Tales From Herodotus XIX. Scythian Prophets

Translated from Tales From Herodotus.

(a) How they attribute any illness of the king to the perjury of one of his subjects, who is accordingly beheaded.

The prophets of the Scythians are many, who prophesy with many willow sticks as follows: they would bring a large bundle of sticks, and putting them on the ground, they untie them, and putting the sticks upon one another, they prognosticate. And while they say these things, they gather the sticks back up and, one by one, they put them together again. This prophetic art is hereditary among them.

Whenever the king of the Scythians becomes sick, he sends for three men, the most well-regarded of the prophets, who prophesy in the manner described. And these men most usually say this, that someone has sworn falsely by the royal hearths, naming whomever of the townsmen they would name. (It is a custom for the Scythians to swear by the royal hearths any time they wished to swear a most solemn oath.) Immediately, that man whom they say had sworn falsely is seized and led to them. And once he arrives, the prophets charge that it was revealed by a prophecy that he swore falsely by the royal hearths, and the king is in pain due to this. But he denies it, saying that he did not swear falsely, and he complains terribly.

When this man complains terribly, the king sends for twice as many other prophets; and should those men, after looking into the prophetic art, also convict him of swearing falsely, the first group of the prophets cut off that man’s head at once and they distribute his wealth by lot. But if those prophets who came acquit him, other prophets are brought there, and more again. If, then, the majority acquit the man, it is decreed that those first of the prophets themselves be killed.

(b) How the prophets themselves are put to death when mistaken.

And they do indeed kill them, in the following manner. After they fill a small cart with firewood and yoke it to an ox, the prophets, fettered and gagged and with their hands bound behind them, are confined at the center of the firewood. And after they set fire to it they frighten the ox to send it off. Many oxen, therefore, are burned up with the prophets, but many, after burning all around, escape when their wagon pole burns up.

They burn prophets in the manner described for other reasons, too, by calling it false prophecy. And whomever the king would kill, he did not leave their children either, but rather, while he would not harm the females, he would kill all the males.

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