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.

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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: 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.