The Mediterranean was the center of the world in Greek thought. Although some people in the region might be enemies or have strange customs, they were familiar and not entirely unlike the Greeks themselves.
The farther away one went from this central point, however, the more barbarous and strange the world became. People in the ancient world believed that foreign lands were willed with bizarre and unnatural people, animals, and landscapes.
While the people of the Mediterranean were made in the images of their gods, the people of foreign regions were strange and monstrous. Fantastic races of men with unusual features were said to live in the mountains to the north, in Africa, and in India.
Dozens of these people were described by Greek writers throughout their culture’s history. Some of the most famous were also the most unusual!
The Blemmyae were said to live in Africa.
They were a race of headless men who lived in the mountains west of Libya.
Both Pliny the Elder and Herodotus claimed that the Blemmyae had eyes on their shoulders or chests. Although they did not mention their features further, most later artists interpreted this to mean that they had entirely human faces on their torsos.
In medieval art, the Blemmyae were shown with larger than average facial features taking up most of their chests.
The Blemmyae were also sometimes known as the Sternophthalmoi, or “Chest Eyes.”
In northern Scythia lived a race of one-eyed men called the Arimaspians.
While the Cyclopes were well-known in Greek mythology, the Arimaspians were not giants. They were a ferocious and warlike tribe of barbarians.
Unlike many other fantastic races, the Arimaspians were not only mentioned in the histories that were popular in later Greek culture. They were also named in the play Prometheus Bound, showing that they were known by at least the 5th century BC.
The Arimaspians were constantly at war with the Griffins, the winged, lion-headed eagles who lived in the Carpathian mountains.
The Griffins extracted gold from the mountains to line their enormous nests. The Arimaspians continuously attacked the noble beasts to steal their gold.
This legend likely originated due to the trade routes of the ancient world. It was common for people to imagine fantastic lands and strange people in the far-away regions their trade goods came from.
The Arimaspians explained the flow of gold from the mountains to the north. The rationale was that gold was rare and valuable because only that which the Arimaspians stole made its way to Greece.
Ancient writers claimed that an entire race of intersex people lived in northwest Libya. The Machlyes had bodies that were male on one side and female on the other.
WIth their own strict ideas about gender roles and norms, the Greeks saw these people are particularly grotesque. Their name likely derives from the Greek word makhles, or “lewd.”
While other legendary races were wholly imagined, the Machlyes may have had some basis in reality.
A native Libyan tribe that was sometimes called by that name was not intersex, but it did subvert Greco-Roman gender norms. The men wore their hair longer than was fashionable in Greece and the women were known to go to war.
This blurring of gender roles led the Greeks to believe that such roles, which they saw as irrefutable natural law, were meaningless to the Machlyes. A tribe with different customs was reimagined in the Greek imagination as completely unnatural.
The dog-headed men of Africa and India are some of the most famous legendary people imagined by the Greeks.
The first mention of this race was early in Greek history. Hesiod claimed that half-dog men lived near Aethiopia in the 7th century BC.
The image of the Cynocephali was eventually standardized by later writers and artists. They were seen as human figures with the heads of canines.
Sometimes artists even showed the Cynocephali as somewhat civilized. Despite their bestial appearance, they were shown clothed and engaging in normal human activities.
Most historians believe that the Cynocephali were inspired by descriptions of baboons from Africa.
The vague descriptions that made their way back to Greece likely said that Africa was home to creatures with a human-like body structure that were covered in dark fur and had faces like dogs. From this incomplete description, the idea of a human-dog hybrid emerged.
This explanation was accepted even in the ancient world. When Greeks gained first-hand knowledge of African wildlife, they continued to refer to baboons as Cynocephali.
Many of the fantastic races of India and Africa were likely inspired by apes or monkeys.
The Artabatitae were a race of four-legged men who roamed the landscape of Africa in small groups.
Also in Africa were the Gorgades. The women of the Gorgades were said to be entirely covered in hair, but the men were so fast that they ran away before they could be clearly seen.
One race that was said to live in India was almost certainly inspired by the monkeys that live there. The Choromandae were covered in hair, had sharp teeth, and communicated only in screams.
A derogatory name that was once used for an African ethnic group was originally given to a fantastic race in Greek mythology.
The Pygmies in Greece were an African tribe that was so small in stature that they had to climb ladders to drink out of a normally sized cup.
They were said to measure one pygmy tall, a measurement equal to roughly the distance between a man’s elbow and his knuckles. This made them only about a foot and a half tall at most.
The Pygmies were said to have waged a constant war against the cranes that lived in their region.
The war began when the Pygmy queen, Gerana, expressed her hatred for the gods. She insulted Artemis and Hera in particular so the goddesses turned her into a crane for her insubordination to them.
In the 3rd century AD, Philostrates the Elder claimed that Heracles had once done battle against armies of diminutive Pygmies.
When he fell asleep in Libya, troops of Pygmies emerged from underground tunnels, where they lived like ants. Philostrates imagined them as so small that two full companies marched against the hero’s right hand alone and siege engines were deployed to strike his face.
One of the most popular fantastic races in medieval bestiaries was the Sciapods.
These people were said to live in either Aethiopia or India. They were notable for having only one leg.
Beneath this single led, each Sciapod had one enormous foot. The Sciapods had exceptionally strong leg muscles and moved by making large hops on their massive feet.
The name Sciapod means “Shadow Foot.” It describes the most popular image of this race in art.
The Sciapods lived in a hot, sunny climate. They were said to use their enormous feet as sheltered from the blistering sun.
At midday, the Sciapods would lie on their backs and hold their feet above them. They rested with their feet acting like parasols, providing shade from the brutal sun of the south.
The legendary races of people mentioned by Greek historians would likely have been forgotten if they had not been adopted in the medieval world.
While some Roman authors mentioned these races, the Roman Empire was expansive enough to largely dampen belief in such tribes of men.
In the Middle Ages, however, people’s worldviews shrank. The margins of the world once again became an unknown and unnatural place.
Medieval bestiaries included not only the animals, real and imagined, of foreign countries but also their people. The descriptions given by Greek authors like Herodotus were taken as fact.
Most images of groups like the Cynocephali and the Sciapods were not created by Greek and Roman artists, but a thousand years later by medieval scribes. The fantastic races that were briefly mentioned by a handful of ancient sources spread throughout Europe as medieval visions of the wider world.