The Blameless Aethiopians
“For who ever believed in the Aethiopians before actually seeing them? or what is not deemed miraculous when first it comes into knowledge? how many things are judged impossible before they actually occur? Indeed the power and majesty of the nature of the universe at every turn lacks credence if one’s mind embraces parts of it only and not the whole.”
Pliny, Natural Histories.
Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), Roman historian and scientist.
In Ancient times, Africans in general were called the Aethiopians1.The word Aithiops was the Greek word Herodotus and the ancients used to describe all known lands in Africa, South of Egypt.
Homer (c800BC) was the first Greek writer to mention the Aethiopians. He mentions them in both the Iliad and the Odyssey. To the ancient Greeks and early Romans, all of Africa consisted of Egypt and Aethiopians peopled of course by Black Africans. It was to the land of the “blameless Aethiopians” that Homer’s gods led by Zeus himself, repaired to feast for twelve days.
Pliny the Elder described Adulis, which port he said was the Aethiopians’ principal trading town. He stated that the term “Aethiopia” was derived from an individual named Aethiops, said to be the son of Hephaestus (aka Vulcan)2. This etymology was followed by all authorities, until around 1600, in the age of racism, when Jacob Salianus in Tome I of his Annales first proposed an alternate hypothesis deriving it from the Greek words aitho “I burn” and ops “face”3.
The Greek poets Hesiod (c 700 BC) and Pindar (c 450 BC) speak of Memnon as the “king of Aethiopia”, and further state that he founded the city of Susa (in Persia, Modern day Iran. ). Other Greeks, Scylax (c515BC), Hecataeus of Miletus (c 500BC) also wrote books about Africans but their works have been lost through time.
To the Ancients, Egypt was the stuff of dreams and the Aethiopians were the highest manifestation of these dreams. In their time, it was acknowledged that the root of the Egyptian civilisation was from the interior of Africa. For example, Diodorus writing about the major festival in Egypt,
“…for each year among the Egyptians the shrine of Zeus is carried across the river into Libya (Africa) and then brought back some days later, as if the god were arriving from Aethiopia (Africa)”4.
With reference to the race of the Egyptians, we have Herodotus’s eye witness accounts that categorically state the colour of their skins. IT is instructive that despite the so-called leading “experts” knowledge of this passage in The Histories, they still insist on separating Egyptian culture and the amazing pyramids from Africa. We should learn from this:
“There can be no doubt that the Colchians are an Egyptian race. My own conjectures were founded, first, on the fact that they are black-skinned and have woolly hair, which certainly amounts to but little, since several other nations are so too. But further and more especially, on the circumstance that the Colchians, the Egyptians, and the Aethiopians, are the only nations who have practised circumcision from the earliest times5.”
Herodotus KNEW they were Black. He visited Egypt in 450BC and saw them with his own eyes as opposed to modern-day experts. But as for the Aethiopians, nobody has ever argued their blackness. Of these black people, Herodotus was unstinting and verbose in his praise. In Book 3, Herodotus defines “Aethiopia” as the farthest region of Africa. He continued:
“Where the south declines towards the setting sun lies the country called Aethiopia, the last inhabited land in that direction. There gold is obtained in great plenty, huge elephants abound, with wild trees of all sorts, and ebony; and the men are taller, handsomer, and longer lived than anywhere else6.”
Ptolemy the geographer and other ancient Greek commentators believed that the “Aethiopian Olympus” was where the gods lived when they were not in Greece.
Strabo (Greek historian, geographer and philosopher. c64BC – 24AD) stated that some previous authors had considered Aethiopia’s northern border to begin at Mount Amanus, thus including all of Syria, Israel and Arabia.
The Greeks and the subsequent Romans had a healthy respect for the intelligence of Africans and respected them especially for their piety. Lucian mentions a thoughtful Negro scribe from Memphis named Pancrates. Aesop, of the Aesop’s tales was described as an Aethiopian.
Diodorus wrote that the Aethiopians were like the gods and without fault; Claudius Aelianus (Roman Author c 175AD – c235 AD) believed that the gods bathed in Aethiopia and Stobaeus (c 5th century AD) recorded that the Aethiopians do not need doors on their homes and do not steal the possessions that their neighbours leave in the street. Of no other part of the world is there a constant reference to such general honesty and lack of crime. (see the echo of this 2,000 years later in Ibn Battuta’s writing on Mali)
In the ancient Greek Romance Aethiopica by Heliodorus of Emesa (Greek writer, c 3rd century AD), an Aethiopian King was a model of wisdom, righteousness, and magnanimity:
“The king does not condemn people to death, and sends out messengers to tell his military troops not to slaughter the enemy, but to let them live when they have been defeated. The king proclaimed, “A noble thing it is to surpass an enemy in battle when he is standing, but in generosity when he has fallen.”
Lactantius Placidus (c 35AD) in a work attributed to him wrote:
“For the Aethiopians (Greek and Roman name for Africans) are said to be the justest men and for that reason the gods leave their abode frequently to visit them.”
Contrary to what we have been led to believe, there are thousands and thousands of manuscripts from different ages on Africans. It is a fascinating journey through the ages, from what the ancients (from 800BC to 200AD), wrote about Africans whom they called Aethiopians and/or Libyans, through the Islamic Scholars of the Islamic Golden Age (from the 8th century AD through to the 15th century AD) and down to the Europeans of the 15th to the 20th century. It makes for fascinating reading.
Who cares what Homer said about Africa, we ask? Who cares indeed what AL- Masudi or Ibn Battuta wrote about Africans? It is important because for there to be an African Renaissance, we have to have a term of reference. We have to de-construct the false narratives with which we currently interpret our realities.
When the Europeans NEEDED to start their own renaissance after 800 years of their dark ages, the went back to the last civilisation they could find in Europe. They went back to Plato and Aristotle and started their rebirth from this frame of reference.
The works of these great Greek philosophers had largely been lost to Europe. They had to be re-translated back from Arabic which was the language of the colonizers of Southern Europe for 700 years. These they used to build the fabric of their rebirth and philosophy.
What was written about Africa provide part of the lost threads we must unravel, weave together with other articles and create the new fabric of our consciousness.
1 Note that it does not refer to the present country known as Ethiopia alone but all of the Land of Africans.
2 Nat. Hist. 6.184–187; son of Hephaestus was also a general Greek epithet meaning “blacksmith
3 It is important to note that the ancients did not see the human race in terms of skin colour but in terms of the tribe or the country you belonged to; so there were Greeks, Persians, Colchians, Egyptians, Aethiopians, Scythians, Cimmerians and so on. They may have been “TRIBALISTS”, but they were not RACIST
4 Diodorus, Book 1
5 Herodotus Book 2, line 104
6 Herodotus Book 3, line 114
To Know…To be Free