Libyans: Aelian on Libyan views and customs about animals (late second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Libyans: Aelian on Libyan views and customs about animals (late second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 20, 2023,

Ancient authors: Various authors used by Aelian (second-third century CE), On Characteristics of Animals, various entries (link).

Comments: This post focusses on Libyans in northern Africa and continues to gather Aelian’s ethnographic material from On Characteristics of Animals. While Aelian’s discussion of Egyptian (link) and Indian (link) peoples tends to refrain from negative statements regarding those peoples as a whole, here he does make the general statement that “Libyans themselves are slim and dirty, like the horses which they ride.”

Works consulted: S.D. Smith, “Egypt and India,” in Man and Animal in Severan Rome: The Literary Imagination of Claudius Aelianus (Cambridge: CUP, 2014), 147–78..

Source of the translations: A.F. Scholfield, Aelian: On the Characteristics of Animals, 3 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1958), public domain in Canada (passed away in 1969), adapted by Harland.


(1.57) The Kerastes is a small creature. It is a snake, and above its brow it has two horns, and these horns are like those of the snail, though unlike the snail’s they are not soft. Now these snakes are the enemies of all other Libyans, but towards the Psyllians (Psylloi) [i.e. Libyan Psyllians, rather than Indian Psyllians], as they are called, they are gently disposed. The Psyllians are insensible to their bites and have no difficulty in curing those who have fallen victims to this venomous creature. Their method is this: if a Psyllian arrives, whether called or by chance, before the whole body of the person bitten is inflamed, and if the rescuer then rinses his mouth with water and washes the bitten man’s hands and give him the water from both to drink, then the victim recovers and afterwards is free from any infection.

There is a Libyan account that, if one of the Psyllians suspects his wife and hates her on the ground that she has committed adultery and if, overall, he suspects that the child born from her is not his and no true member of his own family, he then puts it to a very severe test. He fills the baby’s cradle with horned serpents (kerastai) and drops the baby among them, just as a goldsmith places gold in the fire, and puts the infant to the proof by exposing him this way. Immediately the snakes surge up in anger and threaten the child with their native poison. But if the infant directly touches them, the horned serpents wilt, and then the Libyan knows that he is the father of no illegitimate child but of one sprung of his own family. They say this species is the enemy of other poisonous animals and of black-widows. Well, if the Libyans are talking marvels here, I would have them know that it is not me but themselves that they are deceiving.

(3.2) Concerning the Libyan horse this is what I have learned from accounts given by the Libyans. These horses are exceedingly swift and feel little or no fatigue They are slim and not muscular but are fitted to endure the scanty attention paid to them by their masters. At any rate the masters devote no care to them: they neither rub them down nor roll them nor clean their hooves nor comb their manes nor plait their forelocks nor wash them when tired. But as soon as they have completed the journey they intended they dismount and turn the horses loose to graze. Moreover the Libyans themselves are slim and dirty, like the horses which they ride. The Persians on the other hand are proud and delicate, and what is more, their horses are like them [i.e. signs of Aelian’s adoption of environmental determinism]. One would say that both horse and master prided themselves on the size and beauty of their bodies and even on their finery and outward adornment. . . [omitted remainder of entry].

(6.10, part 1). Here is further evidence to show that animals are apt at learning. Under the Ptolemies the Egyptians taught baboons their letters, how to dance, how to play the flute and the harp. And a baboon would demand money for these accomplishments, and would put what was given him into a bag which he carried attached to his person, just like professional beggars. It has long been communicated abroad that the people of Sybaris have even taught horses how to dance. I have talked about the ease with which elephants can be induced to learn above. Now dogs are capable of managing household affairs for those who have trained them, and for a poor man it is enough to have a dog as slave. There are after all people who are without slaves even of this kind, among the Arabs for instance the Troglodytes, among the Libyans the nomads, and among the Ethiopians all the lake-dwellers, people who have never learned to eat anything other than fish [i.e. Ichthyophagians / Fish-eaters].

(6.56) It appears that the Libyans do not confine themselves to waging war upon their neighbours with a view to gaining an advantage over them, but they wage war upon elephants also. The elephants are very aware that the purpose of the Libyans attack is nothing other than to get their tusks. So those beasts that have had one tusk mutilated stand in the front line, the rest of the herd using them as a cover in order that they may receive the first assault and that the rest may help with the strength of their tusks undamaged and equal to the struggle. And perhaps they are trying to convince the Libyans and to prove to them that they are risking their lives for an inconsiderable reward. One of their tusks they use as a weapon and keep sharpened; the other they use as a mattock, for with it they dig up roots and lever up and bend down trees.

(7.8) I have heard that the Egyptians assert that the antelope is the first creature to know when the Dog-star rises, and testifies to the fact by sneezing. The Libyans are equally bold in stoutly maintaining that in their country the goats also know in advance; they also give clear signs of impending rain. For when they emerge from their pens they rush at full speed to their fodder. Later, when satisfied, they turn towards home, and facing in that direction remain still and wait for the herdsman to gather them in as quickly as possible.

(12.44) These two accounts from India and Libya show a difference. The Indian will relate the practice in his country, and the Libyan will relate what he knows. So their two accounts are as follows.

In India if a full-grown elephant is captured he is hard to tame and his craving for freedom makes him thirst for blood. If you tie him with ropes, his anger is inflamed all the more and he will not stand being a slave and a prisoner. But the Indians coax him with food and try to mollify him with a variety of attractive baits, offering him what will fill his stomach and calm his passion. Yet he is displeased with them and takes no notice of them. So what device do the Indians adopt to address this? They introduce native music and charm the elephants with a musical instrument that is in common use, called a scindapsos. And the elephant listens and is pacified. His rage is softened, and his passion is subdued and allayed, and little by little he begins to notice his food. Then he is freed from his bonds but remains captivated by the music, and eats his food with the eagerness of a man eating sumptuously. Because of his love for the music, the elephant will no longer run away.

But the mares of Libya (for we must listen to the second account as well) are equally captivated by the sound of the pipe. They become gentle and tame and cease to prance and be skittish, and follow the herdsman wherever the music leads them. If he stands still, so do they. But if he plays his pipe with enthusiasm, tears of pleasure stream from their eyes. Now the herdsmen of the mares hollow a stick of rose-laurel, fashion it into a pipe, and blow into it, and thereby charm these animals. Euripides also speaks about some “marriage songs of shepherds” [Alkestis 577]. This is the pipe-music which throws mares into an amorous frenzy and makes horses mad with desire to mate. This in fact is how the mating of horses is brought about, and the pipe-music seems to provide a marriage song.

(14.11) It seems that there are countless Libyan cattle, and those that are wild and roam at large are exceedingly swift. And it often happens that hunters in pursuit of one animal go astray and encounter others, fresh and untired. In the meantime, the hunted animal has plunged into a thicket or a glen and vanished, and others appear, exactly like it, and deceive the sight of the hunter. And if he should start to pursue one of these, he and his horse as well will be the first to give up the chase, for though in course of time he will overtake an animal already weary, he will not overtake those just starting to run. His horse will tire before they do.

Every year these cattle are caught and slaughtered in great numbers, but their offspring take their place, and they are abundant. And they roam the land with their calves, the bulls along with the cows, some in calf, others with a calf lately born. If a man captures a calf while still young and does not slaughter it immediately, he reaps a double advantage, because he captures the mother at the same time if he does what may fittingly be described here: He makes the calf fast with cord and then leaves it and withdraws. But the cow is wasted with yearning for her child and is goaded with ardent longing, and in her desire to release and carry it off attacks the bonds with her horns, hoping to fret them away and burst them. But whichever horn she inserts into the tangle of cord she is caught and held fast and remains by her calf, having failed on the one hand to release it, and on the other having entangled herself in bonds from which there is no escape. So then the hunter after removing the liver for his own use and cutting off the udder, which is still swollen, and flaying the hide, leaves the meat for the birds and beasts to feed upon. But the calf he takes home in its entirety because it is extremely pleasant to eat, and also affords rennet which will curdle milk.

(14.16) The wild goats which climb the mountain heights of Libya are about the size of oxen, but their thighs, breasts, and necks are covered with long and very shaggy hair, and so too are their jaws. Their foreheads are curved and rounded; their eyes are yellow, and their legs stumpy. Their horns, united at the beginning, divide and grow crooked: for they are not straight like those of other mountain goats but turn downwards obliquely and extend as far as the shoulders. Consequently they are of considerable length. And these goats spring with ease from towering pinnacles – “crags” as pastoral and poetical folk like to call them – onto another height. For they are far better at leaping than all other kinds of goat. If, however, one should happen to fall owing to the spot which should receive it being beyond its reach, it has such a reserve of strength in its limbs that it remains uninjured on landing. At any rate it does not break a thing, even though it falls down a cleft rock, neither horn nor front of the skull. But these creatures are as strong and as resistant as the stone itself. Now it is on the actual ridges that most of them are caught, by means of nets, spears, and snares, and by the general skill of a huntsman, but especially by skill in hunting the goat. They are also caught in the plains, and there they cannot run strongly enough to escape. So even a man who is slow of foot will take them. And it seems that their hide and horns are useful. So in the severest winters their hide keeps out the cold for herdsmen and woodcutters, while those famous horns of theirs are useful in summer time: for drawing water and drinking from a flowing stream or some bubbling spring, and help to quench thirst, for they allow you to drink at one draught not a drop less than the contents of the largest cups, until you have cooled your panting heat and quenched all the fire and flame. So if the inside is cleaned out by some skilled polisher of horns, either horn will easily contain as much as three measures.

(14.17) Tortoises too are a product of Libya; they have a most cruel look, and they live in the mountains, and their shell is good for making lyres.

(16.27) Agatharchides asserts that there is in Libya a certain descent group (genos) of men who are called Psyllians (Psylloi). So far as their general way of life is concerned they differ not a bit from other men except that, compared with other tribes (heterophyloi), their bodies have an unusual and amazing quality: they alone are uninjured by the numerous creatures that bite or strike. At any rate they do not feel either the bite of a snake or the prick of a spider which is fatal to others, or even the sting planted by a scorpion. Whenever one of these creatures comes near and touches a Psyllian and inhales the odour from him, it is as though it had tasted some drug, that brings on a drowsiness inducing insensibility. It becomes quite weak and relaxed until the man has passed by. And their manner of proving that their children are either their own or someone else’s by testing them among reptiles, just as artisans test gold in the fire, I have described earlier on.

(17.6) The crocodile often attains to an immense length. Anyways, they say that in the reign of Psammitichos king of Egypt there appeared a crocodile twenty-five forearms long, and in the reign of Amasis there appeared one of twenty-six forearms and four hand-spans. And I have heard that in the gulf of Lakonia there are sea-monsters of immense size. That is why according to some grammarians Homer speaks of “Lakedaimon with its sea-monsters” [Iliad 2.581, Odyssey 4. 1]. Around Kythera there are said to be sea-monsters still larger. And it appears that their sinews are useful for the stringing of harps and other instruments, and even for engines of war. In addition to those that I have mentioned before there occur in the Erythraian sea scorpion-fish and gobies two and even three forearms long. Amometos [perhaps from Cyrene; FGrHist 645] says that in Libya there is a certain city where the priests by their powerful spells draw crocodiles sixteen forearm lengths long from a certain lake. And Theokles in his fourth book says that around Syrtis [in northern Africa] there are sea-monsters larger than a ship with three banks of oars. And Onesikritos and Orthagoras say that around the coast of Gedrosia (this is no inconsiderable part of India) there are sea-monsters half a stadium-length long. They are so powerful that, when they blow with their nostrils, they often hurl up a wave from the sea to such a height that ignorant and inexperienced people take it for a waterspout.

(17.27) It is said that in Libya there used to exist a people called the Nomaians. They continued generally prosperous in a territory where the pastures were good and the land unquestionably rich, until finally they were wiped out when a vast crowd of lions of the very largest size and of irresistible boldness attacked them. The entire people was destroyed by the lions and perished completely. A visitation by lions in a mass is something that no creature can withstand.

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