The writings of the 5th-century historian, Herodotus, are always a fascinating read. Not only for the often-misinterpreted or incorrect historical information recorded by the father of history, but also for the immense amount of folklore and mythology that fill the pages of The Histories of Herodotus. Whenever Herodotus chose to describe a country or people, it was not uncommon for him to include a creation myth or folk tale concerning the person, place or people he was addressing. Fortunately for us, many of Herodotus’ tales and stories, though mostly historically inaccurate, remain incredibly odd and endlessly entertaining.
One such peculiar gem found in The Histories (Book IV) is an interesting description of a people that Herodotus called the Argippaei. This community was supposedly related in some way to the Scythians, a nomadic people that dominated the lands above the Black Sea, with their heartland in modern Ukraine and southern Russia. According to Herodotus, the Argippaei lived somewhere in a mountain range located in the northeastern periphery of Scythian territory. The Argippaei were far enough away from mainstream Scythian society that they developed their own, unique language. Yet, they apparently still wore the same style of clothing as any other Scythian known to Herodotus.
Geography, language and clothing, however, were not the most striking characteristics of the Argippaei community. According to Herodotus, every single member of the Argippaei people was born bald, both man and woman. Unfortunately for the Argippaei, other common characteristics that Herodotus attributed to them were snub noses and abnormally long chins.
If the community of bald, snub-nosed, long-chinned Argippaei were not strange enough, Herodotus recorded extra information about where these people slept and what they ate and drank. For both shelter and sustenance, Herodotus claimed that the Argippaei relied on a fruit tree. Apparently, every member (or maybe family) of the Argippaei had what Herodotus described as a ponticum tree, under which they lived and slept.
The ponticum trees were the primary source of food for the Argippaei, though sheep products were also present in their diet whenever herds could be sustained. According to Herodotus, the ponticum could grow to be as tall as a fig tree and it produced a fruit resembling a cherry. The Argippaei did much more than just eat these fruits raw. Herodotus wrote that the cherry-like fruit was also collected and juiced. The juice could be simply ingested plain or mixed with other drinks. Pulp left over from the juicing was also turned into fine cuisine, such as cakes.
The bald, fruit-loving Argippaei had a distinct philosophy. According to Herodotus, the Argippaei were ardent pacifists. They never went to war, and, mysteriously, no other tribes or nations could bring themselves to attack the bald, pacifistic community. The Argippaei people’s fervor for peace was so well known, that other countries apparently called on the Argippaei to mediate their wars and conflicts.
Today, no one is certain who inspired Herodotus’ vision of the Argippaei people. Some theories have been proposed, such as the Argippaei possibly being modeled after Buddhist or Daoist monks from India or China. For now, however, the Argippaei remain a mystery—an odd and entertaining mystery, at that.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.