Around the turn of the 5th century BCE, the Psylli tribe, a people located somewhere along the coast of the Gulf of Sirte (or the Great Syrte), mysteriously disappeared after suffering a major drought. The catastrophic natural disaster virtually wiped the Psylli civilization off the face of the earth—leaving only a scattering of Psylli tribesmen (oddly associated with snake charming and healing) that would sporadically surface, here and there, for many more centuries. Yet, their tribe, as a sovereign whole, was considered destroyed.
When Herodotus, the father of history, was born within the city of Halicarnassus in 490 BCE, the Psylli tribe would have just recently disappeared. During his travels and research for his great work, The Histories, Herodotus clamed to have interviewed Libyans about the downfall of the Psylli tribe. The resulting quasi-historical tale, which he recorded in his history, was one of the more mysterious and baffling entries in Herodotus’ collection of strange stories from folklore and myth.
Herodotus wrote that a terrible, hot and dry wind swept out from the southern deserts and flowed over the lands of the Psylli, drying up all of the tribe’s vital water. The destruction caused by the wind was total—the tribe’s tanks of stockpiled water evaporated and the rivers that had long kept the tribe alive suddenly disappeared.
With the people shocked and unsure of what to do, the elders called together a council of the Psylli tribe. The council, according to Herodotus, declared that the attack carried out by the wind was nothing less than an act of war against the Psylli people. To seek vengeance, the Psylli tribe then declared war against the southern wind. The people of the tribe gathered their weapons, and whatever supplies they had left, and marched into the desert to do battle with the wind.
Herodotous (and his supposed Libyan sources) claimed that the Psylli tribe, indeed, had their battle with the wind. Yet, the battle was a massacre. As the story goes, the wind lifted a massive sandstorm from the desert dunes and buried and killed the Psylli people under a torrent of sand.
At some point, the lands of the Psylli became, once more, sustainable to human life. Fairly quickly after the members of the doomed tribe marched to their death in the southern desert, one of the neighboring rivals of the Psylli opportunistically swooped in and seized the abandoned land.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.