Herodotus on Persian customs

Maybe remind students why Herodotus is our most important source – even if he was a Greek, then allow students to comment freely on his passage about Persian customs. Important to exercise imaginations to think what the Persians were really like – how much has Herodotus misunderstood? One hopes the students will see why Herodotus found them so different and so interesting. These sorts of topics were being regularly debated in Athens, where Herodotus was living - and could argue with other leading intellectuals (maybe Sophocles, Socrates, Pericles)

This long extract (The Histories I. 131 - 140), should stimulate plenty of argument - especially about different types of religion, the environment, manners and etiquette.

Para 1

Herodotus sees the Persians as almost the opposite of the Greeks: they do erect statues, and build temples and altars. They do believe their gods are human-like. The Greeks don’t climb mountains to sacrifice, or sacrifice to the elements – each element has a god/goddess who can be worshipped in their own space. The Greeks do have altars, fires, libations, flutes, flowers etc. Greeks would pray for themselves, and the meat from a sacrifice would be shared out among those present.

Para 2

Ask students to describe a friend's birthday party – as if it was a very weird idea, and they had never been to one before.

Para 3

They like their wine ... One hopes students experience of drunkenness will be limited! But their views will be interesting. The Greeks were not afraid to perform various bodily functions in public – there are pictures of vomiting for example on Athenian pottery. It's been suggested that our own government has taken some decisions while drunk! Alcohol is banned in modern Iran - even though the earliest evidence of wine-making is from there. Vines are grown, but only for juice!

Brygos Painter


Para 4

...throws himself down and prostrates himself   This custom later led to big problems for Alexander the Great – the Persians in his court were used to prostrating themselves, but to a Greek this was unheard of. He wanted to treat the Greeks and Persians equally ... Compare Persian  methods of greeting with modern ones. Do we also have  different rituals for different types of people?

Para 5 and 6

Ask students if they wear baseball caps, drink coke, and listen to rap, before asking them if they are better than the Americans!

Para 7

Persian evidence (the Persepolis Fortification Archive) would seem to indicate that Herodotus is wrong about the polygamy – the records show a surprising equality between the sexes (certainly a much less oppressive regime than would have been found in Athens). See page 31. But the ideal of Persian education has been much admired (in English public schools!)

Para 10

...offended against the sun  Notice the importance of sun, as source of light – much will become clear later when Zoroastrianism is discussed ) Zoroastrians left their dead to be eaten by birds – this is where Herodotus might have got his idea in 12 from. Two things are very important in Iran to this day – the sun, which can be unbearably hot, and water, which can be hard to find. Hence the importance of Mithra (the Sun )and Anahita (Water) in the Zoroastrian religion.

Paras 11 and 12

Worship/respect for the sun, and rivers (see note above). Zoroastrians – as we’ll see – to avoid polluting the elements of earth, air, fire and water, left their dead to be “recycled” by birds – eventually in “Towers of Silence” built for this purpose. (Zoroastrians in present day Iran – there are a few still – are no longer allowed to follow this tradition).

Picture is a "Tower of Silence" in Yazd, central Iran. Parsis in India and Pakistan, descended from Zoroastrians who fled from Iran to avoid the Arab invasions in 7th century AD, still perform the ritual: From Wikipedia:

The pollution that is associated with death has to be handled carefully. A separate part of the home is designated to house the corpse for funeral proceedings before being taken away. The priest comes to say prayers that are for the cleansing of sins and to affirm the faith of the deceased. Fire is brought to the room and prayers are begun. The body is washed and inserted clean within a sudre and kusti. The ceremony then begins, and a circle is drawn around the body into which only the bearers may enter. As they proceed to the cemetery they walk in pairs and are connected by white fabric. A dog is essential in the funeral process because it is able to see death. The body is taken to the tower of death where the vultures feed on it. Once the bones are bleached by the sun they are pushed into the circular opening in the center. The mourning process is four days long, and rather than creating graves for the dead, charities are established in honor of the person.


Get students to describe (in the manner of Herodotus) the activities and behaviour of a group of their choice (football fans, chess players, cheerleaders or whatever). It's important to describe what they do, but without appearing to understand why they behave as they do – just like Herodotus with his Persian customs.


More on the website: https://www.the-persians.co.uk/darius3.htm