Two weeks ago, I introduced you to Herodotus, the Greek Historian, father of History, who displayed curiosity which would have gained an automatic scholarship to Bedford School, by telling the story of Psammeticus, who was trying to find out which was the world’s first language. Herodotus, you will remember, was keen to make enquiries and pass the answers on to his readers, regardless of whether or not he considered them to be true. Today will be my second and last attempt to get you to read Herodotus’ history – try this for a story….
It is the story of the great Egyptian Pharoah, Rhampsinitus, whom Herodotus tells us possessed the greatest wealth of any king before or after him. So Rhampsinitus, wishing to store this wealth in safety, had a chamber built on the edge of his palace to keep his money in. The builder of this chamber had a longstanding grudge against the king, and unbeknown to Rhampsinitus, laid one of the stones in such a way that it could be secretly withdrawn at a later date.
When the builder approached the end of his life, he called his two sons to himself and told them how he had built the chamber so that they could be rich for the rest of their lives – and gave them the secret to withdrawing the stone.
And so the builder died; and his two sons made no delay in getting to work. They went to the palace at night, found the stone, removed it, entered the chamber and stole a great quantity of wealth. When King Rhampsinitus entered his chamber the following day, he was completely perplexed; the money had gone, but the seals to the chamber had been unbroken and there was no sign at all of any break in. This pattern repeated itself and after the third robbery, the king decided to lay a trap to catch the thief. The following night, the first brother entered the chamber and as he approached the king’s vessels, his leg was caught firmly in the trap. It was completely unmoveable. Realising what trouble he was in, he called the second brother and told him to enter as quickly as possible and cut off his head, so that nobody would ever trace the robbery back to his family. The second brother considered this a good idea, did as he was told, and left the chamber replacing the stone carefully.
When the kind entered his treasury the next day, he was astonished to find a headless man in the trap, and still no sign of any forced entry. At a complete loss, he hung up the headless body of the dead brother outside on the palace walls under close guard, feeling sure that the family of the thief would want to retrieve it for burial. The guards would then pounce and the thief would be caught. When the second brother got home, his mother was understandably upset. She told her surviving son that if he did not retrieve his brother’s body, she would turn him in to Rhampsinitus herself. So the brother came up with another trick.
He filled some wine skins and hung them over a donkey and drove the donkey to the palace. When he got near to the guards, he loosened some of the cords and spilt much wine on the ground; he pretended to be extremely upset, to such an extent that the guards took pity on him and helped him clear up. In mock gratitude, he offered them their bellyful of wine from the full wine skins. They drank merrily; and once they were asleep on wine, he cut his brother down and ran off home with the body. In mockery, he shaved the right cheeks of all the sleeping guards.
When the King found out, he was beside himself with anger. Determined to outwit the man, he made it public that his daughter would meet all-comers under cover of darkness and listen to their tales of the most unholy and cunning deeds they had ever done. The most unholy and cunning would win her hand in marriage. Well, the second brother could not resist the opportunity, but he had one final trick up his sleeve. He cut off his dead brother’s arm and took it with him to meet the king’s daughter. He went in to the darkened room and she asked him the question “what is the most unholy and cunning thing you have ever done”. The brother said that the most unholy thing he had ever done was to cut off his own brother’s head as he was trapped in the king’s treasure chamber; and the most cunning thing he had ever done was to get the guards of his body drunk before stealing his body back. The king’s daughter, realising immediately that this was the thief, reached out to grab him; but the thief thrust his brother’s severed arm at her and ran off escaping through the door he had entered by.
Now when this also was reported to the king, the king was amazed at the invention and the daring of the man, and he sent round to all the cities and made a proclamation granting a free pardon to the thief, and also promising a great reward if he would come into his presence. The thief trusted the proclamation and came to the king, and Rhampsinitus greatly marvelled at him, and gave him his daughter to marry, counting him to be the cleverest of all men.
Now, go and read some Herodotus….