Indians: Iamboulos and Diodoros on a utopian island beyond India (mid-first century BCE)

Ancient author(s): Iamboulos as cited by Diodoros of Sicily, Library of History 2.55-60 (link Greek text and full translation).

Comments: Immediately following his discussion of peoples in Arabia, Diodoros of Sicily turns to a paradoxical island in the southern ocean somewhere off the coast (perhaps Sri Lanka is in mind if there is any real geographical referent). Drawing on a source that claims to be a travelogue (perhaps really a fictional story or novel) by a person named Iamboulos (also transliterated Iambulus), Diodoros focusses on describing the marvels or paradoxes of the environment, animals, and peoples of this exotic landscape. Once again the line between fiction and ethnographic description is blurry or non-existent. In some respects, the image is of some kind of island utopia where people live extraordinarily long lives (150 years). Diodoros’ sketch of other island peoples have similar tinges of utopianism as we find here. Far-off islands and their peoples are not infrequently the subject of ethnographic speculation, as the case of Thule of the far north suggests. In particular, see the second century novel by Antonius Diogenes, The Wonders Beyond Thule (link).

Source of the translation: C. H. Oldfather, Library of History, volume 2, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935), public domain (copyright not renewed), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.

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[Legends about peoples on an island in the southern ocean in the work of Iamboulos]

55  But with regard to the island​ which has been discovered in the ocean to the south [perhaps a mythicized Sri Lanka] and the marvellous tales told concerning it, we will now try to give a brief account. But first we need to present accurately how it was discovered. (2) There was a certain Iamboulos​ who, from his boyhood onwards, had been devoted to the pursuit of education. After the death of his father, who had been a merchant, he also followed that calling. While journeying inland to the spice-bearing region of Arabia​, he and his companions on the trip were taken captive by some bandits.

Now at first, he and one of his fellow-captives were appointed to be herdsmen, but later he and his companion were made captive by certain Ethiopians and led off to the coast of Ethiopia. (3) They were kidnapped in order that, being of an alien people, they might effect the purification of the land. For among the Ethiopians who lived in that place there was a custom. This custom had been handed down from ancient times and had been ratified by oracles of the gods over a period of twenty generations or six hundred years (with the generation being reckoned at thirty years). At the time when the purification by means of the two men was to take place, a boat had been built for them sufficient in size and strong enough to withstand the storms at sea, one which could easily be manned by two men. After loading it with food enough to maintain two men for six months and putting them on board, Ethiopians commanded them to set out to sea as the oracle had ordered. (4) Furthermore, they commanded them to steer towards the south. For, they were told, they would come to a happy island and to men of honourable character, and among them they would lead a blessed existence. They stated that their own people would experience similar good things in the event that the men whom they sent out arrived safely at the island and would enjoy peace and a happy life in every respect for six hundred years. But if they should turn back on their course because they were dismayed at sea, they would be considered impious men and destroyers of the people (ethnos) and would suffer the severest penalties. (5) Accordingly, the Ethiopians, they [Diodoros’ sources] say, held a great festal assembly by the sea. After offering costly sacrifices, they crowned with flowers the men who were to seek out the island and effect the purification of the peoples and then sent them out. (6) These men, after having sailed over a vast sea and been tossed around for four months by storms, were carried to the island about which they had been informed beforehand. It was round in shape and had a circumference of about five thousand stades.

[Physicial description of the island peoples]

56  But when they were now drawing near to the island, the account proceeds, some of the local peoples (enchorioi) met them and drew their boat to land. As the inhabitants of the island were gathering together, they were astonished at the arrival of the strangers but they treated them honourably and shared with them the necessities of life which their country provided. (2) Those living on this island differ greatly from the men in our part of the inhabited world both in the characteristics of their bodies and in their manners. For, they are all nearly alike in the shape of their bodies and are over four cubits in height, but the bones of the body have the ability to bend to a certain extent and then straighten out again, like the sinewy parts. (3) Their bodies are also extremely tender and yet more vigorous than is the case among us. For when they have grabbed any object in their hands no man can take it from the grasp of their fingers. There is absolutely no hair on any part of their bodies except on the head, eyebrows eyelids, and chin, but the other parts of the body are so smooth that not even the least bit of light hair can be seen on them.

(4) The shape of their bodies are also remarkably beautiful and well-proportioned. The openings of their ears are much more spacious than ours and growths have developed that serve as valves, so to speak, to close them. (5) They have a peculiarity in regard to the tongue, partly the work of nature and congenital with them and partly intentionally brought about by artifice. Among them, the tongue is double for a certain distance, but they divide the inner portions still further, with the result that it becomes a double tongue as far as the base. (6) Consequently, they can utter a wide variety of sounds, since they imitate not only every articulate language used by humans but also the varied chatterings of the birds, and, in general, they reproduce any peculiarity of sounds. The most remarkable thing of all is that at one and the same time they can converse perfectly with two persons who encounter them, both answering questions and discoursing pertinently on the circumstances of the moment. For, with one division of the tongue they can converse with the one person, and likewise with the other talk with the second.

(7) Their climate is most temperate, we are told, considering that they live at the equator, and they suffer neither from heat nor from cold. Moreover, the fruits in their island ripen throughout the entire year, even as the poet writes: “Here pear on pear grows old, and apple close / On apple, yes, and clustered grapes on grapes, / And fig on fig” [Homer, Odyssey, 7.120‑21, describing the land of the Phaiakians]. With these people the day is always the same length as the night, and at midday no object casts any shadow because the sun is in the zenith.

[Communal organization, resources, learning and lifespan of the islanders]

57  They go on to say that these islanders live in groups which are based on kinship and on communal organizations, no more than four hundred kinsmen being gathered together in this way. The members spend their time in the meadows as the land supplying them with many things for sustenance. Because of the fertility of the island and the mildness of the climate, foods are naturally produced in greater quantity than what is needed. (2) For instance, a reed grows there in abundance, and bears a fruit in great plenty that is very similar to the white vetch.​ Now when they have gathered this, they steep it in warm water until it has become the size of a pigeon’s egg. Then after they have crushed it and rubbed​ it skillfully with their hands, they mould it into loaves, which are baked and eaten. These loaves are surprisingly sweet. (3) They say there are also abundant springs of water on the island, the warm springs serving well for bathing and the relief of fatigue and the cold excelling in sweetness and possessing the power to contribute to good health.

Moreover, the inhabitants give attention to every branch of learning and especially to astrology. (4) They also use letters which, according to the value of the sounds they represent, are twenty-eight in number. But the characters are only seven. Each character can be formed in four different ways. Nor do they write their lines horizontally, as we do, but from the top to the bottom perpendicularly. The inhabitants, they tell us, are extremely long-lived, even living to the age of one hundred and fifty years and experiencing for the most part no illness. (5) Anyone among them who has become crippled or suffers, in general, from any physical ailment is forced to end his own life in accordance with an inexorable law. There is also a law among them that they should live only for a stipulated number of years, and that at the completion of this period they should end their own lives of their own accord by a strange manner of death. For there grows among them a plant of a peculiar nature, and whenever a man lies down upon it, imperceptibly and gently he falls asleep and dies.

[Customs relating to marriage and childrearing]

58  (1) They do not marry, we are told, but possess their children in common. Maintaining the children who are born as if they belonged to everyone, they love them equally. While the children are infants, those who suckle the babies​ often change them around in order that not even the mothers may know their own offspring. Consequently, since there is no rivalry among them, they never experience civil disorders and they never cease placing the highest value upon internal harmony.

[Amazing animals]

(2) There are also animals among them, we are told, which are small in size but are amazing because of the nature of their bodies and the potency of their blood. For they are round in form and very similar to tortoises, but they are marked on the surface by two diagonal yellow stripes with an eye and a mouth at the end of each stripe. (3) Consequently, even though it sees with four eyes and uses as many mouths it still gathers its food into one gullet and the food is swallowed and all flows together into one stomach. In a similar manner its other organs and all its inner parts are single. It also has many feet below its body by means of which it can move in whatever direction it pleases. (4) They say that the blood of this animal has a marvellous potency. For it immediately glues on to its place any living member that has been severed, even if a hand or the like should happen to have been cut off, it is glued on again by the use of this blood as long as the cut is fresh. The same thing is true of other parts of the body that are not connected with vital regions that sustain something’s life.

(5) Each group of the inhabitants also keeps a bird of great size and of a nature peculiar to itself, by means of which a test is made of the infant children to learn what their spiritual disposition is. For they place infants upon the birds and those infants that are able to endure the flight through the air as the birds take wing they raise. But any infants that become nauseated and filled with consternation they cast out, considering them not likely either to live many years and to be of no account because of their dispositions.

[Leadership]

(6) In each group the oldest man regularly exercises the leader­ship, just as if he were a kind of king. He is obeyed by all the members. When the first such ruler ends his own life in accordance with the law upon the completion of his one hundred and fiftieth year, the next oldest succeeds to the leader­ship.

[Sea and stars]

(7) The sea about the island has strong currents and is subject to great flooding and ebbing of the tides and is sweet in taste. As for the stars of our heavens, the Bears and many more, we are informed, are not visible at all. The number of these islands was seven, and they are very much the same in size and at about equal distances from one another, and all follow the same customs and laws.

[Customs related to food, worship, dress, and feasting]

59 (1) Although all the inhabitants enjoy an abundant provision of everything from what grows of itself in these islands, yet they do not indulge in the enjoyment of this abundance without restraint. They practise simplicity and take for their food only what suffices for their needs. Meat and whatever else is roasted or boiled in water are prepared by them, but all the other dishes ingeniously concocted by professional cooks, such as sauces and the various kinds of seasonings, they have no notion whatsoever. (2) They worship as gods that which encompasses all things​, the sun and, in general, all the heavenly bodies. Fishes of every kind in great numbers are caught by them by various devices and not a few birds. (3) There is also found among them an abundance of fruit trees growing wild, and olive trees and vines grow there, from which they make both olive oil and wine in abundance. Snakes also, we are told, which are of immense size and yet do no harm to the inhabitants, have a meat which is edible and exceedingly sweet. (4) They make their clothing themselves from a certain reed which contains in the centre a downy substance that is bright to the eye and soft, which they gather and mingle with crushed sea-shells and thus make remarkable garments of a purple hue. As for the animals of the islands, their natures are peculiar and so amazing that they are unbelievable.

(5) All the details of their diet, we are told, follow a prescribed arrangement, since they do not all take their food at the same time nor is it always the same. But it has been ordained that on certain fixed days they will eat at one time fish, at another time fowl, sometimes the flesh of land animals, and sometimes olives and the simplest side-dishes. (6) They also take turns in ministering to the needs of one another. Some of them fish, others work at the crafts, others occupy themselves in other useful tasks, and still others, with the exception of those who are old, perform the services of the group in a definite cycle. (7) Furthermore, at the festivals and feasts which are held among them, there are both pronounced and sung in honour of the gods hymns and spoken praises. They especially do this in honour of the sun, after whom they name both the islands and themselves.

[Burial practices]

(8) They inter their dead at the time when the tide is at the ebb, burying them in the sand along the beach. The result is that the place has fresh sand heaped upon it at flood-tide. The reeds, they say, from which the fruit for their nourishment is derived (being a span in thickness) increase at the times of full-moon and again decrease proportionately as it wanes. (9) The water of the warm springs, being sweet and health-giving, maintains its heat and never becomes cold, except when it is mixed with cold water or wine.

[Ejection of Iamboulos from the island and reception at Palibothra]

60  After remaining among this people for seven years, the account continues, Iamboulos and his companion were ejected against their will since they were considered wrong-doers who had been educated in evil habits. Consequently, after they had prepared their little boat again, they were forced to leave. After storing up provisions in the boat, they continued their voyage for more than four months. Then they were shipwrecked on a sandy and marshy region of India. (2) His companion lost his life in the surf, but Iamboulos, having found his way to a certain village, was then brought by the local peoples into the presence of the king at Palibothra [Pataliputra, India], a city which was distant a journey of many days from the sea.

(3) Since the king was friendly to the Greeks and devoted to learning, he considered Iamboulos worthy of cordial welcome. After receiving permission for safe-conduct, he first passed over into Persia and later arrived safe in Greece. Now Iamboulos felt that these matters deserved to be written down. He also added to his account more than a few facts about India, facts of which all other men were ignorant at that time. But for our part, since we have fulfilled the promise made at the beginning of this book, we will bring it to a conclusion at this point.

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