Tales From Herodotus VIII. Story of Cyrus the Great

Translated from Greek

A. Infancy of Cyrus

§1. As a result of a dream, Astyages, king of the Medes, determines to destroy the new-born child Cyrus. He orders Harpagus to put the boy to death.

The oneiromancers of the Magi showed Astyages signs from a certain dream that the child of his daughter was destined to be king instead of him. And so when Cyrus was born, Astyages, to guard himself against this, summoned Harpagus, a man of his household, the most trustworthy of the Medes, and steward of all his wealth, and he said to him the following, “Whatever task  I put before you, do not neglect it in any way. Take the child of Mandane, bring it to your own house, and kill it. You may then bury it in whatever way you wish.” And he replied, “My king, if this is pleasing to you, it shall thus come to pass, for my part must certainly be carried out.”

And having so answered, the child was surrendered to him and he went, weeping, to his estate. When he arrived, he told his wife the whole story as related by Astyages. And she said to him, “Now then, what do you intend to do?” He answered, “Certainly not as Atyages commanded, not even if he goes out of his mind and becomes enraged beyond his present madness shall I, myself, consent to his purpose, nor shall I serve in this sort of slaughter. For a good many reasons, I shall not murder the child; for one, he is of the same family as myself; and also, Astyages is an old man and childless of male offspring. If, once he has died, the crown is destined to be passed on through his daughter, whose son Astyages now kills by my hand, then the greatest risk is left to me in the future; for the sake of my own safety, this child must die, but his murderer must come from the household of Astyages, not mine.”

§2. Harpagus transfers the task of slaying the child to one of Astyages’ own herdsmen.

He said this and then immediately sent a messenger to a certain herdsman whom he knew pastured in the most suitable fields but also in mountains teeming with wild beasts, whose name was Mitradates. The herdsman, summoned, arrived with great haste, and Harpagus said to him, “Astyages commands you to take this child and place it in the loneliest spot in the mountains, that it should most quickly perish. And he commanded [me] to tell you that if you do not kill it, but instead in some way save it, that you shall die the most horrible of deaths. And I have been appointed to supervise the exposure [of the child].”

§3. The herdsman returns home with the child and relates the story to his wife.

After he heard this, he took the child and went back along the same way, and he arrived at his hut. As it happens, his wife had also borne him a child on that very day. When  the herdsman returned, his wife immediately asked him why Harpagus had so urgently sent for him. He said, “Oh my wife, when I went to the city, I saw and heard things which I ought not to have seen. The entire household of Harpagus was gripped in lamentation. I entered, amazed. Quickly inside, I saw a child laid out, squirming and crying, adorned with gold and richly-dyed garments. When Harpagus saw me, he commanded me to take the child and be gone as quickly as possible, to bring it to a place in the mountains most teeming with wildlife and place it there, threatening much should I not do this thing. I took it and carried it away, and along the way I learned the whole story from a servant who escorted me and entrusted the baby [to me], that it is actually the child of Mandane and Cambyses, that Astyages commanded that it be killed. And now here it is.”

§4. The wife implores the herdsman to spare the child. At her suggestion he exposes their own dead infant on the mountains instead of Cyrus, and they bring up Cyrus as their son.

As the herdsman said this he also uncovered [the child] and showed it [to her]. When she saw that the child was big and beautiful, she wept and clasped her husband by the knees and begged that he in no way kill it. But he said that he was unable to do anything otherwise; for spies from Harpagus were always around, watching [them]; and he would die the most horrible death if did not do this thing. And so when she did not at first convince her husband, the wife spoke again as follows, “Since I am unable to convince you not to kill, nevertheless do this, if it is indeed absolutely necessary to be seen exposing a child; for I too have given birth but that baby has died; take that one, place it out, and let us raise the child of Astyages’ daughter as if [he were] ours. In this way neither shall you be arrested for doing your master wrong, nor will it have been badly planned by us; for the one that died will obtain a royal burial, and the survivor shall not lose his life.”

It seemed to the herdsman that his wife spoke very well and at once he did this; what he carried, the child sentenced to death, this he handed over to his wife; and his own, already dead, he took and placed into the basket in which he had carried the other; he clothed it in all the clothing of the other child, carried it out to the loneliest spot of the mountains and put it there.

After three days passed, the herdsman went to the city, and going into the house of Harpagus, he said that the body of the child was ready to show. Harpagus sent his most trustworthy bodyguards and by their proxy he saw and buried the child of the herdsman. And the wife of the herdsman took Cyrus and raised him.

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