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The name Pelasgians (Greek: Πελασγοί, Pelasgoí, singular Πελασγός, Pelasgós) was used by some ancient Greek writers to refer to populations that were either the ancestors of the Greeks or who preceded the Greeks in Greece, "a hold-all term for any ancient, primitive and presumably indigenous people in the Greek world." In general, "Pelasgian" has come to mean more broadly all the indigenous inhabitants of the Aegean Sea region and their cultures before the advent of the Greek language. This is not an exclusive meaning, but other senses require identification when meant. During the classical period, enclaves under that name survived in several locations of mainland Greece, Crete and other regions of the Aegean. Populations identified as "Pelasgian" spoke a language or languages that at the time Greeks identified as "barbaric", even though some ancient writers described the Pelasgians as Greeks. A tradition also survived that large parts of Greece had once been Pelasgian before being Hellenized. These parts generally fell within the ethnic domain that by the 5th century BC was attributed to those speakers of ancient Greek who were identified as Ionians.
The classification of the Pelasgian language(s), known only from non-Greek elements in Ancient Greek and detectable in some placenames, even whether or not Pelasgian was a single language, and the relationship of Pelasgians to prehistoric Hellenes are long-standing questions that have not received definitive answers. The field of study looks forward to additional evidence that may fill in the gaps. Many past and current theories exist. Some of them are colored by contemporary nationalist issues, which compromise their objectivity.
Archaeological excavations during the 20th century have unearthed artifacts in areas traditionally inhabited by the Pelasgians such as Thessaly, Attica, and Lemnos. Archaeologists excavating at Sesklo and Dimini have described Pelasgian material culture as Neolithic; others have related to Pelasgians material culture that is "Middle Helladic" and even the "Late Helladic" culture of Mycenaean Greece, where the corpus of brief inscriptions are already in an early form of Greek. Even the linking of archaeological material evidence to linguistic culture is called into question by Walter Pohl and other modern students of ethnogenesis.
Much like all other aspects of the "Pelasgians", their ethnonym (Pelasgoi) is of extremely uncertain provenance and etymology. Michel Sakellariou collects fifteen different etymologies proposed for it by philologists and linguists during the last 200 years, though he admits that "most...are fanciful".
An ancient etymology based on mere similarity of sounds linked pelasgos to pelargos ("stork") and postulates that the Pelasgians were migrants like storks, possibly from Egypt, where they nest. Aristophanes deals effectively with this etymology in his comedy The Birds. One of the laws of "the storks" in the satirical cloud-cuckoo-land, playing upon the Athenian belief that they were originally Pelasgians, is that grown-up storks must support their parents by migrating elsewhere and conducting warfare.
"If Pelasgoi is connected with πέλας, 'near', the word would mean 'neighbor' and would denote the nearest strange people to the invading Greeks ..."
Julius Pokorny derives Pelasgoi from *pelag-skoi (Flachlandbewohner, or "flatland-inhabitants"); specifically, Bewohner der thessalischen Ebene ("Inhabitants of the Thessalian plain"). He details a previous derivation, which appears in English at least as early as William Gladstone's Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. If the Pelasgians were not Indo-Europeans, the name in this derivation must have been assigned by the Hellenes.
The ancient Greek word for "sea", pelagos, comes from the same root, *plāk-, as the Doric word plagos, "side" (which is flat), appearing in *pelag-skoi. Ernest Klein therefore simply interprets the same reconstructed form as "the sea men", where the sea is the flat.
Klein's interpretation does not require the Indo-Europeans to have had a word for "sea", which living on the inland plains (if they did) they are likely to have lacked. On encountering the sea they simply used the word for plain, "the flat." The flatlanders also could acquire what must have been to the Hellenes a homonym, "the sea men". Best of all, if the Egyptians of the Late Bronze Age encountered maritime marauders under this name they would have translated as Sea People.
Literary analysis has been going on since classical Greece, when the writers of those times read previous works on the subject. No definitive answers were ever forthcoming by this method; rather, it served to define the problems better. The method perhaps reached a peak in the Victorian era when new methods of systematic comparison began to be applied in philology. Typical of the era is the long and detailed study of William Ewart Gladstone, who among his many talents was a trained classicist. All the evidence presented in this section is covered in the article on Gladstone. Until further ancient texts come to light, advances on the subject cannot be made. The most likely source of progress regarding the Pelasgians continues to be archaeology and related sciences.
The Pelasgians first appear in the poems of Homer: those who are stated to be Pelasgians in the Iliad are among the allies of Troy. In the section known as the Catalogue of Trojans, they are mentioned between mentions of the Hellespontine cities and the Thracians of south-eastern Europe (i.e. on the Hellespontine border of Thrace). Homer calls their town or district "Larisa" 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, thus giving all of them names that were Greek or so thoroughly Hellenized that any foreign element has been effaced.
The Iliad also refers to "Pelasgic Argos", which is most likely to be the plain of Thessaly, and to "Pelasgic Zeus", living in and ruling over Dodona, which must be the oracular one in Epirus. However, neither passage mentions actual Pelasgians; Myrmidons, Hellenes and Achaeans specifically inhabit Thessaly and the Selloi are around Dodona. They all fought on the Greek side.
Later Greek writers offered little unanimity over which sites and regions were "Pelasgian". Beginning with Hesiod, he calls the oracular Dodona, identified by reference to "the oak", the "seat of Pelasgians", clarifying Homer's Pelasgic Zeus. He mentions also that Pelasgus (Greek: Πελασγός, the eponymous ancestor of the Pelasgians) was the father of King Lycaon of Arcadia.
In Aeschylus's play, The Suppliants, the Danaids fleeing from Egypt seek asylum from King Pelasgus of Argos, which he says is on the Strymon including Perrhaebia in the north, the Thessalian Dodona and the slopes of the Pindus mountains on the west and the shores of the sea on the east; that is, a territory including but somewhat larger than classical Pelasgiotis. The southern boundary is not mentioned; however, Apis is said to have come to Argos from Naupactus "across" (peras), implying that Argos includes all of east Greece from the north of Thessaly to the Peloponnesian Argos, where the Danaids are probably to be conceived as having landed. He claims to rule the Pelasgians and to be the "child of Palaichthon (or 'ancient earth') whom the earth brought forth."
The Danaids call the country the "Apian hills" and claim that it understands the karbana audan (accusative case, and in the Dorian dialect), which many translate as "barbarian speech" but Karba (where the Karbanoi live) is in fact a non-Greek word. They claim to descend from ancestors in ancient Argos even though they are of a "dark race" (melanthes ... genos). Pelasgus admits that the land was once called Apia but compares them to the women of Libya and Egypt and wants to know how they can be from Argos on which they cite descent from Io.
Sophocles presents Inachus, in a fragment of a missing play entitled Inachus, as the elder in the lands of Argos, the Heran hills and among the Tyrsenoi Pelasgoi, an unusual hyphenated noun construction, "Tyrsenians-Pelasgians". Interpretation is open, even though translators typically make a decision, but Tyrsenians may well be the ethnonym Tyrrhenoi.
Euripides calls the inhabitants of Argos "Pelasgians" in his play entitled Orestes. In a lost play entitled Archelaus, he says that Danaus, on coming to reside in the city of Inachus (Argos), formulated a law whereby the Pelasgians were now to be called Danaans.
"Sadly his father, Priam, mourned for him, not knowing that young Aesacus had assumed wings on his shoulders, and was yet alive. Then also Hector with his brothers made complete but unavailing sacrifice, upon a tomb which bore his carved name. Paris was absent. But soon afterwards, he brought into that land a ravished wife, Helen, the cause of a disastrous war, together with a thousand ships, and all the great Pelasgian nation."
"Here, when a sacrifice had been prepared to Jove, according to the custom of their land, and when the ancient altar glowed with fire, the Greeks observed an azure colored snake crawling up in a plane tree near the place where they had just begun their sacrifice. Among the highest branches was a nest, with twice four birds--and those the serpent seized together with the mother-bird as she was fluttering round her loss. And every bird the serpent buried in his greedy maw. All stood amazed: but Calchas, who perceived the truth, exclaimed, "Rejoice Pelasgian men, for we shall conquer; Troy will fall; although the toil of war must long continue--so the nine birds equal nine long years of war." And while he prophesied, the serpent, coiled about the tree, was transformed to a stone, curled crooked as a snake."
Hecataeus of Miletus in a fragment from Genealogiai states that the genos ("clan") descending from Deucalion ruled Thessaly and that it was called "Pelasgia" from king Pelasgus. A second fragment says that Pelasgus was the son of Zeus and Niobe and that his son Lycaon founded a dynasty of kings of Arcadia.
Hellanicus, in Fragment 7 of the Argolica, concerns himself with one word in one line of the Iliad, "pasture-land of horses", applied to Argos in the Peloponnesus. What is said about it is reported by different authors and all accounts differ. The explanation is trivial and mythical, but all accounts agree Hellanicus said the term Argeia (gē) or Argolis once applied to all Peloponnesus and that Pelasgus and his two brothers received it as an inheritance from their father, named either Triopas, Arestōr or Phorōneus. Pelasgus built the citadel Larissa of Argos on the Erasinus river, whence the name Pelasgic Argos (of the Peloponnesus), but later resettled inland, built Parrhasia and named the region or caused it to be named Pelasgia, to be renamed Arcadia with the coming of the Greeks.
According to Fragment 76 of Hellanicus's Phoronis, from Pelasgus and his wife Menippe came a line of kings: Phrastōr, Amyntōr, Teutamides and Nasas (kings of Pelasgiotis in Thessaly). The Pelasgians under Nasas "rose up" (anestēsan) against the Hellenes (who presumably had acquired Thessaly) and departed for Italy where they first took Cortona and then founded Tyrrhenia. The conclusion is that Hellanicus believed the Pelasgians of Thessaly (and indirectly of Peloponnesus) to have been the ancestors of the Etruscans.
"I am unable to state with certainty what language the Pelasgians spoke, but we could consider the speech of the Pelasgians who still exist in settlements above Tyrrhenia in the city of Kreston, formerly neighbors to the Dorians who at that time lived in the land now called Thessaliotis; also the Pelasgians who once lived with the Athenians and then settled Plakia and Skylake in the Hellespont; and along with those who lived with all the other communities and were once Pelasgian but changed their names. If one can judge by this evidence, the Pelasgians spoke a barbarian language. And so, if the Pelasgian language was spoken in all these places, the people of Attica being originally Pelasgian, must have learned a new language when they became Hellenes. As a matter of fact, the people of Krestonia and Plakia no longer speak the same language, which shows that they continue to use the dialect they brought with them when they migrated to those lands."
Herodotus alludes to other districts where Pelasgian peoples lived on under changed names; Samothrace and "the Pelasgian city of Antandrus" in the Troad probably provide instances of this. He mentions that there were Pelasgian populations on the islands of Lemnos and Imbros. Those of Lemnos he represents as being of Hellespontine Pelasgians who had been living in Athens but whom the Athenians resettled on Lemnos and then found it necessary to reconquer. This expulsion of (non-Athenian) Pelasgians from Athens may reflect, according to historian Robert Buck, "a dim memory of forwarding of refugees, closely akin to the Athenians in speech and custom, to the Ionian colonies." Herodotus also mentions the Cabeiri, the gods of the Pelasgians, whose worship gives an idea of where the Pelasgians once were. In any case, Herodotus was convinced that the Hellenes descended from the Pelasgians despite the latter having "remained barbarians":
"As for the Hellenes, it seems obvious to me that ever since they came into existence they have always used the same language. They were weak at first, when they were separated from the Pelasgians, but they grew from a small group into a multitude, especially when many peoples, including other barbarians in great numbers, had joined them. Moreover, I do not think the Pelasgian, who remained barbarians, ever grew appreciably in number or power."
He states that the Pelasgians of Athens were called "Cranai" and that the Pelasgian population among the Ionians of the Peloponnesus were the "Aegialian Pelasgians". Moreover, Herodotus mentions that the Aeolians, according to the Hellenes, were known anciently as "Pelasgians".
"Before the time of Hellen, son of Deucalion...the country went by the names of the different tribes, in particular of the Pelasgian. It was not till Hellen and his sons grew strong in Phthiotis, and were invited as allies into the other cities, that one by one they gradually acquired from the connection the name of Hellenes; though a long time elapsed before that name could fasten itself upon all."
He regards the Athenians as having lived in scattered independent settlements in Attica but at some time after Theseus they changed residence to Athens, which was already populated. A plot of land below the Acropolis was called "Pelasgian" and was regarded as cursed, but the Athenians settled there anyway.
"...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 Eonians; the towns all being small ones."
The historian Ephorus, building on a fragment from Hesiod that attests to a tradition of an aboriginal Pelasgian people in Arcadia, developed a theory of the Pelasgians as a people living a "military way of life" (stratiōtikon bion) "and that, in converting many peoples to the same mode of life, they imparted their name to all," meaning "all of Hellas". They colonized Crete and extended their rule over Epirus, Thessaly and by implication over wherever else the ancient authors said they were, beginning with Homer. The Peloponnese was called "Pelasgia".
In the Roman Antiquities, Dionysius of Halicarnassus in several pages gives a synoptic interpretation of the Pelasgians based on the sources available to him then, concluding that Pelasgians were Greek:
"Afterwards some of the Pelasgians who inhabited Thessaly, as it is now called, being obliged to leave their country, settled among the Aborigines and jointly with them made war upon the Sicels. It is possible that the Aborigines received them partly in the hope of gaining their assistance, but I believe it was chiefly on account of their kinship; for the Pelasgians, too, were a Greek nation originally from the Peloponnesus..."
He goes on to add that the nation wandered a great deal. They were originally natives of "Achaean Argos" descended from Pelasgus, the son of Zeus and Niobe. They migrated from there to Haemonia (later called Thessaly), where they "drove out the barbarian inhabitants" and divided the country into Phthiotis, Achaia, and Pelasgiotis, named after Achaeus, Phthius and Pelasgus, "the sons of Larissa and Poseidon." Subsequently, "...about the sixth generation they were driven out by the Curetes and Leleges, who are now called Aetolians and Locrians..."
From there, the Pelasgians dispersed to Crete, the Cyclades, Histaeotis, Boeotia, Phocis, Euboea, the coast along the Hellespont and the islands, especially Lesbos, which had been colonized by Macar son of Crinacus. Most went to Dodona and eventually being driven from there to Italy then called Saturnia. They landed at Spina at the mouth of the Po River. Still others crossed the Apennine Mountains to Umbria and being driven from there went to the country of the Aborigines. These consented to a treaty and settled them at Velia. They and the Aborigenes took over Umbria but were dispossessed by the Tyrrhenians. The author continues to detail the tribulations of the Pelasgians and then goes on to the Tyrrhenians, whom he is careful to distinguish from the Pelasgians.
In his Description of Greece, Pausanias mentions the Arcadians who state that Pelasgus (along with his followers) was the first inhabitant of their land. Upon becoming king, Pelasgus was responsible for inventing huts, sheep-skin coats, and a diet consisting of acorns. Moreover, the land he ruled was named "Pelasgia". When Arcas became king, Pelasgia was renamed "Arcadia" and its inhabitants (the Pelasgians) were renamed "Arcadians". Pausanias also mentions the Pelasgians as responsible for creating a wooden image of Orpheus in a sanctuary of Demeter at Therae, as well as expelling the Minyans and Lacedaemonians from Lemnos.
"As for the Pelasgi, almost all agree, in the first place, that some ancient tribe of that name spread throughout the whole of Greece, and particularly among the Aeolians of Thessaly."
He defines Pelasgian Argos as being "between the outlets of the Peneus River and Thermopylae as far as the mountainous country of Pindus" and states that it took its name from Pelasgian rule. He includes also the tribes of Epirus as Pelasgians (based on the opinions of "many"). Lesbos is named Pelasgian. Caere was settled by Pelasgians from Thessaly, who called it by its former name, "Agylla". Pelasgians also settled around the mouth of the Tiber River in Italy at Pyrgi and a few other settlements under a king, Maleos.
In The Greek Myths, Robert Graves describes the Pelasgian creation myth, which involves a singular creatrix goddess who dominates man and predates other deities. The goddess gives birth to all things, fertilised not by any male opposite but by symbolic seeds in the form of the wind, beans or insects.
In the absence of certain knowledge about the identity (or identities) of the Pelasgians, various theories have been proposed. Some of the more prevalent theories supported by scholarship are presented below. Since Greek is classified as an Indo-European language, the major question of concern is whether Pelasgian was an Indo-European language.
One major theory utilizes the name "Pelasgian" to describe the inhabitants of the lands around the Aegean Sea before the arrival of proto-Greek speakers, as well as traditionally identified enclaves of descendants that still existed in classical Greece. The theory derives from the original concepts of the philologist Paul Kretschmer, whose views prevailed throughout the first half of the 20th century and are still given some credibility today.
Though Wilamowitz-Moellendorff wrote them off as mythical, the results of archaeological excavations at Çatalhöyük by James Mellaart and Fritz Schachermeyr led them to conclude that the Pelasgians had migrated from Asia Minor to the Aegean basin in the 4th millennium BC. In this theory, a number of possible non-Indo-European linguistic and cultural features are attributed to the Pelasgians:
"There are, indeed, various names affirmed to designate the ante-Hellenic inhabitants of many parts of Greece — the Pelasgi, the Leleges, the Curetes, the Kaukones, the Aones, the Temmikes, the Hyantes, the Telchines, the Boeotian Thracians, the Teleboae, the Ephyri, the Phlegyae, &c. These are 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 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.
Some Georgian scholars (including R. V. Gordeziani and M. G. Abdushelishvili) connect the Pelasgians with the Iberian-Caucasian cultures of the prehistoric Caucasus, known to the Greeks as Colchis.
In western Anatolia, many toponyms with the "-ss-" infix derive from the adjectival suffix also seen in cuneiform Luwian and some Palaic; the classic example is Bronze Age Tarhuntassa (loosely, "City of the Storm God Tarhunta"), and later Parnassus may be related to the Hittite word parna- or "house". These elements have led to a second theory, that Pelasgian was to some degree an Anatolian language.
In 1919, N. Giannopoulos published an inscription from Pharsalos (Thessaly) supposedly containing terms in "Pelasgian". Werner Peek, a prominent epigrammist, published his analysis of the inscription in 1938 and concluded that the language inscribed was Greek.
Vladimir I. Georgiev asserted that the Pelasgians were Indo-Europeans, with an Indo-European etymology of pelasgoi from pelagos, "sea" as the Sea People, the PRŚT of Egyptian inscriptions, and related them to the neighbouring Thracians. He proposed a soundshift model from Indo-European to Pelasgian.
In 1854, an Austrian diplomat and Albanian language specialist, Johann Georg von Hahn, identified the Pelasgian language with Ur-Albanian. This theory is entirely rejected by contemporary archaeological and historical circles, but retains staunch support among Albanian nationalists.
Following Vladimir I. Georgiev, who placed Pelasgian as an Indo-European language "between Albanian and Armenian", Albert Joris Van Windekens (1915—1989) offered rules for an unattested hypothetical Indo-European Pelasgian language, selecting vocabulary for which there was no Greek etymology among the names of places, heroes, animals, plants, garments, artifacts, social organization. His 1952 essay Le Pélasgique was critically received.
Documentary evidence of the Pelasgians of Pelasgiotis is at least as early as 150-130 BC, when an inscription written in the Thessalian koinon dialect on a fragment of a marble stele at Larissa in Thessaly records that on request of the consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus, son of Quintus, "friend and benefactor of our country (ethnei hēmōn)" in return for services rendered by him, his family and the S.P.Q.R., the Thessalian League decreed to send 43,000 coffers of wheat to Rome, to be taxed from different regions under the league. The Pelasgiōtai and the Phthiōtai are to provide 32,000 while the Histiōtai and Thessaliōtai must provide the remaining 11,000, with 25% going to the army, all in different months.
During the early 20th century, archaeological excavations conducted by the Italian Archaeological School and by the American Classical School on the Athenian Acropolis and on other sites within Attica revealed Neolithic dwellings, tools, pottery and skeletons from domesticated animals (i.e. sheep, fish). All of these discoveries showed significant resemblances to the Neolithic discoveries made on the Thessalian acropolises of Sesklo and Dimini. These discoveries help provide physical confirmation of the literary tradition that describes the Athenians as the descendants of the Pelasgians, who appear to descend continuously from the Neolithic inhabitants in Thessaly. Overall, the archaeological evidence indicates that the site of the Acropolis was inhabited by farmers as early as the 6th millennium BCE.[Note 1]
It should be noted, however, that contrary to what Prokopiou suggests about the results of the American excavations near the Clepsydra, Sara Imerwahr in her definitive publication of the prehistoric material unequivocally states that no Dimini-type pottery was unearthed.
In August and September 1926, members of the Italian School of Archaeology conducted trial excavations on the island of Lemnos. A short account of their excavations appeared in the Messager d'Athénes for January 3, 1927. The overall purpose of the excavations was to shed light on the island's "Etrusco-Pelasgian" civilization. The excavations were conducted on the site of the city of Hephaisteia (i.e. Palaiopolis) where the Pelasgians, according to Herodotus, surrendered to Miltiades of Athens. There, a Tyrrhenian necropolis (ca. 9th-8th centuries BC) was discovered revealing bronze objects, pots, and over 130 ossuaries. The ossuaries contained distinctly male and female funeral ornaments. Male ossuaries contained knives and axes whereas female ossuaries contained earrings, bronze pins, necklaces, gold-diadems, and bracelets. The decorations on some of the gold objects contained spirals of Mycenean origin, but had no Geometric forms. According to their ornamentation, the pots discovered at the site were from the Geometric period. However, the pots also preserved spirals indicative of Mycenean art. The results of the excavations indicate that the Tyrrhenians or Pelasgians of Lemnos were a remnant of a Mycenean population.[Note 2]
During the 1980s, the Skourta Plain Project identified Middle Helladic and Late Helladic sites on mountain summits near the plains of Skourta in Boeotia. These fortified mountain settlements were, according to tradition, inhabited by Pelasgians up until the end of the Bronze Age. Moreover, the location of the sites is an indication that the Pelasgian inhabitants sought to "ethnically" (a fluid term) and economically distinguish themselves from the Mycenaean Greeks who controlled the Skourta Plain.[Note 3]
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