“You know when they have a fishing show on TV? They catch the fish and then let it go. They don’t want to eat the fish, they just want to make it late for something” – Mitch Hedberg
Most of us westerners have the sneaking suspicion that we should eat more fish. When I’m being honest about the weird little carnival inside my head, I attribute my own personal aversion towards our palatable piscine pals to the 1980 disaster parody Airplane!, which unintentionally communicated the subliminal mantra, “Don’t Eat the Fish”, lest you succumb to food poisoning and wind up needing a traumatized fighter pilot with a drinking problem, his stewardess ex-girlfriend, and an inflatable co-pilot to land your plane. Having neither a pilot’s license nor plane to fly, this may have been an irrational fear, but nonetheless my fish consumption dropped off precipitously after 1980. This is, of course, a far too mundane and neurotic explanation, so I prefer to fall back on the idea that, being of Egyptian extraction, I’m simply manifesting the well-known and culturally appropriate awareness of my ethnic forefather’s “Cushtic fish-taboo”, that is, the tendency of upland pastoralists and agriculturalists inhabiting parts of southeastern Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, and northern Tanzania (speakers of languages in the Cushtic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language group) to eschew fish as a dietary staple, and instead order the lamb. Curiously, in roughly the same part of the world (the west coast of Africa, the Red Sea, and in some interpretations, the Persian Gulf), since the 5th Century B.C., historians have mentioned the existence of a people they referred to as Ichythophagi (Greek for “fish-eaters”), notable for their consumption of fish to the exclusion of all other foods, which puzzlingly seemed to be a signal of their barbarity to the various Mediterranean and Middle Eastern scholars who had something to say on the subject. Unfortunately, things would take a rather dark turn from the 6th Century A.D. onwards, as what had in classical antiquity been a form of mockery metamorphasized into medieval monstrosity. Nobody asked me, but I blame those darned Alexander Romances (of the 4th – 16th Century A.D.), which contrary to what you might assume, had nothing specific to do with Alexander the Great’s luck with the ladies, and everything to do with the fact the fact that he was a historical figure of mythological proportions, so much so that they had to come up with some myths to capture his zeitgeist. And that is how the Ichthyophagi went from men to monsters.
If you want to know something about the world view of Ancient Greece, you probably want to talk to Herodotus (484-425 B.C.). This is difficult, as he’s been deader than a mackerel for the better part of 2400 years, and consequently, even if you could find him, his smell would probably be rather off-putting. Or maybe not, as he has no doubt crumbled entirely to dust, a minor character flaw that in no way besmirches his reputation as the “Father of Historical Inquiry”. In one of the earliest references to what scholars believe are the Ichthyophagi, Herodotus mentions that there are a few groups of ne’er-do-wells living on the shores of the Persian Gulf that subsist on fish alone. Note that he doesn’t think there is anything odd about the whole arrangement, rather is just making some ethnographic notes.
Such are the customs of the Babylonians generally. There are likewise three tribes among them who eat nothing but fish. These are caught and dried in the sun, after which they are brayed in a mortar, and strained through a linen sieve. Some prefer to make cakes of this material, while others bake it into a kind of bread (Herodotus, Histories, Book I, c.200).
Now, the Greeks of Herodotus’ time were not big on fish. They had a thriving agricultural economy, and were pretty thrilled to be able to bake bread out of wheat-like substances, so probably would have found a straight fish diet to be a little odd, but only mildly remarkable. Herodotus was pretty open-minded and recognized that there would be different strokes for different folks, with wide variation in people’s feeling about fish as a consumable commodity throughout the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East. Even the Greeks would eventually go through a phase where there was a Sushi Bar on every corner. “In strong contrast with these Ichthyophagi other races abstained entirely, not as the Egyptians and Jews partially, from fish. Of such were the Syrians, either because they worshipped fish as gods or held them as sacred, or because (as asserted by Anaximander) of the inhumanity, since mankind originally were born from fish, of devouring one’s fathers and mothers. Surprising, indeed, sounds the statement of Plutarch that among total abstainers in early times were the more religious-minded of the Greeks, among whom later the eating of fish developed into a passionate, almost cat-like, devotion. Invested though the abstentions, total or other, were with divine origin or armed with divine sanction, the root reason of all of them rested, I believe, on the terror of skin-diseases, attributable to a fish diet. Others, however, hold that the ultimate reason of the taboo lay in the uncanny nature of creatures that can and do live under water, while we cannot (Radcliffe, 1921, p98-99).
Diodorus Siculus (circa 30 B.C.) was a Greek historian from Sicily with few if any mob connections, best known for his magnum opus, the 40-volume Bibliotheca Historica, detailing the history of the Mediterranean world, from mythic pre-history to the fall of Troy (likely somewhere in the 12th Century B.C.) to the beginning of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (58-50 B.C.). Otherwise he kept a pretty low profile, since we know next to nothing about his life. His mother always said he was a quiet boy. While Diodorus Siculus thought the Ichthyophagi were fairly uncouth, what with their nakedness, polygamy, and general lack of good Greek morality, he was nonetheless impressed with some of their ingenious fishing techniques. He’s also pretty sure they live on the coast of the Red Sea, rather than the Persian Gulf.
And first we shall speak of the Ichthyophages, who inhabit the sea-coasts all along as far as from Carmania and Gedrosia, to the uttermost point of the Red sea, which runs up into the land an incredible long way, and at the entrance into it lies bounded on one side with Arabia the Happy, and with the country of the Trogledytes on the other. Some of the barbarians go stark naked, and their wives and children are as common among them as their flocks and herds. They know nothing either of pleasure or sorrow but what is natural, like brute beasts, and have no apprehension cither of good or evil. They inhabit not far from the very brink of the sea shore, where there are not only deep caves, but craggy cliffs, and straight and narrow valleys, divided naturally into many crooked windings and turnings; which being of their own nature useful to the inhabitants, they make up the passages both in and out with heaps of great stones, and make use of those places instead of nets to catch their fish. For when the tide comes in and overflows the coasts (as it does twice every day about the third and ninth hour) and the sea covers the strand up to the brinks of the banks, together with the tide it brings in a vast number of all sorts of fish within the land, which at the first are kept within those parts next to the sea, but afterwards for food disperse themselves about those hollow caverns; but when the tide ebbs, and the water by degrees leaves the hollows, and reflows through those heaps of stones, the fish within those caverns are left destitute of water (Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca Historica, Book III, Chapter 1).
Now, Greek historian and geographer Strabo (64 B.C. – 24 A.D.) got serious about the Ichthyophagi, specifically assigning them to the western coast of the Red Sea, in what is modern day Djibouti (bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia). Strabo was a trust fund kid from a wealthy family in Roman-dominated Pontus (Amasya, Turkey) and he spent his days travelling the world. Winters in Egypt, summers in Ethiopia, Fall in Corinth, and Spring in Rome. I don’t know if I got the seasons right, but the relative peace in the Roman Republic from 27 B.C. to 14 A.D., made it feasible to bounce around the Mediterranean in comparative safety. Like Diodorus Siculus, he was more fascinated with the fishing styles of the Ichthyophagi than anything else, although his obvious disdain for their hard-partying ways seems a little disingenuous given the Roman elites’ fondness for orgies and vomitoriums.
After the Harbour of Eumenes, as far as Deire and the straits opposite the six islands, the country is inhabited by the Ichthyophagi and the Creophagi and the Colobi, who extend as far as the interior. In this region are several hunting grounds for elephants, and insignificant cities, and islands lying off the coast. The greater part of the people are nomads; and those who till the soil are few in number. And in some parts of their country styrax grows in no small quantities. The Ichthyophagi collect the fish at the ebb-tides, throw them upon the rocks, and bake them in the sun; and then, when they have thoroughly baked them, they pile up the bones, tread the flesh with their feet and make it into cakes; and again they bake these cakes and use them for food. But in stormy weather, when they are unable to collect the fish, they pound the bones which they have piled up and mould them into cakes and use them for food; and they suck the bones when fresh. But some, who have shell-fish, fatten them by throwing them down into gullies and pools of sea-water, and then, throwing in minnows as food for them, use them for food when there is a scarcity of fish. They also have all kinds of places for hatching and feeding fish, from which they parcel them out. Some of the people who inhabit the part of the coast that is without water go inland every five days, families and all, with a shouting of paeans, to the water-reservoirs, throw themselves upon the ground face downwards, drink like cattle until their stomachs are filled out as tight as drums, and then return to the sea again. They live in caves, or in pens roofed over with beams and cross-beams, consisting of the bones of whales and small fish, as also with olive branches (Strabo, Geographies, Book XVI, Chapter 4:13)
Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder, or Gaius Plinius Secundus (23-79 A.D.) wrote the Naturalis Historia, widely considered to be the Encyclopedia Britannica of his day (if you were born after 1990, think Wikipedia), and ascribed incredible swimming ability to the Ichthyophagi, although not in any supernatural sense. Dudes just liked the water.
We learn also from the same author that some nations of the Troglodytse have the name of Thero those, being so called from their skill in hunting. They are remarkable for their swiftness, he says, just as the Ichthyophagi are, who can swim like the animals whose element is the sea (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book 6, Chapter 35).
The Greco-Egyptian, all around golden boy of astronomy, geography, mathematics, astrology, music, and optics named Claudius Ptolemy (90-168 A.D.) thought the Ichthyophagi were more widespread in various areas surrounding his hometown of Alexandria, Egypt. My feeling is that Ptolemy had a bit of an identity crisis as he lived his whole life in Egypt, wrote in and was ethnically Greek, and held Roman citizenship.
Next to these are Libyaegypti. The Arenosa and the Sitibunda regions extend along the entire south side of Marmarica and Libya. The Arabaegypti Ichthyophagi occupy the entire seacoast along the Arabian bay in which are mountain ridges (Ptolemy, Geography, Book 4, Chapter 5).
Finally, we come to Arrian of Nicomedia (86-160 A.D.), the author of much of the source material we have (and the authors of the Alexander Romances had) available on the life and exploits of Alexander the Great. Arrian had some plum jobs as historian, public servant, military commander and philosopher of the 2nd-century Roman period, taking it upon himself to become the unauthorized biographer of Alexander, who of course had the gall to die about 400 years earlier. Arrian was especially interested in Alexander’s military campaigns and is considered one of our best sources on what Alexander was up to between 356-323 B.C. And, according to Arrian’s research on the voyages of Alexander’s celebrated Admiral of the Sea, Nearchus, he incidentally encountered, and thought he might go about civilizing those unruly Ichthyophagi.
Nearchus having now passed the country of the Icthyophagi, was told there was a barren island in that sea, about a hundred stadia distant from the continent, called Nosala, sacred to the sun, and not to be approached by any mortal; or if anybody be so imprudent as to venture on shore there, he immediately disappears, and is seen no more. Whereupon he dispatched one small galley, manned with Egyptian mariners, who, having entered the island, vanished out of sight; and his commanders reported that the sailors, having rashly ventured to land, were suddenly hurried away. However, he afterwards sent a ship of thirty oars, to coast round the island (but ordered them not to attempt to land); and all the way as they sailed along the shore thereof, to call upon the pilot of the ship by name, or any other of the most noted mariners. But when none durst undertake the voyage, he tells us he attempted it himself, and forced some mariners, even against their will, to attend him on board: but when they came to make a descent they found all that story relating to the island vain and fictitious. However, he assures us he heard another story concerning it, namely, that one of the Nereides had chosen it for her place of residence, and that she was wont to have carnal knowledge of all the men, who, by any accident, were forced on shore there; and afterwards she changed them into fish and sent them into the sea: whereupon the sun, being enraged against her, commanded her to depart out of the island; but she beseeching him to free her from her innate rage of lust, he not only granted her request, but also, that whomsoever her enchantments had metamorphosed into fish, should re-assume their former shapes, and become men again; and from these men, thus reduced, he tells us, proceeded the nation of the Icthyophagi, which continued till Alexander’s time, As for my part, I cannot forbear wondering that Nearchus should so far abuse his natural wisdom, and known sagacity, as to suffer himself to be imposed upon by a story, when he might so easily have found out the truth, and cannot think it redounds to his honour, unless he deemed the fables and fictions of ancient times so sacred as not to be contradicted (Arrian, “History of the Expedition of Alexander, Chapter XXI).
Interestingly, Arrian provided a little bit of mythological fodder for later authors of medieval bestiaries to chew on, when he detailed the folkloric traditions surrounding the Ichtyophagi, that is, that a Nereid got all hot and bothered, and wanted a little action with humans, subsequently changing them into fish. This is a serious bit of extreme dating. She was forced to change these one-night-stands gone bad back into men, presumably by a Greek god with slightly more divine juice, and these were the forerunners of the Icthyophagi. Arrian thougt Nearchus was a tool. Weirdly, Greek geographer Pausanias (110-180 A.D.), not long thereafter, mentions that there are Ichithyophagi living in cities on the plains of Ethiopia, but everyone agrees (even historians) that Pausanias was no fun at parties.
It is not the river Ocean, but the farthest part of the sea navigated by man, near which dwell the Iberians and the Celts, and Ocean surrounds the island of Britain. But of the Aethiopians beyond Syene, those who live farthest in the direction of the Red Sea are the Ichthyophagi (Fish-eaters), and the gulf round which they live is called after them. The most righteous of them inhabit the city Meroe and what is called the Aethiopian plain (Pausanias, Description of Greece, Book I, Chapter 33, v.4).
Then things got dark. That is, after all, why they call it the Dark Ages. Rome fell. Barbarians ran rampant throughout Europe. Egypt became a backwater. Goths and Huns overran Greece. Possibly even cats and dogs were sleeping together. This state of affairs would persist in Europe until the Italian Renaissance in the 14th Century A.D., although arguably it still persists in places like Kansas and Oklahoma. This was also the heyday of bestiaries and the Alexander Romance. Bestiaries, or compilations of the monstrous entities presumed to be lurking out there in the scary woods were a popular literary form, since everyone was fairly sure that the end of the world was just around the corner. It also kept monks employed. Consequently, there was usually some moral lesson embedded in the depiction of the horrors in far off lands. During the same period of time, we see the incredible popularity of what have been termed “Alexander Romances”, that is collections of legends about the mythological exploits of Alexander the Great. Why was Alexander so popular during the Middle Ages? Mostly he had good public relations. Apart from greatly increasing contact between East and West, he spread Hellenistic culture rather widely, and most importantly, many of the cities he founded would become important cultural centers throughout history, which of course meant that the people who were bothering to write things for the next few thousand years, were doing so from places that wouldn’t have amounted to much if it weren’t for him and his conquering ways. The guy was larger than life. I mean, it’s not like just anybody can get Colin Farrell to play them in the Hollywood version of their story. So as those monkish scribblers started working away on assembling compendia of the world’s monsters, relying heavily on ancient texts that described parts of the world that were no longer as easily accessible as when the Roman’s ran things, they had to elaborate a little on the fragmentary references they had available (burning libraries was a big thing during the fall of the Roman Empire – barbarian hordes prefer to wait for the movie), and there was an enormous amount of cross fertilization between the mythologized accounts of the campaigns of Alexander and the medieval bestiaries. On a side note, some of the details of the Alexander Romances were no doubt recorded by his court historian Callisthenes (and later authors, lumped together under the rubric Pseudo-Callisthenes), and rumor has it Alexander encouraged a rather liberal interpretation of events that emphasized his utter awesomeness.
Isidore of Seville (560-636 A.D.) is often referred to as “the last scholar of the ancient world”, which loosely translates into “one of the few educated and curious guys left in Europe as things got all Medieval on our asses”. The Western Roman Empire had crumbled by 476 A.D., and Spain was largely being run by the Visigoths. As the remnants of classical culture disintegrated, violence abounded, and literacy quickly declined, pretty much the only folks who cared about preserving ancient knowledge were working for the Catholic Church, and most of them were preoccupied with looking for signs of the imminent apocalypse that everyone was sure was coming. Isidore was that rare kind of man who thought book-learnin’ was of some value and dedicated himself (when he wasn’t converting the Visigoths to Christianity), to writing down as much information as he could from the remaining texts of classical antiquity in an encyclopedic work called the Etymologiae. Without Isidore’s scrupulous abstracting of ancient works, countless seminal Greek and Roman texts would have been lost to history. For this alone, he probably deserves the Nobel Prize for Literature, which sadly had not been invented, nor had anyone bothered to establish the Kingdom of Sweden yet, so Isidore had to settle with being canonized by Pope Clement VIII, but that was really more for his outreach work among the Visigoths. The Etymologiae was an important source of material for medieval bestiaries, but Isidore wasn’t as interested in editorializing as he was in preserving the words of the ancients, so even at this point, Ichthyophagi were still being treated as historically verifiable human beings.
Icthyophagians, who excel in fishing at sea and survive on fish alone. They occupy the mountainous regions beyond the Indians, and Alexander the Great conquered them and forbade them to eat fish (Isidore of Seville, Etymologies, Book IX, Chapter II).
The question of why Alexander would have forbade the Ichthyophagi from eating fish, given their name, has been a matter of some debate. Political philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778 A.D.) and Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu (1689-1755 A.D.) would later have a lively disagreement over the source of Alexander’s prohibition. Rousseau said it was about establishing dependency and servitude, whereas Montesquieu maintained that it was a way to establish civilization and commerce. Or maybe Alexander just hated fish.
Upon his return from Patala he separated the fleet, and took the route by land, for the mutual support of fleet and army. The fleet followed the coast from the Indus along the banks of the country of the Oritae, of the Ichthyophagi, of Carmania and Persia. He caused wells to be dug, built cities, and would not suffer the Ichthyophagi to live on fish, being desirous of having the borders of the sea inhabited by civilized nations (Montesquieu, 1873, p15).
By about the 7th Century A.D., the authors of bestiaries were getting a little bored with copying ancient texts verbatim (or possibly they flunked their classes in Latin and Greek), and got creative, fleshing out some of the more arcane monstrosities with a mix of fantasy, folklore, and accretions from some of the wilder histories such as were to be found in the many forms of the Alexander Romance. We wound up with works like the 7th-8th Century A.D. Anglo-Saxon bestiary, the Liber Monstorum where we see the Ichthyophagi depicted as some sort of demented, semi-aquatic otter monsters.
And in India next to the Ocean we have learnt of a certain race of humans hairy in their whole body, who are said to live on water and raw fish, covered in natural nakedness only by bristles like wild animals. And the Indians call them Ichthyophagi [‘fish-eaters’], and they are not only accustomed to the land, but dwell in streams and ponds and mostly next to the river Epigmaris (Liber Monstorum, Book 1:15, trans. Orchard).
The evolution in monstrosity is no doubt in part due to the fact that one of the big selling points of the Alexander Romance in its many forms, as they were copied and distributed, was that they had cool illustrations. And one thing the medieval literary set loved were detailed pictures of monsters. So, when you’re putting together the action-adventure version of Alexander’s life, it pays to spice things up with illustrations of the fantastic folks he came to, saw, and kicked the asses of. And they better be pretty fearsome, or at least strange. “Wild men in the Alexander legends must be viewed primarily as conventional images of exotic creatures. The degree to which these notions were subject to imaginative flights of fancy is demonstrated by illustrations of the ichthyophagi, or ‘fish eaters,’ encountered by Alexander and shown sometimes as hairy river dwellers or as underwater wild people” (Husband, 1980, p52-53). By the time we get to the Otia Imperialia of Gervase of Tilbury (1150–1226), the chroniclers had gone hog-wild with the image of the Ichthyophagi and were busy compiling fictional accounts based on fictional materials (letters from Alexander to Aristotle, for instance, were most assuredly medieval creations). The Ichthyophagi became even more monstrous, eight feet tall and hairy all over.
Though not usually thought of as a chronicle so much as a collection of wonders intended “to keep a drowsy emperor awake”, the Otia Imperialia of Gervase of Tilbury (1150–1226) contains a great deal of originary and regnal history, including information about these monstrous races of men, treated not speculatively or theologically but for their pure entertainment value. Gervase in one manuscript tradition of his work incorporates the famous Letter of Alexander to Aristotle on the wonders of India, letting Alexander speak of some of these races in his own voice: “Then we saw women and men who were hairy all over, like wild animals, they were eight feet tall, and wore no clothes, but were naked. The Indians call these people the Ichthyophagi, they spend more of their time in water than on dry land, and live on raw fish and draughts of water. When we tried to take a look at them, they flung themselves alive into the depths of the river Obimaris” (Friedman, 2010, p2).
In the ancient world, the Ichthyophagi may have been considered a few cards short of a deck when it came to gastronomy, but they weren’t regarded as amphibious Yeti. In the 6th Century B.C. King of Persia Cambyses I, father of Cyrus the Great, was said to have used Ichthyophagi as ambassadors (and spies) to the king of Ethiopia. You don’t send a hairy ape-man smelling of fish as your royal representative unless you’re really looking to offend somebody.
Cambyses sent to the Ichthyophagi of the island of Elephantine, requiring them to furnish him with a number of persons acquainted with the route to Ethiopia and with the Ethiopian language, that he might send them as an embassy. He also provided some presents to be sent as a token of friendship to the Ethiopian king. The presents were, however, only a pretext, to enable the ambassadors, who were, in fact, spies, to go to the capital and court of the Ethiopian monarch in safety, and bring back to Cambyses all the information which they should be able to obtain (Abbott, 1906, p40).
It took a mere 1000 years from when we first start hearing about the Ichthyophagi to turn cultural difference (a preference for fish dinners) to bestiality (gigantic, hairy otter monsters). The signals that mankind has eternally used to distinguish in-group from out-group often amount to ludicrously mundane things like what kind of food you eat, the sort of clothes you wear, your hairstyle, the accent you speak with, the name of your god, and the side of the street you prefer to walk on. We call it culture, and while the variations are wide, the truth is they are biologically and ecologically constrained, thus not especially deep in the grand scheme of things. That is, we are more alike as a species than we are different, and most everything else is figuring out what select group of people in the universe you are going to care about, and how you’re going to tell them apart from the rest of the unwashed masses. Far be it from me to suggest that we make all our monsters, but clearly we do make decisions about what will be made into a monster. You might want to take note that your little cultural peccadillos are probably considered just as monstrous (or will be in the next millennium) by somebody else, and know that mockery and monstrosity are intertwined. Of course, it really just depends who winds up in charge, for as Christopher Paolini wrote, “Pay no heed if your enemies laugh. They’ll not be able to once you lop off their heads”.
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Brehaut, Ernest, 1873-. An Encyclopedist of the Dark Ages: Isidore of Seville. New York: Columbia University, 1912.
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Husband, Timothy. The Wild Man: Medieval Myth and Symbolism. New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1980.
Montesquieu, Charles de Secondat, baron de, 1689-1755. The Spirit of Laws by M. De Secondat, Baron De Montesquieu. A new ed., carefully rev. and compated with the best Paris ed., to which are prefixed a memoir of the life and writings of the author and an analysis of the work by M. d’Alembert … Cincinnati: R. Clarke & co., 1873.
Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf-manuscript. University of Toronto Press, 2003.
Pausanias, fl. ca. 150-175. Pausanias Description of Greece. Cambridge: Harvard University press, 1918.
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Radcliffe, William, 1856-1938. Fishing From the Earliest Times. London: J. Murray, 1921.
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The hairy ichthyophagi may have been a variety of bigfoot called the alma or almasty which rather than monsters, would be classified today as pre-human or humanoid.
There is the interesting story about Zana, found in the Causcasus who mated with male humans and had six offspring. http://www.channel4.com/info/press/news/was-russian-bigfoot-actually-an-african-slave
Delightful article, cleverly turned. Reminds me of – was it – Richard Armor’s sarcastic versions of a few bits of classic literature? Anyway, decided to investigate the Icky folks having encountered their name in a commentary on a verse in my study of Psalm 74. Sincere thanks to the writer hereof.
Thank you kindly. Glad you enjoyed it.