24.) The Story of the Gold-Digging Ants: Greek Rationality or Rationalization?

That the Greek accounts of India contain mythical elements is well known.[1] It is a matter of some interest, though, that some of them have been shown to reflect Indian myths. The account of the gold-digging ants is a case in point. Herodotus writes:

102. There are other Indians bordering on the city of Caspatyrus and the country of Pactyice, settled northward of the other Indians, whose mode of life resembles that of the Bactrians. They are the most warlike of the Indians, and these are they who are sent to procure gold; for near this part is a desert by reason of the sands. In this desert, then, and in the sand, there are ants in size somewhat less indeed than dogs, but larger than foxes. Some of them are in possession of the King of the Persians, which were taken there. These ants, forming their habitations underground, heap up the sand as the ants in Greece do, and in the same manner; and they are very like them in shape. The sand that is heaped up is mixed with gold. The Indians therefore go to the desert to get this sand, each man having three camels, on either side a male one harnessed to draw by the side, and a female in the middle. This last the man mounts himself, having taken care to yoke one that has been separated from her young as recently born as possible; for camels are not inferior to horses in swiftness, and are much better able to carry burdens.

103. Is occupied with a short description of the camel.

104. The Indians then adopting such a plan and such a method of harnessing, set out for the gold, having before calculated the time, so as to be engaged in their plunder during the hottest part of the day, for during the heat the ants hide themselves under the ground. Amongst these people, the sun is hottest in the morning, and not, as amongst others, at mid-day, from the time that it has risen some way, to the breaking of the market; during this time it scorches much more than at mid-day in Greece, so that, it is said, they then refresh themselves in water. Mid-day scorches other men much the same as the Indians; but as the day declines, the sun becomes to them as it is to others in the morning; and after this, as it proceeds it becomes still colder, until sunset; then it is very cold.

105. When the Indians arrive at the spot, having sacks with them, they fill them with the sand, and return with all possible expedition. For the ants, as the Persians say, immediately discovering them by the smell, pursue them and are equaled in swiftness by no other animal, so that the Indians, if they did not get the start of them while the ants were assembling, not a man of them could be saved. Now the male camels (for they are inferior in speed to the females) slacken their pace, dragging on, not both equally, but the females mindful of the young they have left, do not slacken their pace. Thus the Indians, as the Persians say, obtain the greatest part of their gold; and they have some small quantity more that is dug in the country.[2]

E.R. Bevan offers the following comment on this description:

The account of the ants who throw up mounds of gold dust, which afterwards became a permanent element in the classic conception of India, was given in full by Herodotus. The facts on which the account was based seem now fairly clear. Gold-dust was actually brought as tribute by the tribes of Dardistān in Kashmīr and was called by the Indians pipīlika, ‘ant-gold’. When Herodotus says that the ants were the size of dogs and fiercely attacked anyone carrying off the gold, it has been plausibly suggested that the account was derived from people who had been chased by the formidable dogs kept by the native miners.[3]

The connection between gold and ants is clearly established in the Mahābhārata through the following verse (II. 54.4):

tad vai pilīlikaṁ nāma uddhṛtam yat pipīlikaiḥ

jātarūpam droṇameyam ahārṣuḥ puñjaśo nrpāḥ[4]

The relevant verse in the critical edition is translated as follows by J.A.B. van Buitenen.

…They brought the gold called pipīlika, which is granted as a boon by the pipīlaka ants, and they brought it by bucketfuls and (in) piles.[5]

The following question arises at this point: how is the account of gold-digging ants to be reconciled with the claims of Greek rationalism?[6] One could be inclined, without the Indian parallel, to include the story of the gold-digging ants among other fanciful accounts such as the monstrous animal martikhora ‘as large as a lion, with a human face, which shoots stings out of the end of its tails’,[7] or ‘fables as to monstrous races with one leg, with ears reaching to their feet, and so on’.[8] The occurrence of an Indian parallel rescues it from that fate and increases one’s confidence in Greek rationality. When, however, Bevan proceeds to explain how Herodotus’s account could be made to make sense – has one not moved to the realm of rationalizing what the Greek account says? The question is: to what extent is Bevan reporting and to what extent also ‘creating’ what is being reported.

The same process of rationalization may also be seen at work in the discussion of the account of Megasthenes.

The name of the extreme southern point of the peninsula had also traveled to the Greeks before the time of Strabo. He knew it as the country of the Cōliaci, this was derived from the name in local speech, Kōri. The legend, when it made a woman the sovereign of the south, was probably reflecting the system of mother-right which has to some extent obtained there even to the present day. Some of the physical characteristics of the people of the south were known by report – that they were darker in complexion, for instance, than the Indians of the north. The facts of early maturity and of the general shortness of life were also known. In the legend narrated by Megasthenes, as we saw, the precocious maturity which Heracles had bestowed upon his daughter by a miracle continued to be a characteristic of women of her kingdom. They were marriageable, and could bear children, Megasthenes said, at seven years old. This exaggeration was presumably due to the fact of child-marriage. As to the general length of life, forty years was the maximum –again a fact, the relative shortness of life, exaggerated.[9]

An attempt seems afoot here to rescue Greek rationality by European rationalization.


[1] R.C. Mujumdar, The Classical Accounts of India (Calcutta: Firma KLM Private Ltd., 1981) p. xxiv-xxv

[2] Ibid., p.2-3. Also see pages 266, and 433.

[3] E.R. Bevan, “India in Early Greek and Latin Literature”, in E.J. Rapson, ed., Ancient India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922) p. 396.

[4] P.K. Gode and C.G. Karve, editors-in-chief, The Practical Sanskrit-English Dictionary (Poona: Prasad Prakashan, 1958) Vol. II, p. 1028.

[5] J.A.B. van Buitenen, tr., The Mahābhārata (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1975) Books 2 and 3, p. 118.

[6] E.R. Bevan, op.cit., p. 391-392, 409, 413, etc.

[7] Ibid., p. 397.

[8] Ibid., p. 422-423.

[9] Ibid., p. 424.

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9 Responses to “24.) The Story of the Gold-Digging Ants: Greek Rationality or Rationalization?”

  1. S.P. Attri Says:

    1. muslims have practised slavery for thousands of years so what is new

    arish sahani wrote:

    Muslim family practing slave trade in usa

    Its time when we should have world order .

    Some nations should be recognised to practice a particula rfaith . Like in islam, shia and sunii. to bring harmony.

    Its not good for these children to live in united sates and their parents are taking away their freedom but raising children as slaves to their belief.

    If so they have also no right to live in usa. Looks like they have hidden plan to make this country like their belief by population. USA should reject this and not support the family under and govt funding as this is totally against freedom of human soul.When adult they have choice to practice all they want but when young they should be exposed to all good and bad to make the right judgement for life. Its time parents should be made to leave the country as they are subjecting children to slavery which is not allowed in free world.

    we should alloppos ethis

    2. My Take:

    Despite the mumbo-jumbo of the Mullahs, the practice of slavery by Islam/Moslems is a historical fact. We can state it without fear of contradiction that, slavery is part of the system of Islam. And Moslems are not going to suspend the practice of slavery, for the benefit of Kafirs ( Non-Moslem Infidels ). Mullahs shamelessly tout Islam as a religion of Peace, Love, and Brotherhood, to spread the falsehood of Islam. No smart Kafir would accept this fabrication & falsehood, prejudice, and popular superstition of the Idiot Mullahs & Maulvies. We have solid historical evidence of merciless-butchering of hundreds of millions of Non-Moslem Kafirs, by the Jehadis of Islam. The relentless hounding of Salman Rushdie is an example from our own time.

    Surinder Paul Attri

  2. S.P. Attri Says:

    Subj: Seven sins, according to Pope
    1. Forgive my french
    BUT WHO THE FUCK DOES THE POPE THINK HE IS?? LAYING DOWN THE RULES AS IF HE IS THE MASTER OF THE PLANET. THE CATHOLIC CHURCH ARE A BUNCH OF HYPOCRITES, THEY HAVE REALISED THE WISDOM OF OUR TEACHINGS AND PAWNING IT OFF AS THEIR OWN! DASTARDLY BASTARDS!
    -Muski

    2. My Take:
    Pope considers himself the follower of Jesus Christ ( a Complete-Psycho ), and Jehova’s Representative on earth ( Jehova’s Rep my foot ). Jesus Christ is a hero to Christians but a Criminal to Non-Christians. He aimed to commit crime and not get caught. The by-product of his teachings has been slaughter of hundreds of millions of Non-Christian Infidels. His Christianity has a long history of massive slaughter, murder, pillage, plunder, and rape of Non-Christians.

    3. We don’t want to be lectured by imbeciles like Jesus Christ or his dopey followers, whose record has been engraved on the pages of history. Christianity is drunk with violence and intolerance, and is hardly in a position to lecture civilized societies, on how to behave.

    Surinder Paul Attri

  3. Indian History Carnival - 4 | DesiPundit Says:

    […] laughed at the outrageous reports of Herodotus, especially the gold digging ants of India. Arvind Sharma asks: how is the account of gold-digging ants to be reconciled with the claims of Greek […]

  4. Gilligan Says:

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  5. Bunde Says:

    thanks my friend.Nice post.

  6. Putzier Says:

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  7. Junge Says:

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  8. Gorby Says:

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  9. sitebilgi Says:

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