“Now, the mist across the window hides the lines…”

Longtime readers might be surprised by how few medieval-ish doodads we have in our home. My office houses a framed copy of the opening of an Icelandic manuscript and a tiny set of Domesday Book postage stamps, and until recently that was about it. When we began renting a large house in the woods, the owners left us with a great deal to work with: not only sunny flower beds and several acres of bird-besieged trees but also walls with so many nails and hooks for hanging photos, artwork, and curios that we weren’t sure we could fill them all.

We did find art for most of them—but not all. And so a few weeks ago, when I noticed two bare nails over a doorway, I decided to put up some blemmyae.

The myth of the blemmyae goes back to the ancient world, when Herodotus described this race of creatures who resembled headless men but carried their faces in their chests. He placed them alongside other humanoids, such as dog-faced men, who were believed to abide along the coast of North Africa. During the Middle Ages, the blemmyae got dragged into texts about the wonders one might find in Africa and Asia. Alexander the Great captures several of them in one romance, and that wonderful liar Sir John Mandeville claimed to have seen some near India. Some medieval writers drew a comically fine distinction between headless men with faces in their chests and headless men with eyes in their shoulders. These beings went by various names, but their legend carried over to the Americas, where Sir Walter Raleigh chased rumors of their existence near what’s now Venezuela.

My blemmyae came from England. Oakapple Designs, a lovely company in South Yorkshire, has acquired the right to make casts of artwork at certain cathedrals and sell them to the public, and the cost is very reasonable. You can browse their assortment of people, animals, and mythical creatures, which runs rampant with angels, bats, dragons, green men, and monks.

According to Oakapple, the two blemmyae over my doorway were made in the 15th century for Ripon Cathedral, where they’re apparently carved onto misericords: folding wooden seats in the choir that can be leaned on in times of need.

I can only guess why people believed in these creatures for so long. Maybe they mistook certain stoop-necked primates as headless; perhaps real tribes of humans wore armor or helmets that gave Europeans peculiar ideas. I find these particular blemmyae rather ambiguous. I’m not even entirely sure what the one on the left is doing with that stick. What I do know is that the carver at Ripon Cathedral thought they were civilized: take note of the clothing and shoes. That’s good enough reason to welcome them into our home—and if they inspire a story or poem, so much the better. I doubt they’ll be the strangest things to emerge from our time in the woods.

5 thoughts on ““Now, the mist across the window hides the lines…”

  1. I like T.H. White’s point that the average Bildhauer or illuminator in Bavaria or Normandy had exactly the same evidence for dragons as he had for elephants or pyramids (“the ancients say it is so, and I once knew a traveller who swore he had seen one … he swore he had seen a lot of things though”), and that if medieval people had tried harder to be realists about travel stories, we would have lost a lot of old lore but probably not have gained truth, because they weren’t in the position to make the same decisions that we make about what is plausible and what is not.

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  2. Sean, I agree. (And that’s a great T.H. White notion; I’ve either never seen it or had forgotten—thanks!) I think it’s easy for us to feel superior to people in the past, e.g., “how could they have thought that’s what an elephant looked like? Har har!” And yet every day I see people post things online that can be proven wrong with a four-second Google search. People could stand to be a mite more humble in that regard.

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  3. “And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
    The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
    Do grow beneath their shoulders.”

    Like your men whose heads grow under their shoulders! And the peek at your house.

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  4. Thank you for a reminder about a Ctesian and Herodotaean (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Hdt.+4.191.4) monster which I had forgotten!

    I think that the T.W. White essay is in “The Book of Beasts.”

    I am told that there is a letter from a missionary to a Carolingian or Ottonian bishop explaining that all is well, but he has heard that the dog-faced men live in a nearby valley which his new converts are frightened of, and if he meets them what should he do? We have the odd futurists’ conference or church council to address questions like that, not because are are sure that someone is out there, but because they might be and in the meantime playing with ideas is fun.

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  5. Marly: Do check out the Oakapple site; I think you’d enjoy some of their green men and other beasties.

    Sean: From Amazons to dog-faced men to the “Welsh Indians” on the 19th-century American frontier, exotic discoveries seem always to be waiting juuuust over the next mountain range, in the next valley, or beyond the next body of water. There remain sincere people who insist they’ll find Bigfoot, a conspicuously large hominid, in the forests of North America. Curiosity and hope clearly know no time or place.

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