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.

Wondrous Tribes: Patagonian Giants

A European watches a Patagonian giant swallowing an arrow to cure his stomach ache (1602)

Giants are not, properly speaking, one of the wondrous tribes of the Greek and Roman classical writers. Virtually every culture on the planet has some kind of myth about incredibly large humanoids, from eight or ten feet tall up to the size of mountains—and beyond. In Norse mythology, the entire world was created from the dismembered body of the giant Ymir.

Nor are giants alien to North and South America, continents filled with slant-eyed giants, stone-skinned giants, and every possible variation of huge, man-eating ogre. There is one particular tribe of giants, however, that I should discuss in this series on the intersection of Old World myth and legend and the exploration of the New World. These are the giants of Patagonia at the extreme southern tip of South America.

Though the bones of “giants” (actually large prehistoric animals) have been discovered throughout North and South America, Magellan’s voyage to circumnavigate the globe brings us an account of a first-hand meeting between Europeans and a tribe of giants. The story is related by Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian nobleman who accompanied Magellan on his voyage. Pigafetta relates the following story that took place as they rounded the tip of South America in 1520:

One day we suddenly saw a naked man of giant stature on the shore of the port, dancing, singing, and throwing dust on his head. The captain-general sent one of our men to the giant so that he might perform the same actions as a sign of peace. Having done that, the man led the giant to an islet where the captain-general was waiting. When the giant was in the captain-general’s and our presence he marveled greatly, and made signs with one finger raised upward, believing that we had come from the sky. He was so tall that we reached only to his waist, and he was well proportioned.

It was once assumed that the name “Patagonian” is derived from Spanish pata, meaning “leg,” “paw,” or “foot.” (We saw that same root in Patasola in my post about monopods.) If the final syllable is taken as an augmentative, then Patagonia might then be translated something like “Land of the Bigfeet.” Nowadays, however, most people think Magellan took the name from Primaleon, a popular novel of the time. In that work, there is a race of wild people called by that name. Word of Magellan’s discovery spread, and later world maps would sometimes even label this region “Land of the Giants” (regio gigantum).

What are we to make of this report? It is possible that Magellan encountered members of the Tehuelche people, who were, in fact, unusually tall—at least compared to the relatively short 16th-century Europeans. We’re talking six-footers, not ten-footers. When Sir Francis Drake visited this same region in 1628, he encountered these tall native people. Though acknowledging their impressive size, he is quick to call Magellan out for his gross exaggeration:

Magellan was not altogether deceived in naming these giants, for they generally differ from the common sort of man both in stature, bigness and strength of body, as also in the hideousness of their voices: but they are nothing so monstrous and giant-like as they were represented, there being some English men as tall as the highest we could see, but peradventure the Spaniards did not think that ever any English man would come hither to reprove them, and therefore might presume the more boldly to lie.

Ah, the joys of professional rivalry!


Wondrous Tribes: Monopods

In the ancient geographies, monopods are people with a single, large foot on which they hop about. Pliny states that these unusual creatures, who are also found in Aristophanes’s play The Birds, are first mentioned by Ctesias in the late fifth century. He writes,

He speaks also of another race of men, who are known as Monocoli, who have only one leg, but are able to leap with surprising agility. The same people are also called Sciapodae, because they are in the habit of lying on their backs, during the time of the extreme heat, and protect themselves from the sun by the shade of their feet.

By whatever name, these one-legged creatures are usually said to be found in India or sometimes Ethiopia—the two regions most likely to be home to such fabulous beings in the minds of classical writers. According to Isidore of Seville, the monopods of Ethiopia were very fast hoppers.

By now, it shouldn’t surprise us to learn that European explorers reported tales of such creatures in the New World. Here, however, we find not merely a second-hand report of what some native told them but an actual (purported) first-hand account. In the thirteenth-century Saga of Erik the Red, one finds the story of a monopod sighting in Vinland, the Norse name for Newfoundland and the surrounding areas. Chapter 14 of the saga begins,

One morning Karlsefni’s people beheld as it were a glittering speck above the open space in front of them, and they shouted at it. It stirred itself, and it was a being of the race of men that have only one foot, and he came down quickly to where they lay. Thorvald, son of Eirik the Red, sat at the tiller, and the One-footer shot him with an arrow in the lower abdomen. He drew out the arrow. Then said Thorvald, “Good land have we reached, and fat is it about the paunch.” Then the One-footer leapt away again northwards. They chased after him, and saw him occasionally, but it seemed as if he would escape them. He disappeared at a certain creek. Then they turned back, and one man spake this ditty:

“Our men chased (all true it is) a One-footer down to the shore; but the wonderful man strove hard in the race…. Hearken, Karlsefni.”

Then they journeyed away back again northwards, and saw, as they thought, the land of the One-footers. They wished, however, no longer to risk their company.

I haven’t been able to track down the Norse original, but I suspect “one-footers” is a translation of einfótar (singular, einfótr). Of course, rendered in Greek, this would bring us back around to “monopod.”

Though never (to my knowledge) reported by the early Europeans, there are also legends of mythical monopods in South America. Saci (or Saci-pererê) is a one-legged trickster figure who lives in the forest. He originally appeared as a one-legged child with red hair. Later, he took on a more African or biracial appearance, his red hair became a red cap, and he took up smoking a pipe.

Saci has a sinister female counterpart, a vampiric monster called la Patasola, known mainly from Colombia. Both beings are seen as guardians of the forest, taking special delight in tormenting hunters, loggers, and others who wander into their territory.

The South American monopods are more “magical” than those the Norsemen reputedly encountered, but I’m not sure I’d care to meet members of either tribe.

Wondrous Tribes: Cyclopes

In Greek mythology, a cyclops is a giant with a single eye in the middle of its forehead. Yet again, we are indebted to Christopher Columbus for our earliest European account of cyclopes in the Americas. On his first journey, he claims the Taíno people of Cuba described a race of one-eyed people who lived somewhere to the southeast in a land called Bohio. Bartolomé de las Casas and others have suggested that Bohio is (all or part of) the island of Hispaniola. According to de las Casas:

He also understood [i.e, from his informants] that, far away, there were men with one eye, and others with dogs’ noses who were cannibals, and that when they captured an enemy, they beheaded him and drank his blood, and cut off his private parts….

Beyond the cape which they saw before them, extended out another headland toward the East, which the Indians on board called Bohio, and said it was very large, and contained inhabitants with one eye in their foreheads and others which they called Canibales, and spoke of them with many marks of fear; as soon as they saw the ships were taking that course they were struck with terror, and signified that the people went armed, and would devour them. The Admiral declares that he believes there is some truth in their representations, but thinks that these people described as possessing arms, must be a race of some sagacity, and that having made prisoners of some of the other Indians, their friends not finding them to return, concluded they had eaten them. This, in fact, was the opinion entertained of the Spaniards by some of the natives at their first arrival.

Nothing is said about these cyclopes being of unusual size. I’m sure, though, that they were fearsome enough however tall they were!

Whatever can be said for the accuracy of these reports, passed as they were through several layers of “interpreters” who didn’t understand each other’s languages, there are indeed legends in the Americas about one-eyed monsters. One of these is the mapinguari of the Brazilian and Bolivian rain forest. Mapinguaris are Bigfoot-like creatures with a horrendous—though not entirely fixed—appearance:

The body of a giant bear; the backward-turned clawed feet like those of a giant armadillo; the face appears monkey or even human-like; trailing a cloud of flying beetles; and a roar like endless thunder. In some areas, the creature is said to have two eyes, while other accounts talk of it having only one, like the Cyclops of Greek mythology. Some versions mention a gaping, stinking mouth in the monster’s belly through which it consumes humans unfortunate enough to cross its path. Some legends even attribute it the powers of the supernatural, and even speech. Classic stories describe it as a werewolf-like Indian shaman who discovered the secret of immortality, but paid for it by being transformed into a horrible monster. To see it is to come face-to-face with the devil himself!

Among those who believe such a creature might actually exist (hint: this is a small number!), the prevailing theory seems to be that it is, in fact, a giant ground sloth: an animal thought to be extinct for thousands of years.

Giant ground sloths notwithstanding, there are also cyclopes associated with the mythology of the American Southeast. In Choctaw mythology, the divine hero Hatakachafa once slew a one-eyed monster who had been terrorizing a forest. Similarly, the Cherokee sometimes (though infrequently) depict the forest monster Tsul ’Kalu or Judaculla as a one-eyed giant.

[Quick note: In preparing this blog, I ran across a very brief and informative discussion of Christopher Columbus and the creatures of Greek mythology by Jason Colavito. As I mentioned in my cynocephali article, I strongly suspect that Columbus’s ill-advised conviction that he had reached Asia colored his expectations of the sorts of wondrous things he stood to encounter, perhaps just over the next hill or on the next island. I commend Jason’s article to you.]

Wondrous Tribes: Amazons

Probably not historically accurate

Of all the “wondrous tribes” European explorers reported to exist in the Americas, the Amazons are probably the most obviously human. They have the requisite number of eyes, legs, and other body parts. They don’t have the heads of animals. They’re just culturally anomalous—at least in sixteenth-century European terms.

Of course, the Amazons existed in Greek mythology long before Columbus. Actually, there were at least two distinct tribes of Amazons. First, there are the more famous ones associated with eastern Anatolia, whose most famous queen was Hippolyte. There was also a tribe of female warriors reputed to live in Libya.

As with the cynocephali, the first report of Amazons in the Americas comes from Christopher Columbus. In 1493, As Guy C. Rothery writes in The Amazons (1910), as Columbus was about to return to Europe from his first voyage, the people of the island of Hispaniola (present-day Haiti and Dominican Republic) told him of another nearby island called Mantinino that was inhabited solely by women. These women were accomplished archers who spent their time hunting and going to war.

Once a year, he was told, the women of this island receive male Carib visitors. The next year, the Caribs take away the male children such visits produced. The same custom was noted in ancient times among the classical Amazons of Themiscyra in Anatolia.

The island of Mantinino was a mystery, always “just over there” no matter who told the story. As Europeans explored more and more of the Caribbean, their mysterious island home continued to evade discovery. The Amazons seemingly retreated before these newcomers, defying any attempts to encounter them, eventually landing in the interior of South America.

In 1540, Francesco de Orellana undertook to travel through Peru to the Atlantic Ocean through the Amazon River basin. At that time, the river was known as the Marañon. Along the route, de Orellana heard fabulous stories of numerous wondrous tribes: pygmies, men with tails, men whose feet were turned backwards, etc. Most persistently, de Orellana heard about a tribe of warrior women who lived apart from any men.

Eventually, de Orellana’s party indeed encountered a warlike tribe somewhere upriver of the Trombetas River. Among them, de Orellana observed women who seemingly acted as leaders of the men. This wasn’t precisely what had been reported to them, but it was apparently close enough. Before long, de Orellana had renamed the Marañon River as the Amazon.

Probably more historically accurate

The story caught on, of course. Peruvian-born chronicler Garcilaso Inca de la Vega later said these women were tall, robust, fair-skinned, and wore their long hair twisted over their heads. By the end of the century, the report of warrior women in the rain forest was “confirmed” (as it were) later by Sir Walter Raleigh. In his 1595 The Discovery of Guiana, he reports the existence of a tribe of Amazons called the Aikeambenano—a word said to mean “women living alone”: that is, without men. The Aikeambenano lived in the upper Orinoco region of Guiana, so not awfully distant from de Orellana’s Amazons.

The Amazon myth was probably compelling for the early modern Spanish for the same reasons it was for the ancient Greeks: the idea of a self-sufficient tribe of women who violated expected gender roles by hunting, fighting, and being aggressive in their relationships with men was shocking in the extreme. For the Greeks, the Amazons served as a counterpoint to their supposedly more proper division of labor, a bogeyman—or bogeywoman—to warn men of what can happen if the natural order of things is ever violated.

Did any of these Amazon tribes actually exist in history? I seriously doubt it. But the idea of Amazon society continued to inhabit the fancies, and likely the nightmares, of patriarchs both ancient and modern.

Wondrous Tribes: Cynocephali

I’ve written about cynocephali (literally, “dog heads”) before. They are described by various classical authors, who locate various types or species of them in Libya, Ethiopia, Central Asia, and India. Some of them are said to be gentle, even civilized. In the Middle Ages, they are sometimes portrayed farming, wearing clothes, and inhabiting organized villages.

More often, they are more animalistic in their behavior. They are the only wondrous race that Isidore of Seville categorized as more animal than human. They are never said to speak but only to communicate with each other in barks and growls, though some learn to understand snippets of human language. They don’t have a material culture to speak of, but might use weapons or tools that human beings provide to them.

The status of cynocephali as humans was debated in classical and medieval times. Saint Augustine pondered whether they possessed human souls. In the ninth century, the monk Ratramnus of Corbie wrote to a colleague on the question of whether one should attempt to preach the gospel to cynocephali should one encounter them.

The first European to report the existence of cynocephali in the Americas was none other than Christopher Columbus, who reported native testimony of dog-headed cannibals. Others followed suit by repeating Columbus’s account. Among these are Lorenz Friez, who reports what Columbus was told in his Carta Marina (1525). The Piri Reis map of 1513, reportedly based on maps made by Columbus, depicts cynocephali on the northern coast of South America.

Since Columbus originally thought he had reached the mysterious East, it shouldn’t surprise us that he would expect to find the same wondrous tribes in the Americas that Pliny, Ctesias, and others had told them to expect in the islands off the coast of India. Indeed, he likely believed the account he was told confirmed the success of his voyage!

There do not seem to be any first-hand accounts by Europeans of actually encountering these creatures. I’m tempted to wonder what the natives actually told Columbus, and why. A perfectly human subject in a ceremonial mask, face paint, or some sort of facial body modification might well be described as possessing the head of an animal—especially as the story is heard by educated Europeans familiar with the classic geographies and their accounts of “monstrous races.”

Then again, who’s to say that the natives who told Columbus about the dog-headed men weren’t already actively de-humanizing members of a rival tribe? Europeans don’t, after all, have a monopoly on thinking of “the enemy” as less than human and exaggerating their more unsavory traits.

At the same time, the idea of a creature that combines the traits of both humans and animals, especially canines, seems to be nearly universal. That’s why werewolf stories are found in so many cultures. That’s why Egyptian gods like Anubis, Duamutef, and Wepwawet were depicted with canine heads (jackal, jackal, and wolf, respectively) 5,000 years ago.

As it turns out, there are some indications of similar phenomena in the Americas. An Adena culture burial mound in Eagle Creek, KY (1st millennium BC) contained the remains of a human body where the the jawbone and front portion of a wolf skull was cut to fit over the Adena man’s mouth. I can’t say why someone would modify a corpse to make it look like a cynocephalus, only that it points to something deeply rooted in the psyche of the people who did it.

Similarly, certain effigy mounds in southern Wisconsin, created by the ancestors of the Siouan Ho-Chunk people, take the form of a humanoid with wolf-like ears.

When Columbus returned to Europe with reports of dog-headed men, what had was he really talking about? Humans with distinctive canine adornments? Ceremonial artifacts that somehow suggested the existence of such beings?

Or was it all a strange concoction of wishful thinking mixed with notions of cultural superiority? If so, then perhaps Augustine’s conclusions about the cynocephali should be a word of caution for us all: “We are not bound to believe all we hear about all kinds of men” (City of God 16.8).

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.