Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Magical Mondays #5: Blemmyes, the headless threat

Welcome to my fifth Magical Monday. In these segments, I'll be briefly overviewing various magical traditions, creatures, and elements that people have been believed in (or continue to believed in) throughout history. Eventually, I may also move onto depictions that appear only in novels, but there's plenty of historical material to keep me busy for a while.


Blemmyes traduntur capita abesse, ore et oculis pectore adfixis. (It is said that the Blemmyae have no heads and that their mouth and eyes are in their chests).

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book V, Paragraph 46 (75 A.D.)

The fear of the unknown. The fear of uncertainty. The fear of the other. In our modern television and internet-linked world, we are able to see and even interact with people all over the world. No matter how ignorant a person is about people of another culture, we still understand they are human beings, maybe different in culture but not truly alien.

While some monsters and legends were manifestations of a culture's attempt to understand the often seemingly dark and capricious world around them, others are just the projection of the fear of the unknown onto another people--such is the case with the Blemmyes (the middle-gazer or chest-gazer).

The Blemmyes is the fourth from left.
Image from Cosmographia, a 16th-century German atlas

Pliny's Natural History was nothing less than an attempt to comprehensively document all the knowledge known in the world available to the Roman Empire at the time. Divided into thirty-seven sections, the Blemmyes are discussed, along with various other fantastic peoples, in a general section devoted into sections best described as geography and anthropology. In subsequent centuries, the Blemmyes were not just known for their freakish appearance but also for their tendency to eat normal humans.

In truth, the Blemmyes were a Nubian tribe. Though they had some conflicts with the Romans in later centuries, it wasn't that many decades before Pliny's description that other ancient sources described them as mostly a peaceful tribe. Pliny was not the first to describe them as headless. In the fifth century BC, the Greek historian Herodotus described a headless tribe in the same region of the world. The convergence of description, however, likely just reflects that the Natural History was a compendium of existing expert sources, including Herodotus.

At the time of Natural History, there didn't seem to be much in the way of a cannibal reputation, so the later century propaganda after conflicts with the Romans likely lead to a the tarnishing up their reputation, and their evolution into a full-fledged monster. 

There's a certain irony to this. By the time the Blemmyes entered into conflict with the empire, the Romans would have obviously become aware that they were not headless monsters. This negative reputation has lingered throughout the centuries with even a reference to their cannibal ways in Othello of all things. 


Pippa Jay said...

I can understand how they came by their negative reputation as the Romans often slandered other tribes in order to paint themselves in a good light. But why exactly did the Nubian tribe get described as headless? I'm curious as to how that came about.

J.A. Beard said...

I've seen a few suggestions. One is that the ancient Blemmyes maybe through just ritual body modification of some sort tended to have really high shoulders. Kind of like if someone saw a tribe that stretched their ears, they might exaggerate and say they have ears that went to the ground.

There's also some suggestion it may have had to do with misinterpretations of long hair and tribal head gear.

One other thing I've seen is that it was just a sort of slight against their intelligence. The idea being that no head = no brain. I'm partial to the head gear or something like that, otherwise every random tribe out there would have ended up described as headless if it's about them being 'stupid' by the standards of the Romans, Greeks, or whoever.

Dana said...

Thank you for such a wonderful post! I'm studying about cathedrals and saw some "Medieval monstrosoties" representing Christ's command to take the gospel "to the ends of the world". So, they were including these various monstrous people. I found your explanations very helpful!

J.A. Beard said...

That's an interesting angle, Dana. Thanks for stopping by.