Cyrenaica, part 1: Herodotus' Psylloi

The Herodotus is often referred to as “the father of history”, but to simply refer to his grand work as a historical work would not do full justice to it. Obviously, the main topic of his Histories is the Persian Wars, but the work includes much more than that. It provides a fairly wide context for the main conflict, and while painting this picture, it touches upon a wide variety of topics, including for example mythology, ethnography, geography, and of course history.

Herodotus’ stories are not simple anecdotes, or enumerations of facts, but are often rather complex and elegant narratives that require some processing. Often there are discernable “truths” within each story, but regularly Herodotus approaches these truths at an oblique angle: through metaphors, anecdotes, and similes. Likely Herodotus would have considered himself first and foremost a storyteller (as the title Histories suggests), with an aim to entertain and challenge his reader. And this in turn makes Herodotus such a rewarding read even today.

Let’s illustrate his oblique style with a very small, but telling example, in which he describes a Libyan people that used to live along Greater Sirte:

The Psylloi lived there prior to the Nasamones. These became extinct in the following way: A persistent wind from the south dried up their wells, and so all the lands around the Sirte became waterless. And then they came together to form a plan to march in arms against this southern wind (now, I tell it as the Libyans tell it!) And when they came to a great expanse of sand, the wind came on and buried them all. And after they became extinct in this way, the Nasamones came and took their land. (Herodotus, 4.173).

It is an incredible story, as also Herodotus himself remarks, that clearly should not be taken at face value. Let’s first identify the core elements of the anecdote. First of all, it suggests that in the regions where the Nasamones live (i.e. the lands around the Greater Sirte), there used to live a people called the Psylloi. Secondly, these Psylloi became extinct when they marched in war against the South Wind, which buried them alive. And lastly, this South Wind dried out the lands around the Sirte.

The first and the last element are none too remarkable. It’s perfectly possible that there used to live a people with another name in that region; it’s just really difficult to prove. With regards to the aridity of the region: the lands around the Sirte are in fact quite arid, and their proximity to the Sahara desert to the south may well have something to do with it. One can imagine that prolonged periods of land-winds from the desert can have a detrimental effect on the living conditions on the coast. So over all, this element of the story fit well within the environmental parameters of the region.

The second element of the story, that the Psylloi take up arms against the wind and are buried alive by it, is considerably less credible. However, legends about the wind, either personified or controlled by some malevolent being, misleading travelers, or even killing them outright abound in cultures that live near or in deserts. A storm can be a frightful and dangerous event in a desert environment, especially in a sandy deserts, since it can remove visibility and alter the very landscape that one is traversing. So we may take Herodotus’ anecdote as a legend relating to the dangers of travelling a desert environment. A similar legend occurs in his Histories about Cambyses II, who is said to have lost a whole army in a similar way, if not the same stretch of the Sahara desert (Herodotus, 3.26).

The name Psylloi itself is suspiciously Greek in appearance. It could be translated to: “fleas”, or perhaps in more general terms to: “small particles”. For example, in modern Greece there are many beaches that are called “Psilli Ammos”, which are generally the best beaches with the finest sands for the most comfortable sunbathing. One can imagine that similar fine sands could be especially bothersome in windy conditions in a desert environment. Could Herodotus have attached this Greek name to the sandy region in which the Psylloi supposedly succumbed to the treacherous South Wind? There is in fact a notoriously dangerous stretch of sandy desert southeast from the Greater Sirte known as “the Great Sand Sea”, which also houses the Siwa oasis (beyond which Cambyses’ army was supposedly lost). Perhaps Herodotus’ anecdote is an oblique comment on the very real dangers of the Great Sand Sea.

Despite having become extinct, the Psylloi make a reappearance in numerous other ancient texts. For example in Pausanias, Strabo, and Pliny. In these texts they are presented as a Libyan tribe with a remarkable resilience to snake-venoms, and even special healing powers. But that is an altogether different story.

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