“Thou Art of a Truth a Treacherous and Unsavoury River”

One of my favorite moments in history comes from the story of Xerxes trying to cross the Hellespont. Here’s the relevant passages from The History of Herodotus in the translation by George Rawlinson:

Towards this tongue of land then, the men to whom the business was assigned carried out a double bridge from Abydos; and while the Phoenicians constructed one line with cables of white flax, the Egyptians in the other used ropes made of papyrus. Now it is seven furlongs across from Abydos to the opposite coast. When, therefore, the channel had been bridged successfully, it happened that a great storm arising broke the whole work to pieces, and destroyed all that had been done.

So when Xerxes heard of it he was full of wrath, and straightway gave orders that the Hellespont should receive three hundred lashes, and that a pair of fetters should be cast into it. Nay, I have even heard it said, that he bade the branders take their irons and therewith brand the Hellespont. It is certain that he commanded those who scourged the waters to utter, as they lashed them, these barbarian and wicked words: "Thou bitter water, thy lord lays on thee this punishment because thou hast wronged him without a cause, having suffered no evil at his hands. Verily King Xerxes will cross thee, whether thou wilt or no. Well dost thou deserve that no man should honour thee with sacrifice; for thou art of a truth a treacherous and unsavoury river." While the sea was thus punished by his orders, he likewise commanded that the overseers of the work should lose their heads.

Bad weather can get us all down but I feel like whipping, branding, and insulting bits of geography is quite over the top — which was the point of course. When I first read this passage, I thought of this as the archetypical example of frustration taken to an illogical and implausible extreme.

Over time though, I’ve found that there are certain moments of intense frustration where branding the ground and insulting the ocean might actually make me feel better in a way that other sort of release might not.