Sold Short


Mythology and folklore include all kinds of strange beings, including both the very big and the very small. The ancient Greeks wrote of Pygmies, called that because the pygme was a measurement from the wrist to the elbow. This was somewhat shorter than the Biblical cubit, defined as the distance from the elbow to the fingertips, the Greek word for which was pechys. Some accounts held that Pygmies actually were a pygme tall, although others allowed for them to be about three times that height. Either way, they were tiny. Their ancestor was named Pygmaeus, and was the son of Dorus, the ancestor of the Dorian people of Greece. It’s said that they originally lived in Scythia, and that they were constantly fighting cranes.

These birds drove them to the ends of the Earth, which to the Greeks would have been sub-Saharan Africa and India. Every time the cranes arrive in their territory, they do battle with the animals, sometimes on the backs of rams and goats. The Pygmies would routinely destroy the birds’ eggs, but they just couldn’t stop the crane incursions.

They build their houses of mud along with eggshells and feathers, although Aristotle said they lived in caves. There’s a story that says the ongoing battle started when their Queen Oenoe, also called Gerada, refused to make offerings to Hera when she gave birth. The vindictive goddess turned Oenoe into a crane, and she kept flying above her son’s home until her countrymen killed her. I guess the other cranes wanted revenge after that. There’s also an account of Herakles encountering the Pygmies, who try to pin down his hands and feet, but he just stands up to shake them off. This myth inspired Jonathan Swift’s account of Gulliver and the Lilliputians.

NinteEuropean explorers used the term “pygmies” to describe the unusually short tribes of central Africa, but the term is often considered to be an insult these days. Hey, I don’t think I’d want to be named after dwarfs who spent their time fighting birds. There are also ethnic groups classified as pygmies in the Philippines, Indonesia, and Australia.

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