Blackness Portrayed as the Face of Evil

Image of the Week: The reason these dark-skinned men are attacking Christian hermits is steeped in cultural history.

Pantoleon, Martyrdom of the 39 Fathers of Raithu in the Sinai by the Blemmyes, 976-1025. Biblioteca Apostolica, Vatican.

The presence of the Blemmyes and their ancestors in Nubia extends far back into prehistory. They seem to be descendants of the first African pastoralists and have continually occupied the hilly country of the eastern desert between the Red Sea and the Nile for at least several millennia. In the early historical period, they are probably to be identified with the Medjay people recorded in ancient Egyptian documents around 1800 B.C.

Herodotus, the fifth century B.C. Greek historian, was the first to refer to the Blemmyes as such. The account of these remote inhabitants of the known world by the “father of history” startles the reader with its characterization of a monstrous race whose heads are contained within their chests. This fanciful image of an undoubtedly real people has endured in the European imagination, so their depiction in ordinary human form is extremely rare.

The Blemmyes emerge more clearly on the historical stage during the late Roman Imperial period, when they attracted attention with their restless forays beyond their home region. From the wild fastness of the eastern desert, they invaded the fertile area along the Nile between Aswan and the Sudanese border known as the Dodecaschoinus. There they may have adopted aspects of the language and culture of Meroe, including the veneration of the mystery goddess Isis.

The Blemmyes remained in the area until well into the sixth century, when they were driven back into their homeland by the forces of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. The descendants of the Blemmyes are generally believed to be today’s Beja people, who inhabit the southern zone of the eastern desert of Egypt and Sudan as well as parts of Eritrea.

By the time the relatio of Ammonius was compiled, possibly as late as the seventh century, the warlike habits of the Blemmyes had quite likely become lodged within the cultural memory of the Byzantines as an archetypal symbol of sudden disaster, a late-antique form of the bogeyman. Similarly, by this time the theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church had incorporated the concept of blackness as a symbol of the demonic forces of evil arrayed against the benevolent agency of the court of heaven.

If Pantoleon did not know just what a real Blemmye looked like, he certainly associated the Blemmyes with black people, and rendered them as such. For models, he would have had ample opportunity to observe a broad range of actual blacks in the cosmopolitan ambient of Constantinople. From such actual examples, Pantoleon fashioned his own striking visual impression of the Blemmyes as credible human beings and real agents of history.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.