The image of Viking raiders and their terror survived in the minds of Western civilization for centuries. But around the middle of the 2nd millennium BC, the people of the Mediterranean felt the same. Unlike the Vikings, these sea raiders actually wore horned helmets. They took the late Bronze age world by storm leaving a trail of ashes behind them. Since they did not belong to a single tribe, we nowadays know them as the “sea peoples” – a designation that came from the hieroglyphics of Ancient Egypt.
For the sake of brevity, in this article, we will focus only on three tribes, and their possible origins.
The Sherden and the Shekelesh
The Sherden is a tribe mentioned in the Egyptian texts more than any other. For example, the pharaoh Ramses II laments in the stele of Tanis: “The unruly Sherden came from the seas in their warships, and no one knows how to withstand them…”
Egyptian depictions show them with typical horned helmets, spears, and bronze age swords. Interestingly, archaeologist James Henry Breasted suggested that these swords contain tin that came from Bohemia, the modern Czech Republic.
But the fact is that nobody knows where the Sherden came from. And the same is Valid for the Shekelesh and the rest of the “sea peoples”.
Sardinia and Sicily – the Sherden and the Shekelesh
There is almost a consensus that the names of Sardinia and Sicily islands came from the Sea Peoples. But archaeologists are still debating whether the sea peoples originated here or this is where they stopped on their journey. A compiling body of evidence connects Sherden to a Nuragic civilization of Sardinia, dated to 18 century BC, in other words, before the Egyptian raids started.
Alternative theory connects them to the city of Sardis in Anatolia. However, both can be true, especially if we know that the “sea peoples” were one of the main reasons for the collapse of the Mycenaean civilization.
The Sherden and the Shekelesh of Adriatic
Most of the theories (almost all) that deal with the origins of the “sea peoples” focus on east and west. But for some strange reason, nobody is looking into the region of Adriatic, whose naval history predates the written one.
Namely, in the 2nd century AD, on Ptolemy’s map of Adriatic, there are tribes of Sardiotae and Siculotae, one next to another. Are these the same tribes, and if yes, did they arrive at some later period, or do we have some grounds to propose Balkans as their homeland?
Who were the Shekelesh?
The name “Shekelesh” could relate to Sicily, or more precisely, to the iron age tribe of Sicels (Latin: Siculi; Ancient Greek: Σικελοί Sikeloi). Some scholars consider the Sicels as Illyrians, who imposed themselves on the local, Pre-Indo-European population of Sicily. Thucydides claimed that Sicels lived in Central Italy, east, and north of Rome. From here, they migrated to Sicily.
The Sicels brought iron into the Bronze age Sicily, as well as the domesticated horse. Some scholars believe that this migration took place around the early 1st millennium BC. Others, who connect them to Shekelesh of the sea peoples, date their arrival to the late 13th century BC.
So far we have seen three places where the Sherden and the Shekelesh may have been present. And while archaeologists are still breaking spears between Sardinia and Sardis, nobody talks about the Adriatic. But it is precisely here that we may find the answer.
A Scythian connection?
The Sicels, therefore, may have been Illyrian horsemen. This is a very interesting piece of information, as we know that Illyrians of the bronze age were a mixture of the indigenous Balkan population and the Scythian horsemen from the east. Moreover, Herodotus (IV-6) informs us that “Scyth” is just a Greek, corrupted version of their original name. The original name was Skoloti, after their king. Herodotus claims that this information comes from the Scythians themselves.
Could the name Sicel (Siculi, Siceloi) relate to the name “Scolot”? I leave it to the linguists. But Herodotus (IV-78) also mentions Scylas, son of the Scythian king Ariapeithes. His mother was “a woman from Istria”, or in other words – Illyria. Is the real point of this account to give the genealogy of the Sicel / Scoloti? Were they offsprings of the nomadic herdsmen and local women of Illyria?
It is an interesting point for further investigation. But anyhow, the connections between the steppe migrations and those of the sea people will become more clear as we continue.
Who were the Sherden?
The genetic map of Sardinia shows a strong influence of haplogroup I2a2, which is dominant in the Balkans since the Mesolithic. Here is the official chart from Eupedia.com. If you look at the top 10 countries, you will see that only Sardinia separates other Balkan countries.
Back to Illyria. The Sarditoae lived in the foothills of the Shar mountain, whose ancient name was Scordus. The city of Skodra still preserves the memory of this name and this was probably the very area in which Sarditoae dwelled. However, the name is officially attributed to the tribe of Scordisci, considered Celtic.
The Scordisci get the credit of founding Belgrade, or “white city”, the capital of Serbia. But a few are aware that the name of the Albanoi, who gave the name to modern Albania, comes from the Roman city of Albanopolis, literally “white city”.
But the coast of the Adriatic is not the only place that we can relate to the Sherden tribe. We can go even deeper into the Balkans, all the way to the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, whose ancient name was Serdica. The name of this city comes from the Thracian tribe of Serdi. Some claim that there was also a certain Celtic influence. But this influence was more likely Scytho-Sarmatian, as the territory of Sarmatia began right across the Danube.
And it is precisely in Sarmatia that may find clues to Sherden origins. Namely, on another map of Ptolemy – Sarmatia Asiatica, we see a tribe of Suardeni, behind the sea of Azov! On the same map, we see the tribe of Amazons, who fought in the Troyan war just centuries after the “sea peoples”. And a bit lower, a tribe of Sirbi, related to modern Serbia in the Balkans. A coincidence?
Moreover, the term Shardan has clearly more roots in this part of the world than anywhere else. Namely, Sardanapalus was the name of the last Assyrian king, and many names are containing Shar and Shardan in ancient Persia and Assyria. In fact, the word “Shar” is closely related to the words “Shah” and “tzar” – all meaning “king, emperor”. Shar Kalli Shari was an Akkadian king from the 3rd millennium BC.
Perhaps the term Shardan could be a designation of the tribe that Herodotus calls “Royal Scythians”. Herodotus (IV-57) claims that the place where the river Don enters the Azov sea is the border between the Royal Scythians and Sarmatians.
Who were the Peleset?
Another important tribe is Peleset. There is a consensus nowadays that these were the original Philistines from the Old Testament, who gave a name to the country of Palestine.
Already here we have a dead giveaway to their Scythian origin. The name Palestine has a suffix “stan”, just like Afganistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and other stan-countries, formerly inhabited by Scythians.
Moreover, Palistin was the name of an early Syro-Hittite kingdom located in what is now northwestern Syria and the southeastern Turkish province of Hatay.
But even in the Illyrian lands, there was a city named Palaesti, modern Palasë, Albania. Some authors have already tried to connect this name with the Pelasgians, indigenous people of Greece, or the Pela, the capital of ancient Macedonia.
Peleset rank amongst the most important tribes of “sea peoples” as they decided to settle down. As a result, they entered the written history through the books of the Old Testament. Here, they are mentioned 286 times. It seems that their language was Indo-European, while their pottery style shows the Mediterranean influence.
We now know only a few Philistine words, one of which is the name of Goliath, the giant. The etymology of this name is unknown, but in Slavic languages, it would mean “big, large”. A good example is the Serbian mountain Golija (Goliya) whose name means precisely this, although this is not the only such toponym in the Slavic world.
Indeed, the Scythians were unusually tall compared to the people of the Mediterranean. An exceptionally tall Scythian could have easily been considered a giant.
Moreover, the Greek name of the city Beit She’an in modern Israel was Scythopolis, while one of the five original cities of the Philistines was Ashkelon – a word that sounds like a Semitic designation of the Scythians. See Ashkenaz.
The point of this article was to show that there are some grounds to propose a different origin of the “sea peoples” from what is usually in the debate.
The world-stage appearance of these sea raiders matches closely the waves of migrations that reached Europe and the Balkans from the east. The Scythian nomads could have learned the techniques of seafaring from Pelasgians, with whom they had contact. Alternatively, they could have already mastered these techniques on the shores of the Black Sea.
In the next article, we will shed even more light on this subject by analyzing the remaining tribes of “sea peoples”.