A Blemmye in Star Wars

Just a quick update on my recent post on Blemmyes. I realized not long ago that there is a Blemmye in Star Wars: Sy Snootles.

For those who aren’t up on all the Star Wars trivia that is never spelled out on the screen, Sy Snootles is the name of the lead singer of the Max Rebo Band, which performs in Jabba the Hutt’s palace in Return of the Jedi.

According to Wookieepedia, Sy Snottles is a member of the Pa’lowick species. Pa’lowicks are “long-limbed reptilian humanoids that had spotted skin, eyes that protruded from the tops of their heads, and trunk-like mouths.” The trunk-like mouth is obviously not part of the standard description of Blemmyes, but it it is certainly the case that Sy Snootles does not possess a head—at least, not one that is easily distinguished from her body. Rather, her eyes and mouth protrude from the top of her thorax.

Of Beans and Vampires

Today I learned that apparently you can use beans to trick vampires. By some sort of leguminous magic, vampires are prone to mistaking beans for pregnant women (and possibly other kinds of humans). Who knew?

This tidbit may or may not be related to my previous post about commodity items as media of exchange. Time will tell.

Also, leguminous is an adjective meaning “relating to or denoting plants of the pea family” (including beans).

What Is the Exchange Rate between Cattle and Cocoa Beans?

With Oathbreaker in the capable hands of my beta team, I’ve been doing a bit of worldbuilding for another project that’s kicking around in my head.

Unlike the cashless society of the Wonder, I’ve been pondering a world that uses some sort of commodity currency as a medium of exchange. In the process, I’ve found a few interesting options. Here are some random notes about three of them.

Irish Cattle

The Irish used cattle as a unit of exchange up until the fourteenth century. Specifically, the milk cow was universally recognized measure of worth. There were even ways to achieve fractions of that value without killing the cow. In medieval Ireland,

1 pregnant cow = 2/3 of a milk cow
1 three-year old heifer = 1/2 of a milk cow
1 two-year old heifer = 1/3 of a milk cow
1 one-year old heifer = 1/4 of a milk cow
1 one-year old bullock = 1/8 of a milk cow

Worth in milk cows could also be expressed in terms of other currencies such as “ounces” of some precious metal (usually silver), cumhala or “bondwomen” (i.e., female slaves), or séti or “jewels.” The sét seems to have been an ideal or an abstraction in Irish law, and it is not clear that transactions were ever literally conducted by the transfer of female slaves from one person to another. Still, everyone had a clear idea of what these things were worth and conducted their business accordingly.

Unfortunately, this system persisted for so long that the law codes prescribed different rates of exchange in different eras and in different regions of Ireland. A cumhal might be the same value as a milk cow or it might be two or three times as much. One source gives the value of a cumhal as two séti, another says six to seven, and yet another says up to forty.

Since 240 English pence were struck from a pound of silver, we can assume that an ounce of silver would be worth about 15 pence. At a rate of 1 milk cow = 9 ounces of silver, the price of a milk cow in silver would be about 135 pence, which is in line with some of the early medieval prices I’ve been able to find online—and, incidentally, very close to the price of 131.5 pence given for a female slave in this era.

Mexican Cocoa Beans

When the Spanish arrived in Mexico, they found a society in which cocoa beans were an accepted medium of exchange. Some of the customary prices I’ve found are:

a large tomato for 1 cocoa bean
a small rabbit for 30 cocoa beans
a female turkey for 100 cocoa beans
a male turkey for 300 cocoa beans
a copper hatchet for 8,000 cocoa beans

The Spanish adapted this system in dealing with the Aztecs. In fact, cultivation of cocoa beans was restricted in the 1700s in order to maintain their value as money.

By a royal decree of 1555, the value of one cocoa bean was set at 1/140 of a Spanish real. In 1587, this was dropped to 1/150 of a real. Since a peso or “piece of eight” was worth eight reales, we could also say that 1,200 cocoa beans = 1 peso. In the mid-sixteenth century, pesos traded in England at about 54 pence. Once again, that makes the commodity prices reasonable when compared to equivalent items in the same time frame.

Canadian Beaver Pelts

The Hudson Bay Company in Canada was a key player in the North American fur trade. Not only did their stores buy furs brought in by traders, they accepted furs as currency. The above linked article even provides a price list for the York factory in units of “made beaver” (i.e., a prime beaver pelt). Here is a selection of prices:

a hatchet for 1 beaver pelt
a pound of tobacco for 2 beaver pelts
a pair of shoes for 3 beaver pelts
a hat for 4 beaver pelts
a pistol for 7 beaver pelts
a long gun for 14 beaver pelts

In 1740, the Hudson Bay Company bought beaver pelts for about 7.88 shillings apiece (about 94.5 pence). But assessing the exchange rate isn’t that simple. In fact, the Company store customarily marked up their prices by about 50%. That means your 94.5 pence worth of beaver pelt would only buy you goods that cost 63 pence in silver at a different establishment.

And no, I have no intentions of writing a protagonist who works as a bank teller or a merchant at a company store! But I find that little touches like these add a depth of detail that can really make a setting seem real.

Plus, I’ve learned a few things along the way, and no new knowledge is ever a waste of time.


Wondrous Tribes: Blemmyes

Blemmyes were an actual African people described in ancient Roman histories who threatened Roman Egypt a few times in the third century AD. The name possibly derives from bálami, meaning “desert people” in the Beja language of Africa. (Note: The proper singular form is blemmyas or blemmye; the plural form is either blemmyae or blemmyes.) Along the way, the Blemmyes also became fictionalized as a tribe of headless humanoids whose faces are located on their torsos.

In various medieval sources, blemmyes are said to be six, eight, or even twelve feet tall and perhaps half as wide. Furthermore, they are often reported to be cannibals.

Herodotus described such creatures in the fifth century BC, calling them akephaloi (“headless ones”). How a real-live human population came to be seen as headless monstrosities is anybody’s guess. Certainly the nearly universal human tendency to demonize and dehumanize one’s enemies is at play. More concretely, some propose that the historical Blemmyes had an unusual fighting stance that involved tucking the head close to the chest, or else they had the ability to raise their shoulders to an extraordinary height, nesting their head in between. Others ponder whether these reports of “headless giants” involved the custom of painting faces on their shields.

At any rate, the blemmyes as a “wondrous tribe” apparently captured the imagination of ancient geographers and naturalists, not to mention the centuries of learned Europeans who had studied their tales. In time, the legend of these headless men shifted from Africa to India. From there, as with so many ancient wonders, they found their way to the New World just in time to be discovered by European explorers.

In 1595, Sir Walter Raleigh reported that, along the Caora river, there lived

a nation of people whose heads appear not above their shoulders which, though it may be thought a mere fable, yet for mine own part I am resolved it is true because every child in the provinces of Arromaia and Canuri affirm the same. They are called Ewaipanoma. They are reported to have their eyes in their shoulders and their mouths in the middle of their breasts, and that a long train of hair groweth backward between their shoulders. (Discovery of Guiana, spelling and punctuation updated)

Section of the Piri Reis map depicting a blemmye and a monkey

Raleigh reported that these blemmyes lived in the same general area as the fabled city of Manoa, which the Spanish called El Dorado.

But Raleigh wasn’t the first person to “find” blemmyes in the Americas. Nearly a hundred years previously, Ottoman admiral and cartographer Piri Reis depicted a blemmye in South America (near the coast of Brazil, to be specific) on his world map of 1513. Beside the drawing, he explains, “These wild beasts attain a length of seven spans [5′ 3″]. Between their eyes there is a distance of only one span [9″]. Yet it is said, they are harmless souls.” Thus, these blemmyes are a fair bit smaller than their Old World cousins—and apparently less hostile to humans.

When William Shakespeare wrote Othello in 1604, he included this fabled tribe among the oddities his title character reports as he describes his earlier exploits:

And portance in my travels’ history:
Wherein of antres vast and deserts idle,
Rough quarries, rocks and hills whose heads touch heaven
It was my hint to speak,—such was the process;
And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders. (Act I, scene 3)

I should also note that the Hidatsa, a Siouan people from present-day Minnesota, have a myth about a “headless monster” with a gaping mouth in its shoulder. who kills the mother of the Twins, important culture heroes. I have no way of knowing if those who tell this story imagine a blemmye-like creature with eyes on its chest or shoulders, or else something else entirely. In any case, there are a few headless monsters in world mythology: in addition to the blemmyes and their New World kin, there is also the dullahan of Ireland, a headless horseman immortalized for Americans in Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

I don’t want to think about blemmyes riding around on horses. Though perhaps the ones in Guiana could domesticate some Brazilian headless mules to ride.