Indians, Ethiopians and others: Pliny the Elder on “unbelievable” peoples (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indians, Ethiopians and others: Pliny the Elder on “unbelievable” peoples (first century CE),' Last modified November 17, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=11012.

Ancient authors: Dozens of Greek authors as cited in Pliny the Elder, Natural History 7.6-32 (link to Latin text and full translation).

Comments: The reporting of “marvels” or unbelievable things was built into the Greek (and, by inheritance, Roman) ethnographic imagination. This can be readily seen here and there throughout many other posts even when the author presents his own discussions as though they are serious descriptions of various peoples, particularly if those peoples were more distant from the author’s audience.

Pliny the Elder’s (first century CE) section presented below in which he turns to cataloguing specifically unbelievable things taps into the various spots where dozens of Greek authors touch on such “wonders” of nature and humanity. The result is a concentrated list of supposedly bizarre features, abilities, and practices of peoples, from cannibalistic northerners to dog-headed southerners or tiny easterners. Pliny both affirms them to be true wonders of nature (perhaps based on climate) at the same time as he also distances himself from the claims by emphasizing they are reports by others. The fact that he took the time to find all the most bizarre things possible suggests his own fascination with this. As Pliny himself states, it is the peoples who are farthest away that, of course, have the most cases of such marvels, and so he deals with the Scythians but also, in an substantial section, with the cases of Ethiopians (to the far south) and Indians (to the far east). Sticking with the most distant peoples may help to avoid disconfirmation.

Source of the translation: H. Rackham, Pliny: Natural History, 9 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1938-1952), public domain (author passed away in 1944), adapted by Harland.

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[Marvels of nature and humanity]

(6) Concerning the human descent group (genus) as a whole we have in large part spoken in our account of the various peoples (gentes). Nor will we now deal with manners and customs, which are beyond counting and almost as numerous as the groups of humankind. Still, there are some that I think should not to be omitted, particularly in the case of those living more remote from the sea. I do not doubt that some of these things will appear strange and unbelievable to many people. Because who ever believed in the Ethiopians before actually seeing them? Or what is not considered miraculous when first it comes into knowledge? How many things are judged impossible before they actually occur?

(7) In fact, the power and majesty of the nature of the universe at every turn lacks believability if one’s mind considers only parts of it and not the whole. Not to mention peacocks, or the spotted skins of tigers and panthers and the colourings of so many animals, a small matter to relate but one of measureless extent if pondered on is the number of national languages and dialects and varieties of speech. These are so numerous that a foreigner hardly counts as a human being for someone of another descent group! (8) Again even though our physiognomy [knowledge of physical features] contains ten features or only a few more, just think about how there exist no two persons whose physical features are identical among all the thousands of human beings. That is a thing that no art could supply by counterfeit in so small a number of specimens. Nevertheless in most instances of these I will not myself pledge my own belief, and will preferably ascribe the facts to the authorities who will be quoted for all doubtful points. Only do not let us be too proud to follow the Greeks, because of their far greater industry or older devotion to study [i.e. Greek authors are his main sources].

[Marvels of cannibalism and human sacrifice]

(9) We have pointed out that some Scythian descent groups (gentes), and in fact a good many, eat human bodies. This is a statement that may seem unbelievable if we do not reflect on the fact that descent groups of this strange character have existed in the central region of the world, named Kyklopians [legendary one-eyed group] and Laistrygonians [legendary cannibalistic giants], and that quite recently the descent groups in regions beyond the Alps habitually practised human sacrifice, which is not far removed from eating human flesh. (10) But also a descent group is reported next to these – towards the north, not far from the actual quarter from where the north wind rises and the cave that bears its name, the place called the “Earth’s Doorbolt” – the Arimaspians whom we have spoken of already, people remarkable for having one eye in the centre of the forehead. Many authorities, the most distinguished being Herodotos and Aristeas of Prokonnesos, write that these people wage continual war around their mines with the griffins. The griffin is a kind of wild beast with wings, as commonly reported, that digs gold out of mines, which the creatures guard and the Arimaspians try to take from them, both with remarkable covetousness.

(11) But beyond the other Scythian cannibals, in a certain large valley of the Imavus mountain [east of Bactria towards the land of the Serians, i.e. Chinese peoples], there is a region called Abarimon where are some people dwelling in forests who have their feet turned backward behind their legs, who run extremely fast and range across the country with the wild animals. It is stated by Baiton, Alexander the Great’s route-surveyor on his journeys [On Stations is attributed to him in, e.g., Athenaios, Sophists at Dinner 2.74; Strabo, Geography 15.2.8], that these men are unable to breathe in another climate, and that consequently none of them could be brought to the neighbouring kings or had ever been brought to Alexander. (12) According to Isogonos of Nikaia the former cannibal descent groups whom we stated to exist to the north (ten days’ journey beyond the river Borysthenes [Dnieper]), drink out of human skulls and use the scalps with the hair on as napkins hung round their necks. The same authority states that certain people in [Asian (?)] Albania are born with sharp grey eyes and are bald from childhood, and that they see better by night than in the daytime. He also says that the Sauromatians, thirteen days’ journey beyond the Borysthenes, always take food once every two days.

[Marvels of poison and people]

(13) Krates of Pergamum states that there was a descent group of men around Parion [in what is now Biga, Turkey] on the Hellespont, whom he calls Ophiogenians, whose custom it was to cure snake-bites by touch and draw the poison out of the body by placing their hand on it. Varro says that there are still a few people there whose spittle is a remedy against snakebites. (14) According to the writings of Agatharchides there was also a similar descent group in Africa, the Psyllians, named after king Psyllos, whose tomb is in the region of the greater Syrtis. In their bodies there was engendered a poison that was deadly to snakes, and the smell of which they employed for sending snakes to sleep. They had a custom of exposing their children as soon as they were born to the most savage snakes and of using that species to test the fidelity of their wives, as snakes do not avoid persons born with adulterous blood in them. This descent group itself has been almost exterminated by the Nasamonians who now occupy that region, but a group of men descended from those who had escaped or had been absent when the fighting took place survives today in a few places. (15) A similar descent group lingers on in Italy also, the Marsians, said to be descended from the son of Kirke and to possess this natural property on that account. However, all men contain a poison available as a protection against snakes: people say that snakes flee from contact with saliva as from the touch of boiling water, and that if it gets inside their throats they actually die. That this is especially the case with the saliva of a person fasting.

[Marvels regarding human body parts]

Beyond the Nasamonians and adjacent to them [in Africa] Kalliphanes records the Machlyians, who are Androgynians (“Men-women”) and perform the function of either sex alternately. Aristotle adds that their left breast is that of a man and their right breast that of a woman. (16) Isogonos and Nymphodoros report that there are families in the same part of Africa that practise sorcery, whose praises cause meadows to dry up, trees to wither and infants to perish. Isogonos adds that there are people of the same kind among the Triballians and the Illyrians, who also bewitch with a glance and who kill those they stare at for a longer time, especially with a look of anger, and that their evil eye is most felt by adults. What is more remarkable is that they have two pupils in each eye. (17) Apollonides also reports women of this kind in Scythia, who are called the Bitians, and Phylarchos also the Thibian descent group and many others of the same nature in Pontos [Black Sea area], whose distinguishing marks he records as being a double pupil in one eye and the likeness of a horse in the other, and he also says that they are incapable of drowning, even when weighed down with clothing. Damon records a descent group not unlike these in Ethiopia, the Pharmakians, whose sweat heals diseases by touch. (18)

[Local Roman or Italian cases]

Also among ourselves Cicero states that the glance of all women who have double pupils is injurious everywhere [i.e. the evil eye explained]. In fact when nature implanted in man the wild beasts’ habit of devouring human flesh, she also thought fit to implant poisons in the whole of the body, and with some persons in the eyes as well, so that there should be no evil anywhere that was not present in man.

(19) There are a few families in the Faliscan territory, not far from the city of Rome, named the Hirpi, which at the yearly sacrifice to Apollo performed on mount Soracte [Soratte] walk over a charred pile of logs without being scorched. Consequently, they enjoy exemption under a perpetual decree of the senate from military service and all other burdens. (20) Some people are born with parts of the body possessing special remarkable properties. For instance, king Pyrrhus’ big toe on his right foot, if touched, was a cure for inflammation of the spleen. It is recorded that at his cremation it proved impossible to bum the toe with the rest of the body, and it was stored in a chest in a temple.

[Ethiopians and Indians as especially unbelievable]

[Marvels regarding body shape and size]

(21) India and parts of Ethiopia especially teem with marvels. The biggest animals grow in India: for instance Indian dogs are bigger than any others. Indeed the trees are said to be so lofty that it is not possible to shoot an arrow over them, and that, if one is willing to believe it, squadrons of cavalry are able to shelter under a single fig-tree. (The richness of the soil, temperate climate and abundance of springs bring this about). While it is said that reeds are of such height that sometimes a single section between two knots will make a canoe that will carry three people.

(22) It is known that many of the inhabitants are more than five cubits tall, never spit, do not suffer from headache or toothache or pain in the eyes, and very rarely have a pain in any other part of the body. They are made this hardy by the temperate heat of the sun. It is also known that their philosophers, whom they call gymnosophists (naked sages), stay standing from sunrise to sunset, gazing at the sun with eyes unmoving, and continue all day long standing first on one foot and then on the other in the glowing sand.

(23) Megasthenes states that on the mountain named Nulus there are people with their feet turned backwards and with eight toes on each foot, while on many of the mountains there is a descent group of human beings with dogs’ heads, who wear a covering of wild beasts’ skins, whose speech is a bark and who live on the produce of hunting and fowling, for which they use their nails as weapons. He says that they numbered more than one hundred and twenty thousand when he published his work.

Ktesias writes that also among a certain descent group of India the women bear children only once in their lifetime, and the children begin to turn grey directly after birth. He also describes a descent group (genus) of men called the Monokolians (“One-legs”) who have only one leg, and who move in jumps with surprising speed. They are also called the Skiapodians (“Umbrella-feet”), because in the hotter weather they lie on their backs on the ground and protect themselves with the shade of their feet. They are not far away from the Troglodytians (“Cave-dwellers”). Still west from these there are some people without necks, having their eyes in their shoulders.

(24) There are also satyrs in the mountains in the east of India. This is called the district of the Katarkloudians. These satyrs are extremely swift animals, sometimes going on all fours and sometimes standing upright as they run, like human beings. Due to their speed, only the old ones or the sick are caught. Tauron gives the name of Choromandians to a descent group in the forest that has no speech but a horrible scream, hairy bodies, keen grey eyes and the teeth of a dog. Eudoxos says that in the south of India men have feet eighteen inches long and the women such small feet that they are called “sparrowfeet.”

(25) Megasthenes talks about a descent group among the nomads of India that has only holes in the place of nostrils, like snakes, and they are bow-legged. They are called the “Skiritians.” At the extreme boundary of India to the east, near the source of the river Ganges, Megasthenes places the Astomian descent group that has no mouth and a body that is hairy all over. They dress in cotton-wool and live only on the air they breathe and the scent they inhale through their nostrils. They have no food or drink except the different odours of the roots and flowers and wild apples, which they carry with them on their longer journeys so as not to lack a supply of scent. He says they can easily be killed by an odour that is a bit stronger than usual.

(26) Beyond these in the most outlying mountain region we are told of the Trispithamians (“Three-spans”) or Pygmies (“Forearms”), who do not exceed three hand spans in height. The climate is healthy and always spring-like, as it is protected on the north by a range of mountains. Homer [Iliad 3.6] has also recorded that this descent group is troubled by cranes. It is reported that in springtime their entire band, mounted on the backs of rams and she-goats and armed with arrows, goes in a body down to the sea and eats the cranes eggs and chickens, and that this outing occupies three months. It is also reported that otherwise they could not protect themselves against the flocks of cranes that would grow up, and that their houses are made of mud and feathers and eggshells. (27) Aristotle says that the Pygmies live in caves, but in the rest of his statement about them he agrees with the other authorities.

[Marvels of age]

According to Isigonos, the Indian descent group (genos) of Kyrnians live to the age of one hundred and forty. He holds that the same is true of the Makrobian (“Long-lived”) Ethiopians, the Serians [i.e. far-eastern or Chinese] and the inhabitants of mount Athos. In the last case, this is because of their diet of snakes’ meat, which causes their head and clothes to be free from creatures harmful to the body. (28) Onesikritos says that in the parts of India where there are no shadows there are men five cubits and two spans tall, and people live a hundred and thirty years, and do not grow old but die middle-aged. Krates of Pergamon tells about Indians who exceed a hundred years, whom he calls Gymnetians (“Nakeds”), though many call them Makrobians (“Long-lived”). Ktesias says that a descent group among them called the Pandians, dwelling in the mountain valleys, live two hundred years, and have white hair in their youth that grows black in old age. (29) Whereas others do not exceed forty years, this descentr group adjoining the Makrobians, whose women bear children only once. Agatharchides records this as well, and also that they live on locusts and are very fast runners. Kleitarchos gave them the name of Mandians, and Megasthenes also assigns them three hundred villages, and says that the women bear children at the age of seven, and old age comes at forty. (30) Artemidoros says that on the island of Taprobane [in what is now Sri Lanka] the people live very long lives without any loss of bodily activity. Douris [of Samos] says that some Indians have union with wild animals and the offspring is of mixed descent and half-animal. He also says that among the Kalingians, a descent group of the same region of India, women conceive at the age of five and do not live more than eight years, and that in another part men are born with a hairy tail and extremely swift, while others are entirely covered by their ears.

[Marvels relating to diet]

The river Arabis is the frontier between the Indians and the Oreitans. These people [i.e. Oreitans] are acquainted with no other food but fish, which they cut to pieces with their nails and roast in the sun and thus make bread out of them, as is recorded by Kleitarchos. (31) Krates of Pergamon says that the Trogodytians (or: Troglodytians, with an “L”; “Cave-dwellers) beyond Ethiopia are swifter than horses. Also that there are Ethiopians more than twelve feet in height, and that this descent group is called the Syrbotians. The decent group of the Ethiopian nomads along the river Astragos towards the north called the Menisminians is twenty days’ journey from the Ocean. That group lives on the milk of the animals that we call dog-headed apes, herds of which it keeps in pastures, killing the males except for the purpose of breeding. (32) In the deserts of Africa ghosts of men suddenly meet the traveller and vanish in a moment.

[Conclusion]

These and similar varieties of the human descent group have been made by the ingenuity of Nature as toys for herself and marvels (miracula) for us. And, in fact, who could possibly recount the various things she does every day and almost every hour? Let it suffice for the disclosure of her power to have included whole descent groups of humankind among her marvels. From these we turn to a few admitted marvels in the case of the individual human being. . . [section omitted].

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