I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time tracing the alleged “mysteries” of Muslim and African “discoveries” of America, based largely on misconstrued texts from the journals of Christopher Columbus. After debunking nearly everything on the standard list of “evidence” for Muslim exploration of the pre-Columbian Caribbean, I need a little break. So today, let’s look at Columbus and Greek mythology. First, a fun passage from Columbus (as redacted by Bartolomé de Las Casas) on the events of January 9, 1493, during his first voyage:
El día passado, quando el almirante yva al río del oro dixo que vido tres serenas, que salieron bien alto de la mar; pero no eran tan hermosas como las pintan, que en alguna manera tenían forma de hombre en la cara. dixo que otras vezes vido algunas en Guinea en la costa de la Manegueta.
This passage has been used in the mermaid literature (and, sadly, there is an entire genre of mermaid pseudoscience) to suggest that Columbus actually saw mermaids, but even the Spanish authors who immediately followed in Columbus’s wake doubted this. Las Casas himself made note that these were almost certainly manatees. Columbus’s description echoes that of Oviedo in the Natural History of the Indies, where the writer describes (chap. 85) manatees as “of an ugly appearance.” Certainly, most later authors have understood this as referring to manatees.
It’s interesting that Columbus (via Las Casas) uses the word “serenas”—from the Sirens—to represent the mermaids. Sirens, of course, were bird-women in Greek myth, while mermaids were fish-women most fully developed in medieval lore. But since the sirens were associated with the sea, they became confused with mermaids.
Columbus also recorded an interesting legend of the native peoples of Cuba, about one-eyed men who lived somewhere to the southeast, in a land called Bohio, which Las Casas and later writers have suggested was meant to represent Hispaniola. From standard translations:
He also understood [from the Indians] that, far away, there were men with one eye [hombres de un ojo], and others with dogs’ noses who were cannibals, and that when they captured an enemy, they beheaded him and drank his blood, and cut off his private parts. (Nov. 4, 1492)
While this is hardly news—stories that the people beyond the shore were zany mutants and cannibals are nearly a human universal—what is interesting is that some Victorian writers tried to make this into proof of Greek mythology! Mary H. Hull, in her children’s book Columbus and What He Found (1892) renders these fellows into “one-eyed giants” before adding that “Homer couldn’t have invented the one-eyed man, for we see the North American Indians had the same story. How does it happen? Can anyone tell how it is that the Norsemen, the Arabians, the South Africans, the Greeks, and our Indians were always scaring themselves about the one-eyed man?”
Well, the obvious is that she’s pulled together unrelated ideas. The Greek myths have the Cyclopes, and these carry over to the Arabs, who borrowed the Polyphemus incident from the Odyssey wholesale for the voyages of Sinbad. That accounts for the Arabs. The Norse didn’t fear the one-eyed man, they worshiped him—the chief god, Odin, who gave one eye for wisdom. I will confess to being ignorant of what South African group had Cyclops myths.
But there is plenty of doubt whether the story Columbus reported the Taino people as relating to him is actually true. Columbus did not speak the language, nor did the Taino speak Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, or Aramaic, the languages of Columbus’s interpreter—who at any rate wasn’t there when the old man supposedly told Columbus about Cyclopes and dog-men.
Remember, Columbus thought that he was sailing to India, and he would have read up on what he should have been finding in India. Among the ancient testimonies would have been that of Ctesias whose account of India was preserved in Pliny’s Natural History (7.2) and more fully in Photius’ Library and described dog-headed men called cynocephali. Pliny: “On many of the mountains again, there is a tribe of men who have the heads of dogs, and clothe themselves with the skins of wild beasts. Instead of speaking, they bark; and, furnished with claws, they live by hunting and catching birds.” Photius’ version adds that they eat only raw meat. It’s probably worth mentioning that the same chapter of Pliny also discusses cannibalism and Cyclopes, though not in connection with India, as well as one-legged men and men with eyes in their shoulders, this time placed in India itself.
Columbus owned an Italian translation of Pliny published in Venice in 1489, and he quoted from Pliny in his writings. But we need not necessarily posit Pliny as the direct origin for the dog-nosed men of the Columbus account. The story continued through the Middle Ages, become ensconced as a staple of travel writing. Marco Polo cited them as well, placing them specifically on islands near India:
Angamanain is a very large Island. The people are without a king and are idolaters, and no better than wild beasts. And I assure you all the men of this Island of Angamanain have heads like dogs, and teeth and eyes likewise; in fact, in the face they are all just like big mastiff dogs! They have a quantity of spices; but they are a most cruel generation, and eat everybody that they can catch, if not of their own race.' They live on flesh and rice and milk, and have fruits different from any of ours. (Travels 3.13, trans. Henry Yule)
A nearly identical account occurs in John Mandeville and Friar Odoric, though without the spices. Now, what was Columbus looking for when he “heard” that dog-headed cannibals had an island nearby? Spices! In fact, the natives “told” him that the cannibal dog men lived where the cinnamon tress grew: “The Admiral showed the Indians some specimens of cinnamon and pepper he had brought from Castile, and they knew it, and said, by signs, that there was plenty in the vicinity, pointing to the S.E.” (Nov. 4, 1492). They then told him that the same direction was the home of cannibal dog people, as quoted above.
Surely this is no coincidence that the two accounts align point for point, from spices to dog faces to cannibalism. Columbus, remembering the passage from Marco Polo, has applied Polo’s geography of India to the Caribbean and imported with it the dog-faced men. (Different scholars suggest an origin in Ctesias/Pliny or naturally-occurring upturned noses and curly hair for Polo’s description.) Most modern scholars believe Columbus was applying European ideas of some type to half-understood Taino efforts at communication; several scholars have also linked this claim specifically to Polo’s passage, though so far as I know without linking in the coincidence of spices. (Someone must have noticed this, but I am unaware of who might have done so.)
Later, Columbus would return with drawings of dog-headed men to show the native people in the hopes of finding these medieval myths. Other Spanish conquistadors and missionaries claimed to hear tell of the entire bestiary of John Mandeville and Pliny, from the one-footed men (said to be in the Amazon jungle), to men with faces in their stomachs (in Venezuela, allegedly). As for the dog-men, well even Cortes had orders to search them out, though he failed to find them. A memorial to the search stood in the Franciscan monastery at Tepeaca, where the friars carved four of them into their fountain. The Turkish admiral Piri Reis, on the strength of Portuguese accounts and the records of Columbus, drew a dog-headed man in South America on his famous world map.
For nearly a century, the Spanish still tried to apply Pliny’s India to the Indies, until slowly but surely the old Classical stories faded before facts.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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