Battle of Gaugamela (October 1, 331 BCE): decisive battle in the war between Macedonia and the Achaemenid Empire, fought in northern Iraq. The outcome was influenced by a celestial omen that announced the imminent downfall of the Persian king Darius III Codomannus and the succession by Alexander the Great.
The Greek researcher and storyteller Herodotus of Halicarnassus(fifth century BCE) was the world’s first historian. In The Histories, he describes the expansion of the Achaemenid empire under its kingsCyrus the Great, Cambyses and Darius I the Great, culminating in kingXerxes’ expedition in 480 BCE against the Greeks, which met with disaster in the naval engagement at Salamis and the battles at Plataeaand Mycale. Herodotus’ remarkable book also contains excellent ethnographic descriptions of the peoples that the Persians have conquered, fairy tales, gossip, legends, and a very humanitarian morale. (A summary with some historical comments can be found here.)
This is the first part of an article in eight pieces.
Herodotus of Halicarnassus hereby publishes the results of his inquiries, hoping to do two things: to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of the Greek and the non-Greek peoples; and more particularly, to show how the two races came into conflict.
These are the confident opening lines of Herodotus’ Histories, and the Greeks who heard them must have been surprised. Preserving the memory of the past by putting on record certain astonishing achievements was not unusual, but the bards who had been singing legendary tales had been less pretentious. Even the great poet Homerhad started his Iliad in a more modest way:
Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles, that brought endless harm upon the Greeks. Many brave men did it send down to the Underworld, and many heroes did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures. In this way, the counsels of Zeus were fulfilled, from the day on which Agamemnon -king of men- and great Achilles first fell out with one another. And which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel?
The similarity between these two prologues is obvious: we are about to hear a tale about a terrible conflict and the speaker wants us to understand how the two sides came into conflict. The difference is striking, too: Homer invites a goddess to relate the story; Herodotus does not need divine aid. Who was this man, who so proudly gave his personal opinion about the past?
Not much is known about Herodotus’ life. The only reliable source we have is the book he wrote, known as The Histories, and this remarkable text gives us some clues that enable us to sketch the outlines of its writer’s life. As its prologue shows, Herodotus was born in a town called Halicarnassus: modern Bodrum in southwestern Turkey. Not far from Herodotus’ native city is the island Samos, which figures so prominently in The Histories, that it has been argued that Herodotus spent several years on it. The same argument applies to Athens: Herodotus may have spent some time in the leading Greek city of his age.
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The theater and acropolis of Halicarnassus. Photo Marco Prins.
Halicarnassus / Bodrum
It is unknown when or why he left his home town. Two or three centuries after Herodotus’ death, scholars from Alexandria assumed that the historian was banished because he had been involved in an abortive coup attempt. Unfortunately, there are many ancient historians who were forced to spend part of their lives abroad after a political failure (e.g., Thucydides, Theopompus of Chios, Timaeus, and Polybius of Megalopolis). Probably, it is safer to ignore this piece of scholarly speculation.
The famous Macedonian philosopher Aristotle of Stagira (384-322 BCE) must have heard or read The Histories. In his book on Rhetorics, he quotes its first line:
Herodotus of Thurii hereby publishes the results of his inquiries…
An easy way to explain this variant reading of Herodotus’ opening line is that Aristotle was simply mistaken. However, the philosopher’s infallibility has been axiomatic for centuries, and many scholars -ancient and modern- have tended to believe that Herodotus was one of the settlers in the South-Italian city Thurii, which was founded in 444 BCE. A medieval dictionary, the Suda, mentions Herodotus’ tomb on the market of Thurii (Suda H536); this was a high honor, only attributed to the (often legendary) founders of new cities. Of course it is possible that Herodotus was the founder of Thurii, but probably we are better advised to take the Suda’s statement with a grain of salt, especially since Athens and Pella (in Macedonia) also claimed his tomb. It is imaginable that the Thurians have invented theirs after reading Aristotle.
The year of Herodotus’ death is unknown, but we have two clues. In section 137 of Book Seven of The Histories the execution of two Spartans in Athens is mentioned. From another source, The history of the Peloponnesian War by the Athenian historian Thucydides (2.67), it is known that the two were killed in the winter of 430/429 BCE. Therefore, Herodotus was still alive and writing in 429. Since it is also known that in the summer of 429 many Athenians were killed by the plague, it may be conjectured that Herodotus was one of the victims of this disease. However this may be, he must have died before 413, because he tells (Book Nine, section 73) that a certain village in the neighborhood of Athens, Decelea, was never plundered by the Spartans, something that did in fact happen in 413, as Thucydides tells us (6.93)
Assuming that Herodotus died between 429 and 413, it is reasonable to infer that he was born between 500 and 470. Perhaps we can be a little bit more precise: nowhere in The Histories does he claim to have witnessed the great Persian War (480-479 BC) that he is describing. Therefore, his date of birth can be estimated in the eighties of the fifth century BC.
The author of The Histories seems to have been a real globetrotter. If we are to believe him, he was no stranger in Babylon, where he interviewed the priests; he claims to have gone north to the Crimea and south along the Nile; he visited Sicily and knows the details of North-African topography. However, some doubts are possible: e.g., his description of Babylon is contradicted by archaeological evidence (see below). On the other hand, in his description of the Crimea, he mentions a king known to have lived around 460, which makes it likely that he really visited that part of the world.
That he was able to write, is a fact easily ignored. However, it tells us that his parents could afford a teacher and were well to do. Herodotus must have been a rich man, possibly a member of the old aristocracy. We may speculate that he fought as a heavy armored infantryman (a hoplite), like all Greek men of his class and age. This would explain why his descriptions of battles are always from a soldier’s point of view and sometimes confused. He was a soldier, not a general.
This is all we know about the Father of History: frustratingly little. Yet, there are only a few ancient writers that we know as well as Herodotus. Other authors wrote longer texts, were greater historians, or reached greater intellectual heights, but none of them is able to convey the same feeling of intimate friendship that we experience when we read Herodotus. We meet him when he is in a dark mood, share his surprise, know his religious opinions, hear him chattering, joking and babbling. There is no ancient author whose character we know so well as the man about whose life we know so little. The solution to this paradox lies in The Histories.
Today, The Histories are usually edited in one volume. In Antiquity, nine scrolls were needed to contain the entire text, and it is still usual to divide The Histories into nine ‘books’. As the Italian classicist Silvana Cagnazzi has pointed out, it is possible to subdivide every ‘book’ into three units, the logoi (overview). When a person reads one of these logoi to an audience, he or she needs about four hours, and it is likely that this is how Herodotus first ‘published’ the results of his inquiries: as a lecture. This idea corroborates an ancient story that he used to recite his work. (On one occasion, a boy started to cry: the future historian Thucydides, who was deeply moved by Herodotus’ narrative.)
It is likely that at one point Herodotus decided to collect his logoi in one continuous text. But now he faced a serious problem. His logoi were about very dissimilar subjects -e.g., a description of Egypt, a logos about Scythian customs, and a narrative about Persian diplomacy in the winter of 480/479- and it was likely that this collection of logoi would become a messy whole. Herodotus has recognized this problem, and decided to group everything around one single theme: the expansion of the Achaemenid (or Persian) empire between 550 and 479. Lectures on topography and ethnography now became integrated chapters of a historical chronicle.
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Homer. Glyptothek, M�nchen (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
Homer (Glyptothek, Munich)
Stories about the past were something that the Greeks primarily knew from the beautiful epic poems of Homer, who had sung about the valiant deeds of past heroes in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Herodotus was heavily influenced by this example. Sometimes he quotes the legendary bard; or he uses words that any Greek would have recognized as homeric. The Iliad contains a catalogue of nations that took part in the Trojan War; in Book Three, Herodotus sums up all Persian provinces, and in Book Seven, he inserts a list of troops that took part in Xerxes’ expedition to Greece. Sometimes, Herodotus copies scenes from Homer. In his description of the Battle of Thermopylae, he tells how the Spartans and Persians fought about the body of Leonidas. This is impossible in a hoplite-battle (the type of warfare Herodotus is describes) but echoes a scene from the Iliad in which the Greeks and Trojans fight about the body of the hero Patroclus.
A very important borrowing from Homer is the circular composition. More than a hundred times, Herodotus interrupts his narrative to digress on a subject. The longest digression is Book Two: Herodotus announces that the Persian king Cambyses wanted to conquer Egypt, and then begins to talk about the geography, the customs and the history of the ancient country along the Nile. Finally, at the beginning of Book Three, Herodotus resumes his narrative and describes the Persian invasion.
The digressions belong to the most entertaining parts of the Histories. For example, we read an interview with an employee of an Egyptian mummy factory, an astonishing anecdote about the first circumnavigation of Africa, a hilarious tale about Indian goldmining, a report about the sources of the Nile and the Danube (see below), a reconstruction of the language of the prehistoric Greeks, a cautionary tale about deposits, and lots more.
Modern bust of Herodotus, Bodrum (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering.
Modern bust of Herodotus, near the Museum of Bodrum
A final point of similarity between Herodotus and Homer is the impartiality of the narrative: Homer’s heroes are the Greeks, but his Trojans are no villains, and in the same way Herodotus portrays his Greeks and Persians – he treats both parties without partiality or hatred, but with genuine sympathy. It is interesting to compare this with the historiographical texts from the oriental monarchies: the Persian shah -e.g., the Behistun inscription- and the Egyptian pharaoh leave no doubt about the wickedness of their opponents.
But Herodotus is more than just a pupil of Homer who added geographical and ethnographical bits and pieces to his unbiased epic tale. A first difference is that Homer was a poet using a complex meter, whereas Herodotus composed his logoi in prose. But the greatest difference is the fact that Herodotus was a real researcher, an empiricist. (In fifth century BC Greek, the word historia still meant ‘research’; it was Herodotus’ achievement that the meaning of the word changed.) He traveled a lot in order to investigate the cities and opinions of man. Where Homer claimed to be speaking the truth depended on his inspiration from the muses, Herodotus based his narrative on research. It is a tribute to the quality of Herodotus’ geographical descriptions that the works of his predecessors are now lost.
As a corollary of Herodotus’ empiricist method, he is interested in the recent past. Homer had told about distant, legendary antiquities; Herodotus was interested in events that were in living memory and could be verified. For example, he seems to have interviewed the survivors of the Battle of Marathon. Admittedly, interviews are an unreliable source, but it must be said that Herodotus did a remarkable job: when we can check The Histories, it often turns out to be trustworthy. Even though Herodotus makes some serious mistakes, he managed to give a pretty accurate description of the century before his birth.
As it turned out, Herodotus invented a new literary genre: history. He did so by integrating the results of empiricist ethnographic and topographic research into epic, and writing this in prose. This combination was revolutionary.
Thucydides. Mosaic from Jerash, now in the Altes Museum Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. Thucydides; mosaic from Jerash (Altes Museum, Berlin)
It is odd that he was hardly appreciated in Antiquity. People admired his entertaining way of telling stories, but they did not believe them. The first to criticize the Father of History was Thucydides, who rejected Herodotus’ religious explanation of what was happening (below). In later times, nobody dared to believe what Herodotus told about strange customs. For almost two thousand years, people considered him just a teller of (excellent) tales and thought that all these strange customs were merely inventions. His never ending stream of tall, short and winding tales earned him -as Salman Rushdie would say- not one but two nicknames: to some, he was the Father of History, but to others, he was the Father of Lies. Only when, after the discovery of the Americas, the Europeans learned to know the customs of hitherto unknown people, the reappreciation of Herodotus started. But even today, many of his claims are the subject of debate.
Zeus, Ruler of Mount Olympus,
Known by Many Names,
Lord of the Sky,
And Zeus of the Thunderbolt.
The Mighty Zeus, the Greek god known
also as the Roman god Jupiter or Jove.
Zeus, Greek god of the sky was also the supreme ruler of Mount Olympus and all the other Greek gods and goddesses of the Olympian pantheon. Not an easy job for they were quite an unruly bunch! When the Olympians won the war against the ruling Titans, Zeus and his siblings wrested the throne from his father Cronos (Kronos) and the Olympic age began.
Zeus, Greek God of the Sky:
As ruler of the sky, the Greek god Zeus was responsible for bringing (or not, if he so chose) rain, drought, and thunderstorms. No one dared challenge the authority of the mighty Zeus since he was prone to release his fearsome thunderbolts to express his displeasure . . . an awesome way to keep the peace and maintain order, but it worked for several centuries!
The birth of Zeus was to be a fateful event . . . and it certainly was an unusual one! Sixth child of the ruling Titan god Cronos and the goddess Rhea, Zeus was the first to escape the fate of being swallowed by his father. Cronus, made fearful by a prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him, had eaten each of his children shortly after their births to prevent this from happening.
Rhea, understandably, was not happy about this, and after the birth of Zeus, tricked Zeus into swallowing a rock that she had wrapped in a blanket, leading him to believe it was his newborn son. With the help of Gaia (the great Titan goddess we call Mother Earth, Rhea placed the care of her infant Zeus in the hands of the ash nymphs who hid him in their cave. Sometimes they hid him in the boughs of an ash tree where he could not be found on earth, in the sea or in the sky. The nymphs were helped by the divine goat Amalthei who allowed Zeus to nurse on her milk. Later when she died Zeus turned the goat’s skin into his royal shield, Aegis, to honor her.
Zeus grew nicely under the nymphs’ care, and, as a young boy, came to be an attendant to his father. Cronus had no reason to suspect that his new cup-bearer was actually his son.
His mother and the goddess Metis (a Titan goddess of wisdom) prepared a special potion for Zeus to slip into his father’s cup. When Cronus drank from the cup he grew nauseous and vomited u[ Zeus’ five siblings that he had swallowed — Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon.
Understandably outraged at having been imprisoned all these years, the siblings decided to wrest the throne away from Cronus. The wise Zeus realized that they would need both weaponry and powerful allies to accomplish this feat so, with his brothers; he freed the Cyclopes (one-eyed giants) from their imprisonment in Tartarus (the unpleasant part of the Underworld that we would describe as Hell).
Grateful for their release and willing to help battle Cronus, the Cyclopes presented the brothers with gifts to show their appreciation. To Zeus they gave his thunderbolts, to Poseidon his trident, and to Hades a helmet that, when worn, made the wearer invisible.
Now well armored, the siblings began the battle against their father and his troops. The war was long and bloody, but eventually won when the invisible Hades crept up behind Cronus, Poseidon immobilized him with his trident, and Zeus knocked him unconscious with his thunderbolts. The reign of the Olympians had just begun!
Since he was a god and couldn’t die, Cronus was imprisoned in Tartarus. Later he managed to escape, changed his name to Saturn, and made his way to Italy where he lived quietly among the mortals.
Meanwhile the three brothers drew lots to divide up their new kingdom. Zeus drew the heavens (which made him the supreme ruler), Poseidon got the sea, and Hades won the Underworld. They agreed to share the rulership of the earth, with all having power over the mortals and the earth’s other creatures.
Unfortunately Zeus let his newly acquired power go to his head. Consequently his first few years of rule were marred by his tendency to abuse his powers.
He built an enormous palace that sat far above the clouds on the top of Mount Olympus and, ensconced there, used his thunderbolts rather liberally, hurling them at anyone who had the misfortune to displease him.
Zeus decided he needed a queen and picked Metis, the goddess who had helped him trick Cronos into disgorging his brothers and sisters. Only one problem . . . Metis declined and changed forms to hide herself from the persistent Zeus. But Zeus wasn’t about to take no for an answer and pursued her relentlessly until she finally fell from exhaustion and consented.
When Metis became pregnant, the great goddess Gaia, irritated with his high-handed ways issued a prophecy that any son of Zeus and Metis would grow to eventually usurp the throne of his father. So, in a variation of his father’s routine, Zeus swallowed the pregnant Metis to prevent her from giving birth to a son.
He need not have bothered for Metis was carrying a daughter, not a son. As the unborn daughter grew for years inside his head, Zeus developed the headache to end all headaches! Hephaestus, the god of the forge, could see how miserable Zeus felt, and fashioning a golden axe especially for the occasion, split Zeus’ head open to relieve the pain. When he did, out stepped Athena, full-grown daughter of Zeus who was fully-clothed and ready to assume her divine responsibilities as the goddess of war. She was to become her father’s most trusted ally and advisor.
Now with Metis out of the way, Zeus went on to have several other consorts (and children by them) before actually marrying. Eventually Zeus decided that it was time for him to marry, and he picked the goddess Hera.
Hera realized she loved him too and agreed to marry him and become the Queen of Heaven (she wasn’t about to settle for just being another of his consorts!) Everyone was jubilant for Hera was greatly loved, and they thought that she would manage to settle Zeus down a bit. Their marriage got off to a good start, with the honeymoon lasting over 300 years!
But Zeus, married or not, wasn’t quite ready to become the mature and benevolent ruler that he would later be. He was soon to resume his philandering ways, pursuing and capturing goddesses, nymphs, and mortals when they caught his wandering eye. Many of the myths of Zeus involve these seductions, with Zeus changing into various forms to seduce his unwilling prey, turning himself into a swan to rape Ledo, a golden rain to impregnate Danae.
And it is no wonder that they were all unwilling, for the jealous Hera, unable to vent her rage on her powerful husband, turned her ire on the women he had seduced and their children.
To his credit, Zeus was always a wonderful father, empowering all his children . . . acknowledging them all as his, protecting them from Hera if need be, giving them positions of power and responsibility.
Zeus could be quite vengeful himself, especially in response to any affront to his power. Take his punishment of Prometheus, for example — he had the poor Prometheus chained to a rock for eternity and sent his eagle daily to pick out and feast on pieces of his liver, punishment for stealing some fire from Mount Olympus to give to the mortals. Many years later the hero Heracles (Hercules) would kill the eagle and free the suffering Prometheus.
At any rate, the other Olympians were growing tired of Zeus’ antics and his arrogance; they decided to revolt. A conspiracy was organized by Poseidon (resentful of having gotten less power than Zeus) and went so far that the conspirators had disarmed and trapped Zeus. But while the brothers and sisters argued among themselves about how their new power would be divided, Zeus escaped and the plot was foiled.
But apparently Zeus had gotten the message that it was time to grow up, and so he resolved to do better. And he did. (Well, maybe not totally, for the amorous escapades continued.)
Superbly rational, Zeus became an outstanding administrator and a respected leader. He set high standards and was a very strict disciplinarian, even-handedly meting out punishments to those who broke the rules and settling all their disputes with great wisdom and impartiality.
Seldom acting out of anger, the Greek god Zeus rarely held a grudge and was usually willing to let “bygones be bygones” once you’d served your time.
He even let the conspirators off lightly, banishing the ringleaders, the bright Apollo and his brother Poseidon, to earth to work as manual laborers, but only for one year. And he forgave Athena for her role, saying that she’d been “duped” by the others.
Hermes later became Zeus’ messenger and trusted aide and extricated Zeus from many tricky situations. Athena, in addition to her responsibilities as the goddess of war, was made the goddess of wisdom and given the responsibility of serving as a judge.
Zeus had two other special attendants . . . Nike (Winged Victory) and a cup-bearer named Hebe. When Hebe left to marry Heracles (Hercules), a beautiful boy named Ganymedes caught the eye of Zeus. Captivated by the youth, Zeus turned himself into an eagle and swept down from the sky to capture the boy. Returning with him to Mount Olympus, he installed him as his personal cup-bearer, a position of great trust.
Zeus had reserved the greatest punishment for his wife Hera and had her strung from the stars with silver thread, heavy anvils tied to her ankles as punishment for her part in the conspiracy to unseat him.
Painful as it was, Hera moaned and groaned night and day. Zeus couldn’t get any rest, so after a few sleepless nights he agreed to let her down if she would promise to honor and respect him forever more. She gladly did.
It should be noted that, in spite of all his infidelities and her repeatedly taking her revenge out on his lovers, the two really loved each other. Eventually, by using her strong sense of humor, Hera convinced him that he didn’t really need to keep “fooling around” and he quit. They lived happily ever after, of course.
The great Titan goddess Gaia, furious that the Olympians had imprisoned her children the Titans, once decided to take Zeus to task for it. She sent an army of giants (who could not be killed by a god, only by a mortal) to lay siege to Mount Olympus.
Gigantic as they were, they were about to scale the walls of the fortress when Heracles (Zeus’ mortal son, also known as Hercules) came to Zeus’ assistance and killed the giants.
Gaia was furious! She created a gigantic monster by the name of Typhoon who had a human shape but, instead of legs had thousands of snakes measuring a hundred miles long when uncoiled. When stretched out to his full length, Typhon’s head touched the stars.
When the monster reared his ugly head over the walls of Mount Olympus, the gods and goddesses shivered in fear. Then changing themselves into various animals to escape unnoticed and ran away to escape. All but one did, that is . . .
Athena remained behind. Disgusted with their departure, she began to taunt Zeus, asking him what kind of a king he was, “A coward king, I’d say!” Zeus was embarrassed and summoned his courage, turned around and fought Typhon. The earth shook for days from their mighty blows.
Finally the beast turned to pick up a tall mountain to hurl at Zeus, and just when he was distracted Zeus unleashed a hundred perfectly aimed thunderbolts at the monster, blasting the mountain to bits and burying the Typhon beneath it. The Typhon didn’t die, but still lays buried beneath Mount Aetna where it periodically shakes and hisses with volcanic fury!
As powerful as he was, there were two powers that Zeus could not have — the power over the Fates and destiny, for they alone could determine the paths that gods and mortals would have to take.
Ambitious, intelligent, persistent, and always keenly focused on his goals, the mighty Zeus looms large in the myths of the Greek gods. Whether defending the peace and political order, seducing a goddess or nymph, punishing an errant son, or doting on one of his many daughters, the Greek god Zeus was always up to something interesting.
The Symbols of the Greek God Zeus
Bronze head of a goddess, probably Aphrodite
© The Trustees of the British Museum
Hellenistic Greek, 1st century BC
Found at the ancient city of Satala, modern Sadak, north-eastern Turkey
In about 1872 a man digging his field on the site of ancient Satala struck with his pick-axe against this head. A bronze hand also lay nearby. The head made its way via Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and Italy to the dealer Alessandro Castellani, who eventually sold it to The British Museum. The hand was presented to the Museum a few years later. Despite rumours that the whole statue had previously been found, the body has never come to light.
Although there is pick-axe damage to the top of the head, the face is well preserved. The eyes were originally inlaid with either precious stones or a glass paste, and the lips perhaps coated with a copper veneer.
The statue has been identified as a nude Aphrodite, her left hand pulling drapery from a support at her side, like the famous statue of Aphrodite at Knidos by the fourth-century sculptor Praxiteles. It has also been suggested that the statue represents the Iranian goddess Anahita, who was later assimilated with the Greek goddesses Aphrodite and Athena.
The size of the head suggests that it came from a cult statue, though excavations made at Satala in 1874 by Sir Alfred Biliotti, the British vice-consul at Trebizond, failed to discover a temple there. The statue may date to the reign of Tigranes the Great, king of Armenia (97-56 BC), whose rule saw prosperity throughout the region. The thin-walled casting of the bronze head suggests a late Hellenistic date.
Height: 38.1 cm
Object reg. no: GR 1873,0820.1
Antiochus IV, ruling his empire including Jerusalem from Syria, wrongly assumed that the worship of Yahweh among the Jews could be transformed into the worship of the universal god, Zeus, as easily as such transformations had been made in his dominions farther east — where Jews worshiped Yahweh under the name of Zeus Sabazions. He wrongly assumed that the Jews of Judea would easily accept the notion that all worshiped the same God. In 167 he had the temple in Jerusalem rededicated as a shrine to Zeus. A problem in semantics developed. Some Jews saw Antiochus as compelling them to practice idolatry — something neither the Persians nor the Ptolemies had tried to force upon them. Continue reading The Maccabaean Revolt
Perhaps because most literate Jews could no longer read Hebrew, Jewish scribes in Alexandria were put to work translating into Greek the Five Books of Moses. The finished product became known as the Septuagint. Demonstrating their conviction that the Septuagint was the final word on Jewish history, the high priests in charge of the work proclaimed a curse upon any changes that might be made to it. Judaic doctrine would hold that seventy-two translators had worked independently of each other on the translation and had produced exactly the same result, word for word — a miracle in keeping with the belief that the books were the works of divine intervention. Continue reading Septuagint & Greek translation of the Torah