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What are Blemmyes?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 03 December 2016
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Blemmyes are mythological monsters described by Pliny the Elder in Naturalis Historia (circa 77 CE). In later histories of the Roman era, the name became associated with a real African ethnic group, the Beja people. The Beja known as Blemmyes by the later Romans were a nomadic tribe who engaged in a number of military struggles with the Romans.

In Naturalis Historia, Pliny the Elder describes Blemmyes as acephalous, or headless, with mouths and eyes on their chest. Similar creatures were later described in other works of so-called natural history. Following the tradition of ascribing monstrous attributes to little known people and places, Sir Walter Raleigh places them in the New World and calls them Ewaipanoma in his 1595 Discovery of Guiana.

The creatures later entered English folklore as anthropophagi, or man-eaters. Shakespeare mentions them in The Merry Wives of Windsor (1602) and Othello (1605). Blemmyes also appeared in various European encyclopedias of the Middle Ages.

The historic Blemmyes lived mainly in modern-day Sudan. They were Egyptian Nubians, and their major deities included Isis, Mandulis, and Anhur. The Greek geographer Strabo, writing in the century before Pliny, described them as peaceful people. However, by the end of the 2nd century CE, they had become a significant military power.

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In 194 CE, the Blemmyes aided Pescennius Niger in his fight against Septimius Severus to gain the Imperial seat. Septimius Severus ultimately prevailed. Throughout the 3rd century CE, the Blemmyes engaged Romans in battle a number of times, often fighting on the side of would-be Roman usurpers.

The Blemmyes also invaded Lower Egypt, or Thebes, no less then five times. This posed a particular problem for the Romans, as the area was the center of grain production for the empire. Though the Blemmyes often put up a strong fight, they were ultimately no match for Roman military forces.

The Blemmyes suffered a crushing defeat under Marcus Aurelius Probus in 279-280 CE. However, they again invaded Egypt, along with the Nobatae tribe, during the reign of Diocletian. In 298 CE, the Emperor negotiated a peace treaty with the tribes, withdrawing Rome's borders north to Philae and giving the two tribes an annual gold stipend.

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