Pygmies & Dwarfs

Is There More Truth to the Legends than We Realized?

There were and still are important differences in size between the races. For proof of this, you need only stand a Dutchman next to a Lusitanian (Lusitania was the name of the ancient Roman province in what is now Portugal). So, depending on the viewpoint of this individual or that individual, we see the appearance of giants or dwarfs in stories. This is because everything is judged in accordance with a norm—the norm of the narrator. However, everything is relative, and as early as 1245 we find this observation by Gossouin de Metz: “The giants that live in some places display great amazement on seeing how small we are compared to them. We do the same to those who are only half our size.”

Travelers during the time of classical antiquity were astounded by their encounters with dwarf peoples, African Pygmies, and the Negritos of the Andaman Islands, the Malaysian Archipelago, and the Himalayan foothills. They reported their experiences with some embellishments. Legend did the rest.

It is impossible to deal with the dwarfs of the Middle Ages without touching on this reality, because the Pygmies supplied the intelligentsia of this era with descriptive motifs and the Latin name for dwarfs, pygmaeus, which was widely used in the scholarly literature to the detriment of the more obscure terms pumilio and nanus (both meaning “dwarf ”). The fable of the Pygmies at the far corners of the world established the credibility that could be granted to the dwarfs of the Medieval West. If Pygmies were spoken of by authors like Pliny the Elder and Solinus, and even the Church Fathers, it is because they existed, and not only within the confines of the known world. We should always keep in mind that the folk traditions, which became attached to scholarly traditions have rarely disappeared without a trace. In the Middle Ages doubt was never cast upon the reports of the Greeks and Romans, and even Saint Augustine discussed the serious matter of whether certain monstrous humans might have descended from “our father of all,” Adam.

Knowledge of the Pygmies has been around for a long time. Hesiod spoke of them in the eighth century BCE, and a century later Homer popularized the fable of their battle with the cranes. This fable reappears in the writings of Aristotle, but it was not until Herodotus (fifth century BCE) that we see the first ethnographical report. In the fourth century BCE, Ctesias of Cnidus, a physician in the court of the Persian king Artaxerxes II Mnemon, devoted a long description of the Pygmies in his Indika. Only fragments of this work survive, and the piece that concerns us here was collected by Photios I (ninth century), the Patriarch of Constantinople, in his Bibliotheca, in which we can read:

“In the very middle of India there are black men, called Pygmaioi (Pygmies), who speak the same language as the other inhabitants of the country. They are very short, the tallest being only two cubits in height, most of them only one and a half. Their hair is very long, going down to the knees and even lower, and their beards are larger than those of any other men. When their beards are full-grown they dispense with wearing clothes and let the hair of their head fall down behind, well below the knees, while their beard trails down to the feet in front. When their body is thus entirely covered with hair they fasten it round them with a girdle, so that it serves them for clothes. They have a very large and fat penis; it hangs down to their ankles. They are snub-nosed and rather ugly. Their animals, sheep and oxen, are also pygmies. Their horses are no larger than the size of our rams. Three thousand of these pygmies are in the retinue of the King of India. They are very skilled in the art of archery. They are also very just and observe the same laws as the Indians. They hunt the hare and the fox, not with dogs, but with ravens, kites, crows, and eagles.”

While this description resembles an ethnologist’s report, some elements already sound much like the stuff of legend—the size of the animals, for example.

Between 300 and 290 BCE, Megasthenes, Ptolemy II’s ambassador to the king of India’s court, also spoke of these astonishing people. Strabo (64 BCE—circa 25 CE) preserves for us the following passage from his lost book:

“[Megasthenes] then deviates into fables, and says that there are men of five, and even three spans in height, some of whom are without nostrils, with only two breathing orifices above the mouth. Those of three spans in height wage war with the cranes (described by Homer) and with the partridges, which are as large as geese; these people collect and destroy the eggs of the cranes which lay their eggs there; and nowhere else are the eggs or the young cranes to be found; frequently a crane escapes from this country with a brazen point of a weapon in its body, wounded by these people.”

We can see how legend gradually superseded reality and transposed it into the sphere of the marvelous. Here, the Pygmies have no noses and have become like another monstrous people, the Arhines.

Pliny the Elder, whose Natural History represents the whole of human knowledge in the first century AD, mentions the Pygmies, and his account deserves careful reading as it, too, contains elements of legend:

“Beyond these people, and at the very extremity of the mountains, the Trispithami and the Pygmies are said to exist; two races which are but three spans in height, that is to say, twenty-seven inches only. They enjoy a salubrious atmosphere, and a perpetual spring, being sheltered by the mountains from the northern blasts; it is these people that Homer has mentioned as being waged war upon by cranes. It is said, that they are in the habit of going down every spring to the sea-shore, in a large body, seated on the backs of rams and goats, and armed with arrows, and there destroy the eggs and the young of those birds; that this expedition occupies them for the space of three months, and that otherwise it would be impossible for them to withstand the increasing multitudes of the cranes. Their cabins, it is said, are built of mud, mixed with feathers and eggshells. Aristotle, indeed, says, that they dwell in caves.”

Incidentally, we may note that a pillar capital in the Cathedral of Saint Lazarus in Autun (Burgundy, France) shows a Pygmy on horseback over a crane that it is slaying.

Drawing inspiration from the works of Pliny or Solinus (a mediocre third-century grammarian), the writers of the Middle Ages retained only a part of the information. They situated the Pygmies in India (a designation that also referred to Ethiopia and Egypt as well as to the Indian subcontinent proper) as well as on the island of Bridinno to the north of Asia. Here, it is actually the Lapps that are the target of observations. The learned writers of the Middle Ages refer to the Pygmies as “little men” (homolulli) or “dwarfs” (pumiliones, nani), and never forget to recount their combat against the cranes, or to allude to it. Later, the cranes were transformed into griffins.

In the twelfth century, the theologian Honorius of Autun expanded upon the history of these individuals: the wives of the Pygmies give birth every three years and have become old by the time they are eight. This piece of information is taken from Pliny, where it concerns another people, but it is easy to see how such a connection is made: because they are small in size, the Pygmies can only have short lives. By the thirteenth century, the Pygmies had become well established in Medieval European legends, and some writers even claimed that they paid tribute to the giants of Canaan who had subjugated them. Similarly to the Acephali, Cynocephali, Skiapodes, and other monstrous human-like beings, the Pygmies were accorded a place in the geographies and encyclopedias, as well as on maps. Theologians showed an interest in them that was equal to that of the scholars. Saint Augustine wondered whether they might be the progeny of Adam, and many centuries later Albertus Magnus (1206–1280) saw them as a possible link between man and ape. Citing a case of dwarfism affecting an eight-year-old girl of Cologne who had the size of a one-year-old child, he echoed an explanation that had earlier been put forth by Avicenna and traced the origin of this monstrosity to a flawed act of coitus, one in which only a small portion of the father’s semen had entered the mother’s womb. We should note that Aristotle has already suggested a dual theory as an explanation for this condition: it resulted from a womb that was too small for the embryo, as well as the insufficient feeding of the newborn.

The scholars and the theologians of the Middle Ages never succeeded in determining whether to classify the Pygmies as men or animals. Peter of Auvergne (died 1304), rector of the University of Paris and later the bishop of Clermont clearly raised the question: “Are Pygmies men?” Despite a long examination of the matter, he did not answer it, however, and left it to others to resolve. The first notable progress was achieved by Odoric of Pordenone (1289–1331), a missionary sent to China in 1314, who saw them as men possessing a “reasonable soul” like rest of us.

We should not assume that only Pygmies made it into the texts. Thanks to Rabanus Maurus (784–856), the Praeceptor Germaniae (“teacher of Germany”) who was the abbot of Fulda and later the archbishop of Mainz, we are informed that dwarfs were known in the West. Rabanus interpreted the noun “Pygmy” as designating: “Those whom the common folk call “the seven-caulinians” because seven of them can sleep beneath a stalk (caula).”

Unfortunately, this is the only evidence I have been able to collect on the existence of autochthonous dwarfs. In any case, it shows that the term “Pygmies” can designate other individuals than the people of the East introduced by Pliny and other authors.

Since reality played an important role in the formation of legendary traditions, the question has been raised whether the dwarfs of the court could also have had some signficance in this regard. If we study the texts predating the sixteenth century, we must acknowledge that there is a lack of evidence that would allow for a categorical answer. The English chronicler John of Oxnead (Johannis de Oxenedes), whose work covers the years 449 to 1292, cites, in a list of the marvels that left their mark on the year 1249, a court dwarf that was measured at three feet. We also know that the Countess of Artois and Burgundy, Mahaut (Mathilda), had a dwarf of Sicilian origin, Calo Jean, for a servant. He married in 1304, but his wife died shortly after. He remained in the company of the countess until 1322, at which time he retired to the monastery where Mahaut’s father had been laid to rest. He died there in 1328. The dwarf Perrinet lived in the court of this same noble lady around 1310. We can see that these examples are quite few in number when compared to later times. Catherine of Medici tried to create a race of dwarfs by marrying people of small stature together. There is also the painting by Anthonis Moor, now housed at the Louvre Museum, which depicts the dwarf of Charles Quint. In the Prado Museum there is the painting by Velasquez in which the dwarf of Philip IV appears.

While the extensive studies in this direction have proven to be disappointing, we can at least assume that there is no reason why cases of biological dwarfism would have been less frequent during the Middle Ages than they are today. Since the standards of hygiene, food (most significantly), and gynecological supervision were certainly much lower than they are today, it is probable that there were many cases of dwarfism, just as there were also other monstrosities caused by bone deficiencies or disorders of the endocrine system. Among other things, I base my assumption upon the testimony of Hugo von Langenstein, the member of a noble family living on the shores of Lake Constance. Around 1290, he wrote:

“Everyday are born in the world of men those who, from the front and from the back, are crafted so poorly that it is hard to rank them among the number of a man’s children. The blind are as numerous as the paralytics. Their father, mother, and brothers are ashamed of them; the sight of their child and their great grief are a heavy burden. More than one has two heads, hard as that may be to believe. More than one has two bodies, who could describe it? May God have mercy! There are some who are missing arms, others are born without hands and with various malformations.”

What a terrible portrait this is. The scant evidence for cases of dwarfism most likely arises from the fact that these children were not viable and must have perished in the weeks immediately following their birth.

Here I have presented the earliest traditions that contributed to the medieval belief in dwarfs. It is difficult to evaluate their exact impact on literature and mentalities, but one thing is almost certain: when poets and writers included ugly and poorly built dwarfs in their tales, they were inspired by reality. We know, in fact, that there are two types of dwarfism: individuals of the first type are quite normal and good-looking, just miniature; the second type is ugly, with limbs that are disproportionate in size. The first type are intelligent, and are able to procreate and live for a long time; the second type, who are stricken with physical degenerations, are simple-minded, surly, infertile, and die young.

The fable of the Pygmies has provided several components to the literature that we can determine more or less. First, it fixed the size of dwarfs, which is almost always described as being around three spans. Next, it lent credence to the notion of dwarf animals that served as mounts for these miniature beings. These mounts would be adapted to our horizon and to our fauna—they are horses, chamois, and deer.


The above is an edited excerpt from the book: The Hidden History of Elves & Dwarfs, Avatars of Invisible Realms, by Claude Lecouteux (Inner Traditons, 2018), translated by Jon E. Graham. Reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.

By Claude Lecouteux