Custom, more so than rulers and emperors, is king of all. So said Herodotus, the ancient historian who documented the Greco-Persian wars of the 5th century BC.
This conflict is littered with great deeds and marvellous tales. The Spartan resistance of the Persians at Thermopylae, more recently popularised by Gerard Butler’s portrayal of the Spartan King Leonidas, being just one example. Yet the great moments and battles of this war were only ostensibly Herodotus’ main interest. Rather it was the customs and traditions of the many peoples Herodotus recorded in his history that provided the backbone of his work.
Herodotus was writing from a Greek perspective. Therefore, the fact that the Persians didn’t dedicate temples or altars to their gods – as was customary for the Greeks – fascinated him. The Egyptian tradition of women attending the market and the men staying at home, moreover, was completely alien to Herodotus’ Greek background. Yet to Herodotus, the Persian and Egyptian ways of doing things were not wrong or incorrect – they were just different. He was progressive in his appreciation of the disparities of cultures and the fact that most people, and this is still the case today, believe their own way of doing things to be the right way.
A particular episode comes to mind in displaying this point: Herodotus recalls the horror an Indian tribe felt when they heard that the Greeks burned their dead, whilst the Greeks recoiled in shock upon hearing that this Indian tribe ate their dead. Although Herodotus’ instinct (and ours for that matter as cremation is part of our practice) may tell him that the Greek way of doing things was obviously correct, he acknowledges that others may feel very differently.
I often wonder how Herodotus would have written about a modern-day Scotland. Indeed, our customs and traditions would seem as foreign to him as his description of the Persians, Egyptians and others in his history. “The Scottish dress in pseudo-skirts known as kilts, eat a strange concoction of sheep parts and vegetables (known as haggis) and indulge in two beverages: whisky and a peculiarly coloured thirst-quencher known as Irn-Bru” Herodotus may say.
The danger when discussing custom is to over-simplify and stereotype. Indeed, not all Scottish people eat haggis or drink whisky, nor did all Egyptian women attend the market. Yet to discuss various customs is to broaden one’s horizons and appreciate the world’s diversity. Even in our globalised world, where one can find a Subway sandwich shop at the foot of the Great Wall of China, customary mannerisms still survive. People openly burping in a restaurant in Beijing are displaying their approval of the meal and are politely signalling this to the chef. Meanwhile, going home for a couple hours of sleep in the working day in parts of Spain would not be met with the same bewilderment if this were to happen in Scotland.
Diverse traditions remain as fascinating to us as they were to Herodotus and as they shall be to future generations.
Jack Cannon is a 4th year Classical Studies student at University of St Andrews