Did A Mysterious Singing Dust Cloud Foretell The Victory Of The Greeks Over The Persians At The 480 BCE Battle Of Salamis?

For most of 480 BCE, the Persians had a definitive advantage in the Greco-Persian Wars. A huge army led by King Xerxes I (r. 486-465 BCE) crossed the Hellespont, known now as the Dardanelles, from Anatolia into Europe and smashed his way into Attica by overcoming the small band of Greek defenders at Thermopylae. The Persian threat was so absolute that powerful cities, such as Athens, decided to evacuate for more defensible ground.

Not all Greeks, however, were fighting against the Persians. In fact, King Xerxes had a very large contingent of Greek mercenaries. Similarly, groups such as the Macedonians aligned themselves with Persia, or at least played both sides for their own advantage. Persia also took in a number of Greek exiles that were forced to leave their homelands.

Herodotus (c. 490-425/420 BCE), an ancient historian from Halicarnassus, wrote about an odd bit of hearsay from two of these exiles that traveled with the Persian army. In book eight of The Histories, Herodotus claimed that a man named Dicaeus (an Athenian exile) and the exiled King Demaratus of Sparta were traveling through the plain of Thria when they saw a huge dust cloud in the distance. The exiles first thought the tempest was raised by the marching feet of tens-of-thousands of men, but as they kept watching, they saw no sign of humanity within the dust. Adding to the amazing sight, Dicaeus swore he could hear religious songs honoring Dionysus coming from the cloud.

When the stunned Athenian finally raised his eyes from the swirling dust and looked in the direction that the cloud had come from, Dicaeus realized that the strange phenomenon must have originated in Eleusis. That discovery was significant; Eleusis was the seat of arguably the most popular Mystery Religion cult of the ancient world—the cult of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone.

Adding all of these ominous signs together, Dicaeus predicted that the final destination of the moving dust cloud would foretell a major change in the Greco-Persian Wars. If the cloud swept toward the Peloponnesus, then the Greeks were as good as doomed. If, however, the musical storm began to flow toward where the Persian fleet was preparing to attack the Greeks at Salamis, then it would be the Persians who would suffer a terrible loss. While Dicaeus was still making his prophecy, the cloud began to creep in the direction of Salamis.

According to folklore and hearsay recorded by Herodotus, Dicaeus and Demaratus swore not to tell the Persians of their impending doom. Just as had been predicted, the Persian fleet was soundly defeated in 480 BCE by the smaller Greek force at Salamis. It was such a disastrous battle that Xerxes decided to leave the administration of the invasion to his generals so that he could personally return home and save himself from further embarrassment.

Although, Dicaeus and Demaratus allegedly never told their story to any Persians, they apparently loved telling the tale to Greeks. Herodotus, himself, either heard the odd story from the mouth of Dicaeus, or from a second-hand account told by someone who had come in contact with one of the exiles. Of course, this bizarre story should be treated as a tall tale, but nevertheless, it is a fun tidbit of 5th-century BCE storytelling.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Top picture attribution: (Cropped and edited dust/sand  cloud made by the United States 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).

Sources:

  • From The Histories by Herodotus (Book VIII), translated by Aubrey De Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola (Penguin Classics, 2002).
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