And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.
-From William Shakespeare’s Othello
The Headless Men have gone by many different names and span several cultures. Called Anthropophagus by ancient poets, their description of having a large mouth on their belly and no head on their shoulders mirrors the Indian legend of the Kabandha. But where is the root of this cannibalistic creature? What is the dark hart at the center of this legend? For that, we must look to the Greeks. To how different cultures dehumanize each other and to the Blemmyes.
The Blemmyes were supposedly a monstrous race of creatures with either animalistic features or exaggerated forms. Some were said to have dog heads but regular human bodies, others were said to have backward facing feet or giant limbs. One description of them, made popular over 2000 years ago by the Greek historian Herodotus, was of a headless man-eater with a giant maw on its stomach. This description would trickle down the collective consciousness as only a good story can. A Roman author, called Pliny The Elder, would later back up Herodotus with claims he knew of the creatures from accounts of sailors. Even in the Middle Ages, the Blemmyes were a popular addition to tales of the wild word.
Sometime in the 14th century, a writer named Mandeville spoke of them as “folk of foul stature and of cursed kind that have no heads. And their eyes be in their shoulders” Sir Walter Raleigh claimed to have it on good authority that the Blemmyes were, in fact, creatures called Ewaiponama and defended his belief in them even though he had never seen them himself.
The pattern is obvious. Every supposed encounter with the Headless Men are second-hand accounts. Someone heard a story from someone who knew the guy who saw them. From there it was like the Telephone Game, every telling became more and more twisted. Combine that with historians penchant for dehumanizing unknown people, people of foreign cultures, and you have the perfect recipe for a monster. For example, there is evidence that the Blemmyes could have been the Bedouin in their classic headdress. The Bedouin were nomadic but kept around the areas of North Africa, which was a place where the Blemmyes were said to dwell.
Though one has to wonder at our fascination with these malformed creatures. They have shown up in children shows such as Aaahh!! Real Monsters and played a terrifying role as the main horror in Rick Yancy’s book The Monstrumologist. Perhaps even a second-hand rumor has a bit of truth to it.
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