This is what Jordanes says about the travel of the Goths from Gothiscandza:

“In search of suitable homes and pleasant places they came to the land of Scythia, called Oium in that tongue. Here they were delighted with the great richness of the country, and it is said that when half the army had been brought over, the bridge whereby they had crossed the river fell in utter ruin, nor could anyone thereafter pass to or fro. For the place is said to be surrounded by quaking bogs and an encircling abyss, so that by this double obstacle nature has made it inaccessible. And even to-day one may hear in that neighborhood the lowing of cattle and may find traces of men, if we are to believe the stories of travellers, although we must grant that they hear these things from afar.  This part of the Goths, which is said to have crossed the river and entered with Filimer into the country of Oium, came into possession of the desired land, and there they soon came upon the race of the Spali, joined battle with them and won the victory. Thence the victors hastened to the farthest part of Scythia, which is near the sea of Pontus; for so the story is generally told in their early songs, in almost historic fashion. Ablabius also, a famous chronicler of the Gothic race, confirms this in his most trustworthy account.”

It would seem then that the “race of the Spali” would be relevant in determining the place of entry of the Goths into “Scythia.”

Who were the Spali?

Based on some OCS texts, Max Vasmer claimed (Russisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, vol. 3) that the word Ispolini meant “giants” in… Slavic.  No evidence for this exists other than from Russia and some Bulgaria legends.  Undeterred, he then proceeded to link these Ispolini with the Spali of Jordanes.

Herwig Wolfram felt compelled to weigh in a typically vapid way observing that “[s]uch an unfriendly name is typically used to label foreigners, and thus the Spali were probably not Slavs.”  

The (German, of course) Ural-Altaische Jahrbücher (Otto Harrassowitz Verlag) went one better and had one of its authors claim that the name is Iranian and the Slavic negative association of that name must have come from some time when the Iranians ruled the Slavs.  (Presumably somewhere far in the East).

This approach would have us believe that:

  • Ispolini is a Slavic name
  • Ispolini means “giants”
  • Spali are Ispolini
  • Spali/Ispolini are not Slavs because being called a “giant” suggests an “otherness” or “unfriendliness”

All of this stands on the thinnest of legs.

Why would Ispolini or Spali be a Slavic word?  Because the name supposedly means “sleeping”.  It is true that in Slavic spali means “they slept” (third person plural past tense).  But it could also mean a bunch of other things:

  • s-pali as in z-pali meaning “[ones] from the fields” (S-Labi [ones] from the Elbe or S-parti “[ones] from Parthia) – in effect “Polans” (!)
  • spali as in “[he] will burn” – perhaps worshippers of fire (!)

Or you may choose to see in Spali a form of the Italian spalare (to shovel)…

Or perhaps from the German spalten as in “to divide”…

And what of the town of Spalathra (next to Castana – see Pliny Book 4, chapter 9) in the Greek province of Magnesia (current capital Volos – by reason of the efforts of the Bulgar Akamir apparently).  Or of Aspalatus?  Or the town of Hispalis (Seville)?

Ok but what of the “giant” connection?  That connection depends on the meaning.  If we go with the Slavic “sleeping” meaning, then the legend of the “sleeping giants” comes up.  However, in most versions of that legend the “sleeping giants” are simply anthropomorphized mountains.

Then there is the question of connecting Ispolini with Spali.  Spali may mean “they slept” but Ispolini is not Spali.  One might just as well argue that Ispolini meant any of the other meanings of spali or, independently, that the term refers to “island dwellers” (Yspa = Polish island (Ispania?)).

Now, if all of the above is accepted, the notion that these Slavic-named “giants” could not be Slavs themselves is rather silly.  What better way to inspire fear among your neighbors than to call yourselves “the giants”!?

So basically, we have no idea (and neither does anyone else) what this word means and where it comes from…

Ok, but where were these Spali?

Well, if you thought that the Goths actually were in Poland you might look to the Polish town of Spała.  In fact, this town’s name is not tied to any giants – sleeping or otherwise – but rather to the “burning” (see above) of lime which took place in the area.  The name also appears for the first time only at the turn of the 16th century.  (Interestingly, there was a town nearby called Winduga – Winduga – apparently – was a typical name of so-called river villages of river rafters (oryl or flis from the German Flößerei)).

Pliny in his Natural History makes, perhaps, an earlier reference to the Spali when he says (in Book 6, Chapter 7 – the same that also mentions the Serbi):

“…Some write, that the River Opharius runs through the Canteci and the Sapaei: and that the River Tanais traversed through the Phatarei, Herticei, Spondolici, Synthietae, Amassi, Issi, Catazeti, Tagori, Catoni, Neripi, Agandei, Mandreim Saturchei, and Spalei.”

aliqui flumen Ocharium labi per Canticos et Sapaeos, Tanain vero transisse Satharcheos Herticheos, Spondolicos, Synhietas, Anasos, Issos, Cataeetas, Tagoras, Caronos, Neripos, Agandaeos, Meandaraeos, Satharcheos Spalaeos.

(As noted above, Pliny also speaks of Spalathra in Greece).

Of course, the Tanais is the Don:

So the question arises, how could the first tribe in all of Scythia that the Goths encountered since leaving Gothiscandza be the tribe of the Spali on the Don?  And how could they then “hasten” to the “farthest part of Scythia, which is near the sea of Pontus” (Black Sea) when the Don is basically right there in the farthest part of Scythia?

If all of this were true, then the question would have to be asked whether Gothiscandza was really somewhere in the remote North or perhaps East.  This could help explain the reason why “Gothic” – although the oldest Germanic language known – is not the predecessor of any of the existing Germanic languages.  Perhaps someone should test for Gothic-Tocharian connections.

It would also help explain why the Goths seem to have started their conquests with Finnic peoples and the Spali before moving to attack the Veneti.

On this topic more generally see our earlier post:

What Language Did the Goths Speak?

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April 14, 2017

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