Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE) was an ancient scholar from Sicily who compiled, combined, and (for the most part) chronologically organized the content of the works of earlier geographers and historians into a text called the Library of History. This text contains information on the myths, legends, folklore, and history that Diodorus scrouged up in Sicily, Egypt and Rome, and it serves as a great companion piece to the books of other ancient historians. For the time periods in which the existent works of such historians have become scarce, Diodorus’ Library can sometimes bridge the gaps. For this brief article, however, we will focus on a curious piece of folklore that Diodorus Siculus included in his Library—the tale of the monster clouds near Cyrene.
As told by Diodorus, people traveling in the vicinity of Cyrene (approximately modern Shaḥḥāt, Libya) and its nearby arid environments reported seeing frightening sights in the sky as they explored the region. What they saw, so the story goes, were shapes of massive creatures floating in the air, and these often-unnerving silhouettes seemed quite animated, to the extent that travelers felt they were being followed and harassed by living sky-beings. Diodorus Siculus wrote a colorful description of these supposed nebulous encounters:
“[A]t certain times, and especially when there is no wind, shapes are seen gathering in the sky which assume the forms of animals of every kind; and some of these remain fixed, but others begin to move, sometimes retreating before a man and at other times pursuing him, and in every case, since they are of monstrous size, they strike such as have never experienced them [before] with wondrous dismay and terror. For when the shapes which are pursuing overtake the persons they envelop their bodies, causing a chilling and shivering sensation, so that strangers who are unfamiliar with them are overcome with fear, although the natives, who have often met with such things, pay no attention” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 3.50).
While most people might explain this story as something caused by clouds or fog, Diodorus Siculus decided to offer a lengthier analysis. Calling on the limited atmospheric sciences of his day, Diodorus provided his readers with an entertaining hypothesis. As for the monstrous shapes in the sky, the ancient scholar came to the conclusion that those were indeed clouds. Yet, for smaller silhouettes that seemed to chase travelers, Diodorus, was willing to believe those could have been driven by a living influence, for he was apparently of the opinion that a cloud “clings to such living creatures as accidentally come to be in the way” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 3.51). Whether the sightings were caused by supernatural sky beings, cloud-covered animals, or simply active imaginations, it all led to an interesting legend.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Small Landscape, painted by an unidentified 19th-century artist, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Smithsonian Institute).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).