We were pleased to welcome Alexander Hollmann (University of Washington) for an Open House discussion about Herodotus. The event was recorded.
His book, The Master of Signs: Signs and the Interpretation of Signs in Herodotus’ Histories, is available online.
You can watch this discussion in the frame below, or on our YouTube channel. To prepare for this event you may like to read the following passages below.
Members may like to continue the discussion on this Forum thread.
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Focus passages from Herodotus
Now Dareios’ opinion was that the Scythians were handing themselves as well as [the gift of] earth and water over to them, and he reasoned along the following lines, namely that a mouse lives in earth and eats the same food as man, a frog lives in water, a bird is most comparable to a horse, and that by surrendering their arrows to him they were also surrendering their own strength.
The opinion of Gobryas, one of the seven men who deposed the Magos, was in direct opposition to this one. He reckoned that the gifts were saying, “If you do not become like birds and fly up into the heavens, o Persians, or become like mice and sink under the earth, or become like frogs and leap into the lakes, you will not return home again, being shot at with these arrows.” This is how the Persians went about interpreting the gifts.
When they (the Spartans) kept being defeated by the Tegeans, they sent ambassadors to Delphi to ask which god they should propitiate to prevail against the Tegeans in war. The Pythia responded that they should bring back the bones of Orestes, son of Agamemnon.  When they were unable to discover Orestes’ tomb, they sent once more to the god1 to ask where he was buried. The Pythia responded in hexameter to the messengers: 
“There is a place Tegea in the smooth plain of Arcadia,
Where two winds blow under strong compulsion.
Blow lies upon blow, woe upon woe.
There the life-giving earth covers the son of Agamemnon.
Bring him back, and you shall be lord of Tegea.
… It was Lichas, one of these men, who found the tomb in Tegea by a combination of luck and skill. At that time there was free access to Tegea, so he went into a blacksmith’s shop and watched iron being forged, standing there in amazement at what he saw done.  The smith perceived that he was amazed, so he stopped what he was doing and said, “My Laconian guest, if you had seen what I saw, then you would really be amazed, since you marvel so at ironworking.  I wanted to dig a well in the courtyard here, and in my digging I hit upon a coffin twelve feet long. I could not believe that there had ever been men taller than now, so I opened it and saw that the corpse was just as long as the coffin. I measured it and then reburied it.”
Realizing what was being said, he [Likhas] conjectured that this [skeleton] was Orestes according to the oracle, conjecturing as follows: seeing the two bellows of the blacksmith he found the two winds, in the anvil and hammer he found the “blow and counterblow,” and in the iron being hammered out he found the “woe upon woe,” reasoning it out along the following lines, that the discovery of iron was to the detriment of mankind.
As a marturion for him that this was true, she said that Periandros had put his loaves into the oven when it was cold. When this was reported back to Periandros (the token [sumbolaion] was a trustworthy one to him, since he had had intercourse with Melissa when she was dead), he put out a proclamation immediately after this message that all the wives of the Corinthians should go to the temple of Hera.
Themistocles and the “wooden wall” oracle 7.143
Now there was a certain Athenian, by name and title Themistocles son of Neocles, who had lately risen to be among their chief men. He claimed that the readers of oracles had incorrectly interpreted the whole of the oracle and reasoned that if the verse really pertained to the Athenians, it would have been formulated in less mild language, calling Salamis “cruel” rather than “divine ” seeing that its inhabitants were to perish. Correctly understood, the gods’ oracle was spoken not of the Athenians but of their enemies, and his advice was that they should believe their ships to be the wooden wall and so make ready to fight by sea. When Themistocles put forward this interpretation, the Athenians judged him to be a better counsellor than the readers of oracles, who would have had them prepare for no sea fight, and, in short, offer no resistance at all, but leave Attica and settle in some other country.
Alexander Hollmann is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Washington. His interests are generally in ancient Greek language and literature and in Greek religion. More specifically, he is interested in Greek literary prose, particularly the historian Herodotus: his book, The Master of Signs: Signs and the Interpretation of Signs in Herodotus’ Histories, is about how Herodotus presents figures in the Histories interpreting and using signs (e.g. oracles, portents, dreams, riddles, objects) and he has published articles on related aspects in the text. Another great interest is religion and magic: he has been working for some time on curse tablets on lead from ancient Antioch in Syria, several of which he has published, and he is collaborating with Professor Robert Daniel of the University of Cologne on a project to publish these and other magical texts in Greek from the Eastern Mediterranean.
Featured image credit
H. Emeriaud (photo), Marble Bust of Herodotus (200CE) Copy of a Greek Bronze, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York