National origin stories

The tantalising hope of truth

Europa and the bull on a red-figure vase c. 480 BC (Tarquinia Museum)Myths and legends of the origins of tribes and nations are frustrating for historians. They may contain an element of truth, passed down orally over centuries, though garbled in the process, and disguised in fanciful embellishment. But how can a shred of truth be teased out of the web of fiction? Some seemingly implausible story may actually be true. We scoff at the inclusion of the names of gods in pedigrees. Yet could it be explained by ancestor-worship? Stories of origins in far distant lands are passed over as a mix-up of place-names. Yet population genetics is now showing the great distances some people moved in prehistory.

On the other hand, the seemingly plausible may have been invented for the very reason that it seemed plausible. Origin stories often derive a people from an eponymous ancestor. For example Saxo Grammaticus thought that the Danes were descended from two brothers called Dan and Angul. From Dan sprang the Danish kings, while Angul was the ancestor of the Anglian race of Denmark and later England. But he conscientiously notes that Dudo, the historian of Normandy, considered that the Danes were sprung and named from the Danai.1The Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus, book one (completed c.1208). Both were surmising that peoples were named after ancestors, for that was a process that they understood. Clans might well be named for their founding father. Places were sometimes named after the person who settled there. So it was tempting to imagine that from every place-name, country-name or tribal name an ancestor could be conjured up. Then storytellers wove legends about him. A good example is the story of Romulus, supposed founder of Rome.

So we cannot even be certain that there is a fact to find by burrowing through layers of fiction. The safest course is to ignore all stories written down long after the supposed events they claim to record. The greater the length of time involved, the less likely a story is to be reliable in any way. Certainly no great weight should be placed on such stories, particularly where they contradict more reliable types of evidence. Legend can lead researchers badly astray. There have been persistent attempts by population geneticists to show that the Irish have their origin in Iberia, as the Irish legends say. At the opposite extreme, when geneticists linked Y-DNA haplogroup R1a with the origin and spread of the Indo-European languages,2e.g. R.S. Wells et al, The Eurasian Heartland: A continental perspective on Y-chromosome diversity, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 98 no. 18 (2001), pp.10244-10249. they seemed unaware that they were treading in the footsteps of legend.

Deluge

A replica of the Ark, built for Blink Films following the instructions in the Ark TabletOne of the earliest written stories which influenced the way that Europeans thought about their ancestry is the deluge myth. The tale of Noah and his ark in Genesis, the first book of the Jewish Torah and Christian Old Testament, is notably similar to a Mesopotamian flood story first written down about 1900 BC and which survives in several versions. The key elements are a devastating flood sent by a wrathful god to eradicate mankind, from which one chosen family survived by building a large boat at the deity's command; their descendants repopulate the world.3The Epic of Gilgamesh trans N. K. Sandars (1960), pp. 12-14, 17-18, 108-113; I. Finkel, The Ark Before Noah (Hodder and Stoughton 2014), chap. 4. The Ark Tablet, dated around 1700 BC (but only translated a few years ago), actually describes the shape and design of the craft, which turn out to be completely different from the ark of modern imaginings. It was to be circular, built of wooden ribs, plaited palm fibre rope and rushes and waterproofed with bitumen, with cabins on it. Probably such circular craft were in common use on the rivers of Mesopotamia. A seal from the Iraqi site of Khafajeh dating to about 2500 BC appears to depict a coracle.4I. Finkel, The Ark Before Noah (Hodder and Stoughton 2014). About two thousand years later coracles made of hides stretched over willow frames were seen in Babylon by Greek historian Herodotus.5Herodotus, The Histories, tr. R. Waterfield (1998), book 1, section 194. A type of circular boat, known as a quffah or kuphar, built of the same sort of materials as the one in the Ark Tablet were still being used in the marshes of southern Iraq in modern times.6J. Hornell, The Coracles of the Tigris and Euphrate, The Mariner's Mirror, vol. 24 (1938), pp. 153-159.

So many cultures have preserved a flood myth that some authors have toyed with the idea that it must be based on an actual apocalyptic event, a real flood that covered the whole world, but no such event has occurred during the time of mankind. However some of these myths appear connected in the sense that one mythology has influenced another. The flood story of Genesis is clearly a re-telling of the Mesopotamian stories. What is the link? After the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC, the Judean royal family, upper echelons of society and skilled craftsmen were transported to Babylon. There they remained in exile for 58 years. The Biblical Book of Daniel records that during the exile certain young men of the Israelite royal family and nobility were taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans (Babylonians). On the Babylonian school curriculum at the time were three key stories that re-emerge in the Torah in modified form. One included the flood. The drive to produce the Torah, telling the story of the Jews, may be found in the exile and the desire to maintain a sense of the distinct identity of the exiles. It drew on many pre-existing sources.7I. Finkel, The Ark Before Noah (Hodder and Stoughton 2014), chaps. 10 and 11.

Attention has therefore turned to notable regional floods which might be the foundation for the Mesopotamian and Biblical deluge stories. The flooding of the Black and Caspian Seas at the end of the last Ice Age has been a popular choice. It certainly was dramatic, though not to the catastrophic degree that some have proposed. The problem is that the location and the date (about 10,000 BC) do not fit. The earliest flood stories are set on the river plains of Mesopotamia, after farmers had settled there about 6,000 BC. The flooding of the Black Sea, even if it had occurred closer to 7,000 BC, as William Ryan and Walter Pitman proposed in their popular book Noah's Flood (2000), would not have affected the cradle of agriculture, protected by the mountains south of the Black Sea, let alone forced farmers to migrate into Europe as they contended.8Valentina Yanko-Hombach, Allan S.Gilbert, Nicolae Panin and Pavel M. Dolukhanov (eds.), The Black Sea Flood Question (2007); L. Giosan, F. Filip and S. Constatinescu, Was the Black Sea catastrophically flooded in the early Holocene?, Quaternary Science Reviews, vol. 28, nos. 1-2 (January 2009), pp.1-6.

Another idea is that the inundation of southern Mesopotamia c. 6,000 BC that created the Persian Gulf could have lived on in memory as the Deluge.9J.T. Teller, Calcareous dunes of the United Arab Emirates and Noah's Flood: the postglacial reflooding of the Persian (Arabian) Gulf, Quaternary International, vols. 68-71 (2000), pp. 297-308; J.I. Rose, New Light on Human Prehistory in the Arabo-Persian Gulf Oasis, Current Anthropology, vol. 51, no. 6 (December 2010). This is in the right region, but the wrong time - just before agriculture arrived there from the north. Its supporters have to rely on supposed towns vanished beneath the waters to give it any plausibility. It was also a slow process rather than sudden.

Evidence of flooding at Mesopotamian cities such as Ur (c. 3500 BC) Uruk (c. 2900 BC), Shuruppak (c. 2700 BC) and Kish (c. 2500 BC) may not capture the imagination to the same degree, but has the merit of being in the right place at round about the right time. The Akkadian version of the flood story, in the epic of Atrahasis of Shuruppak, refers to a river. This is presumed to be the Euphrates, since Shuruppak (modern Tell Fara), was a Sumerian town built on the bank of the Euphrates.10W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atra-Hasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (Oxford, 1969). Floods would be both a blessing and a perennial danger to such riverine communities. Good ones would dump fertile soil over the fields. Bad ones could cause chaos. We can imagine one family managing to get aboard a craft with seeds and breeding pairs of livestock, and so surviving a particularly shattering inundation and being able to return to farm again. It might indeed seem to them a world-changing event. We can imagine that the tale would be repeated over and over again in the following years. By the time it was written into Genesis, the deluge had been adapted to a different religion and acquired characters drawn from a different tribal genealogy.

Noah's brood

Genesis narrates a curious story of Noah's sons Shem, Ham and Japheth/Yefeth. When Ham, the father of Canaan, viewed Noah naked in his tent, Noah laid a curse upon Canaan, who was to be a slave to Shem and Japheth. This curse appears to be a rationalisation of the Israelite acquisition of the land of Canaan. The descendants of the three sons are often interpreted as the three supposed races of mankind: the Semites (Asian), the cursed Hamites (African) and the Japhethites (European). Yet Genesis 10 gives no support to this idea. The nations known to the Hebrews covered a small portion of the world we know today and almost all of them would be Caucasoid under modern racial classification (though any concept of race is now disputed). Sub-Saharan Africa was barely known to them, while East Asia and the Americas were completely unknown. The Biblical offspring of Ham covered an impressive swathe of lands from Mesopotamia through Palestine to North East Africa. The Biblical Shem is presented as the forefather of the Assyrians, Elamites and Hebrews. Japheth's brood are supposed to be the more distant Indo-Europeans, who lived in a semi-circle around the Fertile Crescent: to the east were the Medes, to the north on the steppe ranged the Scythians and Cimmerians, while the Hellenes lay to the north-west in Greece, Ionia and Cyprus.11Thomas L. Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue (2001), p. 194; E. M. Yamauchi, Foes from the Northern Frontier (1982), p. 63; A. P. Ross, The Table of Nations in Genesis 10 – Its content, Bibliotheca Sacra vol. 138 (1981), pp. 22-34. Lakes of ink have been wasted in efforts to expand this array of nations to all the inhabitants of the world. As Christianity spread across the Roman Empire, taking the origin stories of the Hebrews with it, nations wanted to place themselves within the Biblical world, as we shall see.

The influence of Homer

Achilles and Ajax pictured on a Greek vaseAnother body of myth which had a huge influence on the thinking of Europeans was recorded by the ancient Greeks. The epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey, traditionally ascribed to Homer, probably grew out of centuries of oral story-telling. These are tales of heroic daring by characters who live on in European memory, like Achilles with his vulnerable heel, and faithful Ajax. These human characters were set in a mythical world in which gods and goddesses constantly interacted with man. Yet the geographical background is recognisably Greece and Anatolia. The stories spread first with the growth of Greek influence in the Hellenistic period, and then via the Roman Empire, which absorbed that of the Greeks. Greek literature was prized by the Romans. The Roman poet Virgil created his own epic around Aeneas, a character in the Iliad who survives the fall of the city and was therefore available for further poetic adventures. In the Aeneid, Virgil has his hero buffeted around the Mediterranean until he found shelter at last in Latium, home of the Latins. There Aeneas became king by a combination of conquest and marriage politics. Thus Virgil provided a glorious origin for the Roman people, to rival that of the Greeks.

Long after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Christians could be educated in the Greek and Roman classics, as well as the literature of the Church, and so we find attempts to link tribal or national origins to the Greeks and Trojans well into the Medieval period. It was woven into origin stories by tribes far distant from Greece. The Galicians of north-west Spain claimed a Greek origin. The give-away that this was lifted from the Iliad is that they derive their origin from a character in it - Teucer, half-brother of Ajax.12Marcus Junianus Justinus, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, translated, with notes, by the Rev. John Selby Watson (1853), book 44, chapter 3. The Liber Historiae Francorum of 727 claims that the Sicambri (a Frankish tribe) were originally defeated Trojans. Similarly Nennius attempted to burnish up the image of the Britons, which had suffered at the hands of Isidore of Seville. Isidore scathingly suggests that perhaps the British got that name by being brutes (brutus in Latin).13The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. and trans. S.A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and O. Bergho (2006), p. 198 (IX.ii.102). Nennius turned negative to positive by asserting that Britain derives its name from Brutus, a Roman consul, whom he tacks on the the descent of Aeneas, and then tells two muddled stories by which the Britons derive their origin both from the Greeks and Romans.14Nennius, History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum) in Six Old English Chronicles, ed. J. A. Giles. (1848). Geoffrey of Monmouth elaborated upon this story in his so-called History of the Kings of Britain (c.1135), which was one long exercise in fantasy writing for the greater glory of the nation.

Milesian myth

The Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Taking of Ireland) has fascinated generations.15Lebor Gabála Érenn 'The Book of the Taking of Ireland', Irish Texts Society, Vols. 34 (1938), 35 (1939), 39 (1940), 41 (1941) and 44 (1956). Compiled in the late 11th century, it tells a stirring story of invaders battling for Ireland. Like Geoffrey of Monmouth's fanciful 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain, with its tales of Arthur, it was accepted for centuries as an accurate history. Yet both have only legend and supposition to offer where they try to cover prehistory. So why would either book be taken seriously in today's more critical world? Within academia they are not. R. A. Stewart Macalister, who translated the Lebor Gabála Érenn into English, declared: There is not a single element of genuine historical detail, in the strict sense of the word, anywhere in the whole compilation.16R. A. Stewart Macalister (ed.), Lebor Gabála Érenn 'The Book of the Taking of Ireland', Irish Texts Society, Vol. 34 (1938), p. 252.

Yet there is that tantalising hope of some scrap to bridge the yawning gap in our knowledge. Celtic scholar Thomas Francis O'Rahilly (1883–1953) postulated four waves of invaders into Ireland, based partly on his interpretation of the Lebor Gabála Érenn.17T. F. O'Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology (1946). The fourth and final invasion, he thought, brought the Gaelic-speakers. Thus far he follows the Lebor Gabála Érenn. But while O'Rahilly thought the Gaels came from southwest Gaul (now France), the 11th-century story tells of the final conquest of Ireland from Iberia by the Milesians, or sons of Míl Espáine. The Milesians are painted as the descendants of a Scythian prince called Fénius Farsaid, whose grandson created the Irish language. His descendants wandered the world for 440 years before settling in the Iberian peninsula, the story goes. One of his descendants supposedly saw Ireland from the top of Breogan’s Tower, in Brigantia, in far-off Spain and set off towards it with thrice thirty warriors.

The myth was boosted by early genetic studies, which found high levels of Y-DNA R1b in both countries. It was later realised that R1b dominates the whole of Western Europe. Worse still for the romantic image of Míl Espáine was the discovery that the subclade of R1b overwhelming common in Ireland (L21) was also common in Britain and France, but extremely rare in Iberia. Nor do the Irish cluster close to Iberians in studies of a much wider range of genetic markers. Instead they overlap with their nearest neighbours, the British.18J.Novembre et al., Genes mirror geographywithin Europe, Nature vol. 456 (6 November 2008), pp. 98-101; C.Tian et al, European Population Genetic Substructure: Further definition ofancestry informative markers for distinguishing among diverse European ethnicgroups, Molecular Medicine, online August 24 2009; C. Tian et al., Analysis and Application of European Genetic Substructure Using 300 K SNPInformation, PLoS Genetics, vol. 4, no. 1 (2008):e4. One such study concentrating on the British Isles found that Dubliners had a vanishingly small Iberian element, less than that in people from south-east England.19C.T O'Dushlaine et al., Population structure and genome-wide patterns of variation in Ireland and Britain, European Journal of Human Genetics, (advance online publication 23 June 2010).

So whatever the Milesian myth is telling us, it is not the true story of the birth of a nation. The tale attempts to fit the Gaels into a biblical setting. Iafeth [Japheth] is pictured as the patriarch of the nations of Asia Minor, Armenia, Media, the People of Scythia; and of him are the inhabitants of all Europe. This was standard thinking for Christian writers of the time, following the Jewish historian Josephus (37-c.100 AD) and Isidore of Seville (c.560-635). Increasingly complex genealogies from Noah were created.20Susan Reynolds, Medieval origines gentium and the community of the realm, History, vol. 68 (1983), pp. 375-90. It also borrows from the early Christian writer Orosius. It was he who claimed that from the southern promontory of Ireland one could see far-off Brigantia, a city of Gallaecia (North-West Spain),21Paul Orosius : A History Against the Pagans, book 1, section 2, para 80. which the Irish of the area well knew to be nonsense.

Míl Espáine himself is simply an Irish version of the Latin miles Hispaniae (soldier of Spain). The earliest surviving version of the tale appears in the 8th-century Historia Brittonum. It simply claims that three sons of a Spanish soldier arrived in Ireland with thirty ships. A mass of fake genealogy was grafted onto the scheme. In the Lebor Gabála Érenn, his sons Éber and Erimón divide the kingship of Ireland between them. Éber, presented as the founding father of the Eóghanachta, takes the southern half, while Erimón takes the north. This division supplants an earlier concept of Ireland being divided into five parts. So it was probably cooked up in the 8th century AD to give a respectably ancient ancestry to the newly dominant dynasties of the Uí Néill and Eóghanachta, who had risen to prominence in the north and south respectively. (See Celtic Tribes of Ireland.) In short the whole concoction is nothing more than a learned fiction, and does not preserve any genuine Irish traditions.22D. Ó Cróinín, Ireland, 400-800, in D. Ó Cróinín (ed.), A New History of Ireland, vol 1 (2005), pp. 185-6; Nennius, Historia Brittonum, book 3, section 13.

Picts and Scots

Celtic tribes of the British IslesAn interesting detail from the Lebor Gabála Érenn is that Fénius Farsaid is Scythian. A Scythian origin was also claimed in medieval times by the Picts and Scots of Scotland. Genetics give no support to this idea. Ancient DNA has shown that the Y-chromosome haplogroup predominant among the Scythians was R1a1a. The descendants of the Picts and Scots are notably high in subclades of R1b1b2. Linguistics gives no support to it either. The ancient Scythians spoke an Iranian language whose only similarity to the various Celtic languages of Britain lies in their shared Indo-European parentage. So whatever the origin of these ideas, the Celts of the British Isles do not descend from the people known in Classical times as Scythian.

The names Pict and Scot were apparently nicknames bestowed by the Romans. They are not mentioned before the Roman conquest of Britain. The Celts of Britain and Ireland had tribal names, recorded by the geographer Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus).23Ptolemy, The Geography, book II, chapters 1 and 2. The picture is one of Celtic cultures spread across the whole of the British Isles.

The name British Isles has a long history. Latin and Greek versions appear in the earliest Classical texts referring to these islands. Ptolemy records the names of the two largest islands of the group: Albion and Iouernia (Hibernia), as did earlier Greek and Carthaginian explorers.24J.B. Harley and D. Woodward, The History of Cartography vol. 1: Cartography in prehistoric, ancient, and medieval Europe and the Mediterranean (1987), p.192; D.W. Roller, Through the pillars of Herakles: Greco-Roman exploration of the Atlantic (2006), p. 28. For Britain Pytheas via Strabo uses Bretannikē as a feminine noun, although its form is that of an adjective. Pliny uses Britannia, with Britanniae meaning all the islands,the Britains. Diodorus, writing in Greek, has Brettanikē nēsos, the British Island, and Brettanoi, the British. Ptolemy, also writing in Greek, has Bretania and Bretanikai nēsoi. However manuscript variants offer an intial P- alternating with B-. The name learned by Pytheas was probably Pretania or or Pritannia, corresponding to the Welsh Ynys Prydein, the island of Britain, and the Irish Q-Celtic Cruithen-tuath.

Into that picture intruded the Romans, scooping the province of Britannia out of this Celtic domain. So Albion became Britain. The name Albion was actually out of date among the Romans by Ptolemy's day, though the Irish retained Alba as a name for Britain, as did the northern British, where the Kingdom of Alba arose long afterwards. The Romans created a divide between north and south Britain, perpetuated into our own day. So one could say that Scotland was created by the Romans. There is no reason to suppose that the people beyond Roman lines were much different originally from the people taken into the Empire.

Scoti or Scotti was the Roman name for the Irish, Gaelic-speaking raiders who fell upon Britannia from time to time, while the Picti were the northern British beyond Roman jurisdiction. No surviving Roman source explains those names, but Isidore of Seville claimed that both refer to the use of dye to create tattoos.25The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. and trans. S.A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and O. Bergho (2006), pp. 198, 386 (IX.ii.103 and XIX.xxiii.7). This is plausible for Picti, which would mean painted people in Latin. When the Romans first encountered the people of Britain, they noted the British habit of dying their bodies with woad, which left a blue colour.26Caesar, Gallic Wars, V.14. While the Britons within the Roman Empire adopted Roman ways over the centuries, we can believe that those outside it retained the Celtic habit of tattooing. It seems that these names were eventually adopted by the peoples themselves, along with Christianity, which used Latin as its lingua franca and had a clerical elite educated in Roman history.27A.Woolf, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070, The New Edinburgh History of Scotland vol. 2 (2007), p. 9.

We first hear of Gaels in Scotland in the Kingdom of Dál Riata, which spanned North-Eastern Ireland and Western Scotland in the late 6th and early 7th century. Their origin is a matter of dispute. What is clear is that the Gaelic-speaking Scots eventually overcame the Picts to unify Scotland.28E. Campbell, Were the Scots Irish?, Antiquity, 75 (2001), pp. 285–292; E. H. Nicoll (ed.), A Pictish Panorama: The story of the Picts, and a Pictish bibliography (1995). So in searching for their origins, the Scots relied on an earlier version of the Fénius Farsaid story. The Welsh compilation put together c. 830 AD by Nennius gives two separate accounts of early Irish history. One consists of waves of invasion from Iberia. The other is a story of a Scythian of noble birth, and his wanderings with his family - only 42 years in this version - before they reached Spain. There they increased and multiplied over many years until they passed into Ireland, and the district of Dalrieta.29Nennius, History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum) in Six Old English Chronicles, ed. J. A. Giles. (1848).

The Declaration of Arbroath (1320) used this story of Scottish ancestry to boost a claim to Scottish independence:

... We know and from the chronicles and books of the ancients we find that among other famous nations our own, the Scots, has been graced with widespread renown. They journeyed from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain among the most savage tribes, but nowhere could they be subdued by any race, however barbarous. Thence they came, twelve hundred years after the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, to their home in the west where they still live today. The Britons they first drove out, the Picts they utterly destroyed, and, even though very often assailed by the Norwegians, the Danes and the English, they took possession of that home with many victories and untold efforts...

It suited the Scottish nobility of the time to claim utter destruction of the Picts. It seems highly unlikely that every Pict was in fact exterminated, but they were no longer an independent people after 900 AD.30A.Woolf, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070, The New Edinburgh History of Scotland vol. 2 (2007), chapter 8.

The Venerable Bede, writing in 731 AD, preserved an origin story for them.

It is related that the Pictish race from Scythia sailed out into the ocean in a few warships and were carried by the wind beyond the furthest bounds of Britain, reaching Ireland and landing on its northern shores. There they found the Irish race and asked permission to settle among them, but their request was refused. ...The Irish answered that the island would not hold them both; but, said they, we can give you some good advice as to what to do. We know of another island not far from our own, in an easterly direction, which we often see in the distance on clear days. If you will go there, you can make a settlement for yourselves; but if anyone resists you, make use of our help. And so the Picts went to Britain and proceeded to occupy the northern parts of the island, because the Britons had seized the southern regions. As the Picts had no wives, they asked the Irish for some; the latter consented to give them women, only on condition that, in all cases of doubt, they should elect their kings from the female royal line ... the custom has been observed among the Picts to this day.31Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Greater Chronicle, Bede's Letter to Egbert, ed. J. McClure and R. Collins (1994), pp. 10-11.

This story had come down to Bede through a Classical filter. It is permeated with the Roman view of Picts and Britons as separate and different, one outside and the other inside the Roman Empire. However we have a clue that the Picts did not take that view. First in the list of kings in the 10th-century Pictish Chronicle is Cruidne.32Chronicles of the Picts, Chronicles of the Scots, and other Early Memorials of Scottish History, ed. W.F. Skene (1867), p.172. Cruithni is the plural of the medieval Irish word Cruithin, meaning Briton. Once again we find the assumption that a people descend from an eponymous founder. The fact that Ireland figures largely in Bede's story suggests that it had come to Bede from an Irish source, perhaps Iona or one of its monastic satellites, and was primarily intended to justify Gaelic influence in Scotland.

An origin for the Picts in Scythia - a place so far distant - seemed so nonsensical that some commentators have assumed that Bede was confusing Scythia with Scandia.33Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Greater Chronicle, Bede's Letter to Egbert, ed. J. McClure and R. Collins (1994), p. 362; D. Miles, The Tribes of Britain (2005), p. 9. Yet the location of Scythia - north of the Black and Caspian Seas - was carefully described in sources available to Bede, including the Etymologies of Isidore of Seville.34The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. and trans. S.A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and O. Bergho (2006), p. 288 (XIV.iii.31). And an error by Bede could not explain the recurrence of the Scythians in origin myths of varied European peoples.

The recurring Scythians

Scythia c. 100 BC

Scythia crops up again in the origin myth of the Franks. The earliest detailed source on the Franks - the Germanic people who took over post-Roman France so effectively that it is named after them - is Gregory of Tours (d.594). He recorded in his History of the Franks that Many relate that they came from Pannonia [roughly modern Slovenia] and all dwelt at first on the bank of the Rhine, and then crossing the Rhine they passed into Thuringia [Central Germany].35Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, trans. E. Brehaut (1916), book 2, chapter 9. The Franks seem actually to have been a confederation of tribes. Yet one in particular looms large in their origin stories. Gregory of Tours records it obliquely. When Clovis was baptised, he was adjured by the officiating bishop to Gently bend your neck, Sigamber; worship what you burned; burn what you worshipped.36Ibid, book 2, chapter 31. The Sicambri lived around the lower Rhine in what is now the Netherlands in the 2nd century AD.37Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, book 2, chap. 10. The Chronicle of Fredegar, which includes an abridged version of the History of the Franks, added a note that the Franks believed the Sicambri to be a tribe of Scythian or Cimmerian descent. Herodotus tells us that the fierce Scythian nomads from the eastern steppes drove the Cimmerians out of the Pontic-Caspian steppe.38Herodotus, The Histories, trans. A. de Sélincourt with an introduction and notes by J. M. Marincola (2002), p.244. So an origin among the Scythians or Cimmerians points to the same area north of the Black and Caspian Seas.

Where had this idea come from? Linguists and archaeologists have long pointed to the area north of the Black and Caspian Seas as the homeland of the Indo-European language family around 4,000-2,000 BC. This area was known as Scythia by the time of the Roman Empire. Yet it is hard to imagine that recollection of a journey taken thousands of years earlier could have survived orally for so long. There were later incursions into Central Europe from the steppe by the Cimmerians in the Iron Age, but Classical authors were so unaware of this movement that they even visualised one in the opposite direction. One largely lost Greek author, Poseidonius (c. 135-51 BC), is quoted by later writers as suggesting that the Cimbri, a tribe of northern Jutland who raided deep into southern Europe, reached the area north of the Black Sea, where they became known as Cimmerians.39Strabo, Geography, book 7, chapter 2; Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, book 5, chap. 2.

So it seems most likely that claims of a Scythian origin stem from precisely those persons best able to commit such stories to writing. In the Post-Roman period literacy was almost confined to the Church in most of Europe. The scholars of medieval Christendom relied upon the Bible and commentary upon it. So we return to the genealogies from Japheth. Josephus elaborated on the Biblical story: Japhet, the son of Noah, had seven sons: they inhabited so, that, beginning at the mountains Taurus and Amanus, they proceeded along Asia, as far as the river Tanais (Don), and along Europe to Cadiz; and settling themselves on the lands which they light upon, which none had inhabited before, they called the nations by their own names.40Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, I.6. Isodore, bishop of Seville (c. 560 – 636) drew on Josephus in his account of national origins:

Now the tribes of the sons of Japheth. Seven sons of Japheth are named: Gomer, from whom sprang the Galatians, that is, the Gauls (Galli). Magog, from whom people think the Scythians and the Goths took their origin. Madai, from whom people reckon the Medes came to be. Javan, from whom the Ionians, who are also the Greeks – hence the Ionian Sea. Tubal, from whom came the Iberians, who are also the Spaniards, although some think the Italians also sprang from him. Meshech, from whom came the Cappadocians; hence to this day a city in their territory is called Mazaca. Tiras, from whom the Thracians; their name is not much altered, as if it were Tiracians. Then the sons of Gomer, the grandsons of Japheth. Ashkenaz, from whom descended the Sarmatians, whom the Greeks call Rheginians. Riphath, from whom came the Paphlagonians. Gotorna (i.e. Togarmah), from whom are the Phrygians. The sons of Javan: Elishah, from whom came the Greek Eliseans, who are called Aeolides. Hence also the fifth language in Greece is called Aeolic. Tarshish, from whom descended the Cilicians, as Josephus thinks. From his name their capital city is called Tarsus. Kittim, from whom the Citians, that is the Cypriots, whose city today is named Citium. Dodanim (i.e. Rodanim), from whom came the Rhodians. These are the nations from the stock of Japheth, which occupy the middle region of Asia Minor from Mount Taurus to the north and all of Europe up to the Britannic Ocean, bequeathing their names to both places and peoples.41The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. and trans. S.A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and O. Bergho (2006), p. 193.

Modern scholars disagree on certain of Isodore's identifications. For example the name Gomer is older than the Galatians and refers to the Cimmerians of the European steppe.42Allen P. Ross, The Table of Nations in Genesis 10--Its Content, Bibliotheca Sacra 138 (1980) 22-34. The Goths would not have been known to the writer of Genesis, and so on. Many a muddle was introduced as Christian writers tried to extend the genealogy of Genesis and link it to the nations of their own day.

Odin of Asaland

Odin the Wanderer by Georg von Rosen 1886.Most curious of all is the tale of Odin in the Ynglinga Saga, part of the history of the kings of Norway written by the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson about 1225. Odin was the chief Norse god. Naturally we suppose that stories about the gods are set in a mythical realm. Yet the story of Odin is not only precise on geographical locations, but paints a picture of a man so revered that he was later worshipped as a god. This has set people wondering if there is some element of history to the tale, despite its weird and wonderful cladding, which includes giants and dragons. The story tells of Odin, chief of a country called Asaland, east of the River Don, which runs into the Black Sea.

Odin was a great and very far-travelled warrior, who conquered many kingdoms, and so successful was he that in every battle the victory was on his side. It was the belief of his people that victory belonged to him in every battle. It was his custom when he sent his men into battle, or on any expedition, that he first laid his hand upon their heads, and called down a blessing upon them; and then they believed their undertaking would be successful. His people also were accustomed, whenever they fell into danger by land or sea, to call upon his name; and they thought that always they got comfort and aid by it, for where he was they thought help was near. Often he went away so far that he passed many seasons on his journeys.43Heimskringla or The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, trans. S. Laing (1844).

Odin was also supposed to have great possessions in Turkland, south of a great mountain range which appears to be the Urals. Yet he left his domain with many of his people and wandered west to Russia, then south to Saxony, part of which which he conquered. Leaving some of his sons to rule that country, Odin took up residence on the Island of Fyn in Denmark. Perhaps feeling that some explanation was needed for this wanderlust, Snorri Sturluson (or the sources upon which he drew) sets the story in Roman times. The ever-expanding Roman Empire drove many chiefs to flee their domains, he notes. We are not told that Odin was one of them, but that he was granted foreknowledge, and the vision of his posterity dwelling in the northern half of the world.

Such is the perversity of the human mind that, while seeking a nugget of history amid the romance of myth and legend, we may be rather disappointed to find it. What if Odin the Wanderer was not the grand creature of fantasy, but a nomad of the steppes? Perhaps we should leave him to the sagas, along with Arthur and other figures who will never be more than shadows in history, but live brightly in legend.

Notes

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  1. The Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus, book one (completed c.1208).
  2. e.g. R.S. Wells et al, The Eurasian Heartland: A continental perspective on Y-chromosome diversity, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 98 no. 18 (2001), pp.10244-10249.
  3. The Epic of Gilgamesh trans N. K. Sandars (1960), pp. 12-14, 17-18, 108-113; I. Finkel, The Ark Before Noah (Hodder and Stoughton 2014), chap. 4.
  4. I. Finkel, The Ark Before Noah (2014).
  5. Herodotus, The Histories, tr. R. Waterfield (1998), book 1, section 194.
  6. J. Hornell, The Coracles of the Tigris and Euphrates, The Mariner's Mirror, vol. 24 (1938), pp. 153-159.
  7. I. Finkel, The Ark Before Noah (Hodder and Stoughton 2014), chaps. 10 and 11.
  8. Valentina Yanko-Hombach, Allan S. Gilbert, Nicolae Panin and Pavel M. Dolukhanov (eds.), The Black Sea Flood Question (2007); L. Giosan, F. Filip and S. Constatinescu, Was the Black Sea catastrophically flooded in the early Holocene?, Quaternary Science Reviews, vol. 28, nos. 1-2 (January 2009), pp. 1-6.
  9. J.T. Teller, Calcareous dunes of the United Arab Emirates and Noah's Flood: the postglacial reflooding of the Persian (Arabian) Gulf, Quaternary International, vols. 68-71 (2000), pp. 297-308; J.I. Rose, New Light on Human Prehistory in the Arabo-Persian Gulf Oasis, Current Anthropology, vol. 51, no. 6 (December 2010).
  10. W. G. Lambert and A. R. Millard, Atra-Hasis: The Babylonian Story of the Flood (Oxford, 1969).
  11. Thomas L. Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue (2001), p. 194; E. M. Yamauchi, Foes from the Northern Frontier (1982), p. 63; A. P. Ross, The Table of Nations in Genesis 10 – Its Content, Bibliotheca Sacra vol. 138 (1981), pp. 22-34.
  12. Marcus Junianus Justinus, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, translated, with notes, by the Rev. John Selby Watson (1853), book 44, chapter 3.
  13. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. and trans. S.A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and O. Bergho (2006), p. 198 (IX.ii.102).
  14. Nennius, History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum) in Six Old English Chronicles, ed. J. A. Giles. (1848).
  15. Lebor Gabála Érenn 'The Book of the Taking of Ireland', Irish Texts Society, Vols. 34 (1938), 35 (1939), 39 (1940), 41 (1941) and 44 (1956).
  16. R. A. Stewart Macalister (ed.), Lebor Gabála Érenn 'The Book of the Taking of Ireland', Irish Texts Society, Vol. 35 (1939), p.252.
  17. T. F. O'Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology (1946).
  18. J.Novembre et al., Genes mirror geographywithin Europe, Nature vol. 456 (6 November 2008), pp. 98-101; C.Tian et al, European Population Genetic Substructure: Further definition ofancestry informative markers for distinguishing among diverse European ethnicgroups, Molecular Medicine, online August 24 2009; C. Tian et al., Analysis and Application of European Genetic Substructure Using 300 K SNP Information, PLoS Genetics, vol. 4, no. 1 (2008):e4.
  19. C.T. O'Dushlaine et al., Population structure and genome-wide patterns of variation in Ireland and Britain, European Journal of Human Genetics, (advance online publication 23 June 2010).
  20. Susan Reynolds, Medieval origines gentium and the community of the realm, History, vol. 68 (1983), pp. 375-90.
  21. Paul Orosius : A History Against the Pagans, book 1, section 2, para 80.
  22. D. Ó Cróinín, Ireland, 400-800, in D. Ó Cróinín (ed.), A New History of Ireland, vol 1 (2005), pp. 185-6; Nennius, Historia Brittonum, book 3, section 13.
  23. Ptolemy, The Geography, book II, chapters 1 and 2.
  24. J.B. Harley and D. Woodward, The History of Cartography vol. 1: Cartography in prehistoric, ancient, and medieval Europe and the Mediterranean (1987), p.192; D.W. Roller, Through the pillars of Herakles: Greco-Roman exploration of the Atlantic (2006), pp. 28. For Britain Pytheas via Strabo uses Bretannikē as a feminine noun, although its form is that of an adjective. Pliny uses Britannia, with Britanniae meaning all the islands,the Britains. Diodorus, writing in Greek, has Brettanikē nēsos, the British Island, and Brettanoi, the British. Ptolemy, also writing in Greek, has Bretania and Bretanikai nēsoi. However manuscript variants offer an intial P- alternating with B-. The name learned by Pytheas was probably Pretania or or Pritannia, corresponding to the Welsh Ynys Prydein, the island of Britain, and the Irish Q-Celtic Cruithen-tuath, land of the Picts.
  25. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. and trans. S.A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and O. Bergho (2006), pp. 198, 386 (IX.ii.103 and XIX.xxiii.7).
  26. Caesar, Gallic Wars, V.14.
  27. A.Woolf, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070, The New Edinburgh History of Scotland vol. 2 (2007), p. 9.
  28. E. Campbell, Were the Scots Irish?, Antiquity, 75 (2001), pp. 285–292; E. H. Nicoll (ed.), A Pictish Panorama: The story of the Picts, and a Pictish bibliography (1995).
  29. Nennius, History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum) in Six Old English Chronicles, ed. J. A. Giles. (1848).
  30. A.Woolf, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070, The New Edinburgh History of Scotland vol. 2 (2007), chapter 8.
  31. Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Greater Chronicle, Bede's Letter to Egbert, ed. J. McClure and R. Collins (1994), p.10.
  32. Chronicles of the Picts, Chronicles of the Scots, and other Early Memorials of Scottish History, ed. W.F. Skene (1867), p.172.
  33. Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Greater Chronicle, Bede's Letter to Egbert, ed. J. McClure and R. Collins (1994), p. 362; D. Miles, The Tribes of Britain (2005), p. 9.
  34. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. and trans. S.A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and O. Bergho (2006), p. 288 (XIV.iii.31).
  35. Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, trans. E. Brehaut (1916), book 2, chap. 9.
  36. Ibid, book 2, chap. 31.
  37. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, book 2, chap. 10.
  38. Herodotus, The Histories, trans. A. de Sélincourt with an introduction and notes by J. M. Marincola (2002), p.244.
  39. Strabo, Geography, book 7, chapter 2; Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, book 5, chap. 2.
  40. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, I.6.
  41. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. and trans. S.A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and O. Bergho (2006), p. 193.
  42. Allen P. Ross, The Table of Nations in Genesis 10--Its Content, Bibliotheca Sacra 138 (1980) 22-34.
  43. Heimskringla or The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, trans. S. Laing (1844).