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African Pygmies   > About

THE WORD "PYGMY"

Origin, meaning and use of the term

Geranomachia (battle between the Pygmies and the cranes)
1. Ancient Greek depictions of the legendary battle between Pygmies and cranes (geranomachia): the François Vase (top), a large Attic volute-krater dating to c. 570-565 B.C., and an aryballos (bottom-right), an oil container often used by athletes, dating to the same period.
"Pygmy", a term with numerous mythological and ethnographic referents, derives from the Greek word Πυγμαίος (Pygmaîos, via the Latin Pygmaeus), meaning approximately "one cubit high" (slightly less than 50 cm, or 18 inches, the distance from the elbow to the knuckles or fingertips).

Homer was the first to mention the Pygmies, in the third book of the Iliad, referring to their legendary and eternal battle with the cranes: the geranomachia (see images 1 and 4).

Many centuries later (at the time of nineteenth-century explorations), when European explorers encountered African rainforest peoples, particularly small in stature, they thought to find an ethnographic confirmation of the ancient legend's origin. Hence, the arbitrary application of the Greek name of "Pygmies" to peoples who may have no connection – contrary to what is often claimed – with the legends of ancient Greece (see images 2 and 3).


Anyway, when referring to African rainforest hunter-gatherers (as well as to any other people) it is always preferable to use the native name by which they call themselves (Baka, Mbuti, Bongo, Kola, Bedzan, Koya, Aka, Twa, etc.). However, we should also note that despite some differences (including the linguistic ones) these groups are characterized by cultural and somatic traits which are very homogeneous and clearly distinct from those of all other Central African peoples, and that there isn't an alternative term for "Pygmies" which can effectively indicate them all. It was therefore decided to freely use the term in the website's text and address, for that and other reasons (including its universal diffusion, the clear and generally shared link with its ethnographic referent, the site's informative purpose, etc..), but always bearing in mind that this term comes from a non-native word, arbitrarily assigned from outside.

Images of the geranomachia (Pygmies against cranes) on vases, frescoes, mosaics and antique prints
4. The battle between the Pygmies and the cranes (geranomachia) mentioned by Homer in the third book of the Iliad:
ancient depictions on vases, frescoes, mosaics and antique prints.


The word "Pygmy" in the languages of the world:

English: Pygmy, Pygmies
Français (French): Pygmée, Pygmées
Español (Spanish): Pigmeo, Pigmeos
Italiano (Italian): Pigmeo, Pigmei
Português (Portuguese): Pigmeu, Pigmeus
Deutsch (German): Pygmäe, Pygmäen
日本語 (Japanese): ピグミー
中文 (Chinese): 俾格米人
हिन्दी (Hindi): पिग्मी
Русский (Russian): Пигми, Пигмеи
Nederlands (Dutch): Pygmee, Pygmeeën
Svenska (Swedish): Pygmé, Pygméer
Dansk (Danish): Pygmæ, Pygmæer
Norsk (Norwegian): Pygmée, Pygméer
Suomi (Finnish): Pygmit
العربية (Arabic): بيغمي
Azərbaycanca (Azerbaijani): Piqme, Piqmelər
বাংলা (Bengali): পিগমি
Беларуская (Belarusian): Пігмей, Пігмеі
Български (Bulgarian): Пигмей, Пигмеи
བོད་ཡིག (Tibetan): ཕིག་མིའི་མི།
Català (Catalan): Pigmeu, Pigmeus
Čeština (Czech): Pygmejové
Chi-Chewa (Nyanja): Akafula
Ελληνικά (Greek): Πυγμαίος, Πυγμαίων
Esperanto: Pigmeo, Pigmeoj
Euskara (Basque): Pigmeo, Pigmeoak
한국어 (Korean): 피그미
Hrvatski (Croatian): Pigmeji
Ido: Pigmeo, Pigmei
Bahasa Indonesia (Indonesian): Pigmi
עברית (Hebrew): פיגמים
Kongo: Mumbenga, Bambenga
Lietuvių (Lithuanian): Pigmėjus, Pigmėjai
Lingála (Lingala): Mbenga, Bambenga
Magyar (Hungarian): Pigmeus, Pigmeusok
Bahasa Melayu (Malay): Pigmi
Polski (Polish): Pigmej, Pigmeje
Română (Romanian): Pigmeu, Pigmei
Srpski (Serbian - latin): Pigmi, Pigmeji
Српски (Serbian - cyrillic): Пигми, Пигмеји
Srpskohrvatski (Serbo-Croatian): Pigmej, Pigmeji
தமிழ் (Tamil): பிக்மி இனம்
Taqbaylit (Kabile): Ifɣulen
Türkçe (Turkish): Pigme , Pigmeler
Українська (Ukrainian): пігмей, Пігмеї
Tiếng Việt (Vietnamese): Người Pygmy
Afrikaans: Pigmeë
Bosanski (Bosnian): Pigmeja
Kreyòl ayisyen (Haitian Creole): Pigme
Eesti (Estonian): Pügmeed
Galego (Galician): Pigmeo, Pigmeus
ಕನ್ನಡ (Kannada): ಪಿಗ್ಮಿಗಳಂತಹ
Latino (Latin): Pygmaeus, Pygmaei
Slovenčina (Slovak): Pygmej, Pygmejovia / Pygmeji
Slovenščina (Slovenian): Pigmejca
తెలుగు (Telugu): పేగ్మీస్
isiZulu (Zulu): AbaThwa


* The page background is inspired by abstract patterns painted on bark clothes by Mbuti women, in the Ituri rainforest (Mbuti Pygmies of the Northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo). The decorations of the barks, which may refer to the reality of rainforest environment and Pygmy camps without offering a direct representation of them, are carried out with various natural pigments, using flexible sticks, liana cords, small stamps, or simply the fingertips dipped into the color.
The word "Pigmeo" - Origin and meaning       Page URL: http://www.pygmies.org/about/pygmy.php       Photos, texts and audio recordings by Luis Devin.
The time in the tropical rainforests of the Western Congo Basin, where the Baka and the other Pygmy peoples live, is 22:49.
Every minute, at least 25 hectares (250.000 m²) of forest are destroyed around the world (source: WWF).