On the Illyrian Veneti of Herodotus’ Book V

Herodotus (Ἡρόδοτος Hēródotos) was a Greek historian born in Halicarnasus, Caria (today: Bodrum, Turkey) circa 484 – who lived till circa 425 BC.

His “Histories” contain a description of the Scythians, the Sauromatae, Budini, Thyssagetae, Issedones and others, some of whom, it’s been suggested, may have had something to do with the Slavs.  But the Histories also contain an interesting reference to the Veneti (or Eneti) – the Adriatic Veneti, that is, but perhaps also the Illyrian Veneti, i.e., Veneti who were on the Adriatic Sea but not near Venice or Tergeste but rather south?  This is, of course, unclear.  About the Adriatic Veneti we wrote already here.

It’s only one reference so we also give you some more text around it to provide context.

herodotus

The History of Herodotus
By Herodotus 
Written 440 B.C.
translated by George Rawlinson

Book 5 (Terpsichore)

“The Thracians are the most powerful people in the world, except, of course, the Indians; and if they had one head, or were agreed among themselves, it is my belief that their match could not be found anywhere [much the same said of Slavs later], and that they would very far surpass all other nations.  But such union is impossible for them, and there are no means of ever bringing it about. Herein therefore consists their weakness. The Thracians bear many names in the different regions of their country, but all of them have like usages in every respect, excepting only the Getae, the Trausi, and those who dwell above the people of Creston.”

“Now the manners and customs of the Getae, who believe in their immortality, I have already spoken of. The Trausi in all else resemble the other Thracians, but have customs at births and deaths which I will now describe. When a child is born all its kindred sit round about it in a circle and weep for the woes it will have to undergo now that it is come into the world, making mention of every ill that falls to the lot of humankind; when, on the other hand, a man has died, they bury him with laughter and rejoicings, and say that now he is free from a host of sufferings, and enjoys the completest happiness.”

“The Thracians who live above the Crestonaeans observe the following customs. Each man among them has several wives; and no sooner does a man die than a sharp contest ensues among the wives upon the question which of them all the husband loved most tenderly; the friends of each eagerly plead on her behalf, and she to whom the honour is adjudged, after receiving the praises both of men and women, is slain over the grave by the hand of her next of kin, and then buried with her husband. [this too compare with the reports of the Slavs] The others are sorely grieved, for nothing is considered such a disgrace.”

“The Thracians who do not belong to these tribes have the customs which follow. They sell their children to traders. On their maidens they keep no watch, but leave them altogether free, while on the conduct of their wives they keep a most strict watch. Brides are purchased of their parents for large sums of money. Tattooing among them marks noble birth, and the want of it low birth. To be idle is accounted the most honourable thing, and to be a tiller of the ground the most dishonourable. To live by war and plunder is of all things the most glorious. These are the most remarkable of their customs.”

“The gods which they worship are but three, Mars, Bacchus, and Dian.  Their kings, however, unlike the rest of the citizens, worship Mercury more than any other god, always swearing by his name, and declaring that they are themselves sprung from him.”

“Their wealthy ones are buried in the following fashion. The body is laid out for three days; and during this time they kill victims of all kinds, and feast upon them, after first bewailing the departed. Then they either burn the body or else bury it in the ground. Lastly, they raise a mound over the grave, and hold games of all sorts, wherein the single combat is awarded the highest prize. Such is the mode of burial among the Thracians.”

“As regards the region lying north of this country no one can say with any certainty what men inhabit it. It appears that you no sooner cross the Ister than you enter on an interminable wilderness. The only people of whom I can hear as dwelling beyond the Ister are the race named Sigynnae, who wear, they say, a dress like the Medes, and have horses which are covered entirely with a coat of shaggy hair, five fingers in length.  They are a small breed, flat-nosed, and not strong enough to bear men on their backs; but when yoked to chariots, they are among the swiftest known, which is the reason why the people of that country use chariots. Their borders reach down almost to the Eneti upon the Adriatic Sea, and they call themselves colonists of the Medes; but how they can be colonists of the Medes I for my part cannot imagine. Still nothing is impossible in the long lapse of ages. Sigynnae is the name which the Ligurians who dwell above Massilia give to traders, while among the Cyprians the word means spears.”

“According to the account which the Thracians give, the country beyond the Ister is possessed by bees, on account of which it is impossible to penetrate farther. But in this they seem to me to say what has no likelihood; for it is certain that those creatures are very impatient of cold. I rather believe that it is on account of the cold that the regions which lie under the Bear are without inhabitants. Such then are the accounts given of this country, the sea-coast whereof Megabazus was now employed in subjecting to the Persians.”

Here is the same passage V, 9 from Godley’s translation:

“As for the region which lies north of this country, none can tell with certainty what men dwell there, but what lies beyond the Ister is a desolate and infinitely large tract of land. I can learn of no men dwelling beyond the Ister save certain that are called Sigynnae and wear Median dress.  Their horses are said to be covered all over with shaggy hair1 five fingers’ breadth long, and to be small, blunt-nosed, and unable to bear men on their backs, but very swift when yoked to chariots. It is for this reason that driving chariots is the usage of the country. These men’s borders, it is said, reach almost as far as the Eneti on the Adriatic Sea.  They call themselves colonists from Media. How this has come about I myself cannot understand, but all is possible in the long passage of time. However that may be, we know that the Ligyes who dwell inland of Massalia use the word “sigynnae” for hucksters, and the Cyprians use it for spears.”

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July 16, 2015

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