Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Ethiopian King's Bow

I am reading Herodotus of Halicarnassos again, as I try to do every few years. Herodotus is a cunning storyteller, and his Histories was the Book of Gold for me as a teen. I have just found this story: when Cambyses of the Persians, after conquering Egypt, sent spies into Ethiopia to discover its weaknesses, the king of that land confronted the spies in this way:

Your king is not a just man--for were he so, he had not coveted a land which is not his own, nor brought slavery on a people who never did him any wrong. Bear him this bow, and say, -- 'The king of the Ethiops thus advises the king of the Persians -- when the Persians can pull a bow of this strength thus easily, then let him come with an army of superior strength against the long-lived Ethiopians -- till then, let him thank the gods that they have not put it into the heart of the sons of the Ethiops to covet countries which do not belong to them.'

How proud, that speech! That people were of course a foot taller than the Persians of that time, and the king must have seemed very imposing.

The test of the bow is a motif in many ancient legends. I am reminded especially of Rama in Hindu myth, who passes the test of stringing the bow of Shiva (see the portrait) - in fact passes the test so well that the bow breaks when he strings it!

What other myths or stories use this test?

6 comments:

Emily Jane said...

There's part of Odysseus' story that has a test involving a bowstring - while Odysseus is wandering, there are many men vying for his wife Penelope's hand in marriage. She declares that she won't marry anyone unable to string her husband's bow. Naturally, none of them are up to the task, and eventually Odysseus returns, disguised, and strings the bow himself.

Penelope was a clever one - she also said she wouldn't remarry before a cloth she was weaving was finished ... a cloth which she wove each day, and unwove in secret each night. (though how the men never caught on I don't know...)

Dante's Heart said...

Aha! I can't believe my mind skipped over that one. Thanks, Emily Jane.

I think this must be a common mythic tale type, with analogues in different cultures.

BCKnowlton said...

Once Cambyses conquers Egypt, he begins to act abusively and even insanely. The translation I am now reading (in The Landmark Herodotus) has the Ethipoian king say "You are not telling the truth." It reminded me of what Herodotus had told us about the Persians earlier. They are taught to tell the truth (1.136), and to tell a lie is the most disgraceful thing a Persian can do (1.138). This transgression of a fundamental Persian value probably foreshadows the fate of Cambyses.

BCKnowlton said...

That bow is strung by Cambyses' brother, and Cambyses has him killed...

BCKnowlton said...

And in Book 4 of Herodotus, in a story about the origins of the Scythians, Herakles, who had come to that land in the course of his adventures, and stayed long enough to father three sons by a snake-woman who lived there, is about to leave when the woman asks what she should do with his sons when they come of age. He hands her a bow, and says that the one who can string it should stay and the others should be sent away. The youngest one, Scythes, is the one who is able to string the bow, and he becomes the first king of Scythia.

Dante's Heart said...

I do remember that now - Herakles leaving behind him that bow. Thank you, BC. These stories are a good gift to all of those reading this blog.

It seems Herodotus loved that tale of the testing of the bow and used it more than once....