Indians: Herodotos on eastern peoples at the ends of the earth (mid-fifth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Daniel Mitchell, 'Indians: Herodotos on eastern peoples at the ends of the earth (mid-fifth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified September 14, 2023,

Ancient author: Herodotos of Halikarnassos, Histories, or Inquiries, portions of books 3, 5, 7, and 8 (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 account of the Indians. Herodotos relies almost exclusively on Persian sources for his evidence on the Indians, and it is hard to assess the reliability of such sources in light of things like his supposed Persian source on the giant ants (3.102-105). For the benefit of his (Greek) readers, Herodotos often employs erroneous contemporary Greek theories about world geography to better frame and contextualize his questionable information on India, which only serves to compound the difficulties. In consequence, Herodotos’ excursus on India and the Indian peoples – more so than with some other closer peoples – is more fiction than fact.

Herodotos’ account of the Indians covers a variety of topics including Indian geography, peoples, social customs and dress, and military prowess. In general, Herodotos’ assessment of the Indians – as with all peoples who live beyond the “civilized” world – is partially couched in negative stereotypes associated with nomadic, semi-nomadic, and non-urban “barbarians.” That said, Herodotos treats the Indian peoples with a degree of both amazement and reserve. Much of his narrative is about paradoxical practices and phenomena (hence the scholarly term paradoxography). This attention to amazing wonders is notable when he discusses the giant ants who mine gold and the Kallatian tribe of India who supposedly eat their relatives. Herodotos’ presentation is sometimes ironic, however, as he assesses so nonchalantly the shocking practices he has chosen to display precisely for their shock value, it seems. Rather than actively joining the Greek soldiers in criticizing the practice of familial cannibalism, for instance, Herodotos passively refers to the Greek poet Pindar’s adage that “custom is king” (see 3.38). Claims that far off peoples or even local ethnic minorities engaged in human sacrifice and/or cannibalism are, of course, very common and far from factual.

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 3

[Kallatian people of India and supposed cannibalistic funerary customs]

38 . . . (3) When Darius was king [of the Persians, reigned 550-486 BCE], he summoned the Greeks who were with him and asked them for what price they would eat their fathers’ dead bodies. They answered that there was no price for which they would do it. (4) Then Darius summoned those Indians who are called Kallatians (Kallatiai) [i.e. the “black ones” derived from the Sanskrit kala = “black”], who eat their parents. Darius asked them – with the Greeks being present and understanding what was said through interpreters – what would make them willing to burn their fathers at death [i.e. a Greek practice]. The Indians cried out that he should not speak of such a horrible act. Such beliefs are so firmly rooted. It is, I think, rightly said in Pindar’s poem that “custom (nomos) is lord of all” [the poem is not extant, but the phrase also recurs in Plato’s Gorgias, 484b; link].

[Comment on Indian territories as the most populous area in a list of peoples’ payments of tribute to Darius]

94 (2). . . The Indians made up the twentieth province [of Darius’ Persian empire]. These are more in number than any people about which we know, and they paid a greater tribute than any other province, namely three hundred and sixty talents of gold dust.

[Ethiopians and Kallatians of India use the same plant-seed for crops]

97 (2) . . . As for those on whom no tribute was laid, but who rendered gifts instead, they were, firstly, the Ethiopians nearest to Egypt, whom Cambyses conquered in his march towards the Macrobian (“long-lived”) Ethiopians, and also those who dwell around the holy Nysa [i.e. Mount Jebel Barkal in modern Sudan], where Dionysos is the god of their festivals. These Ethiopians and their neighbors use the same plant seed as the Indian Kallatians, and they live underground.

[Geography and customs of the peoples]

98 All this abundance of gold, from which the Indians send the above mentoined gold-dust to the king [of Persia], they obtain in the following way. (2) To the east of the Indian land is sand. Of all the people of Asia whom we know – even those about whom something is said with precision – the Indians live closest to the dawn and the rising sun. For on the eastern side of India everything is desolate because of the sand.

(3) There are many Indian peoples and none speak the same language. Some of them are nomads and some not, while some dwell in the river marshes and live on raw fish, which they catch from reed boats. Each boat is made of one joint of reed. (4) These Indians wear clothes made from bullrushes. They mow and cut these rushes from the river, then weave them crosswise like a mat and wear them like a breastplate.

[Supposed cannibalism of the Padaians]

99 Other Indians, to the east of these, are nomads and eat raw flesh. They are called Padaians (Padaioi). It is said to be their custom that, when anyone of them (whether man or woman) is sick, a man’s closest friends kill him saying that he will be lost to them as meat if he is wasted by disease. Though he denies that he is sick, they will not believe him, but kill and eat him. (2) When a woman is sick, she is put to death (like the men) by the women who are her close acquaintances. They sacrifice anyone who reaches old age and feast on his flesh. But not many of them reach old age, for the Padians kill everyone who gets sick before that time.

[Vegetarianism among another people with unusual sexual practices]

100 There are other Indians, again, who kill no living creature, nor plant anything, nor are accustomed to having houses. They eat grass, and they have a grain growing naturally from the earth in its husk, about the size of a millet-seed, which they gather with the husk, boil and eat. When any one of them falls sick, he goes into the desert and lies there, and no one notices whether he is sick or dies. 101 These Indians whom I have described have intercourse openly like cattle. They are all black-skinned, like the Ethiopians. (2) Their semen too, which they ejaculate into the women, is not white like other men’s, but black like their skin and resembles in this respect that of the Ethiopians. These Indians dwell far away from the Persians southwards, and were not subjects of king Darius.

[Indian peoples of Afghanistan where there is gold-dust and giant ants]

102 Other Indians dwell near the town of Kaspatyros and the Paktyike land [modern Paktia province in Afghanistan], north of the rest of India. These Indians live like the Baktrians, and they are the most warlike of all Indians. It is these Indians who are sent for the gold [i.e. the gold tribute to Persia in 3.94]. In these regions everything is desolate because of the sand. (2) In this sandy desert are ants, not as big as dogs but bigger than foxes. The Persian king has some of these, which have been caught there. These ants live underground, digging out the sand in the same way as the ants in Greece, to which they are very similar in shape, and the sand which they carry from the holes is full of gold. (3) It is for this sand that the Indians set forth into the desert. They harness three camels each, setting the female camel in the middle while the two male camels linked by a rope follow her on either side. The human rider mounts himself on the female camel after he has made sure that the she-camel about to be yoked has been separated from her calves at their youngest possible age. Their camels are as swift as horses and are much better able to bear additional burdens. . . [section 103 omitted]. . . 104 With teams harnessed in this way the Indians ride after the gold, being careful to be engaged in collecting it when the heat is greatest because the ants are then out of sight underground.

(2) Now in these parts the sun is hottest in the morning, not at midday as elsewhere, but from sunrise to the hour of market-closing. Through these hours it is much hotter than in Greece at noon, so they say that men sprinkle themselves with water at this time. (3) At midday the sun’s heat is nearly the same in India as elsewhere. As it goes to afternoon, the sun of India has the power of the morning sun in other lands. As day declines it becomes ever cooler, until at sunset it is exceedingly cold.

105 So when the Indians [who collect the gold] come to the place with their sacks, they fill these with the sand and drive back as fast as possible, because the ants immediately smell them (as the Persians report) and chase after the people. They say nothing can match the giant ants’ speed, so that unless the Indians have a headstart while the ants were gathering, not one of them would get away. (2) They cut loose the male camels linked by rope, which are slower than the females, one at a time as they begin to lag. The female camels never tire, for they remember the young calves that they have left behind. Such is the tale. Most of the gold, say the Persians, is acquired in this manner by the Indians. They dig some from mines in their country as well, but it is less abundant.

[Climate and its benefits]

106 Those who live at the extremities of the world have somehow obtained the finest things, just as Greece has obtained the best seasons. (2) As I have recently said, India lies at the world’s most distant eastern limit, and in India all living creatures, both four-footed and flying, are much bigger than those of other lands. The exception is the horses, which are smaller than the Median breed of horses called “Nesaian” (Nesaiai). Moreover, the gold there, whether dug from the earth, brought down by rivers, or acquired as I have previously described, is very abundant. (3) Additionally, wool [i.e. cotton] more beautiful and excellent than the wool of sheep, grows on wild trees there. These trees supply the Indians with clothing.


Book 7

[Indians in Xerxes’ Persian army: military equipment]

65 The Indians wore garments of tree-wool [i.e. cotton], carried reed bows and iron-tipped reed arrows. Such was their equipment. They were appointed to march under the command of Pharnazathres son of Artabates.

70 The Ethiopians above Egypt [i.e. south of Egypt] and the Arabians had Arsames for commander, while the Ethiopians of the east – for there were two kinds of them in the army – served with the Indians. They were not different in appearance from the others, only in speech and hair. The Ethiopians from the east are straight-haired, while the ones from Libya have the woolliest hair of all men. (2) These Ethiopians of Asia were for the most part armed like the Indians, but they wore on their heads the skins of horses’ foreheads, stripped from the head with ears and mane. . .

86 The Indians were armed in the same manner as their infantry. They rode swift horses and drove chariots drawn by horses and wild asses.

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