Pelasgos and The Mysterious Pelasgians of the Aegean
Pelasgos was a mythical ruler of ancient Greece . He is said to have been the progenitor of the Pelasgians (or Pelasgi), who are a mysterious people, as little is known for certain about them. Their name, for instance, is found only in Greek sources that were written much later after the period of their purported existence.
It may be added that we do not even know if the Pelasgians referred to themselves by this name. In general, the ancient Greeks believed that the Pelasgians were the oldest inhabitants of Greece, though they were not considered to be Greeks themselves . The question of whether the Pelasgians were Greeks or not is still a matter of debate today.
The Pelasgians are believed to have lived in Greece during the Bronze Age, and were later replaced by the Mycenaeans, who were considered to be the first Greeks. Nevertheless, the Pelasgians seem to have not gone extinct, and survived in some parts of Greece until as late as the Classical period.
Pelasgos and the Pelasgians of Greek Mythology
According to Greek mythology , Pelasgos was the ancestor of the Pelasgians. According to one version of the myth found in Arcadia, Pelasgos was an autochthonous figure, i.e. he was born from the earth, as opposed to having migrated from outside. This version of the story is found in Pausanias’ Description of Greece , where the writer quotes part of a poem by Asios of Samos regarding this matter.
Another ancient writer, Pseudo-Apollodorus, also mentions Pelasgos’ autochthonous birth in his Bibliotheca, though he cites Hesiod as his source for this information. Incidentally, the surviving works of Hesiod make no mention of Pelasgos being born of the earth, and it has been speculated that Pseudo-Apollodorus may have gotten this information from a part of the Catalogue of Women that is now lost.
Another version of the story provided by Pseudo-Apollodorus (which he obtained from Acusilaos) states that Pelasgos was the son of Zeus and the nymph Niobe (not to be confused with the daughter of Tantalus, also named Niobe, whose children were slain by Apollo and Artemis as a result of her excessive pride). Pelasgos is also said to be the father of the infamous Lycaon, who was turned into a wolf as a punishment by Zeus. According to later sources, Pelasgos is said to be the son of Arestor, and that he immigrated to Arcadia, and founded the city of Parrhasia.
Zeus turning Lycaon, a Pelasgian, into a wolf. (Fæ / Public Domain )
Although Pelasgos is strongly associated with the region of Arcadia, he has ties with other Greek regions as well, and they too had their own myths about this legendary figure. In Argos, for example, Pelasgos was regarded to be the son of Tripoas (a king of Argos whose name, according to folk etymology, is said to mean ‘he who has three eyes’) and Sois. Alternatively, Pelasgos is said to have been the son of Phoroneus, who is supposed to be the father of Niobe (Pelasgos’ mother in Pseudo-Apollodorus’ version of the myth).
This myth credits Pelasgos with the foundation of the city of Argos. Apart from that, Pelasgos is also said to have introduced agriculture to his people. Pausanias adds that when the goddess Demeter came to Argos, she was received by Pelasgos.
The king is also said to have given protection to Danaus and his 50 daughters (the Danaids) when they fled from Aegyptus. This is found in one of Aeschylus’ tragedies, the Suppliants. Pelasgos is also associated with the region of Thessaly, and one myth claims that he was the son of Poseidon and Larissa.
Alternatively, he is said to be the father Larissa. Pelasgos is also said to be the father of Chlorus, and the grandfather of Haemon, or the father of Haemon, and the grandfather of Thessalus. Moreover, Pelasgos is believed to be the founder of Argos Pelasgikon, a location in Thessaly mentioned in the ‘ Catalogue of Ships’ , a well-known passage in Homer’s Iliad.
Literary Sources Mention the Pelasgians
There are a number of ancient sources regarding the Pelasgians. Nevertheless, all of these were written much later after the period during which the Pelasgians are believed to have lived. The earliest known reference to the Pelasgians may be found in Homer’s Iliad.
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, a place in Thessaly called Argos Pelasgikon is found in the ‘ Catalogue of Ships ’. The Pelasgians are also referred to in another section known as the ‘ Catalogue of Trojans ’, and their description by Homer is as follows, “Hippothous led the Pelasgian tribes of spearmen, / Fighters who worked Larissa’ dark rich plowland. / Hippothous and Pylaeus, tested soldier, led them on, / both sons of Pelasgian Lethus, Teutamus’ scion”.
The Pelasgians are also mentioned by Homer in the Odyssey. When the hero Odysseus finally returns home from his wanderings and meets his wife, he pretends to be a Cretan by the name of Aethon and claims to have met Odysseus at Knossos. Odysseus mentions that the Pelasgians are one of the peoples inhabiting the island of Crete, “There is a land called Crete ... / ringed by the wine-dark sea with rolling whitecaps — / handsome country, fertile, thronged with people / well past counting — boasting ninety cities, / language mixing with language side-by -side. / First come the Achaeans, then the native Cretans, / hardy, gallant in action, then Cydonian clansmen, / Dorians living in three tribes, and proud Pelasgians last”.
Many ancient Greek writers wrote about the Pelasgians who came before them. ( Archivist / Adobe Stock)
The Pelasgians were also mentioned by Herodotus, who lived several centuries after Homer. It may be said that the information and perspective provided by Herodotus regarding the Pelasgians is somewhat different from that given by Homer, as the former was a historian, while the latter a poet. One of the things that Herodotus mentions about the Pelasgians is that they were one of the two peoples (the other being the Hellenes) who were pre-eminent in the old days.
Herodotus also notes that “The Pelasgians never migrated anywhere, but the Hellenes were a well-travelled race”. Herodotus goes on to talk about the language spoken by the Pelasgians. The ancient historian admits that he did not know for certain the language that the ancient Pelasgians used to speak.
Nevertheless, he suggests that it may be possible to speculate on this language based on the one spoken by the Pelasgians who were living around his time. Herodotus notes that during the 5th century BC, there were Pelasgians living “in the town of Creston north of Tyrrhenia (who used to inhabit the country which is now called Thessaliotis and so shared a border with the people now known as Dorians), the ones who founded Placia and Scylace on the Hellespont (who used to be inhabitants of Attica along with the Athenians) and all those other places which were Pelasgian settlements but have changed their names”.
Herodotus observes that “neither the Crestonians nor the Placians speak the same language as any of their neighbors but do speak the same language as each other”. Therefore, he concludes that “the Pelasgians spoke a non-Greek language”.
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Fragment from the writings of Herodotus. (BAILLEUL / Public Domain )
Herodotus also takes the opportunity to briefly compare the historical development of the Pelasgians and the Hellenes, “It seems clear to me, however, that the Hellenes have always spoken the same language, ever since they began. Although when they were separate from the Pelasgians they were weak, they expanded from these origins until instead of being small they encompassed a great many peoples, once the Pelasgians in particular had combined with them, along with quite a few other Greek peoples. It is also my view that when the Pelasgians spoke a non-Greek language they never grew to any great size”.
The Pelasgians are also mentioned in passing by another ancient Greek historian, Thucydides, in his The Peloponnesian War . The reference to the Pelasgians is made as part of Thucydides’ assessment of the history of pre-Classical Greece, and the disunity of the Greeks in particular. Thucydides wrote that “This again I see as significant proof of the weakness of the ancient population: before the Trojan War there is no evidence of any previous enterprise undertaken in common by Greece. Even the very name ‘Hellas’ was not, I believe, applied to the whole country: and before Hellen the son of Deucalion this appellation did not even exist. Before then the various tribes took their own names, with the Pelasgians the foremost”.
Thucydides mentions the Pelasgians once more later on in his work. The historian notes that “After the taking of Amphipolis Brasidas and his allies campaigned against the peninsula called Acte, which stretches out into the Aegean sea from the canal dug by the Persian king and terminates in the height of Mount Athos. The cities of the peninsula are Sane, an Andrian colony close by the canal an facing the sea towards Euboea, and then Thyssus, Cleonae, Acrothooe, Olophyxus, and Dium. These are inhabited by a mixed population of barbarian peoples, bilingual in Greek and their native languages. There is a small Chalcidian Greek element, but the majority are Pelasgians (descended from the Etruscans who once inhabited Lemnos and Athens)”.
The Pelasgians populated the Aegean sea area. (Dyolf77 / Public Domain )
The writings of the Herodotus and Thucydides indicate that the Pelasgians pre-dated the Greeks and were eventually surpassed by them. Nevertheless, the information provided by them is still insufficient for us to attempt a reconstruction of Pelasgian society. Apart from the literary sources, another means of gaining information about an ancient civilization is through the examination of the archaeological evidence.
Little Archaeological Insight Into the Pelasgians
There is little doubt that Greece was already inhabited prior to the Classical period, when the earliest known Greek historians were writing their histories. For instance, the first Greeks are said to be the Mycenaeans, as their script, known as Linear B, is the earliest attested form of Greek. Stories about the Mycenaeans were also told by later generations of Greeks, the Trojan War being the most famous example.
Moreover, there is ample archaeological evidence to support the existence of this civilization. These include palatial structures, fortifications, and monumental tombs. Furthermore, the rich grave goods from the tombs offer a unique insight into this lost civilization.
Although the Mycenaeans are believed to have brought an end to the Pelasgians, Greek mythology states that it was a flood that destroyed them. As mentioned earlier, one of the sons of Pelasgos was Lycaon, the king of Arcadia.
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Artifact ‘Warrior Vase’ showing marching warriors, one theory is the Mycenaeans brought an end to the Pelasgians. (Sharon Mollerus / CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Due to Lycaon’s (or his sons’) pride and impiety, Zeus decided to punish the Pelasgians by sending a great flood to wipe them out. Only Deucalion, the ruler of Phthia (in Thessaly) and his wife, Pyrrha, managed to escape from this disaster.
For the Pelasgians, on the other hand, there is little archaeological evidence to shed light on their civilization. Some archaeological excavations have been carried out in the areas where the Pelasgians are supposed to have lived, such as Attica and Lemnos. Although artifacts have been found during the excavations, they cannot be attributed without a doubt to the Pelasgians.
As already mentioned, the ancient Greek authors themselves did not provide much information about the Pelasgians, so it is not an easy task to determine whether an artifact is Pelasgian or not. In addition, unlike the Mycenaeans who replaced them, there is no known ‘Pelasgian script’ that has survived till this day. On top of that, archaeologists are much more cautious today in attributing their sites to a particular civilization, preferring to use more neutral terminology.
This is seen, for instance, in the underwater site of Pavlopetri (which, interestingly, means ‘Paul’s and Peter’s’ or ‘Paul’s Rock’), which is situated off the coast of Laconia, in the Peloponnese. The site was discovered in 1967 by Nicholas Flemming of the Institute of Oceanography, University of Southampton. Based on comparisons with other archaeological sites, the buildings of Pavlopetri were initially dated to the Mycenaean period, i.e. during the 2nd millennium BC.
Pavlopetri is an underwater lost city, possibly the home of the Pelasgians. ( fergregory / Adobe Stock)
Surface finds recovered from the seabed, on the other hand, suggest that the site was already occupied long before the Mycenaean period, i.e. as early as the 3rd millennium BC. Some have suggested that Pavlopetri is a Pelasgian site, while others are more cautious, calling it an Early Bronze Age site.
Little archaeological work was done at the site after its initial discovery, but the site was investigated again between 2009 and 2013. In more recent years, effort has been made to protect the site from destruction.
Top image: Pelasgos is said to be the father of the Pelasgians. Source: Fxquadro / Adobe Stock.
By Wu Mingren
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