First encounters with the people of India – antiquity

I often wonder how the stereotypes arise. By them I mean those beliefs imprinted into our consciousness, which we mistakenly take for the truth about the world around us. And what makes it so difficult to remove, replace them? They are often used to describe something that escapes cognition. Where there is no direct experience, they let the imagination run wild. This mechanism works universally and has also worked among the ancient inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin when they tried to imagine the peoples of distant Asia. From these attempts a conviction about the existence of monstrous human races emerged.

The place that inspired the imagination most was India, writers were inspired by the information about riches, luxury food and foreign customs. One of the first Greek travelers to reach India was SCYLAX of CARYANDA. He described fantastic humans inhabiting these areas, including people with large ears (panotti) and those with one leg (skiapod / sciapod). His contemporary Herodotus used this fantastic stories when he wrote The Histories (2. half of the 5th cen. BC). It contains the only remaining fractions of Scylax’ text, the rest have been lost through centuries.

The physician and historian who was younger than Herodotus – CTESIAS – also created images of the inhabitants of India. He came from Greece, but for seventeen years he remained in Persian captivity and was a physician of Artaxerxes II. In the work Indica (also preserved only in fragments), he repeated many stories, both after Greek and Persian authors. And thanks to him, India for the next fifteen hundred years has become a place inhabited by fantastic races of people and animals.

The Arnstein Bible, ca. 1172 , British Library,  f. 243r

This drawing comes from The Arnstein Bible, the twelfth century manuscript. In addition to the biblical books it also contains diagrams describing the world, the sky and this sheet  with a compilation of images of monstrous human races. It shows many races described by Ctesias. In the upper left corner is a cynocephaly – a doghead man, who, according to Ctesias, cannot communicate with words, but only barks. Next you can see the one-eyed cyclop, and next to it a pair of blemmias (blemmites), ie people without heads with faces placed on the body between the arms. The other inhabitants of the Far East, known to Ctesias, are visible in the middle row: the panotti with ears so large that they could cover whole body and in the lower row: the skopoid – a man with one big foot that moves with enormous speed and which he also uses as a giant umbrella against the scorching sun. Next is placed the figure of the giant and two pygmies fighting.

These fantastic ideas about the inhabitants of India for long had taken over the minds of Europeans. They remained valid, regardless of Alexander the Great’s expedition (326 BC), in which he included many scholars to describe the new lands and its inhabitants. Mentions of Indian wonders, fantastic human races and animals appeared even in the work of the Greek traveler and historian Megastenes (around 303 BC). He was the ambassador of one of the diadochs (name for  successors) of Alexander the Great, at the court of Chandragupta, the first universal ruler of India.

Pliny the Elder in Natural History (1st century BC) borrowed much from the abovementioned works of Scylax, Ctesias and Megastenes to describe  India. This brief overview shows that the basic sin committed by subsequent authors was the uncritical repetition of ancient tales, even though they could use their own observations. At the same time, they flattered the common taste of listeners who expected that the distant lands would be extraordinary and surprising.

What is the mechanism of creating these ideas? What did they grow from? I would distinguish five factors that help to sustain the belief in the existence of monstrous human races inhabiting distant areas of Asia.

Curiosity. This is the initiator of imagination. People used to wonder what the inhabitants of inaccessible lands look like, just as we are curious about what aliens may look like (if they exist). They also assumed that if they live so far, they must be completely different from themselves.

No direct and permanent contact. Due to the continuous political turmoil in the East, direct land contact between the West and India was extremely difficult. Trade was almost entirely in Arab hands, especially after the 2nd century AD, and goods transported by caravans changed intermediaries up to eight times before they reached their destination. They were not accompanied by anyone who could bring a reliable knowledge about their country of origin. This lack of direct contact hampered the development of geographical and ethnographic knowledge, facilitating the spread of fantastic information about India.

The Catalan Atlas, 1375

Cultural predispositions. The world of ancient Greeks, apart from people, were inhabited by fantastic characters: gods, minor deities and creatures from the borderline of nature and fantasy. Their presence was to explain the inexplicable, give form to the unknown, sublimate human fears. Sirens, satires, centaurs, or harpies were a personification of instincts, desires or fears that controlled man. They existed at the intersection of the civilized world of people and the untamed – nature. Therefore there was consent, mental preparation for the introduction of fantastic characters into the real world.

The Siren Vase, ca. 470 B.C.E, British Museum, London

Connecting the known and the found. The figure of satire or siren was commonly existing in Greco-Roman culture, it also had its counterpart in Indian stories. The Hindu epic Mahabharata also contains descriptions of the one-eyed race, considered in India as barbaric, like the Cyclops in Greece. The appearance of fantastic races could therefore result from the superficial contact between cultures and the borrowings from Indian literature cited by Brahmans. A long-ear breed, unknown in the West, appears in Indian sacred texts, especially in the Mahabharata – it is called there  karnapravarana (literally from Sanskrit: using ears as a covering).

Panotti from The Arnstein Bible, ok. 1172

Coloring reality. Fantastic creatures were also created from observations of real animals. Like the unicorn, appearing in Ctesias and Megastenes, it was probably created basing on reports of an Indian rhino whose horn was supposed to protect against poisons. Ctesias attributed the same power to the horn of a unicorn.

The Unicorn (85 r) , Livre des Merveilles du Monde, ca. 1410-1412

As we can see the ideas travelled between words. As a result – the stereotypes developed from this  meeting of two cultures.  They can have some grain of truth in them – often they redraw some elements of reality, while concealing others. A stereotype is always slightly nuanced, because its aim is to universally suit to any given situations, which in principle are different from each other. The emergence of a belief in the existence of monstrous human races is a special example of a stereotype based on scarce information, which nevertheless retained its power for two thousand years.

Aleksandra Janiszewska

Suggested further reading:

  • Peter Burke, Naoczność. Materiały wizualne jako świadectwo historyczne, 2012
  • Surekha Davies, Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human. New Worlds, Maps and Monsters, Cambridge 2017
  • Rudolf Wittkower, Marvels of the East. A Study in the History of Monsters, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 5 (1942), s. 159-197
  • Katarzyna Zalewska, Mirabilia descripta. Osobliwości świata w piśmiennictwie geograficznym i kartografii średniowiecza, „Ikonotheka”, nr 3, 1991
  • Katarzyna Zalewska-Lorkiewicz, Ilustrowane mappae mundi jako obraz świata, Warszawa 1996

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