In many languages worldwide, the words used to designate peoples and settlements can often be quite literal. Warriors fight in wars; buccaneers were named after utensils they used to prepare their favorite barbecued or smoked meats; the Native American Nimiipuu people were called Nez Percé (“Pierced Nose”) by Frenchmen they encountered; Salt Lake City in Utah is built near a salt lake, so on and so forth. This long tradition of giving people and places literal names and designations is incredibly ancient—one example being the ancient poet, Homer’s, mentioning of the so-called Louts-Eaters, named after their diet of mind-altering lotus produce. The [insert food item]-Eaters format was used frequently by ancient Greeks when describing peoples that traders, settlers and warriors encountered in distant lands. Fully written out in transliterated English, the names often end up being a complicated word with an ending of “ophagi.” For the purpose of this article, we will list only ten of the ancient food-named peoples, in this case pulled from the writings of Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE) and Strabo (c. 64 BCE- 24 CE).
In Book III of his Library of History, a portion concerning Greek folktales about peoples who dwelled beyond Egypt and Libya (including the Arabian Gulf region and the coastline stretching toward India), Diodorus Siculus listed a great many of the curious food-named peoples. As told by Diodorus, “The first people we shall mention are the Ichthyophagi [fish-eaters] who inhabit the coast which extends from Carmania and Gedrosia to the farthest limits of the arm of the sea which is found at the Arabian Gulf…” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 3.15). According to Diodorus’ folkloric sources, the Ichthyophagi lived a naked existence and were innovative fishermen, using such methods as obstructing the waterways with dams and spearing the sea life with sharp-tipped weapons.
Next on Diodorus Siculus’ list was the Chelonophagi, or Turtle-Eaters. Diodorus wrote, “We must speak also about the Chelonophagi [turtle-eaters] as they are called, and the nature of their entire manner of life. There are islands in the ocean, which lie near the land, many in number, but small in size and low-lying, and bearing no food…the surf breaks upon the outermost islands, and so a great multitude of sea-turtles tarry in these regions” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 3.21). Unfortunately for the sea turtles, the Chelonophagi supposedly sought out the creatures (which were allegedly huge) as a source of both food and construction materials. After eating the turtle meat, the Chelonophagi were said to have repurposed the shells for making things like shelters and rafts. Commenting on the multiple uses of the turtle shells, Diodorus Siculus wrote, “Nature, by a single act of favour, has bestowed upon these peoples the satisfaction of many needs; for the same gift constitutes for them food, vessel, house and ship” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 3.21). Good thing sea turtles were not an endangered species in ancient times.
Moving on, Diodorus’ next featured food-people were the Rhizophagi, or Root-Eaters. According to the scholar, “In the Ethiopia which lies above Egypt there dwells beside the river Asa the nation of the Rhizophagi [root-eaters]. For the barbarians here dig up the roots of the reeds which grow in the neighboring marshes and then thoroughly wash them; and after they have made them clean they crush them with stones until the stuff is without lumps and glutinous; and then, moulding it into balls as large as can be held in the hand, they bake it in the sun and on this as their food they live all their life long” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 3.23). Well-fed from their sunbaked root bread and reportedly a peaceful people by nature, the Rhizophagi would have lived a paradise existence if not for the predators and pests that allegedly bothered their daily lives. According to Diodorus Siculus’ odd account, the Rhizophagi often fell victims to lions and the threat of being eaten by the big cats only abated when mosquito season arrived, which was so unbearable that even the lions were driven away by the swarms.
Near the Rhizophagi were two other food-named peoples, with their labels allegedly being loosely related to food they gathered food from trees. As told by Diodorus Siculus, “Next to these people are the Hylophagi [wood-eaters] and the Spermatophagi [seed-eaters] as they are called. The latter gather the fruit as it falls in great abundance from the trees in the summer season and so find their nourishment without labour, but during the rest of the year they subsist upon the most tender part of the plant which grows in the shady glens…The Hylophagi, however, setting out with children and wives in search of food, climb the trees and subsist off the tender branches” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 3.24). Unlike the peaceful Rhizophagi, the Hylophagi and the unfortunately-named Spermatophagi, were reportedly more violent and territorial over their prized trees, often getting into fights. As a side note, the Hylophagi, with their tree-climbing life style, were allegedly a strong and acrobatic people, able to fling themselves from one tree to another with ease.
The Struthophagi, or Bird-Eaters, are the next food-named people on Diodorus Siculus’ list. Speaking of groups living south of the loosely-defined Greek designation of Ethiopia, Diodorus wrote, “those towards the south are held by the tribe of the Struthophagi [bird-eaters]. For there is found among them a kind of bird having a nature which is mingled with that of the land animal, and this explains the compound nature it beats. This animal is not inferior in size to the large deer and has been fashioned by Nature with a long neck and a round body, which is covered with feathers. Its head is weak and small, but it has powerful thighs and legs and its foot is cloven. It is unable to fly in the air because of its weight, but it runs more swiftly than any other animal…” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 3.28). The Struthophagi reportedly were proficient at hunting their ostrich-like birds, using its meat for food and its hides for clothing and bedding. Besides the birds, the Struthophagi also allegedly targeted gazelles and used the animal’s horns as weapons.
Last of the food-named tribes from Diodorus’ writings that we will cover here are the so-called Acridophagi, or Locust-Eaters, who were reportedly a short, lean and dark people. As the tale goes, the Acridophagi had a great ravine in their territory, and when swarms of locusts appeared, the Acridophagi would start massive blazes in their canyon, sending smoke into the air that would kill or paralyze the insects. About this group, Diodorus wrote:
“[O]n the edge of the desert dwell the Acridophagi [Locust-Eaters], men who are smaller than the rest, lean of body, and exceedingly dark…From these locusts they have food in abundance all their life long, catching them in a manner peculiar to themselves, for along the border of their land over many stades there extends a ravine of considerable depth and width; this they fill with wood from the forests, which is found in plenty in their land; and then, when the winds blow which we have mentioned and the clouds of the locusts approach, they divide among themselves the whole extent of the ravine and set fire to the brush in it. Since a great volume of pungent smoke rises, the locusts, as they fly over the ravine, are choked by the pungency of the smoke and fall to the ground…” (Diodorus Siculus, Library, 3.29).
After smoking locusts out of the skies for days, the Acridophagi reportedly would collect their catch and treat the piles of locusts with a hearty dose of salty brine, increasing the taste and shelf life of the bugs. Ironically, the bug-hunting Acridophagi were also said to have been hunted by insects. According to Diodorus Siculus, the Loctust-Eaters were prone to having terrible lice infestations.
Keeping on the topic of lice, but moving on to the writings of Strabo, the scholar mentioned so-called “passes of the Phtheirophagi (or Lice-eaters),” who supposedly lived around the Black Sea region (Strabo, Geography, 11.2.1). Strabo, unfortunately, did not give further details about this curious group that allegedly dined on lice. Transitioning back to the lands covered by Diodorus Siculus, in particular the region where the Struthophagi dwelled, Strabo identified another food named people that Diodorus had neglected to mention. In that same area there reportedly lived a tribe of big game hunters known to the Greeks as the Elephantophagi, or Elephant-Eaters. As told by Strabo, “Above is the city Darada, and a hunting-ground for elephants, called ‘At the Well.’ The district is inhabited by the Elephantophagi (or Elephant-eaters), who are occupied in hunting them” (Strabo, Geography, 16.4.10).
Finally, to finish off the ten peoples, is a group that was not based on what they ate, per se, but on what they drank, and the products derived from that liquid. Moving back to the Black Sea region and the horse cultures that flourished there, Strabo wrote, “The name of Georgi, or husbandmen, was appropriately given to these people, to distinguish them from the nations situated above them, who are nomads, and live upon the flesh of horses and other animals, on cheese of mares’ milk, milk, and sour milk. The latter prepared in a peculiar manner, is a delicacy. Hence the poet designates all the nations in that quarter as Galactophagi, milk-eaters” (Strabo, Geography, 7.4.6).
So ends our list of ten curious food-named peoples, pulled from the accounts of Diodorus Siculus and Strabo. For a recap, we talked of the Ichthyophagi (Fish-Eaters), the Chelonophagi (Turtle-Eaters), the Rhizophagi (Root-Eaters), the Hylophagi (Wood-Eaters) and the Spermatophagi (Seed-Eaters), as well as the Struthophagi (Bird-Eaters), the Acridophagi (Locust-Eaters), the Phtheirophagi (Lice-Eaters), the Elephantophagi (Elephant-Eaters) and the Galactophagi (Milk-Eaters). It may not be the most appetizing list, but it is interesting, nonetheless.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Arcadian Landscape, by an unidentified 18th-century artist, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Statens Museum for Kunst).
- The Library of History, by Diodorus Siculus, edited by Giles Laurén (Sophron Editor, 2014).
- Strabo’s Geography, translated by H.C. Hamilton and W. Falconer (1903 edition), republished in The Complete Works of Strabo (Delphi Classics, 2016).