Back in May I wrote a blog post about early modern maps of the Arctic and the Classical sources they used to imagine a magnetic mountain at the North Pole. John J. McKay has an interesting blog post exploring this same topic and offering an interesting sidelight on the Arctic lands.
On Mercator’s 1569 map, the first to offer an image of the Arctic as drawn from Classical and Norse sources, the cartographer writes: “Pygmae hic habitant 4 ad summum pedes longi, quaemadmodum illi quos in Gronlandia Screlingers vocant” (“Here live the Pygmies, at most 4 feet tall, like unto those they call Skrælings in Greenland”). Skræling was the medieval Norse term for the Native peoples of Greenland and the Arctic, first the Dorset and then the Thule (the ancestors of the Inuit). The word is believed to derive from a word for “skin,” perhaps inspired by the Native peoples’ characteristic animal-skin clothing. However, Kirsten Seaver has argued that Skræling was a Norse translation of pygmies, a term known to educated Norsemen from their reading of Classical writers, particularly Pliny the Elder’s Natural History. In this reconstruction of events, the Norsemen would have applied Classical terms to American discoveries to help make sense of the strange people they found there. Let's take a look at this interesting, if not completely proven, claim.
In “The Pygmies of the Far North” (Journal of World History, vol. 19, no. 1, 2008), Seaver writes:
The word “pygmy” derives from the Greek word for “cubit” because the Pygmies of Antiquity, perhaps inspired by Indo-European myths from India, were believed to be about a cubit or two high (18-36 inches). When the Norse arrived in Greenland, they—knowing the world was round—assumed it was the easternmost projection of Asia and therefore identified the Natives as representatives of the pygmy race of farthest India described by Pliny the Elder (Natural History 7.2).
While this is interesting, Seaver’s case for saying Skræling is a direct translation of Pygmy comes down to two pieces of evidence. The less convincing is Mercator’s letter of 1577 to John Dee, in which Mercator refers to the Arctic peoples as “Pygmies,” and Seaver’s inference from it is that the clerical writer of the lost 1360 book Inventio Fortunae Mercator referenced had met a Norseman named Ívar Bárdarson, whom she assumes had translated Skræling as Pygmies in official Latin correspondence: “When the friar and Ívar exchanged gifts in Greenland, their discourse would very likely have touched on these natives, and their conversations would certainly have taken place in Latin, in which any reference to Skræling(j)ar on Ívar’s part would have had to employ the word Pygmæi.” But, logically, this backward reasoning does not tell us that Pygmy was the origin for the word Skræling but rather that Pygmy was a “retronym” applied to a possibly preexisting word Skræling when translating back into Latin.
More convincing is the claim that medieval literature makes plain that the word Skræling was used as a pejorative to suggest small size, which Seaver combines with the established fact that the Norse named new things after what they perceived to be their defining characteristic, thus suggesting an origin in translating Pygmy to describe small Native peoples. Obviously, this would be stronger if a clear etymology was available to show a direct relationship between the word and any other directly referencing size, or, better yet, cubits. It is not inconceivable that the Skrælings were named for their skin clothes—their defining characteristic—and, after scholars (wrongly) identified their land with Pliny’s easternmost India, retroactively had their name applied to the Pygmies.
It's an interesting idea, and one I'd like to know more about. There's clearly a relationship between Classical Pygmies and how the Norse imagined their Arctic discoveries, but exactly what I think is still open to interpretation.
Fun fact from the article: Seaver writes that C. C. Rafn and Finn Magnusen’s 1837 compilation Antiquitates Americanae started the myth that the Newport Tower was a Norse church. That one still hasn't gone away. [Update: I searched the Antiquitates and couldn't find any mention of the Tower, not least on pages 404-405, which Seaver cites. I did find an extensive discussion of it in Rafn's sequel, the 1839 Supplement, which I presume must be the actual source.]
Second fun fact from the article: Despite the fact that the oldest chronicler of Norse expeditions to Greenland, Adam of Bremen, stated explicitly that the world was round (“Nam propter rotunditatem orbis terrarium…”—“On account of the rotundity of the earth…”), Victorian scholars were so convinced that medieval people believed in a flat earth (because their maps were flat!) that they simply ignored Adam and reinterpreted his writings in light of a “flat” earth. Science!
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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