Hills Like White Elephants

Hills Like White Elephants

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Herodotus and ‘Rhampsinitus and the Thief’ BY: Layla Brown Herodotus, the first Greek historian, has been called by some "the father of history" and by others "the father of lies." Born in 485 B.C to a wealthy family at Halicarnassus, in Asia Minor, he was exiled to Samos soon after his birth because of his family’s opposition to the Persian domination of Ionia. During his youth, he traveled widely, studying the manners, customs, and religions of the people he encountered. His histories are made up of tales told to him by people from Egypt, Syria, Babylon, Colchis, Paeonian and Macedonia. He was criticized by several ancient writers for creating stories and passing them off as the truth. Herodotus is most famous for the nine books he wrote on the rise of the Persian Empire, the Persian invasion of Greece in 490 BC and 480 BC, and the final Greek victory. Although it received quite a lot of praise and is still considered a masterpiece, it’s trustworthiness has been questioned both in ancient and modern times. The story that I’m covering is of Rhampsinitus and the Thief (pg. 277). This is a tale that Herodotus learned in Egypt and many believe that this anecdote was told to him by Egyptian priests, claiming it a true story. Herodotus, himself, didn’t actually believe this particular story but he felt it was his duty to report what he was told. Now, for those of you who didn’t read it, I’ll quickly give a brief synopsis of the story. A dying father tells his two sons how to break into the king’s vault, which he, himself, built. The father then dies, leaving the family with no way to support themselves. So the two sons begin their thieving. They manage to escape with the treasure three times before the king sets up a trap, in which one of the brothers gets caught. At his captured brother’s urging, the other brother cuts his sibling’s head off, taking it with his, so the family’s identity would not be known. The next day, the king was bewildered at the sight of a headless thief. He then ordered his sentries to hang the body on the outer wall and arrest anybody seen mourning the headless corpse. The two thieves’ mother, so absolutely distraught over the death of her son, threatens her surviving son, saying that if he didn’t collect the his brother’s body, she would turn him in herself.

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With that, he quickly devised a plan. He got two donkeys and filled some skins with wine, draping them over the two animal’s backs. When he reached where his brother hung and where the sentinels stood guard, he pulled down the corners of the skins, letting the wine pour to the ground. He then began to panic, pretending that he didn’t know what to do. The guards saw this wine running freely and ran, with buckets in hand to collect the wine, with the intention to drink it all themselves. The thief, pretending to be furious, began to scream and yell at the guards. The guards, wanting to keep their wine and not create a fuss with the boy, invited him to drink with them. Then the guards become to drunk to stay up and pass out, leaving the thief to take down his brother’s body, and to shave each of the guard’s beards, ridiculing them. The king was furious at what the thief had done, so he sets his daughter in a room with the order to consort with all the men that came to her. But before they enjoy her she must compel each man to tell her the cleverest thing that they’d ever done. If a man told a story similar to that of the thief, then she should hold him and not let him get away. The thief, seeing through the king’s trap, wanted to surpass the king in resourcefulness. He then cuts the arm off a freshly dead man and takes it with him underneath his cloak. He then meets with the king’s daughter and confesses to the thieving and the murder of his brother. The daughter then reaches to grab him but the thief slips away, leaving her with a dead man’s arm. The king is so astounded at the wit and daring of the thief that he sent word to every city of immunity and a promise of a great reward if the thief comes forward. The thief trusts the king’s word and goes to the palace. Rhampsinitus, the king, admires the thief so greatly that he gives him his daughter as a wife and declares that this man understands more than anyone else in the world, saying: &quot;The Egyptians excel all others and this man the rest of the Egyptians.&quot; Like many fables and ancient stories, this one involves a simple nobody, a commoner, rising above their superior either in physical strength or intellect. The king and his sentinels are outsmarted many times by an ordinary boy. The thief in this case is never referred to as a man, but as a boy until the last part of the story, when the king realizes him as being quite clever. The story focuses on the boy’s progress from boy to manhood. Along the way he encounters many obstacles he must overcome or be destroyed. The first obstacle he was able to over come with ease. He and his brother broke into the king’s vault without being detected. However the next obstacle is a major challenge: his brother is caught and he has to kill his brother or suffer the destruction of his family. He had to make the terrible choice. The obstacles continue to become progressively difficult. He now has to retrieve his brother’s body without being detected. Here you see his bravery, courage, and superior intellect. He is able to use his mind to escape the trap that was set for him. This development is crucial to the story and his growth. The king is furious and set another trap, this time using his daughter as the bait. Now the boy is engaged in a full battle of wits with the king and again his clever mind saves him. In many fables the hero in order to prove himself as a man goes off to find a dragon to slay, defeat, or convert -- tame. In this case the boy becomes a man by defeating and converting his dragon, the king. The king is a man of honor and he acknowledges the young man’s superior wit, pardons him, gives him riches, and his daughter’s hand in marriage. And he has now earned the right to be referred to as a man. On the surface this seems like a simple story. However it should be viewed as a metaphor for the stages we go through in life. If you think about the main characters in movies or books you’ve read, or even your own lives, you see that growth happens through the challenges faced. These challenges seem to be progressively difficult. Look at your own lives. Your challenges may be different from the boy’s but there have been events in your own lives that you had to come to terms with and overcome in order to be where you are now. There is much to be learnt from this story if we take the time to look beneath the surface.
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