Myths and legends of the origins of tribes and nations are frustrating for historians. They may contain an element of truth, passed down orally over centuries, though garbled
in the process, and disguised in fanciful embellishment. But how can a shred of truth be teased out of the web of fiction? Some seemingly implausible story may actually be true. We
scoff at the inclusion of the names of gods in pedigrees. Yet could it be explained by ancestor-worship? Stories of origins in far distant lands are passed over as a mix-up of
place-names. Yet population genetics is now showing the great distances some people moved in prehistory.
On the other hand, the seemingly plausible may have been invented for the very reason that it seemed plausible. Origin stories often derive a people from an eponymous
ancestor. For example Saxo Grammaticus thought that the Danes were descended from two brothers called Dan and Angul. From Dan sprang the Danish kings, while Angul was the ancestor
of the Anglian race of Denmark and later England. But he conscientiously notes that Dudo, the historian of Normandy, considered that the Danes were sprung and named from the Danai.1The Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus, book one (completed c.1208). Both were surmising that peoples were named after ancestors,
for that was a process that they understood. Clans might well be named for their founding father. Places were sometimes named after the person who settled there. So it was tempting
to imagine that from every place-name, country-name or tribal name an ancestor could be conjured up. Then storytellers wove legends about him. A good example is the story of
Romulus, supposed founder of Rome.
One of the earliest written stories which influenced the way that Europeans thought about their ancestry is the deluge myth. So many cultures have preserved a flood myth that
some authors toyed with the idea that it must be based on an actual apocalyptic event, a real flood that covered the whole world, but no such event has occurred during the time of
mankind. However some of these myths appear connected in the sense that one mythology has influenced another.
The Jews probably picked up the flood story during their captivity in Babylon. How the deluge passed into Greek myth is less obvious, but the story of Deucalion's Flood has
clear similarities. The survivor this time was King Deucalion. His eldest son Hellen was thought to be the father of all the Greeks (the Hellenes).5R.
Graves, The Greek Myths, 2nd edn. (1960), vol. 1, no. 38.
Evidence of flooding at Mesopotamian cities such as Urukc. 2900 BC may not capture the
imagination to the same degree, but it has the merit of being in the right place at the right time.8H. Brückner, Uruk - A geographic and palaeo-ecologic
perspective on a famous ancient city in Mesopotamia, Geo-öko, vol. 24 (2003), pp. 229–248. Floods would be a perennial danger to such riverine
communities. We can imagine one family managing to get aboard a craft with their breeding livestock and seeds, and so surviving a particularly shattering inundation. Since they
would know little of the world beyond the land of the two rivers, it might indeed seem to them a world-changing event. We can imagine that the tale would be repeated over and over
again in the following years. By the time it was written intoGenesis, the deluge had been adapted to a different religion and acquired characters drawn from a
different tribal genealogy.
Genesis narrates a curious story of Noah's sons Shem, Ham and Japheth/Yefeth. When Ham, the father of Canaan, viewed Noah naked in his tent, Noah laid a curse
upon Canaan, who was to be a slave to Shem and Japheth. This curse appears to be a rationalisation of the Israelite acquisition of the land of Canaan. The descendants of the three
sons are often interpreted as the three supposed races of mankind: the Semites (Asian), the cursed Hamites (African) and the Japhethites (European). Yet Genesis 10
gives no support to this idea. The nations known to the Hebrews covered a small portion of the world we know today and almost all of them would be Caucasoid under modern racial
classification (though any concept of race is now disputed). Sub-Saharan Africa was barely known to them, while East Asia and the Americas were completely unknown. The Biblical
offspring of Ham covered an impressive swathe of lands from Mesopotamia through Palestine to North East Africa. The Biblical Shem is presented as the forefather of the Assyrians,
Elamites and Hebrews. Japheth's brood are supposed to be the more distant Indo-Europeans, who lived in a semi-circle around the Fertile Crescent: to the east were the Medes, to the
north on the steppe ranged the Scythians and Cimmerians, while the Hellenes lay to the north-west in Greece, Ionia and Cyprus.9Thomas L. Brodie, Genesis
as Dialogue (2001), p. 194; E. M. Yamauchi, Foes from the Northern Frontier (1982), p. 63; A. P. Ross, The Table of Nations in Genesis 10 – Its content,Bibliotheca
Sacra vol. 138 (1981), pp. 22-34.Lakes of ink have been wasted in efforts to expand this array of nations to all the inhabitants of the world. As
Christianity spread across the Roman Empire, taking the origin stories of the Hebrews with it, nations wanted to place themselves within the Biblical world.
Another body of myth which had a huge influence on the thinking of Europeans was recorded by the ancient Greeks. The epic poems the Iliad and theOdyssey,
traditionally ascribed to Homer, probably grew out of centuries of oral story-telling. These are tales of heroic daring by characters who live on in European memory, like Achilles
with his vulnerable heel, and faithful Ajax. These human characters were set in a mythical world in which gods and goddesses constantly interacted with man. Yet the geographical
background is recognisably Greece and Anatolia. The stories spread first with the growth of Greek influence in the Hellenistic period, and then via the Roman Empire, which absorbed
that of the Greeks. Greek literature was prized by the Romans.
Yet there is that tantalising hope of some scrap to bridge the yawning gap in our knowledge. Celtic scholar Thomas Francis O'Rahilly (1883–1953) postulated four waves of
invaders into Ireland, based partly on his interpretation of the Lebor Gabála Érenn.13T. F. O'Rahilly, Early Irish History and
Mythology (1946). The fourth and final invasion, he thought, brought the Gaelic-speakers. Thus far he follows the Lebor Gabála Érenn. But
while O'Rahilly thought the Gaels came from southwest Gaul (now France), the 11th-century story tells of the final conquest of Ireland from Iberia by the Milesians, or sons of Míl
Espáine. The Milesians are painted as the descendants of a Scythian prince called Fénius Farsaid, whose grandson created the Irish language. His descendants wandered the world
for 440 years before settling in the Iberian peninsula, the story goes. One of his descendants supposedly saw Ireland from the top of Breogan’s Tower, in Brigantia, in far-off
Spain and set off towards it with thrice thirty warriors.
So whatever the Milesian myth is telling us, it is not the true story of the birth of a nation. The tale attempts to fit the Gaels into a biblical setting. Iafeth [Japheth]
is pictured as the patriarch of the nations of Asia Minor, Armenia, Media, the People of Scythia; and of him are the inhabitants of all Europe. This was standard thinking
for Christian writers of the time, following the Jewish historian Josephus (37-c.100 AD) and Isidore of Seville (c.560-635). Increasingly complex genealogies from Noah were
created.16Susan Reynolds, Medieval origines gentium and the community of the realm, History, vol. 68 (1983), pp. 375-90. It
also borrows from the early Christian writer Orosius. It was he who claimed that from the southern promontory of Ireland one could see far-off Brigantia, a city of Gallaecia
(North-West Spain),17Paul Orosius : A History Against the Pagans, book 1, section 2, para 80. which the Irish of the area
well knew to be nonsense.
Míl Espáine himself is simply an Irish version of the Latin miles Hispaniae (soldier of Spain). The earliest surviving version of the tale appears in the 8th-century
Historia Brittonum. It simply claims that three sons of a Spanish soldier arrived in Ireland with thirty ships. A mass of fake genealogy was grafted onto the scheme.
In the Lebor Gabála Érenn, his sons Éber and Erimón divide the kingship of Ireland between them. Éber, presented as the founding father of the Eóghanachta, takes
the southern half, while Erimón takes the north. This division supplants an earlier concept of Ireland being divided into five parts. So it was probably cooked up in the 8th
century AD to give a respectably ancient ancestry to the newly dominant dynasties of the Uí Néill and Eóghanachta, who had risen to prominence in the north and south
respectively. (See Celtic Tribes of Ireland.) In short the whole concoction is nothing more than
a learned fiction, and does not preserve any genuine Irish traditions.18D. Ó Cróinín, Ireland, 400-800, in D. Ó Cróinín (ed.), A New History
of Ireland, vol 1 (2005), pp. 185-6; Nennius, Historia Brittonum, book 3, section 13.
An interesting detail from the Lebor Gabála Érenn is that Fénius Farsaid is Scythian. A Scythian origin was also claimed in medieval times by the Picts and
Scots of Scotland. Genetics give no support to this idea. Ancient DNA has shown that the Y-chromosome
haplogroup predominant among the Scythians was R1a1a. The descendants of the Picts and Scots are notably high in subclades of R1b1b2. Linguistics gives no support to it either. The
ancient Scythians spoke an Iranian language whose only similarity to the various Celtic languages of Britain lies in their
shared Indo-European parentage. So whatever the origin of these ideas, the Celts of the British Isles do not descend from the people known in Classical times as Scythian.
The names Pict and Scot were apparently nicknames bestowed by the Romans. They are not mentioned before the Roman conquest of Britain. The Celts of Britain and Ireland had tribal names, recorded by the geographer Ptolemy (Claudius Ptolemaeus).19Ptolemy,
The Geography, book II, chapters 1 and 2. The picture is one of Celtic cultures spread across the whole of the British Isles.
Into that picture intruded the Romans, scooping the province of Britannia out of this Celtic domain. So Albion became Britain. The
name Albion was actually out of date among the Romans by Ptolemy's day, though the Irish retained Alba as a name for Britain, as did the northern British, where the Kingdom of Alba arose long afterwards. The Romans created a divide between north and south Britain, perpetuated into our own
day. So one could say that Scotland was created by the Romans. There is no reason to suppose that the people beyond Roman lines were much different originally from the people taken
into the Empire.
... We know and from the chronicles and books of the ancients we find that among other famous nations our own, the Scots, has been graced with widespread renown. They journeyed
from Greater Scythia by way of the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Pillars of Hercules, and dwelt for a long course of time in Spain among the most savage tribes, but nowhere could they be
subdued by any race, however barbarous. Thence they came, twelve hundred years after the people of Israel crossed the Red Sea, to their home in the west where they still live
today. The Britons they first drove out, the Picts they utterly destroyed, and, even though very often assailed by the Norwegians, the Danes and the English, they took possession
of that home with many victories and untold efforts...
The Venerable Bede, writing in 731 AD, preserved an origin story for them.
It is related that the Pictish race from Scythia sailed out into the ocean in a few warships and were carried by the wind beyond the furthest bounds of Britain, reaching Ireland
and landing on its northern shores. There they found the Irish race and asked permission to settle among them, but their request was refused. ...The Irish answered that the island
would not hold them both; but, said they, we can give you some good advice as to what to do. We know of another island not far from our own, in an easterly direction,
which we often see in the distance on clear days. If you will go there, you can make a settlement for yourselves; but if anyone resists you, make use of our help. And so the
Picts went to Britain and proceeded to occupy the northern parts of the island, because the Britons had seized the southern regions. As the Picts had no wives, they asked the Irish
for some; the latter consented to give them women, only on condition that, in all cases of doubt, they should elect their kings from the female royal line ... the custom has been
observed among the Picts to this day.27Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Greater Chronicle, Bede's Letter to Egbert,
ed. J. McClure and R. Collins (1994), pp. 10-11.
This story had come down to Bede through a Classical filter. It is permeated with the Roman view of Picts and Britons as separate and different, one outside and the other
inside the Roman Empire. However we have a clue that the Picts did not take that view. First in the list of kings in the 10th-centuryPictish Chronicle is Cruidne.28Chronicles of the Picts, Chronicles of the Scots, and other Early Memorials of Scottish History, ed. W.F. Skene (1867), p.172.
Cruithni is the plural of the medieval Irish word Cruithin, meaning Briton. Once again we find the assumption that a people descend from an eponymous founder. The fact that Ireland
figures largely in Bede's story suggests that it had come to Bede from an Irish source, perhaps Iona or one of its monastic satellites, and was primarily intended to justify Gaelic
influence in Scotland.
Scythia crops up again in the origin myth of the Franks. The earliest detailed source on
the Franks - the Germanic people who took over post-Roman France so effectively that it is named after them - is Gregory of Tours (d.594). He recorded in hisHistory of the
Franks that Many relate that they came from Pannonia [roughly modern Slovenia] and all dwelt at first on the bank of the Rhine, and then crossing the Rhine they passed
into Thuringia [Central Germany].31Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, trans. E. Brehaut (1916), book 2, chapter 9.
The Franks seem actually to have been a confederation of tribes. Yet one in particular looms large in their origin stories. Gregory of Tours records it obliquely. When Clovis was
baptised, he was adjured by the officiating bishop to Gently bend your neck, Sigamber; worship what you burned; burn what you worshipped.32Ibid,
book 2, chapter 31. The Sicambri lived around the lower Rhine in what is now the Netherlands in the 2nd century AD.33Claudius Ptolemy, The
Geography, book 2, chap. 10. The Chronicle of Fredegar, which includes an abridged version of the History of the Franks, added a
note that the Franks believed the Sicambri to be a tribe of Scythian or Cimmerian descent. Herodotus tells us that the fierce Scythian nomads from the eastern steppes drove the
Cimmerians out of the Pontic-Caspian steppe.34Herodotus, The Histories, trans. A. de Sélincourt with an introduction and notes by J. M.
Marincola (2002), p.244. So an origin among the Scythians or Cimmerians points to the same area north of the Black and Caspian Seas.
Where had this idea come from? The written sources these authors drew on would be those preserved by the Church, few of which had anything good to say about the pagan
Scythians. Classical writers saw the Scythians as barbarians. There is no Scythian equivalent to Homer to wreathe them in glory. If we see the aim of origin stories as
ancestor-glorification, attempts to concoct an origin from the ancient Greeks, Trojans or Romans are much more comprehensible. The Franks provide an example of that too, since the Liber
Historiae Francorum of 727 claims that the Sicambri were originally defeated Trojans fleeing to a territory close to the River Don and Sea of Azov (in Scythia), before their
By contrast an origin in Scythia seems to offer little in the way of glory. Linguists and archaeologists have long pointed to the area north of the Black and Caspian Seas as
the homeland of the Indo-European language family around 4,000-2,000 BC. This area was known as Scythia
by the time of the Roman Empire. Yet it is hard to imagine that recollection of a journey taken thousands of years earlier could have survived orally for so long. There were later
incursions into Central Europe from the steppe by the Cimmerians in the Iron Age, but Classical authors were
so unaware of this movement that they even visualised one in the opposite direction. One largely lost Greek author, Poseidonius (c. 135-51 BC), is quoted by later writers as
suggesting that the Cimbri, a tribe of northern Jutland who raided deep into southern Europe, reached the area north of the Black Sea, where they became known as Cimmerians.37Strabo, Geography, book 7, chapter 2; Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, book 5, chap. 2.
Most curious of all is the tale of Odin in theYnglinga Saga, part of the history of the kings of
Norway written by the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson about 1225. Odin was the chief Norse god. Naturally we suppose that stories about the gods are set in a mythical realm. Yet
the story of Odin is not only precise on geographical locations, but paints a picture of a man so revered that he was later worshipped as a god. This has set people wondering if
there is some element of history to the tale, despite its weird and wonderful cladding, which includes giants and dragons. The story tells of Odin, chief of a country called
Asaland, east of the River Don, which runs into the Black Sea.
Odin was a great and very far-travelled warrior, who conquered many kingdoms, and so successful was he that in every battle the victory was on his side. It was the belief of his
people that victory belonged to him in every battle. It was his custom when he sent his men into battle, or on any expedition, that he first laid his hand upon their heads, and
called down a blessing upon them; and then they believed their undertaking would be successful. His people also were accustomed, whenever they fell into danger by land or sea, to
call upon his name; and they thought that always they got comfort and aid by it, for where he was they thought help was near. Often he went away so far that he passed many seasons
on his journeys.38Heimskringla or The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, trans. S. Laing (1844).
Odin was also supposed to have great possessions in Turkland, south of a great mountain range which appears to be the Urals. Yet he left his domain with many of his people
and wandered west to Russia, then south to Saxony, part of which which he conquered. Leaving some of his sons to rule that country, Odin took up residence on the Island of Fyn in
Denmark. Perhaps feeling that some explanation was needed for this wanderlust, Snorri Sturluson (or the sources upon which he drew) sets the story in Roman times. The
ever-expanding Roman Empire drove many chiefs to flee their domains, he notes. We are not told that Odin was one of them, but that he was granted foreknowledge, and the vision of
his posterity dwelling in the northern half of the world.
Such is the perversity of the human mind that, while seeking a nugget of history amid the romance of myth and legend, we may be rather disappointed to find it. What if Odin
the Wanderer was not the grand creature of fantasy, but a nomad of the steppes? Perhaps we should leave him to the sagas, along with Arthur and other figures who will never be more than shadows in history, but live brightly in legend.
The Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus, book one (completed c.1208).
e.g. R.S. Wells et al, The Eurasian Heartland: A continental perspective on Y-chromosome diversity, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States
of America, vol. 98 no. 18 (2001), pp.10244-10249.
The Epic of Gilgamesh trans N. K. Sandars (1960), pp. 12-14, 17-18, 108-113.
Relic reveals Noah's ark was circular, The Guardian 1 January 2010; Herodotus, TheHistories, tr. R. Waterfield (1998), book 1, section194.
R. Graves, The Greek Myths, 2nd edn (1960), vol. 1, no. 38.
Valentina Yanko-Hombach, Allan S. Gilbert, Nicolae Panin and Pavel M. Dolukhanov (eds.), The Black Sea Flood Question (2007); L. Giosan, F. Filip and S.
Constatinescu, Was the Black Sea catastrophically flooded in the early Holocene?, Quaternary Science Reviews, vol. 28, nos. 1-2 (January 2009), pp. 1-6.
J.T. Teller, Calcareous dunes of the United Arab Emirates and Noah's Flood: the postglacial reflooding of the Persian (Arabian) Gulf, Quaternary International,
vols. 68-71 (2000), pp. 297-308; J.I. Rose, New Light on Human Prehistory in the Arabo-Persian Gulf Oasis, Current Anthropology, vol. 51, no. 6 (December 2010).
H. Brückner, Uruk - A geographic and palaeo-ecologic perspective on a famous ancient city in Mesopotamia, Geo-öko, vol. 24 (2003), pp. 229–248.
Thomas L. Brodie, Genesis as Dialogue (2001), p. 194; E. M. Yamauchi, Foes from the Northern Frontier (1982), p. 63; A. P. Ross, The Table of Nations
in Genesis 10 – Its Content, Bibliotheca Sacra vol. 138 (1981), pp. 22-34.
Marcus Junianus Justinus, Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus, translated, with notes, by the Rev. John Selby Watson (1853), book 44, chapter 3.
Lebor Gabála Érenn 'The Book of the Taking of Ireland', Irish Texts Society, Vols. 34 (1938), 35 (1939), 39 (1940), 41 (1941) and 44 (1956).
R. A. Stewart Macalister (ed.), Lebor Gabála Érenn 'The Book of the Taking of Ireland', Irish Texts Society, Vol. 35 (1939), p.252.
T. F. O'Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology (1946).
J.Novembre et al., Genes mirror geographywithin Europe, Nature vol. 456 (6 November 2008), pp. 98-101; C.Tian et al, European Population Genetic Substructure:
Further definition ofancestry informative markers for distinguishing among diverse European ethnicgroups, Molecular Medicine, online August 24 2009; C. Tian et al.,
Analysis and Application of European Genetic Substructure Using 300 K SNP Information, PLoS Genetics, vol. 4, no. 1 (2008):e4.
C.T. O'Dushlaine et al., Population structure and genome-wide patterns of variation in Ireland and Britain, European Journal of Human Genetics, (advance online
publication 23 June 2010).
Susan Reynolds, "Medieval origines gentium and the community of the realm," History, vol. 68 (1983), pp. 375-90.
Paul Orosius : A History Against the Pagans, book 1, section 2, para 80.
D. Ó Cróinín, Ireland, 400-800, in D. Ó Cróinín (ed.), A New History of Ireland, vol 1 (2005), pp. 185-6; Nennius, Historia Brittonum, book 3,
Ptolemy, The Geography, book II, chapters 1 and 2.
J.B. Harley and D. Woodward, The History of Cartography vol. 1: Cartography in prehistoric, ancient, and medieval Europe and the Mediterranean (1987),
p.192; D.W. Roller, Through the pillars of Herakles: Greco-Roman exploration of the Atlantic (2006), pp. 28. For Britain Pytheas via Strabo uses Bretannikē
as a feminine noun, although its form is that of an adjective. Pliny uses Britannia, with Britanniae meaning all the islands,the Britains. Diodorus, writing in Greek, has
Brettanikē nēsos, the British Island, and Brettanoi, the British. Ptolemy, also writing in Greek, has Bretania and Bretanikai nēsoi. However manuscript
variants offer an intial P- alternating with B-. The name learned by Pytheas was probably Pretania or or Pritannia, corresponding to the Welsh Ynys Prydein, the island of
Britain, and the Irish Q-Celtic Cruithen-tuath, land of the Picts.
The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. and trans. S.A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and O. Bergho (2006), pp. 198, 386 (IX.ii.103 and XIX.xxiii.7).
Caesar, Gallic Wars, V.14.
A.Woolf, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070, The New Edinburgh History of Scotland vol. 2 (2007), p. 9.
E. Campbell, Were the Scots Irish?, Antiquity, 75 (2001), pp. 285–292; E. H. Nicoll (ed.), A Pictish Panorama: The story of the Picts, and a Pictish
Nennius, History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum) in Six Old English Chronicles, ed. J. A. Giles. (1848).
A.Woolf, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070, The New Edinburgh History of Scotland vol. 2 (2007), chapter 8.
Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Greater Chronicle, Bede's Letter to Egbert, ed. J. McClure and R. Collins (1994), p.10.
Chronicles of the Picts, Chronicles of the Scots, and other Early Memorials of Scottish History, ed. W.F. Skene (1867), p.172.
Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, The Greater Chronicle, Bede's Letter to Egbert, ed. J. McClure and R. Collins (1994), p. 362; D. Miles, The
Tribes of Britain (2005), p. 9.
The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. and trans. S.A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and O. Bergho (2006), p. 288 (XIV.iii.31).
Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, trans. E. Brehaut (1916), book 2, chap. 9.
Ibid, book 2, chap. 31.
Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, book 2, chap. 10.
Herodotus, The Histories, trans. A. de Sélincourt with an introduction and notes by J. M. Marincola (2002), p.244.
The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. and trans. S.A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and O. Bergho (2006), p. 198 (IX.ii.102).
Nennius, History of the Britons (Historia Brittonum) in Six Old English Chronicles, ed. J. A. Giles. (1848).
Strabo, Geography, book 7, chapter 2; Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, book 5, chap. 2.
Heimskringla or The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, trans. S. Laing (1844).
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