Pygmy (Greek mythology)

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A Pygmy fights a crane, Attic red-figure chous, 430–420 BC, National Archaeological Museum of Spain

The Pygmies (Greek: Πυγμαῖοι Pygmaioi, from the adjective πυγμαῖος from πυγμή pygmē, "the length of the forearm") were a tribe of diminutive humans in Greek mythology. 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. 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 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.

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 Jonathan 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. The Pygmy bush tribes of central Africa were so named after the Greek mythological creatures by European explorers in the 19th century.

Descriptions in literature[edit]

A Pygmy fighting his nemeses the cranes. From the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493).

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.[2]

From The Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Flavius Philostratus:

And as to the pigmies, he said that they lived underground, and that they lay on the other side of the Ganges and lived in the manner which is related by all. As to men that are shadow-footed or have long heads, and as to the other poetical fancies which the reatise of Scylax recounts about them, he said that they didn't live anywhere on the earth, and least of all in India.[3]

From The Travels of Sir John Mandeville:

That river goeth through the land of Pigmies, where that the folk be of little stature, that be but three span long, and they be right fair and gentle, after their quantities, both the men and the women. And they marry them when they be half year of age and get children. And they live not but six year or seven at the most; and he that liveth eight year, men hold him there right passing old. These men be the best workers of gold, silver, cotton, silk and of all such things, of any other that be in the world. And they have oftentimes war with the birds of the country that they take and eat. This little folk neither labour in lands ne in vines; but they have great men amongst them of our stature that till the land and labour amongst the vines for them. And of those men of our stature have they as great scorn and wonder as we would have among us of giants, if they were amongst us. There is a good city, amongst others, where there is dwelling great plenty of those little folk, and it is a great city and a fair. And the men be great that dwell amongst them, but when they get any children they be as little as the pigmies. And therefore they be, all for the most part, all pigmies; for the nature of the land is such. The great Chan let keep this city full well, for it is his. And albeit, that the pigmies be little, yet they be full reasonable after their age, and can both wit and good and malice enough.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kubiĭovych and Shevchenka, p. 558.
  2. ^ Pliny. Natural History, 7.23-7.30.
  3. ^ Flavius Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, translated by F. C. Conybeare, volume II, book III.XLVIII., 1921, p. 331.
  4. ^ The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Chapter XXII, Macmillan and Co. edition, 1900.


  • Kubiĭovych, Volodymyr and Shevchenka, Naukove tovarystvo im. Ukraine: A Concise Encyclopaedia. University of Toronto, 1963. ISBN 0-8020-3261-3
  • Mandeville, John, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville: The Fantastic 14th-Century Account of a Journey to the East, ISBN 0-486-44378-7
  • Ritson, Joseph, Fairy Tales, Now First Collected: To which are prefixed two dissertations: 1. On Pygmies. 2. On Fairies, London, 1831, (Adamant Media Corporation, 2004) ISBN 1-4021-4753-8

External links[edit]