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 from 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 because 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 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 to 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 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 the 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 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 though 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.
A coincidence? No, I don’t think so.
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 in the Balkans and mixed with the local population. Among these tribes were also Sarmatians, considered to be the ancestors of Slavs. These tribes reached the 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 the Balkans.