We have been reluctant to take a definitive position on the question of the relatedness of the Slavs to the (Baltic) Venethi/Veneti/Venedi. The reason for this is simple. The connection is one which it is impossible to definitively establish with the information we have at thus far. Absent new data or new methodologies, it is unlikely that anyone will ever know the truth of he matter “for sure”. But, that said, we can confess that we are leaning towards admitting a connection. There are several reasons for this and we enumerate them here:
1) Jordanes – he makes the connection clear and, given his background as an Ostrogoth (or maybe an Alan) living close to the time when the Slavs would have separated themselves from the larger Venetic group, he is of all those who have offered an opinion on the topic, the one best qualified to do so; that his conqueror of the Antes is named Vinitharius also seems to bolster the argument (while it has been argued that this was really Vithimiris, the name Vinitharius is separately attested in the letters of Cassiodorus which, unlike his Gothic History, did survive);
2) Peutinger Map – the map which was put together prior to Jordanes’ Getica (two or three centuries earlier) clearly indicates a group of people named the Venethi at the mouths of the Danube where Slavs are “later” found. At the very least this indicates yet another place (in addition to the Vistula basin) where we first see the Venethi and then see the Slavs. Were that a coincidence, it would be a strange one indeed. The same map, of course, also shows the Sarmatian Venethi up in the North;
3) Wends – numerous Western European authors, none of whom are known to have relied on Jordanes, refer to the Westernmost Slavs as Wends. Another coinicedence? While some say that this is merely a case of a name transferred, it is an odd transfer if true. The Germanic transferors namely are not “old” east Germanic tribes but relative newcomers to the area, the Franks, the Saxons and the Bavarians. But these peoples would, if the common telling of the story is correct, have never shared a boundary with the Wends. They would instead have bordered the east Germanic Goths, Vandals and others. Thus, one may ask whether they should have instead referred to the Slavic “newcomers” as Goths and Vandals instead? (they did later refer to them as Vandals at least but this sems to hav be inspired by Slavic historiography rather than anything coming originally out of their own German tradition. Moreover, the Bavarians and Longobards referred to the Carinthian Slavs as the Windische. But this too is strange as the Venethi, in the usual telling of the story, were found on the Baltic not in the Alps so whose name was being transferred to them and why?;
4) Location, location, location – to put it simply, this is where the Venethi were and this too is where the Slavs now are. While this may seem simplistic, the burden of proof is on those arguing that the Venethi were not Slavs to show that otherwise is the case. While certain Germanic tribes may have stayed in and passed through, e.g., Poland, the fact of an army passing through a territory does not equal the automatic complete displacement of the population. Thus, both Napoleon and Hitler conquered large swaths of Russia but, in the end did not replace the indigenous population. But, you might say, they lost. Ok, but what of the Golden Horde or the Lithuanians? They actually did conquer and hold Russia. Were the Russians gone then from Kiev? Of course, not. The Gothic and other armies were likely just that – marauding bands of warriors like the Vikings much later on (incidentally, no one has located their landing site – Gothiscandza – though logic would suggest that rather than crossing the wide Baltic Sea to land at the Vistula, they would have gone via island hopping over the Danish Jutland peninsula; th ‘three mouths’ of the Vistula suggests rather the Oder than the Vistula). They may have even taken Slavic (and other) women as wives but in all likelihood they were mostly male marauders at least at the bginning of their journey. This view is also consistent with today’s approach to the Volkerwanderung which stresses a rather limited role for the “Volk” in such a Wanderung;
5) Where are the Venethi? – anyone arguing for the nonautochtonous nature of the Slavs must also account for what happened to the Venethi, a nation described as “populous” by Jordanes and one which Ptolemy already divided into greater and lesser races suggesting, again, their copiousness;
6) Are they Slavs or rabbits? – many a commentator has over the years pointed out the demographic difficulty of Slavs taking over wide swaths of Europe in such a short timeframe. This is, of course, possible (that is, this is not a mathematical and biological impossibility) but it is unlikely; Moreover, it is worth pointing out that there is very little to show for the most famous of the Slavs, those of Procopius – it cannot be even shown that these Slavs are the ones that settled the former Yugoslavia without even looking at the Czech lands, Poland and Pomerania/Polabia; in fact, as we have discussed already earlier, it is likely that all of the former Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia as well as Poland and eastern Germany were settled by the Slavs from the North); the most that can be said of the southern Slavs is that they assimilated the Bulgars but otherwise dissolved themselves in the Greek speaking population of Greece; as pointed out before, if this is so then the group of Slavs responsible for the settlement of all the other Slavic lands would have had to come from an even smaller subgroup of the whole;
7) Furtive conquerors? – outside of the Balkans we do not have any contemporary records of Slav migrations. This lack of documentation of Slav arrival is in obvious contrast to the arrival of just about any other group in Central and Eastern Europe including the Germanic tribes of all stripes, the Huns, the Alans, the Avars, the Hungarians, the Mongols, the Lithuanians and the Turks. In fact, the Byzantines never mention the Slavs as arriving on the borders – they seem unsurprised that the Slavs are where they are complaining only about Slavic raids into Byzantine territory. This is in stark contrast with their description of the arrival of the Avars at about the same time. In fact, in several places, Byzantine authors (for example, Theophylact Simocatta) call Slavs Getae – a nation well known to the eastern Romans. Of course, it’s possible that poor recordkeeping in the medieval, post Roman space and the relative remoteness of the Slavic lands are to blame but be that as it may this seems to be another one of those not entirely convincing but highly suggestive pieces of information;
8) Genetics – recent genetic studies also seem to support an autochtonic concept of the Slavs (also of Indo Europeans generally but that is a separate discussion). Although we have generally shied away from discussing genetics here as its application in historiography is in its infancy and virtually all the studies conducted involve rather small sample sizes, we again feel that what’s there now should be mentioned, if only tentatively (most of these studies look solely at the male-only or female-only line, leaving all the other stuff “in between”);
9) Heruli – in about 509-512, the Heruli remigrated from the Balkans back to Scandinavia (to Thule). As per Procopius (Wars), they went first through the lands of the Slavs (before hitting some empty territories – we think in today’s eastern Germany since they then arrive among the Rugii – although it is possible that they passed through portions of Poland too, that seems a rather out of the way way to go – not to mention more mountainous). This suggests that already then – only 60 years or so after the fall of Attila – the Slavs occupied lands north of the Danube; if they spread after the outmigration of the Germans, the Slavs did so very fast);
10) River Names – contrary to what had beeen asserted by some authors, it appears that the various river names in, e.g., Poland have a stronger Slavic connection than a Germanic one; take, Vistula; the Roman authors call it, in places, Vistla or Viscla – the Slavs Viswa (Wisla) but the Germans Weichsel; of course, this does not suggest tha the name is Slavic but it does suggest that the Slavs got the name right but the Germans did not; even if the Slavs would have gotten the name from the remaining Venethi, this raises the question how is it possible that th Slavs being newcomers were able to get that but the Germanics who lived next to the Venethi for centuries never appropriated the Venetic name; this is in addition to the curious fact the Roman spelling with the -st, -sc seems reminiscent of the same sound “w” found in Viswa (Wisla) and also in Greek sources in “Sclavenoi”; incidentally, Wisla has been derived from a Slavic word for bog (but also, e.g., ‘wiosla’ – paddles);
11) Other Place Names – We have a rather extensive etymology of many place names in Germany that clearly date back to the Wendish period. The Germans (or Franks and Saxons really) came into these areas and assimilated the local population. No one questions that. And yet, all of that assimilation notwithstanding, we can easily show where the Obotrite, Veleti and Lutizi tribes lived just by opening up a modern map. One might think, therefore, that a similar process would have taken place in Poland and the Czech/Slovak lands – indeed in Russia. But that is not the case – we are not aware of any place names that have a Germanic etymology and that are dated to the era preceding the Frankish expansion. None.
If the Germanic tribes (as opposed to bands of roving males and their slavegirls) lived here and left, they left in their entirety and in a major hurry. But then how did the Slavs inherit the various hydronyms that supposedly do not have a Slavic etymology? Were the Venthi the ones hiding in the forests as the Germanics roved the countryside? Then they suddenly came back only to run into Slavs? Someone has to be hiding somewhere for this story to be true it seems.
12) Slavs – the name Slav deserves a separate blog post but we will say only this here – as of now we are not aware of any other ancient tribe name that would contain the VEN of the VeNEthi other than Zlovene (i.e., Slavs) with the Antes possibly picking up the NT of the VeNeThi.
Were the Slavs the Zlovenei? I.e., the ones that got “caught”?
But what about the fact that:
i) Water – Slavs did not possess an extensive maritime vocabulary as would be found with seafaring peoples? This argument is made by Antoine Meillet (others seem to parrot him with or without attribution but with no analysis in any event). He bases his entire argument on three words (grebac, ostrov and something else)… Strangely, for Meillet already Pliny describes an island called “by the natives” Austrovia and it is not a river island it seems. But undoubtedly it is an island of the East or where Eostre was worshipped or something like that… He also does not show which of the various peoples who were known to be seashore dwellers did possess a rich maritime vocabulary; that is there is no base case; he appears dismissive and unconvincing in his rejection of various proposed Slavic water-related words;
As far as the amber/Bernstein argument is concerned (not something he discusses), all that proves – if even that – that a certain portion of the amber trade came to be dominated by Germanic speakers and that others may have adopted the successful German word (e.g., the Polabian Slavs had fallen so far as to use the Germanic word for ‘father’ yet no one (we think) would seriously suggest that the Polabians did not know the concept of fatherhood prior to meeting Germans); we will return to this subject in the future;
Incidentally, in the Balkans, the Slavs were apparently seen as excellent mariners even if their ships were not large…
ii) Trees – Slavs did not know certain trees that grew in Germania? – objections to this claim were previously addressed in our prior posts (click here) and we will not revisit those at the present juncture;
iii) Tongues – Venetic is a centum language whereas Slavic languages are of the satem variety?; this is misleading. No one knows what language was spoken by the Sarmatian Veneti (technically, we do not even know what language the Slavs spoke before the first written Slavic records began appearing at the end of the first millenium); the reference here is solely to the Adriatic Venetic which has had some words reconstructed on a limited set of inscriptions, i.e., no one even knows whether it was a centum language (although such a theory has been proposed by some scholars);
iv) Romans did not know of Slavs? – perhaps they did not; but if the Venethi were Slavs then this statement is misleading too – the Romans may not have known the term Slav or known Slavs by that name but that certainly does not prove that they did not know of people who – only later after the fall of the Empire – became known to the world as Slavs – which itself may have been merely a result of one of the Venethic tribes being the one stumbling into the Byzantines (as previously observed, in Western Europe, the alternative ‘Wends’ was used for a few hundred years more;
v) Those Slav Others – the word Venden/Venethen is Germanic for the generic “others”? – actually, that word is Walch or Wallach or Welch and that word certainly was used to describe various peoples at the edges of German influence (e.g., Wallachs in Moldavia or the Welch in Britain);
On the other hand, the etymology of Venethi is more than uncertain with Germanic, Celtic and Slavic being proposed – perhaps the most obvious is a connection with the Baltic languages, e.g., in Old Prussian (wundan) and Lithuanian (vanduo) refers to water such that the Venethi would mean simply those who live by the water; see the following (wasser = wundan) from the Elbing Dictionary:
So maybe the Venethi were Balts? (Note that the Lithuanians, for example, refer to Belorussians not as Wends but as gudai, suggesting at the very least that some Goths have passed through Belorussia at some point).
However, “wedzic/vendzic” means to get rid of water (i.e., to smoke, e.g., fish) in Slavic – see also “wedka/vendka”, i.e., fishing rod. We leave that for you to noodle on;
We note also that all the Venethi out there, i.e., the Adriatic Venethi, the Gallic Venethi, the Welsh (?) Venethi, the Paphlagonian Venethi, the Illyric/Macedonian Venethi and the Baltic Venethi seemed to have dwelt on one shore or another. One might say that in Europe that is easy to do but surely there were plenty of tribes located inland as well. Was this perhaps a designation, in some ancient tongue, of all such tribes that were coast dwellers?
Incidentally, it has been claimed that it was Safarik who first suggested the Venethi were Slavs. This is not true – the first known connection comes from Martin Kromer, the Bishop of Warmia/Ermland who argued that the Slavs were not Vandals (the prevalent theory till then) but rather that they were Sarmatians and brethren to the Veneti. He also came up with the idea that various tribes may well have passed over Venetic/Slavic lands while the locals just kept their heads down and went about their business – again, this is not therefore a 20th century invention by any means.
Finally, and this is important – no one is claiming that the Venethi were Slavs – quite the opposite – the argument is rather (consistent with Jordanes) that the Slavs were one of the tribes of the Venethi. A tribe that was known to the Byzantines who were the cultural super power of the day and who then extended the Slav name to other Venethic tribes further away – see, for example, how the name Alemanni or Schwaben or Saxons became – for different people in different places – a name for all the Germans. One might say, however, that the name Slav was also a name given by the Slavs to themselves in various geographies – this is fair but one also has to admit that all of those geographies were ascribed by chroniclers like Jordanes to the Slavs proper – what about central and northern Poland or north east Germany? See for example the recent discussion of the Sukow-Dziedzice culture and its supposed differences with other “Slavic” cultures.
PS Some people have brought our attention to sources regarding the Enetoi that are older than the ones we have, thus far, discussed. We are aware of those and will cover them at some point in the future – do not worry!
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