Columbus believed he would find ‘blemmyes’ and ‘sciapods’ – not people – in the New World



File 20181004 52678 1rvabyh.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The statue of Christopher Columbus in Columbus Circle, New York City.
Zoltan Tarlacz/Shutterstock.com

Peter C. Mancall, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

In 1492, when Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic Ocean in search of a fast route to East Asia and the southwest Pacific, he landed in a place that was unknown to him. There he found treasures – extraordinary trees, birds and gold.

But there was one thing that Columbus expected to find that he didn’t.

Upon his return, in his official report, Columbus noted that he had “discovered a great many islands inhabited by people without number.” He praised the natural wonders of the islands.

But, he added, “I have not found any monstrous men in these islands, as many had thought.”

Why, one might ask, had he expected to find monsters?

My research and that of other historians reveal that Columbus’ views were far from abnormal. For centuries, European intellectuals had imagined a world beyond their borders populated by “monstrous races.”

Of course the ‘monstrous races’ exist

One of the earliest accounts of these non-human beings was written by the Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder in 77 A.D. In a massive treatise, he told his readers about dog-headed people, known as cynocephalus, and astoni, creatures with no mouth and no need to eat.

Across medieval Europe, tales of marvelous and inhuman creatures – of cyclops, blemmyes, creatures with heads in their chests, and sciapods, who had a single leg with a giant foot – circulated in manuscripts hand-copied by scribes who often embellished their treatises with illustrations of these fantastic creatures.

A 1544 woodcut by Sebastian Münster depicts, from left to right, a sciapod, a cyclops, conjoined twins, a blemmye and a cynocephaly.
Wikimedia Commons

Though there were always some skeptics, most Europeans believed that distant lands would be populated by these monsters, and stories of monsters traveled far beyond the rarefied libraries of elite readers.

For example, churchgoers in Fréjus, an ancient market town in the south of France, could wander into the cloister of the Cathédrale Saint-Léonce and study monsters on the more than 1,200 painted wooden ceiling panels. Some panels portrayed scenes of daily life – local monks, a man riding a pig and contorted acrobats. Many others depicted monstrous hybrids, dog-headed people, blemmyes and other fearsome wretches.

The ceiling of the Cathédrale Saint-Léonce depicts an array of monstrous creatures.
Peter C. Mancall, Author provided

Perhaps no one did more to spread news of monsters’ existence than a 14th-century English knight named John Mandeville, who, in his account of his travels to faraway lands, claimed to have seen people with the ears of an elephant, one group of creatures who had flat faces with two holes, and another that had the head of a man and the body of a goat.

Scholars debate whether Mandeville could have ventured far enough to see the places that he described, and whether he was even a real person. But his book was copied time and again, and likely translated into every known European language.

Leonardo da Vinci had a copy. So did Columbus.

Old beliefs die hard

Even though Columbus didn’t see monsters, his report wasn’t enough to dislodge prevailing ideas about the creatures Europeans expected to find in parts unknown.

In 1493 – around the time Columbus’ first report began to circulate – printers of the “Nuremberg Chronicle,” a massive volume of history, included images and descriptions of monsters. And soon after the explorer’s return, an Italian poet offered a verse translation describing Columbus’ journey, which its printer illustrated with monsters, including a sciapod and a blemmye.

Indeed, the belief that monsters lived at the Earth’s edge remained for generations.

In the 1590s, the English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh told readers about the American monsters he heard about in his travels to Guiana, some of which had “their eyes in their shoulders, and their mouths in the middle of their breasts, & that a long train of haire groweth backward between their shoulders.”

Soon after, the English natural historian Edward Topsell translated a mid-16th-century treatise of the various animals of the world, a book that appeared in London in 1607, the same year that colonists established a small community at Jamestown, Virginia. Topsell was eager to integrate descriptions of American animals in his book.
But alongside chapters on Old World horses, pigs and beavers, readers learned about the “Norwegian monster” and a “very deformed beast” that Americans called an “haut.” Another, known as a “su,” had “a very deformed shape, and monstrous presence” and was “cruell, untamable, impatient, violent, [and] ravening.”

Of course, in the New World, the gains for Europeans came at a terrifying cost for Native Americans: The newcomers stole their land and treasures, enslaved them, introduced Old World diseases and spurred long-term environmental change.

In the end, perhaps these indigenous Americans saw the invaders of their homelands as a ‘monstrous race’ of its own – creatures who destabilized their communities, took their possessions and threatened their lives.The Conversation

Peter C. Mancall, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities, University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Advertisements

About particularkev

Hi, I'm a Particular Baptist from Australia who is attempting to minister and network via the web. Please check out my web site as well. View all posts by particularkev

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: