The Pelasgians in the ancient historians’ texts

Profuse – at least in number.. – but rather confusing references we have received from the ancient historians regarding the Pelasgians – Πελασγοί so much as they still remain quite a mysterious pre-Greek population: little is known about their real origin and end, concrete race, actual idiom and uses. As even Herodotus candidly admits:

“ἥντινα δ γλσσαν εσαν ο Πελασγο, οκ χω τρεκως επεν σαν ο Πελασγο βρβαρον γλσσαν ἱέντες”

[What language however the Pelasgians used to speak I am not able with certainty to say… the Pelasgians used to speak a Barbarian language]

They are said to be of Illyrian or Aetolian origins; or according to Ephorus – and also Hesiod – they seem to have Arcadian roots as he maintains Lycaon being the son of Pelasgus and Meliboea (or the nymph Cyllene), and the mythical first king of Arcadia:

The sons born of the divine Lycaon, whom formerly Pelasgus begot.

Homer in Iliad refers them as originally settled in Epirus: centre of the most ancient oracle and cult of Zeus and Rhea (or Gaia):

“Ζε να Δωδωναε Πελασγικ τηλθι ναων”

[Pelasgians Dodonæan Zeus supreme]

According to a more extensive interpretation they apparently also colonised the northern Adriatic sea and could be seemingly also identified with the Tyrrhenians. More audacious versions even want them to derive from northern Indian populations. However according to the various, and unfortunately only rarely coincidental, traditions they seem to have spread all over the insular and peninsular Greece, and almost certainly also on the coasts of the Hellespont – and according to Homer even in Crete, as Odysseus narrates:

λλη δ λλων γλσσα μεμιγμνη· ν μν χαιο,

ν δ τεκρητες μεγαλτορες, ν δ Κδωνες,

Δωριες τε τριχϊκες δο τε Πελασγο.

[Diverse their language is; Achaians some,
And some indigenous are; Cydonians there,
Crest-shaking Dorians, and Pelasgians dwell.]

and also, according to the Poet of Iliad, in the Ionian coast such as Cilices and Troad:

“Ἱππθοος δ γε φλα Πελασγν γχεσιμρων

τν ο Λρισαν ριβλακα ναιετασκον·”

[Hypothecs from Larissa, for her soil
Far-famed, the spear-expert Pelasgians brought.]

Herodotus reports that the Pelasgians were formerly inhabitants of Πελασγιώτιδες – Pelasgiotides, the Greek region then named Thessaly and spread over the northern Ionian coastline:

“… τοσι νν τι οσι Πελασγν τν πρ Τυρσηνν Κρηστνα πλιν οκεντων, ο μουροι κοτ σαν τοσι νν Δωριεσι καλεομνοισι (οκεον δ τηνικατα γν τν νν Θεσσαλιτιν καλεομνην), κα τν Πλακην τε κα Σκυλκην Πελασγν οκησντων ν λλησπντ, ο σνοικοι γνοντο θηναοισι, κα σα λλα Πελασγικ ἐόντα πολσματα τ ονομα μετβαλε· ε τονυν ν κα πν τοιοτο τ Πελασγικν, τ ττικν θνος ἐὸν Πελασγικν μα τ μεταβολ τ ς λληνας κα τν γλσσαν μετμαθε. κα γρ δ οτε ο Κρηστωνιται οδαμοσι τν νν σφας περιοικεντων εσ μγλωσσοι οτε ο Πλακιηνο, σφσι δ μγλωσσοι· δηλοσ τε τι τν νεκαντο γλσσης χαρακτρα μεταβανοντες ς τατα τ χωρα, τοτον χουσι ν φυλακ.”

[… judging by those that still remain of the Pelasgians who dwelt in the city of Creston above the Tyrsenians, and who were once neighbours of the race now called Dorian, dwelling then in the land which is now called Thessaliotis, and also by those that remain of the Pelasgians who settled at Plakia and Skylake in the region of the Hellespont, who before that had been settlers with the Athenians, and of the natives of the various other towns which are really Pelasgian, though they have lost the name…. If therefore all the Pelasgian race was such as these, then the Attic race, being Pelasgian, at the same time when it changed and became Hellenic, unlearnt also its language. For the people of Creston do not speak the same language with any of those who dwell about them, nor yet do the people of Plakia, but they speak the same language one as the other: and by this it is proved that they still keep unchanged the form of language which they brought with them when they migrated to these places.]

Actually the Tyrsenians Herodotus reports are more likely to be the inhabitants of Lemnos rather than the Tyrrhenian (ancient Central-Italian population) – considering that also both Plakia and Skylake were poleis of Propontides, west of Cyzicus, and that his passage is somewhat corroborated by Anticlides who reports that they early colonised Lemnos and Imbros; additional reference is found in Thucydides when he describes the populations settled in the region of Chalcidian peninsula:

“…Brasidas after the capture of Amphipolis marched with his allies against Acte, a promontory running out from the king’s dike with an inward curve, and ending in Athos, a lofty mountain looking towards the Aegean sea. In it are various towns, Sane, an Andrian colony, close to the canal, and facing the sea in the direction of Euboea; the others being Thyssus, Cleone, Acrothoi, Olophyxus, and Dium, inhabited by mixed barbarian races speaking the two languages. There is also a small Chalcidian element; but the greater number are Tyrrheno-Pelasgians once settled in Lemnos and Athens, and Bisaltians, Crestonians, and Edonians; the towns being all small ones.”

Also Euripides, whose opinion on this subject coincides with Aeschylus’, contributes to complicate the matter as in his “Archelaus“, he states:

“Danaus, who was the father of fifty daughters, having arrived in Argos inhabited the city of Inachus, and made a law that those who had before borne the name of Pelasgiotæ throughout Greece should be called Danai.”

Thus even Argolid now… the mystery gets more enticing as even Herodotus, who tries to be as precise as possible, seems to have difficulties in grasping and systematising the matter: he first makes a distinction between Greeks, Dorians and Athenians who all may have Pelasgian origins and explains that the Greeks split from the Pelasgians and afterwards he states that Pelasgians smoothly mingled in and finally the two civilisations Greek and Pelasgian actually blended:

“Then after this he [Crœsus] gave thought to inquire which people of the Hellenes he should esteem the most powerful and gain over to himself as friends. And inquiring he found that the Lacedemonians and the Athenians had the pre-eminence, the first of the Dorian and the others of the Ionian race. For these were the most eminent races in ancient time, the second being a Pelasgian and the first a Hellenic race: and the one never migrated from its place in any direction, while the other was very exceedingly given to wanderings; for in the reign of Deucalion this race dwelt in Pthiotis, and in the time of Doros the son of Hellen in the land lying below Ossa and Olympos, which is called Histiaiotis; and when it was driven from Histiaiotis by the sons of Cadmos, it dwelt in Pindos and was called Makedonian; and thence it moved afterwards to Dryopis, and from Dryopis it came finally to Peloponnesus, and began to be called Dorian.

As for the Hellenic race, it has used ever the same language, as I clearly perceive, since it first took its rise; but since the time when it parted off feeble at first from the Pelasgian race, setting forth from a small beginning it has increased to that great number of races which we see, and chiefly because many Barbarian races have been added to it besides. Moreover it is true, as I think, of the Pelasgian race also, that so far as it remained Barbarian it never made any great increase.”

Herodotus gives some hints and pieces of evidence of the presence of the Pelasgians in early Attic settlements:

“As for the Athenians, in the time when the Pelasgians occupied that which is now called Hellas, they were Pelasgians, being named Cranaoi, and in the time of king Kecrops they came to be called Kecropidai; then when Erechtheus had succeeded to his power, they had their name changed to Athenians; and after Ion the son of Xuthos became commander of the Athenians, they got the name from him of Ionians.”

Herodotus gives another confirmation of Pelasgians influences on Attic when referring to some religious rituals imported from both the Egyptians and the Pelasgians and then transmitted by the latter to the next generations of Greeks. This could be corroborated by Strabo’s theory according to which Pelasgians may have Egyptian roots. Herodotus also specifies that the Athenians were already Greeks when some Pelasgians settlers reached Attic: seemingly these new colonisers were simply joining the present integrated Greek-Pelasgian population:

“These observances then, and others besides these which I shall mention, the Hellenes have adopted from the Egyptians; but to make, as they do, the images of Hermes with the phallos they have learnt not from the Egyptians but from the Pelasgians, the custom having been received by the Athenians first of all the Hellenes and from these by the rest; for just at the time when the Athenians were beginning to rank among the Hellenes, the Pelasgians became dwellers with them in their land, and from this very cause it was that they began to be counted as Hellenes. Whosoever has been initiated in the mysteries of the Cabeiroi, which the Samothrakians perform having received them from the Pelasgians, that man knows the meaning of my speech; for these very Pelasgians who became dwellers with the Athenians used to dwell before that time in Samothrake, and from them the Samothrakians received their mysteries. So then the Athenians were the first of the Hellenes who made the images of Hermes with the phallos, having learnt from the Pelasgians; and the Pelasgians told a sacred story about it, which is set forth in the mysteries in Samothrake.

Now the Pelasgians formerly were wont to make all their sacrifices calling upon the gods in prayer, as I know from that which I heard at Dodona, but they gave no title or name to any of them, for they had not yet heard any, but they called them gods from some such notion as this, that they had set in order all things and so had the distribution of everything. Afterwards, when much time had elapsed, they learnt from Egypt the names of the gods, all except Dionysos, for his name they learnt long afterwards; and after a time the Pelasgians consulted the Oracle at Dodona about the names, for this prophetic seat is accounted to be the most ancient of the Oracles which are among the Hellenes, and at that time it was the only one. So when the Pelasgians asked the Oracle at Dodona whether they should adopt the names which had come from the Barbarians, the Oracle in reply bade them make use of the names. From this time they sacrificed using the names of the gods, and from the Pelasgians the Hellenes afterwards received them”.

Herodotus also reports the episode when the Pelasgians were chased away form Attic by the Athenians. He inserts this event when explaining the conquest of Lemnos by Miltiades – an invasion that the Athenians justified as a revenge against the Pelasgians. In truth this episode is taken from Hecataeus of Miletus’ Periegesis Ges (or Periodos Ges) and it is quite interesting to note that this passage is also a first example of historiographic disputation between the two ancient historians (well actually Hecataeus was a geographer) as whether the reported episode is ethically “just” or “unjust”:

“Now Miltiades son of Kimon had thus taken possession of the Lemnos:–After the Pelasgians had been cast out of Attica by the Athenians, whether justly or unjustly,–for about this I cannot tell except the things reported, which are these:–Hecataois on the one hand, the son of Hegesander, said in his history that it was done unjustly; for he said that when the Athenians saw the land which extends below Hymettos, which they had themselves given them to dwell in, as payment for the wall built round the Acropolis in former times, when the Athenians, I say, saw that this land was made good by cultivation, which before was bad and worthless, they were seized with jealousy and with longing to possess the land, and so drove them out, not alleging any other pretext: but according to the report of the Athenians themselves they drove them out justly; for the Pelasgians being settled under Hymettos made this a starting-point and committed wrong against them as follows: the daughters and sons of the Athenians were wont ever to go for water to the spring of Enneacrunos; for at that time neither they nor the other Hellenes as yet had household servants; and when these girls came, the Pelasgians in wantonness and contempt of the Athenians would offer them violence; and it was not enough for them even to do this, but at last they were found in the act of plotting an attack upon the city: and the narrators say that they herein proved themselves better men than the Pelasgians, inasmuch as when they might have slain the Pelasgians, who had been caught plotting against them, they did not choose to do so, but ordered them merely to depart out of the land: and thus having departed out of the land, the Pelasgians took possession of several older places and especially of Lemnos. The former story is that which was reported by Hecataios, while the latter is that which is told by the Athenians.”

In truth, once again the reports sound more like rumour-oriented and hearsay-based as:

  • the said wall was a Mycenaean construction and used to surround the Acropolis, and it was called either Pelasgic or Pelargic; the former name is clearly referred to the Pelasgians, as to the latter it seems to refer to storks (in ancient Greek Pelargikòn, which is apparently also a credited ethymological explanation of the actual word Pelasgic i.e. migratory/nomadic people) – however the tradition of the early presence of Pelasgians in Attic must have prevailed – hence Pelasgian Wall;

  • the said spring of Enneacrunos was built under the Peisistratids, therefore this reference is surely anachronistic being their tyranny dated 546–510 b.C.

Ultimately most of the said references (Homer, Hellanicus, Herodotus, Thucydides, Ephorus, Pausanias…) – rather scattered and just oblique, sound more like hints and unconfirmed reports that tend to be more slightly descriptive – quite contradictorily, though – and often just in order to provide justifications of root/myths derived from this pre-Hellenic civilisation rather than seeking for their roots and social/demographic development/collapse, whose findings and results still remain inconclusive. Ultimately it can be said that the “Pelasgians” conservatively were in general referred in classic Greece (and afterwards) to pre-Hellenic populations of dubious Greek mainland origins and who spoke several non-Greek languages, who settled down in the Greek terra firma, peninsulas, the Ionian coasts and most of the islands of the Aegean Sea. Most likely, not without resistance, they eventually blended with the Greeks transmitting to them part of their religious rituals and acquiring their language and uses.


23 comments on “The Pelasgians in the ancient historians’ texts

  1. Sandrine says:

    Mon chérie, l’histoire c’est ma passion; pas mon métier : mais une fois qu’on rentre bien dans ton billet, c’est très agréable 🙂 Bravo à toi.
    Gros bisou

  2. Grete says:

    Just to let you know I never miss an article of yours…

  3. Karen says:

    Hi dear, kind of archaeological post, neat and ironic…. nice picture as well. Lots of hugs and kisses

  4. Hellen Haan says:

    Hi darling!
    Call me a silly romantic, but I follow Homer and spouse this theory – Pelasgians as original Crete’s inhabitants:

    “There is a land called Crete in the midst of the wine-blue sea,
    a beautiful and fertile land, seagirt; in it are many
    people, innumerable, and there are ninety cities.
    Language with language is mingled together. There are Akhaians,
    there are great-hearted Eteocretans, there are Kydones,
    and Dorians in their three clans, and noble Pelasgians”.
    [Odyssey 19, 172 – 177]

    Zoenen!!! —Hellen

  5. Clotilde says:

    Les Grecs anciens et l’Egypte ancienne sont mes grandes passions, j’aime beaucoup ton billets, Bravo !

  6. Jimena says:

    ¡Que buena entrada! Tengo que agradecerte que me hayas esclarecido el panorama.

  7. Emily says:

    My dear,
    the French scholar Z. Mayani has a theory that links Pelasgians, Etruscan and Albanian. The author believes that Albanian (which is generally considered to be an Indo European idiom and possibly an endurance from the ancient Illyrian Indo European), outside of the Indo European cluster of languages, and namely partaking one stem with Etruscan and another with Greek. Clearly ancient Greek language is deemed by almost any scholar as part of the Indo European cluster. This theory is supported by an Albanian writer, N. Vlora Falaschi, in a study of the stele found in Lemnos.
    XXX Emily

  8. Jacqueline says:

    Chérie, très bon billet.
    J’ai lu le livre de Burkert. que permet de pénétrer mieux ce que représentaient pour les hommes et les femmes de l’Antiquité les initiations aux mystères: mystères d’Éleusis, mystères dionysiaques, mystères de la Grande Mère, mystères d’Isis, mystères de Mithra, et tant d’autres, Merci pour me conseiller…. Bisous

  9. stoa says:

    Dear Sandrine,
    Thank you very much for your comment, and please be assured I know you do your job with the utmost professionalism and most certainly proficiently.

  10. stoa says:

    Thanks Grete darling this is indeed very comforting,

  11. stoa says:

    Thanks dear Karen,
    I always welcome your comments and enjoy your company. Kisses.

  12. stoa says:

    Dear Hellen,
    You know I do always share your romanticism and therefore I give no credit to Strabo’s description of the inhabitants of Krete:
    “the Dorians occupy the region towards the east, the Kydones the western part, the Eteocretans the southern, whose town is Prasos, where the temple of Diktaian Zeus is; and that the Eteocretans and Kydones are probably indigenous, but the others incomers…”

  13. stoa says:

    Dear Clotilde,
    thank you – also for your email – and please consider you are always very welcome to my weblog,

  14. stoa says:

    Querida Jimena,
    me encanta de poder enriquecer tu conocimiento y satisfacer tu curiosidad intelectual.
    Pues, bienvenida en mi bitácora.
    Hasta pronto.

  15. stoa says:

    Dear Emily,
    thanks for your highly erudite comments… as usual.
    If I remember correctly I read something by Robert d’Angély corroborating that interpretation – I will email you the actual reference.

  16. stoa says:

    Dear Jacqueline,
    I am glad you’ve found what you were looking for… always here at your “service”…

  17. BigBang says:

    WOw ! That was great ! How about The Ilion name – can it be derived from Hellen, thus giving the main theme of the Troyan War as for the land of “Greece” (including islands and Hellespont)?
    And how about Crete name? – can “Greece” name also be derived from it ?, cause nobody knows for sure, what “greece” can mean…

    Ciao. A Polonia.

  18. BigBang says:

    By the way, it is interesting, that Herodotus even Egiptian (from which Pelasgians took names of gods)calls “Barbarians”….
    It looks just like “Goebbels propaganda”…
    Doesn’t it?
    By the way, what does it mean “bar…” – isn’t it: “son of” ?


  19. stoa says:

    Hello Gorgias,
    The term “Greek” was reported for the first time by Hesiod, when he described an hero named Grecos (Γραικος) son of Zeus and Pandora.
    According to Aristotle this also was the name of a tribe in Beotia whose members emigrated to Rome in huge numbers and was thus adopted to characterise all those people coming from the Hellenic world.

  20. stoa says:

    Hello Gorgias,
    The word “Barbarian”, seemingly derives from the incomprehensible muttering and uttering of unknown language by foreigners and strangers that to ancient Greeks sounded like: “bar… bar… bar…” sort of our nowadays’ “bla, bla bla….”

  21. Anonymous says:

    I hate to burst everyone’s bubble, but this post tends to rely too much on literary evidence. I think the author needs to take a look at some archaeological data before making any conclusions regarding the identity of the Pelasgians.

    Off the top of my head, I recommend at least reading the Wikipedia article on the Pelasgians.

  22. stoa says:

    My aim was – as I plainly stated into the title of my post – to review literary indications of what the ancient historians wrote about the Pelasgians. Thus I only analysed the passages where these ancient authors somehow referred to this early and quite mysterious populations.
    However your comment may lead me to another possible post this time only focused on the “archaeological evidence of the Pelasgians”.
    Thanks a lot for your hint and welcome to my weblog.

  23. ilir balaj says:

    Dear friends lot of this story and documents i read long time ago and i think in those have lot truth things to believe,but some are so confused.In other hand i think that name Greece,in lingua italiana graeci,greko have means only in albanian grehu-get up,and eci-go,does it mean get up and let’go from greece history is full lies and falsificaciones they thinking that every thing what happen in antiquity is nova day is property of greece nation ,no i don’t agree. Lot of ancient names have means only in albanian for example Aleksander ale -born, ksa -what, ander- dream, d,i,m born what i dream ,or mirmidones is mir-good, midone-we they like ,or city thebanes in albanian tebanet are cabanas, people which lives in cabanas etc.

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