The ethnonym “Illyrians” relates to a group of people who inhabited the northwestern part of the Balkan peninsula. Some authors, like Charles A Frazee, believe that they settled this region around the 2nd millennia BC. The others propose a later date. But the common agreement is that proofs of continuity in the archaeological record exist since the Bronze age.
The term “Illyrian” first appears in the Greek texts of the 5th century BC. Unfortunately, it seems that even then the meaning of this name was lost. There were many modern attempts to translate it, but none of them were convincing. This is why most of the texts on Illyrians do not even deal with the etymology of their name.
My theory is already clear from the title of this article. But before I explain it we need to see some more facts.
Illyrians, people of the North
Unable to explain this name, the Greeks invented an eponymous ancestor named Illyrius. According to one version of the myth, he was the son of Cadmus and Harmonia. According to the other, he was a son of Polyphemus and Galatea and he had two brothers. Their names were Celtus and Galas.
These sorts of genealogies were common in the ancient world. Their purpose was to show how different nations relate. Eponymous ancestors are most likely fiction.
So, the Greeks considered Celts and Gauls as “brothers” of Illyrians. Not surprising – Illyrians also wore torques, rode horses, and belonged to the Hallstatt culture – the cradle of the Celts. Greeks had to notice the similarities, and hence the myth was born.
This is the reason that in the past decades, some scholars saw the northern Lusatian culture as the Illyrian homeland. But this is now an abandoned theory. It is more likely that the north was influenced by the south – where there is a proven continuity from a much earlier age.
In fact, according to Pokorny, J. Sprachforschung, XLVI, 1914, p. 293, the earliest use of iron in Europe comes from Illyrians, not the Celts. He draws his conclusions from the archaeological and linguistic data and ends with a statement that Celts learned the use of this new metal from the Illyrians.
Illyrians, Indo-Europeans from the East
A later theory, influenced by the Kurgan hypothesis, claimed that Illyrians came from the east, during the Bronze age. As speakers of an Indo-European language, the Illyrians must have come to the Adriatic Sea from the east.
Interestingly, the ancient Greeks probably knew this theory too. This is obvious from the other genealogy, where Cadmus and Harmonia are the parents of Illyrius. The proposed etymology of the name Cadmus comes from the Semitic root *qdm, meaning “east”
Cadmus is a very important character in ancient Greek mythology. Both Greeks and Lebanese agree that he is the one who taught them writing. A common belief is that the ancient authors had the Phoenician alphabet in mind. But the first attested Greek writing comes from the Linear B script. It is at least 500 years older than the Phoenician alphabet. Its base is the Linear A script – an undeciphered, non-Greek, but Indo-European language.
On the other hand, Harmonia was “mother of the Amazons”. Amazons married Scythians and gave rise to the nation of Sarmatians. Since voices “H” and “S” were interchangeable, her name could also be Sarmonia. But this is just a guess. The fact is that Amazons lived on the territory of modern Turkey and that they were related to the Scythians from the eastern steppes.
Dardanians were the neighbors of the Trojans, and people closely related to them. Archaeological finds confirm the strong influence from the eastern steppes, via the Balkans. In short, the Chalcolithic archaeological finds from the whole Troad region have a “striking affinity” to those of Moldavia and the Cucuteni culture. Based on these finds, scholars have concluded that already in this period, the Troad had strong ties to the Carpatho-Balkan region. Perhaps they were brought by the Carpatho-Danubian colonists.
Illyrians, people of Illyon
We saw that Illyrian origins date to the Bronze age and that they most likely come from the east. We also saw clear links between the region of ancient Troy and that of the Balkans and the east.
But these connections become much more evident when we see the list of Trojan allies. They were:
- Amazons – a tribe of women warriors related to Scythians and Sarmatians
- Adrasteia – a Phrygian nymph, probably related to name of Adriatic sea
- Chalybes (Halizones) – people of Pontus (Black sea) and Cappadocia in northern Anatolia
- Colonae – people from Anatolia
- Cicones – Thracians (modern Bulgaria and Balkans)
- Dardania – Aeolians (but there were Dardans in the Balkans too)
- Aethiopia – North Africa, not clear where
- Lycia – Luwian, founded by Sarpedon, brother of Minos (Minoans). Compare with Lika, Croatia.
- Maeonia – Lydia, with the capital Sardis (Serdi were a Thracian tribe)
- Miletus – Carian, founded by Sarpedon
- Mysia – People who according to Herodotus migrated to Moesia, modern Serbia, in the 2nd millennium BC.
- Paionia – modern Macedonia, the largest town was Byalazora (modern Veles), attested in the 3rd century BC. It means “white dawn” in Slavic languages.
- Pelasgians – the indigenous people of the Greek mainland.
- Percote – (Asian) side of the Hellespont, origin unclear
- Phrygia – people whose homeland was on the Balkans
- Thrace – (modern Bulgaria and Balkans)
- Zeleia – another Lycian tribe
It is clear that the Trojans and their allies had strong connections to the Balkans, land inhabited by Illyrians at the time. We know that Phrygians came to the region of Troy from the Balkans and that Mysians came to the Balkans from the region of Troy. The Thracians, a nation very close to Illyrians, also had strong connections, due to their geographical proximity. (the border was the European side of Bosphorus) Apart from that, there were tribes from Macedonia, mainland Greece, and Adriatic.
Can we then assume, that since the Trojan war, Greeks called these people – Illyrians – ie. Trojans – people of Ilion? I believe that we can and that we have some firm evidence to support it. As Roisman & Worthington 2010, p. 280 had noted:
“The Illyrians certainly never collectively called themselves Illyrians”
Therefore it may be so, that for centuries the winners of the Trojan war kept calling their opponents Illyrians – even after its original meaning was forgotten.
Indeed, what would be a Greek designation for the inhabitant of Ilion?
Ilion of the Adriatic
There is only one more ancient city called Ilion. It lies on the coast of the Adriatic sea, in modern Epirus. For the ancient Greeks, this was a part of the oldest Illyria – Illyris Greaca. Illyris Greaca consisted of Epirus, Dalmatia, and Pannonia. During the Roman period, Epirus became a part of Macedonia.
So, is it a coincidence that the city of Ilion originally lied on the territory of Illyria, in the same area where most of the Trojan allies were?
Illion or Wilusa?
Now that we identified what “Illyria” could mean, it would be interesting to see what is the meaning of Illion. The word is not Greek. In recent years, scholars have been supporting the theory that the original name was Wilusa (wi5-lu-ša), as inscribed in the Hittite texts. I will not go into all analogies between Wilusa and Ilion, as they are available online, but let us just say that there is compelling evidence that this was the original name of Troy.
This is very interesting for one reason. We do not see another city under the Greek version of Ilion anywhere else apart from Epirus, which was under strong Greek influence from the earliest of times.
But deeper in the Illyrian lands, we have plenty of toponyms that bear the original name. Such an example is Viljuša, near Čačak, Serbia. This village nowadays has less than 1000 inhabitants, but it has been inhabited since Paleolithic and ranks as one of the important Paleolithic sites in Serbia. It lies next to the Morava river, the very border of ancient Illyria, while important Illyrian finds from Atenica (5th century BC) were located just 3 kilometers away.
I have several theories on the etymology of the name Viljuša, but for the sake of the brevity of this article, I will not mention them. Those are just guesses anyway.
The other name, Troy, obviously relates to some form of the trinity. (three hills or three cities) Such is a case of Tripoli – three cities, or its Greek equivalent Trigardon. (sounds rather Slavic). This designation is indeed very Slavic. In Slovenia, there is a village of Trojane while several places in Poland and the Czech Republic are named Trojanowice.
Also, one of the ancient names of Sofia, Bulgaria was Triaditza (Trinity). There is also a famous medieval Troyan monastery. (with the icon of a three-handed Mother of God). Such examples are many.
Most of the Trojan allies came from the region of Illyria and Thracia. The connections between these regions are not disputed by history and archaeology. Therefore we can assume that “Illyrian” was a designation for those who fought in the Ilion war, on the side of the Trojans.
In this case, the term related to a confederation of different tribes, who lived in the same geographical region, but did not necessarily have one cultural identity. The ethnonym Illyrian comes from the Greeks, and later Romans, but there is no proof that there was a tribe with such name. (Except Pliny the Elder’s “properly named Illyrians” (Illyrii proprii/proprie dicti) – in Epirus, near the city of Ilion.
We have a substantial archaeological record to confirm that from Epirus to Pannonia, and from the Dalmatian coast to river Morava, there were numerous tribes of different origins. Somewhere around the 2nd millennium BC, a vast wave of eastern immigrants had mixed with the autochthon population. They brought with them horses and iron and changed forever the ancient cultures of Europe and the Meditteranean. (Illyrians were equally skillful on the sea)
However, sometime later, a new force took over. They were Achaeans (or Danaans), ancestors of the modern Greeks. The fall of Troy marks the beginning of their domination of this ancient world.