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Between East and West: Mobility and Ethnography in Herodotus’ Proem

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Herodotus' History opens with a remarkable proem where he sets forth his programme and offers competing narratives about the causes of war between the Greeks and barbarians. This article examines the proem and looks in particular at the stories about the abductions of Io, Europa, Medea, and Helen. Rather than see the proem as a light-hearted or parodic rejection of alternate histories, this article argues that Herodotus uses the proem to raise urgent questions of culture, identity, and historical meaning. Each of the four women gets entangled in complex cultural histories, and each challenges any simple relationship between the individual and cultural location. The fact that Herodotus associates each of them with displacement and dislocation implies that he is working with a dynamic understanding of history, in which movement and geography play a central role. If the proem points to cultural plurality, however, it still has to engage with the central polarity of Greeks and barbarians that underpins the History; this polarity, which remains in place from the first sentence, stands in counterpoint to the openness promised by the rest of the proem. Against the limitations imposed by the violent antithesis of Greek and barbarian, then, Herodotus begins his monumental history with an exploration of cultural plurality and contact.
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Keywords: Ethnography; Herodotus; History; Proem; Women

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2012

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