January 11, 2021

#08-034: Travelers' Tales

hand-drawn illustrations of three imaginary creatures as described in the text
Monopods - Blemmyes - Panotti
(Wikipedia: left - center - right)

Note: The stories you are about to read are just tall tales, a sort of early "urban legend." Still, the world is plenty wondrous enough just as it is!

Get Ready: What is the strangest creature (real or imagined) you have ever heard of?

Ancient people had no way to "fact check" the stories told by returning travelers, so all sorts of bizarre creatures showed up in literature from China to Western Europe. Even in today's well-documented world, the science of cryptozoology studies animals whose existence has not been proven: Bigfoot and his cousin the Yeti (or "Abominable Snowman"), the Loch Ness Monster, and others.

But the creatures reported long ago stretch the imagination even further. Many were humanoid--with important distinctions.

Take, for example, the Monopods ("one-foot"), dwarf humans who hopped around on a single foot. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder reports sightings of such creatures in India, and that they "are able to leap with surprising agility... they are in the habit of lying on their backs, during the time of the extreme heat, and protecting themselves from the sun by the shade of their feet." For this reason they are also called Sciapods, "shadow-foot." Much earlier than Pliny they appeared in the Greek play The Birds by Aristophanes. Numerous other sources mention them well into the Middle Ages.

Another variation on the human theme were the Blemmyes, headless men whose face was on their chests. Herodotus mentions them in his Histories as akephaloi, Greek for "without a head." Pliny says they lived in the general vicinity of modern Ethiopia. Oddly, there was a real tribe (of "normal" humans) called Blemmyes in the area from the 7th century BCE until the 8th century CE, a period of about 15 centuries.

Interestingly, a Chinese god, Xingtian, is described in the Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shan Hai Jing) as having been decapitated in a battle with Huangdi. As a result, he had eyes where his nipples belonged and a mouth in place of his navel.

A third unusual humanoid was the Panotti (from the Greek words for "all ears") whose ears were so large they covered their bodies, like a bat's wings. They lived on the "All-Ears Islands" near Scythia (a large region in Central Asia) where their ears doubled as both clothing and blankets to ward off the night-time chill. (Some say that they lay on one ear as a mattress, covering themselves with the other.)

"O brave new world!" Shakespeare's Miranda exclaimed in The Tempest, "That has such people in't!" If only.


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. abominable
  2. agility
  3. bizarre
  4. distinctions
  5. dwarf
  6. humanoid
  7. naturalist
  8. navel
  9. variation
  10. vicinity

  1. ability to move quickly and easily
  2. one who studies natural science
  3. strange; weird
  4. area; neighborhood
  5. person of abnormally small height due to disease
  6. changed example
  7. horrible; loathsome
  8. similar to humans in form
  9. belly button
  10. differences

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for January 11, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. g; 2. a; 3. c; 4. j; 5. e; 6. h; 7. b; 8. i; 9. f; 10. d