Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Story of the Thief - Herodotus

Deep in book two of Herodotus' writings, there is the story of an Egyptian thief that is wonderful.  I'd never heard it before so I want to share it here.  (This is my paraphrase, the actual account can be read in section 121 of book two.)

There was a very wealthy king who needed a treasure room built.  A builder was found and the king stored all of his riches there.  When the builder was close to death, he told his two sons that there was a secret entrance that they could use to steal from the king.  The sons began to steal from the king on a nightly basis. 
The king soon realized that he was losing his treasure but he couldn't figure out how it was happening.  The seals on the room were unbroken.  Finally the king set up traps in the vault, to catch the thieves.  The brothers entered and one was quickly caught. 
The one that was caught quickly figured out that their family would be destroyed if he was found there so he had his brother cut off his head(!) so that the crime couldn't be traced back to them.  According to Herodotus "to the other it seemed that he spoke well, and he was persuaded and did so; and fitting the stone into its place he departed home bearing with him the head of his brother". 
The next day the kind found the headless body in the vault.  He couldn't identify it so he had it hung up outside the vault so that he could seize anyone who came to grieve over it.  The mother of the two brothers was very upset and she told the remaining brother that he must get the body back or she would tell the king everything that had happened. 
So the brother got some asses and skins of wine.  When he approached the guards and the body of his brother, he caused the skins to start to spill wine.  The guards rushed out to get some of the wine.  The brother became friends with them and gave them more and more wine.  Eventually the guards were drunk and he was able to take his brothers body.
The king was livid and schemed to find a way to find the thief.  He finally decided that his own daughter would offer herself up to any man that wanted her, but only on the condition that the man first tell the daughter 'the most cunning and most unholy deed they had done'.  If the thief came, she would hold on to him until guards could take him.
The thief couldn't resist getting the better of the king so he found a freshly dead body and cut off one arm.  This he held in his sleeve.  He went to the daughter and admitted everything.  She grabbed for him and only got the dead arm while the thief ran away. 
The king thought back on everything that had happened and decided that he would pardon the thief and give him a great reward if he'd come to the king.  The thief did so and the king had him marry his daughter. 

Isn't that an amazing story?  I can see the bare bones of a movie in it right away.  Somewhat amazingly, at no time does Herodotus give the thief a name.

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