Would you marry your cousin? All about inbreeding, and very small elephants

A lot of Sicilians would. In fact, a lot of them do.

Of course Albert Einstein is the Poster Boy for cousin marriage. Not only were his parents cousins, but he also went ahead and married his own cousin. His wife was either his first cousin or his second cousin, depending which parent you trace the relationship through.

Albert Eiinstein: Proof that cousin marriage produces perfectly ordinary children.

The first time I was admitted to hospital in Sicily, and the doctor was filling out the cover of the cardboard folder that was to hold my medical notes, he asked me my name, date of birth, blood group and then said,

“Are your parents related to each other?”

I screamed with laughter so raucously that I almost fell off my trolley.

He showed me that there really was a box printed on the form, for him to tick YES or NO, and to write alongside it the specific details of exactly how inbred I was. I guess this is what happens in a society where many people are so pathologically distrustful of outsiders that they only ever get to socialize with their own family.

By way of cultural contrast, when you get admitted to a hospital in England, they fill out that folder by writing your personal details and how many units of alcohol you consume each week (or is it each day?) to the nearest dozen. So you see, whilst Sicilians are a bunch of incestuous teetotalers, we British are genetically diverse beer monsters.

He may be mad on booze but, as you can see, this English gentleman has none of the abnormal genetic characteristics that can result from inbreeding.

Sicilians don’t trust people from the next village. One of their favourite insults is “They’re all inbred in THAT village.” Yet actually, they’re all inbred in ALL the villages.

I have a friend in the village here, who used to work in one of the fish factories, stuffing anchovies into jars and pouring oil over them, and handling various other fishy products. This friend told me her heart’s deepest secret last week: she dated the love of her life when she was 18 years old, and they were engaged, but his mother refused to let them marry. She insisted a girl who worked in a fish factory could not possibly be a virgin. Whilst my friend was broken hearted, her beau’s mother forced him to marry his own cousin.

“She was fat. I mean vast,” my pretty friend told me in distress, at the climax of her story. “She was a great matress of a woman.”

So, what are the consequences of all this Sicilian inbreeding? Apart from a physique that resembles bedding?

I think we all know inbreeding can produce genetic abnormalities. There has been a case of a baby, whose parents were cousins, born with a single Cyclops eye. The parents were not Sicilians actually, but Arabs, among whom cousin marriage is even more common. In some Middle Eastern countries it accounts for over half of all marriages.

[Arabs have even less opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex socially than Sicilians used to. I wonder how I’d feel as an Arab man, deprived of gratifying female encounters my whole life. I’d be so frantically horny I would be willing to marry almost anyone. Those poor guys!!!! And suddenly I am offered my cousin! That’ll do. Yet I’ve only ever seen her dressed like this:

saudi women

What does she look like? It’s a terrible gamble. Maybe she looks like my aunt???

saudi women

But crikey!! She might look like my uncle!

saudi man

(In case you hadn’t figured it out yet, the real reason I am making fun of Arab women is because I have met enough of them to know they are stunningly beautiful, and I’m really quite jealous.) Anyway, now that I’ve finished fooling about with Arabs, let me go back to ridiculing Sicilians.]

Actually no, first let me mock sharks.

This is a real living critter, a cyclops shark found off the coast of California. Click on the photo for the full story.

By the way, the article about the human cyclops baby contains a photo which I have chosen not to reproduce at it is distressing. However I can happily provide a mock-up of the glasses this child may need, should her eye turn out to be short-sighted:

cyclops glasses

Well, does marrying your cousin, generation after generation, produce cyclopes? In Homeric times, rumour had it that Sicily was inhabited by a whole tribe of cyclopes; one-eyed giants with very low intellects and fairly persistent BO. People routinely discovered cyclops skulls in Sicily right up to recent times.

In 1371, explorer and writer Giovanni Boccaccio reported that he had been present when peasants in Sicily discovered a mighty Cyclops skeleton inside a cave. They dared each other to touch it and, when one eventually plucked up the courage to do so, most of it turned to dust, leaving only three huge teeth, parts of the skull, and a vast thigh bone.

cyclops skull
Click on the photo for the original source of this image, which has a hilarious explanation.

Bocaccio, by the way, wrote the rather racy poem “The Decameron,” the Italian answer to the Thousand and One Nights. He had three illegitimate children and one legitimate one, by his first wife, to whom he was married when he was one year old. Poor fellow, perhaps that was the cause of all his lasciviousness? Gradually realizing you’ve been married to some ugly fat “mattress” of a girl since before you could walk or talk. Crikey, maybe she was his cousin too!

An ancient Greek sculpture of Polyphemus, discovered lying about somewhere. In a museum, probably.

Anyway, in the Odyssey of Homer, when Odysseus reaches Sicily, he is caught by a Cyclops named Polyphemus who lives in a cave. Polyphemus likes human flesh, sparkling wine, and sheep. He does not like housework, bathing, or Greeks. He can often be seen dashing men’s brains out “as if they were mere dogs”. By a stroke of sheer jammy good luck, Osysseus happens to have a few good skins of sparkling wine in his ship. So when this one-eyed giant seals off his cave and starts eating Odysseus’ men one by one, Odysseus manages to ply him with champers (Chateau Goat Bladder vintage) and, in his drunken state, blind him and so escape.

polyphemos greek pot
A Greek pot showing Odysseus jabbing an inbred Sicilian – not from MY village, from the next one – in the eye.

But the point is, were the cyclopes produced by cousin marriage? I don’t think so! Actually my darling hubby’s parents are cousins. Oh yes, they really are! But hubby is very handsome and I can assure you he has two eyes. They’re not even particularly close together. And although he may not have invented some new theory of physics, he’s jolly good at electrical wiring and plumbing.

What ever would Charles Darwin say about all this exaggeratedly selective breeding? Actions speak louder than words; he married his own cousin too. Other famous dudes who married their cousins include Franklin D. Roosevenlt, Thomas Jefferson, Christopher Robin (Winnie the Pooh’s friend from the A.A. Milne books), Samuel Morse (who invented Morse code), H.G. Wells, Edgar Allan Poe and Saddam Hussein. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, some biblical scholars even think that Mary and Joseph were cousins.

As far as I know, all of their offspring had two eyes. So I think the inbred cousin theory of cyclopes doesn’t hold. I think there’s a different explanation.

Six million years ago, the Mediterranean sea did not exist. It had evaporated and turned into a massive salt bed, as the continent of Africa drifted upwards until it crashed into Europe at the West, which is now Spain, and the east, where the Middle East links Egypt with Russia. Sealed off at both ends, the sea became a huge salt lake, which gradually evaporated.

Then suddenly, five and a half million years ago, the Atlantic broke down a huge mass of land and formed the largest waterfall the planet has ever seen. It was not a river, but the ocean itself, pouring over a land mass between Spain and Morocco, and gradually carving out the sea channel that now separates the two continents of Europe and Africa. Eventually, the map of the Mediterranean basin that we know today was laid out. The Islands were formed, including Sicily, and the animals on them were isolated from the mainland. So they started to evolve differently.

What has all this got to do with cyclopes? I really am going somewhere with this, I promise.

In Europe, back then, there were elephants. Elephants eat a LOT of leaves to reach the enormous size which makes them unassailable to pretty much all predators. The Sicilian elephants did not have such a lot of vegetation, and they did not have any predators on the island anyway. So they gradually shrank, till eventually the Sicilian elephant was no larger than a pony. They must have been so cute! I wish I could have one as a pet.

I still don’t know why the old men in Sicily are so titchy, but I suppose that’s a research project for another post…

tiny elephant
This is from a photography website with lots of other brilliant size-effects, including a man spreadeagled on an ice-cream cone. Click on this image to visit the site.


The fossils of these dwarf elephants have been found on most of the main Mediterranean islands. They are nearly always found in caves. There are several caves in Sicily where they can be found in great numbers. When you look at their skulls head on, with the tusks fallen off, the hole for their trunk looks rather like a single eye hole. Rather like a Cyclops skull. In a cave called the Grotta dell’Addaura on Monte Pellegrino, in Palermo, a complete little elephant skeleton was found. They have also found cave engravings from the paleolithic and mesolithic eras.

dwarf elephant skull
A cyclops skull? Not quite – a mini Sicilian elephant skull instead.
Palaeolithic cave paintings from the Grotta dell’Addaura on Monte Pellegrino, in Palermo, Sicily. Close by, the skeletons of tiny elephants were found.

Well, I think that’s how the legend of the cyclops arose in Sicily. From the skulls of dear little elephants. As to the question of whether the elephants married their own cousins, your guess is as good as mine.

My Sicilian friend’s ex-fiance and his cousin, Materassina, at their wedding
Fabulous elephant wedding cake, which can be ordered in the UK. Click on the image to go to the supplier’s website.

24 Comments Add yours

  1. Very entertaining.


  2. Diane C says:

    My husband’s parents were first cousins. Having driven the winding, difficult road up the mountain to the village where they were born, it doesn’t surprise me at all. One of his cousins left Capizzi in 1954 and she remembers the first car coming to town. The road to Capizzi is ridiculous now, I can’t imagine what it was like in 1954. When you stand on the top of the hill in which Capizzi is precariously perched, you can see the next village over also perched precariously on a hill top. Thinking about riding a donkey across the rough terrain between, likely for a couple or three hours to court a girl from a different village, I’m sure that was not really considered an option. Thus, people looked in their own village for mates and in a small enough village, everyone is related to everyone!


    1. That’s so true!!!
      If I imagine Sicily without the “modern” roads, (notice my use of inverted commas around “””modern”””) well, goodness me, the villages would be totally isolated! Moving to the next village really would feel like emigration!


  3. Here everyone appears to be cousins too, and inbreeding could explain how many of the real locals appear to have one can missing in their intellectual sixpacks…..


    1. So, no Einsteins around there then? No hope for a unified theory of physics any time soon?


  4. Pecora Nera says:

    Mrs Sensible’s grandparents were cousins, she said it wasn’t the small village thing, but because they were deeply in love. They both had the correct number of eyes 🙂

    I have spent the past 20 mins, checking our family trees and Mrs Sensible and I are not cousins. We are quite different, she is sensible and I am not, She is Italian and I am English (and a black sheep).

    I don’t think any of my family married cousins, mainly because they spent much too much time fighting each other, to fall in love. I was 16 years old before I met my dad’s parents, they turned up one weekend and my mum sent them away. Hi Nan & Granddad … erhh… bye.


    1. Pecora Nera says:

      I forgot to say, brilliant post, we were both laughing.


    2. I suppose family feuds are a really effecive way to avoid inbreeding!
      My husband’s parents also married each other as they were in love, rather than as a result of being Village People – since they come from Palermo. Though my MIL also says in secret that she married the first man who offered because she was so desperate to get away from her own mother – an even scarier Godmother than she now is herself!!!


      1. Pecora Nera says:

        Ha ha ha ha:: Mrs Sensibles lot came from Catania. I am very lucky because my mum in law is fab, I think and hope we will move down there around 2018. Speriamo..


  5. beba says:

    A fun and enlightening post. I learned a lot!
    I was also inspired to look up the term “elephant jokes” and found a wikipedia entry all about them, with several examples. Your son might enjoy them. And make up some of his own.
    Other topic: I do like my cousins but would probably not marry any of them.
    Last thing: did your neighbors finally pay their water bills and do you have water now? Ha-ha.


    1. Ha ha! i can’t believe there is a Wikipedia article on elephant jokes!!! I remembered some of those from my hazy distant primary school days! :)))
      Sadly the neighbours still haven’t paid their water bills. We have legal actions pending, and they should soon start getting their stuff taken by the bailiffs, or salary deducted at source. Aghh, it all had to get so nasty.
      The worst bit was that the non-payers outnumber the payers, and they staged a coup and took over the running of the condominium (like residents association) – and thus tried to block the legal actions. So in the nick of time, one of the paying neighbours threatened the LAWYER that if he did stop progressing with the legal actions, we would take legal action against HIM for compensation.
      Only in Sicily.
      You couldn’t make this stuff up, could you?


  6. Hilarious and ‘educational’ post. I’ve always said that studying the classics makes all the difference. Shame it’s not passed on genetically as you could cleanse the Sicilian gene pool.


    1. I do believe there’s nothing like a classical education!
      I am not doing a very successful job of throwing good genes into the general gene pool here, with my feeble contribution of one. I think I shall have to try educating the children of others instead…


  7. Jack Curtis says:

    More a gene puddle, perhaps…
    Maybe some desperate researcher will someday compare Sicily with our American Appalachian region, sociologically. Hatfields, McCoys etc. seem to share some characteristics with some Siciani. But Appalachian caves are more likely to house illegal distilleries than Cyclops or elephantettes…Or at least they used to; not sure that’s current. In-breeding still goes on, though.


    1. You inspired me to investigate Appalachian inbreeding, and it turns out they have inbred to the extent that people are being born BLUE.
      Fo real !!!


  8. Hilarious – and fascinating!! I love your theory about the elephant skulls…


  9. Elizabeth Berget says:

    I really enjoyed your articles. My Grandma was from Sicily. She always warned us that we should never take a bath if we had our periods, from a week prior to the week after it finished. The theory was that the blood would rush to our heads and we would DIE! I disproved this to her many times, but she always remained unconvinced. Do you know where this notion began? We’re they really aquaphobes due to polio? Best Regards, E. B.


    1. Amazing! What awful BO they must have had in summer! I wonder if it was an excuse to make people save water, which is always scarce! I’ll investigate adn report back…. 🙂


  10. Anonymous says:

    a proposito di manifestazioni che vanno dal bizzarro allo sconcertante e all’assurdo


  11. ACountryBoy says:

    My paternal grandparents were 1st cousins
    They had 9 children. Most of them had spine problems and some hearing loss. One had polio. Some of the grandchildren have spine and hearing issues. One is transgender.


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