Aeolian Origins

Roger Woodard

Citation with persistent identifier: Woodard, Roger. “Aeolian Origins.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019).


In recent years it has been claimed that there is no archaeological evidence for the traditionally held view of a migration of Aeolian Greeks from Balkan Hellas to Anatolia in the early Iron Age.  The implications of such a claim are quite significant, as there undoubtedly exists an Aeolic dialect group, composed of Lesbian, Thessalian, and Boeotian – all descended from a Common Aeolic dialect.  Therefore, I propose, if an early Iron-Age migration of Aeolic speakers from the Balkan peninsula to Anatolia never occurred, then Common Aeolic was already spoken in Anatolia in the Bronze Age.  In other words, (1) Common Aeolic was the language of the Ahhiyawa (Achaeans), the Mycenaean community of western coastal Anatolia; (2) Lesbian is the in situ dialect of the descendants of that community; and (3) Thessalian and Boeotian are the dialects descended from Aeolians who migrated from Anatolia to Balkan Hellas in the Iron Age (which the archaeology does not nullify).  My project focuses on linguistic, literary, and cultural evidence pertinent to evaluation of this “reverse” migration hypothesis and an exploration of its implications.


In Hesperia 77:399–430 Rose argues that there is no archaeological evidence for the traditionally held view of a migration of Aeolian Greeks from Balkan Hellas to Anatolia in the early Iron Age.  I am accepting this argument as a working model.  The implications of doing so are quite significant, as there undoubtedly exists an Aeolic dialect group, composed of Lesbian, Thessalian, and Boeotian – all descended from a Common Aeolic dialect.  The working hypotheses of this monograph-length project are, thus, that (1) Common Aeolic was the language of the Ahhiyawa (Achaeans), the Mycenaean community of western coastal Anatolia; (2) Lesbian is the in situ dialect of the descendants of that community; and (3) Thessalian and Boeotian are the dialects descended from Aeolians who migrated from Anatolia to Balkan Hellas in the Iron Age (which the archaeology does not nullify).

Consequent to these hypotheses I am exploring the nature of Common Aeolic as a dialect spoken by a Mycenaean community separated from the Mycenaean homeland, surrounded by speakers of non-Greek languages, from the perspective of recent sociolinguistic work on language varieties whose speakers are isolated from their community of origin.  Such studies reveal two recurring conditions:  (1) commonly, a preservation of linguistic features in the isolated community of speakers that have disappeared in the language homeland; and (2) sporadically, occurrence of accelerated change of particular elements of the isolated language.  Findings from this sociolinguistic work are brought to bear on interpreting the Aeolic preservation of primitive Greek features and distinctive Common Aeolic innovations.  Conversely, Boeotian and Thessalian, with their conspicuous West Greek features, are examined in light of recent studies of contact-induced language change characterizing linguistic systems that are integrated into distinct language communities by speaker influx.

The Linear B documents preserve evidence of two separate dialects of Mycenaean Greek.  These have been conventionally identified as Normal Mycenaean (the common linguistic form) and Special Mycenaean (identified by a small set of distinctive isoglosses).  In this project I am reconsidering Special Mycenaean and exploring the prospect of adding additional isoglosses to the Special-Mycenaean feature set in light of the hypothesis that Common Aeolic was the language of the Mycenaean community of Anatolia.

I am examining the matter of Mycenaean patronymic adjectives, a formation shared with Aeolic and no other Greek dialect.  The same feature, however, also characterizes Anatolian Indo-European.  I am exploring the idea that Mycenaeans in western coastal Anatolia acquired this kinship formant through intermarriage with native Anatolian peoples and transmitted it to Balkan Mycenaean communities.  Relevant here is a predominance of Mycenaean patronymics in Linear B inventories of hekwetai ‘warrior allies’; this correlation entails, I propose, that the Mycenaean term hekwetās principally references Anatolian Mycenaean warriors present among the warrior bands enumerated in the Linear B documents.  This scenario suggests that movement of Anatolian Mycenaeans to the Balkan was a phenomenon of the Bronze Age as well, and in any case we should likely envision back-and-forth trafficking between the Mycenaeans of the Balkan peninsula and western coastal Anatolia in this period.

Foundation traditions that tie Boeotian and Thessalian cities to western coastal Anatolia are an important topic for this project.  I am exploring traditions such as the following:  the Hesiodic tradition of Boeotian settlement by Hesiod’s father Dius, coming out of Anatolian Cyme; various mythoi associated with Boeotus and Aeolus; the settlement of Thessaly by Thessalus of Cos; the foundation of Boeotian Thebes by the brothers Amphion and Zethus, their affiliation with the motif of the Indo-European divine twins (called Dioscuri, Leucopoli, and Leucippi), and distinct eastern Mediterranean elements in their dossier; the separate tradition of the foundation of Thebes by the Cadmeans and Anatolian features of the tradition.

As a community of Greeks that took shape in Bronze-Age Anatolia, intermarrying with native Anatolian peoples, the early Aeolians are situated crucially at the crossroads of inherited Indo-European tradition (likely more pronounced in the Mycenaean era than later) and borrowed eastern Mediterranean tradition.  Given the hypothesis advanced in this project, the Aeolian community of Anatolia, like the neighboring Greeks of Cyprus, would have escaped the destructions of ca. 1200 BC that brought about the demise of Mycenaean kingdoms in Greece and the Hittite empire in Anatolia.  In this light the early Aeolians, like the Cypriot Greeks, must be seen as playing a significant role in the dissemination of “Near Eastern” traditions to early Iron-Age Greece.  At the same time, there is evidence of the archaic Aeolian preservation of Indo-European myth.  For instance, I am examining the myth of the Seven Against Thebes, which I believe provides evidence of a conspicuous presence of both strains:  while some elements of the myth are paralleled in south Anatolian and Syro-Palestinian tradition, others appear to be reflected in the Rig Veda and the Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki.  An epic tradition of the heroic defense of an Aeolian city weaves together (borrowed) eastern Mediterranean and (inherited) Indo-European tradition.  And related to this aspect of the project, though to a degree distinct from it, is a reconsideration of the Aeolic element of epic language.

During the period of residency at the Center for Hellenic Studies in fall 2018 I completed a first draft of the monograph and revised the first nine chapters of the work.  Revision will continue during spring and summer 2109.  The implications of this research are potentially significant as it substantially changes our understanding of the migratory trajectory of the Aeolians and informs our interpretation of Mycenaean Anatolia and the transition to post-Mycenaean Anatolian Greek culture.  It also gives greater breadth and clarity to our view of how a Greek culture of Indo-European ancestry progressively incorporated eastern Mediterranean elements and, potentially, of the process by which Homeric epic tradition took shape in a “continuously” Aeolian Anatolia.  In broader perspective, the project underscores the fundamental migratory nature of the human species, a phenomenon of particular visibility at the present moment.

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