Herodotus says that Darius, after chasing the Scythians around the lands north of the Black Sea for weeks to no effect, sent a message to Idanthyrus, the Scythian king.
‘ Why on earth, strange man,’ the message ran, ‘do you keep on running away? You have, surely, a choice of two alternatives: if you think yourself strong enough to oppose me, stand up and fight, instead of wandering all over the world in your efforts to escape me; or if you admit that you are too weak, what is the good, even so, of running away? You should rather send earth and water to your master as a sign of submission, and come to a conference.’
‘Persian,’ Idanthyrus replied, ‘I have never yet run away from any man in fear; and I am not doing so now from you. There is, for me nothing unusual in what I have been doing: it is precisely the sort of life I always lead, even in times of peace... I will send you no gifts of earth and water, but others more suitable..’
The Scythians continued to harass the Persian army at a distance, enticing them ever onwards but never fully engaging them in decisive action. ... a stratagem to keep them longer in the country and reduce them in the end to distress from lack of supplies.
...until at last Darius did not know where to turn, and the Scythians, seeing his acute embarrassment, sent him his promised presents - a bird, a mouse, a frog and five arrows. The Persians asked the man who brought these things what they signified, but got no reply. The man’s orders - so he said - were merely to deliver them, and to return home as quickly as he could: the Persians themselves, if they were clever, could find out what the presents meant. Thereupon the Persians put their heads together, and Darius expressed the view that the Scythians were giving him earth and water and intended to surrender: mice, he reasoned, live on the ground and eat the same food as men; frogs live in water; birds are much like horses; and the arrows symbolised the Scythian power, which they were giving into his hands. Gobryas, however (one of the seven conspirators who put down the Magus), by no means agreed with him, but interpreted the gifts as saying: ‘Unless you Persians turn into birds and fly up in the air, or into mice and burrow under ground, or into frogs and jump into lakes, you will never get home again, but stay here in this country, only to be shot by the Scythian arrows.'
While the Persians were thus interpreting the gifts...-the Scythians were cutting off their escape and trying to persuade the Greek navy, Persia’s allies at the time, to leave the Danube, taking their bridge with them. Darius eventually figured out this much and was able to escape by the skin of his teeth. Thereafter, he left the Scythians well enough alone.
a bird, a mouse, a frog and five arrows.
the Persians themselves, if they were clever, could find out what the presents meant.
Art is a gift that fucks with your head.