The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
The Urine and the Vine:
Astyages' Dreams at Herodotus 1.107-8
By: Christopher Pelling
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.
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
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.
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)
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 royal symbol.(9)
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 thought-provoking.
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
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 urination:
his urine [expands(?)] in front of (his) penis and [ ] the wall: [he will not
his urine ex[pands] in front of (his) penis and [ ] the wall, the street: he
will h[ave] sons.
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 [ ].
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....
he sprinkles (himself) with his urine: his (sheep)-fold will expand.
he sprinkles (himself) with his urine and wipes himself (clean): (the disease
called) `Hand of Ishtar'.
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.
he pours his (urine) into a river: his harvest will be bountiful.
he pours his urine into a well: he will lose his property.
he pours his urine into an irrigation-canal: Adad will flood his harvest.
he pou[rs] his urine to his (personal) god [or to] his (personal) goddess: he
will [find(?)] his lost property.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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 Median princess.(32)
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.
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 such attempt.
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.
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 tragic.
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
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)
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 urination dream.
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.
Von Fritz (n. 2), pp. 286-7.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cf. Asheri on 1.107; P. Frisch, Die Traume bei Herodot (Meisenheim, 1968), p.
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
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.
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 (1992), 7-30.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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 discussed
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.
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.
G. Hoffmann, La jeune fille, le pouvoir et la mort (Paris, 1992), pp. 205-6.
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.
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.
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
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.
Cf above, pp. 68-9.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)?
Cf the material collected by Brian Lewis (n. 29), summarized at his pp. 211-12.
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.
As has often been observed: cf especially H. Schwabl, Gymn. 76 (1969) 269 and n.
15; Fehling (n. 2), 110-11.
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
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
(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.
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