Prince Marko and the Scythian winged horse

In his book “Description of Greece“, from the 2nd century AD, Pausanias writes: “I would have you know that marca is the Celtic name for a horse.” And he was not lying – this word is well attested all over the Celtic world.

The question of the origin of the word has caused many debates amongst scholars.  A very good illustration comes from the book “The Celtic languages in contact: papers from the Workshop within the framework of the XIII International Congress of Celtic Studies, Bonn, 26-27 July 2007”

The work begins with identifying some of the relative Celto-Germanic words. One of them is a Celto-Germanic word for “horse” – *mark-os, whose true meaning was “saddled-horse”

In the next part, we see some Gaulish examples. The authors mention toponyms Marcodurum, Marcomagus, Marcolica… and names such as Marcomarus, Marcosena, Marcomanni, Marcus, Marcula… They identify the IE root as “mark-o-“, and propose its origins in Altaic languages, presumably brought from the east by Scythian and Sarmatian horsemen. The parallels exist in Altaic *morV, Mongolian “morin”, and Russian “merin”.

And finally, we see the conclusion that the first mediators between the Celts and Sarmatians might have been the Thracians of the Balkans.

Now, the reason that I find this so interesting, is that THE most famous horseman of the Balkans is called – Marko.

Prince Marko

A bard from Hercegovina, Wikipedia Commons

Prince Marko is one of the most enigmatic characters of the Balkan medieval epic. He was extremely popular in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Macedonia.

The South-Slavic bards sang songs about his heroic deeds for several centuries. This was the time of Ottoman invasion, and he was a perfect model of a true knight – a horseman of incredible strength and virtue – a symbol of hope and resistance.

However, when speaking of Prince Marko, we are speaking of two different characters. The first one is historical, and for the sake of brevity of this article, we will not debate more about him.

The second one is fictional – a hero with many supernatural traits. At some point in time, perhaps because of the name, these two characters were merged into one.

However, the scholars are pretty unanimous that the layers of the fiction are much older than the middle ages. They originated in the very remote times, just like “gusle” – an instrument that accompanies the narrative. Scholars believe that this kind of epic is a relic of the times of the Illiad and Odyssey.

Some of the traits of the fictional Prince Marko are:

  1. He has the superhuman strength – he could move the mountains and leave his footprints in the rock
  2. His blood-sister was a nymph
  3. He wore the wolf-skin and had a wolf-cap
  4. His mace weighed 85 kilograms
  5. He never died, he sleeps inside of the cave from where he will arise once again

and most importantly

6. His faithful companion was a horse with wings – they talked and drank wine together

Prince Marko and Musa Kesedžija, 1900 painting by Vladislav Titelbah; Prince Marko is on the right

Šarac – Pegasus parallels

The name of Marko’s horse was Šarac (Sharkolia). The word means “mottled”, “dappled” as this horse had spots on his body (illustrated in the painting above)

The image of an immortal hero and his horse sleeping in the cave, paired with the motif of the spots, recalls the typical star lore narrative. Namely, the “cave” could be an allegory for the night sky, while the “spots” could be the stars. (it is not clear whether Šarac was black with white spots or vice-versa)

Anyhow, the “winged horse” was a popular mythological image of the ancient world. The Greeks called him “Pegasus” – and the Greek myth of Bellerophon explains how he earned his place in the sky. And it is not only the horses that share similarities, but the same also goes for their riders.

Bellerophon on Pegasus spears the Chimera, on an Attic red-figure epinetron, 425–420 BC

The Greek myths clearly tell us that this winged horse is a constellation. According to some versions, Pegasus was born from the blood of Medusa, after Perseus cut her head off. The three constellations in question are Perseus, Andromeda, and Pegasus.

Print screen from Stellarium

The scholars admit that the etymology of the name “Pegasus” is dubious. Wikipedia states:

Ancient Greek Pḗgasos, traditionally from pēgḗ, “spring, fountain, fountain fed by a spring”). Some believe that the Pegasos connection may come from the springs of Ocean, where Perseus killed Medusa, from whose blood Pegasus sprang. Others have dismissed this theory as folk etymology. They suggest a pre-Greek origin because of the -ασος suffix.

But what I find interesting is that in the Serbian language, the word “pega” means “spot”, “mottle” which results in the exact same meaning as in “Šarac” – and a name quite appropriate for a “stellar” horse.

Here is a print screen from Google translate:

But anyhow, the constellation of Pegasus also proves that the authors of the language study mentioned above were on the right track when translating the word “marca” as the “saddled horse”. And when they proposed its Scytho-Sarmatian origins.

Namely, the Arabs also knew the constellation of Pegasus. One of its brightest stars is Markab – Arabic word for a “saddle of a horse”.

On a side note, the English word is a direct cognate to the Slavic “sedlo” – from sedeti – to sit.

In conclusion, not only that the Scythians come from the region where the horse is first domesticated – they are also the only tribe that had contact with Arabs, Thracians, and Celts. But “Scythian” is a generic term for many different nations. Would it be possible to narrow down the sphere of influence?

Neuri – the Scythian werewolves

It is particularly interesting that Prince Marko dressed like a wolf. Herodotus mentions a tribe of Neuri as one of the Scythian tribes. They left their original homeland and settled among the Budini. He continues with the strange statement that every member of the Neuri tribe becomes a wolf, for a couple of days of the year.

Numerous authors have proposed that both Neuri and Budini are ancestors of Slavs. Some authors also believe that the ancient Noricum, modern-day Slovenia owes its name to this tribe. Moreover, the word for werewolf is one of the few Slavic words in Greek.

The idea that South Slavs preserve the ancient mythology of Balkans poses some difficult questions. According to the “mainstream” history, Slavs came to Balkans from modern-day Bohemia only between the 5-6th century AD.

But even if this was the case, up to the 4th century AD Bohemia was settled by Marcomanni. The scholars claim that this tribe was Germanic and not Slavic. But they also claim that their name means “march-men”, which then translates to “border men”. (?) As you can witness in the highlighted article, the names of their kings do not sound Germanic at all, but rather Slavic and Altaic.

Is it time to re-question the “official” history?

Horse Blanket. Embroidery, Pazyryk tombs of the Altai region Kazakhstan. 3rd century BC
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3 COMMENTS

  1. Bulgarian researchers sugest that the Krali Marko personage is a relict of the old thracian – God – horsman religion, artefacts of which after the roman qonquest of the balkans became the so called votive plates of the thracian horseman found throughout the land in exceptional amount!

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