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Ancient Greek writers used the name "Pelasgian" to refer to groups of people who preceded the Hellenes and dwelt in several locations in mainland Greece, Crete, and other regions of the Aegean as neighbors of the Hellenes. Pelasgians spoke a language different from the Greeks. Scholars have since come to use the term "Pelasgian", somewhat indiscriminately, to indicate all the autochthonous inhabitants of these lands before the arrival of the Greeks, and in recent times it may refer to the indigenous, pre-Indo-European peoples of Anatolia as well.


Classical Greek uses of "Pelasgian"

The name "Pelasgians" first appears in the poems of Homer: the Pelasgians appear in the Iliad among the allies of Troy. In the section known to scholars as The Catalogue of Ships, which otherwise preserves a strict geographical order, they stand between the Hellespontine cities and the Thracians of south-east Europe, i.e. on the Hellespontine border of Thrace (2.840-843). Homer calls their town or district "Larissa" and characterises it as fertile, and its inhabitants as celebrated for their spearsmanship. He records their chiefs as Hippothous and Pylaeus, sons of Lethus son of Teutamus. Iliad, 10.428-429, describes their camping ground between the town of Troy and the sea.

Odyssey, 17.175-177, places the Pelasgians in Crete, together with two apparently indigenous and two immigrant peoples (Achaeans and Dorians), but gives no indication to which class the Pelasgians belong. Lemnos (Iliad, 7.467; 14. 230) has no Pelasgians, but a Minyan dynasty. Two other passages (Iliad, 2.681-684; 16.233-235) apply the epithet "Pelasgic" to a district called Argos about Mount Othrys in southern Thessaly, and to the temple of Zeus at Dodona. But neither passage mentions actual Pelasgians; Hellenes and Achaeans specifically people the Thessalian Argos, and Dodona hosts Perrhaebians and Aenianes (Iliad, 2.750) who are nowhere described as Pelasgian. It looks therefore as if "Pelasgian" were here used connotatively, to mean either "formerly occupied by Pelasgians" or simply "of immemorial age."

Strabo quotes Hesiod as expanding on the Homeric phrase, calling Dodona "seat of Pelasgians" (fr. 225); he speaks also of an eponymous Pelasgus, the father of the culture-hero of Arcadia, Lycaon. After Hesiod, a number of early authors flesh out his brief statement. An early genealogist, Asius, describes Pelasgus as the first man, literally born of the earth to create a race of men. An early poet, Hecataeus, makes Pelasgus king of Thessaly (expounding Iliad, 2.681-684); Acusilaus applies this Homeric passage to the Peloponnesian Argos, and engrafts the Hesiodic Pelasgus, father of Lycaon, into a Peloponnesian genealogy.

Hellanicus repeats this identification a generation later, and identifies this Argive or Arcadian Pelasgus with the Thessalian Pelasgus of Hecataeus. Aeschylus regards Pelasgus as earthborn (Supplices I, sqq.), as in Asius, and ruler of a kingdom stretching from Argos to Dodona and the Strymon; but in Prometheus 879, the "Pelasgian" land simply means Argos. Sophocles takes the same view (Inac/jus, fragment. 256) and for the first time introduces the word "Tyrrhenian" (bringing the Etruscans) into the story, apparently as synonymous with "Pelasgians".

Herodotus, like Homer, has a denotative as well as a connotative use. He describes actual Pelasgians surviving and speaking mutually intelligible dialects

  • at Placie and Scylace on the Asiatic shore of the Hellespont
  • near Creston on the Strymon; in this area they have "Tyrrhenian" neighbors (Persian Wars 1.57).

He alludes to other districts where Pelasgian peoples lived on under changed names; Samothrace and Antandrus in Troas probably provide instances of this. In discussing Lemnos and Imbros he describes a Pelasgian population whom the Athenians conquered only shortly before 500 BC, and in connection with this he tells a story of earlier raids of these Pelasgians on Attica, and of a temporary settlement there of Hellespontine Pelasgians, all dating from a time "when the Athenians were first beginning to count as Greeks."

Elsewhere "Pelasgian" in Herodotus connotes anything typical of, or surviving from, the state of things in Greece before the coming of the Greeks. (In this sense one could regard all Greece as formerly "Pelasgic".) The clearest instances of Pelasgian survivals in ritual and customs and antiquities occur in Arcadia, the "Ionian" districts of the north-west Peloponnese, and Attica, which have suffered least from hellenization. In Athens itself the prehistoric wall of the Acropolis and a plot of ground close below it received veneration in the 5th century as "Pelasgian"; so too Thucydides (2.17).

We may note that all Herodotus' examples of actual Pelasgi lie round, or near, the actual Pelasgi of Homeric Thrace; that the testimony of Thucydides (4.106) confirms the most distant of these as to the Pelasgian and Tyrrhenian population of the adjacent seaboard: also that Thucydides adopts the same general Pelasgian theory of early Greece, with the refinement that he regards the Pelasgian name as originally specific, and as having come gradually into this generic use.

The historian Ephorus preserves a passage from Hesiod that attests to a tradition of an aboriginal Pelasgian people in Arcadia, and developed a theory of the Pelasgians as a warrior-people spreading from a "Pelasgian home", and annexing and colonizing all the parts of Greece where earlier writers had found allusions to them, from Dodona to Crete and the Troad, and even as far as Italy, where again their settlements had been recognized as early as the time of Hellanicus, in close connection once more with "Tyrrhenians."

The copious additional information given by later writers all either interprets local legends in the light of Ephorus's theory, or explains the name "Pelasgoi"; as when Philochorus expands a popular etymology "stork-folk" into a theory of their seasonal migrations; or Apollodorus says that Homer calls Zeus 'Pelasgian' "because he is not far from every one of us".

The connection with Tyrrhenians which began with Hellanicus, Herodotus and Sophocles becomes confusion with them in the 3rd century, when the Lemnian pirates and their Attic kinsmen become plainly styled as Tyrrhenians, and early fortress-walls in Italy (like those on the Palatine Hill in Rome) appear as "Arcadian" colonies. The character of the ancient citadel wall at Athens has given the name "Pelasgic masonry" to all constructions of large, unhewn blocks fitted together with mortar, from Asia Minor to Spain, the massive character one might similarly call "cyclopean".

Modern theories

From a tribal name, both Classical historians and archeologists have come to use the name "Pelasgian" to describe the inhabitants in the lands around the Aegean Sea and their descendants before the arrival of the waves of Greek-speaking invaders during the 2nd millennium BC. The results of archaeological excavations at Çatalhöyük by James Mellaart (1955) and F. Schachermeyr (1979) led them to conclude that the Pelasgians had migrated from Asia Minor to the Aegean basin in the 4th millennium BC. Further, scholars have attributed a number of non-Indo-European linguistic and cultural features to the Pelasgians:

  • Groups of non-Indo-European loan words in the Greek language, borrowed in its prehistoric development
  • Non-Greek place names in the region containing the consonantal strings "-nth-" (e.g. Corinth, Probalinthos), or its equivalent "-ns-" (e.g. Tiryns), or "-tt-" in the peninsula of Attica, or with "-ss-" (e.g. Larissa), or "-en-" (e.g. Athens, Mycenae, Cyllene).
  • Certain mythological stories or deities (usually goddesses) that have no parallel to the mythologies of other Indo-European peoples like the Germans, Celts or Indians.
  • A small number of non-Greek inscriptions, the best-known found on Lemnos (the Lemnos stele). These inscriptions use a version of the western Greek alphabet similar to that used in the Old Italic alphabet employed for Etruscan inscriptions.

Not all of these features belong to the same people. For example, some evidence suggests that the "-ss-" placenames may have come from a language related to Hittite (for example: Parnassus may be related to the Hittite word parna- or "house"). Because of insufficient evidence from the 2nd millennium BC, no consensus exists on the relationship of these "Pelasgian" elements to their neighbors -- although much speculation has taken place, sometimes fueled by a desire for association with some of the earliest known inhabitants of Europe.

But much is not known about the Pelasgians, and may never be known. As Donald A. Mackenzie, writes (in Myths of Crete and Pre-Hellenic Europe, 1917, page 75):

"Before these [Hellenic] invaders entered into possession of the country [of Greece] it had been divided between various 'barbarous tribes', including the Pelasgi and their congeners the Caucones and Leleges. Thirlwall, among others, expressed the view 'that the name Pelasgians was a general one, like that of Saxons, Franks, or Alemanni, and that each of the Pelasgian tribes had also one peculiar to itself'. The Hellenes did not exterminate the aborigines, but constituted a military aristocracy. Aristotle was quoted to show that their original seat was near Dodona, in Epirus, and that they first appeared in Thessaly about 1384 B.C. It was believed that the Hellenic conquerors laid the foundation of Greek civilization."

Mackenzie continues, quoting George Grote:

"By what circumstances, or out of what pre-existing elements, the aggregate was brought together and modified, we find no evidence entitled to credit. There are, indeed, various names affirmed to designate the ante-Hellenic inhabitants of many parts of Greece — the Pelasgi, the Leleges, the Kuretes, the Kaukones, the Aones, the Temmikes, the Hyantes, the Telchines, the Boeotian Thracians, the Teleboae, the Ephyri, the Phlegyae, &c. These ae names belonging to legendary, not to historical Greece — extracted out of a variety of conflicting legends by the logographers and subsequent historians, who strung together out of them a supposed history of the past, at a time when the conditions of historical evidence were very little understood. That these names designated real nations may be true but here our knowledge ends."

The poet and mythologist Robert Graves, in his works on Greek mythology, asserts that certain elements of that mythology originate with the native Pelasgian people — namely the parts related to his concept of the White Goddess, an archetypical Earth Goddess — drawing additional support for his conclusion from his interpretations of other ancient literature: Irish, Welsh, Greek, Biblical, Gnostic, and medieval writings. Mainstream scholarship considers Graves' thesis at best controversial, although certain literary circles and many neo-pagan groups have accepted it.

The French author Zacharie Mayani (1899 - ) put forth a thesis that the Etruscan language had links to the Albanian language. This thesis places the Albanian language outside the Indo-European group of languages sharing one branch with Etruscans as well as ancient Greek. Nermin Vlora Falaschi published a translation of the Lemnos stele on this basis, with the help of Arvanite Albanian. The references below by Falaschi, Catapano, Marchiano, Faverial, D'Angely, Kolias, and Cabej support this point of view.

A Turkish scholar, Polat Kaya, has recently offered a translation of one of the inscriptions on Lemnos, based on his theory that it reflects a language related to Turkish. However, in the period of the putative date of the inscription the Turkish people lived several thousand miles away in southeastern Siberia. They began to migrate westward only about AD 300, a fact that has hindered acceptance of Kaya's translation. This theory is almost unanimously rejected by the scholarship.

Some Georgian scholars (including M.G. Tseretheli, R.V. Gordeziani, M. Abdushelishvili, and Dr. Zviad Gamsakhurdia) connect the Pelasgian with the Iberian-Caucasian cultures of the prehistoric Caucasus, known to the Greeks as Colchis. This may sound plausible since there were many autochtonic Caucasian peoples dwelling in Anatolia such as the Hattians before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans.

Links and references

These references include both mainstream scholarship and fringe theories.

  • M.G. Abdushelishvili. The genesis of the aboriginal population of the Caucasus in the light of anthropological data, Tokyo, 1968
  • Milan Budimir, The Greeks and Pelasti (1950)
  • Milan Budimir, Pelasto - Slavica (1956)
  • E.J. Furnee. Vorgriechisch-Kartvelisches: Studium zum ostmediterranen Subtrat nebst einem Versuch zu einer neuen pelasgischen Theorie, Leuven-Louvian, 1979
  • Rismag Gordeziani. Pre-Grecian and Georgian, Tbilisi, 1985 (in Georgian, German summary)
  • Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Crete and Pre-Hellenic Europe, 1917 reviewed (
  • J. Melaart. The Neolithic of the Near East, London, 1975
  • F. Schachermeyr. Die Ägäische Frühzeit. Forschungsbericht über die Ausgrabungen im letzten Jahrzehnt und über ihre Ergebnisse für unser Geschichtsbild. Bd. I. Die Vormykenischen Perioden des Griechischen Festlandes und der Kykladen, Vienna, 1979
  • Akaki Urushadze. The Country of the Enchantress Media, Tbilisi, 1984, 25 pp (in Russian and English)
  • Aristeidē P. Kollia. "Arvanites kai hē katagōgē tōn Hellēnōn : historikē, laographikē, politistikē, glōssologikē episkopisē , Athens : [A.P. Kollias], 1985, [i.e. 1986]
  • Robert d'Angély. Des Thraces & des Illyriens à Homère Nicariu, Corsica : Cismonte è Pumonti, c1990
  • Robert d'Angély. Grammaire albanaise comparée Paris : [Solange d'Angély], 1998
  • Nermin Vlora Falaschi. L'Etrusco lingua viva Roma : Bardi, 1989
  • Giuseppe Catapano. Thot Parlava Albanese Roma : Bardi, 1988
  • Marchiano Stanislao. I Pelasgi e la loro lingua (1888)
  • Mathieu Aref. Albanie ou l'incroyable odyssée d'un peuple préhellénique (2003)
  • Mathieu Aref. Grèce : (Mycéniens = Pélasges) ou la solution d'une énigme (2004)

See also

fr:Pélasges it:Pelasgi


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