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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Nom nom nomoi : food, identity, and shared custom in Herodotus’ Histories Hutt, Molly B.


Herodotus attributed much significance to the subjects of food and foodways. With the possible exception of death-related rituals, foodways are the only genre of custom that Herodotus covers in substantial detail for every society which he describes at length, and they are an important component of ethnicity and identity in both his explicitly ethnographical logoi and his narrative generally. The two most well-known sources on food and identity in Herodotus, François Hartog’s Le miroir d’Hérodote (1980, English 1988) and Brent Shaw’s “Eaters of Flesh, Drinkers of Milk” (1982) take Herodotus’ discussion of food as a method of “Othering,” a “mirror” through which Herodotus’ Greek readers could see themselves by comparison to outlandish, often fabricated, descriptions. However, Herodotus’ food passages reflect, at least to some extent, a reality which Herodotus clearly thought it important to relate, so to dismiss them as simply one more act of literary “Othering” is insufficient. Previous studies have tended to focus entirely on one culture, usually Scythian, sometimes Perisan, and rarely Egyptian, whose foodways generally appear only in broader studies of Herodotus’ Egyptian logos. Because of these limitations, and the fact that the scholarly community seemed to consider the problem of food in Herodotus “solved” after Hartog and Shaw (and thus no longer worthy of continuing research), the topic merits renewed investigation. Through a look at all three cultures, I show that Herodotus’ discussion of food is part of a larger scheme of humanizing barbarians, an addition of a biological universal to which any reader/listener could relate. In Herodotus’ discourse on food, the barbarian is not presented exclusively as an “Other” but also made more relatable to the Greek audience, complicating the relationship between “us” and “them.” Ultimately Herodotus shows his audience that barbarians, and especially Persians, share more in common with Greeks in terms of foodways than has previously been accepted, using food as a narrative tool to tie together disparate cultures. This thesis represents an important initial step in bringing the subject of food in Herodotus, after several decades of being overlooked, up to date with scholarship on other aspects of his work.

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