There seems to be a few etymological translations and a theological leadership translation of the word Acephali on Wikipedia. I am following the alphabetical list of Mythical Creatures for this blog and defining them with as many sources as possible…as I go along. I am as surprised as you are at what may be coming up next on the alphabetical list. We will start with the theological leadership meaning of Acephali because it was the prominent example of the word, and then we will go on to the Mythical Creature, which is what we are all here for.
So, according to Wikipedia, in church history, the term acephali has been applied to several sects that supposedly had no leader, or no ‘head.’ E. Cobham Brewer wrote, in Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, that acephalites, “properly means men without a head.” again meaning no leader.
The Mythical Creatures- two types
I was very surprised to find out that there were species of the mythical headless men rumored, in antiquity and later, to inhabit remote parts of the world. They started off recorded as real people and then apparently became myth. According to imcur.com, Acephali are headless humans with faces on their chests that live in Libya. At one time they were an ordinary race of humans that had a terrible encounter with the gods. This violent dispute led to the Acephali having their heads severed forever.
They are variously known as
1) akephaloi (Greekἀκέφαλοι, “headless ones”) or 2) Blemmyes (Latin: Blemmyae; Greek: βλέμμυες) who were an actual nomadic Beja tribal kingdom that existed from at least 600 BC to the 3rd century AD in Nubia (Africa.) They were described in Roman histories of the later empire, with the Emperor Diocletian enlisting Nobatae mercenaries from the Western Desert oases to safeguard Aswan, the empire’s southern frontier, from raids by the Blemmyes.They then became fictionalized as a legendary race of Acephali (headless) monsters who had eyes and mouths on their chests. We will explore in a moment, plausible explanations as to why this happened.
3) Epiphagi, a variant name for the headless people of the Brisone, is sometimes used as a term referring strictly to the eyes-on-the-shoulders type of Acephali.
Modern rational explanations for the Acephali
In the Age of Enlightenment, Joseph-François Lafitau asserted that while “acephalous” races were present in North America, they were no more than a local trait of having the head set deep in the shoulders.
He argued that reports of “headless” traits in the “East Indies” by writers of antiquity is evidence that people of the same genetic pool migrated from Asia to North America and started living there. Contemporary literature says certain writers attribute Blemmyes’ physique as an ability to raise both shoulders to an extraordinary height, while ensconcing their head in-between.Other explanations have been offered for the legend. Native warriors perhaps employed the tactic of keeping their heads tucked close to the breast while marching with one knee on the ground. Or perhaps had the custom of carrying shields ornamented with faces. Acephali in art
Likenesses of Blemmyes are used as supports for misericords at Norwich Cathedral and Ripon Cathedral, from earlier local folklore. Writer Lewis Caroll is said to have invented some of his characters based on objects in the Ripon church where his father served as canon, and in particular, the Blemmys inspired his Humpty Dumpty character.Acephali in literature
- In Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, the protagonist meets Blemmyes along with Sciapods and a number of monsters from the medieval bestiary in his quest to find Prester John.Shakespeare alludes to the myths surrounding Blemmyes as headless beings in the following two passages:
“And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.”
“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
- In his 2006 book La Torre della Solitudine, Valerio Massimo Manfredi features the Blemmyes as fierce, sand-dwelling creatures located in the southeastern Sahara, and suggests that they are the manifestation of the evil face of mankind. Othello makes reference to them as “men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders” [I.iii.143-144].
- Science fiction author Bruce Sterling wrote a short story entitled “The Blemmye’s Stratagem”, included in his collection “Visionary in Residence”. The story describes a Blemmye during the Crusades, who turns out to be an extraterrestrial. Sterling later stated that the idea for his story was taken from a children’s story by Waleed Ali.
- The Oz stories by L. Frank Baum describe the Hammerhead Men, who are ferocious, fearsome misanthropes who jealously guard their mountain against any who enter. The Hammerhead Men are very short, and they can detach their heads from their bodies and thus give them a headless appearance. They attack Dorothy and her friends on the way to the South.
- Gene Wolfe writes of a man with his face on his chest, located in his short story collection “Endangered Species”.
- Blemmyes also appear in the 2000 novel The Amazing Voyage of Azzam by K Godel as cannibalistic tribesmen who guard a lost treasure of King Solomon. They use clubs, spears, and blow darts as weapons.
- The Blemmyae appear in The Monstrumologist (2009) a youg adult horror novel by Rick Yancey.
- The Blemmyae appear in Rick Riordan’s novel The Trials of Apollo Book Two The Dark Prophecy.
As for the origins of the name Blemmyes, various etymologies had been proposed, and the question has long been considered unsettled.
According to Wikipdeia, in antiquity, Blemmyes were said to be named after King Blemys (Βλέμυς), according to Nonnus’s 5th century epic Dionysiaca, but no lore about headlessness is attached to the people in this work.Samuel Bochart of the 17th century derived the word Blemmyes from the Hebrew bly (בלי) “without” and moach (מוח) “brain”, implying that the Blemmyes were people without brains. A Greek derivation from blemma(Greek: βλέμμα) “look, glance” and muō (Greek: μύω) “close the eyes” has also been suggested. Wolfgang Helck claimed a Coptic word “blind” for its etymology.Leo Reinisch in 1895 proposed that it derived from bálami “desert people” in the Bedauye tongue (Beja language). Although this theory had long been forgotten, this etymology has come into acceptance, alongside the identification of the Beja people as true descendants of the Blemmyes of yore.
The Writing Prompt
You are a modern day explorer and you come upon a lost tribe of Acephali in Libya. You weren’t looking for the Blemmyae, but well, here you are. You spend time with them, months and months and you find out that they know about what history makes of them. They are aware that they have been seen and written about, but what we know about them is entirely false. They aren’t aliens, or monsters or spirits. No, they are a group of people with a genetic mutation and their mutation gives them special insights. Their crown chakras and their heart chakras are in alignment, with their heads being in their chests and so they are able to commune directly with the divine. They are present day oracles and so they stay hidden so as not to be misunderstood nor abused and used for profit. You now know of their existence which is dangerous for you. They are a peaceful group of several hundred, but they don’t trust you with what you now know. They say they must kill you to keep their secret. It’s survival of the fittest and they believe themselves to be superior than other humans in almost every way. Do you stay to live amongst them, or do you try to escape with the information?
If you find this fun and interesting and decide to expand on it- let me know how this story continues in the comment section below, and as usual…happy writing!
References from Wikipedia
- Zaborski (1989).
- Nonnus, Dionysiaca, XVII, 385–397
- Derrett (2002), p. 468.
- Chambers, Ephraim, ed. (1728). “Blemmyes”. Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. 1 (first ed.). James and John Knapton, et al. p. 107. Pliny (1829), Histoire naturelle, III, Ajasson, M. (tr.); Marcus, Louis (notes), C. L. F. Panckoucke, pp. 190–1 Morié, Louis J. (1904), Les civilisations africaines: La Nubie (Éthiopie ancienne), 1, A. Challamel, p. 65 Der Kleine Pauly I, 913, cited in Derrett 2002, p. 468
- Zaborski (1989), pp. 172–173.
- Mukarovsky, Hans G. (1987), “Reinisch and Some Problems of he Study of Beja Today”, Leo Reinisch: Werk und Erbe, Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, p. 130 (125–139) Updegraff, Robert T. (1988) , László Török, “The Blemmyes I: The Rise of the Blemmyes and the Roman Withdrawal from Nubia under Diocletian”, ANRW, II (10.1), p. 55 (44–106) Fleming, Harold C. (1988), Ongota: A Decisive Language in African Prehistory, p. 149 Derrett (2002), p. 467.
- Herodotus. The Histories. Trans. A. D. Godley. 4.191. Derrett (2002), p. 469.
- Pliny the Elder (1893). The Natural History. 1. Trans. John Bostock and H. T. Riley. George Bell & Sons. p. 405. (Book 5.8)
- Pliny, Bostock & Riley (tr.) 1893, p. 405, note 1 (Book 5.8, note 9)
- Török, László (2009), Between Two Worlds: The Frontier Region Between Ancient Nubia and Egypt, BRILL, pp. 9–10, ISBN 9789004171978 Pliny, Bostock & Riley (tr.) 1893, p.406, note 3 (Book 5.8, note 17)
- Druce (1915), pp. 137–139.
- “Acephaous”. Encyclopædia Britannica. 1. 1823. pp. 130–131. Ford (2015), pp. 12–15; notes 23, 32.
- Stella (2012), p. 75.
- Ford (2015), p. 13, note 32.
- Gervase, in his autograph manuscript (Rome, Vat. Lat. 933) admits to using the Letter as his source. Gervase of Tilbury (2006), Gerner, Dominique; Pignatelli, Cinzia, eds., Les traductions françaises des Otia imperialia de Gervais de Tilbury, Droz, LXXV (p. 301) Oswald, Dana (2010), Monsters, Gender and Sexuality in Medieval English Literature, Boydell & Brewer Orchard, Andy (2003b). A Critical Companion to Beowulf. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. p. 24. ISBN 9781843840299. Orchard 2003a, Wonders of the East, §15 (pp. 192–193)
- Orchard 2003a, Liber Monstrorum, I. 24 (p. 273)
- Stella (2012), p. 62, note 55.
- Stella (2012), pp. 62–63.
- Ford (2015), p. 12, note 23.
- Hilka, Alfons (1920), “Comment Alixandres trouva gens sans testes qui avoient couleur d’or et orent les iols on pis”, Der Altfranzösische Prosa-Alexander-roman nach der Berliner Bilderhandschrift, nebst dem lateinischen Original der Historia de preliis, Max Niemeyer, p. 236 Pérez-Simon, Maud (2014), Conquête du monde, enquête sur l’autre et quête de soi. Alexandre le Grand au Moyen Âge, Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme, p. 204 (Open edition)
- Harf-Lancner, Laurence (2012), Maddox, Donald; Sturm-Maddox, Sara, eds., “From Alexander to Marco Polo, from Text to Image: The Marvels of India”, Medieval French Alexander, SUNY Press, p. 238 Hériché, Sandrine (2008), Alexandre le Bourguignon: étude du roman Les faicts et les conquestes d’Alexandre le Grand de Jehan Wauquelin, Droz, pp. cxlvi, 233–234 Kline, Naomi Reed (2001), Maps of Medieval Thought: The Hereford Paradigm, Boydell Press, pp. 143, 148–151 Bevan, William Latham; Phillott, Henry Wright (1873), Mediæval Geography: An Essay in Illustration of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, E. Stanford, p. 103 Isidore of Seville (2005), Throop, Priscilla, ed., Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies: Complete English Translation, Lulu.com, XI. 3. 17 Westrem ed., Hereford Mappa Mundi, p. 381, item 971, 973; cited in Derrett 2002, p. 470
- Baumgärtner, Ingrid (2006), “Biblical, Mythical, and Foreign Women in the Texts and Pictures on Medieval World Maps” (PDF), The Hereford World Map: Medieval World Maps and their Context, British Library, p. 305 Miller (1895), III, p. 105.
- Hoogvliet, Margriet (2007), Mappae mundi, Brepols, p. 211, ISBN 2503520650 Miller (1895), III, p. 148.
- Hallberg, Ivar (1907), L’extrême orient dans la littérature et la cartographie de l’occident des XIIIe, XIVe, et XVe siècles : étude sur l’histoire de la géographie, Göteborg: Wald. Zachrisson, Blemmyis (pp. 78–79), archived from the original on 2009 White, David Gordon (1991), Myths of the Dog-Man, University of Chicago Press, p. 86 Moseley, C. W. R. D. (tr.) (2005) , The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Penguin, p. 29; 137, ISBN 978-0141902814 Moseley 2005, p. 29
- Strickland, Debra Higgs (2003), Saracens, Demons, & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art, Princeton University Press, p. 203 Husband, Timothy; Gilmore-House, Gloria (1980), The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism, Susan E. Tholl, Metropolitan Museum of Art, p. 6 Husband & Gilmore-House (1980), p. 47.
- Thomas of Cantimpré, who was Conrad’s primary source also associated the headless with sin, but allegorically. To Thomas the headless represented unscrupulous lawyers. Metzler, Irina (2016), Fools and idiots?: Intellectual disability in the Middle Ages, Oxford University Press, p. 75 Walter Raleigh (2006). The Discovery of Guiana. Project Gutenberg. Delon, Michel (2013), Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, London and New York: Routledge, Monster (p. 849), ISBN 9781135959982 Friedman, John (2000) , The Monstrous Races In Medieval Art and Though, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, pp. 12, 15, 25, 146, 178–179, ISBN 9780802071736 Tasker, Edward G. (1993), Encyclopedia of Medieval Church Art, B.T. Batsford, blemya (p. 24) Derrett (2002), p. 466.
- Stella (2012), p. 39.
- Derrett, J. Duncan M. (2002), “A Blemmya in India”, Numen, 49 (2): 460–474, JSTOR 3270598Druce, G. C. (1915), “Some Abnormal and Composite Human Forms in English Church Architecture”, The Archaeological Journal, 72: 137–139Ford, A.J. (2015), Marvel and Artefact: The ‘Wonders of the East’ in its manuscript contexts, BRILL, pp. 12–15; notes 23, 32Miller, Konrad (1895), Mappaemundi: die ältesten Weltkarten, III, J. Roth, p. 144Orchard, Andy (tr.), ed. (2003a). Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manuscript. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 9780802085832.Stella, Francisco (2012), “Ludibria sibi, nobis miracula. La fortuna medievale delle scienza pliniana e l’antropologia della diversitas”, La ‘Naturalis Historia’ di Plinio, Cacucci Editore S.a.s., p. 75 (39–75)Zaborski, Andrzej (1989), “The Problem of Blemmyes-Beja:An Etymolgy”, Beiträge zur Sudanforschung, 4: 160–177