For the legendary creatures, see Headless men.

The Blemmyes (Latin Blemmyae) were a nomadic Beja tribal kingdom that existed from at least 600 BC to the 3rd century AD in Nubia. They were described in Roman histories of the later empire, with the Emperor Diocletian enlisting Nobatae mercenaries from the Western Desert oases to safeguard Aswan, the empire's southern frontier, from raids by the Blemmyes.[1][2]

They also became fictionalized as a legendary race of acephalous (headless) monsters who had eyes and mouths on their chest.

In antiquity

The Greek geographer Strabo describes the Blemmyes as a peaceful people living in the Eastern Desert near Meroe.

Their cultural and military power started to enlarge to such a level that in 193, Pescennius Niger asked a Blemmye king of Thebas 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 Lower Aegyptus (Thebais) 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 Palmyra, Zenobia, with the help of the Blemmyes themselves. 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.[3]


Near East in 565 AD, showing Blemmyes and its neighbors.

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.

Blemmyes culture had also the influence of the Meroitic culture. 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.

In literature

Shakespeare alludes to the myths surrounding Blemmyes as headless beings:

Headless blemmyes representing Avarice and Gluttony in a Gothic fresco (1511) from the nave at Dalbyneder Church, Denmark

"And of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders."
-Shakespeare, Othello

"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.

The Blemmyae appear in The Monstrumologist (2009) a young adult horror novel by Rick Yancey.

The Blemmyae also appear in Umberto Eco's novel Baudolino as residents of Prester John's Kingdom.

See also


  1. "African Kingdoms 2500 BC to AD 350". 2014. The History Files. Retrieved 19 April 2014.
  2. History of Blemmyes and nomads in southern Egypt and Nubia, Saudi Aramco World, May/June 1998.
  3. According to Diocletian#Conflict in the Balkans and Egypt version 23 September 2011.


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