[Sarawak Gazette . vol. cxviii, no. 1517, Sept. 1991, pp. 29-32.]

Satyrs and the People With Tails:

A Possible Reference to Borneo in Ptolemy's Geography?

by Otto Steinmayer, Universiti Malaya.

[E-mail me / Otto Steinmayer's Homepage]

Claudius Ptolemy was a mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, and geographer who lived and worked in Alexandria in Egypt, then the center of western learning, around the first half of the 2nd century A.D.  One of Ptolemy's several major works is his Geography, the most systematic account of the whole world then known to anybody, west or east.

Rummaging around the library at Universiti Malaya, as I often do, I came across a beautiful facsimile of a Latin translation of Ptolemy's Geography printed in 1478, among the first books printed in Europe. I opened his atlas to the map of "Asia beyond India," hoping he might shown some detail of my favorite island, Borneo.

Where Borneo should be, there in the middle of the sea to the south and east of Malaya, Ptolemy drew a group of three islands and labelled them the "Islands of the Satyrs." A brief note in the text says: "Those who inhabit these islands are said to have tails, such as the ones they paint of satyrs."[1]

Ptolemy's coordinates for the Islands of the Satyrs, when they are adjusted according to true values, put them some 9° to the east, and 2 1/2° to the south of the tip of the Malay peninsula, or on modern maps somewhere in West Kalimantan.[2]

So, Borneo? I have no intention here of trying to prove that! The evidence Ptolemy and others left to us is so patently patchy (how, for example, did Ptolemy manage to describe the Malay Peninsula but miss the huge island of Sumatra, a mere stone's throw over the Straits of Malacca?) that we modern scholars hardly dare assert the least thing about his knowledge of S.E. Asia.  Yet in Ptolemy's tiny account of the Islands of the Satyrs I detect the faint echo of one true piece of information on Borneo wildlife, and the clang of one famous Borneo tall story.

Ptolemy probably never travelled very far from home. He must have based his map on information from travelers and earlier books, working out coordinates from lengths of voyages and ships' courses. Navigators without compass, chronometer, or log—without anything but the stars and the sun—must necessarily have come up with extremely rough estimates, and that is what Ptolemy's precise-seeming tables of latitude and longitude are. Ptolemy further made the mistake of choosing Posidonius's wrong estimate of the earth's size. (Eratosthenes' was much closer to the truth. Columbus also made the same error, some say on purpose.) And so the errors add up and render his figures very approximate.[3]

It seemed to me that the best way of describing how Ptolemy might have worked was to dramatize it in the following sketch: SCENE: A tavern, or shop, or something in a port anywhere from East Africa to India sometime in the early 2nd century A.D. A GREEK SEA CAPTAIN is talking with a SAILOR of Indian or perhaps Malay race.

CAPTAIN: I myself have been as far as Takola in the Golden Chersonese.

SAILOR: Huh? Oh, you mean [whatever the local name was.]

CAPTAIN: Er, I guess that's how they said it. Tell me, how far further east have you been?

SAILOR: Me? Well, my friend said he once sailed about __ days east from the southern part of the peninsula. The sun was a little on his left hand. He got to a bunch of islands close together. Couldn't see what lay behind them, he approached straight from the sea, couldn't see no coast. There was muddy water like river water there, but all he tasted was salt. Pretty empty place. He stayed there only a few days. Not much in the way of trade that you'd be interested in  Somebody showed him a big animal, looked like a really ugly man, all covered in red hair with a stupid face. [CAPTAIN thinks, "satyr?" remembering a farce he once saw in Aphrodisias.] He said he got it out of the forest. This guy also said that up in the hills there are people who have tails, and he said he'd bring one of them to the market, but my friend had to leave before he saw it.

CAPTAIN: Really?


MANY YEARS LATER, in Claudius Ptolemy's house in Alexandria. The place is cluttered with papyri, rulers, compasses, books and a globe. Ptolemy is talking with yet another GREEK SEA CAPTAIN.

PTOLEMY:  So, how far did your friend say his friend said these islands were from the tip of the Golden Chersonese?

CAPTAIN: About __ days' sail, sir. [Ptolemy makes a note on a wax tablet.]

PTOLEMY: Hm hm. And what bearing?

CAPTAIN [guesses]: Er, ESE.

PTOLEMY: And what were these islands like?

CAPTAIN: Well he weren't too clear, sir, but I'd reckon from his description that there were about three of them, pretty close together, with a channel in between.

PTOLEMY: Anything else he told you about them?

CAPTAIN: My friend's friend said that satyrs lived there, and also people with tails.

PTOLEMY: Thank my good man. Here's something for your trouble. [exit Captain.]

PTOLEMY [Alone, thinks aloud while scribbling.]: Let's see, __ days's sail at __ stades a day, gives us __ stades, gives us [he calculates carefully] 11° difference longitude, bearing ESE gives us 3°10' difference latitude. Then, "satyrs"? Yes, big, hairy, ape sort of things. Tailed people? [consults a scroll, perhaps Ctesias's Indica.] Well, why not?

And thus it gets set down in the Geography.

Hazardous guessing, yet modern scholars consider that Ptolemy did describe the Malay peninsula, which he called the Golden Chersonese, with fair accuracy.[4]

The "satyr" in "Islands of the Satyrs" I think can fruitfully be explained. In classical mythology, the satyrs are the followers of Dionysus, god of wine and ecstacy, beings of unrestrained character and bad morals who turn up in all kinds of stories. They are described in poetry and painted on pots as very hairy half­men, goat-men or horse-men, with tails. They live in the woods.

Because of these features, more scientific-minded Greeks and Romans applied the name "satyr" to a large type of ape which they knew dimly by report from Africa or "farther India."[5] The orangutan is the most impressively man-like primate of the region beyond India, and it is perfectly natural to suppose (if we overlook the fact that orangutans have no tails) that Ptolemy's "satyrs," described at third-hand—or ninth-hand—were orangutans.

It was the note on the tailed people that really got my attention. The story Borneo people tell that somewhere out there in the jungle, over the next range of hills, or far, far, up the ulu, live a race of tailed human beings is perhaps the most persistent Borneo myth. Carl Bock heard it told him in East Kalimantan a hundred years ago, and a retainer of the Sultan of Kutei made a great effort to find him a pair of specimens. (This man's eagerness got him in trouble with the Sultan of Pasir, who misunderstood the phrasing of his letter.)[6] I heard the story about tailed people in Lundu, on the other side of Borneo, and one can probably still hear it in Brunei, Banjarmasin, and Bario. Who knows how many eager explorers have scoured the jungles of Darkest Borneo for a peek at the Caudate Tribe? Bock himself pursued the rumors for a while because he thought they might lead him to the Darwinian "missing link."

By way of explanation, the tails that these people are supposed to have are neither long nor monkey-like. The East-Kalimantese told Bock that the tailed people were called orang boentoet and that their "tail" was a stiff, three or four inch long prolongation of the coccyx. The word in Lundu is orang panjai tungkin, which means exactly this.[7] Everybody agrees that the Tailed People have to sit on stools with holes bored in the seat, or, if they sit on the ground, dig a small hole to accomodate their appendage.

But neither Malay, Dayak, nor orang puteh can show you a tailed man, woman, or child. They're always somewhere else, over the next mountain.

Spencer St. John also heard plenty about the "tailed people" rumors, and conjectured that the story came into being when someone in the jungle failed to notice that the tail of the Dayak man's chawat was part of the cloth rather than of the person.[8]

In conclusion, although the interpretation of Ptolemy's coordinates is at best doubtful, and orangutans did live in his time in Java and Sumatra as well as Borneo, although stories of tailed people do turn up elsewhere in Southeast Asia, and despite the numerous other problems with the evidence, I think that on the whole, people who feel like it have a good warrant to see something of Borneo in Ptolemy's description of the Islands of the Satyrs. I propose that the man who was the original traveler and source of  Ptolemy's information visited the area around the mouth of the Kapuas. This might explain the trio of "islands."  

But the best part of this investigation is the fun of knowing that even 2000 years ago Borneo folks were hoaxing themselves and others with the old Tailed-People-Live-Just-Over-The-Next-Ridge story. A good joke lives on!



On the characteristics of animals. trans. A.F. Scholfield.  Loeb Classical Library (LCL), 1959.

Bock, Carl Alfred

1881 The headhunters of Borneo. London, Sampson Low, Marston, Searle, and Rivington.

Pliny the Elder

Natural history. trans. by H. Rackham, LCL, 1956.


Description of Greece. trans. W.H.S. Jones, LCL, 1959


La geographie de PtolemŽe, l'Inde (VII, 1-4). texte Žtabli par Louis Renou. Paris, Librairie Ancienne Edouard Champion, 1925.

St. John, Spenser

1862 Life in the forests of the far east. reprint 1986 Oxford University Press, Singapore.

Wheatley, Paul

1980  The Golden Khersonese. Kuala Lumpur, Penerbit Universiti Malaya.

Warmington, Eric Herbert

1970 sec. 4 -6 of article "Ptolemy" in Oxford classical dictionary, 2nd. ed, ed. N.G.L. Hammond and H.H. Scullard, Oxford, Clarendon Press.


[1]My translation   from the Greek text as edited by Renou, book 7, chap. 2, sec. 30   (p. 60).

[2]Ptolemy gives the coordinates 160° (east of the   Canaries), 3°S for "Sabara," at the tip of the Golden Chersonese   and 171°, 6° 10' S (the latitude varies in different manuscripts)   for the Islands of the Satyrs. See Wheatley, pp. 138-144 for a   discussion of Ptolemy's methods and errors.

[3]See   Wheatley and Warmington.

[4]So Warmington in the OCD.

[5]Pliny the   Elder first mentions "satyrs" living in the deserts of northwest   Africa [5.44]. Diodorus Siculus [1.18.4] places them in "Ethiopia"   as followers of Osiris, and Pausanias relates a weird sailor story   about "satyrs" on desert islands somewhere in the Mediterranean   sea [1.23.5-6].

     Pliny the Elder also gives the name "satyr" to an "Indian"   animal [7.24]. Here satyrs seem to be a plausible kind of ape,   although Pliny surrounds them with Dog-headed People, Troglodytes,   and Monopeds. When Pliny describes a habit of the Indian "satyrs"   in 10.99, his translator plumps outright for the translation   "ourang-outang."

     Aelian also refers to some kind of "Indian" ape by the word   "satyr" [16.21].

     For an idea of the Greeks thought what the mythical satyr   looked like, see Plato Symposium 216c, where Alcibiades compares   pot-bellied, snub-nosed Socrates to a satyr. Someone with an   active imagination can probably see how Socrates resembled an   orangutan.

[6]See Bock, pp. 143-4   and 236-7.

[7]I am indebted to my   wife, Nusi Baki, for this information.

[8]St. John, v. I, p. 399.