Thracians – the dragon people

The Thracians were a group of Indo-European tribes inhabiting the area of Eastern and South-eastern Europe. Their name is at least as old as Homer’s Illiad. For ancient Greeks, they were “Thrākes or Thrāikios” and their homeland was Thrace – Thrāikē/Thrēikē. The Greek word sounds similar to the word Troy, whose main allies were precisely Thracians. However, the etymology of this word is not Greek. Unable to understand the meaning, the Greeks invented a mythical ancestor – Thrax, the son of the war-god Ares.

Durres, the city with two names

Durrës is one of the oldest cities on the territory of modern-day Albania. Its first inhabitants were the Brygi, the ancestors of Phrygians, and the Illyrian Taulantii, people close to Thracians. The old names of the city were Epidamnos and Dyrrhachion.

The name Dyrrhachion apparently comes from Greek δυσ- ‘bad’ and ῥαχία ‘rocky shore’. Some Roman authors linked it to the name of an eponymous hero Dyrrachius. The modern name, Albanian (Durrës), comes from the Medieval Slavic Дърачь (Dratch).

Epidamnos – the city of the cursed mountains

In 229 BC Illyrians lost the war with the Roman Republic. Romans took control over Dyrrachium and the city became an important military and naval base. The first mentions of the city name come from this period. Apparently, the older name of the city was Epidamnos. But Romans found it “inauspicious” and changed it to Dyrrachium.

Now, it seems that this older, pre-Roman name, Epidamnos, is a compound word. The first part comes from Greek – epi, meaning “on top of, near, before…”. The second part “damnum”, means “damned”. As far as I am aware, this compound word has never been explained. The reason is that the meaning “before, or on top of the damned” doesn’t make much sense. But this is only true if we neglect the fact that Durres lies some 100km of the most important mountain chain in the region – Prokletije.

Since time immemorial, the name of this chain means “damned” or “cursed” mountains in Slavic languages. In an attempt to separate from the Slavic identity, during the last 100 years, Albanians named them “Albanian Alps”. But the Slavic term must be over 2,000 years old – as the original name of the city of Durres – Epidamnos, probably meant “a city before the cursed mountains“.

And not only that. The Slavic verb “prokleti” – to curse, is also a compound word. The first part “pro” has the exact meaning of the Greek “epi”, while “kleti” means to curse. In other words “prokleti” means “to throw curse upon”. Therefore, the terms Epidamnos and Prokletije are the same.

Dyrrachion, the city of Thracians

So it was the Romans who changed the city name to Dyrrachion, out of superstition. But what does this new name mean? We saw an “uncertain” theory, that it could mean “rocky coastline” or that it relates to another mythological ancestor, Dyrrachius. But somehow I find it hard to believe that anyone would call their city “rocky coastline”. And even harder than that, that the Romans would name a city in honor of a glorious ancestor of a subdued nation.

I believe that the name of this city is very important, as it preserves the original name of Thracians. Dyrrachion simply meant: “A Thracian city“. This was due to the fact that this city was the main port of entry, a border crossing, to the land of Illyrians and Thracians that stretched deep behind the cursed mountains and all the way to the Black Sea.

Indeed, deep in Central Serbia, there is a medieval monastery and a village of Dracha. This toponym is not exclusive only for Durres, it appears in other Slavic territories as well.

Thrasco – the Slavic prince

Are there any linguistic grounds to connect Dyrrachion with Thracians? I believe they are, and they can be easily proven. Thrasco (795 – 810) was the Prince of the Obotrite confederation. The Obotrites were a Slavic tribe that lived on the shores of the Baltic sea. However, Thrasco was a Latinized form of his name (sometimes also Thrasuco, Thrasucho, and Drasco). The original Slavic name was Dražko or Draško. The root is in Proto-Slavic dorgu (drago) meaning “dear” or “precious”.

Therefore, this Latinization of Slavic names continued all the way to the 9th century. Would it be too far-fetched to assume that similar rules were applied in antiquity? Especially if we know that the Greek word for Thracians started with soft “tetha”, not “t”.

Dragon – a creature dear to Balkans

As interesting as these parallels are, the name of the Thracians surely did not mean “dear people”. But if we consider that the original sound was “D” (Dhrachi) and not the softened “T” (Thraci), we get another interesting possibility.

The English word for “dragon” comes from Ancient Greek “drakon“. As Ancient Greek lacked any meaningful etymology to explain this word, the theory is that it comes from the closest sounding word – drakein, meaning “to see”. So, officially, the meaning of “drakon” is “the one who stares” (??)

However, to me, this etymology feels heavily constructed, and absolutely unnatural. I believe that Slavic “drag”, meaning “dear” “precious” is a much more convincing choice. Namely, in ancient times, the names of dangerous creatures were taboo, whether they were gods, spirits or animals. For example, Serbian medieval folklore is full of stories where faires were referred to as “sisters” “godmothers” and similar, while the universal Slavic name for bear is “medved” – literally “the one who knows where is the honey”.

This kind of taboo is extremely ancient and exists in many corners of the world. The word for “dragon” perhaps comes from the same corpus.

Also, the Balkans are the only place in Europe where dragons were seen mostly as a positive force, just like in Asia. Numerous fairy tales talk about dragon-heroes, and numerous toponyms relate to dragons. From Balkans westwards, dragons become an evil, devilish force. Some of the examples of these Slavic stories are in the Wikipedia article Slavic Dragon.

And finally, a whole plethora of Slavic names could rather relate to the word “dragon” than to the word “dear”. Such names are the mentioned Drashko, but also Dragan, Drago, Dragash and many others.

Thracians – the Dragon people

So far we have seen a plausible etymological connection between the unexplained ethnonym “Thracian” and dragons. But are there any historical facts to support this theory? The answer is a firm yes. In fact, there is a whole Wikipedia article on the Dacian Draco. Dacians and Thracians were two closely related nations.

For Dacians, the dragon was a protective, religious and military symbol. It was common in the archaeological finds of the 8-6th century BC. During the 3-1 century BC it was a Dacian standard, and the Romans adopted it after their conquest of Dacia. Some scholars, like Mihăilescu-Bîrliba even suggest that the Romans associated Dacians with the dragon.

Therefore the dragon emblem existed in the Balkans for almost a thousand years, before the Romans. It was as a national, military and religious symbol. Can we then assume that even the name Thracians (Dyrrachians) means “dragon people“?

Eastern origins of the Balkan dragon worship

But even thought this dragon obsession must have been very unusual to the western neighbors of the Thracians, in the east it was nothing new. For the Roman historian Arrin, the dragon cult was Scythian/Sarmatian. Besides Dacia, similar iconography existed further down the eastern steppe and the Parthian region. A scholar Franz Altheim claimed that Dacians, Romans, and Germans adopted this idea from the Sarmatians of Central and Southern Asia.

Indeed, the eastern origins of dragon symbolism can hardly be questioned. Draco was really a common motif in Scythian art. And even nowadays, the first association with dragon-worship is Asia.

The connection with Parthian regions is also obvious: Balkan Slavs have another word for dragon – azdaha, related directly to Persian Aži Dahāka. However, scholars believe that this word came to Slavic vocabulary from Ottoman Turkish “ejdehâ”. This is hardly the case, as the Slavic word is more true to the original than the Turkish one.

Dacians / Dahae, Masagetae / Getae

And finally, scholars relate the Persian word “dahaka” to the Scythian tribe Dahae. They lived in Central Asia, modern-day Turkmenistan. Numerous scholars have already connected these Dahae with the Dacians (Dacii). At the same time, the Massagetae, northern neighbors of the Dahae, have their parallel in the Getae, the first inhabitants of Dacia.

Therefore, two tribes with similar names appeared at the same time in two regions. From one side they are in the region of the Balkh mountains, Afganistan, from the other, they are in Balkans.

A coincidence? No, I don’t think so.

Conclusion

The dragon cult reached Balkans somewhere around the first millennium BC, coming from the east. The names of the Balkan Dacians and Getae mirror the Scythian Dahae and Masagetae. The name of Dahae could relate to Persian “aji dahaka” – dragon. Because of their dragon worship cult, these tribes might have been known as Drachians to ancient Greeks and Romans.

The softened version of the word “Drachian” became “Thracian” somewhere in Ancient Greek Antiquity. But the Slavic name of Durres – Drach, still keeps the original form, just like the Roman “Dyrrachium”.

Dahae and Getae are just some of the nomadic tribes that settled on Balkans and mixed with the local population. Among these tribes were also Sarmatians, considered to be the ancestors of Slavs. These tribes reached Balkans long before the Romans. In fact, the battle depicted in the Illiad describes one of the key moments of these migrations. This is the same time when the dragon emblems appear in the Balkan region.

In the general mindset, the battle of Troy was a battle between Greeks and Greeks. But the fact is that most of Trojan allies were of Thracian origin. Logically, since this area was inhabited by Phrygians and Lydians (from Slavic “ljudi” – people) who migrated there from Balkans.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. Normally, I find your blogs interesting and informative but this one is a total puzzle to me. The entire article speaks as if you haven’t the slightest idea about our history which is hard to believe. Many historians are reinterpreting Porfirogenet in order to to stay true to the falsified Serbian History without ignoring facts discovered in Vinča and other places. The only thing that I found correct is that Romans won in 229 BC. They also won against Illyrian King Agron in 230 BC but it was in 229 BC that they fought against Agron’s widow Queen Teuta and after winning they moved on this time to take Dalmatia and the rest of the Serbian Dalmatian kingdom forming Roman Province Illyricum. Up until 4200 BC, Vinča civilization and its people expanded in every direction, still being one people or rodbina (relatives) or in their language Serbi. Around 6200 years ago they were invaded by haplogroup R-1b who lived in today’s Armenia and began to carry out genocide on Serbi. Most population left today’s Serbia but over time kept returning as well formed tribes of the “people of the same blood” or relatives or in short Serbi. Sarmati, Tračani, Dačani, Dardani, Iliri, Geti Skiti, Veni or Veneti, Rasi, Chesi, Phonicians, Palesgians (Sea People) and hundreds of other tribes were all the same people with different names, depending on the period in which they lived and on who gave them those names, just as today we have Ličani, Slavonci, Sremci etc. Same people had more than one name just as Београд, Beograd and Belgrade are one city. Greek historian Herodotus in 5th Cent BC said that there were so many Serbian tribes that they were most numerous and oldest people and that if they united under one leader they would be most powerful. He also said that in today’s Armenia lived Germani, (who also belonged to R-1b haplogroup). Pavel Sherafik wrote that in Northern Europe ie north of today’s Hungary there were 72 tribes of Slavs (Roman generic term for the people they could not understand), speaking 12 languages but calling themselves Serbi and that their language once was the same language Serbian. Romanian historian Yorga said that in Romania all Slavs were called Serbi…even Bulgarians, he added. Finally, the term “Indo-European” used today is totally misused. There is a logical and definite connection between India and Europeans but it is not how it is presented. Poz

    • Тhanks for your feedback. I can agree with you that Vinca collapsed around 4200BC with the arrival of nomadic tribes and that R1B came from the region of Armenia – there are two very old articles on each topic here. I can also agree that Slavs had many different tribal names in the past, before being known as Slavs in the 6th century. However, whether the “Slavic” influence came from Balkans or from the steppes is still a matter of debate.

      The nomadic horsemen culture surely and without any doubt came from the steppes. Not only that this is the most obvious landscape for the horse domestication, but even nowadays, no nation has such a strong connection to horses as the “stan” countries. This is a fact. Besides, only this kind of culture could have traveled so far and wide, leaving traces from Asia to Balkans and even Western Europe.

      The Vinca civilization, indeed, so ahead of its time, could have had a strong influence as far as Ukraine to the east, but probably not much further, even though even the Japanese Oracle script seems to be derived from its signs. But here we are talking about cultural, not a genetical influence, and certainly not migration on a significant scale.

      And finally, “Serb” is an older designation of “Slav”, therefore it doesn’t mean that all “Serb” toponyms and ethnonyms are related to modern Balkan Serbs, who are more indigenous Vincans than Slavs. That “Serb” meant “relative” is something that I never heard before, and I don’t see how it could be possible. In short, I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, but my goal is simply to write thought-provoking articles – what I will not do is to please any nationalistic agendas, whatever they might be. Unfortunately, on Balkans, these are too many…

  2. Oh, one more thing. The Dragon or in Serbian Zmaj has been the symbol or elite Serbian aristocracy for centuries and still exists. Thracians or Tračani were also known as Rašani with Old Ras being the centre of their hub. It is possible that evenn Vikings originated from Thacians.

    • Absolutely, The Order of a Dragon is something that is connected to the main topic of this article, but I am planning to write a separate one on dragons in general, due to the limited space.

  3. I am sorry but the Getae and the Dacians are not nomadic- no one has ever claimed that in any of the sources I have seen. They are local Balkan populations. No nomads have built cities and tombs- and we have plenty left. No one has claimed that the sarmatians are nomads either, though they did move. I know that you are a Great Serbian nationalism and intentionally disregard everything that can be found on the territory of Bulgaria, such as for example the Getae complex of Sboryanovo or when it comes to Bulgarian mythology and folklore (I have seen in in all your writing, which follow the old Serbian propaganda).. With regards to draKOn….this is clearly a greek word.. Deriving from the word drag is ridiculous.In Bulgaria and other south, the word is zmej…змей…. . Nowhere is the word drakon used…the zmej is not drag in Balkan folklore, though the zmej is very present in Bulgarian folklore… sometimes they are protectors, sometimes they are not good creatures but in general the population was afraid of them. There is also the evil dragon ламя или хала, which often destroys the crops, dries the rivers and is generally a pest….. there is a lot written on it as well, if you care to read it. Also, i found your claim that worship of the dragon came from the East quite dubious. As I said, there is a lot written on the mythology of the zmej in the Balkan land. The Zmej has very different characteristics from the Asian dragon (very often it is a shapeshifter and can take human form). The Zmej was never worshipped, like in Asia. Usually it is killed by Saint George (who is in fact the Thracian horseman the Hero!) So for me the dragon myth in the Balkans is very much native. However, the presence of dragons is noted in many cultures around the world. It is practically universal. The mayas have it also, for example- does it mean that the Dacians are mayans????. Драч was a Bulgarian city in the middle ages. I am glad the Serbs got the Bulgarian name of the city.

    • First of all, I speak fluent Bulgarian and I have spent two years of my life in Bulgaria, visiting museums, archaeological sites and reading books related to the subject. Therefore I know very well the difference between the scientific work and Bulgarian nationalistic propaganda, which is nothing less than Serbian in any way. But the truth is that Serbs and Bulgarians share the same genetics and culture, and this is how I see most of the Balkans region. However, Serbian name was once a designation of all Slavs, while Bulgarian name relates to Volga Tatars and their Khans. But under these cosmetic differences, we are the same people, and it is pointless to speak who influenced who.

      The truth is that most of the Thracian territory was in modern Bulgaria but the point of this article was not to speak of Thracians but to decode their name. If you never heard of connections between Getae of Romania and Masagetae of India, Dacians, and Dahae from Dagestan, and Sarmatians as nomads, you should really pick up a book, because these are not my speculations, but theories from the mainstream historians. (And in the case of Sarmatians even Herodotus)

      The Thracian horsmen is a relic of these horse-riding nomads, it can never be a local culture, as the horse wasn’t domesticated in the Balkans. Moreover, the cult of St. George comes from Sirmium, modern Serbia, and Sirmium was probably named after Sarmatians. I will not argue with you where did the dragon worship come from, but the fact is that no dragon images are older than 1000-800BC, and there are sculptures and drawings dated to millennia earlier. It is not important what someone thinks but what are the facts that we can rely on.

      And finally, calling me a Serbian nationalist means that you did not understand this blog. In this same thread, I just replied to a comment of someone who thinks that I am not enough of the same. But nationalism really isn’t my cup of tea. I call it the “villager mentallity” The idea of this blog is to be much more global than that.

  4. At Chester in England very near Wales, a major Roman legionary base ‘Castrum’ or ‘Caster’, there is a stone showing the regimental standard of the Scythian horsemen posted there by the Romans. It is a ‘dragon’ banner shaped like a modern wind-sock as seen at airfields today. These Scythians were popularly known by their Greek name Sauro (reptile or dragon) Machians (fighters) – Sarmatians for short. Their leader was called their ‘Saur’ (Dragon) ‘Geant’ (Great) so ‘Grand Dragon’, in English ‘Sargeant’. A later leader in tlhe 5th century CE was called Arthur Pendragon (Pen, Head in Welsh Brythonic) Dragon, hence ‘Dragon-Head’, probably his standard.

    The word for ‘Prince’ in Welsh is ‘Vledig’. In Irish Gaelic it is ‘Flat’. The derivation from the Slavic ‘Vlad’ is obvious.’

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