Madness or Magic: Xerxes and the Hellespont

Herodotus relates a tale in his Histories of how the Persian king Xerxes bridged the Hellespont that he might invade Greece.  Initially foiled, he does something that strikes modern historians as very strange:

…[A]fter these bridges had been built, a violent storm descended upon them, broke them up, and tore apart all that work.

Xerxes was infuriated when he learned of this; he ordered that the Hellespont was to receive 300 lashes under the whip and that a pair of shackles was to be dropped into  the sea.

–Herodotus, Histories 7.34-35.1

He goes on to send “others to brand the Hellespont” (Ibid. 35.1), and to chastise it:

“Bitter water, your master is imposing a penalty upon you for wronging him even though you had suffered no injustices from him.  And King Xerxes will cross you wheter you like it or not.  It is for just cause, after all, that no human offers you sacrifice: you are a burbid and briny river!”

–Ibid. 35.2

It’s hard to say, as I’m not up to the original Greek yet, whether Herodotus and his own audience interpreted this scene the way most modern historians I have spoken to interpreted it—that is, as a sign of his barbarous idiocy, or possibly as tyrannical madness.  Given Herodotus’s typical Greek disdain for foreigners—which is slightly ironic, given that Herodotus, himself, was from Halicarnassus, which many Athenians would have hardly considered Greek—this interpretation is plausible.  But it’s also true that Herodotus, having travelled widely, was well and truly impressed by the works of many “barbarians”, the Persians in particular.  And most modern historians wouldn’t know an enchantment from their own assholes.

As I re-read this scene today, after a few years of escalating magical practice and research into the way things were done in the Old Schools…. well, this scene looks like a binding to me.  How about y’all?


Herodotus, First. Histories. Landmark Herodotus.  Ed. Robert B. Strassler, Trans. Andrea L. Purvis.  New York: Anchor Books, 2009. Print.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Madness or Magic: Xerxes and the Hellespont

  1. Pingback: Marathon according to Herodotus [Freedom] « The Big Board

  2. Simple problem. A storm has wrecked havoc in full view of your army which is mostly composed from people originating in landlocked areas.
    How do you make them try to cross on the largest barge-bridge in history?
    You demonstrate that you can bind the elements to your will by chaining them!. (Its interesting to think that there were extra ankers attached to the chains) You also indirectly remind the troops of the penalties if they defy your order to cross again!

    • That’s an absolutely plausible interpretation. Obviously, given the nature of this blog, I’m favoring the idea that Xerxes was ordering actual magic to be done, but it’s really impossible to say for certain. It’s also perfectly plausible that all three interpretations–Xerxes is insane, the chastisement of the Hellespont is an act of magic, AND it’s ritual theater aimed at motivating the troops–are equally and simultaneously true. Likewise, it may be possible that the truth is some other option that hasn’t even crossed our minds, or that the entire story is one of Herodotus’ infamous fabrications, or folklore that the took for the literal truth.

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