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Pygmy (Greek mythology)


The Pygmies were a tribe of diminutive humans in Greek mythology. Their name in Greek was Pygmaioi, from pygmê, the length of the forearm. According to the Iliad, they were involved in a constant war with the cranes, which migrated in winter to their homeland on the southern shores of the earth-encircling river Oceanus.

In art the scene was popular with little Pygmies armed with spears and slings, riding on the backs of goats, battling the flying cranes. The 2nd-century BC tomb near Panticapaeum, Crimea "shows the battle of human pygmies with a flock of herons".[1] The Pygmies were often portrayed as pudgy, comical dwarfs.

One story describes the origin of the age-old battle, speaking of a Pygmy Queen named Gerana who offended the goddess Hera with her boasts of superior beauty, and was transformed into a crane.

In another legend, the Pygmies once encountered Heracles, and climbing all over the sleeping hero attempted to bind him down, but when he stood up they fell off. The story was adapted by Johnathan Swift as a template for Lilliputians.[citation needed]

Later Greek geographers and writers attempted to place the Pygmies in a geographical context. Sometimes they were located in far India, at other times near the Ethiopians of Africa.

From Pliny's Natural History:

Beyond these in the most outlying mountain region we are told of the Three-Span (Trispithami) Pygmae who do not exceed three spans, that is, twenty-seven inches, in height; the climate is healthy and always spring-like, as it is protected on the north by a range of mountains; this tribe Homer has also recorded as being beset by cranes. It is reported that in springtime their entire band, mounted on the backs of rams and she-goats and armed with arrows, goes in a body down to the sea and eats the cranes' eggs and chickens, and that this outing occupies three months; and that otherwise they could not protect themselves against the flocks of cranes would grow up; and that their houses are made of mud and feathers and egg-shells. Aristotle says that the Pygmies live in caves, but in the rest of this statement about them he agrees with the other authorities.[1]

These are not to be confused with the real Pygmy bush tribes of central Africa, of which the ancient Greeks would have had no direct knowledge. However, it is not impossible that the mythological Pygmies are based on distorted travellers' reports of the real Pygmies or perhaps the Khoisan. Both peoples once covered a much larger area of Africa before being displaced by the Bantu between about 200 BC and AD 500. Herodotus even spoke of the Persian navigator Sataspes encountering small men dressed in palm leaves many months travel south along the west African coast (at the very least, a realistic location for them). Whatever the truth, the term "Pygmy" remained essentially mythological until applied by nineteenth century European explorers to people they encountered.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Pliny Natural History 7.23-30.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Pygmy_(Greek_mythology)". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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