Pliny’s “Monstrous Races”: A Note on Words and Their Power

In classical and medieval literature, one finds references to so-called “monstrous races”: beings who are almost but not quite human such as the blemmyae, headless men with their faces on their chests; or the sciapods, one-legged men who hop about at lightning speed. Herodotus, Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and other ancient geographers and historians described these creatures, often in passing and with a degree of plausible deniability (“it is said that…,” “some report…,” etc.).

Before we begin, however, I’d like to pick a bone with the accepted terminology for these creatures. There are two possible sticking points here. One is the word “monstrous,” and the other is the word “race.”

“Monstrous” implies a threat (personally or to the order of society) if not outright malevolence. Though certainly unacceptable today, babies born with severe birth defects were once called “monsters” for this reason. There is definitely something “wrong” with a monster—as defined by society. But to apply this word to a “race” (we’ll get to that one in a minute) seems to beg the question. Are these “monsters” truly “monstrous” at all? In the fifth century, Saint Augustine discussed the so-called “monstrous races” such as the dog-headed cynocephali in book 8 of his City of God. Assuming such beings actually exist (and Augustine was not 100% convinced), he pondered how they might fit into the purposes of God. Are they descendants of Adam? If so, they are human beings despite their frightening appearance. They would then have souls, and might even be converted to Christianity.

What about “race”? That can also be an awfully loaded term with a dubious past in pseudo-scientific pronouncements that attempted to justify the oppression and enslavement of some groups of human beings by other groups of human beings on the theory that some groups of human beings are naturally superior to others. Originally, a “race” (Latin gens, Greek ethnos) was simply a definable people-group: a tribe or culture, whether sparse or numerous, whether familiar or foreign. Even so, when talking about human beings—or supposed human beings—whose customs are disquieting or who possess animalistic traits, the word “race” can lead us down some paths we might not want to tread.

Over the next little bit, I’ll be discussing some of the creatures (= “created beings”) that Pliny the Elder describes in his Natural History, and which became part of the medieval conception of the strange and marvelous diversity of life on earth, especially human life. But I’m hesitant to use the words “monstrous” and “race” in doing so. (I’ll add “monstrous races” as a tag to these posts, however, because that’s the more-or-less standard terminology, and I want people to be able to find this on the Internet.)

Instead of “monstrous,” I’ll use the word “wondrous.” This is suggested by The Wonders of the East, an Old English document from around AD 1000 that describes many of the same creatures found in the classical geographers. “Wondrous,” I think, gets closer to the full range of responses Europeans had to them: dread and revulsion, to be sure, but also (especially in later times) a sense of wonder at the amazing diversity to be found in God’s creation.

Instead of “races,” I’ll use the word “tribes.” Like “races,” “tribes” errs on the side of classifying these unusual beings as human. That will no doubt be more of a stretch for some than for others, at least if the old accounts are taken at face value! Unlike “races,” the word “tribes” doesn’t play into theories of racial superiority or inferiority. Both Rome and Israel were organized into several tribes, after all.

So in the coming weeks, we’ll take a look at some of the “wondrous tribes” the ancients described and particularly at how early European explorers went looking for them—and sometimes claimed to have found them—in the Americas.

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