Various species of mythical headless men were rumored, in antiquity and later, to inhabit remote parts of the world. They are variously known as akephaloi (Greek ἀκέφαλοι, “headless ones”) or Blemmyes (Latin: Blemmyae; Greek: βλέμμυες) and described as lacking a head, with their facial features on their chest. These were at first described as inhabitants of the Nile system (Aethiopia). Later traditions confined their habitat to a particular island in the Brison(e) River,[a] or shifted it to India.
Blemmyes are said to occur in two types: with eyes on the chest or with the eyes on the shoulders. Epiphagi, a variant name for the headless people of the Brisone, is sometimes used as a term referring strictly to the eyes-on-the-shoulders type.
the Blemmyes nomads in southern Egypt and the Saracens of the Syrian desert and made use of anti-Roman propaganda by the Manichaeans and Jews. Diocletian succeeded in putting down the revolt in Egypt and fortified the south against the Blemyes.
Very roughly around 1000 BC a group of people, referred to in the archaeological texts as the “C-group”, migrated from Lower Nubia (the area between present-day Aswan and Wadi Halfa) and settled in Upper Nubia (the Nile Valley north of Dongola in Sudan), where they developed the kingdom of Napata from about 750 BC. For some time this kingdom controlled Egypt too, supplying its 25th Dynasty. Contemporary with them are the archaeological remains of another cultural group, “the pan-grave people”. They have been suggested to have a likely direct link to the Beja people of later periods, and they have been identified with the Medjay of written sources (Bietak 1986: 17 f). Sites related to them have been found at Khor Arba’at and Erkowit in the heartland of present-day Beja (Arkell 1955: 78). The evidence suggests that only a minority of “the pan-grave people” lived in the Nile Valley, where they existed in small enclave communities among the Egyptians and C-group populations, being periodically used as desert scouts, warriors or mine workers (Bietak, ibid.) The majority were probably desert nomads, breeding donkeys, sheep and goats. After 600 BC, the Napatan, C-group dynasty lost control over Egypt as well as the then-rather desolate Lower Nubia. The latter area subsequently remained more or less without permanent settlements for four centuries. The main explanation offered by science for the hiatus of sedentary population from Lower Nubia has been a drying up of this part of the world (ibid: 18–19), making river valley agriculture difficult. Due to climatic change, the level of the Nile had been lowered to a degree which could only be compensated for at the time of Jesus Christ, when the sagia waterwheel was developed (Carlsson and Van Gerven 1979: 55). Until then, the area was only sparsely populated by desert nomads. Politically, it was “a sort of no-man’s land where caravans, unless they were provided with considerable escort, were delivered to brigands“.
The Greek term Blemmyes (Βλέμ[μ]υης) first appears in the third century BC in Strabo‘s Geographica and in one of the poems of Theocritus. Strabo describes the Blemmyes in connection with the Megabaroi, identifying the two peoples as subject to the Aithiopians, living on both sides of the Nile and in the land between the Nile and the Red Sea.
The Greek term may be cognate with similar Egyptian terms Bwrꜣhꜣyw (Enthronement stela of Anlamani, seventh century BC) and Brhrm (“Petition of Petiese”, 513 BC). This identification is not universally accepted by Egyptologists. In Coptic, Ⲃⲁⲗⲛⲉⲙⲙⲱⲟⲩⲓ Balnemmōui is widely accepted as equivalent to Greek Βλέμμυης Blémmuēs.
Their cultural and military power started to enlarge to such a level that in 193, Pescennius Niger asked a Blemmye king of Thebes to help him in the battle against the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. In 250, the Roman Emperor Decius put in much effort to defeat an invading army of Blemmyes. A few years later, in 253, they attacked Upper Egypt (Thebaid) again but were quickly defeated. In 265, they were defeated again by the Roman Prefect Firmus, who later in 273 would rebel against the Empire and the Queen of the Palmyrene Empire, Zenobia, with the help of the Blemmyes themselves. The Blemmyes were said to have joined forces with the Palmyrans against the Romans in the battle of Palmyra in 273
The Roman general Marcus Aurelius Probus took some time to defeat the usurpers with his allies but couldn’t prevent the occupation of Thebais by the Blemmyes. That meant another war and almost an entire destruction of the Blemmyes army (279-280).
During the reign of Diocletian, the province of Upper Aegyptus, Thebaid, was again occupied by the Blemmyes. In 298, Diocletian made peace with the Nobatae and Blemmyes tribes, agreeing that Rome would move its borders north to Philae (South Egypt, south of Aswan) and pay the two tribes an annual gold stipend.
Linguistic evidence indicates that the Blemmyes spoke an ancient Cushitic language related to the Cushitic Beja language. Rilly (2019) mentions historical records of a powerful Cushitic speaking group which controlled Lower Nubia and some cities in Upper Egypt. Rilly (2019) states:
“The Blemmyes are another Cushitic speaking tribe, or more likely a subdivision of the Medjay/Beja people, which is attested in Napatan and Egyptian texts from the 6th century BC on.”
On page 134:
“From the end of the 4th century until the 6th century AD, they held parts of Lower Nubia and some cities of Upper Egypt.”
He mentions the linguistic relationship between the modern Beja language and the ancient Cushitic Blemmyan language which dominated Lower Nubia and that the Blemmyes can be regarded as a particular tribe of the Medjay:
“The Blemmyan language is so close to modern Beja that it is probably nothing else than an early dialect of the same language. In this case, the Blemmyes can be regarded as a particular tribe of the Medjay.”
The Blemmyes occupied a considerable region in what is modern day Sudan. There were several important cities such as Faras, Kalabsha, Ballana and Aniba. All were fortified with walls and towers of a mixture of Egyptian, Hellenic, Roman and Nubian elements.
Kalabsha would serve as the capital of the Blemmyes. The Blemmyes culture was also influenced by the Meroitic culture, and their religion was centered in the temples of Kalabsha and Philae. The former edifice was a huge local architectural masterpiece, where a solar, lion-like divinity named Mandulis was worshipped. Philae was a place of mass pilgrimage, with temples for Isis, Mandulis, and Anhur. It was where the Roman Emperors Augustus and Trajan made many contributions with new temples, plazas, and monumental works.
Since Ptolemaic times, the “state religion” of Lower Nubia had been the Isis cult of Philae. Along with the Nobadia the blemmyes also worshipped at Philae The nobadia and the blemmyes were said to have negotiated with Rome to assure that they retained access to the island of Philae to worship Isis on festival days.
The kingdom of Kush
Despite the Egyptian presence in Upper Nubia, the indigenous culture of the region continued to flourish. This culture was deeply influenced by African peoples in the south and was little changed by the proximity of Egyptian garrisons or the imports of luxury articles by Egyptian traders. Indeed, the Egyptianization of Nubia appears to actually have been enhanced during the decline in Egypt’s political control over Nubia in the Second Intermediate Period (c. 1630–1540 BCE), when Nubians were employed in large numbers as mercenaries against the Asian Hyksos invaders of Egypt. This experience did more to introduce Egyptian culture, which the mercenaries absorbed while fighting in Egyptian armies, than did the preceding centuries of Egyptian military occupation. Conversely, the presence of these mercenaries in Egypt contributed to the growing African influence within Egyptian culture.
The defeat of the Hyksos was the result of a national rising of the Egyptians who, once they had expelled the Hyksos from the Nile valley, turned their energies southward to reestablish the military occupation of Nubia that the Hyksos invasion had disrupted. Under Thutmose I (reigned 1493–c. 1482 BCE) the Egyptian conquest of the northern Sudan was completed as far as Kurqus, 50 miles south of Abū Ḥamad, and subsequent Egyptian military expeditions penetrated even farther up the Nile. This third Egyptian occupation was the most complete and the most enduring, for, despite sporadic rebellions against Egyptian control, Nubia was divided into two administrative units: Wawat in the north, with its provincial capital at Aswān, and Kush (also spelled Cush) in the south, with its headquarters at Napata (Marawī). Nubia as a whole was governed by a viceroy, usually a member of the royal entourage, who was responsible to the Egyptian pharaoh. Under him were two deputies, one for Wawat and one for Kush, and a hierarchy of lesser officials. The bureaucracy was staffed chiefly by Egyptians, but Egyptianized Nubians were not uncommon. Colonies of Egyptian officials, traders, and priests surrounded the administrative centres, but beyond these outposts the Nubians continued to preserve their own distinct traditions, customs, and crafts. A syncretistic culture thus arose in Kush, fashioned by that of Egypt to the north and those of African peoples to the south.
Kush’s position athwart the trade routes from Egypt to the Red Sea, and from the Nile to the south and west, brought considerable wealth from far-off places. Moreover, its cultivated areas along the Nile were rich, and in the hills the gold and emerald mines produced bullion and jewels for Egypt. The Nubians were also highly valued as soldiers.
As Egypt slipped once again into decline at the close of the New Kingdom (11th century BCE), the viceroys of Kush, supported by their Nubian armies, became virtually independent kings, free of Egyptian control. By the 8th century BCE the kings of Kush came from hereditary ruling families of Egyptianized Nubian chiefs who possessed neither political nor family ties with Egypt. Under one such king, Kashta, Kush acquired control of Upper (i.e., southern) Egypt, and under his son Piye (formerly known as Piankhi; reigned c. 750–c. 719 BCE) the whole of Egypt to the shores of the Mediterranean was brought under the administration of Kush. As a world power, however, Kush was not to last. Just when the kings of Kush had established their rule from Abū Ḥamad to the Nile delta, the Assyrians invaded Egypt (671 BCE) and with their superior iron-forged weapons defeated the armies of Kush under the redoubtable Taharqa; by 654 the Kushites had been driven back to Nubia and the safety of their capital, Napata.
Although reduced from a great power to an isolated kingdom behind the barren hills that blocked the southward advance from Aswān, Kush continued to rule over the middle Nile for another thousand years. Its unique Egyptian-Nubian culture with its strong African accretions was preserved, while that of Egypt came under Persian, Greek, and Roman influences. Although Egyptianized in many ways, the culture of Kush was not simply Egyptian civilization in a Nubian environment. The Kushites developed their own language, expressed first by Egyptian hieroglyphs, then by their own, and finally by a cursive script. They worshipped Egyptian gods but did not abandon their own. They buried their kings in pyramids but not in the Egyptian fashion. Their wealth continued to flow from the mines and to grow with their control of the trade routes. Soon after the retreat from Egypt, the capital was moved from Napata southward to Meroe near Shandī, where the kingdom was increasingly exposed to the long-established African cultures farther south at the very time when its ties with Egypt were rapidly disappearing. The subsequent history of Kush is one of gradual decay, ending with inglorious extinction in 350 CE by the king of Aksum, who marched down from the Ethiopian highlands, destroyed Meroe, and sacked the decrepit towns along the river.
Christian and Islamic influence
Medieval Christian kingdoms
The 200 years from the fall of Kush to the middle of the 6th century is an unknown age in the Sudan. Nubia was inhabited by a people called the Nobatae by the ancient geographers and the X-Group by modern archaeologists, who are still at a loss to explain their origins. The X-Group were clearly, however, the heirs of Kush, for their whole cultural life was dominated by Meroitic crafts and customs, and occasionally they even felt themselves sufficiently strong, in alliance with the nomadic Blemmyes (the Beja of the eastern Sudan), to attack the Romans in Upper Egypt. When this happened, the Romans retaliated, defeating the Nobatae and Blemmyes and driving them into obscurity once again.
When the Sudan was once more brought into the orbit of the Mediterranean world by the arrival of Christian missionaries in the 6th century CE, the middle course of the Nile was divided into three kingdoms: Nobatia, with its capital at Pachoras (modern Faras); Maqurrah, with its capital at Dunqulah (Old Dongola); and the kingdom of ʿAlwah in the south, with its capital at Sūbah (Soba) near what is now Khartoum. Between 543 and 575 these three kingdoms were converted to Christianity by the work of Julian, a missionary who proselytized in Nobatia (543–545), and his successor Longinus, who between 569 and 575 consolidated the work of Julian in Nobatia and even carried Christianity to ʿAlwah in the south. The new religion appears to have been adopted with considerable enthusiasm. Christian churches sprang up along the Nile, and ancient temples were refurbished to accommodate Christian worshippers. After the retirement of Longinus, however, the Sudan once again receded into a period about which little is known, and it did not reemerge into the stream of recorded history until the coming of the Arabs in the middle of the 7th century.
After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 CE, the Arabs erupted from the desert steppes of Arabia and overran the lands to the east and west. Egypt was invaded in 639, and small groups of Arab raiders penetrated up the Nile and pillaged along the frontier of the kingdom of Maqurrah, which by the 7th century had absorbed the state of Nobatia. Raid and counterraid between the Arabs and the Nubians followed until a well-equipped Arab expedition under ʿAbd Allāh ibn Saʿd ibn Abī Sarḥ was sent south to punish the Nubians. The Arabs marched as far as Dunqulah, laid siege to the town, and destroyed the Christian cathedral. They suffered heavy casualties, however, so that, when the king of Maqurrah sought an armistice, ʿAbd Allāh ibn Saʿd agreed to peace, happy to extricate his battered forces from a precarious position. Arab-Nubian relations were subsequently regularized by an annual exchange of gifts, by trade relations, and by the mutual understanding that no Muslims were to settle in Nubia and no Nubians were to take up residence in Egypt. With but few interruptions, this peaceful, commercial relationship lasted nearly six centuries, its very success undoubtedly the result of the mutual advantage that both the Arabs and the Nubians derived from it. The Arabs had a stable frontier; they appear to have had no designs to occupy the Sudan and were probably discouraged from doing so by the arid plains south of Aswān. Peace on the frontier was their object, and this the treaty guaranteed. In return, the kingdom of Maqurrah gained another 600 years of life.
In literature and popular culture
Shakespeare alludes to the myths surrounding Blemmyes as headless beings:
“And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.”
“Who would believe that there were mountaineers
Dew-lapp’d like bulls, whose throats had hanging at ’em
Wallets of flesh? or that there were such men
Whose heads stood in their breasts?”
-Shakespeare, The Tempest
Blemmyes appeared in the 2000 novel The Amazing Voyage of Azzam by Kelly Godel, as cannibalistic tribesmen who guard a lost treasure of King Solomon. They use clubs, spears, and blow darts as weapons.
The Blemmyae also appear in Valerio Manfredi‘s novel The Tower, where they are portrayed as the murderous desert guardians of an ancient and terrible secret.
A Blemmye appears in Bruce Sterling’s 2005 short story The Blemmye’s Strategem.