Bigger than a fox, smaller than a dog? It’s an ant.


The story of gold-digging ants is one of the most charming in Herodotus’ history (written around 460-50 BCE). Although he is called the first historian, his account often reads like a travelogue as he points out buildings of special interest and recounts local traditions and stories, usually adding his own comments as to their truthfulness. Gold was extremely rare in Ancient Greece, most coming from Persia, Asia Minor and Ethiopia.  Herodotus says some came from India, the “most easterly country in the inhabited world”. 

Here it was mined or washed down in rivers, but was also found in desert sands of an area now thought to be the Deosai Plateau in Gilgit-Baltistan province in Pakistan. The ants, ‘bigger than a fox, but not bigger than a dog’, throw up gold-laden sand as they form their burrows. The Indians fill bags with the sand during the hottest part of the day when the ‘ants’ are cooling underground, then load up camels and make their escape. Female camels, impatient to get back to their young, are preferred for speed and endurance. This is the kind of story that gives Herodotus a name for at least naïveté, or, more brutally, lying. Yet the story comes from India via the Persians and we all know the perils of translation.

The Greek for ant is murmex. There’s a Persian word mur mess meaning big ant or mur maitch meaning dog-ant. In ancient India the word for flakes of gold is close to a Tibetan word for marmot. As ants are well known in myth as creatures who sort things of value from piles of dross I think this description of the marmot is metaphorical, like our use of the word sea-horse. This and the phonetic link with the Persian words explain the oddity. 

There are, however, still moments in the narrative when the story goes hugger-mugger with fact.

7th/6th Century incense burners from the Kerameikos museum Athens showing Eastern influence


Forests which generated these valuable resins clustered around the base of the Red Sea. Myrrh was, apparently, easy to collect. So easy that the phoenix (so it was said), that mythical super-bird, when its’ father died, would mould a ball of myrrh, hollow it out, place the body inside then carry the egg-parent to the temple of the sun at Heliopolis ( Baalbek in Syria). Frankincense trees on the other hand were jealously guarded by swarms of flying snakes that were smoked out with burning storax, another balsam or resin, before the frankincense could be collected. Valued highly for uses in ritual and medicine, the difficulty of harvesting the resins added to their cost, as did the lengthy transportation, first by camel to ports and caravan centres from as early as the 10th century BCE, then by ship to India and Greece and across land throughout Persia.


The Arabians, Herodotus records, covered themselves with ox-hides and plastered their eyes with mud to avoid injury by the aggressive bat-like creatures that guarded cassia plants growing in shallow lakes. Cinnamon sticks were used by large birds in the construction of their mountain-top nests, so oxen and donkeys were cut up and left at the bottom of the mountain as lures. The birds carried these to their nests which, unable to bear the weight, fell to the ground making the cinnamon easy to gather. Finally ledanon (gum mastic) had to be extracted from the smelly beards of he-goats where it had collected as they browsed the bushes of Rock-rose under whose hairy leaves it formed. 

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