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The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Contents Page
The Inquisition by Ronan McDonnell - Semper Quarens - Always Looking

Blemmyae – headless humanoids

The most famous Blemmy of all - The Dolph Lundgrenophagus, both terrifying and strangely alluring

The most famous Blemmy of all - The Dolph Lundgrenophagus, both terrifying and strangely alluring

The Blemmys, or Blemmyae, were a genuine historical Nubian tribe, who may gradually have become demonised and fictionalised. Successive writers metaphorically removed their heads and shifted their faces to their chests, until they became fantastic headless humanoids, most often seen in medieval bestiaries and fantasies.

Blemmyae brought to the global stage

Blemmyae found resurgent fame in early English colonialism. Sir Walter Raleigh flounced back to civilisation from his travels among the uncouth and savage Amazonian residents describing them to his peers as having “their eyes in their shoulders, and their mouths in the middle of their breasts”.

We would assume that anyone hearing those reports must have questioned their veracity, as they would have been familiar with these traditionally fictitious and quasi-human forms. Today’s equivalent would be astronauts returning from Mars reporting a series of uber-mensch wearing tight shiny clothing with red capes and their underpants on the outside. Why not throw in the facts that they carry a mortal fear of green crystal and they all go around sporting heavily greased quiffs? We simply would not believe it.

A Blemmy featured in The Nuremburg Chronicle

A Blemmy featured in The Nuremburg Chronicle

…eyes in their shoulders, and their mouths in the middle of their breasts…

Nonetheless, William Shakespeare lapped up this stuff, and cogged it in Othello, and thereby muddied the mythological waters:
“And of the Canniabals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.”

Unsurprisingly, Shakepeare’s writing confused many at the time, and since. The mythic cannibalistic race, the Anthropophagi have consistently been confused with, and as a result interchangeable with Blemmyae; ie they have eaten people and had their heads submerged into their chests.

At least there is some consensus – Shakespeare is indeed inexact and confusing, and not just for students.

The Anthropophagi were earlier referred to by Herodotus and he did so in an equally interchangeable manner with the Blemmyae. The former were reported to be cannibals who wore their victims’ scalps bound to their chests. This may have been the genesis for the idea of beings with heads on their chests.

Approximately 500 years later in 75CE, Pliny cleared the air in his Naturalis Historiae, if inventing mythical beasts can be said to be clearing up anything, “It is said that the Blemmyae have no heads and that their mouth and eyes are put in their chests.”

So Walter Raleigh’s claims of headless humanoids, to be fair to him, did not come from nowhere. There was a certain traceable lineage of Blemmyae appearing in literature, particularly travellers’ tales and natural histories.

Most recently Umberto Eco had a fantastic image of a Blemmy in his book, Baudolino, “Then Baudolino offered him a large piece of cheese. The blemmy put it to his mouth, which suddenly became the same size as the cheese, which vanished into that hole.”

Naturalis Historiae by Pliny
Blemmyes – the factual, historical, bona fide tribe
Blemmyes – the factual, historical, bona fide mythical creatures
Baudolino, Umberto Eco, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville fantstic tales of a fictional traveller
The City of Z, David Grann, Simon & Schuster, 2009

This article was posted by on Thursday, November 24th, 2011 at 22:27.
It is archived in Culture, History, Mysterious, Myth, Travel, Wild Places and tagged , , , , .

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