Germanic Belgae, Irish Fir Bolg, and proto-Bulgars

Modern Bulgaria owes its name to a Turkic tribe of Bulgars. They first reached Balkans somewhere around the 7th century AD. The name of Bulgars dates to at least the 4th century AD. Wikipedia lists a few etymologies of their name. They all come from Proto-Turkic. Those meanings are: “to mix” “to revolt” and “five arrows” – none of them too convincing.

However, the history of Bulgars begins in the region between the Pontic-Caspian steppe and the Volga river. The name of this Bulgarian state was Volga Bulgaria. It is used to distinguish it from the older Bulgarian state, known as Old Great Bulgaria. But even this old state revolved around the Voga and Dniester rivers, before being destroyed by the Khazars.

In that case, could we assume that the ethnonym Bulgars simply means “people of the Volga river“?

I am not the first person to propose this etymology, but strangely, the relevant English sources don’t mention it at all. Isn’t this more logical than “to mix, shake and stir”?

Bulgarian migrations

Bulgar tribes have a long and magnificent history, too long to describe it here. In short, their origins lie in Central Asia, in the very remote of times. From there they migrated to the region of Caucasus and North of the Black Sea, where they founded the Old Bulgarian state. From here they migrated to Volga Bulgaria, Armenia, and the current Balkan homeland. Recorded migrations also include the region of Pannonia. Here is an illustration from Wikipedia Commons:

Now, all of these migrations took place roughly between the 6th and the 7th century AD. Before that, the hoofs of Bulgar horses have never stepped on the European lands. Or is it really so?

Bulgars in Pannonia, 1st century AD

Describing the Balcan region of Pannonia in the 1st century AD, Pliny the Elder states that the river Draus runs through lands of many tribes. One of these tribes was the Belgites. And among their neighbors, there were the Serapilli and Arivates. Some (alternative) historians, see the names of Serbs, Croats, and Bulgarians in this passage – three nations who still dwell in this region of Balkans.

According to the official history, the Belgites were Celts. But as we will see, the derivation Belgites – Bulgar may seem like a long stretch. The fact is that the tribe of Belgites was never before or after recorded in this region. It seems that only Pliny the Elder was aware of them.

However, there was a Germanic tribe of Belgae, precisely in this period, although much further to the north. Did Pliny the Elder had them in mind? What were the Belgae doing this far south?

Who were the Belgae?

Well, according to Wikipedia, Belgae were “the people who swell with anger and battle fury”. And this is literally what their name means. Apparently the Proto-Celtic root *belg means “to swell”. Hence the scholars concluded that this swelling is not from food, but from anger, and battle fury. No, I am not making this up.

But what if Belgae were, in fact, another, earlier wave of migration from the Volga river? In his description of Gaul, Caesar claims that it is divided between three main tribes – The Belgae, The Aquitani Celts, and the Gauls. He adds that they all differ in language, customs, and laws.

But still, modern scholars assume that the Belgae were also Celts. Of course, we can never be sure as we lack the written language. However, here are some reasons why the Belage may come from Volga.

A case of two Samara

One of the biggest Russian cities on the Volga river is Samara. The name of the city comes from the smaller river bearing the same name.

One of the most important cities of the Belgae is the modern-day Amiens, France. Its ancient name was Samarobriva – “briva” meaning bridge and “samar” meaning river in Gaulic (according to the highlighted French Wikipedia). In fact, according to the rule established on 2nd January 2012, all inhabitants of the Somme department in France are officially called “Samariens”

Tungri, first of the Germans

Apart from the Belgae, there was another Germanic tribe on the territory of modern Belgium. According to Tacitus, they were the first Germans. All other Germanic tribes were named after them. Their capital was Civitas Tungrorum.

Now, Tungri were not Gauls, as Tacitus clearly states that they have crossed the Rhine river from the East, and expelled the Gauls. The etymology of their name is unknown. But here is an interesting fact about the proto-Bulgars – their main deity was the sky god Tangra.

Tangra, or Tengri, was hands down the main god of the Turkic and Mongolic tribes. These nomadic tribes carried his name to the four corners of the known world, including the Rila mountain chain of the modern-day Bulgaria, which was named after him. Could the name of the Tungri tribe mean “worshipers of Tungri” i.e. the Tengrists?

The Fir Bolg and the Belgae

It is a fact that in Caesar’s time a part of the Belgae migrated to England. For example, the ancient name of the city of Winchester was Venta Belgarum. However, an Irish scholar T.F. O’Rahilly, has proposed that the Fir Bolg people came to Irish mythology as a memory of the Belgae invasion.

So who were the Fir Bolg of Irish myth? They were “men of bags”. Seriously, this is what Wikipedia claims. This time the word *bolg means bag, while the word “fir” means people. As an alternative theory, they again propose “those who swell with battle fury”, in other words, the same as the Belgae.

Indeed, the word “fir” means “men, people” in Irish Gaulic. Fair enough. As for the other word, I think it comes down to the best guess…

Moreover, the neighboring tribe of the Belgae were Morini – “sea people”. I have already connected this tribe with Fomorians of Irish mythology here.

The vulgar folk

The Latin term “vulgar” apparently means “uncultivated, crude”. An alternative form of the term was volgus. This term labels perfectly how the “cultivated” Romans felt about “barbarians”. Could it be that this pejorative term of unclear etymology was in fact coined in those times when Romans were encountering Bulgar tribes everywhere they went – in Pannonia, Belgium, and even England?

Conclusion

This whole article is based on guesswork. However, there are some really strange coincidences that were worth a mention. The history of Europe before the Romans is still uncharted territory. The Romans did not distinguish much further than Celt, Gaul, German. Unfortunately, modern historians did not move much further from these labels.

The fact is that nomadic horsemen from the steppes were arriving in Europe for thousands of years before the Romans. Some of these tribes definitely had proto-Turkic and proto-Slavic elements. Whether this was the case with the Belgae remains to be seen.

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14 COMMENTS

  1. Thanks for this. Nice attempt at summing the situation is currently seen in Western scholarship. However, in Bulgaria there is a lot of new scholarship on the subject, still widely ignored by scholars outside of Bulgaria.In fact, there is absolutely no proof that the Bulgarians or Bulgars or proto Bulgars are Turkish, Turkic or anything related….nada…zero…. Not a single sign, not a single archeological artefact…nothing. The Mongols reached the Balkans in the 12-13th century. The Turks in the 14th. This myth comes from really bad 19th century scholarship, the likes of Konstantin Irecek who was a pan-Slavist, barely spoke any Greek and Latin but at the ripe age of 24 knew everything about Balkan history! This theory was supported and propagated by Russia and then the Soviet Union (and I should also mention it was and still is popular in former Yugoslavia). Unfortunately some Bulgarian scholars also support it to this day. While we still have bad historians around, the good thing is that we now have genetic evidence. The results speak for themselves.There is not a trace of anything Asian in the genetic makeup of Bulgarians……all the more surprising that we were for 500 years in the Ottoman empire. Specific studies were made of Bulgaria’s Turks. the result is the same. Bulgarians are a local population- which is corroborated by archaeological finds and anthropological studies. And in fact was it known as the day of the establishment of the Bulgarian state, after the supposed arrival of the Bulgars in fact pact for independence from the Eastern Roman Empire, of a certain part of that population, which was protecting the Danubian limes.

    The people who are now known.as Bulgarian..used to called moesi…moesia…Roman province, also knowns at times as Dacia.. They were also called huns, scythians, slavs, thracians, many other tribal names…. I would recommend reading a serious scholar on the subject Gantcho Tzenow..who spent his lifetime on this subject. .. As for the name Bulgarians…where there are different theories…but it is etymologically related to the word Balkan (which is not Turkish..the Turkish word for mountain is dag)….and I think there is connection to vulgar too….which is a very old Greek (not Roman term)…referring to the common folk…the common folk, the Barbarians for the Greeks were their neighbours to the north…which the Greek also called thraikes…rebellious and was in fact somewhat pejorative.. (this is not what this population called itself!)…so indeed the Bulgarians have been around for a while.

    Another story is you point out are the Roman ethnonyms…I have a theory about the name German, which is not what die Deutsche call themselves.

    • Thank you for your comment. A few points:

      There is a big difference between Turkic and Turkish. I can agree that the Turkish influence in Bulgarian genetics is insignificant, apart from the area where the country borders with Turkey and some smaller pockets. However, the Turkic people from Asia belong to the R1a haplogroup and are not so easily distinguished from the Slavic genetics. (it is more a cultural difference than the genetic one). And we actually have plenty of evidence for their influence in Bulgaria – from Tengrism, to the Turkic names of the Khans (Turkic title) who ruled Bulgaria, to the IYI sign which is also the tamga of the Kayi tribe, but present all across the prehistorical Balkans.

      But it is also truth that the majority of people have the same genetics as the rest of the Balkan countries, and that the main populus was probably Slavic, hence the language remained.

      Also Moesia was mainly a part of Serbia, Dachia of Romania, while the Bulgarian lands were known as Thracia – a word that could be related to Turk.

      The word Balkan is Turkic, there is a Balkan region in Turkmenistan – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balkan_Region
      The Latin word for Balkans was Helm, which comes from the Slavic word hill – холм

  2. If I would write a research and post it, I would never cite Wikipedia. It is not serious and is absolutely wrong approach. It closes you to the position of Mr. Irechek, for whom Mrs. Petrova was writing above, and from whom Bulgarian history is still suffering. I support the facts, provided by Mrs. Petrova. The topic is very deep and with a page can’t be done anything.
    First, the title is “kanas u bigi”, which can be translated as “king empowered by god”, but not “han”, neither “khan”.
    On the other hand, there was not such god named Tangra. There was no such an artifact. The name was found only in one column in Madara, Bulgaria. There is lots of information about that, if you are interested. Finally, Dachia is completely different territory from Moesia, which is actually devided into Inferior and Superior. The river of Ister, the name of Danube in this part, divides Dachia with both Moesias. These are the names of provinces of the Roman Empire. The Moesi, which are a Thracians (this therm is correct, as the therm Bysantia) primarily populated Moesia Inferior. In the province of Thrace, there were other tribes, such as Odrisi (Odrisian empire), Maedi (Spartacus belongs to them), Trausi – one of the first local tribes with which the colonists Danae, later known as Greeks met, and named after local population as Thracians. But, the last is not uncommon – so many Germanic tribes are named after one.
    To recapitulate, you’ve picked up a very interesting topic. There are other works, supporting your thesis, but you didn’t use the correct source (Wikipedia) and it is not enough quantitatively. No offense, I’ve just tried to give you another point of view.

    • Yes… but I find Wikipedia to be by far the best option to cite, as it is virus free and more permanent (the other links often disappear with time). Also, this is a blog, not a scientific article. Their articles usually have plenty of references, so a good starting point for those who want to learn more.

      You are of course free to write your posts any way you like.

      As for the “khan” title, I am aware of the term “kanas u bigi” (again Turkic and not Slavic words) but it is widely presumed that it relates to the same thing, and most of the Dulo dynasty rulers are referred to as such in the historical literature. So whether it is “khan” or “kanas u bigi”, it does not affect the narrative in any way.

      I did not understand your comment about Tangra. The god Tangra definitely existed and was worshiped by proto-Bulgarians under this name. Plenty of evidence for that. And as for the region of Balkans, all of these provinces were indeed connected and the borders are not always clear, but this debate is off topic.

      Anyways, thank you for your feedback, I would definitely be interested to learn more about these other sources supporting my thesis. Even if it is in the Bulgarian language, as I am fluent in it!

  3. All right then,
    1. Title sounds in Bulgarian – “княз (овластен) от бога”. Both words haэе a Thracian origin. Kanas is related to the word AKENAC, meaning leader. The second – from Bagayos, meaning God. Closing to your thesis – “Irish-Gaelic word CEANNAS matters excellence, leadership . Also close are Scottish and Irish titles ceann, ceannard, ceannfidhe, ceannaire, ceannurra – leader, ruler leader “.
    2. Tangra – as I said, in Bulgaria there is only one artifact – Madar column. Check it and you will understand how there was not such god worshiped in the territory of Bulgaria.
    3. Who are proto-Bulgarians? That is a million euros question. If you show me (not from Wikipedia and Bulgarian textbooks) a real proof, that they are horse – riding nomads, coming from central Asia, I would be astonished. Proofs in the historic artifacts for the opposite (local population) are much more. Also genes are supporting the second thesis: http://cogniarchae.com/2015/11/17/genetics-speaks-who-is-who-on-balkans/
    4. For the borders – the time we are talking of – Roman Empire on the Balkans – they are very well defined with certain boundaries, because this is an administrative issue. As for the population lived in, that’s correct. But then you shouldn’t use the names of the provinces, but the names of ethnicity.
    Snicirely

    • 1. Very interesting input, did not know the term CEANNAS. But I see it as a possible direct influence of the title Kahn, coming through the Bulgar tribes, by the means already described in the article. I guess this is also what you meant by saying “closing to your thesis”
      2. As I said, I speak Bulgarian and I have spent a lot of time in this country, the memory of Tangra is very strong amongst the people – every Bulgarian knows this name, something that cannot be said for the other neighboring countries of Balkans. Also, it seems that the peak Musala of the Rila mountain was known as Tangra before the Ottomans?
      http://www.virtualmountains.co.uk/esc/Bulgaria/BG_Info.html Not sure about the archaeological finds, but that is not surprising, considering that we are talking about a semi-nomadic people. What is attested, however, is the IYI sign, that looks exactly like the tanga of the Kayi tribe, as you are probably aware of.
      3. I agree with you on this one. We cannot be sure. Genetically, the population of Balkans is not very different. But we need more detailed research to show which of the R1a is Slavic and which is Turkic. The fact is that most of the Scythian words described by Herodotus can best be reconstructed with Turkic languages. Some of the Thracian words are also Turkic (čuka – hill, ada – island etc) But some are also closest to Slavic. As for the Bulgars, I believe that the ruling structure was Turkic from Voga, while most of the population was Slavic. That is just my 5 cents, not stating any facts.
      4. I talked about the ethnos, and while it is true that in this sense Dacians and Thracians are usually equated since the ancient times, with the Moesians this was very rarely the case, except for the Tribalians maybe. Moesia was usually attributed to Illyrians, a tribe related to Thracians, but still distinguished as separate.

  4. This is a totally rookie question, but on the subject of “Samara” do we know whether any of this connects w/ the Biblical Samaritans (made famous in the Gospel story)?

    • That was supposed to be a topic of some other article 🙂

      No definite answer but here are a few possible links:

      1. The name Palestine is probably of Scythian origin, just like many other “stan” countries to the east.
      2. The Philistines probably came to this region during the bronze age as the see peoples
      3. The Israelian city of Beit She’an was known as Scythopolis to the Greeks – the city of the Scythians. This city was previously inhabited by the Philistines.

  5. Magyars’ (Hungarians’) Y DNA is similar to the one of the Slavic peoples on the BaLKans but they speak the Ugric language of the Magyars. If the BuLGars/ BuRGars were just few in numbers, it would not be called Old Great BuLGaria by the Romei (Byzantines). Also, BuLGars on the river Ra (Volga) – Kotrag, on the Apennines (with plenty of toponyms in Italy up to this date) – Altsek, Panonia (which later moved to Macedonia) – Kuber and the Lower Danube – Asparuh/ Isperih, means the BuLGars/ BuRGars must have been in big numbers. The fact that the BuLGar/ BuRGar rulers took the Sclavonic language to a Golden Age of Culture under the reign of Simeon Veliki (the Great) means the BuLGars must have spoken a language close to the one of the Sclaveni. Also, plenty of toponyms and ethnonyms show a connection between the Thraco- Illyrian BaLKans and the lands all the way to the BaLTic Sea, that is of the so called Slavic nations. For example, the tribal names of present day Ukraine previous to the establishment of Old Great BuLGaria there carry similarity to ethnonyms which disappeared from the Epirus after it was levelled with the ground during the Roman raids: Curetes/ Kutri-guri (kutre means little in BuLGarian/ BuRGarian, guri could be /of/ the mountain, or as in the Sanskrit guru – teachers/ leaders), Abantes/ Antes (those /living/ at the end, Antic), , Dolopes/ Dulebi (those from the dol, dol-ina, that is the valley), Haones/ (H)uns (une in Old BuLGarian Church Sclavonic means better), BRiGes, Phrygians/ BuRGiones, similar to BuRGar/ BuLGar/ BLəGar wgich could be from Indo-European root words meaning BRiGht, also yarək/ yary (Aryan) or oBaGRen in Sclavo=BuLGarian/ BuRGarian, white (bel), noble (BLaG), elevated (BaLKan, BuLK, BuLGe) and in connection with the latter – a mass (of people), BuLGarians have 14% of E-v13, 20% of I2a1, 17% of R1a, 12% of R1b, 5% of I1 (Scandinavian), that is 78% of South eastern European (that is of the First People) Y DNA. There is no proof the BuLGars were Turkic in DNA, language or culture. The higher levels of the Epirotic (BaLKan) Y DNA E-v13 (number 1 among BuLGarians) on the Volga among Chuvashes 17% and Kazan Tatars (10%), could mean the Volga BuLGars were of BaLKan (that is Thracian) origin who werewith time Turkisized and Islamized. Any evidence supposedly showing presence of BuLGars/ BuRGars in Central Asia does not prove they originated there. Part of them could have went there from South Eastern Europe. Also, the title kanas (kan) comes from the Sclavo=BuLGarian iz-kon-en, kan-un that is that which is at the beginning, head, cheaf, the one giving the law (za-kon). Sclavo=BuLGarians/ BuRGarians must have been Thracians who went North of the Danube for one or another reason, too much population due to farming progress or the Roman raids, the closer to the BaLKans the bigger the Thracian trace is, while in the North, like Poland and Muscovy it is the R1a haplogroup which is prevailing. The confusion comes from the fact Muscovites try to present themselves as Russian and Sclavic, whereas they are just Rusified and Slavisized though Ukrainians old name Rusyns and the Old BuLGarian language through the religious texts.

  6. Don’t know if anyone will see this but before you make analysis on the name of Bulgaria(we don’t call ourselves BUlgarians with “u” ) you should be aware of this artifact that is not popular at all and was found in Macedonia , Vinica(Vinitsa) https://bg.wikipedia.org/wiki/Файл:Bolgari_sclavi_teracota_Vinitza_FYROM.jpg
    https://spisanie8.bg/рубрики/наука/2138-болгар-болгар.html and https://spisanie8.bg/uf/articles/2138/ilustration008deed.jpg .
    Dated between 4 and 5 century .
    The name is evidently Bolgaria , all of the slavic sources use bolg , trying to claim that it comes from bulg is foolish.
    The author claims that we all know tangra, ofcs we know tangra they teach us that our ancestors were worshiping a god tangra how are we not gonna know about it ?
    This icon should be more known but because it does not fit the mainstream it is what it is, you won’t even find it on the internet there is like 10 pages half of them are blogs.
    From what I know a man called Alexander Moshev(Александър Мошев) “leaked it” don’t you think it should be everywhere ? Why is it not popular?

    Balkan region in Turkmenistan : every time there is something linked to us they just try to explain it in turkic, who named the region balkan? turks or maybe some other entity today clasified wrongly iranic when they are thracians look here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massagetae https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Massagetae#/media/File:Asia_323bc.jpg
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getae
    (Many scholars have suggested that the Massagetae were related to the Getae ) Give an award to this “brilliant scholars”.

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