If, like me, you have seen Horrible Histories a concerning number of times or read Rick Riordan’s ‘Trials of Apollo’ series, you may have heard of the Blemmyae. Also described as ‘headless men’, Blemmyae are mythical creatures of antiquity which, instead of heads, have faces in their chest. These monstrous creatures have cropped up in popular thought time and again throughout history, from antiquity through to the Middle Ages. Here I seek to provide a picture of what these creatures have meant to various peoples throughout history.
For early mentions of the Blemmyae, we can look to antiquity, and specifically Pliny’s ‘Natural History’. Pliny, a Roman author, naturalist, and natural philosopher, writes of monstrous beings roaming the fringes of the known world and wreaking havoc in the Antipodes. In India, wrote Pliny, there were such creatures as satyrs, troglodytes, cynocephali and, you guessed it, Blemmyae. But what was so important about the belief that headless men stomped through India? It reveals a great deal about how the Romans of antiquity viewed the world around them. The world was a fantastical place in which it was commonly accepted that strange beings roamed. It is also important to note that Pliny’s description of India, for example, did not hinge solely upon the existence of monstrous creatures. Pliny also wrote of India’s accessibility and its links with the Greco-Roman world. His image of India was a complex one, comprised of both the practical and the fantastical. Here we can see more clearly the way in which, according to the ancient Roman worldview, the marvellous and the mundane coincided. Pliny’s ‘Natural History’ was also significant in the way it cemented this image of Blemmyae running wild in the fringes of the world into medieval thought, as shall become evident.
Blemmyae can also be found in many medieval sources. I would like to draw attention to one in particular: Ad Fratres in Eremo. In this sermon, we see a description of the headless men, ‘we saw many men and women having no heads but with great eyes fixed in the chest’. That an account of monstrous beings is found in a Christian sermon is significant in that it reveals much about the medieval worldview. Medieval knowledge of the wider world was built upon the two foundations of classical knowledge (sources such as Pliny) and biblical knowledge. Often, classical concepts and ideas, such as the image of the Blemmyae, were interpreted through a Christian lens – should these creatures be preached to and converted, or would it be more fitting to kill them? It was taken for granted that such beings existed, the problem at hand was what to do with them once they were reached. This can also be glimpsed in the Hereford mappa mundi, in which Blemmyae can be found lurking around the edges of the world. This mappa mundi, I would argue, was created to promote Christian contemplation – to wonder at God’s might and marvel at his creations, monstrous and all. In this light, the inclusion of the Blemmyae in the map’s fringes suggests that the medieval worldview, like the ancient Roman, was comprised of a complex mixture of concepts, all working together in tandem. Christian and classical ideas live in harmony on the Hereford mappa mundi.
Finally, I would like to address the way in which the ancient and medieval belief in the Blemmyae has been wrongfully used to suggest that believers from these periods were ignorant or stupid. When the Hereford mappa mundi was rediscovered in the late nineteenth century, it was deemed a blatant signifier of the medieval lack of knowledge. This was because it lacked resemblance to modern maps. But to assume that the mappa mundi was created to suit the same purpose as modern maps was a mistake. There was a fundamental misunderstanding about what the mapmaker was trying to achieve instead: a tool with which the power of God could be conveyed and contemplated. Just because ancient and medieval knowledge of the world is fundamentally different from our current understandings does not render it inferior. Priorities, aims, and belief systems revolved around faith, not purely fact.
Believing in Blemmyae was not a sign of ignorance, it was an indication of curiosity, of pondering about the nature of the wider world. This is important to remember.
Written by Amy Hendrie
Friedman, John B. The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
O’Doherty, Marianne. The Indies and the Medieval West: Thought, Report, Imagination Turnhout: Brepols, 2013.