Pelasgians was a name applied by Greek writers to a prehistoric people whose traces were believed to exist in Greek lands.
If the statements of ancient authorities are marshalled in order of their date it will be seen that certain beliefs cannot be traced back beyond the age of this or that author. Though this does not prove that the beliefs themselves were not held earlier, it suggests caution in assuming that they were. In the Homeric poems there are Pelasgians among the allies of Troy: in the catalogue, Iliad, ii. 840—843, which is otherwise in strict geographical order, they stand between the Hellespontine towns and the Thracians of south-east Europe, i.e. on the Hellespontine border of Thrace.
Their town or district is called Larissa and is fertile, and they are celebrated for their spearmanship. Their chiefs are Hippothous and Pylaeus, sons of Lethus son of Teutamus. Iliad, x. 428—429, describes their camping ground between the town of Troy and the sea; but this obviously proves nothing about their habitat in time of peace.
Odyssey, xvii. 175—177, notes Pelasgians in Crete, together with two apparently indigenous and two immigrant peoples (Achaeans and Dorians), but gives no indication to which class the Pelasgians belong. In Lemnos (Iliad, Vii. 467; xiv. 230) there are no Pelasgians, but a Minyan dynasty. Two other passages (Iliad, ii. 681—684; xvi. 233—235) apply the epithet "Pelasgic" to a district called Argos about Mt Othrys in south Thessaly, and to Zeus of Dodona. But in neither case are actual Pelasgians mentioned; the Thessalian Argos is the specific home of Hellenes and Achaeans, and Dodona is inhabited by Perrhaebians and Aenianes (Iliad, ii. 750) who are nowhere described as Pelasgian. It looks therefore as if "Pelasgian" were here used connotatively, to mean either "formerly occupied by Pelasgian" or simply "of immemorial age."
Hesiod expands the Homeric phrase and calls Dodona "seat of Pelasgians" (fr. 225); he speaks also of a personal Pelasgus as father of Lycaon, the culture-hero of Arcadia; and a later epic poet, Asius, describes Pelasgus as the first man, whom the earth threw up that there might be a race of men. Hecataeus makes Pelasgus king of Thessaly (expounding Iliad, ~i. 681—684); Acusilaus applies this Homeric passage to the Peloponnesian Argos, and engrafts the Hesiodic Pelasgus, father of Lycaon, into a Peloponnesian genealogy.
Hellanicus a generation later repeats this blunder, and identifies this Argive and Arcadian Pelasgus with the Thessalian Pelasgus of Hecataeus. For Aeschylus (Supplices I, sqq.) Pelasgus is earthborn, as in Asius, and rules a kingdom stretching from Argos to Dodona and the Strymon; but in Prometheus 879, the "Pelasgian" land simply means Argos. Sophocles takes the same view (Inac/jus, fr. 256) and for the first time introduces the word "Tyrrhenian" into the story, apparently as synonymous with Pelasgian.
Herodotus, like Homer, has a denotative as well as a connotative use. He describes actual Pelasgians surviving and mutually intelligible (a) at Placie and Scylace on the Asiatic shore of the Hellespont, and (b) near Creston on the Strymon; in the latter area they have “Tyrrhenian” neighbours. He alludes to other districts where Pelasgian peoples lived on under changed names; Samothrace and Antandrus in Troas are probably instances of this. In Lemnos and Imbros he describes a Pelasgian population who were only conquered by Athens shortly before 500 BC, and in connection with this he tells a story of earlier raids of these Pelasgians on Attica, and of a temporary settlement there of Hellespontine Pelasgians, all dating from a time "when the Athenians were first beginning to count as Greeks."
Elsewhere "Pelasgian" in Herodotus connotes anything typical of, or surviving from, the state of things in Greece before the coming of the Hellenes. In this sense all Greece was once "Pelasgic"; the clearest instances of Pelasgian survival in ritual and customs and antiquities are in Arcadia, the "Ionian" districts of north-west Peloponnese, and Attica, which have suffered least from hellenization. In Athens itself the prehistoric wall of the citadel and a plot of ground close below it were venerated in the 5th century as "Pelasgian"; so too Thucydides (ii. 17). We may note that all Herodotean examples of actual Pelasgi lie round, or near, the actual Pelasgi of Homeric Thrace; that the most distant of these is confirmed by the testimony of Thucydides (iv. 106) as to the Pelasgian and Tyrrhenian population of the adjacent seaboard: also that Thucydides adopts the same general Pelasgian theory of early Greece, with the refinement that he regards the Pelasgian name as originally specific, and as having come gradually into this generic use.
Ephorus, relying on Hesiodic tradition of an aboriginal Pelasgian type in Arcadia, elaborated a theory of the Pelasgians as a warrior-people spreading (like "Aryans") from a "Pelasgian home," and annexing and colonizing all the parts of Greece where earlier writers had found allusions to them, from Dodona to Crete and the Troad, and even as far as Italy, where again their settlements had been recognized as early as the time of Hellanicur, in close connection once more with “Tyrrhenians.”
The copious additional information given by later writers is all by way either of interpretation of local legends in the light of Ephorus's theory, or of explanation of the name "Pelasgoi"; as when Philochorus expands a popular etymology "stork-folk" into a theory of their seasonal migrations; or Apollodorus says that Homer calls Zeus Pelasgian "because he is not far from every one of us,". The connection with Tyrrhenians which began with Hellanicus, Herodotus and Sophocles becomes confusion with them in the 3rd century, when the Lemnian pirates and their Attic kinsmen are plainly styled Tyrrhenians, and early fortress-walls in Italy (like those on the Palatine in Rome) are quoted as "Arcadian" colonies.
Modern writers have either been content to restate or amplify the view, ascribed above to Ephorus, that "Pelasgian" simply means "prehistoric Greek," or have used the name Pelasgian at their pleasure to denote some one element in the mixed population of the Aegean—Thracian, Illyrian. G. Sergi (Origine e diffusione della stirpe inedilerranea, Rome, 1895), followed by many anthropologists, describes as "Pelasgian" one branch of the Mediterranean or Eur-African race of mankind, and one group of types of skull within that race. The character of the ancient citadel wall at Athens, already mentioned, has given the name "Pelasgic masonry" to all constructions of large unhewn blocks fitted roughly together without mortar, from Asia Minor to Spain.
This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.