Tales From Herodotus XV. Exploration of Africa

The world according to Herodotus.

Translated from Tales From Herodotus.

B. The Ethiopians

§1. Cambyses, king of Persia, sends men to spy on the Ethiopians, in preparation for an expedition against them; description of the so-called ‘table of the sun.’

Cambyses once planned an expedition against the long-lived Ethiopians,* who dwelled by the southern sea. But first he decided to send out spies, to see whether the Table of the Sun, as it was called among the Ethiopians, was real, and to examine some other things in addition to that, under the pretense of bearing gifts for their king.

The Table of the Sun is said to be a thing such as follows. There is a meadow in a suburb full of the boiled meat of every quadruped, upon which those in power place the meats during the night, and during the day whoever wishes may go to it and feast. And the natives say that the earth itself yields this each day.

Such is the so-called Table of the Sun said to be. And when Cambyses decided to send spies, he at once sent for certain men of the Fish-eaters, from the city of Elephantine, who were acquainted with the Ethiopian tongue. And when they had arrived, he sent them to the Ethiopians, having ordered what they must say, bearing gifts of a purple garment, a necklace of twisted gold, bracelets, a phial of perfume, and a cask of palm wine.

These Ethiopians are said to be the largest and most beautiful of all men. They are different from other men in their customs and in other ways, but in particular as follows, with regard to their king. Whomever of the townsmen they determine to be the largest and to have strength commiserate with his size, this man they deem worthy to become king.

And so, when the Fish-eaters came to these men, they gave the gifts to their king, and said this, “Cambyses, king of the Persians, because he desires to become your friend and bound to you by ties of hospitality**, sent us out to you, bidding us to enter into discourse, and he gives to you these gifts, in the use of which he himself takes pleasure.”

But the Ethiopian understood that they had come as spies, and he said this to them, “The king of the Persians did not send you bearing gifts because he desires to become bound to me by ties of hospitality**, nor do you speak true (for you have come as spies of my dominion), nor is that man righteous; for if he were righteous, he would not have coveted lands other than his own, nor would he have taken into slavery men by whom no-one has been wronged. And now give this bow to him, and say the following words, ‘The king of the Ethiopians advises the king of the Persians to campaign against the long-lived Ethiopians at that time when the Persians just as easily draw bows that are as large as this; until that time be grateful to the gods, who do not turn Ethiopian minds to acquiring other earth in addition to their own.’”

He said this as he unstrung a bow and handed it over to those listening.

* Farnell & Goff note here: “a mythical tribe.”

** This translates ξένος, a difficult word to translate into English. It can mean guest, host, friend, or foreigner, and it’s usually translated as one of those, depending on the context. Really it means all of those things in the sense that I have translated it, and over time became a polite way to refer to any stranger. I chose to translate it this way to make clear its sense of creating a formal, mutual bond between the two kings (however insincere.)

§2. The Ethiopian king despises the dyed garment, the perfume, and the gold ornaments presented to him by the Persians, but is delighted with their wine, which he declares to be the redeeming feature of the Persian diet.

And taking the purple garment, he asked what it was for and how it had been made; and when the Fish-eaters told him the truth about purple and dying, he said the men were false, and their garments were false. Second, he asked about the gold necklace and about the bracelets. When the Fish-eaters explained, the king laughed, believing that they were fetters, and he said that among them fetters were stronger than these. Third, he asked about the perfume. When they told about its making and about anointing, he expressed the same thought as concerning the garment. But when he came to the wine and was informed of its making, the king was very delighted by the drink, and he inquired as to what the Persians ate and how much was the longest time that a Persian man might live. They said they ate bread, explaining the nature of wheat, and that eighty years is the longest measure of life set before a man. To this, the Ethiopian said that no-one should be surprised that people who eat manure live so few years; for neither would he say that they would be able to live even as long as that, unless they restored themselves by drink (referring to the wine); for in this alone they considered themselves defeated by the Persians.

§3. Long life of the Ethiopians; their diet and the miraculous power of a certain fountain.

And when the Fish-eaters asked the king in turn about lifespan and diet, he said that most of them arrived at one and one hundred years, but that some surpassed even this, and that their food was boiled meat and their drink milk. And when the spies expressed amazement concerning the years, he led them to a spring from which those who were washed were made luminous, just as if it were a spring of oil, and scented from it as if it were of violets. But the water of this fountain was weak, indeed the spies said it was a thing such that nothing would be able to sail upon it, neither wood, nor anything even lighter than wood, and everything else would sink to the bottom. But through this water, if it is truly of the sort it is said to be, they would be long-lived who used it for everything.

When they departed from the spring, the king led them to the prison, where everyone was bound in fetters of gold. For copper was, among the Ethiopians, the rarest and most valuable thing of all. And after they had seen the prison, they saw the so-called Table of the Sun. And once they had seen everything, they departed back.

§4. Frenzied and disastrous expedition of Cambyses against the Ethiopians.

When the spies reported back, Cambyses immediately became angry and campaigned against the Ethiopians, and he neither ordered any preparation of supplies, nor did he give it any thought that he was about to campaign at the very edges of the earth. For when he had heard the Fish-eaters, he was enraged and out of his mind, and he campaigned, leading all the infantry at the same time. And before the army had passed through a fifth part of the way, they had suddenly run out of supplies, and after the supplies, he ran out the beasts of burden, for they were eaten. And if Cambyses, when he had learned this, had now changed his mind and had led his army back, after the earliest occurrence of a mistake, he would have been a wise man. But now, making no consideration, he pressed ever onward. And the soldiers survived by eating grass, for as long as there was any to be taken from the earth. But when they came to sand, some of them did a fiendish thing; for they chose one out of every ten of them by lot and ate him.

When Cambyses was informed of this, fearing cannibalism, he abandoned the expedition against the Ethiopians and proceeded back, and he arrived at Thebes, having destroyed most of his army.

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