As it was famously recorded by Plutarch¹ 600 years after the event, Xerxes sends another messenger to the Spartan lines, supposedly, another message for the King of the Spartans, and says to all the men who can hear him, “You can all go home. All will be forgiven. Just put down your arms.”
Right then you get the wonderful phrase:
This difficult-to-translate Greek is translated in many different ways, but it’s just as good—pretty much in any of them.
“Lay down your arms.”
“Come and take them!”
“Come and get them!”
“Having come, take!”
“You can take them when we’re all dead!”
It is still, by the way, the motto of the Greek first army corps. It’s been used for many causes all throughout history, because it’s such a great dramatic colourful spit-in-the-face-of-death line, isn’t it?
It’s a Clint Eastwood line.
“Do you feel lucky punk? Come and take them!”
How do you not stand up in a theatre and cheer, when that moment hits? That’s every screenwriter’s dream to have a scenario like that, and if it can be true, how wonderful is that?
The Greek chroniclers, who wrote about this stuff, did not skimp on the drama.
It makes it colourful. It makes it real. It makes it compelling even 500 years later.
You would give your right arm to have this kind of stuff right out of the mouths of the oral historians from all of these places that didn’t have them, that look black-and-white because of it.
The Persian story must be magical also.
We don’t have that story, and traditionally, it is difficult for us to imagine that we would like to hear—from a pro perspective—the story of Darth Vader and the Empire, but throughout history they weren’t always Darth Vader, and some of the greatest chroniclers of all time have gone to great lengths to show, in fact, that they may have been on God’s side if you will.
If that turns out to be the case, who’s side you’re rooting for then?
Of course, in this time period, the Iron-Age ancient world, and in this area, the Mediterranean and the Near East, you would have to be—a heck of a lot—more specific when you start talking about deities than just say god.
The likely response during that era might have been, “Which god?”
It was a wild-and-crazy time for religion in that part of the world, and they had a lot of different ones, and they ran the gamut from things you might understand today to wild-and-crazy, and everything in between.
Most of these religious beliefs had a pantheon of gods, a bunch of them. Some of them had, sort of a dominant, lead god, but having multiple gods was the norm.
There were groups—especially one—known for only having one God, and they were the ones who put together, with divine or without divine help, take your pick, a tome, a combination of catalogue of events, stories, accounts, perspectives, admonitions, and hymns.
It’s hard to describe exactly what the old Hebrew Bible² is. It’s also hard to know when it was written.
Are the accounts from the period around the time the Persians first appeared on the scene legitimate from that period?
Most biblical experts think they were written later.
Nonetheless, we use Plutarch, 500 years after the fact, and so does everyone else, so when the old Hebrew Bible, in multiple places, talks about the Persians, we should probably at least note the attitude, and the attitude that the writers—whoever they may have been of those works—had towards the Persians, especially early on.
It wasn’t just positive, it was divine.
“MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN”
“Number, number, weight, divisions”
That’s my favourite part of the Bible, the old Hebrew Bible, which is so full of wonderful stuff.
You know, the Greeks don’t have the market totally cornered on colour. There’s just not a ton of stuff from the parts of the world during the time period represented by the Bible, but remember, there’s a lot of discussion over when various pieces of the Bible were written. A lot of this good stuff may have been written well into the prose period.
Hence, we’ve entered into the colour era.
The Book of Daniel³ has this scary story, spooky story. It’s not like a horror movie, but it’s a spooky movie. Today, you would have to have a little bit of CGI to help make it work, but it’s my favourite scene.
It’s out of the Book of Daniel, and it involves a ghostly hand writing words on a wall.
“MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN”
You have to back up a little bit in the story to set the scene.
The King of Babylon, who the Bible calls Belshazzar⁴, was having a party, he, his buddies, and some concubines. That’s the way the bible puts it. You probably have to imagine some loud music and booze, and they were drinking.
Then, at a certain point, the King of Babylon wanted the really nice silverware brought in, and the big cups of gold and silver; the ones they took from Jerusalem when they sacked the capital of Judah, not that long ago.
For that is what the Babylonians had done; scattered a bunch of Jews everywhere, forced a lot of the premier families, craftsmen, and artisans to deport all the way back to Babylon, and destroyed Solomon’s Temple.
When it comes to PR, this Belshazzar guy and the Babylonians are not getting a ton of it positive from the Bible.
While he was drinking out of his big, looted cup, hanging out with the concubines, all of a sudden, a ghostly hand with a finger appeared right under the lamp, and it started writing on a wall:
“MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN”
Everybody freaked out.
The King James’ version of the Bible⁵ makes it sound like he, essentially, couldn’t control his bowels, he was so scared. The later, more colloquial version, just sticks to the knees-shaking version.
Nonetheless, he couldn’t figure out what it meant, so—the Bible says—this Babylonian leader called in all of his sorcerers, necromancers, and astrologers, all of these people, the wizards, that advised the high Babylonian King.
Part of what makes Babylonian so freaking wonderful is that there is a combination of, like, rational, logical, hard, observational, science, mathematics, and all of these kinds of things with divination.
Still, none of these people—according to the Bible—could explain to Belshazzar what the writing meant.
Then someone reminded him that his father used this guy, this deportee from Judah, after the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem there, who was here in Babylon, “We can bring him, and see if he knows what the ghostly writing means.”
Belshazzar grabbed the guy, and brought him in, and it was Daniel⁷.
To be continued in the next episode.
¹ Plutarch (c. CE 46 – CE 120), later named, upon becoming a Roman citizen, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, was a Greek biographer and essayist, known primarily for his Parallel Lives and Moralia.
² The Hebrew Bible, also called the Tanakh or Mikra, is the canonical collection of Jewish texts, which is also a textual source for the Christian Old Testament. These texts are composed mainly in Biblical Hebrew, with some passages in Biblical Aramaic. The traditional Hebrew text is known as the Masoretic Text. The Tanakh consists of twenty-four books.
³ In the Hebrew Bible, The Book of Daniel is found in the Ketuvim (writings), while in Christian Bibles, it is grouped with the Major Prophets.
⁴ Belshazzar was the eldest son of Nabonidus, the last king of the Neo-Babylonian empire, and regent for his father during the latter’s prolonged absence from the city, although he never assumed the titles or ritual functions of kingship. His fate is unknown, but he may have been killed when Babylon fell to the Persians in 539 BCE.
Daniel’s Belshazzar is not malevolent (he rewards Daniel for his interpretation of the writing), but in later Jewish tradition he becomes a tyrant who oppresses the Jewish people.
⁵ The King James Version (KJV), also known as the King James Bible (KJB) or simply the Authorized Version (AV), is an English translation of the Christian Bible for the Church of England, begun in 1604 and completed in 1611. The books of the King James Version include the 39 books of the Old Testament, an intertestamental section containing 14 books of the Apocrypha, and the 27 books of the New Testament.
⁶ Stephen William Hawking (8 January 1942 – 14 March 2018) was an English theoretical physicist, cosmologist, and author. He was known for his groundbreaking work with black holes and relativity, and was the author of several popular science books including A Brief History of Time.
⁷ No cheating! You have to wait for episode IV.