A Pygmy or Pygmaeus (Πυγμαῖος) is a being whose length is a πυγμὴ (pygmē), that is, from the elbow to the hand.1 The Pygmaei, in the plural, is the name of a fabulous nation of dwarfs, the Lilliputians of antiquity, who, according to Homer, had every spring to sustain a war against the cranes on the banks of Oceanus.2 They were believed to have been descended from Pygmaeus, a son of Dorus and grandson of Epaphus.3 Later writers usually place them near the sources of the Nile, whither the cranes are said to have migrated every year to take possession of the fields of the pygmies.4

The reports of them have been embellished in a variety of ways by the ancients. Hecataeus, for example, related that they cut down every corn ear with an axe, for they were conceived to be an agricultural people. When Heracles came into their country, they climbed with ladders to the edge of his goblet to drink from it; and when they attacked the hero, a whole army of them made an assault upon his left hand, while two others made the attack on his right hand.5 Aristotle did not believe that the accounts of the Pygmies were altogether fabulous, but thought that they were a tribe in Upper Egypt, who had exceedingly small horses, and lived in caves.6

In later times we also hear of northern Pygmies, who lived in the neighborhood of Thule; they are described as very short-lived, small, and armed with spears like needles.7 Lastly, we also have mention of Indian pygmies, who lived under the earth on the east of the river Ganges.8

Various attempts have been made to account for the singular belief in the existence of such a dwarfish nation, but it seems to have its origin in the love of the marvelous, and the desire to imagine human beings, in different climes and in different ages, to be either much greater or much smaller than ourselves.