Headless men with face on chest

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The hapless condition of headlessness may be a physical phenomenon, but it may also be a grammatical or orthographic category in linguistics, and we have dealt with both kinds on Language Log, e.g.:

Now, what shall we make of the following?

Xingtian as drawn by Jiang Yinghao, 17th century; there are many different versions of this figure, but all basically with the same features and pose.

One of the Blemmyes, from a map of 1566 by Guillaume Le Testu. Among the scores of Blemmye representations I've seen, they're all roughly of this nature.

Both figures are pictured on a flat space amidst mountainous terrain.  Both have a weapon in their right hand and a shield / pail in their left hand.  Both have their right leg raised / advanced.  Both have their face on their chest and lack a head.  Etc.  I doubt very much that they could have arisen completely independently.

The Blemmye is associated with the word Scythe, an Iranian people who traversed the vast lands between Crimea and Korea.  More than any other group in the first millennium BC, which was so crucial for transeurasian exchange during the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, the Scythians were responsible for the transmission of cultural products across Eurasia.  This was due to their mastery of horse riding, advanced weaponry, and organizational and mental prowess.

This fits with the paradigm of long distance transmission of culture and language that I've been developing for decades in scores of posts, articles, and books.

Many of the items listed under "Selected readings" below refer to the Scythians.  This is a testimony to their tremendous significance for Eurasian history during the first millennium BC.

The earliest description of the demon called Xingtian comes from the Shānhǎi jīng 山海經 (Classic of Mountains and Seas), ch. 7, "Classic of Regions beyond the Seas:  West" (4th c. BC [?]).  Many of the abnormal beings in that book and that chapter come from the far west of the Central Kingdom (China), so I wouldn't be surprised if the Chinese picked up this myth from the Western Regions, which would include the Tarim Basin, Tianshan (Heavenly Mountains), and so forth.

Xingtian's name is written as Xíngtiān 刑天.  Through orthographic and phonetic confusion, it also was written as Xíngyāo 形夭.  If we try to force a meaning from the former, it would be something like "punished / mutilated [by] heaven" [?], and the latter would be something like "form (of one who has) died prematurely" [?].  Apparently, the name Xingtian is found already on the oracle bones and on the bronzes, so that would make it very early (latter part of the second millennium BC).

According to the account in the Classic of Mountains and Seas, Xingtian competed with Dì 帝 (Supreme Divinity) for supremacy.  The latter decapitated him, with the result that his head was transferred to his torso.

Now, for Blemmyae:

Various species of mythical headless men were rumoured, in antiquity and later, to inhabit remote parts of the world. They are variously known as akephaloi (Greek ἀκέφαλοι, "headless ones") or Blemmyes (Latin: Blemmyae; Greek: βλέμμυες) and described as lacking a head, with their facial features on their chest. These were at first described as inhabitants of ancient Libya or the Nile system (Aethiopia). Later traditions confined their habitat to a particular island in the Brison(e) River, or shifted it to India.

Source — includes a discussion of the unsettled etymology of the name "Blemmyes".

Here are images of Blemmyes, often with raised weapon in their right hand, the same as Xingtian.

Words related to headless figures:

akephaloi (Greek ἀκέφαλοι, "headless ones”)

Blemmyes (Latin: Blemmyae; Greek: βλέμμυες) — etymology is unknown, with many theories

See Andrzej Zaborski. 1989. "The Problem of Blemmyes–Beja:  An Etymolgy”, Beiträge zur Sudanforschung 4: 160–77.

Summary survey

The headless figure with his face on his chest (Blemmya) originated in classical Western literature.

Medieval European allusions and illustrations of such figures developed from the Greco-Roman sources that located them first in Libya (Herodotus), Ethiopia (Pliny), and later in “India."

A quick glance in Stith Thompson Folk Motif Index yields this:

F511.0.1.1. †F511.0.1.1. Headless person with eyes (eye) and mouth on breast. *Chauvin VII 87 No. 373 bis n. 2; Irish myth: *Cross; Icelandic: *Boberg. Chinese: Werner 387.

Some have suggested that the image derived from warriors who painted faces on their shields giving the impression of headless men with facial features on the chest.

Also note that Athena’s breastpiece was decorated with a horrible Gorgon face; similar decorations might’ve given an impression of faces on chests

Hypothesis on cultural affinity

If we have a complex cultural artifact consisting of multiple weirdnesses or unusual traits / features, and we find another such artifact at a distant location, even though we cannot find exemplars at a number of intervening sites, we should still not rule out the possibility that the two artifacts are somehow related.  If we find a group of such cultural artifacts at the two sites, we should take seriously the possibility that they belong to the same culture.  A good example of this would be Small River Cemetery No. 5 in the far northeast of the Tarim Basin near Lop Nor and the so-called Northern Cemetery (Beifangmudi) situated 600 kilometers to the southwest near the Khotan / Hotan River, which share dozens of distinctive cultural traits — despite the fact that no similar sites between them have yet been discovered, and the two sites themselves have only recently been excavated (Small River Cemetery in 2002-2005 and the Northern Cemetery roughly surveyed about a decade later after extensive looting that ruined the integrity of the site).

"Silk Road Symposium: The Northern Cemetery: Epigone or Progenitor of Small River Cemetery No. 5?", lecture by Victor H. Mair, University of Pennsylvania Museum (3/19/11)

Selected readings

[Thanks to Monika Zin, Adrienne Mayor, and Susan Huang]


  1. bks said,

    September 28, 2020 @ 4:04 pm


  2. Paul Turpin said,

    September 28, 2020 @ 4:17 pm

    From Wikipedia: "Likenesses of blemmyes are used as supports for misericords at Norwich Cathedral and Ripon Cathedral, from earlier local folklore. Writer Lewis Carroll is said to have invented characters based on objects in the Ripon church where his father served as canon, and in particular, the blemmyes here inspired his Humpty Dumpty character"

  3. CuConnacht said,

    September 28, 2020 @ 5:38 pm

    Othello captured Desdemona's attention with tales of his experiences among

    the Cannibals that each other eat,
    The Anthropophagi, and men whose heads
    Do grow beneath their shoulders.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    September 28, 2020 @ 6:08 pm

    If the jpg doesn't appear when you click on the URL that bks supplied, copy it into your browser:


    It's worth a look.

  5. Scott P. said,

    September 28, 2020 @ 7:06 pm

    This one's a real chest-scratcher.

  6. Chris Button said,

    September 28, 2020 @ 10:26 pm

    Apparently, the name Xingtian is found already on the oracle bones

    I doubt this is correct. I wonder where this idea is coming from?

    The relationship with 帝 is interesting though. The Shang 天 from the oracle bones had a coronal *tʰ- initial (as supported by its phonetic 丁 with *t-) and was clearly of little significance relative to 帝. But it was later borrowed to write a separate deity (later differentiated graphically as 祆) with a lateral *ɬ- onset (hence 天 is now often mistakenly reconstructed with an original lateral onset).

  7. Not a naive speaker said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 5:01 am

    From western Europe: the top right panel has a depiction of a headless man with a face on his chest

    Might it be a variation of the Cephalophore trope?

  8. Not a naive speaker said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 5:03 am

    Agrrrh the link eater
    Täfeldecke um 1700

  9. Victor Mair said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 5:05 am

    From Monika Zin:

    This is extremely interesting. The narrative about Rama who pushed the head of Kambandha into his belly looks different in this context.

  10. Topher Cooper said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 11:01 am

    When I was a child in the late 50s and the 60s I went to Palisades Amusement Park (which was located across the Hudson from Manhattan — on top of the famous cliffs called "The Palisades") fairly often. In 69 I worked their for a summer.

    Palisades included a side show. One of the attractions was a headless "person" with its features on its chest. "He" was presented sitting in a chair facing the audience. I'm afraid I forget the pitch containing such details as where he supposedly came from. The show included a "proof of life". The pitch man would say "Lift your right hand," and it would lift its right arm — as I remember, as a single unit swiveling from the shoulder with the forearm still at a right angle to the upper arm as it was when it rested on the arm of the chair. Then the pitch man would say "Lift your left hand" and we would get a repeat of the performance on the other side. Obviously it was a big puppet with someone backstage "pulling its strings."

  11. Victor Mair said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 8:16 pm

    From Ralph Rosen:

    Fascinating! There’s a long passage about the Scythians in the Hipppocratic text Airs Waters Places, but no mention of any of them being headless (though there are some other oddities he ascribes to them)!

    I wonder now if this might explain an occurrence of the word akephalos (headless) in a passage in Lucian’s work, The Scythian or the Consul:


    ‘…In the end, if we are to believe Theoxenus, who tells this story as well about him, Anacharsis alone of barbarians was even initiated into the mysteries after being made an Athenian citizen; nor I fancy would he have returned to Scythia, had not Solon died.

    Would you like me to complete my story so that it should not roam about in a headless condition? It’s high time to find out what Anacharsis and Toxaris from Scythia are still doing here at this time in Macedon bringing old Solon with them from Athens.


    It would be in keeping with Lucianic style to incorporate a subtle joke about headless Scythians here…!

  12. Brett said,

    September 29, 2020 @ 9:44 pm

    Blemmyes appear near the end of the book, The Saga of Erik the Viking by Terry Jones,* as the inhabitants of the land where the sun goes as night. Although Erik and his crew come into conflict with them, it is not ultimately clear whether or not the blemmyes were actually intentionally hostile.

    * Apart from being about an epic voyage led by a Viking captain named Erik, the book has nothing in common with Jones' later film Erik the Viking.

  13. misc544 said,

    September 30, 2020 @ 9:38 pm

    There’s a link to Headless men in the Hitmo… section

  14. misc544 said,

    September 30, 2020 @ 9:44 pm


  15. Chris Button said,

    October 3, 2020 @ 10:32 am

    To say I'm wildly speculating would be an understatement, but 祆 *ʰrə́ɲʔ < *ʰrʲə́m (I think I'd probably prefer a rhotic onset over a lateral *ɬ-, but it was a liquid nonetheless) does recall Blemmyes if it weren't for the bilabial onset. It's a shame 刑 is unequivocally velar rather than bilabial.

  16. Chris Button said,

    October 3, 2020 @ 10:34 am

    Sorry, should be 祆 *ʰrə́ɲ < *ʰrʲə́m

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