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Cyrus the Great, The Phenomenon


Legend of the birth and
rise of Cyrus the Great

The Historical Account


Herodotus, the Greek historian of the mid-fourth century BC, best describes the legend of Cyrus and the myths surrounding his birth. According to him, Astyages was Cyrus' maternal grandfather, who dreamt that his daughter Mandane produced so much water that it overran his city and the whole of Asia. When the holy men (magi) heard of the king's dream, they warned him of its consequences.

As a result, her father gave Mandane in marriage to a Persian called Cambyses who, although of noble descent, was considered by Astyages to be "much lower than a Mede of middle estate". Mandane and Cambyses were not married more than a year when Astyages once again had a dream; this time he saw a vine growing from inside Mandane's womb, which overshadowed the whole of Asia. The magi immediately saw a bad omen and told the king that Mandane's son would usurp his throne. The king sent for his pregnant daughter and kept her under tight guard until the child was born. Royal instructions were given to Harpagus, a Median nobleman and confidant of the king, that he should kill and dispose of the newly born child. But Harpagus decided not to kill the baby himself.

Stone relief at Pasargadae, showing a four-winged guardian figure wearing an Egyptian Crown.

Stone relief at Pasargadae, showing a four-winged guardian figure wearing an Egyptian Crown. The inscription, in Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian, reads, 'I, Cyrus, the king, an Achaemenian.'
The upper part of the slab is now missing.
Watercolour painted by Sir Robert Ker Porter in 1818.

Instead, he called for a royal herdsman and ordered him to carry out the king's command, adding that he would be severely punished if the child was allowed to live. However, the herdsman's own wife had given birth to a still-born child during her husband's absence, and she convinced him to keep the royal baby and bring it up as their own. They then presented Harpagus with the corpse of their still-born child, claiming that it was the prince.

Cyrus soon developed into an outstanding young boy, overshadowing his friends and showing royal qualities of leadership. One day, during a game with other children, Cyrus was chosen to play king. Promptly assuming this role, he punished the son of a distinguished Mede who refused to take orders from him. The father of the badly beaten boy complained to King Astyages, who in turn called for Cyrus in order to punish him. When asked why he behaved in such a savage manner, Cyrus defended his action by explaining that, because he was playing the role of king, he had every reason to punish someone who did not obey his command. Astyages knew immediately that these were not the words of a herdsman's son and realized that the boy was his own grandson, the son of Mandane. Later the story was confirmed by the herdsman, albeit with great reluctance. Astyages then punished Harpagus for his disobedience by serving him the cooked remains of his own son's body at a royal dinner. On the advice of the magi, the king allowed Cyrus to return to Persia to his real parents.

Harpagus vowed to avenge his son's death and encouraged Cyrus to seize his grandfather's throne. Herodotus described how Harpagus wrote his plan on a piece of paper and inserted it into the belly of a slain hare, which had not yet been skinned. The skin was sewn up and the hare given to a trusted servant who, posing as a hunter, traveled to Persia and presented it to Cyrus, telling him to cut it open. After reading Harpagus' letter, Cyrus began to play with the idea of seizing power from Astyages. As part of a careful plan, he persuaded a number of the Persian tribes to side with him to throw off the yoke of Astyages and the Medes. Cyrus succeeded in overthrowing his grandfather and became the ruler of the united Medes and Persians....

This fascinating account by Herodotus is still regarded by some as a reliable source on Cyrus' birth and coming to power, although it has a strong mythological flavour.

Among later sources, one story is of particular interest. It describes how the baby Cyrus, abandoned in the woods by a shepherd, is fed by a dog until the shepherd returns with his wife and takes the infant into their care. This tale is similar to mythological stories surrounding the infancy of other heroes and rulers (for example, Romulus and Remus, the twins who founded Rome, were saved and raised by a wolf).

(This part has been based on a section from the book "Persian Myths", by Vesta Sarkhosh Curtis.)


Cyrus the Great, The Phenomenon

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The Historical Account

Cyrus the Great
The Phenomenon
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