The subject of this week’s Emergence of Greece tutorial was Herodotus, an ancient historian often known as ‘The Father of History’. He is so-called because he was the first to break away from the poetic tradition and apply himself to prose narrative. The result is a large volume known as The Histories which is widely referenced in ancient and classical studies today. Of course Herodotus’ work was still a long way from that of modern historians. For one thing he had no previous archive of scholarly work to draw from, so the vast majority of his information is drawn from oral history and hearsay. For another, The Histories was intended as much to entertain as to inform, hence the inclusion of many stories and digressions that have little credibility, for the sake of keeping an audience occupied*. This seems like a good point to segue into the story which I want to tell. Don’t worry – this time it’s a funny one.
The Histories are full of digressions; snippets of information that aren’t really relevant to the story but are interesting all the same. One such digression concerns the Gold-Digging Ants.
Gold-Digging Ants? Gold-Digging Ants. Herodotus writes that there was a species of gold-digging ants in the Indian provinces of the Persian Empire. Apparently the sandy deserts there are full of fine gold-dust. The ants would supposedly kick up some of this gold-dust while digging their tunnels and mounds and the local inhabitants would then collect it from the ground. But the gold-digging isn’t the really amazing thing about these ants. The really amazing thing is that they were supposedly the size of a fox and furry all over. Giant, furry gold-digging ants.
Of course, a modern reader would take one glance at that story and scoff. A medieval reader would think, that’s interesting, and enter “gold-digging ants” into his bestiary. But a modern reader would scoff. Surely this is another case of the ancient imagination running wild and inventing mythical creatures that lived somewhere far away. And in some respect, that’s right. There are, of course, no such thing as giant, furry gold-digging ants, in India or anywhere else. But the concept isn’t entirely made up.
Really? Am I about to say that there’s something like a giant, furry gold-digging ant? Only not so big and maybe not so furry? Well, no. But there is something furry, fox-sized and gold-digging in India that isn’t anything like an ant. I’ll get to that in a moment. When Herodotus went around collecting stories, he often had to rely on a translator to communicate with, for instance, Persians. Now, we all know that things often get lost in translation. What’s somewhat rarer is for something to change it’s form in the course of translation. In this case it was a word that meant one thing in the Persian language and sounded very close to something else in the Greek language. The something else in question? Mountain ant. The original Persian word? Marmot.
That’s right. Due to an error in translation, Herodotus recorded giant, furry gold-digging ants instead of much less extraordinary gold-digging marmots. The misconception has lasted up until the last century, when an ethnologist called Michel Peissel cracked it.
However the bit about gold-digging does seem to be accurate. The Deosai Plateau in what is now Pakistan is rich in gold dust and the Himalayan marmot is native to the area. The tribal people of the Deosai Plateau confirmed that they have for many generations collected gold-dust that was thrown up by the marmots digging burrows. So there you have it.
*In those days a literary work was not usually read for oneself in private but aloud to an assembled audience.
I would have just loved to watch that conversation between Herodotus and the Persian…
Herodotus: What’s he talking about?
Translator: He’s describing an animal. A gold-digging… mountain ant?
Herodotus: Well that must be a particular kind of ant. What does it look like?
Persian: *speaks and gestures*
Herodotus: How big?
Translator: He says it’s… the size of a fox?! And that it’s… furry?! 😮
Herodotus: This one’s definitely going in the book.