Wondrous Tribes: Pygmies

Pygmies were originally a tribe of very small humans.They were located at the southernmost reaches of the world, either in (you guessed it!) Ethiopia or India.

Their name comes from pygme, the Greek word for “cubit,” and they were said to stand only about one cubit tall, or about eighteen inches. Ctesias speaks of “three-span” pygmies (trispithamoi) who stand twenty-seven inches tall. Flavius Philostratus reports pygmies in India who live underground—which would make them both pygmies and troglodytes: perhaps a subject for another time!

Anthropologists define pygmies as any human population where the average adult male height is less than 4′ 11″. The term has been especially applied to certain peoples of central Africa, who may in fact have been the ultimate inspiration behind Greek mythological pygmies. Even so, calling these people “pygmies” is problematic if not outright offensive. To be on the safe side, kindly refer to them instead by their ethnic names: Twa, Efe, Mbuti, etc.

The mythological pygmies fought an endless war against flocks of migrating cranes in a story that goes back at least to Homer. Their battles against the cranes was a popular scene in classical art. They were often depicted as pudgy, comical figures.

Pygmies also made the jump from the Old World to the New, at least in the minds of European explorers. On his second voyage (1535–36), Jacques Cartier apparently met Donnacona, “King of Canada” (actually, a village at the present site of Québec City), who informed him that there were pygmies (“picquemyans”) in that region. There’s no telling what Donnacona actually said or whether Cartier interpreted it in culturally familiar terms that may not have done justice to what the king intended to say. At any rate, no doubt owing to this tidbit of information, Pierre Descelier’s world map of 1550 depicted pygmies in North America—battling cranes just as in the ancient myths!

There is an earlier reference to pygmies in North America, but it’s a bit more ambiguous. On Mercator’s world map of 1569, we find this note in the Arctic region: “Here live the Pygmies, at most 4 feet tall, like unto those they call Skraelings in Greenland.” At four feet, these “pygmies” are giants compared to the pygmies of the classical world!

Skraelingjar is the Old Norse word for indigenous people the Norse encountered when they began to settle Greenland and Vinland (aka Newfoundland). Mercator understood that this term translates—culturally if not etymologically—as “pygmies.” An even earlier map, Olaus Magnus’s Carta Marina (1539), depicts a Norseman and a very short adversary facing off with spears in southern Greenland. Olaus writes,

The little dwarf fearlessly attacks his bigger opponent and triumphs in victory, for at every opportunity he assaults taller men with no less courage than if he could boast a giant’s might and so have the upper hand.

Mercator apparently received his information from a fourteenth-century source, an unnamed friar who wrote a travelogue titled Inventio fortunata (“The Fortunate Discovery”) in the 1360s. This friar learned of “skraelings” (skraelingjar) in Greenland from Norwegian churchman Ívar Bárdarson. But which came first? Did the Norse call these people skraelingjar because that was already their word for “unusually short human,” or did a Norse cleric, conversing (no doubt in Latin) with a foreign colleague, land upon pygmaeus as the closest suitable translation of skraelingr?

In fact, the actual meaning of “skraeling” is up for debate. Some say it comes from an Old Norse word for skin and refers to the animal skins the native inhabitants of Greenland wore. Others say that, whatever the original meaning, the word is used in medieval Norse literature as a pejorative term implying small stature.

Finally, I should mention that the faery folk of many North American peoples are conceived of as tiny “little people,” often no more than two feet tall. Some older works even translate the various native terms as “dwarves” or “pygmies.” These, however, are creatures of a much more magical nature than the “picquemyans” of Cartier or the “skraelings” of the Norse: changing shape, becoming invisible, effecting magical cures, etc.

Some of these little folk are dangerous—though by and large you’re probably safer with the average Native American faery being than you are with the daoine sídhe or most European elves. The more “mundane” pygmies are probably easier to get along with if you show them due respect.