A Message Even A Persian Could Understand

It has been said that the language of international diplomacy is one of subtle, implied threats delivered alongside cocktail-sticks, in foreign, exotic locales.

This might seem an altogether modern maxim, yet as we shall soon see, it is one that is almost equally (if not, frequently, far further) applicable to the relations of the Ancient World.

I’ve earlier posted briefly about one such encounter – that between the Scythian King Idanthrysus and the Persian would-be world-conqueror Darius, wherein the latter’s charges of cowardice and demands for surrender to the former … are met via thrillingly contemptuous reply. The concluding line of which, to translate somewhat figuratively, is effectively the modern “Cry Harder”; and the preceding portions note that Idanthrysus bows to no ruler except his own ancestors, The Gods … and that if Darius is serious in his insulting assessment of Scythian martial valour, that he should come attempt to interfere with the Scythians’ ancestral tombs and see what happens.

But what has caught my imagination today, is another encounter between the same two men (and, for that matter, modes of being) which occurs sometime after the above aforementioned. By this point in the Persians’ failing ‘Scythian Expedition’, it has become rather rapidly apparent that they are not doing very well. Their main encounters with Scythian soldiery take place when the raiders attack without warning, draw the Persians’ columns off on wild goose chases, and then attack again the Persians’ now less-defended camps … especially at meal-times and under cover of darkness. Fatigue is setting in, and the Persians are starting to contemplate maybe turning around and heading home. Rather than, you know, continuing to persist in trying to “catch the Wind”, as one properly prideful Scythian put it.

However, while it might at first seem a desirable outcome for all parties involved that the Persians depart and the invasion be at an end … the Scythians do not see it this way. Instead, due to a combination of having come to view the Persians as the booty-equivalent of “Meals On Wheels”, and no doubt also motivated by a desire to more permanently end the looming threat of Persianate campaigns in their direction by continuing to bleed Darius of manpower and foolhardy Imperial ambition … they work to frustrate any such withdrawal from happening (including, in another rather cool encounter, sending emissaries ahead to the hastily constructed bridging point which had brought the Persians into Scythia in the first place, and which was at that time manned by Ionian-Greek subject-realm soldiery. The Scythians seek to have the Greeks abandon their post at the bridge so as to cut off Darius’ retreat entirely, and proclaim to the Ionians that they are now free of Persian rule, a boon for which they should give thanks to “The Gods and the Scythians”).

This sets the scene for the main subject of this piece – wherein a rather frustrated Darius is in receipt of a Scythian messenger …

“[…] hereon the Scythian princes, understanding how matters stood, despatched a herald to the Persian camp with presents for the king: these were, a bird, a mouse, a frog, and five arrows. The Persians asked the bearer to tell them what these gifts might mean, but he made answer that he had no orders except to deliver them, and return again with all speed. If the Persians were wise, he added, they would find out the meaning for themselves. So when they heard this, they held a council to consider the matter.” [Herodotus, Histories, 4:131]

Now, there are two things to be said about this. The first is that there are an array of theories as to just what it was which was meant via the sending of such seemingly-strange tokens; as in, what was the message which had actually been given. And the second, that flowing on from this are a few interpretations as to why they were sent.

Darius’ own interpretation is characteristically almost cartoonishly arrogant and presumptuous, seemingly out of touch with the reality of the circumstances around him either through desperation or genuine self-important/empowering delusion:

“Darius gave it as his opinion that the Scyths intended a surrender of themselves and their country, both land and water, into his hands. This he conceived to be the meaning of the gifts, because the mouse is an inhabitant of the earth, and eats the same food as man, while the frog passes his life in the water; the bird bears a great resemblance to the horse, and the arrows might signify the surrender of all their power. ” [Herodotus, Histories 4:132]

However, as is often the case with flawed rulers, he had in his immediate circle some comparatively wiser men, capable of seeing (and, pun perhaps intended, reading) the proverbial “Writing Upon The Wall” [bonus-points there, as the original Writing On The Wall refers to a rather more successful Persian conquest’s imminency, but I digress].

“To the explanation of Darius, Gobryas, one of the seven conspirators against the Magus, opposed another which was as follows:- “Unless, Persians, ye can turn into birds and fly up into the sky, or become mice and burrow under the ground, or make yourselves frogs, and take refuge in the fens, ye will never make escape from this land, but die pierced by our arrows. Such were meanings which the Persians assigned to the gifts.” [Herodotus, Histories, 4:132]

I tend to think that Gobryas was probably on to something, although while it is not clear from the text whether these were live animals which had been sent by the Scythians, it does also occur to me that if they were dead, then this would perhaps suggest that whether the Persians chose to hide in holes [like the mouse], flee off into the marshes and attempt amphibious exit from their boiling [like the frog], or even somehow become airborne [like the bird][a feat figuratively managed, to be sure, by a successor generation of Conquerors of the Persians under Alexander, amidst modern-day Afghanistan, but again I digress], that there could be no escape from the Arrows of the Steppe-Lords.

A further interpretation is postulated by the Enlightenment-era Italian scholar, Giambattista Vico. I may return to some of this man’s work in another article at a later time, because there is some rather excellent ‘resonancy’ with the concepts of ‘Divine Language’ that inform quite some of my own theological perspective, as influenced by the somewhat earlier Vijayanagara Brahmin Vedic commentator, Sayana.

But for the moment, it is enough to note that Vico’s interpretation is rather more ‘positive’ – as in, it is a statement about Idanthyrsus and his people which affirms their characteristics, rather than just a ‘vae victus’ message of death to the Persians. Although it is also that as one of its essential elements.

He was working off a slightly different source, though, and instead enumerates the ‘gifts’ as follows – a frog, a mouse, a bird, a ploughshare, and a bow. To which he assigns the symbolic values piece-by-piece with a view to building up a coherent and intelligible message.

The Frog, Vico identifies as representing one who is autochthonous, just as frogs were thought to spring up from the mud in summer. The Mouse, one who makes a home of where they are born. The Bird, Vico correlates to augury and as an indication that The Gods were upon the side of Idanthyrsus, with none higher than the latter other than the former. The Ploughshare, as signifying the bringing under mastery and sovereign dominion of land via toil upon it. The Bow, as representing Idanthyrsus’ martial power, as well as his sacred responsibility to utilize said power to defend his nation.

Or, put together, and in direct contrast to Darius’ situation (who was and had none of these things in relation to the land he was invading – indeed, quite the opposite) … Idanthyrsus was born a native son of Scythia [perhaps even springing up as a natural consequence of necessary circumstance], had made his home and furnished his kingdom there, with Divine Sanction, Blessing and Providence (which would continue with regard to his fairings against the Persians), and without any higher power there than he other than the Gods Themselves; and that what his people had worked to make their own, make prosperous and bountiful, they would fight vigorously to defend against foreign pretenses of domination.

It is quite a cool interpretation; although how realistic, I am not sure. [the plough may seem incongruous for a steppe-borne highly mobile people, although despite its lack of mention in Herodotus’ own account of this meeting in the Histories, it finds other citation in his earlier commentary upon the supposed origin-myths of the Scythians themselves]

Whatever the truth of the matter, there can be little doubt of the Scythians’ overarching [bow-power uber alles indeed] and pointed intent towards the Persians. If it were not apparent from the sendings of arrows accompanied by dead animals, then the sendings of arrows accompanied by dead Persians which followed soon made it abundantly clear.

“Vacam Garjit Lakshanam”, indeed. Or, perhaps, “Ultima Ratio Regum”.

Now as for purpose ..

There have been a few postulations as to just why the Scythians sent a message of this nature – especially in the ‘symbolic’ terms that they did. It’s possible that the whole thing is an allegory, or hearsay, or has embellished to the point of latter-day unreadability, the nature of an actual pseudo-diplomatic encounter.

But leaving all of that aside, one theory which has been advanced is that it represents an attempt at communication which can bypass language-barriers. Something which would have been quite important in the ancient world where two foreign peoples and their rulers should have cause to interact.

I am not sure that that holds, however. Not so much because the ‘message’ of the Scythians was evidently sufficiently lacking in clarity that the Persians could come up with two almost totally opposing interpretations thereof it. But rather because only a few verses beforehand in the Herodotus source, we have an account of a Scythian messenger relaying a communication from Idanthyrsus to Darius with no apparent difficulty. So evidently, there would be limited need for non-linguistic communicative workarounds, or taxidermy-and-fletchery-enabled ‘charades’.

That earlier encounter does afford another possibility. Idanthyrsus’ chill-as-the-North-Wind instruction to Darius to “cry harder” [the more usual translation is “Go Weep”] which closes that message, is referred to by Herodotus as being emblematic of the so-called Scythian mode of speech.

This is often compared to the ‘Laconic’ remarks attributed to various Spartans through roughly contemporaneous source-material; and certainly, it is not hard to see how and why such a comparative linkage might be made.

Yet it is not the terseness which stands out to me in that invective – but rather its cutting, piercing nature as part of the message all up. Idanthyrsus has gotten right to the heart of the Persians’ essential weakness in these strange lands, punctured their prevarications and their pretenses at world-conquering Imperial plenipotentiary with an insult that is also an astute observation. [that being that the Persians are not winning in part because they are attempting to beg the Scythians to fight a conventional war, which the Scythians neither have intent of doing, nor would have been grasped by anyway due to their fundamentally different modus vivendi; and therefore, all up, that the Persians are now reduced to plaintive insults in a pathetic bid to force the acknowledgement of their own ruler as supreme].

The etymology of “Scythian” itself, comes down to us from earlier Proto-Indo-European derived terms for “Shooting”, “Skewering”, “Spearing”, and the like. It is not hard to see how the famed horse-archers of the Steppe acquired such an ethnonym in the mouths of their awe-struck adversaries, employers, and fable-writers far from the lands in question. It carries powerful, damn near mythic resonancies to it all its own. Of the figures and the features of a pre-‘civilized’ and perhaps ‘un-civilizable’ [at least in the sense that ‘civilization’ means ‘imperial dominion’ and conquest from without] clade who yet still embodied the essential characteristics of the far more further archaic Indo-Europeans of ages past; and who really could confront the might of an alleged ‘master of the four corners of the world’ with a sneer and a braggadocio-laden challenge. And win.

The “Scythian mode of speech”, then, perhaps refers to “Scythian” in this etymological sense. What we would today call a ‘cutting remark’ (one which ‘cuts down to size’, which wounds the target … especially as a decapitation-strike upon an overly swollen head, to reference the concept of the Roudran Theological Argument).

In this sense, I understand the Symbolic Message of Idanthrysus to Darius as being, perhaps a ‘conundrum’ designed to occupy the Persians’ headquaters for a time while the Scythians continued to outmaneuver them elsewhere in the strategic sense … but more to the ‘point’, as being the spear-head of humour. A most potent weapon, indeed.

It is saying to Darius and his men something along the lines of “You shall die here, although this is not yet immediately apparent to you (you have not worked out the riddle either of these symbols or the surrounding events of your campaign, yet, have you …) …. while we watch, from a distance, and laugh.

So Run – for all the good that it shall do you.”

Darius himself appears to have worked this out shortly after, during the course of an incident wherein a Scythian army had drawn itself up in formation afore the Persians as if to make an attack … only to then apparently get distracted by a hare. Herodotus presents it as a genuine occurrence which can be taken at face value … yet I see it quite differently. There would be limited reason for a battle-line to be thrust into disarray immediately prior to an engagement’s commencement, especially not after something as otherwise inconsequential as a single rabbit.

That’s not to say that Darius didn’t see what Herodotus says he saw, of course. On the contrary, I think it makes sense that he did. It’s just that the event in question, that of a group of Scythians hunting a prey-animal with wild shouts and exhortations and no need for densely-aligned well-drilled formations in pursuit of their frightened quarry …

… well, I think that it was quite likely staged. A visual demonstration, a twisting of the knife to the message which had been sent the day before, of what the Scythians thought of their foe and the likely soon-to-ensue course of events.

To quote once more from Herodotus:

“Darius, hearing the noise, inquired the cause of it, and was told that the Scythians were all engaged in hunting a hare. On this he turned to those with whom he was wont to converse, and said:- “These men do indeed despise us utterly: and now I see that Gobryas was right about the Scythian gifts. As, therefore, his opinion is now mine likewise, it is time we form some wise plan whereby we may secure ourselves a safe return to our homes.” “Ah! sire,” Gobryas rejoined, “I was well nigh sure, ere I came here, that this was an impracticable race – since our coming I am yet more convinced of it, especially now that I see them making game of us.” [Herodotus, Histories 4:134]

It is a message so simple in its eloquence that even a Persian could understand.

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