Modern Bulgaria owes its name to a Turkic tribe of Bulgars. They first reached Balkans somewhere around the 7th century AD. The name of Bulgars dates to at least the 4th century AD. Wikipedia lists a few etymologies of their name. They all come from Proto-Turkic. Those meanings are: “to mix” “to revolt” and “five arrows” – none of them too convincing.
However, the history of Bulgars begins in the region between the Pontic-Caspian steppe and the Volga river. The name of this Bulgarian state was Volga Bulgaria. It is used to distinguish it from the older Bulgarian state, known as Old Great Bulgaria. But even this old state revolved around the Voga and Dniester rivers, before being destroyed by the Khazars.
In that case, could we assume that the ethnonym Bulgars simply means “people of the Volga river“?
I am not the first person to propose this etymology, but strangely, the relevant English sources don’t mention it at all. Isn’t this more logical than “to mix, shake and stir”?
Bulgar tribes have a long and magnificent history, too long to describe it here. In short, their origins lie in Central Asia, in the very remote of times. From there they migrated to the region of Caucasus and North of the Black Sea, where they founded the Old Bulgarian state. From here they migrated to Volga Bulgaria, Armenia, and the current Balkan homeland. Recorded migrations also include the region of Pannonia. Here is an illustration from Wikipedia Commons:
Now, all of these migrations took place roughly between the 6th and the 7th century AD. Before that, the hoofs of Bulgar horses have never stepped on the European lands. Or is it really so?
Bulgars in Pannonia, 1st century AD
Describing the Balcan region of Pannonia in the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder states that the river Draus runs through lands of many tribes. One of these tribes was the Belgites. And among their neighbors, there were the Serapilli and Arivates. Some (alternative) historians, see the names of Serbs, Croats, and Bulgarians in this passage – three nations who still dwell in this region of the Balkans.
According to the official history, the Belgites were Celts. But as we will see, the derivation of Belgites – Bulgar may seem like a long stretch. The fact is that the tribe of Belgites was never before or after recorded in this region. It seems that only Pliny the Elder was aware of them.
However, there was a Germanic tribe of Belgae, precisely in this period, although much further to the north. Did Pliny the Elder had them in mind? What were the Belgae doing this far south?
Who were the Belgae?
Well, according to Wikipedia, Belgae were “the people who swell with anger and battle fury”. And this is literally what their name means. Apparently the Proto-Celtic root *belg means “to swell”. Hence the scholars concluded that this swelling is not from food, but from anger, and battle fury. No, I am not making this up.
But what if Belgae were, in fact, another, earlier wave of migration from the Volga river? In his description of Gaul, Caesar claims that it is divided between three main tribes – The Belgae, The Aquitani Celts, and the Gauls. He adds that they all differ in language, customs, and laws.
But still, modern scholars assume that the Belgae were also Celts. Of course, we can never be sure as we lack the written language. However, here are some reasons why the Belage may come from Volga.
A case of two Samara
One of the biggest Russian cities on the Volga river is Samara. The name of the city comes from the smaller river bearing the same name.
One of the most important cities of the Belgae is the modern-day Amiens, France. Its ancient name was Samarobriva – “briva” meaning bridge and “samar” meaning river in Gaulic (according to the highlighted French Wikipedia). In fact, according to the rule established on 2nd January 2012, all inhabitants of the Somme department in France are officially called “Samariens”
Tungri, the first of the Germans
Apart from the Belgae, there was another Germanic tribe on the territory of modern Belgium. According to Tacitus, they were the first Germans. All other Germanic tribes were named after them. Their capital was Civitas Tungrorum.
Now, Tungri were not Gauls, as Tacitus clearly states that they have crossed the Rhine river from the East, and expelled the Gauls. The etymology of their name is unknown. But here is an interesting fact about the proto-Bulgars – their main deity was the sky god Tangra.
Tangra, or Tengri, was hands down the main god of the Turkic and Mongolic tribes. These nomadic tribes carried his name to the four corners of the known world, including the Rila mountain chain of modern Bulgaria, which was named after him. Could the name of the Tungri tribe mean “worshipers of Tungri” i.e. the Tengrists?
The Fir Bolg and the Belgae
It is a fact that in Caesar’s time a part of the Belgae migrated to England. For example, the ancient name of the city of Winchester was Venta Belgarum. However, an Irish scholar T.F. O’Rahilly, has proposed that the Fir Bolg people came to Irish mythology as a memory of the Belgae invasion.
So who were the Fir Bolg of Irish myth? They were “men of bags”. Seriously, this is what Wikipedia claims. This time the word *bolg means a bag, while the word “fir” means people. As an alternative theory, they again propose “those who swell with battle fury”, in other words, the same as the Belgae.
Indeed, the word “fir” means “men, people” in Irish Gaulic. Fair enough. As for the other word, I think it comes down to the best guess…
Moreover, the neighboring tribe of the Belgae was Morini – “sea people”. I have already connected this tribe with Fomorians of Irish mythology here.
The vulgar folk
The Latin term “vulgar” apparently means “uncultivated, crude”. An alternative form of the term was volgus. This term labels perfectly how the “cultivated” Romans felt about “barbarians”. Could it be that this pejorative term of unclear etymology was coined in those times when Romans were encountering Bulgar tribes everywhere they went – in Pannonia, Belgium, and even England?
This whole article is based on guesswork. However, some really strange coincidences were worth a mention. The history of Europe before the Romans is still uncharted territory. The Romans did not distinguish much further than Celt, Gaul, German. Unfortunately, modern historians did not move much further from these labels.
The fact is that nomadic horsemen from the steppes were arriving in Europe for thousands of years before the Romans. Some of these tribes definitely had proto-Turkic and proto-Slavic elements. Whether this was the case with the Belgae remains to be seen.