The image of Viking raiders and their terror survived in the minds of Western civilization for centuries. But around the middle of the 2nd millennium BC, the people of the Mediterranean felt the same. Unlike the Vikings, these sea raiders actually wore horned helmets. They took the late Bronze age world by storm leaving a trail of ashes behind them. Since they did not belong to a single tribe, we nowadays know them as the “sea peoples” – a designation that came from the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt.
For the sake of brevity, in this article, we will focus only on three of these tribes.
The Sherden and the Shekelesh
The Sherden were very popular in the Egyptian texts. For example, the pharaoh Ramses II laments in the stele of Tanis: “The unruly Sherden came from the seas in their warships, and no one knows how to withstand them…”
Egyptian depictions show them with typical horned helmets, spears, and bronze age swords. Interestingly, archaeologist James Henry Breasted suggested that these swords contain tin that came from Bohemia, the modern Czech Republic.
But the fact is that nobody knows where the Sherden came from. And the same is Valid for the Shekelesh and the rest of the “sea peoples”.
Sardinia and Sicily – the Sherden and the Shekelesh
There is almost a consensus that the names of Sardinia and Sicily come from the Sea Peoples. But archaeologists are still debating whether this is where they originated, or this is where they stopped on their journey. A compiling body of evidence connects Sherden to a Nuragic civilization of Sardinia, dated to 18 century BC, in other words, before the Egyptian raids started.
Alternative theory connects them to the city of Sardis in Anatolia. However, both can be true, especially if we know that the “sea peoples” were one of the main reasons for the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization.
The Sherden and the Shekelesh of Adriatic
Most of the theories (almost all) that deal with the origins of the “sea peoples” focus on east and west. But for some strange reason, nobody is looking into the region of Adriatic, whose naval history predates the written one.
Namely, in the 2nd century AD, on Ptolemy’s map of Adriatic, there are tribes of Sardiotae and Siculotae, one next to another. Are these the same tribes, and if yes, did they arrive at some later period, or do we have some grounds to propose Balkans as their homeland?
Who were the Shekelesh?
The name “Shekelesh” could relate to Sicily, or more precisely, to the iron age tribe of Sicels (Latin: Siculi; Ancient Greek: Σικελοί Sikeloi). Some scholars consider the Sicels as Illyrians, who imposed themselves on the local, Pre-Indo-European population of Sicily. Thucydides claimed that Sicels lived in Central Italy, east, and north of Rome. From here, they migrated to Sicily.
The Sicels brought iron into the Bronze age Sicily, as well as the domesticated horse. Some scholars believe that this migration took place around the early 1st millennium BC. Others, who connect them to Shekelesh of the sea peoples, date their arrival to the late 13th century BC.
So far we have seen three places where the Sherden and the Shekelesh may have been present. And while archaeologists are still breaking spears between Sardinia and Sardis, nobody talks about the Adriatic. But it is precisely here that we may find the answer.
A Scythian connection?
The Sicels, therefore, may have been Illyrian horsemen. This is a very interesting piece of information, as we know that Illyrians of the bronze age were a mixture of the indigenous Balkan population and the Scythian horsemen from the east. Moreover, Herodotus (IV-6) informs us that “Scyth” is just a Greek, corrupted version of their original name. The original name was Skoloti, after their king. Herodotus claims that this information comes from the Scythians themselves.
Could the name Sicel (Siculi, Siceloi) relate to the name “Scolot”? I leave it to the linguists. But Herodotus (IV-78) also mentions Scylas, son of the Scythian king Ariapeithes. His mother was “a woman from Istria”, or in other words – Illyria. Is the real point of this account to give the genealogy of the Sicel / Scoloti? Were they offsprings of the nomadic herdsmen and local women of Illyria?
It is an interesting point for further investigation. The connections between the steppe migrations and those of the sea people will become more clear as we continue.
Who were the Sherden?
The genetic map of Sardinia shows a strong influence of haplogroup I2a2, which is dominant in the Balkans since the Mesolithic. Here is the official chart from Eupedia.com. If you look at the top 10 countries, you will see that only Sardinia separates other Balkan countries.
Back to Illyria. The Sarditoae lived in the foothills of the Shar mountain, whose ancient name was Scordus. The city of Skodra still preserves the memory of this name and this was probably the very area in which Sarditoae dwelled. However, the name is officially attributed to the tribe of Scordisci, considered Celtic.
The Scordisci get the credit of founding Belgrade, or “white city”, the capital of Serbia. But a few are aware that the name of the Albanoi, who gave the name to modern Albania, comes from the Roman city of Albanopolis, literally “white city”.
But the coast of the Adriatic is not the only place that we can relate to the Sherden tribe. We can go even deeper into the Balkans, all the way to the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, whose ancient name was Serdica. The name of this city comes from the Thracian tribe of Serdi. Some claim that there was also a certain Celtic influence. But this influence was more likely Scytho-Sarmatian, as the territory of Sarmatia began right across the Danube.
And it is precisely in Sarmatia that may find clues to Sherden origins. Namely, on Ptolemy’s Sarmatia Asiatica map there is a tribe of Suardeni, behind the sea of Azov! On the same map, we see the tribe of Amazons, who fought in the Troyan war just centuries after the “sea peoples”. And a bit lower, a tribe of Sirbi, related to modern Serbia in the Balkans. A coincidence?
Moreover, the term Shardan has clearly more roots in this part of the world than anywhere else. Namely, Sardanapalus was the name of the last Assyrian king, and many names are containing Shar and Shardan in ancient Persia and Assyria. In fact, the word “Shar” is closely related to the words “Shah” and “tzar” – all meaning “king, emperor”. Shar Kalli Shari was an Akkadian king from the 3rd millennium BC.
Perhaps the term Shardan could be a designation of the tribe that Herodotus calls “Royal Scythians”. Herodotus (IV-57) claims that the place where the river Don enters the Azov sea is the border between the Royal Scythians and Sarmatians.
Who were the Peleset?
Another important tribe is Peleset. There is a consensus that these were the sae as the Philistines from the Old Testament, who gave a name to the country of Palestine.
The Amarna letters, date back to the 14th century BCE. In Letter EA 286, the ruler of the city-state of Gezer writes to the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten. He writes, “All the mayors of the cities of Palistin have fortified themselves against me,” indicating that Palistin was a region consisting of multiple cities.
Already here we have a dead giveaway to their Scythian origin. The name Palestine has a suffix “stan”, just like Afganistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and other stan-countries, formerly inhabited by Scythians.
Peleset rank amongst the most important tribes of “sea peoples” as they decided to settle down. As a result, they entered the written history through the books of the Old Testament. Here, they are mentioned 286 times. It seems that their language was Indo-European, while their pottery style shows the Mediterranean influence.
Moreover, Palistin was the name of an early Syro-Hittite kingdom located in what is now northwestern Syria and the southeastern Turkish province of Hatay. In Italy, there is a place called Polistena.
But even in the Illyrian lands, there was a city named Palaesti, modern Palasë, Albania. Some authors have already tried to connect this name with the Pelasgians, indigenous people of Greece, or the Pela, the capital of ancient Macedonia.
Philistines, Peleset, Palestine – the people of “White Rock”?
If Palestine is an Indo-European compund word, the suffix – “stena”, stan would mean “dwelling” (originaly a nomadic “stone” shelter – and later “a region”). The first part Pele or Pela, would come from pelh – “pale, white”.
The toponym “white rock” is very popular in Slavic countries, especially in Serbia.
In Serbia, there are several toponyms called “Bela Stena” that refer to white rocks or cliffs. The name is derived from the Serbian words “bela” (white) and “stena” (rock). Some of the most well-known “Bela Stena” locations in Serbia include:
- Bela Stena (Kopaonik) – a peak in the Kopaonik mountain range in central Serbia.
- Bela Stena (Rtanj) – a peak in the Rtanj mountain range in eastern Serbia.
- Bela Stena (Svrljig) – a white cliff overlooking the town of Svrljig in southeastern Serbia.
- Bela Stena (Golubac) – a rock formation near the town of Golubac, on the Danube River in eastern Serbia.
- Bela Stena (Ovcar-Kablar Gorge) – a white rock formation in the Ovcar-Kablar Gorge, a popular tourist destination in western Serbia.
There are also several other locations in Serbia with similar names, such as “Beli Kamik” (white stone) and “Bela Stijena” (white rock).
There are also several toponyms called “Bela Stena” in other Slavic countries, with similar meanings related to white rocks or cliffs. Here are a few examples:
- Бела Стена (Bela Stena) – a village in North Macedonia, located near the city of Štip.
- Біла Стіна (Bila Stina) – a mountain peak in the Ukrainian Carpathian Mountains, located in the Zakarpattia Oblast region.
- Бела Стена (Bela Stena) – a peak in the Pirin Mountains of Bulgaria, located near the border with Greece.
- Biała Skała (White Rock) – a rock formation in Poland’s Tatra Mountains, located near the border with Slovakia.
- Bela Stena (Бела Стена) – a mountain peak in Montenegro, located near the border with Albania.
- Бела Стена (Bela Stena) – a village in Bulgaria, located in the southern part of the country near the border with Greece.
These are just a few examples of toponyms called “Bela Stena” in other Slavic countries, and there may be many more throughout the region.
The word “bela” – “white” refers to the color of the rock that was prefered for the city walls – hence so many places called “White city” in the Slavic lands. At the same time, it seems that it meant “holy”, as places such as “Bele vode” (White water) designated sacred wells and springs.
It should be added that in case of Serbia, many of these toponyms that contain the word “white”, also have rich archaeological sights from the Neolithic Vincha civilisation – which perhaps speaks about the continuity.
We now know only a few Philistine words, one of which is the name of Goliath, the giant. The etymology of this name is unknown, but in Slavic languages, it would mean “big, large”. A good example is the Serbian mountain Golija (Goliya) whose name means precisely this, although this is not the only such toponym in the Slavic world.
Indeed, the Scythians were unusually tall compared to the people of the Mediterranean. An exceptionally tall Scythian could have easily been considered a giant.
Moreover, the Greek name of the city Beit She’an in modern Israel was Scythopolis, while one of the five original cities of the Philistines was Ashkelon – a word that sounds like a Semitic designation of the Scythians. See Ashkenaz.
The point of this article was to show that there are some grounds to propose a different origin of the “sea peoples” from what is usually in the debate.
The world-stage appearance of these sea raiders matches closely the waves of migrations that reached Europe and the Balkans from the east. The Scythian nomads could have learned the techniques of seafaring from Pelasgians, with whom they had contact. Alternatively, they could have already mastered these techniques on the shores of the Black Sea.
In the next article, we will shed even more light on this subject by analyzing the remaining tribes of “sea peoples”.