The classification of the Pelasgian language(s), known only from non-Greek elements within Greek, the extent to which Pelasgian was a single language, and the relationship(s) 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 and therefore are not objective or are not phrased in objective language. This article presents the mainstream theories and something of the long history of the theories.
Archaeological excavations during the 20th century have unearthed artifacts in areas traditionally inhabited by the Pelasgians (i.e. Thessaly, Attica, and Lemnos). Archaeologists have described Pelasgian material culture as "Neolithic" (i.e. Sesklo and Dimini), "Middle Helladic" (i.e. Minyans) and even "Late Helladic" (i.e. Myceneans). The sites discovered so far possess material evidence indicating that the Pelasgians were either a proto-Greek tribe(s) or at least a tribe(s) akin to the Greeks.
Overall "Pelasgian" has come to mean more broadly all the autochthonous inhabitants of the Aegean lands and their culture before the advent of the Greek language. This is not an exclusive meaning, but other senses require identification when meant.
An ancient etymology links 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 (punning on the Athenian belief that they were originally Pelasgians) is that grown-up storks must support their parents by migrating elsewhere and conducting warfare.
Murray summarizes the derivation from pelas gē, "neighboring land:
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 thessalischen Ebene ("Inhabitants of the Thessalian plain"). The Indo-European root is *plāk-, "flat. Pokorny details a previous derivation, which appears in English at least as early as Gladstone's Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age of 1858. 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. Klein therefore simply interprets the same reconstructed form as "the sea men", where the sea is the flat.
This 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 peoples.
Literary analysis has been going on since Classical Greece, when the writers of those times read the 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 Gladstone. Until further ancient texts come to light not much new can be said. The most likely source of progress continues to be archaeology and the related sciences.
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.
In Aeschylus' 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 ('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 live the Karbanoi) 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.
In a lost play by Aeschylus, Danaan Women, he defines the original homeland of the Pelasgians as the region around Mycenae.
Sophocles in a fragment of a missing play, Inachus, presents 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, Archelaus, he says that Danaus on coming to reside in the city of Inachus (Argos) formulated a law that the Pelasgians were now to be called Danaans.
Hellanicus Fragment 7 from Argolica concerns itself with one word in one line of the Iliad, "horse-nourishing", applied to 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 the 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 Crotona and then founded Tyrrhenia. The conclusion is inescapable that Hellanicus believed the Pelasgians of Thessaly (and indirectly of Peloponnesus) to have been the ancestors of the Etruscans.
What language however the Pelasgians used to speak I am not able with certainty to say. But one must pronounce judging by those that still remain of the Pelasgians who dwelt in the city of Creston above the Tyrsenians, and who were once neighbors 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 that who settled at Plakia and Skylakē 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 one must pronounce judging by these, the Pelasgians used to speak a Barbarian language. If therefore all the Pelasgian race was such as these, then the Attic race, being Pelasgian, at the same time changed and became Hellenic, unleart 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 as each other. 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.
In any case, 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 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. Herodotus also mentions the Cabeiri, the gods of the Pelasgians, whose worship gives an idea of where the Pelasgians once were.
Overall, Herodotus was convinced that the Hellenic population descended from the Pelasgians:
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 a great number of ethnic groups, 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.
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.
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 Aborigenes. 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.
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.
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.
Though Wilamowitz-Moellendorff wrote them off as mythical, 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. In this theory a number of possible non-Indo-European linguistic and cultural features are attributed to the Pelasgians:
George Grote summarizes the theory as follows:
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 forty years ago excavations on the Athenian Acropolis and on other sites in Attica brought to light many indications of neolithic life - dwellings, vases, tools, skeletons of sheep - which confirmed the traditions recorded by Herodotus that the Athenians were descended from the Pelasgians, the neolithic inhabitants of Thessaly. Indeed the neolithic vases of Attica date from the earliest neolithic age (5520–4900) like the ceramics from the Thessalian acropolis of Sesclos, as well as from the later neolithic age (4900–3200) like those from the other Thessalian acropolis of Dimini...The search for traces of the neolithic age on the Acropolis began in 1922 with the excavations of the Italian Archaeological School near the Aesclepium. Another settlement was discovered in the vicinity of the Odeion of Pericles where many sherds of pottery and a stone axe, both of Sesclos type, were unearthed. Excavations carried out by the American Classical School near the Clepshydra uncovered twenty-one wells and countless pieces of handmade pottery, sherds of Dimini type, implements of later Stone Age and bones of domestic animals and fish. The discoveries reinforced the theory that permanent settlement by farmers with their flocks, their stone and bone tools and ceramic utensils had taken place on the rock of the Acropolis as early as the sixth millennium.
It should be noted though that contrary to what Procopiou and Angelo suggest about the results of the American excavations near the Clepsydra, Sara Imerwahr in the definitive publication of the prehistoric material unequivocally states that no Dimini-type pottery was unearthed.
"The lack of weapons of bronze, the abundance of weapons of iron, and the type of the pots and the pins gives the impression that the necropolis belongs to the ninth or eighth century B.C. That it did not belong to a Greek population, but to a population which, in the eyes of the Hellenes, appeared barbarous, is shown by the weapons. The Greek weapon, dagger or spear, is lacking: the weapons of the barbarians, the axe and the knife, are common. Since, however, this population . . . preserves so many elements of Mycenaean art, the Tyrrhenians or Pelasgians of Lemnos may be recognized as a remnant of a Mycenaean population."
The fourth and final season of the survey of the Skourta plain was conducted in 1989 by M. and M.L.Z. Munn (ASCS). "Explorations begun in 1985 and 1987 were extended into new parts of the plain and surrounding valleys, so that by now a representative portion (approximately 25%) of most of the inhabitable areas of the three koinotites of Pyli, Skourta, and Stefani have been examined intensively. 66 sites were discovered or studied for the first time in the course of this highly productive season, yielding a total of 120 premodern sites studied by our survey since 1985. The survey should have identified all major settlement sites (over 5 ha) and a representative sample of smaller sites in the study area. A summary of the chief conclusions to be drawn from the four seasons can be made. ... MH settlement is established on two summits overlooking the plain ..., one of which, Panakton ..., becomes the most substantial LH site in the area. A fortified MH settlement is also established on a peak in rugged country beyond the NE edge of the plain ..., between the Mazareika and Vountima valleys, in which other settlements are established in the LH era .... The remoteness of this NE sector, and the great natural strength of the MH site and a nearby LH IIIC citadel ..., suggest that the inhabitants of these glens and crags sought to protect and separate themselves from peoples beyond the peaks that surrounded them, perhaps because they were ethnically distinct and economically more or less independent of the Myc Greeks who dominated the plains. Traditions of Pelasgians in these mountains at the end of the BA raise the possibility that these may have been Pelasgian sites. Once abandoned, in the LH IIIC or PG eras, most of these sites in the NE sector are not again inhabited for well over a millennium. Elsewhere, within the more accessible expanse of the Skourta plain itself, LH settlements are established on many sites which are later again important in the C era ....''
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