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Life-sized head of a bearded man carved of smooth stone

They told another version of this story about Zeus (Porphyry head of a bearded Olympian in the Burrell Collection, Scotland, photographed by author)

If you wandered through the ports and festivals of the Aegean 2500 years ago, Herodotus would tell you a story about Astyages’ banquet. One day Astyages the king of the Medes went to his lieutenant Harpagos and ordered him to take the newborn son of Astyages’ daughter Mandane and kill him, because he had dreamed that this son would become king of the world, and because the boy’s father was no Mede but a Persian. Harpagos took the son but refused to kill him, instead giving him to one of Astyages’ slaves to kill, and when this slave went home he found that his wife had given birth to a stillborn child. His wife offered to raise this other child instead, and so Mandane’s son was spared. One day Astyages noticed that this boy had a lordly manner and a face which resembled his own, and he questioned Harpagos and uncovered what had happened. Astyages declared that it was good that the boy lived, because the fate of the boy had troubled him, and that he would feast with Harpagos and make a sacrifice to thank the gods who had preserved the boy.

At that banquet each guest was served with different cuts of meat roasted and boiled with the all sauces and spices which a king’s table could provide. When each of the guests had eaten, Astyages asked Harpagos whether the meal had pleased him, and Harpagos said that it had very greatly pleased him. Then Astyages called for another dish to be presented before Harpagos and told him to uncover it and take what he liked. Harpagos removed the lid and saw the head and hands and feet of his only son. Astyages asked him whether he understood what kind of meat he had eaten. Harpagos answered that he understood, and that the king might do what pleased himself, and he gathered up the remains of his son and left. That is the story of Astyages’ banquet as Herodotus tells it. There is another story of how Harpagos avenged himself on the king, as Zeus punished Lykaon, but that is for another day.

If you go to the valley of the Euphrates today people will tell you the same story about a group of thugs whom I will not name and the mother of a prisoner of war. Snopes retells their story as well as anyone. As with many of Herodotus’ stories, there are good reasons to doubt whether it took place as the teller describes, and as with many of Herodotus’ stories, asking whether it really happened that way may miss the storyteller’s point. For me, the point of the story is that a number of people have managed to create in Iraq a place where death is as imminent and the most basic standards of human behaviour as fragile as they were in Herodotus’ world. Some of them sought an imagined past where everyone followed God’s Law, and some of them chased an imagined future where history was over and Freedom reigned, and others lusted after money or fame or a chance to smite their rivals across the ocean or across the street. I do not think that the dead care which.