The Gold Digging Ants of Herodotus

J. Neelis neelisja at
Thu Nov 28 03:25:49 UTC 1996

Dear Indology members,
In addition to Ditte Konig's Das Tor zur Unterwelt referred to in an
earlier post by George Thompson, a  very good summation of theories about
the gold-digging "ants", anteaters, marmots, mastiffs, hamsters, hyenas,
jackals, pangolins, badgers etc. of Herodotus can be found in Klaus
Karttunen's study on India in Early Greek Literature (Studia Orientalia,
vol. 65, Helsinki:1989) pgs. 171-76.Karttunen points out that the idea of
identifying marmots with the gold-digging ants of Herodotus actually
originated with the travels of William Moorcroft in Ladakh in the early
1800s and was adopted by many commentators on Herodotus. However, the
identity of the gold-digging ants remains unproven because Herodotus'  
anecdote (which he ascribes to the Persians, 3.105) was part of the
fantastic vision of this remote area  situated on the frontier between
South Asia, Central Asia and East Asia.

In addition to classical Greek sources, other literary traditions connect
this region with ants and gold. The Mahaabhaarata (2.48.4) contains a
similar story of gold brought by ants(pippilikaiH) from the far northwest,
a parallel first noted by H.H. Wilson in Antiquities and Coins of
Afghanistan and Northern India (1841) pgs. 135-6.
 Another interesting reference to this region and gold which was brought
to my attention by reading Karl Jettmar's article on the Patola Shahis in
Antiquities of Northern Pakistan, vol.2 (1991) pgs. 107ff. is the Inquiry
ofVimalaprabhaa, a Tibetan text published by F.W. Thomas in 1935. In this
story based on an ex-eventu prophecy of the struggle over Baltistan
between the Tibetans and Chinese in the 8th century AD, a princess of
Skardu takes refuge in the "gold country." According to the text, the
"gold race" was created through the union of 500 merchants who had come
there to collect gold and 500 Raaks.asiis led by the incarnation of
Vimalaprabhaa as the upasikaa Hu-za, whom Thomas triedto identify as a
marmot because in her raaks.asii form her ears were cut
 The Chinese pilgrim Hsuan-tsang who travelled to India through the
Northwest in the 7th century AD also refers to a country called
Suvarn.agotra ruled by women bordered by Tibet on the east and Khotan on
the north, which might be identified with Baltistan, Ladakh, or
Gold-digging ants are mentionted in the Mongolian version of  the Gesar
epic (see Karttunen fn. 200), which was and still is popular in many parts
of Central Asia. In Foreign Devils on the Silk Road by Peter Hopkirk,
there may also be local legends of gold-digging ants or other demon-like
creatures who drive away treasure hunters.What all of these accounts have
in common are fantasies about faraway regions on the periphery of known
civilization where fabulous beings mine gold.

 It is ironic that the Soniwals who actually sift for gold in temporary
camps  on the banks of the Indus River around Chilas in northern Pakistan
and in Baltistan are and have probably always been the poorest of the
poor. A much greater terror than the gold-digging ants are the
flesh-eating flies, as anyone who goes to look at inscriptions and
petroglyphs along the river bank at the wrong time of year will quickly

I am not familiar with Mr. Peissel's book, The Ants' Gold, mentioned in
the New York Times article, but I suspect that his explanation that
confusion arose because the Persian word for marmot is equivalent for
"mountain ant" is based on modern Persian instead of Old

I think this debate (and the unlikely media coverage!) over the
gold-digging ants of Herodotus reflects our fascination with the rapidly
disappearing El Dorados and Shangri Las of this world.

Jason Neelis

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