Culture

The 10 Wildest Stories From Herodotus Left Out of 300

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Zack Snyder’s 300 is a heart-pounding, jacked-up action thrill ride about an epic battle that actually happened. In the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, a tiny ragtag band of Greek freedom fighters faced down a colossal onslaught from the tyrannical Persian empire. Now, there are some parts of the film — “soulless” Persian super-soldiers, mountainous beast-men, glittering eight-foot-tall monarchs — that can’t have been real. But stretching the truth wasn’t Snyder’s idea. Herodotus, the ancient historian who recorded the wars with Persia, loved insane legends — the more implausible the better. When Snyder filled his film with outsized heroes and mythical beasts, he was taking his cue from Herodotus.

In fact, 300 doesn’t even scratch the surface. Herodotus’ book is massive, and it’s crawling with bizarre creatures and impossible dramas. Most of them aren’t relevant to Thermopylae, so they didn’t even make it into the movie. From barely believable to downright nuts, here are the 10 craziest stories from the book that got left on the cutting room floor.

1. The Mutilated Mom

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This one is so sickening it might just be true. It happened, Herodotus says, after the story in 300, when Xerxes returned to Persia in disgrace. Back home, Xerxes got tangled in a messy love affair with his own daughter-in-law, which enraged his wife, Amestris. On Xerxes’ birthday, Amestris asked her hubby for one tiny favor: hand over his lover’s mother so Amestris could exact her revenge. Amestris took the woman, “hacked off her breasts, hurled them to the dogs, and cut out her nose, ears, lips, and tongue too.” Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned . . .

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2. The Phoenixes

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Sure, Dumbledore had a pet phoenix, but Herodotus was into phoenixes before they were cool. He wasn’t totally convinced about them, but he tossed them into the Histories anyway for the awesome factor. He doesn’t mention the whole “erupting-into-flames-and-being-reincarnated” deal — Herodotus’ story is that the birds build eggs to encase the corpses of their dead fathers and carry them around. Compared to his other stories (giant ants, freakazoid dog-people), this doesn’t really sound all that insane. Still, Herodotus insists the story is “not to be trusted.” But men with dog heads? Totally possible.

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3. The Women Who Pee Standing Up

This one’s a little off-color, but Herodotus isn’t squeamish about it, so here goes: in Egypt, he reports, “the women pee standing up, and the men do it sitting down.” Most scholars are in agreement that nobody wants to know how Herodotus found out about this. His information about how other cultures did things is iffy at best, so chances are good this was an urban legend. In other respects, Herodotus says, the Egyptians are actually pretty dainty and forward-thinking — they even have indoor toilets, the latest in civilized technology. It’s just, you know… the whole peeing thing.

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4. Xerxes and the Half-Man

This could easily have been in the movie, except it’s almost too gruesome. As Emperor Xerxes marched his Persian hordes onward to enslave Greece, his favorite crony started to get antsy about the whole operation. He asked Xerxes to enlist four of his five sons and spare the fifth. But Xerxes was ravenous for power — he accepted nothing less than utter submission. So the emperor had the fifth son sliced in half, laid the two gory slabs of his body on either side of the road “and commanded the army to march between them.” Xerxes was a piece of work.

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5. One Ring to Rule them All

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Candaules, Herodotus explains, was a king of Lydia and kind of a perv. He “fell in love with his own wife,” which sounds adorable, except in practice that meant he made his servants creep into her bedroom and watch her getting naked. Candaules forced his servant, Gyges, to indulge his weird fetish. But the queen caught Gyges and forced him to murder her husband and usurp the throne. It’s an unlikely story, especially because in other versions Gyges ogled whomever he wanted using a magic invisibility ring. If that sounds familiar, it should — it’s likely where Tolkien got the idea.

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6. The Giant Mutant Ants

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Tips for vacationing in Afghanistan: use sunscreen, bring lots of water, and watch out for the mutant gold-mining super-ants. Herodotus casually mentions that the ants near Kabul are “smaller than dogs but bigger than foxes.” But Herodotus seems to care more about the sand the ants dig their tunnels in, which is “infused with gold.” So the locals follow them around on camels scooping up the dust they leave behind. This is remarkable, Herodotus explains, because of how fast the camels in Afghanistan run. Oh, yeah, and because there are insects there the size of freaking coyotes.

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7. The Dog-Headed Men

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Herodotus really does seem to have believed there were guys running around ancient Libya “with the heads of dogs.” As in, average workaday guys whose heads just happened to be furry and have snouts. This was a few millennia before the invention of Nair, so the poor schmucks might have just had a hygiene problem. After all Libya (which as far as Herodotus was concerned was the world’s biggest carnival freak show) also had “wild men and women,” savage half-humans probably covered in hair. Those may actually have been gorillas — or, for the believers, the ancient ancestors of Sasquatch.

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8. The Cyclops Versus the Griffins

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Herodotus lived to pass on great gossip, so he reported what he heard about “one-eyed men and gold-guarding griffins.” Arimaspians (the name means “one-eyed”) supposedly lived among grumpy eagle-lion hybrids who had made the prudent financial decision to invest in gold. So the griffins were sitting on piles of the stuff, and the Arimaspians would constantly try to steal it. Naturally, if you’re a cyclops, your preferred source of precious metals is from the secret stash guarded by a bloodthirsty bird-beast. Apparently they couldn’t just take it from the Leprechauns like normal people.

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9. The Severed Head in a Bag of Blood

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The Iranian Queen Tomyris was a no-nonsense chick who was also, to hear Herodotus tell it, just the tiniest bit out of her ever-loving mind. King Cyrus of Persia pretended to have the hots for her so he could steal her kingdom. Big mistake: Tomyris was no fool, and the plan backfired into an all-out war. The queen crushed the king like a gnat, and Cyrus died in battle. Not satisfied, Tomyris “filled a sack made of skin with human blood,” and “dropped Cyrus’ head into the sack” to disgrace his corpse. The girl could hold a grudge.

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10. The Dudes with Faces on their Chests

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Those crazy ancient Libyans. They had all kinds of wacky fashions: some of them shaved the left sides of their heads. Some of them painted themselves red. And some of them had no heads, just faces on their torsos.

Wait, what?

Herodotus is very clear: in Western Libya, the natives claimed there were “headless men with eyes in their chests.” That’s all Herodotus says — no comment or mention that this might potentially be a little odd. Just dudes. With no heads. And chest-faces. No one has any clue where he got this idea. Somehow it seems somewhat implausible.

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So at this point it’s probably obvious why Herodotus, the “Father of History,” is also called the “Father of Lies.” What do you think — could any of these have really happened? Should some of them have been in 300? These ten are the ones that most rock my world, but if you’ve got others, shout them out. The lines are open — comment below!

This is part two of my series on 300 — last week I looked at the coolest bits that are in the movie, and where they come from in Herodotus. Next week, I’m planning to put it all together to explain why 300, for all its tall tales, is actually more accurate than your history textbook. You won’t want to miss it — it’ll blow your mind.

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