Events, Readers

Delve Seminar Summary: A Thousand Years of Travel

[by Nicole O’Neill]


Our travel writing seminar transitioned over the course of our meetings from Herodotus’ laisse-faire fluid style to Basho’s highly stylized structured writing. Our first readings from Herodotus brought up two of the eternal questions faced by travelers: why leave home and what is out there?

  1. Think of concentric circles around Greece. The further away we get from Greece the more unknown the world is.
  2. Who is traveling during Herodotus’ time? Merchants, religious pilgrimages to temples, and a certain amount of tourism by the wealthy. Clearly Herodotus is getting local guides who know as little of his subject as he does. Clearly he gets some things right (according to archaeological evidence) about Persian government and Egyptian embalmment. Herodotus didn’t speak the languages and relied on translators.


  1. There is thinking that Herodotus had to travel for political reasons. He was part of a failed political faction and then had to leave Greece. He was well-known at the time. Cicero mentions it, as do others….
  2. What does the reader already know about Egypt? Clearly these are oral tales about the geography of Egypt. The gauge of what people knew about the world is often gauged off of Herodotus and his descriptions. So Herodotus is reflecting back on what was written before, but we don’t have that earlier work.
  3. Herodotus was as chronologically removed from the Ancient Egyptians as the Greeks are to us.
  1. What you feel from Herodotus is an interest in the other cultures. There is a curiosity and desire to understand. This is modern, or even better, eternal. Herodotus’ ability to recognize other perspectives is very modern.
    1. As people become more “other” in Herodotus they take on a mythological aura.
    2. Others are sexualized, feminized, and static as opposed to masculine and progressing.
    3. Accounts are less critical of these people, and the Greeks are presented as the standard. It is easy to talk about other peoples’ weird customs.
    4. Otherness, such as orientalism allows you to tell stories that are about yourself, not the subject of the story.


  1. The Egypt dinner story with the coffin-man walking around with a miniature corpse and a coffin telling the diners to think about their mortality at the end of a wealthy banquet. Again, a very detailed description. Is this that man’s job?
    1. There are different ways of thinking about this. Was this an opportunity for conspicuous consumption? Are we reacting to this in a modern American way by thinking of this as jarring?
    2. The coffin-man is a rather spiritual passage. In our modern idea of Egypt we see a cult about death that is connected to life. This seems to be very different from Greek culture. Perhaps Herodotus is saying this is a very different, exotic attitude for his audience.
  2. This is related to the third book which discusses cremation and eating the dead.
    1. Herodotus attributes the cannibalism in this passage to the Persians, the antagonists.
    2. Although not moralizing about the tradition of cannibalism, Herodotus does conclude that the Greeks are right to cremate their dead instead of eating them.
    3. This is a story about how cultures and customs change over time. Also a morality tale about hubris.
    4. At the core of each tradition is the same goal of honoring the dead. The paths themselves are what is different.


  1. There is a very long list comparing and contrasting Egypt and “everyone else.” Much of it is anthropological: comparing clothes, cleaning dishes, body hair, and gender roles. This section comes directly after the geographical description of Egypt. There is a historic sense of humor.
  2. Part of Herodotus’ treatment of Egypt is the story of Amasis, the partying king
    1. Amasis rises up from obscurity, and Egypt is very prosperous under him.
    2. Here Herodotus is working through “kingliness.”
    3. In contrast to him, the noble king is reviled.
    4. At this point Greece is city-states, not a monarchy.
    5. Amasis is the pharaoh who loses Egypt to the Persians.


  1. Change: Herodotus says culture is king, so we are stuck where we are born.
    1. Change happens through conquest.
    2. Change happens over generations as people forget old customs and they die out.
    3. Herodotus lived during a time of intercultural contact. We see this in how Herodotus refers to gods by both Egyptian and Greek names. This is the beginning of a shift.
    4. While customs change over time, people don’t. Egyptian pyramids = Trump Towers. We are still debating whose customs are right. We have learned nothing.


Ibn Fadlan

Naturally, our discussion of Ibn Fadlan began with comparing and contrasting the Arabic official sent on a mission with Herodotus, the Greek wandering in political exile:

  1. Focus: Herodotus was pulling together a scatterplot of information, whereas Fadlan’s narrative is a clear chronological trip. Herodotus was also much more scattered in history and time as well. Fadlan’s introductory section is very dry, prosaic, and business-like. In contrast, Herodotus can skip straight to the good stuff.


  1. Judgement: Both Herodotus and Fadlan seem fairly non-judgmental. Herodotus is never a character in the narrative, whereas Fadlan is clearly an actor in this story. After arriving, Fadlan tries to get women to veil (didn’t work out).
  2. Physical Discomfort: Fadlan mentions his own obstacles (cold, danger), whereas Herodotus never mentions any particulars of the journey. Fadlan wants to make clear the obstacles he handled well (like the king threatening him in several ways). Fadlan clearly wants to make himself look good (the king would only talk to him, he told the other travelers to bring the money).
  3. Purpose: Herodotus has an overall goal. Every place in Herodotus is a key in the arc between Greece and the Persians. In Fadlan there is no overall purpose in the story. Perhaps the purpose here is to inform later travelers. Meant to be instructional. There are friendly and unfriendly places. Good for later official travelers to know.
  4. Brutality: Fadlan’s world is a stark contrast to Herodotus’ world. Fadlan’s world is harsh, cold, and brutal. Maybe Herodotus was just accustomed to it and it didn’t register. In Herodotus the brutality is circumscribed in war. Maybe they just noticed very different things. Fadlan was noticing things that were outside the strictures of Islam
  5. History: Herodotus is referencing Odyssey, Iliad, and other legends and traditions. The Rus Fadlan is traveling among don’t have any of this.
  6. Cultural Achievements: Fadlan doesn’t see any cultural beauty. No architecture. In Herodotus there was a felt sense of connection to Egypt. Fadlan doesn’t have that sense.
  7. Beauty: Rus were white and beautiful. It was surprising that Fadlan demonstrates a cultural “beauty” preference for pale skin.
  8. Grounded: Fadlan never felt unworldly and far-fetched. Even the giant story was told by the king to Fadlan with a clear purpose. Where Herodotus has points of disbelief.


After comparing and contrasting Fadlan with his Greek predecessor, we looked at Fadlan’s treatment of one of the big themes that interested us when we read Herodotus: otherness.

  1. Otherness:
    1. 12: The anecdote about the man’s wife pulling her dress up and scratching herself. Was he trying to be humorous? Was he imagining a larger audience beyond the calif? Especially the husband’s dryly humorous closing line. It was completely out of left field after the very dry beginning. Bracketed by pieces showing the “otherness” and moral sensibility of Fadlan.
    2. Fadlan is someone who can look beyond the religion. He is a very devout man…. But he isn’t hiding his eyes in horror. He isn’t experiencing angst at the absence of his religion.
    3. Is this the product of traveling? Traveling tends to reshape your world view.
    4. The horror of the funeral. This has the ring of truth because of the details.   At the same time, Fadlan’s description of the Rus’ cremation is poetic and appreciative in a way. He could have written this in a critical, disapproving way, but he doesn’t.
    5. “Rhinoceros” is a frame animal in Islam. It is something seen in India and other foreign areas. So it makes sense that Fadlan assumes this large strange animal is a rhino.


  1. While Herodotus never mentions the mechanics of traveling and contemporary characters are hard to find, Ibn Fadlan doesn’t mince the dirty details of travel:
  1. 9: Dressing for the cold. The camels died due to the cold. They nearly died. Sounds absolutely terrible. Why his description of the horribleness so short? Does he not want to be a whiner? Does he not want his legacy to the calif to be a pity party?
  2. The girls getting raped is followed by the dirty water. There is a clear association here. There is a lot of discussion of hygiene and filth


  1. The king: Fadlan spends a lot of time on king, who he has been sent to visit on his mission.
  1. 37 – “The Sacrifice of the Intelligent” Told by the king’s interpreter to Ibn Fadlan, an intelligent man. This is a recurring theme. Fadlan is told a series of threatening stories (giant story).
  2. P45 –Fadlan asks the king why he asked the calif for the money to build the mosque when the king has the money. King explains that this would demonstrate a relationship and an investment in the region. Interesting politics.
  3. The king is a savvy character. Once the king enters the scene Fadlan’s writing becomes a story with a plot, a narrative. There is tension here now.



Unlike Herodotus traveling because of possible exile, and Ibn Fadlan traveling on a mission in an official capacity, Basho is writing both to find inspiration for his poetry, and as a method of self-promotion. He is a literary rock star, and traveling as a Buddhist monk is a branding strategy.


  1. Reason for travel: travel is life and movement was life. Home was more the temporary, abnormal position. Everything travels: suns, moons, years, animals.
    1. There are places that he really wants to see before he dies. He reaches these wonderful sanctuaries that he has been hearing about and reading poems about. He really wants to experience all this. He is leaving part of his life behind him and moving into the next part.
    2. The politics here: by putting on “priest-drag” and going on the road Basho is thumbing his nose at the rigid social structure (lots of laws holding people in their place).His self-fashioning as an itinerant monks is interesting because of his fame and status.
    3. Looking for meaning and going on a spiritual journey. There is a tradition of looking back nostalgically on battles and great warriors.


  1. Basho’s business and audience: Basho is mostly supported by his disciples, who pay to serve him, and also by publishers.
    1. By the end of the 1600s all samurai and most artisans and businesspeople can read.
    2. Edo has close to a million people, and reading and writing poetry is popular across classes. In the new urban environment people of different classes are crammed together. This is also a period of rapid industrialization.
    3. After generations of peace the leisure arts are taking off and haiku is the 2nd bestselling form of literature (comes in behind Buddhist texts).
    4. He has disciples everywhere. He desires to get away of the static-ness and invigorate his own poetry. This is a period of rapid change in Haiku poetry. The kinds of words people could use. It was pretty regimented subject-wise. Basho is altering and re-contextualizing all of these traditions.
    5. Two types of popular literature: bawdy poems and stories about daily life and the “floating” (pleasure world), and works about nature. Star-crossed lovers committing suicide is a big theme.
  2. Basho’s persona:
    1. Never mentions money. Basho doesn’t have a lot of possessions on him. He is “poor” by choice. Dressing in monk’s clothing, and carrying his possessions in a simple style. This is a self-branding choice. Paul Thoreaux’s self-brand is similar: grumpy older white man on a train in a third world country with no luggage and once nice shirt.
    2. Basho is creating an ascetic monk-like persona. He is traveling to battlefields the way we travel to Civil War battlegrounds today.


  1. Basho’s literary role:
    1. Basho’s mixing of traditions in these sketches is interesting to scholars. He is mixing highbrow culture (fancy words) with everyday life (horse pee!).
    2. Basho’s decisions where to write poems is intended to challenge poetic traditions and customs, and push the very rigid boundaries of the genre. On p. 106 when he passes through the Shirakawa gate (a place with very poetic associations) he doesn’t write the “longing for home poem” that is expected and traditional. The poetry of these places is aristocratic beauty. He goes to Matsushima, the most poetic place in the north, and he DOESN’T WRITE A POEM!
    3. Places like Matsushima are mentioned in earlier anthologies of Japanese poems. Basho is taking that notion of aristocratic pathos and longing for the capital and home and “society,” and pushing against that tradition. He is thinking about warriors and former castles and battlements, and is embracing and welcoming nature.
    4. Basho is stepping into a timeless place. He is completely present and “there” at each location. Herodotus is telling us stories. Basho is putting himself in a place where he is living all this. At the same time he is very carefully choosing the details to create the image and the sense that he wants to create.   He doesn’t have a whole lot of sensory details except for very evocative sounds that are weighted signal words for this literary tradition.
    5. Basho is pushing the place-based associations of Japan in very purposeful ways. All of these are very charged. He is taking these and seeing what he can put in there. Basho’s work is cultural in that he is writing in a period of rapid industrialization. Basho is pulling haiku back to its roots and is pulling it up and doing all sorts of things to break the seasonal rules.


  1. Travel in Basho’s world:
    1. Prior to Basho, in the Han period you didn’t want to be outside, or traveling.   Han people would look out at the moon and nature from the outside. You aren’t going into nature because if you are going into nature you are in danger. There are certainly travelogues before Basho’s, but travel was scary back then.
    2. Exile usually meant you weren’t making it to where you were going. By Basho’s time travel was becoming something people do. A structure to support travel was developing because officials and politicians had to travel every other year.
    3. There is still a sense of potential travel obstacles. There is the sense that something bad could happen at any time. During this time travel is always “leaving,” being pulled away from where you want to be.

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