Indians: Aelian on Indian views and customs about animals (late second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Indians: Aelian on Indian views and customs about animals (late second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 11, 2024,

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

Comments: In a previous entry (link), I have introduced the Roman author Aelian (who nonetheless writes in Greek) and I gathered materials with ethnographic interest regarding Egyptians from his work On the Characteristics of Animals. Here I have done likewise with the abundant material scattered throughout his work on Indian (and, less so, Baktrian) practices relating to animals and “amazing” composite beasts. In the process, he refers to a number of Indian peoples – at least peoples that a Greek would picture living in India (e.g. the so called Root-eaters and Fish-eaters). Aelian generally refrains from negative characterizations of Indian peoples (unlike Libyans, for instance – link coming soon).

Aelian draws on ostensibly “Indian” sources, but more extensively draws on Greek ethnographic accounts of India, particularly Ktesias (link), less so Kleitarchos, and at one point even the rarely spotted Orthagoras (cf. Philostratos, Life of Apollonios of Tyana 3.53 – link). As usual, I have bolded Aelian’s expressly identified sources, including when he claims to be sharing Indian accounts or perspectives. The Brahmans repeatedly appear as either Indian sources of information or as participants in animal related customs.

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.


(3.46) An Indian trainer finding a young white elephant took and reared it during its early years. The trainer gradually tamed it and used to ride on it and grew fond of his possession, which returned his affection and paid him back him for his fostering care. Now the king of the Indians hearing of this, asked to be given the animal. But the trainer in his affection was jealous and even overcome with grief at the thought of another man being its master, and declined to give it up. So, mounting the elephant, he went off into the desert. The king in his indignation dispatched men to take the elephant away and at the same time to bring the Indian to judgment. When they arrived they attempted to apply force. So the man struck at them from his mount, and the beast helped to defend its master as he was being injured. Such was the beginning of the affair. But when the Indian was wounded and fell, the elephant spanned over its keeper after the manner of armed men covering a comrade with their shields, slew many of the attackers, and put the remainder to flight. Then, winding its trunk around its keeper, it raised him and brought him to its stable and stayed by his side, as one trusty friend might do to another, in this way showing its kindly nature. You wicked men, always dancing at your meals around the table and the clash of frying-pans, but traitors in the hour of danger, in whose mouth the word “friendship” is meaningless and to no effect.

(4.26) This is the way in which the Indians hunt hares and foxes. They have no need of hounds for the chase, but they catch the young of eagles, ravens, and kites, rear them, and teach them how to hunt. This is their method of instruction: they attach a piece of meat to a tame hare or to a domesticated fox, and then let them run. After have sent the birds in pursuit, they allow them to pick off the meat. The birds give chase at full speed, and if they catch the hare or the fox, they have the meat as a reward for the capture. This is a highly attractive bait to the birds. So when they have perfected the birds’ skill at hunting, the Indians let them loose after mountain hares and wild foxes. And the birds, in expectation of their usual meal, whenever one of these animals appears, fly after it, seize it quickly, and bring it back to their masters, as Ktesias tells us. And from the same source we learn also that in place of the meat which has previously been attached, the entrails of the animals they have caught provide a meal.

(4.27) I have heard that the Indian animal the gryphon is a four-legged animal like a lion, that it has claws of enormous strength, and that they resemble those of a lion. Men commonly report that it is winged and that the feathers along its back are black, and those on its front are red, while the actual wings are neither but are white. Ktesias records that its neck is variegated with feathers of a dark blue and that it has a beak like an eagle’s, and a head too, just as artists portray it in pictures and sculpture. Its eyes, he says, are like fire. It builds its lair among the mountains, and although it is not possible to capture the full-grown animal, they do take the young ones. The Baktrians (or: Bactrians), who are neighbours of the Indians, say that the gryphons guard the gold in those parts, that they dig it up and build their nests with it, and that the Indians carry off any that falls from them. The Indians however deny that they guard the previously mentioned gold, for the gryphons have no need for it (and if that is what they say, then I at any rate think that they speak the truth). But that they themselves come to collect the gold, while the gryphons fearing for their young ones fight with the invaders. They engage too with other beasts and overcome them without difficulty, but they will not face the lion or the elephant. Accordingly the natives, dreading the strength of these animals, do not set out in quest of the gold by day, but arrive by night, for at that season they are less likely to be detected. Now the region where the gryphons live and where the gold is mined is a dreary wilderness. And the seekers after this substance [i.e. gold] arrive, a thousand or two strong, armed and bringing spades and sacks. Watching for a moonless night, they begin to dig. Now if they contrive to elude the gryphons they reap a double advantage, because they not only escape with their lives but they also take home their freight. When those who have acquired a special skill in the smelting of gold have refined it, they possess immense wealth to requite them for the dangers described above. If however they are caught in the act, they are lost. And they return home, I am told, after an interval of three or four years.

(4.36) The land of India, they say, is rich in drugs and remarkably prolific of medicinal plants, of which some save life and rescue from danger men who have been brought to the point of death through the bites of poisonous creatures, and there are many of these in India. While other drugs are swift to kill and destroy, and to this class might be assigned the drug which comes from the purple snake. Now this snake appears to be a span long. Its colour is like the deepest purple, but its head they describe as white and not purple, and not just white, but whiter even than snow or milk. But this snake has no fangs and is found in the hottest regions of India. Even though it is quite incapable of biting (for which reason you might say it is tame and gentle), if it vomits on anyone (so I am told), whether man or animal, the entire limb inevitably putrefies. Therefore when caught men hang it up by the tail, and naturally it has its head hanging down, looking at the ground. And below the creature’s mouth they place a bronze vessel, into which there ooze drops from its mouth. The liquid sets and congeals, and if you saw it you would say that it was gum from an almond-tree. So when the snake is dead they remove the vessel and substitute another, also of bronze, and once again there flows from the dead snake a liquid serum which looks like water. This they leave for three days, and it also sets, but there is a difference in colour between the two, for the latter is a deep black and the former the colour of amber. Now if you give a man a piece of this no bigger than a sesame seed, dropping it into his wine or his food, first he will be seized with convulsions of the utmost violence; next, his eyes will squint and his brain dissolves and drips through his nostrils; and then he dies a most pitiable death. And if he takes a smaller dose of the poison, there is no escape for him afterwards, for in time he dies. If however you administer some of the black matter which has flowed from the snake when dead, again a piece the size of a sesame seed, the man’s body begins to fester, a wasting sickness overtakes him, and within a year he is overtaken by a wasting disease. But there are many whose lives have been prolonged for as much as two years, while little by little they died.

(4.41) The following species of bird belongs to the very smallest of those in India. They build their nests on high mountains and among what are called “rugged” rocks. These tiny birds are the size of a partridge’s egg, and it is important to know that they are orange-coloured. The Indians are accustomed to call the bird in their language “dikairon,” but the Greeks, so I am informed, call it “dikaion.” If a man takes of its droppings a quantity the size of a millet-seed dissolved in his drink, he is dead by the evening. But his death is like a very pleasant and painless sleep, like the poets are fond of describing as “limb-relaxing” and “gentle.” For death too may be free from pain, and for that reason most welcome to those who desire it. The Indians accordingly do their utmost to obtain possession of it, for they regard it as in fact “causing them to forget their troubles” [Homer, Odyssey 4.221].

And so the Indian king also includes this among the costly presents which he sends to the Persian king, who receives it and values it above all the rest and stores it away, to counteract and to remedy ills past curing, should necessity arise. But there is not another soul in Persia except the king and the king’s mother who possesses it. So let us compare the Indian and Egyptian drug and see which of the two was to be preferred. On the one hand the Egyptian drug repelled and suppressed sorrow for a day, whereas the Indian drug caused a man to forget his troubles forever. The former was the gift of a woman, the latter of a bird or else of Nature, which mysteriously releases men from a truly intolerable bondage through this agency. And the Indians are fortunate in possessing it so that they can free themselves from this world’s prison whenever they wish.

(4.46, part 1) In India are born insects about the size of beetles, and they are red. On seeing them for the first time you might compare them to vermilion. They have very long legs and are soft to the touch. They flourish on those trees which produce amber, and feed upon the fruit of the same. And the Indians hunt them and crush them and with their bodies dye their crimson cloaks, their tunics beneath, and everything else that they wish to convert and stain to that colour. Garments of this description are even brought to the Persian king, and their beauty excites the admiration of the Persians. In fact, when compared to their native garments, this far surpasses them and amazes people, according to Ktesias. This is because the colour is even stronger and more brilliant than the highly-praised goods of Sardis.

(4.46, part 2). In the same part of India as the beetles are born the Kynokephalians (Kynokephaloi; “Dog-heads”) as they are called. This is a name which they owe to their physical appearance and nature. Beyond their heads, they are of human shape and go about clothed in the skins of beasts; and they are upright and injure no one. Though they have no speech, they howl, but they do understand the Indian language. Wild animals are their food, and they catch them with the utmost ease, for they are exceedingly swift on foot. When they have caught them, they kill and cook them not over a fire but by exposing them to the sun’s heat after they have shredded them into pieces. They also keep goats and sheep, and while their food is the flesh of wild beasts, their drink is the milk of the animals they keep. I have mentioned them along with brute beasts, which is logical because their speech is inarticulate, unintelligible, and not that of a human being.

(4.52) I have learned that in India are born wild donkeys as big as horses. All their body is white except for the head, which approaches purple, while their eyes give off a dark blue colour. They have a horn on their forehead as much as a forearm and a half long; the lower part of the horn is white, the upper part is crimson, while the middle is jet-black. From these variegated horns, I am told, the Indians drink, but not all Indians. Rather, only the most eminent Indians drink from them. Around them at intervals they lay rings of gold, as though they were decorating the beautiful arm of a statue with bracelets. And they say that a man who has drunk from this horn never experiences and is free from incurable diseases. He will never be seized with convulsions nor with the “sacred sickness,” as it is called, nor be destroyed by poisons. Moreover, if he has previously drunk something deadly, he vomits it up and is restored to health.

It is believed that donkeys, both the tame and the wild kind, and all other beasts with uncloven hoofs all over the world are without knuckle-bones and without gall in the liver. Whereas those horned donkeys of India, Ktesias says, have knuckle-bones and are not without gall. Their knuckle-bones are said to be black, and if ground down are black inside as well. And these animals are far swifter than any donkey or even than any horse or deer. They begin to run, it is true, at a gentle pace, but gradually gather strength until to pursue them is, in the language of poetry, to chase the unattainable.

When the mother gives birth and leads her new-born colts around, the fathers herd with, and look after, them. And these donkeys frequent the most desolate plains in India. So when the Indians go to hunt them, the donkeys allow their colts, still tender and young, to pasture behind them while they themselves fight on their behalf and join battle with the horsemen and strike them with their horns. Now the strength of these horns is such that nothing can withstand their blows, but everything gives way and snaps or, it may be, is shattered and rendered useless. They have in the past even struck at the ribs of a horse, ripped it open, and disembowelled it. For that reason the horsemen dread coming to close quarters with them, since the penalty for doing so is a most lamentable death, and both they and their horses are killed. They can kick fearfully too. Moreover their bite goes so deep that they tear away everything that they have grasped. A full-grown donkey one would never capture alive: they are shot with javelins and arrows, and when dead the Indians strip them of their horns, which, as I said, they decorate. But the flesh of Indian donkeys is not edible because it is naturally extremely bitter.

(5.3) The river Indus is devoid of savage creatures. The only thing that is born in it is a worm, so they say, in appearance like those that are engendered in, and feed upon, timber. But these creatures grow to a length of as much as seven forearms, though one might find specimens both larger and smaller. Their bulk is such that a ten-year-old boy could hardly encircle it with his arms. A single tooth is attached to the upper jaw, another to the lower, and both are square and about a forearm and a handspan long. Their teeth are so strong that they can easily crush anything that they get between them, be it stone, be it animal, tame or wild. During the daytime they live at the bottom of the river, wallowing in the mud and slime; for that reason they are not to be seen. But at night they emerge on to the land, and whatever they encounter, whether horse or ox or donkey, they crush and then drag down to their haunts and eat it in the river, devouring every member of the animal excepting its stomach. If however they are assailed by hunger during the day as well, and should a camel or an ox be drinking on the bank, they slide furtively up and seizing firmly upon its lips, haul it along with the utmost force and drag it by sheer strength into the water, where they feast upon it. Each one is covered with a hide two fingers thick.

The following means have been devised for hunting and capturing them. Men let down a stout, strong hook attached to an iron chain, and to this they fasten a rope of white flax weighing a talent, and they wrap wool around both chain and rope to prevent the worm biting through them. On the hook they fix a lamb or a goat, and then let them sink in the river. As many as thirty men hold on to the rope and each of them has a javelin ready to hurl and a sword at his side. Wooden clubs are placed handy, should they need to deal blows, and these are of cornel-wood and very hard. Then when the worm is secured on the hook and has swallowed the bait, the men haul, and having captured it and killed it, hang it up in the sun for thirty days.

From the body there drips a thick oil into earthenware vessels; and each worm yields up to ten liquid measures (kotylai). This oil they seal and bring to the Indian king; no one else is permitted to have even a single drop. The rest of the carcass is of no use. Now the oil has this power: should you wish to burn a pile of wood and to scatter the embers, pour on a liquid measure (kotylē) and you will set it on fire without previously applying a spark. And if you want to burn a man or an animal, pour some oil over him and at once he is set on fire. With this, they say, the Indian king even takes cities that have risen against him. He does not wait for battering-rams, shields, or any other siege-engines, for he burns them down and captures them. He fills earthen vessels, each holding one liquid measure, with oil, seals them, and slings them from above against the gates. When the vessels touch the openings they are dashed into fragments, the oil oozes down, fire pours over the doors, and nothing can quench it. And it burns weapons and fighting men, so tremendous is its force. It is however allayed and put out if piles of rubbish are poured over it. That is the account given by Ktesias of Knidos.

(5.51) Nature has made animals with an immense variety of vocalizations and of languages, as it were, just like with humans. For instance, the Scythian speaks one language, the Indian another. The Ethiopian has a natural language, as well as the Sakians (Sakai). The language of Greece and that of Rome are different. And so it is with animals: each has a different way of producing the tone and the sound natural to its tongue. So one roars, another lows, a third whinnies, another brays, yet another baas and bleats; while to some howling is customary, to others barking, and to another snarling. Screaming, whistling, hooting, singing, warbling, twittering, and countless other gifts of Nature are peculiar to different animals.

(7.37) When Poros the king of the Indians had received many wounds in the battle against Alexander, his elephant proceeded with its trunk to pick out the javelins gently and cautiously. In spite of its own numerous wounds, it did not pause until it knew that its master was collapsing through copious loss of blood and was passing out. And so it lay down beneath him and remained crouching to prevent Poros from falling from a height and damaging his body even more.

(8.1) Indian accounts (logoi) teach us the following facts also. Huntsmen take thoroughbred female dogs which are good at tracking wild animals and are very fast on foot to places infested by these animals. They tie them to trees and then go away, simply, as the saying is, trying a throw of the dice. And if tigers find them when they have caught nothing and are famished, they tear them to pieces. If however they arrive on heat and full-fed they couple with the female dogs, for tigers also turn their thoughts to sexual intercourse when full. From this union, so it is said, a tiger is born, not a hound. And from this tiger and a female dog again a tiger would be born, although the offspring of this last and of a female dog takes after its mother, and the seed degenerates and a hound is born. Nor will Aristotle [History of Animals 607 A4] contradict this.

Now these hounds which can boast a tiger for father scorn to pursue a stag or to face a boar, but are glad to rush at lions and thereby to give proof of their pedigree. At any rate the Indians gave Alexander the son of Philip a test of the strength of these hounds in the following manner. They let loose a stag, and the hound stayed quiet; then a boar, and it never moved; and, after that a bear, but the bear caused it no excitement whatever. But when a lion was let loose, and when the hound “beheld it, then fiercer anger came upon him” [Homer, Iliad 19.16], and as though it had seen its real adversary, it neither hesitated nor remained still but leapt upon the lion and clung to it with a vigorous grip, pressing and throttling it. So then the Indian who was giving the king this exhibition, knowing full well the hound’s power of endurance, ordered the men to cut off its tail. The tail was cut off, but the hound paid no attention. So the Indian ordered one of its legs to be cut off, and it was cut off. However, the hound held on as tightly as ever, and would not let go, as though the leg of some other creature unconnected with it were being cut off. Then another leg was cut off and still the hound would not relax its bite; then a third, and it continued to cling; and after these the fourth, and still it was capable of biting. And finally they severed the rest of its body from its head. But the hound’s fangs maintained their original grip, while the head hung aloft on the lion, although the biter himself was no more. At this Alexander was grieved and amazed that the hound in giving proof of its resilience had perished, a fate the reverse of a coward’s, and had met its death by reason of its courage. Accordingly the Indian seeing Alexander’s grief, presented him with four hounds of the same breed. And he was delighted to receive them and gave the Indian a suitable gift in return. When the son of Philip received the four he forgot his grief over the first.

(12.32) The land of India bears a great number and variety of creatures. And some are evidence of its beneficent and wonderful fertility, others are not to be envied nor such as one can commend or desire. Something about those that are profitable or are luxuries of great price I have already said. I will say more, god willing, aftewards. But for the present I intend to describe how the earth shows the pain with which it copes with snakes. Many and various are the snakes it copes with… Now these snakes are injurious to man and all other animals.

Yet the same land produces herbs that counteract their bites, and the natives have experience and knowledge of them, and have observed which drug is an antidote to which snake, and come to one another’s aid with all possible speed in their effort to arrest the very violent and rapid spread of the poison throughout the body. The country produces these drugs in generous abundance to help when needed. But any snake that kills a man, so the Indians say (and they cite numerous witnesses from Libya and the inhabitants of Egyptian Thebes), can no longer descend and creep into its own home: the earth declines to receive it, but casts it out like an exile from its own bosom. From then on it moves around, a vagabond and wanderer, living in distress beneath the open sky throughout summer and winter; none of its mates goes near it any more, nor do those which it has begotten recognize their parent. Such is the punishment for manslaughter which Nature has shown to befall even dumb animals, as my memory tells me. This is said for the instruction of persons of understanding.

(12.41) Where it rises from wells, the Ganges – the river of India – is twenty lengths of the outstretched arms [i.e. about 2 metres] deep and eighty stadia wide, for it is still flowing with its own native waters unmixed with any other. But as it flows on and other rivers come into it and join their water with it, it reaches a depth of sixty lengths of the outstretched arms, and widens and overflows to an extent of four hundred stadia. And it contains islands larger than Lesbos and Kyrnos, and breeds monstrous fishes, with men manufacturing oil from the fishes’ fat. There are also in the river turtles whose shell is as large as a jar holding as much as twenty jar’s worth (amphorai). And it fosters two kinds of crocodiles. Some are perfectly harmless, but others eat flesh with the utmost voracity and ruthlessness, and on the end of their snout they have an outgrowth like a horn. The people employ these as agents for punishing criminals, for those who are detected in the most flagrant acts are thrown to the crocodiles, and there is no need for a public executioner.

(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.

(13.7) The people of India heal the wounds of elephants which they have captured in the following manner: They soke them with warm water, just as Patroklos soaked the wound of Eurypylos in our noble Homer [Iliad 11.829], and then they anoint them with butter. But if they are deep, they reduce the inflammation by applying and laying on them hot pigs’ flesh with the blood still in it. Their eye-disease they treat by warming some cow’s milk and pouring it into their eyes. The elephants open their eyelids and are gratified just as men are when they notice what benefit they derive. And the Indians continue the bathing until the inflammation ceases. This is evidence that the eye-disease has been hindered. As for other diseases that afflict them, black wine is the cure for them. But if this medicine does not rid them of their complaint, then nothing will save them.

(13.18) In the royal residences in India where the greatest of the kings of that country lives, there are so many objects for admiration that neither Memnon’s city of Susa with all its extravagance, nor the magnificence of Ekbatana is to be compared with them. (These places appear to be the pride of Persia, if there is to be any comparison between the two countries.) It is not the purpose of this narrative to detail the remaining splendours. But in the parks tame peacocks and pheasants are kept, and they live in the cultivated shrubs to which the royal gardeners pay due attention. Moreover, there are shady groves and plants growing among them, and the boughs are interwoven by the woodman’s art. What is even more remarkable about the climate of the country is that the actual trees are of the evergreen type and their leaves never grow old and fall. Some of the trees are indigenous, others have been imported from abroad after careful consideration. With the exception of the olive tree, these are an ornament to the place and enhance its beauty. India does not grow the olive of its own accord, nor if it comes from elsewhere, does it foster its growth.

Well, there are other birds besides, free and unfettered, which come of their own accord and make their beds and resting-places in these trees. There too parrots are kept and crowd around the king. But no Indian eats a parrot. In spite of their great numbers, the reason for this is that the Brahmans regard them as sacred and even place them above all other birds. And they add that they are justified in so doing, for the parrot is the only bird that gives the most convincing imitation of human speech. There are also in these royal domains beautiful lakes, the work of man’s hands, which contain tame fish of immense size. And nobody but the king’s sons during their childhood hunts them. In calm waters, quite free from danger, they fish and sport and even learn the skill of sailing as well.

(13.25) The Indians value horses and elephants as animals serviceable under arms and in warfare, and they value them very highly. At any rate they bring to the king trusses of hay which they throw into the mangers, and fodder which they show to be fresh and undamaged. And if it is so, the king thanks them; if it is not, he punishes the keepers of the elephants and the grooms most severely. But he does not reject even other and smaller animals but accepts the following also when brought to him as presents. For the Indians do not disparage any animal, whether tame or wild. For example, those of his subjects who hold high office bring him presents of cranes, geese, hens, ducks, turtle-doves, francolins, partridges, spindaluses (this bird resembles the francolin), even smaller birds than what is mentioned above, the bocealis, beccaficos, and what are called ortolans. And they uncover their gifts and display them, to prove how thoroughly plump they are. They also bring a lot of fattened stags, of antelopes, of gazelles, and one-horned donkeys, which I have mentioned somewhere earlier on, and different kinds of fish as well.

(14.13) [omitted corrupted sentence making a general statement on animals] . . . The Indian king by way of dessert eats the same things as, no doubt, the Greeks would like to eat. But as Indians say in their accounts, the king feasts with the greatest enthusiasm upon a certain worm, when fried, that is begotten in the date-palm. They say that he derives such pleasure from the eating. . . [text missing in manuscript]. And their accounts convince me. The following also are additions to his meals, the eggs of swans, of ostriches, and of geese. Now I find no fault with the others, but that he should plot against the offspring and destroy the eggs of swans, the servants of Apollo and, as the common report has it, the most tuneful of birds, is a thing, my Indian friends, that I cannot approve.

(15.8) The Pearl-oyster of India (I have spoken earlier about one in the Erythraian Sea) is obtained in the following manner. There is a city where someone named Soras was ruler – a man of royal lineage – at the time when Eukratides was ruler of Baktria [i.e. second century BCE]. And the name of the city is Perimula, and it is inhabited by Ichthyophagians (“Fish-eaters”) [on which go to this link]. These men, it is said, set out from there with their nets and draw a ring of wide embrace around a great circle of the shore. The previously mentioned stone is produced from a shell resembling a large trumpet-shell, and the pearl-oysters swim in shoals and have leaders, just as bees in their hives have “kings,” as they are called. And I have heard that the “leader” too is conspicuous for his colour and his size. Now divers beneath the waters make it their special aim to capture him, for once he is caught they catch the entire shoal, since it is, so to say, left destitute and without a leader. It remains motionless and ceases to advance, like a flock of sheep that by some accident has lost its shepherd. But the leader makes good his escape and slips out with great skill and takes the lead and rescues those that obey him. Ichthyophagians are said to pickle in jars those that are caught. When the flesh turns clammy and falls away, the precious stone is left behind. The best ones are those from India and from the Erythraian sea. However, they are also found in the western ocean where the island of Britannia is, though this kind has a more golden appearance, and a duller, duskier sheen. Juba asserts that they occur also in the strait leading to the Bosporos and are inferior to the British kind, and are not for a moment to be compared with those from India and the Erythraian sea. But the land-pearl of India is said not to have an independent origin but to be generated not from the ice formed by frost but from excavated rock-crystal.

(15.14) The people of India bring to their king tigers that they have trained, tame panthers, four-horned antelopes, two kinds of oxen, the one swift of foot, the other exceedingly wild. From these oxen they contrive fly-swatters. While the oxens’ bodies are entirely black, their tails are dazzlingly white. They also bring pale-yellow doves which are said never to become domesticated, never to be tamed; birds which they call Kercorōnoi [likely mynah starlings]; hounds of good pedigree (I have spoken of these above); and, apes, some white, some the deepest black. The reddish ones, which are too fond of women, they do not introduce into their towns, but if they can contrive somehow to spring upon them, they put them to death, because they detest them as adulterers.

(15.15) In India the great king on one day in every year arranges contests not only for various creatures, as I have said elsewhere, but among them between dumb animals also, or at any rate for those which are born with horns. And these butt each other and struggle with an instinct truly astonishing until one is victorious, as in fact athletes do, using all their strength to win the highest prizes or to achieve glorious renown and a noble fame. But these dumb combatants are wild bulls, tame rams, what are called mesoi, one-horned donkeys and hyenas. They say that this animal is smaller than a gazelle but far more spirited than a stag and that it vents its fury with its horns. And last of all there come forward elephants to the fight: they advance and wound one another to the death with their tusks, and frequently one comes off victor and kills its adversary. Frequently also both die together.

(15.21) When Alexander threw some parts of India into a commotion and took possession of others, he encountered among many other animals a serpent which lived in a cavern and was regarded as sacred by the Indians who paid it great and superstitious reverence. Accordingly, Indians went to great lengths imploring Alexander to permit nobody to attack the serpent, and he assented to their wish. Now as the army passed by the cavern and caused a noise, the serpent was aware of it. (It has, you know, the sharpest hearing and the keenest sight of all animals.) And it hissed and snorted so violently that all were terrified and confounded. It was reported to measure seventy forearms, even though it was not visible in all its length because it only put its head out. At any rate its eyes are said to have been the size of a large, round Macedonian shield.

(15.24) The Indians devote much attention to fast-running oxen. And the king himself and many of the nobles make the speed of their oxen the subject of contest, and lay wagers in immense sums of gold and silver. They are not ashamed to compete with one another respecting these animals. In fact, they couple them together and gamble on the race for victory. Now the horses run yoked together, while the oxen are harnessed alongside and one of them almost grazes the turning-post. They have to run thirty stadium-lengths. The oxen run as fast as the horses and you could not tell which is the faster of the two, the ox or the horse. If, as sometimes happens, the king makes a wager with someone over his own oxen, he becomes so enthusiastic that he himself follows in a chariot and urges on the driver. And the latter makes the horses quite bloody with his goad, but withholds his hand from the oxen because they run without any goading. They are so enthusiastic about this ox-racing that not only the rich and the owners but the spectators also contend for large stakes, just as Idomeneus of Crete and Ajax of Lokris are represented contending in Homer [Iliad 23.473-93]. There are also in India other oxen the size of the largest he-goats. These are likewise yoked together and run extremely fast, at any rate they are no less spirited than the horses of the Getians (Getai).

(16.5) I have also heard that the Indian Hoopoe is twice as big as the bird of our country and more beautiful in appearance. And, as Homer [Iliad 4.144] says, that the bit and trappings of a horse are laid up to be a Greek king’s glory, so the hoopoe is the joy of the Indian king: he carries it on his hand and delights in it, gazing continually in wonder at its splendour and its natural beauty.

Now the Brahmans also relate a legend regarding this bird, and the legend they relate is as follows: A son was born to an Indian king and he had brothers who, when they grew to be adults, became extremely lawless and violent. And they looked down upon their brother, as being the youngest, jeered at their father and mother, and showed no respect for their old age. Accordingly the parents refused to live with them and departed into exile, with the aged couple taking their young son with them. A laborious journey followed for them. The parents’ strength failed, and they died. But the son did not neglect them: he split his head with a sword and buried them in himself. The Brahmans assert that the all-seeing Sun was so filled with admiration for this surpassing act of piety that he transformed the boy into a bird most beautiful to view and endowed with length of days. And from his crown there sprang up a crest, as it were in commemoration of the events of his exile. The Athenians too tell some such amazing tale in a myth regarding the lark, which Aristophanes, the writer of comedies, appears to me to have followed in his Birds [471-475] when he says: “No, for you were unlearned and no busybody and had not thumbed your Aesop, who used to say that the lark was the first of all birds to be born, before the earth, and that then its father fell sick and died. But there was no earth, and the corpse was laid out for five days, and the lark in straits and at its wits’ end buried its father in its own head.” So it seems that this fable from India, about a different bird, for sure, nonetheless spread to the Greeks as well. For the Brahmans maintain that it is long ages since the Indian hoopoe, while still a human being and a child in years, did this to its parents.

(16.9) In India there are herds of wild horses and wild donkeys. Now they say that when the donkeys mount the mares, the latter remain passive and take pleasure in the act and produce mules of a red colour and extremely swift of foot, but that these mules are inpatient of the yoke and generally skittish. The people are said to catch them with foot-traps and then to take them to the king of the Prasians. If they are caught as two-year-olds they do not refuse to be broken in, but when older they are just as savage as fanged and carnivorous beasts.

(16.10) They say that among the Prasians in India there is a race of monkeys with human intelligence; in appearance they are as large as Hyrkanian hounds, and they are seen to possess a natural forelock; anyone who did not know the facts would say that these forelocks were artificial. The beard that grows beneath their chin is like that of a satyr, while the tail is as long as a lion’s. The whole of their body is white except for the head and the tip of the tail, which are red. They are sober and naturally tame. They live in the forests and feed on wild produce. They visit the suburbs of Latage (this is a city in India) in great numbers and feed on the boiled rice which the king has served out to them, and this meal is prepared and laid out for them every day. And when they have eaten their fill, it is said that they withdraw again to the place where they live in the forest in an orderly fashion without damaging anything that they come across.

(16.11) In India there is a plant-eating animal and it is twice the size of a horse. It has a very bushy tail, pitch-black in colour. The hairs of it are finer than those of man, and Indian women set great store by obtaining them, and in fact they braid them in and adorn themselves most beautifully, plaiting them in with their own hair. Each hair attains a length of two forearms, and there spring perhaps as many as thirty hairs from one root, like a tassel. Now this is of all animals the most timid, for if it is seen by somebody and realises that it is being looked at, it flees as fast as it can, the pace of its legs only exceeded by its eagerness to escape. It is hunted by horsemen with swift-footed hounds. But if it realizes that it is going to be caught, it hides its tail in some thicket, faces about, and stands waiting for its pursuers and plucks up its courage, imagining that it will no longer seem worth pursuing because its tail is not visible. For it knows that its beauty resides in its tail. And yet on this point its imaginings are imeffective because a man shoots it with a poisoned arrow and, having killed it, will cut off its tail, the reward of the chase. And after skinning the body – for the hide is also useful – he leaves the dead carcass, because the Indians have no use for the flesh of these animals.

(16.16) In the country of the Arianians (Arianoi) of India there is a chasm of the god Ploutos [i.e. entry to the underworld], and at the bottom there are certain mysterious galleries, hidden paths, and passages unseen by man, though they are in fact deep and extend a very long way. But how they came to be and how they were dug, neither the Indians can say nor have I tried to find out. Now the Indians bring to the spot over thirty thousand beasts, including sheep, goats, cattle, and horses. And everyone who has been scared by some dream or has encountered some divine or human omen, or who has seen some bird in an unfavourable place, casts into the chasm what his personal means can afford by way of ransom for himself, sacrificing the life of an animal for his own life. The victims are brought there without being hauled with ropes or otherwise compelled, and make the journey of their own free will owing to some mysterious attraction or spell. Then, as they stand on the brink, of their own accord they leap into the chasm and are no longer visible to human eye once they have fallen into this mysterious and yawning chasm of earth. Meanwhile they hear the lowing of cattle, the baa of sheep, the neighing of horses, and the bleating of goats above the chasm. And anyone who walks over the surface of the land and comes to the spot and listens will hear these animals for a very long time. And the confused sounds never cease, since every day the Indians send in animals for their own redemption. Now whether it is only the recent victims that are audible or some of the earlier ones also, I cannot say, but they are audible. So much for this singular trait in the animals of that country.

(16.17) It is commonly reported that in the so-called “great sea” [i.e. beyond India] there is an island of immense area. I have heard that its name is Taprobane [sometimes perhaps Sri Lanka is in mind]. And I learn that this island is very long and high: its length is seven thousand stadium-lengths and its width five thousand. Taprobane has no cities, only seven-hundred-and-fifty villages, and the dwellings where the inhabitants live are made of wood and even of reeds.

Now in this sea turtles of immense size are hatched, and their shells are made into roofs, for a single shell measures fifteen forearms across, so that quite a number of persons can live underneath. It keeps out the most fiery sun and affords a welcome shade. Moreover, it resists a downpour of rain. Being stronger than any tiles, it shakes off pelting showers while the inhabitants beneath listen to it being pounded, as though the water were descending upon a tiled roof. Yet they have no need to exchange old for new as you must with a broken tile, for the turtle’s shell is hard and resembles a rock that has been hollowed out or the roof of a cavern vaulted by nature.

(16.18) Now this island which they call Taprobane in the great sea has groves of palm-trees wonderfully planted in lines, just as in luxurious parks shady trees are planted by those in charge. It also has pasturing grounds for numerous elephants of the largest size. And these elephants of the island are more powerful and bigger than those of the mainland, and may be judged naturally smarter in every way. So the people build huge ships (for the island of course has dense forests) and transport the elephants to the mainland opposite and, after crossing, sell them to the king of the Kalingians (Kalingai). However, due to the size of the island those who live in the middle of it do not even know the sea but live as though they were of the mainland and only learn by report of the sea that surrounds and encircles them. Whereas those that live near to the sea are ignorant of the way in which elephants are hunted and only know of it by hearsay. These coastal people devote themselves to catching fish and sea-monsters. For they assert that the sea which surrounds the circuit of their island breeds an infinite number of fishes and monsters. Moreover, these have the heads of lions, leopards, wolves and rams. Even more amazing to report is that there are some which have the forms of satyrs with the faces of women, and these have spines attached in place of hair. They tell of other monsters too which have strange forms whose appearance not even men skilled in painting and in combining bodies of diverse shapes to make one amazed at the sight, could portray with accuracy or represent for all their artistic skill, for these creatures have immense and coiling tails while for feet they have claws or fins. I learn too that they are amphibious and that at night they graze the fields, because they eat the grass as cattle and rooks do. They enjoy the ripe fruit of the date-palm and therefore shake the trees with their coils, which being supple and capable of embracing, they fling round them. So when the shower of dates has fallen because of this violent shaking, they feed upon it. Then, as the night wanes and before it is clear daylight, these creatures plunge into the ocean and disappear as the dawn begins to glow. They say that there are also numerous whales which lie in wait for the tuna fish. The whales do not come up on the land, however. They also say that there are two kinds of dolphin, the one savage, sharp-toothed, and absolutely merciless and without pity towards fishermen, the other naturally gentle and tame. At any rate it jumps and swims around, and resembles a fawning puppy. If you handle it, it will allow you to do so, and if you throw food to it, it will receive it gladly.

(16.20) In certain regions of India (I mean in the very heart of the country) they say that there are impassable mountains full of wild life, and that they contain just as many animals as our own country produces, only wild. For they say that even the sheep, dogs, goats and cattle are wild, and that they freely roam, being uncontrolled by any herdsman. The accounts of the Indians say that their numbers are past counting, and among them we must include the Brahmans, for they also agree in telling the same story.

And in these same regions there is said to exist a one-horned beast which they call “Kartazonos” [perhaps a vague understanding of a rhino is in mind]. It is the size of a full-grown horse, has the mane of a horse, reddish hair, and is very quick on foot. Its feet are like those of the elephant, not articulated and it has the tail of a pig. Between its eyebrows it has a horn growing out. It is not smooth but has spirals of quite natural growth, and is black in colour. This horn is also said to be exceedingly sharp. And I am told that the creature has the most annoying and powerful voice of all animals. When other animals approach, it does not object but is gentle. With its own kind, however, it is inclined to be quarrelsome. And they say that not only do the males instinctively butt and fight one another, but that they display the same temper towards the females, and carry their contentiousness to such a length that it ends only in the death of their defeated rival. The fact is that strength resides in every part of the animal’s body, and the power of its horn is invincible. It likes lonely grazing-grounds where it roams alone. But at the mating season, when it associates with the female, it becomes gentle and the two even graze side by side. Later when the season has passed and the female is pregnant, the male Kartazonos of India reverts to its savage and solitary state. They say that the foals when quite young are taken to the king of the Prasii and exhibit their strength one against another in the public shows, but nobody remembers a full-grown animal having been captured.

(16.21) When one has passed the mountains that border India there will come into view densely wooded glens on the inner side of the mountains, and the Indians call the region “Kolounda.” In these glens, they say, creatures resembling satyrs roam at large; their whole body is shaggy and they have a horse’s tail at their waist. If left to themselves and not troubled, they live among the thickets and subsist off the trees, but whenever they hear the sound of huntsmen or the baying of dogs they run up to the mountain ridges with a speed that none can overtake, for they are accustomed to roaming the mountains. And from there they fight by rolling down rocks upon their assailants, and many are they that are caught and destroyed. These are the reasons why they are hard to capture, so they say that few indeed, and these at long intervals, are dispatched to the Prasians, and of these few it was either sick animals or pregnant females that were dispatched. Accidental captures were due in the case of the males to their slowness, in the case of the females to their having pregnant bellies.

(16.22) The Skiratians (Skiritai) are another people on the other side of India, and they are snub-nosed, and are permanently so either from having their noses dinted in tender infancy or because they are born like that. In their country there occur snakes of enormous size, some of which seize and devour the flocks, while others suck out their blood, just as the goat-suckers do in Greece. I know I have mentioned goat-suckers earlier on at the most appropriate place.

(16.31) Ktesias in his account of India asserts that the people called Kynamolgians (Kynamolgoi; “Dog-milkers”) keep a great number of hounds as large as those from Hyrkania and, in particular, that they are keen dog-breeders. The Knidian writer gives the reasons as follows. From the summer solstice up to mid-winter herds of cattle come roaming; like a swarm of bees or a wasps’ nest that has been disturbed these cattle are countless. They are wild and aggressive and vent their fury with their horns in a terrible fashion. Being unable to check them by any other means the Kynamolgians let loose their hounds, which they always breed for this purpose, upon them, and the hounds overcome and destroy them without any difficulty. At that point the men select portions of the flesh that they consider suitable for eating. The remainder they set aside for the hounds and are in fact glad to give them a share, an offering as it were to benefactors. During the season when these cattle are no longer on the move the Kynamolgians have the hounds to help them in their pursuit of other beasts. They milk the female dogs. This is where they get their name, because they drink hounds’ milk just as we drink that of sheep and goats.

(16.35) What? Are we going to leave the name of Orthagoras without a mention? He says in his account of India that there is a village which has been given the name of Koutha, and that the herdsmen give dried fish as fodder to the goats of that country when in their pens.

(16.37) Among the people called Psyllians (Psylloi) in India (there are other Psyllians in Libya also) the horses are no bigger than rams, the sheep look as small as lambs, while the donkeys, mules, cattle, and domestic animals of every kind are proportionately small. They say that neither the domestic nor the wild pig exists in India, and the Indians are disgusted at the idea of eating this animal. They would no more eat pork than they would human flesh.

(17.25) Kleitarchos [late fourth century BCE writer who accompanied Alexander of Macedon] says that in India there are monkeys of a mottled hue and immense size. In mountainous districts they are so numerous that, says Kleitarchos, Alexander son of Philip and the army under his command also were quite terrified at the sight of their massed numbers, imagining that they saw an army marshalled and waiting in ambush for them. You see, the monkeys happened to be standing upright when they appeared. These creatures are not to be caught with nets or by means of hounds following a scent, however great their skill in hunting. But this monkey is ready to dance if it sees a man dancing; it is even willing to play the pipe if it could learn how to blow. Further, if it catches sight of someone putting on his shoes, it imitates the action. If a man underlines his eyes with lamp-black, it wants to do this too. Accordingly in place of nets or hounds they put out hollow, heavy shoes made of lead, to which they attach a noose underneath, so that when the monkeys slip their feet into them they are caught in the snare and cannot escape. And as a bait for their eyes men put out bird-lime in place of lamp-black. And after using a mirror in sight of the monkeys . . . [missing text] displaying not genuine mirrors but ones of a different kind, on to which they lace strong nooses. Such then is the apparatus which they employ. And so the monkeys come and gaze steadily, imitating what they have seen. And from the reflecting surface opposite their sight there is a surge of strongly gluey substance that gums up their eyelids, when they gaze intently into it. Then being unable to see, they are caught without any difficulty, for they are no longer able to escape. Now regarding monkeys, both Indian and non-Indian, I have written an account elsewhere, but the foregoing chapter contains facts that must assuredly interest any man of intelligence.

(17.29) When the Indian king goes to battle against his enemies a hundred thousand elephants of war form the vanguard. I learn that another three thousand of the largest and strongest bring up the rear, and these have been trained to overturn the enemies’ walls by attacking them when the king gives the order; and they overturn them by the weight of their chest. Such is the account given by Ktesias, who writes that this is hearsay. But the same writer says that in Babylon he has seen date-palms completely uprooted by elephants in the same way, the animals falling upon them with all their force. This they do if their Indian trainer orders them to do so.

(17.40) In India there is a region that lies around the river Astaboras in the country of the Rhizophagians [Rhizophagoi; Root-eaters] as they are called. Around the time when the rising of the Dog-star, mosquitoes that appear in terrifying clouds to fill the sky work widespread damage. It is around the lake called Aoratia (this too is in India, not far from the previously mentioned river) that these insects, the mosquitoes, thrive. The district not only is a desert but is also called “desert.” And the Indians who live around there give the following reason for it: the aforesaid district was not formerly or originally barren of human beings, but scorpions overran the country in numbers that defied resistance, and in addition there came a crop of certain spiders which they call “four-jawed.” Now they say that these plagues tainted the air. For a time the inhabitants courageously held out against the invading plague and stood their ground energetically, but when resistance became utterly impossible and all their men were destroyed, then at length, being at their wits’ end how to defend themselves against the attack of these scorpions, they abandoned the country, and left their cherished and once most kindly fatherland a desert. Perhaps I will not be wrong if I say that it was not even their “motherland.”


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.

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