Herodotus on the edges of the earth

According to Herodotus - and all ancient people - the edges of the earth were the parts of the world where fabulous creatures and savage barbarians lived. Herdotus' ideas are offered here in the translation by Aubrey de Sélincourt.

Herodotus on the edges of the earth

[3.106] It would seem to be a fact that the remotest parts of the world are the richest in minerals and produce the finest specimens of both animal and vegetable life.

The most easterly country in the inhabited world is, as I said just now, India; and here both animals and birds are much bigger than elsewhere - if we except the Indian horse, which is inferior in size to the Median breed known as the Nisaean. Gold, too, is found here in immense quantity, either mined, or washed down by rivers, or stolen from the ants in the manner I have described; and there are trees growing wild which produce a kind of wool better than sheep's wool in beauty and quality, which the Indians use for making their clothes.note

[3.107] Again, the most southerly country is Arabia; and Arabia is the only place that produces frankincense, myrrh, cassia, cinnamon, and the gum called ledanon. All these, except the myrrh, cause the Arabians a lot of trouble to collect.

When they gather frankincense, they burn storax (the gum which is brought into Greece by the Phoenicians) in order to raise a smoke to drive off the flying snakes; these snakes, the same which attempt to invade Egypt, are small in size and of various colors, and great numbers of them keep guard over all the trees which bear the frankincense, and the only way to get rid of them is by smoking them out with storax.       

[3.108] The Arabians say that the whole wand would swarm with these creatures were it not for a certain peculiar fact - the same thing, incidentally, as keeps down the spread of adders. And indeed it is hard to avoid the belief that divine providence, in the wisdom that one would expect of it, has made prolific every kind of creature which is timid and preyed upon by others, in order to ensure its continuance, while savage and noxious species are comparatively unproductive. Hares, for instance, which are the prey of all sorts of animals, not to mention birds and men, are excessively prolific; they are the only animals in which superfetation occurs, and you will find in a hare's womb young in all stages of development, some with fur on, others with none, others just beginning to form, and others, again, barely conceived.

A lioness, on the contrary, the most bold and powerful of beasts, produces but a single cub, once in her life - for she expels from her body not only the cub, but her womb as well - or what is left of it. The reason for this is that when the unborn cub begins to stir, he scratches at the walls of the womb with his claws, which are sharper than any other animal's, and as he grows bigger scrabbles his way further and further through them until, by the time he is about to be born, the womb is almost wholly destroyed.note       

[3.109] In the same way, if adders and the Arabian flying snakes were able to reproduce themselves naturally, it would be impossible for men to live. Fortunately, however, they are not; for when they couple, the female seizes the male by the neck at the very moment of the release of the sperm, and hangs on until she has bitten it through. That finishes the male; and the female, too, has to pay for her behavior, for the young in her belly avenge their father by gnawing at her insides, until they end by eating their way out. Other species of snakes, which are harmless to men, lay eggs and hatch out their young in large numbers. The reason why flying snakes seem so numerous in Arabia is that they are all concentrated in that country - you will not find them anywhere else, whereas adders are common all over the world.

[3.110] When the Arabians go out to collect cassia, they cover their bodies and faces, all but their eyes, with ox-hides and other skins. The plant grows in a shallow lake which, together with the ground round about it, is infested by winged creatures like bats, which screech alarmingly and are very pugnacious. They have to be kept from attacking the men's eyes while they are cutting the cassia.

[3.111] The process of collecting cinnamon is still more remarkable. Where it comes from and what country produces it, they do not know: the best same of them can do is to make a fair guess that it grows somewhere in the region where Dionysus was brought up. What they say is that the dry sticks, which we have learnt from the Phoenician's to call cinnamon, are brought by large birds, which carry them to their nests, made of mud, on mountain precipices, which no man can climb, and that the method the Arabians have invented for getting hold of them is to cut up the bodies of dead oxen, or donkeys, or other animals into very large joints, which they carry to the spot in question and leave on the ground near the nests. They then retire to a safe distance and the birds fly down and carry off the joints of meat to their nests, which, not being strong enough to carry the weight, break and fall to the ground. Then the men come along and pick up the cinnamon, which is subsequently exported to other countries.

[3.112] Still more surprising is the way of getting ledanon - or ladanum as the Arabians call it. Sweet-smelling substance though it is, it is found in a most malodorous place: sticking, namely, like glue in the beards of he-goats who have been browsing amongst the bushes. It is used as an ingredient in many kinds of perfume, and is what the Arabians chiefly burn as incense.

[3.113] I have said enough about the perfumes of Arabia. Let me only add that the whole country exhales a more than earthly fragrance.

One other thing is remarkable enough to deserve a mention - the sheep. There are two kinds, such as are found nowhere else: one kind has such long tails - not less than 4½ feet - that if they were allowed to trail on the ground, they would develop sores from the constant friction; so to obviate this, the shepherds - who, fortunately, have sufficient knowledge of carpentry - make little carts and fix one of them under the tail of each sheep, to keep it clear of the ground. The other kind have flat tails, 45 centimeters broad.       

[3.114] The furthest inhabited country towards the south-west is Ethiopia; here gold is found in great abundance, and huge elephants, and ebony, and all sorts of trees growing wild; the men, too, are the tallest in the world, the best-looking, and longest-lived. 

[3.115] So much for the countries at the furthest limits of Asia and Libya.

About the far west of Europe I have no definite information, for I cannot accept the story of a river called by non-Greek peoples the Eridanus, which flows into the northern sea, where amber is supposed to come from; nor do I know anything of the existence of islands called the Tin Islands, whence we get our tin.

In the first place, the name Eridanus is obviously not foreign but Greek, and was invented by some poet or other; and, secondly, in spite of my efforts to do so, I have never found anyone who could give me firsthand information of the existence of a sea beyond Europe to the north and west. Yet it cannot be disputed that tin and amber do come to us from what one might call the ends of the earth

[3.116] It is clear that it is the northern parts of Europe which are richest in gold, but how it is procured is another mystery. The story goes that the one-eyed Arimaspians steal it from the griffins who guard it; personally, however, I hesitate to believe in one-eyed men who in other respects are like the rest of us. In any case it does seem to be true that the countries which lie on the circumference of the inhabited world produce the things which we believe to be most rare and beautiful.

This page was created in 1995; last modified on 14 July 2020.