Libyans: Herodotos on customs and colonization (fifth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Daniel Mitchell, 'Libyans: Herodotos on customs and colonization (fifth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 17, 2023,

Ancient author: Herodotos of Halikarnassos, The Histories, or The Inquiries, portions of 2, 4, 5, and 7 (link to Greek text and translation)

Comments (by Daniel Mitchell): Writing about 420 BCE, Herodotos (also Latinized as Herodotus) of Halikarnassos in Karia (Caria) provides our earliest, extensive account of Libyan peoples and their customs from a Greek perspective. Herodotos relies predominantly on Egyptian, Carthaginian, Persian and Greek (especially Cyrene) sources for his information on the Libyans, since he does not appear to have travelled to their lands in search of first-hand evidence.

Herodotos’ excursus on the Libyans covers a variety of topics including Libyan geography, Libyan peoples and their customs, Egyptian influences on Libyan culture, and ostensible influence of Libyan notions about the gods on Greek notions. In general, Herodotos’ assessment of the Libyans is couched in negative stereotypes associated with nomadic, semi-nomadic, and non-urban “barbarians.” This bias was almost certainly shared by his sources, all of which came from groups engaged in the control (e.g. Egypt), colonization (e.g. Cyrene) or conquest (e.g. Persia) of Libya and the Libyan peoples.

Source of the translation: A. D. Godley, Herodotus, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-25), public domain, adapted and modernized by Daniel Mitchell and Harland.


[For Herodotos’ preceding discussion of the Egyptians, go to this link.]

Book 2 [on Egypt]

[Theories concerning Libya as one of the three established global territorial divisions]

16 If, then, our judgment of this is right, the Ionians are in error concerning Egypt. But if their opinion is right, then it is plain that they and the rest of the Greeks cannot reckon truly, when they divide the whole earth into three parts, Europe, Asia, and Libya. (2) They must add to these a fourth part, the Delta of Egypt, if it belongs neither to Asia nor to Libya. For by their showing the Nile is not the river that separates Asia and Libya, the Nile divides at the apex of this Delta, so that this land must be between Asia and Libya.

[Citizens of the Egyptian cities of Marea and Apis self-identify as Libyans, not Egyptians]

18 The response of oracle of Ammon in fact bears witness to my opinion, that Egypt is of such an extent as I have argued. I learned this by inquiry after my judgment was already formed about Egypt. (2) The men of the cities of Marea and Apis, in the part of Egypt bordering on Libya, believing themselves to be Libyans and not Egyptians, and disliking the ritual prescription concerning sacred matters that forbade them from eating cows’ meat, sent to Ammon saying that they had no part of or lot with Egypt. For, as they said, they lived outside the Delta and did not consent to the ways of its people, and they wished to be allowed to eat all foods. (3) But the god forbade them, having said that “all the land watered by the Nile in its course was Egypt, and all who lived lower down than the city of Elephantine and drank the river’s water were Egyptians.” Such was the oracle given to them.

[Etearchos, king of the Ammonians, describes the Libyan Nasamonians and the legend of the black “little men”; cf. pygmies]

32 But I heard this from some men of Cyrene, who told me that they had gone to the oracle of Ammon and conversed with Etearchos king of the Ammonians. They told me that, after conversing about other subjects, they came to discuss the Nile and how no one knows the source of it. Then Etearchos told them that he had been visited by some Nasamonians at one point in time. (2) These are a Libyan people who inhabit the land of the Syrtis and a little way to the east of the Syrtis. (3) When these Nasamonians were asked on their arrival if they brought any news concerning the Libyan desert, they told Etearchos that some sons of their leading men were proud and violent youths. In addition to planning other wild adventures when they came to manhood, these violent youths had chosen by lot five of their company to visit the deserts of Libya to see whether they could see any farther than those who had seen the farthest. (4) (It must be known that the whole northern seacoast of Libya, from Egypt as far as the promontory of Soloeis, which is the end of Libya, is inhabited throughout its length by Libyans, many peoples [ethnē] of them, except for the part held by Greeks and Phoenicians. The region of Libya, which is inland from the sea and the men who live by the sea, is infested by wild beasts. Everything below the land of the wild beasts is sand, waterless and desolate.) (5) When the young men left their companions, being well supplied with water and provisions, they journeyed first through the inhabited lands, and after passing this they came to the region of wild beasts. (6) After this, they travelled over the desert towards the west and crossed a wide sandy region. After many days they saw trees growing in a plain. When they came to these and were picking the fruit of the trees, they were met by little men (andres mikroi) of less than common height, who took them and led them away. The Nasamonians understood nothing of their language, and those leading them understood nothing of the Nasamonian language. (7) The little men led them across great marshes and, after crossing these, they came to a city where all the people were of a stature like that of the men leading them and black in complexion. A great river ran past this city, which flowed from the west towards the rising sun. Crocodiles could be seen in it.

[Libyan origins of the god Poseidon]

50 In fact, the names of nearly all the gods came to Greece from Egypt. For I am convinced by inquiry that they have come from foreign parts, and I believe that they came mainly from Egypt. (2) Except the names of Poseidon and the Dioskouroi, as I have already said, Hera, Hestia, Themis, the Graces, and the Nereids, the names of all the gods have always existed in Egypt. I only say what the Egyptians themselves say. The gods whose names they say they do not know, as I think, were named by the Pelasgians, except Poseidon, the knowledge of whom they learned from the Libyans. (3) The Libyans alone have had among them the name of Poseidon from the beginning, and they have always honoured this god. The Egyptians, however, are not accustomed to pay any honours to heroes.

[Debates concerning the origin of the oracle of Ammon in Libya]

54 But about the oracles in Greece and that one which is in Libya [at Siwa Oasis], the Egyptians give the following account: The priests of Zeus of Thebes [in Egypt] told me that two priestesses had been carried away from Thebes by Phoenicians. They said that they had heard that one priestess was taken away and sold in Libya, the other in Greece. These women, they said, were the first founders of places of divination among the peoples mentioned above. (2) When I asked them how it was that they could speak with such certain knowledge, they said in reply that their people had searched diligently for these women and had never been able to find them, but later they had learned the story which they were telling me.

55 So that was what I heard from the Theban priests. What follows is told by the prophetesses of Dodona: namely, that two black doves had come flying from Thebes in Egypt, one to Libya and one to Dodona. (2) The latter settled on an oak tree where they uttered human speech declaring that a place of divination from Zeus must be made there. The people of Dodona understood that the message was divine and therefore established the oracular shrine. (3) The dove which came to Libya told the Libyans, as they say, to make an oracle of Ammon. This also is sacred to Zeus.

56 But my own belief about it is this. If the Phoenicians did in fact carry away the sacred women and sell one in Libya and the other in Greece, then, it seems to me, that this woman was sold to the Thesprotians on land that is presently called Greece, but was formerly called Pelasgia. (2) Then, being a slave there, she established a shrine of Zeus beneath a springing oak tree. For it was reasonable, as she had been a handmaid of the temple of Zeus at Thebes, that she would be mindful of him [i.e. Zeus] there, in that land to which she had come. (3) After this, as soon as she understood the Greek language, she taught divination. and she said that her sister had been sold in Libya by the same Phoenicians who sold her.

[Libyan health and diet superior to that of the Egyptians]

77 Among the Egyptians themselves, those who live on cultivated land are the most attentive of all men at preserving the memory of the past, and no one else whom I have questioned is so skilled in this. (2) They practice the following way of life. They purge themselves for three consecutive days in every month, pursuing health by means of vomit-inducing substances and enemas, for they think that the food they eat causes all sicknesses. (3) Even without this, the Egyptians are the healthiest of all men, next to the Libyans.


Book 4

[Dividing the known world into Libya, Asia and Europe and attempts at circumnavigation of Libya (i.e. the continent of Africa)]

41 Such is Asia and such is its extent. But Libya is on another peninsula. for Libya comes next after Egypt [to the west]. The Egyptian part of this peninsula is narrow. For it is a distance of a hundred and twenty-five miles from our sea [i.e. the Mediterranean] to the Erythraian Sea [Red Sea, including the Arabian Sea], that is, a thousand stadium-lengths. But after this narrow part, the peninsula which is called Libya is very broad. 42 I wonder, then, at those who have mapped out and divided the world into Libya, Asia, and Europe. For the difference between them is great, seeing that in length Europe stretches along both the others together, and it appears to me to be wider beyond all comparison. (2) For Libya shows clearly that it is bounded by the sea, except where it borders on Asia.

Nekos, king of Egypt [i.e. Necho II; ca. 610-595 BCE], first discovered this and made it known. When he had finished digging the canal which leads from the Nile to the Arabian gulf [Persian gulf], he sent Phoenicians in ships, instructing them to sail on their return voyage past the Pillars of Herakles until they came into the northern sea and so to Egypt. (3) So the Phoenicians set out from the Erythraean sea [Red Sea] and sailed the Southern sea. Whenever autumn came they would put in and plant the land in whatever part of Libya they had reached, and there await the harvest. (4) Then, having gathered the crop, they sailed on so that after two years had passed, it was in the third year that they rounded the pillars of Herakles and came to Egypt. There they said – what some may believe, though I do not – that in sailing around Libya they had the sun on their right hand [i.e. they circumnavigated the entire continent of Africa].

43 The first knowledge of Libya was gained in that way. The next story involves the Carthaginians (or: Karchedonians). For in the case of Sataspes son of Teaspes, an Achaemenid [Persian], he did not sail around Libya [i.e. the continent of Africa], although he was sent for that purpose. But he feared the length and loneliness of the voyage and so returned without accomplishing the task laid upon him by his mother. (2) For he had raped the virgin daughter of Zopyros son of Megabyzos. When on this charge he was to be impaled by king Xerxes, Sataspes’ mother, who was Darius’ sister, interceded for his life, saying that she would impose a heavier punishment on him than Xerxes: (3) for he would be forced to sail around Libya until he completed his voyage and came to the Arabian gulf. Xerxes agreed to this, and Sataspes went to Egypt where he received a ship and a crew from the Egyptians, and sailed past the Pillars of Herakles. (4) Having sailed out beyond them, and rounded the Libyan promontory called Solois, he sailed south. But when he had been many months sailing over the sea, and always more before him, he turned back and made sail for Egypt.

[Little men]

(5) Coming to king Xerxes from there, he related in his narrative that, when he was at the farthest point, he sailed by a country of little men, who wore palm-leaf clothing. These, whenever he and his men put in to land with their ship, left their towns and fled to the hills. He and his men did no harm when they landed, and took nothing from the people except cattle. (6) As to his not sailing completely around Libya, he said the reason was that the ship could move no farther, but was stopped. But Xerxes did not believe that Sataspes spoke the truth, and, as the task appointed was unfulfilled, he impaled him, punishing him on the charge first brought against him. (7) This Sataspes had a eunuch, who as soon as he heard of his master’s death escaped to Samos with a great hoard of wealth, of which a man of Samos got possession. I know the man’s name but deliberately omit it.

[Mythological origin of the topographical name Libya]

45 (3) For Libya is said by most Greeks to be named after a native woman of that name, and Asia after the wife of Prometheus.

[Greek colonization of Platea island and Cyrene in Libya]

150 So far in the story the Lakedaimonian and Theraian records agree. For the rest, we have only the word of the Theraians. (2) Grinnus son of Aisanios, king of Thera, a descendant of this same Theras, came to Delphi bringing sacrificial animals from his city. Among others of his people, Battos son of Polymnestos came with him, a descendant of Euphemos of the Minyan clan. (3) When Grinnus king of Thera asked the oracle about other matters, the priestess’ answer was that he should found a city in Libya: “Lord, I am too old and heavy to stir; command one of these younger men to do this,” answered Grinnos, pointing to Battos as he spoke. (4) No more was said then. But when they departed, they neglected to obey the oracle, since they did not know where Libya was, and were afraid to send a colony out to an uncertain destination.

151 For seven years after this there was no rain in Thera. All the trees in the island except one withered. The Theraians inquired at Delphi again, and the priestess mentioned the colony they should send to Libya. (2) So, since there was no remedy for their ills, they sent messengers to Crete to find any Cretan or traveller there who had travelled to Libya. In their travels around the island, these came to the town of Itanos, where they met a murex fisherman named Korobios, who told them that he had once been driven off course by winds to Libya, to an island there called Platea [modern Bomba, Libya]. (3) They hired this man to come with them to Thera. From there, just a few men were sent aboard ship to spy out the land first. Guided by Korobios to the island Platea mentioned above, these men left him there with provision for some months. They themselves sailed back with all speed to Thera to bring news of the island.

153 As for the Theraians, when they came to Thera after leaving Korobios on the island, they brought word that they had established a settlement on an island off Libya. The Theraians determined to send out men from their seven regions, taking by lot one of every pair of brothers, and making Battos leader and king of all. Then they manned two fifty-oared ships and sent them to Platea.

155 There Polymnestos, a notable Theraian, took Phronime and made her his concubine. In time, he had a son who was weak and stuttered, to whom he gave the name Battos [literally “Stutterer”], as the Theraians and Cyrenaians say. But in my opinion the boy was given some other name, (2) and changed it to Battos on his coming to Libya, taking this new name because of the oracle given to him at Delphi and the honorable office which he received. For the Libyan word for king is “Battos,” and this, I believe, is why the Pythian priestess called him so in her prophecy, using a Libyan name because she knew that he was to be king in Libya. (3) For when he grew to adulthood, he went to Delphi to inquire about his voice. The priestess in answer gave him this: “Battos, you have come for a voice; but Lord Phoibos Apollo sends you to found a city in Libya, nurse of sheep.” She addressed him just as if she was using the Greek word for “king” [i.e. “Basileus”]: “Basileus, you have come for a voice,” and so on. (4) But Battos answered: “Lord, I came to you to ask about my speech. But you talk of other matters, things impossible to do. You tell me to plant a colony in Libya. Where shall I get the power or strength of hand for it?” Battos spoke in that way, but as the god would not give him another oracular response and kept answering him the same as before, he departed while the priestess was still speaking and went away to Thera.

156 But afterward things turned out badly for Battos and the rest of the Theraians. When, ignorant of the cause of their misfortunes, they sent to Delphi to ask about their present ills. (2) The priestess declared that they would fare better if they helped Battos plant a colony at Cyrene in Libya. Then the Theraians sent Battos with two fifty-oared ships. These sailed to Libya, but, not knowing what else to do, presently returned to Thera. (3) There, the Theraians shot at them as they came to land and would not let the ship put in, telling them to sail back. They did this because they had to do it, and they planted a colony on an island off the Libyan coast called, as I have said already, Platea. This island is said to be as big as the city of Cyrene is now.

157 Here they lived for two years. but as everything went wrong, the rest sailed to Delphi leaving one behind. On their arrival, they questioned the oracle and said that they were living in Libya, but that they were no better off for that. (2) Then the priestess gave them this reply: “If you know Libya, nurse of sheep, better than I, though I have been there and you have not, then I am very much astonished at your knowledge.” Hearing this, Battos and his men sailed back again. For the god would not let them do anything short of colonizing Libya itself. (3) After they arrived at the island and picked up [Korobios,] the one whom they had left there, they made a settlement at a place in Libya itself, opposite to the island which was called Aziris. This is a place enclosed on both sides by the fairest of groves, with a river flowing along one side of it.

[Greek colonists’ interactions with indigenous Libyans]

158 They lived there for six years, but in the seventh year the Libyans got them to leave the place, saying that they would lead them to a better piece of land. (2) So then they brought the Greeks from Aziris and led them west. After calculating the hours of daylight, the Libyans led the Greeks at nighttime past the fairest portions of their lands, namely the lands called Irasa, in order that the Greeks might not see them in their journey. (3) Then they brought the Greeks to what is called the “Fountain of Apollo,” and they said to them: “Here, Greeks, it is suitable for you to live. for here the sky is torn [i.e. it rains often].”

159 Now in the time of Battos the founder of the colony (who ruled for forty years) and his son Arkesilaos (who ruled for sixteen), the inhabitants of Cyrene were no more in number than when they had first gone out to the colony. (2) But in the time of the third ruler, Battos, who was called the Fortunate, the Pythian priestess warned all Greeks by an oracle to cross the sea and live in Libya with the Cyrenaians. For the Cyrenaians invited them, promising a distribution of land, (3) and this was the oracular response: “Whoever goes to beloved Libya after / The fields are divided, I say shall be sorry afterward.”

(4) So a great multitude gathered at Cyrene and cut out great tracts of land from the territory of the neighbouring Libyans. Robbed of their lands and treated violently by the Cyrenaians, these Libyans then sent to Egypt together with their king, whose name was Adikran, and put their affairs in the hands of Apries, the king of Egypt [ca. 589-570 BCE]. (5) Apries mustered a great force of Egyptians and sent it against Cyrene. The Cyrenaians marched out to Irasa and the Thestes spring, and there they fought with the Egyptians and beat them. (6) For prior to this the Egyptians had not tested themselves against the Greeks in battle, and they treated them without respect. Consequently, they were so utterly destroyed that few of them returned to Egypt. Because of this misfortune and because they blamed him for it, the Egyptians revolted from Apries.

160 This Battos had a son Arkesilaos. On his first coming to reign, he quarrelled with his brothers, until they left him and went away to another place in Libya, where they founded a city for themselves, which was then and is now called Barce. While they were founding it, they persuaded the Libyans to revolt from the Cyrenaians. (2) Then Arkesilaos led an army into the country of the Libyans who had received his brothers and had also revolted. They fled in fear of him to the eastern Libyans. (3) Arkesilaos pursued them until he came in his pursuit to Leukon in Libya, where the Libyans resolved to attack him. They engaged and so completely overcame the Cyrenaians that seven thousand Cyrenaian soldiers were killed there. (4) After this disaster, Arkesilaos, being worn down and having taken a drug, was strangled by his brother Hilarchos. In turn, Arkesilaos’ wife, named Eryxo, killed Hilarchos by means of trickey.

161 Arkesilaos’ kingship passed to his son Battos, who was deformed and weak in his feet. The Cyrenaians, in view of the affliction that had overtaken them, sent to Delphi to ask what political arrangement would enable them to live best. (2) The priestess told them bring a mediator from Mantinea in Arkadia. When the Cyrenaians sent their request, the Mantineans gave them their most valued citizen, whose name was Demonax. (3) When this man came to Cyrene and learned everything, he organized the people into three tribes and divided them in the following manner: the first tribe consisted of Theraians and dispossessed Libyans, the second tribe of Peloponnesians and Cretans, and the third tribe of every islander. Furthermore, he set aside certain territories and priesthoods for their king Battos. But all the rest, which had belonged to the kings, were now to be held by the people in common.

[Libyan peoples, nomadic peoples on the coast]

[Adyrmachidians and their customs]

168 Now, concerning the lands inhabited by Libyans, the Adyrmachidians are the people that live nearest to Egypt. They follow Egyptian customs for the most part, but dress like other Libyans. Their women wear twisted bronze ornaments on both legs. Their hair is long. Each catches her own lice, then bites them and throws them away. (2) They are the only Libyans that do this, and they alone put on display to the king all virgins that are to be married. The king then takes the virginity of whichever of these maidens pleases him. These Adyrmachidians extend from Egypt to the harbour called Plynos.


169 Next to them are the Giligamians, who inhabit the country to the west as far as the island of Aphrodisias. In the midst of these lands lies the island of Platea, which the Cyrenaians colonized, and on the mainland there is the harbour called Menelaos and the Aziris, which was a settlement of the Cyrenaians. Here the country of silphion [a medicinal plant] begins, (2) which reaches from the island of Platea to the entrance of the Syrtis. This people is like the others in its customs.


170 The next people west of the Giligamians are the Asbystians. These people live inland from Cyrene, but they do not extend to the coast, for that is Cyrenaian territory. These people drive four-horse chariots to a greater extent than any other Libyans. It is their practice to imitate most of the Cyrenaian customs.

[Auschisians and Bakalians]

171 Next west of the Asbystians are the Auschisians, living inland of Barke, and touching the coast at Euhesperides. Around the middle of the Auschisian territory lives the Bakalianss, a small tribe, who extend down to the sea at Tauchira, a town in the Barkaian country. Their customs are the same as those who live inland below Cyrene.

[Nasamonians and their sexual customs]

172 Next west of these Auschisians is the populous country of the Nasamonians, who in summer leave their flocks by the sea and go up to the land called Augila to gather dates from the palm-trees that grow there in great abundance and all bear fruit. They hunt locusts, which they dry in the sun, and after grinding sprinkle them into milk and drink it. (2) It is their custom for every man to have many wives. Their intercourse with women is promiscuous, as among the Massagetians [usually encompassed under the Greek category of “Scythians”]. A staff is placed before the home, and then they have intercourse. When a man of the Nasamonians weds, on the first night the bride must by custom lie with each man of the whole company in turn. Each man after intercourse gives her whatever gift he has brought from his house.

(3) As for their manner of swearing oaths and divination, they lay their hands on the graves of the men reputed to have been the most just and good among them, and by these men they swear. Their practice of divination is to go to the tombs of their ancestors where, after making prayers, they lie down to sleep and accept as oracular messages any dreams that come to them. (4) They give and receive pledges of loyalty by each person drinking from the hand of the other party. If they have nothing liquid, they take the dust of the earth and lick it up.


173 On the borders of the Nasamonians are the Psyllians, who died in the following manner: the force of the south wind dried up their water-tanks, and all their lands, which lay in the region of the Syrtis, were waterless. After deliberating together – I tell the story as it is told by the Libyans – they marched south and when they came into the sandy desert, a strong south wind buried them. So they perished utterly, and the Nasamonians now possess their land.


174 Further inland from the Nasamonians towards the south live the Garamantians in the land of wild beasts. They avoid seeing and interacting with people, and they have neither weapons of war nor the expertise to defend themselves.

[Makians and their customs]

175 These Garamantians live inland from the Nasamonians. To the west along the seaboard is the territory held by the Makians, who shave their heads so as to leave a tuft of hair on the crown, letting the middle portion of their hair grow, while shaving clean what is on either side. In war they carry shields made of ostrich skins. (2) The Kinyps river [Wadi Qaam], which flows down from a hill called the “Hill of the Graces”, passes through their land emptying into the sea. This “Hill of the Graces” is thickly wooded, while the rest of Libya, which I have discussed previously, is bare of trees. It is twenty-five miles from the sea.

[Gindanians and their sexual customs]

176 Next to these Makians are the Gindanians, whose woman – every one of them – wear many leather anklets because, as it is said, a woman puts on an anklet for every man with whom she has had intercourse. The woman who wears the most is reputed to be the best, because she has been loved by the most men.


177 There is a peninsula jutting out into the sea from the land of the Gindanians. On it live the Lotus-eaters (lotophagoi), who spend their lives eating only the fruit of the lotus. The lotus fruit is the size of a mastich-berry, and it has a sweet taste like the fruit of a date-palm. The Lotus-eaters not only eat it, but they make wine from it.


178 Next to these “Lotus Eaters” down along the coast are the Machylians, who also use the lotus, but to a lesser extent than the people mentioned above. Their territory stretches to a great river called the Triton, which empties into the great Tritonian lake, on which there is an island called Phla. It is said that the Lakedaimonians [Spartans] were told by an oracle to plant a settlement on this island.

179 The following story is also told: it is said that Jason, when the Argo had been built at the foot of Pelion, put aboard the ship a bronze tripod in addition to the sacrificial animals and set out to sail around the Peloponnese to go to Delphi. (2) But when he was off Malea, a north wind caught and carried him away to Libya. Before he saw land, he came into the shallows of the Tritonian lake. There, while he could find no way out yet, Triton, as the story goes, appeared before him and commanded Jason to give him the tripod, promising to show the sailors the river-passageway and to send them on their way unharmed. (3) When Jason acquiesced to this offer, Triton then showed them the channel out of the shallows and set the tripod in his own temple. But first he prophesied over it, declaring the whole matter to Jason’s comrades, namely that should any descendant of the Argo’s crew take away the tripod, then a hundred Greek cities would be founded on the shores of the Tritonian lake. Hearing this, it is said, the indigenous Libyan people hid the tripod.

[Auseans and their customs]

180 Next to these Machylians are the Auseans. These people and the Machylians, who are separated by the river Triton, live on the shores of the Tritonian lake. The  Machylians wear their hair long at the back, while the Auseans wear it long on front. (2) They celebrate a yearly festival of Athena, where their maidens are separated into two groups and fight each other with stones and sticks. They say that they perform these ancestral customs for the indigenous goddess, whom we call Athena. Maidens who die of their wounds are called false virgins. (3) Before the girls are given leave to fight, the whole people choose the fairest maid and arm her with a Corinthian helmet and Greek gear. Then, after she is mounted on a chariot, they lead her all along the lake shore. (4) (I cannot speak to what sort of armour they equipped their maidens with before Greeks came to live near them. But I suppose the armour was Egyptian, for I maintain that the Greeks took their shield and helmet from Egypt.) (5) As for Athena, they say that she was daughter of Poseidon and the Tritonian lake, and that she, being angry at her father for some reason, gave herself to Zeus, who made her his own daughter. That is their tale.

The intercourse of men and women there is promiscuous. They do not cohabit but have intercourse like cattle. (6) When a woman’s child is well grown, the men assemble within a period of three months, and the child is judged to be the offspring of that man whom it is most like in appearance.

[Libyan peoples further inland]

181 I have now described all the nomadic Libyans who live on the coast. Farther inland than these peoples is that part of Libya belonging to wild beasts, and beyond the territory of wild beasts runs a ridge of sand that stretches from Thebes of Egypt to the Pillars of Herakles [i.e. Gibraltar]. (2) Along this ridge and separated by intervals of about ten days’ journey are great lumps of salt formed into hills. On the top of every hill, a fountain of cold sweet water shoots up from the midst of the salt. The people, who exist in the extreme regions of the desert and further inland from the territory of wild beasts, live around these founts of water.


(2) The first people on the journey from Thebes – ten days’ distance from that city – are the Ammonians, who follow the worship of the Zeus of Thebes. For, as I have said before, the image of Zeus at Thebes has the head of a ram. (3) They happen to have another spring of water, which is warm at dawn, colder at market-time, and very cold at noon, (4) at which time they water their gardens. As the day declines, the coldness abates, until at sunset the water grows warm. It becomes ever hotter and hotter until midnight, and then it boils and bubbles. After midnight it becomes ever cooler until dawn. This spring is called the Spring of the Sun.

182 At a distance of ten days’ journey again from the Ammonians along the sandy ridge, there is a hill of salt like that of the Ammonians and springs of water where people live. This place is called Augila. It is to this that the Nasamonians come to gather palm-fruit.


183 After ten days’ journey again from Augila there is yet another hill of salt and springs of water and many fruit-bearing palms, as at the other places. Men live there called Garamantians, an exceedingly great people, who sow in earth which they have laid on the salt. (2) The shortest path from these people to the territory of the Lotus-eaters is a thirty-day journey. Among the Garamantians are the cattle that go backward as they graze, the reason being that their horns curve forward. (3) Therefore, not being able to go forward, since the horns would stick in the ground, they walk backward grazing. Otherwise, they are like other cattle, except that their hide is thicker and harder to the touch. (4) These Garamantians hunt down the cave-dwelling Ethiopians with four-horse chariots. For the Ethiopian cave-dwellers are swifter on foot than any people whom we hear about recounted in tales. They live on snakes and lizards and such-like creeping things. Their speech is like no other in the world: it is like the squeaking of bats.


184 Another ten days’ journey from the Garamantians there is again a salt hill and water, where men live called Atarantians. These are the only men whom we know who have no names. for the whole people are called Atarantians, but no man has a name of his own. (2) When the sun is high, they curse and very foully revile him [i.e. the god Helios], because his burning heat afflicts their people and their land.


184 (3) After another ten days’ journey there is again a hill of salt, water, and men living there. Near to this salt is a mountain called Atlas, whose shape is slender and conical. It is said to be so high that its heights cannot be seen, for clouds are always on them winter and summer. The people of the land call it the pillar of heaven. (4) These men get their name, which is Atlantians, from this mountain. It is said that they eat no living creature, and see no dreams in their sleep.

[Conclusion of section of inland peoples]

185 I know and can tell the names of all the peoples that live on the ridge as far as the Atlantians, but no farther than that. But I know this, that the ridge reaches as far as the Pillars of Herakles and beyond them. (2) There is a mine of salt on it every ten days’ journey, and men live there. Their houses are all built of blocks of the salt. For these are parts of Libya where no rain falls, for the walls, being of salt, could not stand firm if there were rain. (3) The salt there is both white and purple. Beyond this ridge, the southern and inland parts of Libya are desolate and waterless. There are no wild beasts, no rain, no forests. This region is wholly without moisture.

[Customs, diet, and health of Libyans generally]

186 Thus from Egypt to the Tritonian lake, the Libyans are nomads that eat meat and drink milk. For the same reason as the Egyptians also profess, they will not touch the flesh of cows, and they do not raise pigs. (2) The women of Cyrene also consider it wrong to eat cows’ flesh, because of the Isis of Egypt. and they even honor her with fasts and festivals. The Barkaian women also refuse to eat pig as well as cows.

187 Thus it is with this region. But west of the Tritonian lake the Libyans are not nomads. They do not follow the same customs, or treat their children as the nomads do. (2) For the practice of many Libyan nomads – I cannot say with certainty whether it is the practice of them all – is to take their children when they are four years old and to burn the veins of their scalps or sometimes the veins of their temples with grease of sheep’s wool so that the children may never afterward be afflicted by phlegm draining from the head. (3) They say that this makes their children quite healthy. In fact, the Libyans are the healthiest of all men whom we know. Whether it is because of this practice, I cannot say absolutely. But they certainly are healthy. When the children go into convulsions from the pain of the burning, the Libyans have found a remedy. They soothe them by applications of goats’ urine. This is what the Libyans themselves say.

188 The nomads’ way of sacrificing is to cut a piece from the sacrificial victim’s ear for a first-offering and they throw it over the house. After doing this, they break the victim’s neck. They sacrifice to no gods except Helios [Sun] and Selene [Moon]. That is, this is the practice of the whole people. But those who live by the Tritonian lake mainly sacrifice to Athena, and next after her they sacrifice to Triton and Poseidon.

[Women’s clothing and Libyan origins of Athena’s cloak and paraphernalia]

189 It would seem that the robe and goat-skin cloak (aigis / aegis) in depictions of Athena were copied from Libyan women by the Greeks. For in everything else their attire is the same, with the exception that Libyan women’s clothing is made of leather, and the tassels, which dangle from their goat-skin cloaks, are not made serpents but rather strips of leather. (2) In fact, the very name betrays that the attire worn on Pallas Athena’s statues has come from Libya. For Libyan women wear the hairless, tasselled goat-skin leather cloaks over their dress, which are colored with madder [i.e. red pigment], and from the name of these “aigeai” the Greeks formed their own word “aigides.” (3) Furthermore, in my opinion the ceremonial chant [“ololyge”] first originated in Libya, because the women of that land chant very tunefully. It is from the Libyans that the Greeks have learned to drive four-horse chariots.

190 The dead are buried by the nomads in Greek fashion, except by the Nasamonians. They bury their dead sitting upright, being careful to make the dying man sit up when he releases his spirit, and not die lying down on his back. Their homes are constructed of asphodel stalks twined around reeds. They can be carried around. Such are the Libyan customs.

[Libyan peoples who engage in agriculture]

[Maxyans and their customs]

191 West of the Triton river and next to the Auseans begins the land of Libyans who cultivate the soil and possess houses. They are called Maxyans. They wear their hair long on the right side of their heads and shave the left, and they paint their bodies with vermilion. (2) These people claim descent from the men who came from Troy. Their lands and the rest of the western part of Libya are much fuller of wild beasts and are more wooded than the country of the nomads. (3) For the eastern region of Libya, which the nomads inhabit, is low-lying and sandy as far as the Triton river. But the land west of this, where the farmers live, is exceedingly mountainous, wooded and full of wild beasts.


193 Next to the Maxyans of Libya are the Zauekians, whose women drive their chariots to war.


194 Next to these are the Gyzantians, where much honey is made by bees and much more honey still by their craftsmen, so it is said. It is certain that they all paint themselves with vermilion and eat apes, with which their mountains swarm.

195 Off their coast, as the Carthaginians say, lies an island called Kyrauis, twenty-five miles long and narrow across, which is accessible from the mainland. It is full of olives and vines. (2) It is said that there is a lake on this island from which the maidens of the land draw gold-dust out of the mud on feathers smeared with pitch. I do not know whether this is true. I just write what is said. But all things are possible.

[Unknown Libyans beyond the Pillars of Herakles]

196 Another story is told by the Carthaginians. There is a place in Libya, they say, where men live beyond the Pillars of Herakles. They come here and unload their cargo. Then, having laid it in order along the beach, they go aboard their ships and light a smoking fire. The people of the land see the smoke, and, coming to the sea, they lay down gold to pay for the cargo, and withdraw from the goods. (2) Then the Carthaginians disembark and examine the gold. If it seems a fair price to them for their cargo, they take it and depart. But if not, they go back aboard and wait, and the people come back and add more gold until the sailors are satisfied. (3) In this transaction, it is said, neither party defrauds the other. That is, the Carthaginians do not touch the gold until it equals the value of their cargo, and the people do not touch the cargo until the sailors have taken the gold.

[Four populations of Libya: Libyans, Ethiopians, Phoenicians and Greeks]

197 These are all the Libyans whom we can name, and the majority of their kings cared nothing for the king of the Medes at the time of which I write, nor do they care for him now. (2) I have this much further to say of this land: four peoples (ethnē) and no more inhabit it (so far as we know), two of which are aboriginal and two of which are not. The Libyans in the north and the Ethiopians in the south of Libya are aboriginal. The Phoenicians and Greeks are later settlers.

[Superior land of Kinyps (Wadi Qaam area)]

198 In my opinion, there is no part of Libya that is excellent enough to be compared to Asia or Europe, except the region which is called by the same name as its river: Kinyps. [2] This region is a match for the most fertile farmland in the world, and it is not at all like to the rest of Libya. For the soil is black, well-watered by springs, has no danger of drought, and is not harmed by excessive amounts of rainwater, for there is rain in this part of Libya. Its yield of grain is similar in measure to the land of Babylon. (3) The land inhabited by the Euhesperitians is also good. It yields at the most a hundredfold of grain, while the land of the Kinyps region yields three hundredfold.

[Cyrenaian agricultural seasons]

199 The country of Cyrene, which is the northernmost part of the Libya that the nomads inhabit, has the marvellous advantage of three harvest seasons. The fruits of the earth are ripe for reaping and picking on the coast first. When these have been gathered, the middle region above the coast, which they call the Hills, is ripe for gathering. (2) No sooner has this yield of the middle country been gathered than the highest-lying crops are mellow and ripe, so that the last fruits of the earth are coming in when the first crop has been consumed by eating and drinking. In this way, the Cyrenaians have a harvest lasting eight months.


Book 5 (on Hellespont and Thrace)

[Dorieus, a prince of Sparta, fails to establish a colony in Libya]

42 Since [Dorieus] would not tolerate being made subject to Kleomenes [his half-brother], he asked the Spartans for a group of people whom he took away as colonists. He neither inquired from the oracle at Delphi on which land he should establish his settlement, nor did he do anything else that was customary but set sail in great anger for Libya, with men of Thera to guide him. (3) When he arrived there, he settled by the Kinyps river in the fairest part of Libya, but in the third year he was driven out by the Makians, the Libyans and the Carthaginians, and he returned to the Peloponnesos.


Book 7 (on Thrace and the Hellespont, continued)

[Libyans in the Persian army]

70 The Ethiopians above Egypt and the Arabians had Arsames for commander, while the Ethiopians of the east (for there were two kinds of them in the army) served with the Indians. They differed nothing in appearance from the others, but only in speech and hair. For the Ethiopians from the east are straight-haired, while those of Libya have the woolliest hair of all men. These Ethiopians of Asia were for the most part armed like the Indians. But they wore on their heads the skins from the foreheads of horses, which were stripped from the head with ears and mane. The mane served as a plumed-crest for them, and they wore the horses’ ears stiff and upright. For shields, they had bucklers made of cranes’ skin. . . 71 The Libyans came in leather garments, using javelins of burnt wood. Their commander was Massages son of Oarizos.

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