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The inhabited world, according to Herodotus, Libya (Africa) is imagined as extending no further than the horn of Africa, terminating in uninhabitable desert. All people inhabiting the southermost fringes of the inhabitable world are known as Ethiopians because of their black skin.

Aethiopia (Greek: Αἰθιοπία) first appears as a geographical term in classical sources, in reference to the Upper Nile region, as well as all the regions south of the Sahara desert. Its earliest mention is in the works of Homer: twice in the Iliad,[1] and three times in the Odyssey.[2] The Greek historian Herodotus specifically uses it to describe all of Sub-Saharan Africa.[3] The name also features in Greek mythology, where it is sometimes associated with a kingdom said to be seated at Joppa, or elsewhere in Asia.

Before Herodotus

Homer (c. 800 BCE) is the first to mention "Aethiopians" (Αἰθίοπας); he mentions that they are to be found at the southern extremities of the world, divided by the sea into "eastern" (at the sunrise) and "western" (at the sunset). The Greek poets Hesiod (c. 700 BCE) and Pindar (c. 450 BCE) speak of Memnon as the "king of Aethiopia", and further state that he founded the city of Susa (in Elam).

In 515 BCE, Scylax of Caryanda, on orders from Darius the Great of Persia, sailed along the Indus River, Indian Ocean and Red Sea, circumnavigating the Arabian Peninsula. He mentioned Aethiopians, but his writings on them have not survived. Hecataeus of Miletus (ca. 500 BCE) is also said to have written a book about Aethiopia, but his writing is now known only through quotations from later authors. He stated that Aethiopia was located to the east of the Nile, as far as the Red Sea and Indian Ocean; he is also quoted as relating a myth that the Skiapods ("Shade feet") lived there, whose feet were supposedly large enough to serve as shade. The philosopher Xenophanes, who lived around the same time, noted that "The Thracians make their gods like them, with blue eyes and fair (or red) hair, while Aethiopians make their gods like them, black".

In Herodotus

In his Historiae (ca. 440 BCE) Herodotus presents some of the most ancient and detailed information about "Aethiopia". He relates that he personally traveled up the Nile to the border of Egypt as far as Elephantine Island (modern Aswan); in his view, "Aethiopia" is all of the inhabited land found to the south of Egypt, beginning at Elephantine. He describes a capital at Meroe, adding that the only deities worshipped there were Zeus and Dionysus. He relates that in the reign of Pharaoh Psamtik I (c. 650 BCE), many Egyptian soldiers deserted their country and settled amidst the Aethiopians. He further wrote that of Egypt's 330 Pharaohs, 18 were "Aethiopian" (i.e. the "Kushite dynasty"). He asserts that Aethiopia was one of the countries that practiced circumcision.

Herodotus tells us that king Cambyses of Persia (ca. 570 BCE) sent spies to the Aethiopians "who dwelt in that part of Libya (Africa) which borders upon the southern sea." They found a strong and healthy people. Although Cambyses then campaigned toward their country, by not preparing enough provisions for the long march, his army completely failed and returned quickly.

In Book 3, Herodotus defines "Aethiopia" as the farthest region of "Libya" (i.e. Africa): "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 else."[4]

Other Greco-Roman historians

The Egyptian priest Manetho (c. 300 BCE) listed Egypt's Kushite (25th) dynasty, calling it the "Aethiopian dynasty". Moreover, when the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek (c. 200 BCE), the Hebrew appellation "Kush, Kushite" became in Greek "Aethiopia, Aethiopians", appearing as "Ethiopia, Ethiopians" in the English King James Version.

Greek and Roman historians of a later era, such as Diodorus Siculus and Strabo, confirmed much of Herodotus' account of several distinct nations within the vast region of "Ethiopia" south of the Sahara desert, such as the Troglodytae and Ichthyophagi, described as living all along the African Red Sea coast (in modern Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and Somaliland), as well as several other peoples farther west. These authors also described second-hand stories of the mountainous part of Ethiopia where the Nile was said to rise. Strabo also stated that some previous authors had considered Aethiopia's northern border to begin at Mount Amanus, thus including all of Syria, Israel and Arabia.

Pliny the Elder described Adulis, which port he said was the Ethiopians' principal trading town. He also stated that the term "Ethiopia" was derived from an individual named Aethiops, said to be the son of Hephaestus (aka Vulcan).[5] This etymology was followed by all authorities, until around 1600, 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". This is according to a Spanish priest by the name of Francisco Colin (1592–1660), in his book "Sacra India" which includes a lengthy chapter on Ethiopia. Colin mentioned Salianus' opinion as one tentative new hypothesis for the source of the name.[6] The 'burnt face' derivation next appeared in works by German authors Christopher von Waldenfels (1677) and Johannes Minellius (1683), and was soon adopted as standard by most European scholars.

Also, as stated by Lobban, "Greeks referred to Nubia as 'Ethiopia,' including sometimes parts of 'Libya Interior.'"[7]

Aethiopia in the myth of Andromeda

Various Greek myths make reference to the kingdom of "Aethiopia" said to be somewhere in Asia. This kingdom in the myth of Andromeda was placed at Joppa in Phoenicia. Stephanus of Byzantium (c. 500 CE) asserted that the name of Joppa (Yoppa) itself was a contraction of "Aethiopia", and that in antiquity its rule had extended eastward as far as Babylonia.

Cepheus and Cassiopeia, the parents of Andromeda, are presented as the king and queen of Joppa. Pliny the Elder observed a tradition that associated a rock off the coast of Joppa with the mythical rock where Andromeda had been chained.[8] However, the Argonautica says Perseus' "return flight" took him "above the sands of Libya [Africa]".

Greek and medieval literature

Several notable personalities in Greek and medieval literature were identified as Aethiopian, including several rulers, male and female: Memnon and his brother Emathion, King of Arabia. Homer in his description of the Trojan War mentions several other Aethiopians, including Epaphus. Ptolemy the geographer and other ancient Greek commentators believed that the "Aethiopian Olympus" was where the gods lived when they were not in Greece.

The name Aethiopia was also occasionally connected with other locations in Asia, such as Lydia or elsewhere in Asia Minor, the Zagros Mountains, or India. After about 400 CE, there was particularly a great deal of confusion among Mediaeval European geographers as to whether Aethiopia was located in remotest Africa or Asia.


  1. Homer's Iliad I, 423. XXIII, 206.
  2. Histories, book 2, chapters 29 and 146; book 3 chapter 17 Odyssey, book 1, lines 22-23; book 4, line 84; book 5, line 282, 287.
  3. Histories, II, 29-30; III, 114; IV, 197
  4. Herodotus 3.114.
  5. Nat. Hist. 6.184–187; son of Hephaestus was also a general Greek epithet meaning "blacksmith".
  6. India Sacra: hoc est suppetiae sacrae, ex vtraque India in Europam, pro ... by Francisco Colin, p. 141.
  7. Richard Lobban, Historical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval Nubia, Scarecrow Press, 2004. p.1-1i
  8. Pliny the Elder. "v.69". Natural History. 
This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Aethiopia. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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