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Suzanne Marchand

Monday, August 24, 11:30 a.m. | HS 5
Herodotus, Historian of World Religions: How the Reception-History of the “Father of Lies” Can Help Move the Conversation beyond ‘Orientalism’

Biblical exegetes and historians of the religions of ancient Persia, Egypt, Assyria, and Syria know just how essential Herodotus was, and still is, in attempts to reconstruct the earliest practices and beliefs of these nations. And they also know just how complicated it is to figure out which bits of Herodotus—famous already in ancient times as both ‘the father of history’ and ‘the father of lies’—one can trust. By no means is this a new problem; Herodotus has been enrolled in the project of writing the history of world religions since at least the fifteenth century. Since that time, European scholars have used his detailed accounts of ‘oriental’ religions in a myriad of different ways: to prove the truth of the Bible, or the absurdity of Catholic rituals; to prove the origin of the Greek gods in Egypt, or to illustrate the ignorance of Egyptian priests; to reconstruct ancient ‘Aryan’ forms of iconoclasm, or to pin down the location of the Tower of Babel; to show that the Greeks did believe in their myths, or that the true Greek religion was a secret cult, borrowed from the Egyptians. But something happened to Herodotus in the later eighteenth century, as he began to be enrolled in a nationalist and sometimes racist quest to establish the origins of religious symbols and ideas. Increasingly, the ‘father of history’ was subjected to a barrage of credibility checks—including philological critiques, and geographical and archaeological investigations—to determine whether or not he could be trusted. While post-Romantic secular historians and classicists generally took a skeptical approach, labeling all history before the Persian Wars ‘mythological,’ orientalists could not do without his first four books, and set out on a series of campaigns to validate Herodotus, or even to deepen the timeframe for the Orient’s religious history.

In this paper, I will illustrate track the debates among orientalists about Herodotus’s reliability between about 1790 and 1890 in the attempt to document the bitterness and complexity of arguments about the relationships between ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ religions and the reliability of Greek testimonies precisely during a period of remarkable discoveries and decipherments and European hyper-imperialism. It has been recently been argued that the history of world religions arose in a quasi-apologetic frame, and has been structured and tainted by its being practiced chiefly by western Christians. Although I fully agree that this is the case, I also believe that the study of world religious also generated out of itself—and out of Herodotus (who was, after all, admonished for being a ‘philo-barbarian’ by Plutarch)—the foundations for the very critiques of Eurocentrism with which we operate today. In surveying the Rezeptiongeschichte of Herodotus, I hope to move beyond both the postcolonial and the purely apologetic portrayals of European ‘orientalism,’ a tradition that was neither, in my view, fully yoked to Eurocentrism and imperialism, nor without its own ambitions, blindspots, and axes to grind