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Wildlife and multi-coloured semen...

Everybody writes travel books these days. Imagine, though, if you could write about a country that probably none of your readers would ever go to. Most of them would barely leave their own county, if at all, and would know so little about other places that you could tell them just about anything and they'd believe it - or, conversely, the people there could tell you just about anything, and you'd believe it. I got a set of books recently: "Penguin Great Journeys", which aren't about the grand adventures of a travelling penguin, no matter how that might sound. It's a set of twenty books by "history's greatest adventurers"; although I think I might dispute that tagline. Really looking forward to some of them. My Russian history bug is certainly looking forward to A Journey To The End Of The Russian Empire, by Anton Chekhov. That's number fifteen, though, so the Russian history bug will just have to be patient. Anyways, the one that I'm reading at the moment is book one.

It's called Snakes With Wings And Gold-Digging Ants, which strikes me as a title in need of a comma. [pedant]The snakes don't have any gold-digging ants.[/pedant] It's by Herodotus, though I'm not blaming him for the grammar, as I doubt that's a title that he came up with. It was written in c.415BC, and it's about his travels around Egypt - hence the pondering on countries that your readers would probably never consider visiting. Package tours around Egypt probably weren't all that easy to book in 415BC. The thing is, I can't quite figure Herodotus out. Was he highly imaginative, and not caring whether or not his histories and his travel journals were accurate - or was he just blindingly gullible?! The more I read, the more I get the impression that the Egyptians saw him coming a mile away, and decided to have some fun at his expense. Ants bigger than foxes, that mine gold as they dig out their tunnels. Sheep with tails so long that their farmers have to give them all little trolleys to carry their tails in. Cows that have to walk backwards, as their horns are so long they'd get stuck in the ground if they tried to walk forwards. It's wonderful stuff, but you've got to wonder where it came from. Was Herodotus giggling as he wrote it, wondering who back home would believe him, or were the Egyptians giggling behind his back as he diligently jotted down everything they told him?! My favourite story is the one about the phoenixes, I think. Page 5:

I have not seen a phoenix myself, except in paintings, for it is very rare, and visits the country (so they say at Heliopolis) only at intervals of 500 years, on the occasion of the death of the parent-bird. To judge by the paintings, its plumage is partly golden, partly red, and in shape and size it is exactly like an eagle. There is a story about the phoenix which I do not find credible; it brings its parent in a lump of myrrh all the way from Arabia and buries the body in the temple of the Sun. To perform this feat, the bird first shapes some myrrh into a sort of egg as big as it finds, by testing, that it can carry; then it hollows the lump out, puts its father inside and smears some more myrrh over the hole. The egg-shaped lump is then just of the same weight as it was originally. Finally it is carried by the bird to the temple of the Sun in Egypt. Such, at least, is the story.

He doesn't seem to believe that one as readily as he does the others. Still - I'm left wondering. Everybody knows the legend of the phoenix. It's lasted millennia. But did it begin as a fireside tale like so many others - or as a joke told to gullible tourists? I rather like the idea that people were having fun with the foreign tourists back then, too. It might have been 415BC, but some things never change.

What's this a description of, by the way? "This animal has four legs, cloven hoofs like an ox, a snub nose, a horse's mane and tail, conspicuous tusks, a voice like a horse's neigh, and is about the size of a very large ox." Answer's at the end.

It's a strange sort of travelogue, though - Ancient Egyptian practical jokes notwithstanding. He has a bizarre fascination with the sex lives of the locals, for starters. Now, I've not read that many travel books; Michael Palin, Bill Bryson - the usual. I certainly don't recall them going into that much detail about how often, with whom, and when. He merrily informs his readers that Ethiopians (the best looking men in the world, apparently) have black semen. What - he checked? He asked them? He selflessly took part in exhaustive experiments, just to make sure that, should any Greeks happen to be wondering what colour Ethiopian semen was, he'd be sure to be able to tell them when he got home? I've not done any foreign travelling myself, but I'm fairly sure that "Hello, I'm new in the area, what colour is your semen?" isn't the usual sort of touristy conversation. It's not the sort of thing we learnt in French lessons at school, anyway. Almost a shame. It would have brightened up the lessons, and been just as much use to me as what they did teach. But I digress.

Oh, and it's a hippopotamus, apparently. Own up, Herodotus. Did you really see one, or did you believe the locals again? 'Cause they're having you on, mate.

Hooves? Nope. Tusks? Nope. Mane? Nope. Horse's tail? Nope. Just about the only thing he got right was the number of legs. A fail grade on the naturalist part of the course, then. I'm so impressed at his dedication to duty in trying to discover the colour of local semen, though, that I'm inclined to consider his work a resounding success anyway. Even though he was talking utter nonsense there too. Well, ask a silly question...

It's a good read, anyway. :)

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