Pelasgian diasporas: Herodotos on legends of migration, language, and influence (mid-fifth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Pelasgian diasporas: Herodotos on legends of migration, language, and influence (mid-fifth century BCE),' Last modified December 4, 2022, http://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=11057.

Ancient author: Herodotos of Halikarnassos, Histories, or Inquiries, portions of books 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 (link to Greek text and translation)

Comments: Writing about 420 BCE, Herodotos (also Latinized as Herodotus) of Halikarnassos in Karia (Caria) provides our earliest legendary accounts about Pelasgian migration, activities and culture. According to some of the stories that Herodotos and his sources (Hekataios of Miletos is the only named source in these sections) know, both Aiolians and Ionians (including Athenians) were descendants of Pelasgians who had later adopted the Greek language after migrating elsewhere, including Attica. Ephoros’ material on Pelasgian migration differs considerably from the tales related by Herodotos here, even though both suggest that certain Greeks (e.g. Aiolians) descended from Pelasgians (link).

Herodotos pictures Pelasgians as somewhat culturally influential (though not as influential as Egyptians), as when Herodotos vaguely explains the mysteries at Samothrace. Although the tales from Herodotos or his sources are not entirely consistent, the Pelasgians are pictured as most prominent or active in the northern Aegean area with particular stories about settlement in eastern Macedonia and northern Thessaly and about migration to Attica and then from Attica to Lemnos island near Samothrace island. Herodotos speaks somewhat positively or neutrally about Pelasgian peoples who had adopted Greek language and customs (namely, the Ionians and Athenians themselves), while he speaks negatively about those who had more tensions with Greeks. In particular, he goes into some details from his sources in order to associate a circulating stereotype about Lemnians (on “Lemnian crimes”) with the Pelasgians specifically. 

Source of the translation: A. D. Godley, Herodotus, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-25), public domain, adapted and modernized by Daniel Mitchell and Harland.

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Book 1

[Claims regarding the Pelasgian origins of the Athenians]

56 …(2) Then Croesus [king of the Lydians, sixth century BCE] investigated very carefully who were the most powerful Greeks so that he could make them his allies. He found by inquiry that the superior peoples were the Lakedaimonians [Spartans] among those of Dorian descent (genos) and the Athenians among those of Ionian descent. These two peoples, the one Pelasgian and the other Greek, were the most distinguished peoples in ancient times as well. The Ionians have never yet departed [from Attica], while the Dorians have wandered frequently and far. (3) For in the days of king Deukalion [a survivor of the great flood in Greek legend], the Dorians inhabited the land of Phthiotis. Then, in the time of Doros son of Hellen they occupied the land south of Ossa and Olympos called Histiotis. Next, when the Dorians were driven from this Histiotis by the Kadmeians [i.e. descendents of the legendary Phoenician founder of Thebes in Boiotia], they settled around mount Pindos in territory called “Macedonian.” From there, the Dorians migrated again to Dryopis, and from Dryopis they finally came into the Peloponnesos, where they took the name “Dorian.”

[Pelasgian language as a barbarian language]

57 What language the Pelasgians spoke I cannot definitively say, but that it was a barbarian language may be inferred from the group of Pelasgians that still remain, namely the group of Pelasgians living above the Tyrrhenians in the city of Kreston [in eastern Macedonia], who, when they inhabited the land now called Thessaliotis [in Thessaly, further south on the east coast] were once neighbours of the people currently called Dorians. (2) This can also be inferred from another group of Pelasgians, namely those who inhabited Plakia and Skylake on the Hellespont [in Bithynia], who came to live among the Athenians. In addition, there is the evidence from other towns which were also once Pelasgian and afterwards took a different name. (3) If, then, all of these Pelasgians spoke a barbarian language, then the people (ethnos) of Attica, being of Pelasgian blood, must also have changed their language at the time when they went over to the Greeks. This is because the people of Kreston and Plakia have a language of their own in common, which is not the language of their neighbours. It is clear to see that they still preserve the manner of speech which they brought with them during their migration into the places where they live.

58 But it seems clear to me that Greek peoples have always had the same language since their beginning. Yet as they were few in number when they separated from the Pelasgians, they have grown from a small beginning to comprise a multitude of peoples, chiefly because the Pelasgians and many other barbarian peoples united themselves with the Greeks. Before that, I think, the Pelasgian people did not increase much in number anywhere while they were of barbarian speech.

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Book 2

[Pelasgian contributions to Greek customs relating to the gods]

50 In fact, the names of nearly all the gods came to Greece from Egypt. For I am convinced by inquiry that they have come from barbarian lands, and I believe that they came mainy from Egypt. (2) Except the names of Poseidon and the Dioskouroi, as I have already said, Hera, Hestia, Themis, the Graces, and the Nereids, the names of all the gods have always existed in Egypt. I only say what the Egyptians themselves say. The gods whose names the Egyptians say they  do not know, as I think, were named by the Pelasgians, except Poseidon, the knowledge of whom they learned from the Libyans. (3) The Libyans alone have had among them the name of Poseidon from the beginning, and they have always honoured this god. The Egyptians, however, are not accustomed to pay any honours to heroes.

51 These customs, then, and others besides, which I will indicate, were taken by the Greeks from the Egyptians. It was not so with the ithyphallic images [i.e. statues depicted with an erect penis] of Hermes. The production of these came from the Pelasgians, from whom the Athenians were the first Greeks to take it. The Athenians then handed this custom on to others. For the Athenians were then already counted as Greeks when the Pelasgians came to live in the land with them and thereby began to be considered as Greeks. Whoever has been initiated into the rites of the Kabeiroi, which the Samothracians learned from the Pelasgians and now practice, understands what I mean. Samothrace was formerly inhabited by those Pelasgians who came to live among the Athenians, and it is from them that the Samothracians take their rites. The Athenians, then, were the first Greeks to make ithyphallic images of Hermes, and they did this because the Pelasgians taught them. The Pelasgians told a certain sacred tale about this, which is presented in the Samothracian mysteries.

52 Formerly, in all their sacrifices, the Pelasgians called upon gods without giving a name or nickname to any. I know this, because I was told at Dodona [famous ancient oracle in Epeiros, western side of central Greece]. For so far they had not heard names. They called them gods from the fact that, besides setting everything in order, they maintained all the dispositions. (2) Then, after a long while, they learned first the names of the rest of the gods, which came to them from Egypt and, much later, the name of the god Dionysos. Recently they asked the oracle at Dodona about the names because this place of divination, which is held to be the most ancient in Greece, was at that time the only one. (3) Then, when the Pelasgians asked at Dodona whether they should adopt the names that had come from barbarian parts, the oracle told them to use the names. From that time onwards they used the names of the gods in their sacrifices, and the Greeks received these names from the Pelasgians at a later time.

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[Pelasgian women adopted the “the mysteries” from the Egyptians]

171 On this lake [at Saïs in Egypt], they enact by night the story of the god’s sufferings, a rite which the Egyptians call “the mysteries.” I could say more about this, for I know the truth, but let me preserve a discreet silence. (2) Let me also preserve a discreet silence concerning that rite of Demeter, which the Greeks call Thesmophoria [a women-only celebration at Athens during autumn], save for only those details of the rite that it is lawful to discuss. (3) The daughters of Danaos were those who brought this rite out of Egypt and taught it to the Pelasgian women. Afterwards, when the people of the Peloponnesos were driven out by the Dorians, the rite was lost, except in so far as it was preserved by the Arkadians, the one Peloponnesian people that was not expelled [from the Peloponnesos] but remained in its home.

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Book 4

[Pelasgians and the expulsion of Minyaian Greeks from Lemnos]

145 . . . (2) The descendants of the crew of the Argo ship [led by Jason and the Argonauts in the myth] were driven out by the Pelasgians, who carried off the Athenian women from Brauron [subdivision east of Athens]. After being driven away from the island of Lemnos [in the northern Aegean] by the Pelasgians, the descendants sailed away to Lakedaimon [Sparta] and there camped on mount Teygetos [in the southern Peloponnesos] and kindled a fire. (3) Seeing this, the Lakedaimonians sent a messenger to inquire who they were and where they came from. They answered the messenger that they were Minyans (Minyai), descendants of the heroes who had sailed in the Argo, landed at Lemnos, and had children there. (4) Hearing the story of the lineage of the Minyans, the Lakedaimonians sent a second messenger and asked why they had come into Lakedaimon and kindled a fire. They replied that, after they had been expelled by the Pelasgians, they had come to the land of their fathers as was most just and that it was their wish to live with their fathers’ people, sharing in their rights and receiving allotted pieces of land. (5) The Lakedaimonians were happy to receive the Minyans on the terms which their guests desired. The principal reason for their consenting was that the sons of Tyndareos [i.e. Kastor and Polydeukes] had been in the ship’s company of the Argo. Therefore, they received the Minyans, gave them land and distributed them among their own tribes. The Minyans immediately married and gave in marriage the women they had brought from Lemnos to others.

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Book 5

[Persians conquer the Pelasgian peoples of the islands Lemnos and Imbros]

26 Then this Otanes [a Persian general], who sat upon that seat, was now made successor to Megabazos in his governorship. He conquered the Byzantians, Kalchedonians, and the cities of Antandros in the Troad and Lamponion. With ships he had taken from the Lesbians (Lesbioi), he took islands of Lemnos and Imbros, both of which were still inhabited by Pelasgians.

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Book 6

[Ejection of Pelasgians from Attica, settlement of Lemnos island and other tales regarding Pelasgians’ supposed inferiority to Athenians]

136 . . .The Athenians had much to say about Miltiades [the Younger, ca. 550-489 BCE, on which also go to this link] on his return from Paros, especially Xanthippos son of Ariphron, who prosecuted Miltiades before the people for deceiving the Athenians and called for the death penalty. (2) Miltiades was present but could not speak in his own defense, since his thigh was festering. He was laid before the court on a couch, and his friends spoke for him, often mentioning the fight at Marathon and the conquest of the island of Lemnos: namely how Miltiades had punished the Pelasgians and taken Lemnos, delivering it to the Athenians. (3) The people took his side as far as not condemning him to death, but they fined him fifty talents for his offence. Miltiades later died of gangrene and rot in his thigh, and the fifty talents were paid by his son Kimon.

137 Miltiades son of Kimon had taken possession of Lemnos in the following manner: After the Pelasgians were driven out of Attica by the Athenians, whether justly or unjustly I am not in a position to say, short of recounting what has already been recorded. Hekataios the son of Hegesandros declares in his history that the act was unjust. (2) For he recounts that when the Athenians saw the land under mount Hymettos, which had formerly been theirs and which they had given to the Pelasgians as a home in reward for the wall that had once been built around the acropolis [of Athens], and the Athenians saw how well this place was tilled which previously had been of poor quality and worthless, they were envious and wanted the land. So the Athenians drove the Pelasgians out on this pretext and no other.

But the Athenians themselves say that their reason for expelling the Pelasgians was just. (3) The Pelasgians set out from their settlement at the foot of mount Hymettos and wronged the Athenians in this way: Neither the Athenians nor any other Greeks had servants yet at that time, and their sons and daughters used to go to the Nine Wells [located southeast of Athens] for water. Whenever they came, the Pelasgians mistreated them out of mere arrogance and pride. And this was not enough for the Pelasgians: finally they were caught in the act of planning to attack Athens. (4) The Athenians say that they were much better men than the Pelasgians. When they could have killed the Pelasgians due to their plotting, they elected not so do but ordered them out of the land. The Pelasgians departed and took possession of island of Lemnos, besides other places. This is the Athenian story, while the other is told by Hekataios.

138 These Pelasgians lived on Lemnos at that time and desired vengeance on the Athenians. Since they were very familiar with the time of the Athenian festivals, they acquired fifty-oared ships and set an ambush for the Athenian women celebrating the festival of Artemis at Brauron [subdivision in the east of Attica]. They seized many of the women, then sailed away with them and brought them to Lemnos to be their concubines. (2) These women bore more and more children, and they taught their sons the speech of Attica and Athenian manners. These [half-Athenian] boys would not mix with the sons of the Pelasgian women. If one of them was beaten by one of the other [Pelasgian] boys, they would all run to his aid and help each other. These [half-Athenian] boys even claimed to rule the others and were much stronger. (3) When the Pelasgians perceived this, they took counsel together. It troubled them much in their deliberations to think what the [half-Athenian] boys would do when they grew to manhood, if they were resolved to help each other against the sons of the lawful [Pelasgian] wives and attempted to rule them already.

(4) At that point the Pelasgians decided to kill the sons of the Athenian women. They did this and then killed the boys’ mothers also. Because of this crime and the earlier one which was done by the women when they killed their own husbands (who were Thoas’ companions) a “Lemnian crime” has been a proverb in Greece for any deed of cruelty.

139 But when the Pelasgians had murdered their own sons and women, their land brought forth no fruit, nor did their wives, their flocks and herds bear offspring as before. Crushed by hunger and childlessness, they sent to Delphi to ask for some release from their present ills. (2) The Pythian priestess ordered them to pay the Athenians whatever penalty the Athenians themselves judged. The Pelasgians went to Athens and offered to pay the penalty for all their offences. (3) The Athenians set in their town-hall a couch adorned as finely as possible, and placed beside it a table covered with all manner of good things, then ordered the Pelasgians to deliver their land to them in the same condition. (4) The Pelasgians answered, “We will deliver it when a ship with a north wind accomplishes the voyage from your country to ours in one day.” The Pelasgians supposed that this was impossible, since Attica is far to the south of Lemnos. 140 At the time that was all.

But a great many years later, when the Chersonese on the Hellespont [Gallipoli peninsula] was made subject to Athens, Miltiades son of Kimon accomplished the voyage from Elaios on the peninsula to Lemnos with the Etesian winds [i.e. northeastern winds, blowing in July, August, and September] then constantly blowing. Miltiades proclaimed that the Pelasgians must leave their island, reminding them of the oracle which the Pelasgians thought would never be fulfilled. (2) The Hephaistians obeyed, but the Myrinaians would not agree that the Chersonese was in the posessions of Attica, and they were besieged until they also submitted. In this way, Miltiades and the Athenians took possession of Lemnos.

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Book 7

[Greek peoples of Pelasgian heritage serving in the Persian navy of Xerxes]

94 The Ionians furnished a hundred ships and their equipment was like the Greeks. These Ionians, as long as they were in the Peloponnesos, inhabited what is now called Achaia. Before Danaos and Xouthos came to the Peloponnesos, as the Greeks say, they were called Aegialian Pelasgians. They were named Ionians after Ion the son of Xouthos. 95 The islanders provided seventeen ships and were armed like Greeks. They were also of Pelasgian descent, which was later called “Ionian” for the same reason as were the Ionians of the twelve cities [cf. Herodotos, Inquiries 1.42 (link)], who came from Athens. The Aiolians furnished sixty ships and were equipped like Greeks. Formerly they were called Pelasgian, as the Greek story goes. . . .

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Book 8

[The Pelasgian origins of the Athenians]

44 …[2] The Athenians, while the Pelasgians ruled what is now called Greece, were Pelasgians, bearing the name of Kranaians (Kranaoi). When Kekrops was their king they were called Kekropidaians (Kekropidai), and when Erechtheus succeeded to the rule, they changed their name and became Athenians. When, however, Ion son of Xouthos was commander of the Athenian army, they were called Ionians after him.

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