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 dwarves.

Pygmy carrying crane. Potted by Sotades, about 460-450 BC from Ruvo, British Museum

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]

St. Augustine (354–430) mentions the "Pigmies" in The City of God, Book 16, chapter 8 entitled, "Whether Certain Monstrous Races of Men Are Derived From the Stock of Adam or Noah's Sons."[2]

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:

From The Life of Apollonius of Tyana by Flavius Philostratus:

From The Travels of Sir John Mandeville:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kubiĭovych and Shevchenka, p. 558.
  2. ^ Augustine, Chapter 8. — Whether Certain Monstrous Races of Men Are Derived From the Stock of Adam or Noah's Sons
  3. ^ Pliny. Natural History, 7.23-7.30.
  4. ^ Flavius Philostratus, The Life of Apollonius of Tyana, translated by F. C. Conybeare, volume II, book III.XLVIII., 1921, p. 331.
  5. ^ 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]