coming to the throne need not be threatening: and even if some threat were
to be felt, what could be more senseless than to give Mandane in any sort
of marriage, least of all one to a foreigner?(2) Von Fritz inferred that
the original version of the dream(s) suggested a threat from outside the
regal house:(3) that, he thought, was the only plausible explanation of
Astyages' alarm. For what it was worth, such was the version of Ctesias,
FGrH 688 F 9.2, who represented the infant Cyrus as no relation of
Astyages: this Ctesian version may well underlie Nic. Dam. FGrH 90 F 66.9,
who makes Cyrus the son of a Mardian `Argoste' rather than of Mandane.(4)
Yet there is one crucial
difference between the first dream (urination) and the second (vine): the
suggestions(5) Of the second are much more clear-cut than the first.(6)
The spreading tree in the second dream evidently portends a coming
domination, here as in Sophocles' Electra (419-23) or in Xerxes' dream at
7.19.1:(7) this is especially appropriate in an Oriental dream, both
because of the familiarity with such symbolism as portending success and
salvation(8) and because of the frequency of the vine as an Achaemenid
The urination dream would be
much harder to interpret. Here it will be useful to adduce evidence from
other cultures, though it is important to be clear about the methodology.
Of course we cannot assume that Herodotus' Greek audience would align with
every nuance felt by a Hottentot or a Namaqua tribesman, but comparative
material can still serve as a suggestive eye-opener; it can alert us to
alternative possibilities, and in particular warn us against too hasty an
inference from limited and western modern assumptions.(10) Naturally, the
comparative material becomes more telling as it comes closer to the world
with which Herodotus is dealing, and the most illuminating material will
in fact be Assyrian; but even more distant parallels can be
Both Greek and comparative
material make it clear that urine, as a warm carrier of bodily
life-juices, can suggest many things.(11) It can have positive
associations with healing and fertility,(12) especially when, as here, a
virgin's urine is concerned; but urine can also have a magical, apotropaic
function, and this can in its turn lead into a gesture of symbolic magic,
casting ill fortune on an enemy or simply articulating contempt.(13) This
relates to a feature of pollution which several scholars have recently
stressed, the way in which dirty, `polluting' elements can in suitable
circumstances cleanse as well as defile, can bring cures and benefits as
well as disease and disaster.(14) It is understandable that a whole art of
folk-urinomancy could develop, requiring an expert to read the signs and
suggestions of a person's urine.
It is understandable too that
a urination dream would be particularly hard to interpret. Closely similar
dreams could bear totally divergent interpretations, ranging from the
wholly propitious to the totally catastrophic. The range of symbolic
suggestions is best illustrated by an Assyrian dream-book, containing
material which may well go back to the second millennium B.C.(15) In each
case, the reference seems to be to a dreamed, rather than actual. act of
If his urine [expands(?)] in
front of (his) penis and [ ] the wall: [he will not have] sons.
If his urine ex[pands] in
front of (his) penis and [ ] the wall, the street: he will h[ave] sons.
If his urine expands in front
of his penis and f[ills(?) all] the streets: his property will be robb[ed]
and given to the city [ ].
If his urine expands in front
of (his) penis [and] he does obeisance in front of his urine: he will
beget a son and he (i.e. the son) will be king....
If he sprinkles (himself) with
his urine: his (sheep)-fold will expand.
If he sprinkles (himself) with
his urine and wipes himself (clean): (the disease called) `Hand of
If he directs urine towards
the sky, the son of this man whom he will (thereafter) beget will become
important, (but) his (own) days will be short.
If he pours his (urine) into a
river: his harvest will be bountiful.
If he pours his urine into a
well: he will lose his property.
If he pours his urine into an
irrigation-canal: Adad will flood his harvest.
If he pou[rs] his urine to his
(personal) god [or to] his (personal) goddess: he will [find(?)] his lost
In Herodotus too there was
more than one way of taking the dream. The urine might straightforwardly
suggest Mandane's future offspring, as modern critics tend uncritically to
assume: it is true that the urinary and genital aspects of the uro-genital
tract are often assimilated to one another in myths and folklore, just as
they are with those `sons' of the Assyrian dream-book.(16) In that case
Astyages' dream would simply presage a successful, conquering grandson,
and an heirless grandfather might indeed have little to fear. Yet the
urinary/genital assimilation is comparatively rare in Greek thought;(17)
the darker, more negative suggestions of urine could also suggest to
Herodotus' audience a soiled bodily product rather than an honourably
produced son, hinting at a distorted succession.(18) It may be significant
that one of the few Greek cases of urinary/genital assimilation uses the
word [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (`urinate') in a story of
Minos. His wife Pasiphae, infuriated by his sexual unfaithfulness, laid a
curse upon him, and the result was that after intercourse with other women
Minos would [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] `snakes and scorpions
and venomous millipedes' (Ant. Lib. 41.4-5).(19) The sexual function is
again distorted, this time in a particularly uncomfortable way: [GREEK
TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] would not be a natural way of imaging any
normal part of the reproductive process.
The flood of urine might again
be difficult to interpret. Once again, it could be straightforward, along
the same lines as the spreading vine: an offspring(20) will overwhelm and
dominate all Asia. This has something in common with the familiar(21)
phenomenon of territorial urination: the urine marks out the family
property. Still, folklore urine-floods rarely have these sorts of
connotation, and this may alert us to, wider possibilities. Particularly
associated with female urination, such floods sometimes denote barriers
and hindrances, though admittedly the (male) hero rarely finds them
insuperable. There is an African story, for instance, of a traveller,
Kombe Alhassu, finding his way into a giant's house, fleeing in terror and
hiding in what he thinks is a cave--but in fact it is the vagina of the
giantess, and he is soon evacuated to safety in a flood of urine.(22) More
often, floods simply explain the origins of rivers or seas; as in the
Melanesian tale of the old woman who always urinated in a giant leaf in
her garden; one day two boys accidentally upturned it in their play--they
were shooting at lizards--and that was the origin of the sea.(23) In
Astyages' dream too there might be similar suggestions. The king's city
(presumably Ecbatana) and then the land of Asia are turned into sea: that
may hint at the theme of distorting nature which becomes so important in
the later books.(24) And the darker suggestions of urination may again be
relevant, indicating contempt or hostility for the city and land, and
perhaps by extension for its current king.(25) This is not the sort of
imagery that gently points to a peaceful inheritance.
The elusiveness of this first
dream is important for making sense of Herodotus' narrative. It is
understandable that Astyages should here refer such a dream to the
experts, and that he should find their responses alarming: but, in view of
the bemusing multivalence of the dream, it is also understandable that he
would be reluctant to kill his daughter out of hand, or even--yet--to
exclude the possibility of her having offspring, for `offspring' was only
one of the possible registers for interpreting the dream. Instead he
distances her from the `city' which was first threatened by the
urine-flood, and gives her to an outsider to marry, the Persian Cambyses;
a reader might presume that, even if `offspring' turned out to be the
correct interpretative register, any child's lack of status might still
exclude the possibility of serious danger.(26) There is a certain parental
halfheartedness about this, but a reader need not find it humanly
The enigmatic quality of the first dream also clarifies its narrative relationship to the second. Duplication of dreams in such a setting is anyway not implausible: the Old Testament and Gilgamesh both offer parallels to such double dreaming when so momentous an event is presaged.(27) But the second dream is not a mere repeat, for once again the increasing clarity is important. This time the suggestions are inescapable: Mandane's offspring will rule all Asia. Had this dream come first, an heirless Astyages might indeed have had nothing to fear, and could rejoice in the presaged glory of a grandson; the marriage to an outsider would in that case have been most inappropriate. But by now it is too late, for Mandane is already married to that outsider. It is that marriage, more than anything in the dream itself, that makes the prophecy such a disturbing one:(28) now any succession of Mandane's offspring to the throne could only, once again, be a distorted one. Hence the experts interpret this, not as suggesting that his grandson will inherit, but that he will `rule instead of him' (1.108.2), a suggestion of violence and usurpation rather than natural inheritance. The time for half-measures has now passed, and Astyages turns to more murderous action.
Herodotus' narrative has
turned out to be coherent after all. The two dreams do not simply repeat
one another, and their order could not be reversed. The halfhearted
response to the first is a natural reaction to its multivalence; then that
first response, involving the marriage to the outsider, is a necessary
premise for the second, clearer dream to be taken as threatening.
We might still ask about
Herodotus' own part in this. Is the coherence his own imposition, as he
deftly finds room for two uncomfortably similar items? Can we detect
anything about his adaptation of his original material? Or about the way
in which he has made it serve the wider themes of his narrative?
These are not straightforward
questions to address, and they touch on some of the most disputed
questions of current Herodotean criticism; but some points can be made.
Even if there are `Greek' touches elsewhere in his Cyrus narrative,(29)
there seems no reason to doubt that he is using genuinely Oriental
material here: whatever might be thought of the rest of the comparative
evidence, the Assyrian material confirms both the importance and the
ambivalence of urination in Near Eastern dream-interpretation. Even the
combination of the two dream-motifs may go back beyond Herodotus; the vine
imagery would have been as clear-cut as the urination was ambivalent, for
an Assyrian, a Median, or a Persian just as for a Greek; and either an
Oriental or a Greek could have developed a story of a royal father finding
such a dream about his daughter to be deeply disturbing, but not yet
sufficiently disturbing to provoke murder or infanticide. And there
certainly seems insufficient reason to follow von Fritz in inferring an
original version with Cyrus as an outsider rather than a prince.(30) In
terms of the story's imagery, we have seen that Astyages' growing alarm
makes good sense in its own terms; and in terms of real history, it is
perfectly plausible to think of Cyrus as the king's grandson.(31) Cambyses
was a royal figure, the king of Ansan (though Herodotus obscures the
fact--more on this below): he would be a thoroughly suitable husband for a
We are on surer ground in
detecting some Herodotean touches in the detail of the narrative, in
particular the way in which he makes the sequence more credible still.
First, we are not told exactly what the experts advised after the first
dream, only that Astyages `was alarmed by the details which he heard from
them': there is not yet any talk of the fear of Mandane's potential
offspring. Had any such reading of the dream been made more explicit (even
as one of several interpretative possibilities), the risks Astyages was
running by marrying her to anyone would have been more uncomfortably
clear. Secondly, Cambyses is represented, not as the king that he was, but
merely as `belonging to a good house and mild in nature, but
still--Astyages thought--far inferior to a Mede of even middling status'.
This serves to make Astyages' half-measure a more plausible one, for a
marriage to any sort of outside royalty would accentuate the continuing
riskiness of the course.
We should also notice the ways
in which this episode reflects characteristic concerns of Herodotus'
narrative: even if the basic material was offered him by his sources, he
has certainly made it his own. Take the recurring dream, for instance. The
most telling parallel is within the History itself, the dream which visits
Xerxes twice (7.12.2, 14.1) and then comes to Artabanus as well (7.17.1);
then the further dream of Xerxes at 7.19.1.(33) There, as here, the point
is not merely to emphasize the dreams' portentousness, but also to bring
out the inexorability of the event portended. Xerxes, like Astyages, has
already begun to try to avoid the unhappy events which the first dream
threatened, but the returning dream underlines the hopelessness of any
It is also a characteristic
pattern of Herodotus' dream-stories to see a dreamer's responses turn out
counter-productive, so that they bring on precisely the terrors which the
dream portended.(34) Here too all Astyages' actions turn out to be
precisely those necessary to make the dream come true.(35) And this is
particularly telling at this point of the narrative: for it takes us back
to Croesus, particularly the story of Atys and Adrastus (1.34-45). Croesus
too has a dream, this time portending his son's death (1.34.1); Croesus
too, there as elsewhere in his story, is intrigued and concerned by
revelations of wisdom, but--whether they come from Solon, or in his
dreams, or from Delphi--he finds them bewildering and unfathomable;
Croesus too takes what seem to him sensible precautions, but his
over-protectiveness turns out to be precisely the factor that destroys his
son, with the chosen protector Adrastus throwing the fatal missile. There
as here, an initial extreme caution goes on to give way to overconfidence,
as each king is persuaded that his actions are sufficient to guard against
the danger: Atys persuades his father that he cannot die of a spear-wound
on a boar hunt (1.39), the seers assure Astyages that the threat from the
young Cyrus has passed (1.120.5-6). Admittedly, Croesus is concerned to
preserve his heir, while Astyages decides to destroy his, but the
distinction is less crucial than it seems: for it is precisely Astyages'
halfheartedness, his reluctance to take the hardest measures against his
daughter, which directs his actions. The classic
exposure-and-escape-of-the-wonderchild folktale presents a murderous,
pitiless head of house, who finds the killing of a defenceless child or
grandchild a sensible way of protecting his throne.(36) Astyages
transforms the stereotype: he does what he can to be merciful, and it
takes the clarity of the second dream to force him to decisive action.
This is not the last time that
we shall see this trait in Astyages, for the same halfheartedness leads
him to spare the adolescent Cyrus after his rediscovery, and to rejoice
([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 1.121.1, in Herodotus an ominous
word)(37) when the seers recommend this gentle course; but they also
advise the king to send him away, hinting at some continuing unease. Thus
Cyrus too is sent, like his mother Mandane before him, to the Persians
(1.120.6-121.1), and the consequences are momentous. In each case the
halfheartedness turns out worse for Astyages than any fullblooded response
would have done: and this is not merely humanly credible, it is also
Tragedy too presents figures
whose good intentions turn out deathly: one thinks of Deianeira. Tragedy
deals with a divided [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], and so does
this: even Harpagus is presented as a blood-relative to the royal house
(1.108.3, 109.3), and consequently Harpagus' part in the planned murder of
the infant Cyrus and Astyages' murder of Harpagus' son both appear as
internal familial crimes. The second in particular, with its `Thyestes
banquet', is particularly tragic in resonance.(38) The marriage of Mandane
to Cambyses bears a further significance here. The definition of Cambyses
as a social inferior is useful to the narrative logic, as we have seen;
but the social mismatch of Cyrus' parents also preserves a further
Herodotean pattern. The Lydian [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]
began with a similar mixed marriage, with Gyges marrying a royal woman who
was by far his social superior: there too the resulting dynasty ran a
self-destructive course, and the instrument of destruction was precisely
this `mule' Cyrus, `born of mixed parentage, with a mother of better class
and a father of worse' (1.91.5-6).(39) Such episodes also fit a further
mythical schema, whereby a threatening or disastrous child often occupies
an ambivalent position, at once central and marginal, at once inside and
outside the royal house.(40) That too is familiar from tragedy: one only
has to think, in their different ways, of Oedipus, Orestes, Polynices, and
We have come some way from the
simple smoothing of a few sentences of narrative, but we have also seen
that unobtrusive deftness of technique is more than an end in itself. In a
few strokes, Herodotus has presented a plausible picture of a concerned
father, one who gropes for enigmatic truth, one who balances cautious
selfprotection with a reluctance to authorize bloody kin-killing; and the
narrative has set his hopeless efforts against a background of cosmic
inevitability. Herodotus has fitted this portrayal into a wider picture of
a family at odds with itself, where affection and menace, boon and
disaster, caution and over-confidence mingle with bewildering and
devastating effect. There are many ways, indeed, in which Cyrus' story
replays that of Croesus, in a subtly different register. The curse on the
Lydian house was explicit: Croesus' punishment in the fifth generation is
traced back to Gyges (1.13.2, 91.1). But it is possible to see the origins
of Cyrus, the `mule' who destroys Croesus, as intimating a subtler
equivalent of the same theme. The two tales are even mutually related, in
terms which themselves highlight questions of family: as Croesus' story
neared its end, the family relationship of Astyages, Cyrus, and Croesus
became relevant (1.73-4), with an earlier Thyestes-banquet playing its
part (1.73.5-6). The Achaemenid monarchy, like the Lydian monarchy before
it, begins with an unequal union and a familial crime: and Cyrus'
successors will find themselves no less trapped by history and no less
self-destructive than Croesus had been, though the registers of historical
explanation will become even richer and more varied, and any `curse on the
royal house' will be even less cosmically straightforward. Much of the
challenge to Herodotus' readers is the exploration of such recurrent
patterns, and the attempt to disentangle what is constant and what is new;
and our few sentences of narrative play their part, as readers sense the
beginning of a new dynastic tragedy, one which will require the entire
History to carry to its end.(41)
(1) W. Aly, Volksmarchen, Sage
und Novelle bei Herodot und seine Zeitgenossen (Gottingen 1921), p. 49,
elaborated by H. Erbse, Studien zum Verstandnis 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, K. Reinhardt, Vermachtnis der
Antike (Gottingen, 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
(2) Cf. esp. K. von Fritz, Die
griechische Geschichtsschreibung (Berlin, 1967), p. 286; D. Fehling,
Herodotus and his sources (revised edition; tr. J. G. Howie [Liverpool,
1989]), p. 200 (who does make one crucial point clear: below, n. 28); J.
A. S. Evans, Herodotus, explorer of the past (Princeton, 1991), p. 53;
Erbse (n. 1), pp. 34-5.
(3.) Von Fritz (n. 2), pp.
(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 , 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. Prince, in Before Sexuality, D. M. Halperin, J.
J. Winkler and F. 1. Zeitlin (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. 59-61, 170; `Five
lectures on psycho-analysis', in Two short accounts of Psycho-analysis
(Harmondsworth, 1962: first published 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.] [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 4; G. E. R.
Lloyd, Magic, reason, and experience (Cambridge, 1979), p. 43; S. M.
Oberhelman, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 61 (1987), 47-60, and ANRW
ii.37.1 (1993), 121-56, esp. 127-36. But the interpretative register is on
the whole substantially different (cf. also V. Langholf, 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
([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 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 R. Bichler,
Chiron 15 (1985), 130, emphasizing the `eindeutig' quality of both dreams.
Even H. R. Immerwahr, 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 G.
Devereux, 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; P.
Frisch, Die Traume 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
(11) Cf. the fascinating
collection of material in R. Muth, Trager 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 (Mush [n. 11], 21, and S. Donaldson
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. A. B. Lloyd ad loc., F. D. Harvey in
Dawson and Harvey, BICS 83 (1966), 94 n. 34, and H. von Staden, Helios 19
(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. D. Fehling,
Ethologische Uberlegungen auf dem Gebiet der Altertumskunde (Zetemata 61,
Munich, 1974), p. 34 collects further evidence.
(14) Cf. especially J.-P.
Vernant, Myth and Society in Ancient Greece (Janet Lloyd [tr.], Brighton
and New Jersey, 1980), pp. 125-6; R. C. T. Parker, 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) A.
L. Oppenheim, 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. Bottero, Ktema 7 (1982), 11-16; Asheri on 1.107. For
more recent parallels cf J. S. Lincoln, 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: E. Chavannes,
Cinq cent contes et apologues: extraits du Tripitaka Chinois (Pans,
1910-34) i.80-81: cf. Stith Thompson, 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 ([GREEK TEXT NOT
REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] or [GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) 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
(19) Simon Swain reminds me of
the Athenian `Ephebus', who in one spectacular orgasm produced a `furry
creature walking quickly with its many legs' (Plus. 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 A. Dundes, 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 (W. Burkert, Structure
and history in Greek mythology and ritual [Berkeley etc, 1979], pp. 39-41,
(22) L. Frobenius, 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. 80-83, observing that Aristotle made the same mistake (PA
689a6-9). This confusion might aid the urinary/genital assimilation
(23) R. H. Codrington, The
Melanesians: Studies in their Anthropology and Folk-lore (Oxford, 1891),
pp. 372-3: cf P. Sebillot, Le folk-lore de la France (Paris, 1905),
ii.327-8 for parallels in French folk-lore; Geza Roheim, 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. A. Flower and 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) G. Hoffmann, La jeune
fille, le pouvoir et la mort (Paris, 1992), pp. 205-6.
(26) Erbse (n. 1), 34 compares
the marriage of Euripides' Electra to a peasant farmer, 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 ([GREEK TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) 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 [GREEK
TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] word-play at 1.122.3 and the `Thyestes
banquet' of 1.119-20: cf Aly (n. 1), 50; W. Burkert, Homo Necans (P. Bing
[tr.], Berkeley etc, 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 D. L. Gera, Xenophon's Cyropaedia: style, genre, and
literary technique [Oxford, 1993], pp. 16-17), 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
Marchenmotiven 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. W. Hinz, 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 W. Marg's
review, Gnomon 42 , 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 (Dies. Marburg, 1932), p.36 n.
1; C. C. Chiasson, GRBS 27 (1986), 249-62 ; S. P. Flory AJP 99 (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', [GREEK
TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]--is recalled a few sentences before this
mention of the `mule' Cyrus and the similar `going astray' ([GREEK TEXT
NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] 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
(40) Cf the case of Cypselus,
as elucidated by C. Sourvinou-Inwood, 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 venous ways by Stephanie West, Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, 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.