Pygmies versing beasts according to Homer and Pliny

According to Homer, there existed a tribe of Pygmies, or diminutive people one-and-a-half feet tall, who were constantly at war with cranes (The Iliad Book III). This Greek myth recounts how these Pygmies lived in caves and rode about on rams. Annually the tribe partook in a great war with the cranes, with the objective to steal and eat many crane eggs and chicks, thereby keeping the vicious crane population in check.

The Flemish artist Adriaen Collaert (c.1560-1618) illustrates this very event in his engraving, Fight between Pygmees and Cranes (c.1596), a copy of which is held by the Baillieu Library Print Collection. In this work we see the tribe gallop forth on their rams and billy goats, and a deadly skirmish between human and beast ensues. This plate is from the large series Venationes, ferarum, arium, piscium (Hunts of wild animals, birds and fish). When the series was commissioned, hunting scenes were of great interest, for Jan van der Straet (1523-1605) had just made drawings of hunting imagery for tapestries to decorate the Medici villa at Poggio a Caiano. The success of van der Straet’s scenes were the basis of this printing epic which was first published in 1596 and again over the following centuries. More

Image: Adriaen Collaert after Jan van der Straet, Fight between Pygmees and Cranes [detail], c.1596. Baillieu Library Print Collection, University of Melbourne