East is placed at the top. The sun and moon hold lush forests. Jerusalem is the center of the world. And dragons hold the globe up at the bottom. But there is one aspect of the Psalter World Map, created in the 1260s, that is even stranger: a line-up of grotesque men located near Africa, two of whom have faces in their chests.
These monsters, called blemmyae, were actually based on the writings of Classical authors such as Pliny the Elder. In The Natural History, penned in 77 AD, Pliny wrote of the members of a North African tribe who were “said to have no heads, their mouths and eyes being seated in their breasts.”
Over 1500 years later, authors were still talking about these chest-faced men. In Othello, none other than Shakespeare wrote of
men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders
Whether these hapless chaps are meant to symbolize the variety of God’s creatures, or if they were placed at the edge of the map to symbolically remove them from God’s world, is a matter of debate. To the Christians of medieval England, the headless men were particularly interesting for the fact that they tested their ethics and credulity. As Alixe Bovey, a medievalist at the British Library where the Psalter map is held, writes:
monsters were often used to define boundaries and to express a distinction between morality and sin—or conformity and nonconformity.
This post concludes a multi-part series of posts on ancient and Medieval wonders, to celebrate my 99c Pearseus: Rise of the Prince promo. As Pearseus has been described as “Ancient Greece in space,” it seemed strangely appropriate.