Of Pirins, Pyrenes and Pyrenees


This is the Pirin mountain range in Bulgaria.


It’s quite pretty.  However, more interestingly, the good posters of Wikipedia claim (with only secondary sources to show for the claim) that the mountains are named for the Slavic God Perun/Piorun (i.e., “thunder”).  This may well be or it may be that the mountains are simply mountains of thunder.  Either way such an identification is derived from Slavic and that, in turn, raises the question about others similar names.

There is, of course, another name featuring the combination of PRN.  And it too is a name of a a mountain range.  And that mountain range too sits in Europe.  We are talking, of course, about the Pyrenees.


Well, we’ve already discussed rather peculiar Slavic-like names in Spain – particularly in the country of the Iacetani, rather close to the Pyrenees.  But, really?


What do we find when we look at the etymology of the Pyrenees?


We find several etymologies:

First, according to the 1st century Roman consul, Silius Italicus (Punica 3.415–441), the Pyrenees were named after Pyrene, the daughter of Bebryx a king of a people who lived somewhere in the mountains’ vicinity.


The unfortunate maiden was “savaged” by a drunken Hercules (while he was on the way to steal Geryon’s cattle), ran away and was torn to shred by wild animals.  Hercules , upon returning, finds out what happened during his prior Mr. Hyde moment and cries out her name.  The surrounding mountains repeat the same forevermore.  silius2

The same story was laughed at by Pliny the Elder (Natural History, 3,1):

“The whole of this coast was thought by Marcus Agrippa to be of Carthaginian origin; but beyond the Guadiana and facing the Atlantic Ocean is the territory of the Bastuli and Turduli. Marcus Varro records that the whole of Spain was penetrated by invasions of Hiberi, Persians, Phoenicians, Celts and Carthaginians; for he says that it was the sport (lusus) of Father Liber, or the frenzy (λύσσα) of those who revelled with him, that gave its name to Lusitania, and that Pan was the governor of the whole of it. The stories related of Hercules, Pyrene or Saturn I regard as absolutely mythical.”

Saturn?  (And Pan?  Of Pannonia?)

Second, the name comes from pyr (πῦρ) “fire” (pyros in Greek – compare pyrkać = make a noise).  This comes from Strabo and Diodorus Siculus.  E.g., in the latter’s Historical Library (Bibliotheca Historica) (Book 5, chapter 35) we have the following passage also mentioning the Phoenicians:

“And since they contain many thick and deep forests, in ancient times, we are told, certain herdsmen left a fire and the whole area of the mountains was entirely consumed; and due to this fire, since it raged continuously day after day, the surface of the earth was also burned and the mountains, because of what had taken place, were called the Pyrenees; furthermore, the surface of the burned land ran with much silver and, since the elementary substance out of which the silver is worked was melted down, there were formed many streams of pure silver. Now the natives were ignorant of the use of the silver, and the Phoenicians,* as they pursued their commercial enterprises and learned of what had taken place, purchased the silver in exchange for other wares of little if any worth. And this was the reason why the Phoenicians, as they transported this silver to Greece and Asia and to all other peoples, acquired great wealth. So far indeed did the merchants go in their greed that, in case their boats were fully laden and there still remained a great amount of silver, they would hammer the lead off the anchors and have the silver perform the service of the lead. And the result was that the Phoenicians, as in the course of many years they prospered greatly, thanks to commerce of this kind, sent forth many colonies, some to Sicily and its neighbouring islands, and others to Libya, Sardinia, and Iberia.”  

* Note that the Carthaginians had Phoenician origins so the two accounts are not necessarily in conflict.

Other theories we do not have cites for:

Third, the name does come from pyr “fire” but by way of a different path.  Apparently, Pyrene gave birth to a snake (see above) which was burned with the fire spreading to the surrounding mountains.  There were Greek merchants who lived in Ampurdan nearby and seeing the inferno named the mountains Pyrenees – mountains of fire.

Fourth, there is the theory that the name is Basque or Iberian – of the form llene es – and means “the mountains of the moon” (how that connects to Pyr is unclear).

Fifth, the name is Basque but from Biri meaning “elevation” or Bierri enact meaning “two countries”.

Sixth, the Celtic theories: the name comes from pyr, a fir tree (Welsh!) or Byrin or Bryn (mountain – similar to above Basque).

Seventh, the word is Phoenician from pura meaning “wood” (same/similar to Hebrew).

What Else?

Some other thoughts:

  • First of all it is hardly difficult to connect Pyrene with mountains, fire and thunder or a God of Thunder.  Obviously, thunder (or really lightning) striking forested mountains can cause the trees to go on fire.  It may also be observed that the name Pier-run could also thus refer to “fire-signs/writing”.
  • Bebryx’ name may be related to the Bebrices but ones located in the East.   Thus, we know of a tribe of Thracians bearing the same name who established themselves in Bithynia.  These Bebrices were defeated by Hercules (or maybe by the Dioscuri).  Moreover, the Bithinians came to Asia Minor from the area around the river Struma close to today’s Pirin mountains.  If Hercules were to stand for the Greeks this legend may refer to the defeat by the Greeks of the Thracians.  In that context, it is conceivable that the victors (or perhaps only combatants) would humiliate their opponents by taking their deity and making it into a young woman who gets violated by the ueber-Greek Hercules (Heracles).  In time, the motivation for that story may have been forgotten but the legend remained.  One may wonder whether the legend from the East was then transferred to the Western mountains.  If so, the name Pirin would have been ancient and either non-Slavic or Slavs would have been in Thrace earlier than most think (incidentally, the dating of Moses Khorenatsi has also seemingly become politicized – apparently for “non-Slavic” reasons).
  • Pirene or Peirene (Πειρήνη), was also a nymph worshipped in Corinth who was the mother (with Poseidon) of Leches and Cenchrias (the two harbours of Corinth are named after those).  If those names seem familiar, you can read more speculations here.
  • There is also this interesting mention in Herodotus‘ Histories (Book 2, chapter 33):

“For the Ister [i.e., Danube] flows from the land of the Celts and the city of Pyrene through the very middle of Europe; now the Celts live beyond the Pillars of Heracles, being neighbors of the Cynesii, who are the westernmost of all the peoples inhabiting Europe. The Ister, then, flows clean across Europe and ends its course in the Euxine sea, at Istria, which is inhabited by Milesian colonists.”

  • About Diodorus Siculus‘ claim that the Celts are different from Gauls see here.
  • As regards other Perunna names (in France/Belgium) see here.

Whether Piorun/Perun/Pierun/Perkunas has something to do with “purging,” “purgatories” or the Germanic Fjörgynn or Indian Parjanya is debatable.

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April 2, 2016

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