Saturday, February 1, 2014

Blemmyes Mentioned in Shakespeare

What are Blemmyes(Blem-mēs)? In both "The Tempest" and "Othelo", these creatures are briefly mentioned as being cannibalistic "headless" monsters! In other historical writings they are not only "headless" but "brainless" as well. I know what you're thinking. Headless? How do these creatures survive if they have no head? Here is what Shakespeare described what these "Legen(wait for it)dary Creatures" looked like:

"And of the Cannibals that each other eat, The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders." -Shakespeare, Othello

The Greek word "Anthropophage" literally means "People eater." No, not the "One Eyed One Horned Flying Purple People Eater". Strictly cannibals.The word "Blemmyes" has a meaning as well. It is of  Greek origin too, which literally translates "gazing from middle". When we think "gaze" we think "seeing with our eyes". Now when it comes to the word "middle", it can go both ways. It can mean "middle" of the face or "middle" of the body. With the definition of this context, it is too broad to know which "middle" it means. 

Anyway, going back to the "no heads" part, legend says that their faces appeared on their torsos. Another Shakespeare reference supports this:

"Who would believe that there were mountaineers Dew-lapp'd like bulls, whose throats had hanging at 'em Wallets of flesh? or that there were such men Whose heads stood in their breasts?" -Shakespeare, The Tempest

We see that in "Othelo", they are described as being "cannibals" and "... men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders." In "The Tempest", they're "... men whose heads stood in their breasts." Now with these illustrations, it paints a vivid picture of what they are supposed to look like.

Now you're probably wondering how this legend of Blemmyes came to be. With my research, I have a theory and a conclusion to back this up. Originally, they were a nomadic Nubian tribe that dwelt in areas in Africa such as Nubia, Kush or Sudan around the 3rd century A.D. Despite what the legends say about them being cannibals, the Blemmyes were a peaceful monotheistic people whom prayed to a god named Mandulis. They also had continues wars with the Romans for years.

There are no writings to indicate how reality slowly turned to fiction, but here are some of my theories. Remember when I talked about the Blemmyes being "headless" and "brainless"? There is a condition called "Anecephaly" which is when a baby is born missing a huge part of their "brain" and even the skull. When we see these conditions, and compare them to the descriptions found in ancient literature, it makes sense that their legends weren't that far from the truth.

My other theory, which might be more logical, is that the Blemmyes were short people of African descent whom wore shield sized masks for war and rituals. In Africa alone, there are a number of cultures that ware huge elongated masks that would look like real scary faces. Some of the masks would cover the whole torso, much like the character Big Face from the PC game "Abe's Odyssey".

So are Blemmyes mythical cannibalistic headless creatures or nomadic peace warriors misunderstood? I'll let you decide.

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