One of our core values is curiosity. So today I offer a strange set of stories about men whose curiosity reached well beyond the bounds of modern-day acceptability, but nevertheless make curious stories in themselves.
The first is the original story, given to us in the 5th century BC by the Ancient Greek Historian Herodotus. If you ever want to learn about a curious man, read Herodotus. He is often labelled the Father of History, yet the ancient word “historia” simply meant “enquiry” – his history is therefore rather different to the histories of today, where facts are teased out until they are as close to whatever the teller feels are the truth as possible. Herodotus instead lays out in his introduction that he will tell the tales he has heard on his travels regardless of whether they are true or not, and leave it to his readers to decide. He will simply make the enquiry, with perhaps a few brief checks, and pass it on. His history is particularly notable for the fact that it is written as a history of the Persian Wars against Greece, but in fact he does not reach the first battle until the end of Book 6 out of 9; he chooses to use the first 6 books to lay out the underlying differences between Persian culture and Greek culture, a very modern way of looking at the causes of conflict. He tells the following story in Book 2 of his “historia”, at a time when he is travelling in Egypt, learning about Eastern culture. He was speaking with the priests of Vulcan in the city of Memphis, when they told him that one of their ancient kings, King Psammetichus, had decided to try to prove or disprove the theory that the Egyptians were the most ancient people in the entire world. His method was this (and I quote from a translation of Herodotus):
“He took two babies of the common sort, and gave them over to a herdsman to bring up at his folds, strictly charging the herdsman to let no one utter a word in their presence, but to keep them in an isolated cottage, and from time to time introduce goats to their apartment, see that they got their fill of milk, and in all other respects look after them. His objective was to know, after the babblings of infancy were over, what word they would first articulate. It happened as he had anticipated. The herdsman obeyed his orders for two years, and at the end of that time, one day opening the door of their room and going in, the children both ran up to him with outstretched arms, and distinctly said “bekos.” When this first happened the herdsman took no notice; but afterwards when he observed, on coming to see them more often, that the word was constantly in their mouths, he informed King Psammetichus, and by his command brought the children into his presence. Psammetichus himself then heard them say the word, upon which he proceeded to make inquiry into what people used the word “bekos,” and hereupon he learnt that “becos” was the Phrygian name for bread. In consideration of this circumstance the Egyptians yielded their claims, and admitted the greater antiquity of the Phrygians.”
A bizarre story, therefore, of a King’s curiosity about history and in its telling, perhaps it raises a curiosity in ourselves, too – was it true? Does it matter? Why did he choose language? How important is language? Can Herodotus really be called a historian, in our modern sense of the word? Doesn’t the word “bekos” sound a little bit like the sheep which would have been out in the fields? Did anyone else try this out? And so on.
If you then pursue just one of those questions you find this…
It wasn’t in fact the last time in history that the safety and well-being of children have been thrown aside in pursuit of trying to determine what language humanity was born with.
In 1493, according to a rather obscure Scottish 16th century historian with the great name Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, King James IV of Scotland, combining a love of languages with a natural inquisitiveness, decided to try a similar experiment. He sent two newborn babies to the isolated island of Inchkeith to be brought up by a deaf, mute woman. The idea was again to find out what words they first spoke, and to denote from that which race came first. The answer this time was that Hebrew was the first language spoken.
Furthermore, the cruel Roman emperor Frederick II had carried out a similar experiment in the 13th century (without success apparently), and in the 16th century the Mughal Indian Emperor Akbar is said to have done the same (with the rather different outcome that children who are raised in isolation remain mute).
These bizarre stories do illustrate some interesting facts about human curiosity, both positive and negative: we are innately curious about our own background and history; different languages fire curiosity about the differences between people; we make progress by being curious; we create interesting stories by being curious; and finally, that, despite its power for good, not all curiosity is followed through in the right way. And indeed this reminder is timely; in an age where curiosity regarding the human race is as fierce as it ever was, the need for basic human ethics is also as great as it has ever been.