The account as told by Herodotus about the birth of Cyrus the Great began like the stories of many great ancients—with prophecies and cryptic dreams that signaled the birth of a great man. Events began to fall in place when the king of the Medes, who was named Astyages, had a strange dream about his daughter. In one dream, she urinated on all of Asia, and in another dream, vines spread from her womb throughout the distant lands. King Astyages went to his priests, the Magi, who interpreted the dreams to mean that the king’s grandson, Cyrus, would usurp the throne and become a great conqueror. Do note that, besides the existence of King Astyages of Medes and Cyrus the Great and the conquest of the former by the latter, the following story is almost certainly exaggerated folklore that Herodotus picked up in his research. Nevertheless, enjoy, if you can, this truly gruesome story.
When King Astyages heard the interpretation of the Magi, he became afraid of his grandson. The king summoned his trusted steward, Harpagus, who was a member of his family, and entrusted him with the task of making young Cyrus disappear. Harpagus disliked the idea of murdering an infant with his own hands, so he gave the child to a herdsman who was supposed to abandon Cyrus in the wilderness to die. As it happened, however, the herdsman’s wife had just given birth to a baby who died before or during childbirth. In their grief, the herdsman and his wife secretly adopted Cyrus and laid the body of their own deceased son in the wilderness to satisfy Harpagus.
As Cyrus grew, his natural leadership skills became prominent—when the children of the village were playing, Cyrus was often appointed as their king. He was even bold enough to order around the sons of noblemen during their games. The boy developed such poise and presence that King Astyages eventually recognized Cyrus as his supposedly dead grandson. For reassurance, the king returned to the Magi and asked for advice, now that he knew his grandson survived. The Magi said this time that Cyrus had only been named as a king during childhood games, and that his kingship would likely remain restricted to youthful playing. Relieved, King Astyages called together a banquet to celebrate the life of his grandson, Cyrus. It would be an unforgettable feast, especially for Harpagus, who had failed to fulfill the king’s demand.
The guests all arrived for the king’s banquet and a great abundance of food and drink was carried out to sate their hunger. Everyone present at the feast was served mutton of the finest quality, except for Harpagus, who was given a dish chosen for him specifically by the king. Harpagus must have found the meal satisfactory, for he ate until he was full. During the feast, however, Harpagus must have been worried about his son—his young boy was supposed to be at the banquet. In fact, his son was sent to the palace early that day. Perhaps, the king had the boy doing some chore or other? Despite his worry, Harpagus finished his meal.
When everyone had eaten to the point of contentment, the king brought out a covered tray to offer Harpagus seconds. The king’s steward declined, saying he wanted no more to eat, but the king insisted that Harpagus lift the lid of the tray. When Harpagus did as he was told, to his horror, he found the head, feet and hands of his young son on the platter. Harpagus’ son had been present for the feast, after all—his flesh had been served on the plate of his father.
Surprisingly, Harpagus took in the horrific scene with grace and poise, simply gathering up what left of his son so he could bring him home and put him to rest. Yet, Harpagus got his revenge. When Cyrus was exiled by his grandfather to Persia, the steward kept in touch. Herodotus wrote that Harpagus encouraged Cyrus to usurp power from King Astyages, and convinced a large faction of Medians to defect to Cyrus’ side, thereby ending the reign of the man who had murdered his son.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.