“Going beyond all bounds to the realm of myth” in describing the “other”

Further to my previous post on descriptions of the “other” in antiquity, there are a number of ancient authors who devote considerable attention to describing the customs of foreign peoples, with Herodotus (The Histories) being the most well-known. When describing peoples at or beyond the edges of the known world such ethnographers sometimes engaged in the sort of scurrilous accusations we have just noted in relation to the Christians. This coming weekend I am presenting an introductory paper for the “Travel and Religion in Antiquity Seminar” of the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies which explores, among other things, ancient ethnography and travel tales, and I found another tradition of ethnography quite interesting.

The first century geographer, Strabo, expresses his disdain for those ethnographers who describe peoples of distant lands as extremely unclean with an equally condemnable way of life (e.g. cannibalism), a position reflecting an ethnocentric view of concentric circles of lessening civilization. Strabo claims that his approach is more in line with Ephorus of Kyme (fourth century BCE), who, in a way, inverted this approach to foreign peoples. Ephorus’ idealizing approach described those far from the current cultural centre in positive terms as examples to follow:

Now the other writers, he says, tell only about [the Scythians’] savagery, because they know that the terrible and the marvellous are startling, but one should tell the opposite facts too and make them patterns of conduct, and he himself, therefore, will tell only about those who follow “most just” habits, for there are some of the Scythian Nomads who feed only on mare’s milk and excel all men in justice (Strabo, Geography 7.3.9 [trans. LCL]).

Despite Strabo’s observations, however, he himself sometimes engages in the approach to other peoples and lands which he criticizes, “going beyond all bounds to the realm of myth,” as Strabo calls it (15.1.57). James S. Romm (The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought) provides an excellent survey of how Greeks and Romans viewed those real or imagined peoples at and beyond the edges of the known world.

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  1. Pingback: Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean » ‘Come! Plunge the knife into the baby’: Tertullian’s not-so-subtle retort

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