Arabians: Herodotos (fifth century BCE)

Ancient author: Herodotos of Halikarnassos, Histories, or Inquiries, portions of books 1, 3, and 7 (link to Greek text and translation)

Comments (by Daniel Mitchell): Writing about 420 BCE, Herodotos (also Latinized as Herodotus) of Halikarnassos in Karia (Caria) provides our earliest material about Arabian customs from a Greek perspective. Herodotos’ generalized “Arabians” may relate to a more specific group, such as the southerly Nabateans. Much of the material is focussed on so-called “marvels” and mythical creatures, and references to actual customs are somewhat scattered. But there are some comments on pledges (which refer to native deities) and on the customs of the Arabians related to spices and livestock which are included below. Arabians also appear in Herodotos’ description of Xerxes’ Persian army. Herodotos’ discussion is generally absent of negative evaluations in this case.

Source of the translation: A. D. Godley, Herodotus, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-25), public domain, adapted and modernized by Daniel Mitchell and Harland.


Book 1

[Arabian worship of astral Alilat / Aphrodite Ourania]

131 (3) From the beginning, these are the only gods to whom they [i.e. the Persians] have ever sacrificed. They learned later to sacrifice to Heavenly (Ourania) Aphrodite from the Assyrians and Arabians. She is called by the Assyrians “Mylitta” [Ashtart / Astarte], by the Arabians “Alilat” [Nabatean Allat], and by the Persians “Mitran.”


Book 3

[Pledges and the native deities Orotalt and Alilat]

8 There are no men who respect pledges more than the Arabians. This is how they give their pledges: a man stands between the two pledging parties, and with a sharp stone cuts the palms of their hands near the thumb. Then he takes a piece of wood from the cloak of each person and smears seven stones that lie between them with their blood, while at the same time invoking Dionysos and Heavenly Aphrodite [i.e. Alilat]. (2) After this is done, the person who has given his pledge commends the stranger or his fellow countryman (if the other person happens to be one) to his friends, and his friends hold themselves bound to honour the pledge. (3) They believe in no other gods except Dionysos and Heavenly Aphrodite, and they say that they style their hair as Dionysos styles his, cutting it round the head and shaving the temples. They call Dionysos “Orotalt” [perhaps Nabatean Dushara] and they call Aphrodite “Alilat” [Nabatean Allat, consort of Dushara].

[Engineering of aqueducts and cisterns]

9 (2) . . .I must relate the less credible tale also, since they [i.e. the Arabians] tell it. There is a great river in Arabia called Korys, which empties into the sea called the Erythraean sea [Red Sea]. (3) From this river, it is said, the king of the Arabians brought water by an aqueduct made of sewn ox-hides and other hides, which were extensive enough to reach the dry land, and he had great tanks dug in that land to receive and hold the water. (4) It is twelve days’ journey from the river to that desert. They say that he brought the water to three different places by way of three aqueducts.


[Arabian practices associated with spices and livestock]

107 Again, Arabia is the most distant to the south of all inhabited countries, and this is the only land which produces frankincense, myrrh, cassia, cinnamon and gum-mastich. All these – except for myrrh – are difficult for the Arabians to get. (2) They gather frankincense by burning that storax, which Phoenicians export to Greece. They burn this gum and so get the frankincense, for small winged snakes of different colours guard the spice-bearing trees, swarming around each tree. These are the snakes that attack Egypt [cf. Hdt. 2.75]. Nothing except the smoke of storax will drive them away from the trees. . . [material omitted].

110 The Arabians get frankincense in the way mentioned above, and they get cassia in the following manner: whenever they go after the cassia, they tightly wrap their entire bodies and faces – except the eyes – with ox-hides and other skins. The cassia grows in a shallow marshy lake, but around this lake and within it live winged creatures, which are very similar to bats, that make a dreadful squeak and are stalwart in a fight. The Arabians must keep these creatures away from their eyes in order to take the cassia.

111 As for cinnamon, they gather it in an even stranger way. Where it comes from and what land produces it they cannot say, except that it is reported, reasonably enough, to grow in the places where Dionysos [Orotalt / Dushara (?)] was raised. (2) There are great birds, it is said, that take these dry sticks, which we have learned to call cinnamon from the Phoenicians, and carry them off to nests fastened to high and steep cliffs by means of mud, where a person has no means of access. (3) The Arabian solution to this problem is to cut-up dead oxen, asses and other beasts of burden into the largest pieces possible, and then they set these pieces near the nests and withdraw far off. The birds then fly down, as it is said, and carry the pieces of the meat up to their nests. Then these nests, since they are not able to bear the weight, break and fall down the mountain side, and finally the Arabians come in and gather them up. The cinnamon is gathered in this manner and makes its way from these Arabians to other lands.

112 But gum-mastich, which the Arabians call ladanon, is brought about in an even stranger manner than the cinnamon. For, while it is most fragrant, it is produced in the most ill-smelling thing. For it is found in he-goats’ beards, where it forms in them like a gum among timber. The gum-mastich is used in the manufacture of many perfumes, and there is nothing that the Arabians burn more often than this to make fragrant smoke [i.e. incense].

113 Enough of marvels, and yet the land of Arabia gives off a scent as sweet as if it were divine. In addition to this, the Arabians have two marvellous kinds of sheep that are found nowhere else. One of these sheep has tails no less than nine feet long. Were one to permit the sheep to drag these tails behind them, the sheep would sustain injuries from the tails scrapping along the ground. (2) But every shepherd there knows enough of carpentry to make little carts which they fix under the tails, tying the tail of each sheep to its own cart. The other kind of sheep has a tail a full three feet broad.


Book 7

[Arabians in the Persian army of Xerxes]

69 The Arabians wore mantles with belts, and carried at their right side long bows curving backwards.​ The Ethiopians were wore skins of leopards and lions. They carried bows made of palm-wood strips that were four cubits long in full and carried short arrows pointed not with iron but with a sharpened stone, the type of stone used to carve seals. Moreover they had spears pointed with a gazelle’s horn sharpened to the likeness of a lance, and studded clubs in addition. When they went into battle they painted half their bodies with gypsum and the other half with vermilion. The Arabians and the Ethiopians, who dwell above [i.e. south of] Egypt, had for commander Arsames son of Darius and Artystone daughter of Cyrus, whom Darius loved best of his wives, and had an image made of her of hammered gold.


86 This is their manner of fighting. Their place in the army was with the Persians. The Median horsemen were equipped like their foot soldiers, and the Kissians likewise. The Indians were armed in like manner as their foot soldiers. they rode swift horses and drove chariots drawn by horses and wild asses. The Baktrians were equipped as were their foot soldiers, and the Kaspians in a similar manner. The Libyans too were armed like the men of their infantry, and all of them drove chariots as well. So likewise the Kaspians and Parikanians were armed as the men of their infantry. The Arabians had the same equipment as the men of their infantry, and all of them rode on camels no less swift than horses.

87 These peoples only are riders. The number of the horsemen was shown to be eighty thousand, besides the camels and the chariots. All the rest of the riders were ranked in their several troops, but the Arabians were posted at the back. for the horses that cannot stand the sight of camels, their place was in the back, that so the horses might not be frightened.

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