The Image of the Nomad

The spatially mobile, nomadic lifestyle of allegedly primitive nations has been a recurring topos of ethnographic descriptions since antiquity. In the symbolic geography of Herodotus and his contemporaries, the world of the nomads represented an intermediary sphere between orderly Greek civilization and the utter savagery and anarchy that characterised the far fringes of the ecumene. Later Greek and Roman ethnographers emphasized the opposition between sedentary and nomadic communities much stronger, shifting the latter from an intermediary position to an antithesis of civilization.

During the Middle Ages, spatial mobility became a defining feature of barbarian invaders (Magyars, Tatars and others) and developed into one of the primary designators of otherness and ethnic demarcation. In the wake of the transatlantic discoveries of the early modern era, the time-honed image of the primitive nomad was repurposed and applied to the inhabitants of the New World. Seventeenth-century theorists perceived the nomadic lifestyle of the indigenous Amerindians as an inferior form of subsistence. This argument was used to justify the dispossession of the “Indians” by European settlers, since the nomads had supposedly forfeited any claim to their land through their improper lifestyle. As such, debates on mobility and the alleged deficiency of a nomadic vis-à-vis a sedentary population played a central role in the colonial oppression of the Native Americans.

On a more theoretical level, natural law theory – one of the main endeavours of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political and juridical thought – conceived archaic nomadism as a defining feature of a pre-societal State of Nature. This hypothetical pre-governmental condition before the formation of organised institutions of law and rulership, in which all people were equal before God, enabled the early modern society to reflect upon itself, reconstructing the mechanisms and motivations that led to the initial establishment of statehood. Thus, the State of Nature – and the notion of spatial mobility that was conceptually entwined with it – served as a focal point of departure for philosophical thought.

Selected Literature:

Lucas Marco Gisi: Einbildungskraft und Mythologie. Die Verschränkung von Anthropologie und Geschichte im 18. Jahrhundert. Spectrum Literaturwissenschaft 11 (Berlin 2007).

Francis Jennings: Virgin Land and Savage People. American Quarterly 23 (1971), pp. 519–41.

Klaus Karttunen: The Ethnography of the Fringes. In: Brill’s Companion to Herodotus, ed. by Egbert J. Bakker, Irene J. F. de Jong and Hans van Wees (Leiden 2002), pp. 457–74.

Brent D. Shaw: “Eaters of Flesh, Drinkers of Milk”: The Ancient Mediterranean Ideology of the Pastoral Nomad. Ancient Society 13/14 (1982/83), pp. 5–31.