From Labiatan to Leviathan – Illyrian history revisited

Illyrians were a group of Indo-European tribes inhabiting the western Balkans since time immemorial. They first appear in the historical records of the 4th century BC, but there is no consensus on how long before that they were present in the Balkans. Some scholars consider Illyrians as an autochthonous population, the other as the Bronze age immigrants. It is also possible that the ancient Greeks had named them after the city of Troy (Ilion), which fell in the second millennium BC.

Greeks described Illyrians as tall and strong warriors and dreadful pirates. This reputation of the sea-raiders and pirates had existed since the first records. Illyrians invented fast ships – liburna and lembus and used them to raid cities and islands across the Adriatic and Mediterranean for centuries. In the end, it was the Romans who managed to subdue them.

Labiatae – the last of the Illyrians

At the time of the Roman conquest, one of the most important Illyrian tribes were the Labeatans. They occupied the territory around the lake Skadar, today northern Albania, and southern Montenegro. Ancient writers call this lake Labeatis.


Labeatans minted their coins. The coin of their capital city, Skodra (Skodrinon) depicts a typical lembus warship. It had no sails and it could take up to 50 men. Its shape resembles a sea serpent, while an actual sea serpent lies underneath it.

The demise of the Labateans was carefully recorded by the Roman historians. We know the names of the important figures of the last ruling dynasties, and we have records of the numerous battles. But their origins remain a mystery. Without a clear historical record, we can only guess who the Labeatans were. But decoding their name would surely be a good start.

Labiatae – people of the Labeatis lake

There is an obvious connection between the hydronym Labeatis and the Labiatae tribe. The question is only which came first. Many ancient tribes were named after some geographical feature, be it a river, mountain, or forest. But even the opposite can be true.

In any case, it seems that the “lab” was a common Illyrian particle, found in many place names. Wikipedia claims that it is a metathesis from “Alb” simply meaning “white”. They further claim that this could be the origin of the name of the Albanians.

But there is a small problem with that theory. Modern Albanian were probably named after another Illyrian tribe – Albanoi. (Although this could be a more recent version of the name Labeatae). The Albanoi territory was a bit outside of the traditional Labeatean domain but in its proximity. Their name could also from their capital, Albanopolis -“white city”. White city is a common Slavic toponym. It means the same as Serbian Belgrade, and it was also the ancient name of both Kyiv and Moscow, with many other examples across the Slavic world.

However, the metathesis “lab” – “alb” is still interesting, as we will soon see.

The story of the Lab river

Hydronyms often preserve the most ancient form of words, as changing the name of the river that flows through different cities (or even nations) is not as easy as changing the name of a city or a mountain. Numerous river names across the Indo-European area repeat, sometimes in the most unusual places. For example, scholars claim that Danube, Don, and Dnieper all share the same root. But this is just one of the many examples. The same is true for the root “Lab”.

Lab river, Kosovo, Serbia

Not far from the territory of the ancient Labeateans, there is a river Lab. It flows in the north-east of Kosovo. Kosovo was the central area of the first Serbian states, before the Ottoman invasion. As for the river’s name, Wikipedia claims the following:

Derived from a pre-Slavic form Alb that underwent linguistic metathesis within Slavic, giving the final form as Lab.

Therefore, the ancient form was ALB, but with the (supposed) Slavic arrival on the Balkans in the 6th century, it became LAB? Well, this could only be logical if we ignore the existence of the Labateans. But wait, why would LAB be a Slavic form?

Perhaps because a common Slavic word for swan is “labud” – white bird. It exists in all Slavic lands, therefore the Southern Slavs couldn’t have acquired it from some unknown indigenous population of the Balkans.

Elbe river, Central Europe

River Elbe is the major river in Central Europe. It flows through the Czech Republic and Germany, a region shared between the Slavic and Germanic nations. Scholars are still debating which of these nations came first. But what is certain is that the large part of modern Germany around the Elbe was once inhabited by the Slavic Sorbs (now a minority).

In the 2nd century AD, Ptolemy calls this river “Albis”. Wikipedia now claims:

First attested in Latin as Albis, the name “Elbe” means “river” or “river-bed” and is nothing more than the High German version of a word (*albī) found elsewhere in Germanic; cf. Old Norse river name Elfr, Swedish älv “river”, Norwegian elv “river”, Old English river name elf, and Middle Low German elve “river-bed”.

However, the authors completely ignore the fact that the Czechs, Poles, Sorbs and other Slavic nations call this river “Laba“. The map below illustrates the gradual loss of the Sorbian territories since the year 1000. Originally, the river Elbe was in the center of their territory.

Development of the language area of the Sorbs since 1000 AD,

Laba river, Russia

River Laba is an important river of Krasnodar and Adygea regions of Russia. It flows around the Sea of Azov and the Black sea. Interestingly, this is the same region of Sarmatia Asiatica, in which Ptolemy places a “Sarmatian” tribe of Serboi (Serbi). Moreover, the name of Caucasian Albania is just another inversion of the root “Lab”.


In short, we can draw the following conclusion. There are three important rivers, separated by a great distance, sharing the same root. And interestingly, these regions are always occupied by nations that declare as Serbs. In all three cases, the original root “Lab” is changed to “alb” or “elb”, and not vice versa. Modern historians would say that these rivers and nations should not be confused. But this is hardly a coincidence.


Back to Labiatae

According to mainstream history, there was only one noteworthy movement of the Southern Slavs – from the north (Elbe) to south (Lab), in the 6th century AD. However, western historians also claim that Slavs arrived in the Elbe region around the same time, somewhere from the east. (not the Caucasus). That would simply mean that Slavs wandered aimlessly across the vast territory of Euro-Asia, which is a ridiculous theory. On the other hand, Slavic medieval texts were always explicit that Slavs occupied Balkans prior to the Roman invasion.

Anyhow, what is certain is that Labateans were present in the Balkans from the 4th century BC. But if we accept the connection between the terms “Illyrians” and “Ilion” (Troy), we can push this date back for another thousand years. This would bring us directly to the times of the bronze age migrations as well as the time when the notorious pirates known as sea peoples pillaged the Mediterranean region. This is a fact – Illyrians are the only candidates from the recorded history that could truly fit this shoe. Their Modus Operandi and notorious reputation were virtually identical to those of sea peoples.

Sea peoples reached the shores of northern Africa, slightly before the time when Jews started to compile their sacred scriptures. In this light, it is interesting that the Jews called the sea serpent Leviathan. The etymology of this name is not clear, but it appears in the earliest Jewish scriptures. It could be a coincidence, but this sea serpent looks very similar to the depictions of the Labiatan coins.

On their way there, one of the first stops would be the modern-day Lebanon. For its etymology Wikipedia states:

The name of Mount Lebanon originates from the Phoenician root lbn meaning “white”, apparently from its snow-capped peaks.

Lebane is also a town in South Serbia, bordering Kosovo.

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