The word “history” has always been controversial. To the Greeks, ‘ιστορια meant an “inquiry.” To the Romans, historia meant “story,” “poetic narrative of the past,” or “history.” My favorite history writer is Herodotus, who traveled around collecting stories, some myths and legends, others firsthand accounts of events, and wove them into a delicious pastiche.
History is made-up: we pretty much know that from newspapers. Reporters sometimes get things wrong, rely too much on interviews (people lie), or misinterpret information (just think of the election of 2000, when Fox inexplicably declared Bush the winner). As for historians, they reinterpret documents every thirty years or so. One minute Thomas Jefferson is a hero; the next he’s an exploiter of slaves and women. One minute Susan B. Anthony is a heroine on a coin; the next minute the coin is whisked away and her status drops except in women’s history classes.
Herodotus (fifth century B.C.) is a brilliant writer. Even in his myths and legends, he develops believable characters, Do you know the story of Gyges? He was a bodyguard to whom King Candaules of Lydia insisted on showing his naked wife to prove her beauty. Hidden behind the open door of the chamber, the reluctant Gyges couldn’t wait to get out of there. But the queen saw him leave, and, furious, decided to take vengeance upon Candaules. She gave Gyges the choice of killing Candaules or being killed. It’s a grisly story about how Gyges became king, based on a poem by Archilochus.
How about the story of Arion and the dolphin? Arion, a harper, hired a vessel to sail from Taenarum to Corinth, but the sailors decided to seize his riches. They asked him to kill himself or jump overboard. Arion asked if he could sing on the quarterdeck before jumping overboard. He charmed a dolphin, who carried him back to shore at Taenarum.
Here’s a quote from Herodotus, Histories, I.23, both in Greek and English. I thought you might like to look at the Greek.
τῷ δὴ λέγουσι Κορίνθιοι (ὁμολογέουσι δέ σφι Λέσβιοι) ἐν τῷ βίῳ θῶμα μέγιστον παραστῆναι, Ἀρίονα τὸν Μηθυμναῖον ἐπὶ δελφῖνος ἐξενειχθέντα ἐπὶ Ταίναρον, ἐόντα κιθαρῳδὸν τῶν τότε ἐόντων οὐδενὸς δεύτερον, καὶ διθύραμβον πρῶτον ἀνθρώπων τῶν ἡμεῖς ἴδμεν ποιήσαντά τε καὶ ὀνομάσαντα καὶ διδάξαντα ἐν Κορίνθῳ.
“In (the tyrant Periander’s) time a very wonderful thing is said to have happened. The Corinthians and the Lesbians agree in their account of the matter. They relate that Arion of Methymna, who as a harper was second to no man living at that time, and who was, as far as we know, the first to compose dithyrambs, to give them that name, and to recite in them at Corinth, was carried to Taenarum on the back of a dolphin.”
I love Herodotus. It makes for good reading aloud, too. Lovers of tales as well as history will enjoy this.