Albanian and the Paleo-Balkan Dialects and Pagan Religion

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Albanian and the Paleo-Balkan Dialects make up a group of Indo-European languages that are not closely related to each other but are grouped together for convenience. Most of them are recorded from the Balkans or northern Greece, though some are recorded in Italy or Turkey. The Paleo-Balkan dialects include: Dacian, Thracian, Moesian, Mysian, Old Macedonian, Illyrian, Messapic, Phrygian and Venetic.

Table of Contents
Paleo-Balkan Dialects
Moesian and Mysian
Old Macedonian
References #albanian


The Albanian language is still spoken by a small but nationalist group of people in the country of Albania and in nearby countries. It is one of the “mountain” languages that are both isolated and conserved by what are seen as surrounding hostile forces from the Romans in the late imperial age to the communist regime until quite recently. This isolation and hostility prevented the Albanians from learning to read or developing a written literature before 1500 and until the communist educational programs, no one ever learned to read in Albanian. The isolation and the rough geography of this area have preserved the language as it has in Wales and in the Pyrenees. The Albanians have deified Mount Tomor as their Deus Patri Tomo, since he has indeed protected them. There is a film about Mount Tomor on YouTube.

History and Geography
Some Albanians argue that Albanian is a descendant of the Illyrian language, but while little is known of that language, the archaeological finds that are claimed to be Illyrian are clearly Celtic while the Albanian language is certainly not Celtic. Albanian appears to be a descendant of Dacian, a language spoken in Romania until the destruction of the Dacians by the Roman army in 112 CE under Trajan (see Dacian below).

Jiracek Line map, showing division between Latin and Greek spheres in the Balkans Linguistics
There are two dialects of Albanian, Gheg and Tosk which are divided along the Jirecek Line (see map) which runs through Albania from east to west. This line marks a division originally between Roman influence from Italy versus Greek influence from Greece and Byzantia. Later it marked a division between the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church versus the Greek Orthodox Church. These linguistic, religious and alphabetic influences (among others, including Slavic introductions and Moslem religion, especially Ottoman Turkish control) have affected the forms and vocabulary of the Albanian dialects. [fuggle26]

Albania has considerable folklore which has been collected and published though not often translated into English. All translations into English are by Robert Elsie, the only western linguist working in this field. The Albanians were vaguely christianized but their calendar of feast days tells more about Pagan Gods and agricultural traditions than about Christianity. Albanian retains elements of the original Indo-European religion but with a Zoroastrian cast. For more information on Albanian, it is also possible to ask an Albanian on the Internet, since they are very active.

The Albanians were only nominally christianized since they lived in an area where the Roman Catholic Church, based in Italy, competed with the Greek Orthodox Church based in Byzantia for the Albanians’ souls, but neither could be bothered to translate their sacred texts into any language the Albanians knew. For their part, the Albanians had no interest in foreigners who only taxed and then drafted them for the military. Many Albanians today are Moslems after centuries of exploitation and coercion from the Ottoman Turks. The standard tactic that Moslems use to force people to convert is to have two tax rates, one for Moslems and one for non-Moslems. The tax rate is set for the village as a whole, and the non-Moslems have to split the tax bill for that village. As a few villagers convert to Islam, those who are left have a higher percentage of the bill, until the last holdout has to pay the entire village bill. That doesn't last long of course, so most Albanians had converted to Islam during the Ottoman empire. But generally Albanians are more interested in protecting Albanians than signing onto anyone else’s political or religious agenda.

A few of the deities known in this language are Djall, a Sun God; En, a god; oras, protective guardian spirits; Perendi, a Storm God; Prende, a Goddess of love; Tomor, a deified mountain; and Zot, “a god, any god,” sometimes identified with Zeus. Many of these appear in folklore, and many more appear christianized as saints. Albania was one of the earliest areas to be christianized however weakly and some of the earliest orthodox saints are christianized Pagan Gods from this region. Albania also has a number of Zoroastrian deities, or deities on the Zoroastrian side of the Pandemonium.

An old Pagan calendar can be reconstructed for Albania based on the Christian saints’ calendar, in which the names of the old Gods are christianized by calling them saint this or that and their festivals are clearly based on the agricultural and seasonal cycles. Agriculture was virtually the only means of survival in Albania but the culture is so conservative that it shares certain festival names with Hittite. It also shares some festivals with the Persians, such as Nevruz or Novruz, celebrated at the spring equinox.

There is no ancient, pre-Christian mythology recorded in Albanian, but the folk tales do carry forward some ancient myths, as can be seen by the names that appear in them.

References especially for Albanian
• There are excellent dictionaries and grammars published in print media.
• A brief description of the history of the Albanian language is given in the Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture by Mallory and Adams, pp. 8-11.
Nearly all Albanian literature that is published in English was translated by Robert Elsie. Here are two sets of translations that can be read on the internet.
Albanian Folktales translated by Robert Elsie
Albanian Legends translated by Robert Elsie

Paleo-Balkan Dialects

The Paleo-Balkan Dialects which follow became extinct during or soon after the Roman imperial period, roughly between 200 BCE and 400 CE, some earlier. They are known only from a few references in ancient literature or from inscriptions found at archaeological sites. #dacian


Dacian was the language spoken in most of the geographic area now known as Romania and Moldova (although other languages were spoken there also). The Dacians were destroyed, either killed, sold into slavery or driven out of the country by the Romans in 112 CE, after years of wars. By 270 CE, the Romans left Dacia but the country was so decimated by the Roman military activity, that there were not enough people left to defend it when tribes came in from the east. Nevertheless, a form of vernacular Latin which we now know as Romanian replaced Dacian in the region.

There are no documents actually in Dacian and the Roman description of the country which would have been written for the report on Trajan’s campaign has been lost. The Column of Trajan depicts this event from a Roman perspective and shows the Dacian people with their typical garments, weapons (a curved knife), etc. A few words of the Dacian language are known from classical texts, mainly names of healing herbs which were included in Greek copies of Galen. A few more words are identified as Dacian borrowings into the Romanian language based on the observation that they do not fit the expected form in a Romance language. Although the Dacian language is thought to have gone extinct in most of Romania not long after the Roman conquest, it seems to persist in modern Albanian. Some Dacians apparently moved to an enclave south of the Danube river, in western Bulgaria. The Dacians of this area seem to have become the (linguistic) ancestors of the Albanians.

The Dacians seem to have had a substantial and politically powerful priesthood which was hostile to the Roman conquest, and when the Romans eventually prevailed militarily there seems to have been a particular effort to destroy them, possibly because they represented an intransigent attitude toward the invaders. Some elements of a major temple and some of the features of later Albanian folklore indicate that this priesthood may have been Zoroastrian.

A number of carvings and inscriptions, in a more or less Greek or Roman style, give the names of some of the deities. Most are funeral stele with inscriptions addressed to “heroes”, Aesculapius, and Hygeia (a healing God and Goddess). These are known especially from Bulgaria, south of the Danube, after the Roman destruction. Ancient Dacian lead plaques depicting a Goddess speaking or singing have been found over the centuries and have been christianized as “Mary Orant” who is one of the major aspects of the Goddess Mary in the Greek Orthodox Church.

Based on archaeological finds, it seems that the deities were worshiped in temples similar to the way that they were in Greece, but little else is known. Many oil lamps, often with the name of the temple to which they belonged, have been found.

References especially for Dacian
Sorry, there aren't any at the moment. #thracian


The kingdom of Thrace is roughly continuous with the modern country of Bulgaria, south of the Danube River. This geographic region gives its name to an archaeological culture which is known especially for fabulous hoards found occasionally in Bulgaria, such as gold and silver tableware, especially rhytons (drinking cups) with animal heads and some repousse vessels like the Gundestrap cauldron. However the language spoken by the makers of these finds is unknown and unknowable. By classical times, there are enough references to Thracians in classical literature to make some identification of their language possible, but there is nothing to show that it can be identified backward to the earlier archaeological finds. In any case the Thracian-speakers lived in the southern Balkans and possibly also in the island of Samothrace, though most of what is known about them is recorded in the Greek language. Apart from a few references to names in classical texts and a very few inscriptions, there is nothing else known of Thracian and it became extinct as Greek reached its cultural height.

Tiny Timeline
550 BCE, earliest and only inscriptions in Thracian
480 BCE, Thracian Kingdom of Odrisses, with actual names
31 BCE, Thrace conquered by Rome
488 CE, Romans leave the Danube region and soon after Slavic-speaking tribes enter the region from the north. Bulgarian, the main modern language in this area is a southern Slavic language.

The Thracian religion is described by the Greeks as consisting of a series of complex prayers or songs produced by priests which they sang but did not write down. The deities whose names are mentioned include the theoi, Zalmoxis, Bendis, Bassareus, Nike at Samothrace, Dionysus (properly, Bacchus), Axieros, Leucothea, Derzalas, Semele, Kotys, and Orpheus. Bendis, Bacchus, Nike and Orpheus were adopted by the Greeks and became very important throughout the classical world. They are often specifically named as “Thracian” and yet little is known about their origin, or their function among the Thracians. Bendis appears in many bas reliefs in an iconography based perhaps on that of Artemis (Diana the Huntress) where she wears a short chiton, which is blown by the wind as she runs and she is often accompanied by a deer or a hound or both and she often carries a bow and arrows. In some images she is wearing hunting boots which come up to below the knee. In Rome, she was confused with Venus, the supposed ancestor of Julius Caesar, presumably because of the similarity of their names and so she appears in the Aeneid, (I:335-337 especially) wearing red leather hunting boots.

A few myths are attributed to the Thracians, though they are told in Greek, such as the story of Ariadne and Theseus. This myth has been identified with some images known from the silver hoards, but in fact there is nothing to make the identification certain. Myths about Heracles (Hercules) are set partly in a Thracian landscape and may represent some sort of Greek hostility toward the hinterlands since Heracles mostly kills or captures the representative animals of various ethnic groups, such as the Golden-horned Stag of the Herzegovinians.

Little is known about Thracian religious rituals. Archaeological records show that Thracians (or at least, people living in Thracia) are known to have worshiped at elaborate tombs which may have been dedicated to “heroes” with offerings left outside the doors. Greek classical sources describe the “Rites of Bendis” which were adopted by the Greeks, with a festival date of Thargelion 16. The Greeks seem to have turned “borrowed” deities into an excuse to party and so the festival of Bendis is described as a drunken riot in which guests raced on horseback at night carrying torches. The Rites of Dionysus are also described as raucous. Much has been written about the Mysteries of Orpheus, however since they are mysteries, very little is actually known. Many writers group Thracian and Dacian together but they can be distinguished phonologically.

References especially for Thracian
Serta Kazaroviana by Gabrielo Kazarov, Bulletin of the Institute of Bulgarian Archaeology, Sofia, 1955. #moesian

Moesian and Mysian

These two languages are combined because there is next to nothing known about either of them. Moesia (Superior and Inferior) are Roman administrative districts, not language areas. Moesia Superior in modern Serbia was probably a Celtic-speaking area, whereas Moesia Inferior (in modern Bulgaria), is a shifting mixture of Dacian, Thracian, Greek, Armenian and Scythian. The boundaries of the Roman provinces of Moesia kept changing to such a great degree that often they do not even overlap. The languages are identified from a few inscriptions (published in CIL 3), but there is not enough information to define their phonetic characteristics. Mysia is in Turkey. By 488 CE, the Romans had withdrawn from the Danube region and Greek became the culturally dominant language, used for inscriptions. Eventually the Slavic languages were introduced into this area.

The only deities named in inscriptions are the Heroi “Heroes,” and Domina “Lady,” presumably their mother. She appears as Matri Deum Magnae “Great Goddess Mother” in Moesia Inferior.

No myths are actually recorded from these languages. The exact importance of the Heroi and their mother is not known, though they have been compared to Demeter and the Horse Twins. The Heroi appear in many bas reliefs where they are referred to as Rider Gods, but this iconography seems to be based on the old Roman intimidation stelae which were set up to threaten “barbarians” during the Roman imperial campaigns. These images were eventually incorporated into Christianity as St. George. The Goddess, of course, was absorbed into Christianity as a form of Mary, Great Mother of the God(s).

In this area also, information about rituals is only known from archaeological finds. All offerings seem to be at burial sites which were destinations for worship. This compares closely with Greek Pagan practices and practice in the Greek Orthodox Church for that matter, but nothing is known in detail.

References especially for Moesian and Mysian
• The CIL books are the main source for the inscriptions known from Moesia but these do not represent any sort of linguistic unity.
• The only information about Mysian is brief references in classical sources, and a possible inscription from that area. #oldmace

Old Macedonian

The name Old Macedonian is used to refer to this language to distinguish it from (modern) Macedonian which is a Slavic dialect spoken today in the same general area, part of northern Greece and the modern country of Macedonia. Old Macedonian was spoken in the region ruled by the family of Alexander the Great and his father Phillip, in northern Greece (Macedonia and Thessaly). When Alexander the Great conquered Greece (332 BCE), the Old Macedonian language was absorbed culturally by Greek and fell out of use.

The few inscriptions from this area that give the names of Gods and Goddesses (CIL 3) seem to mainly identify Goddesses in other languages, such as Bendis (Thracian) and Tyche (Lydian). There are also a few words such as the names of herbs mentioned in the Lexicon of Hesychius.

References especially for Old Macedonian
• There aren't any at the moment! #illyrian


Two different groups of people are identified as Illyrians in ancient sources. One is the Illyrians of Troy who are thought to have removed to Italy after the destruction of their city, as told in the Iliad. The other is known from some references to people of Epirus, and the western Balkans, including Herzegovina. Both are referred to in mythological texts which cannot be securely dated or located, and in both, Hyllus or Illys is the eponymous ancestor of the tribe and has the same divine parents. The Illyrians referred to here are the Illyrians associated with northern Greece and the Balkans.

Tiny Timeline
380 BCE, Illyrian kingdom founded, some (legendary) kings named
9 BCE, Illyria conquered by Rome
488 CE, Romans leave the Danube region

Inscriptions in the region of Illyria (provinces of Dalmatia and Epirus) include many languages, mostly in the Roman alphabet and context (e.g. votive offerings connected to the Roman legions). Some are noticeably Celtic), such as Epona and this seems to be the language family that can be identified most closely with the Illyrians. Inscriptions for this area are published in the CIL books, mainly in the third volume.

There is not enough known about an Illyrian language to even determine its phonological characteristics. The three deities that I could find are Dualos, Mezana and Zis. Two of these have correspondents in Messapic (see next), namely Zis and Menzana. Some of the kings and queens of the Illyrian dynasties seem to have names which might be the names of deities, such as Queen Teuta. There are no myths known directly from these languages, though the stories told about Heracles are sometimes set in these areas. Some rituals of the typical food offering kind, such as the ones for Epona, can be reconstructed based on archaeological finds.

References especially for Illyrian
Dalmatia by J. J. Wilson, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1969.
Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, CIL Volume 3 for Dalmatia, Pannonia and Noricum #messapic


Messapic is thought to be closely related to Illyrian because many of the same names appear in both, but it is recorded only in the area of Calabria and Apulia in southern Italy. Inscriptions are dated to about 550 BCE, for example Zis appears in an inscription at Vaste, a city in Apulia. All that is known is printed in Prae-Italic Dialects in the second volume.

References especially for Messapic
Prae-Italic Dialects of Italy (3 volumes) by R. S. Conway, J Whatmough, and S. E. Johnson, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1933. #phrygian


Since Phrygian is known from a few finds in central and eastern Turkey, it is not strictly speaking a Balkan dialect, but it is grouped with them for convenience. Only a few inscriptions are known in Old Phrygian from the 8th century BCE, and in New Phrygian texts from the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE; and there are a few words given in classical sources. There is very little vocabulary known but tios ‘God’ and tiveia ‘Goddess’ and Bedu are recorded. The myth of the origin of the Phrygians from the children Hellas and Phrygia is told in Greek sources, as well as the myths of King Midas.

References especially for Phrygian
• None at the moment since all the bizland references have disappeared, but I will try to amend that. #venetic


Venetic is recorded in about 250 inscriptions, most of them found in a temple near the city of Este, north of Venice, Italy. It's important not to confuse this group with the Veneti of northern Europe who spoke a language closer to the Germanic or Slavic group. The language and later the city of Venice are named for the Veneti, tribes in northern Italy who were assimilated by the imperial Romans after which the language fell out of use. The inscriptions date from the 6th to the 1st century BCE, and are mainly votive offerings. The inscriptions are easily transcribed and translated since the alphabet is easy to read. Often there is a formulaic inscription naming the giver and the Goddess.

Although the vocabulary is limited, the language can be reconstructed and looks similar to the Italic languages, and it shares features with the Celtic languages too. The major temple is for the Goddess Reitia and her name appears many times in the inscriptions. Another deity is Louzera, a deity of vegetation, growth and viticulture, according to Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture which has entries for the Venetic languages and Este culture.

It is impossible to believe that the temple site at Este represents the whole of Venetic religion, however, it provides almost all of the information that we have about it. Based on archaeological finds, it is known that the people gave offerings such as bronze horse models, pins, and alphabets written out. It seems that writing was an act with sacred significance and it was an important part of the ritual, so the pins may have been styli. Some images on decorated metal (such as sacred situli) are thought to show funeral rites. A situla is a water bucket and the Indo-Europeans seem to have had a lot of sacred water buckets.

References especially for Venetic
Venetic inscriptions website put together by Adolphus Zavaroni. This is the main page; click on Este, the site where most of the inscriptions were found.
Prae-Italic Dialects of Italy (3 volumes) by R. S. Conway, J Whatmough, and S. E. Johnson, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1933. Only Volume II, by Joshua Whatmough contains information about the Venetic language. #references.

General References for Albanian and the Paleo-Balkan Dialects

Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, ed. by Theodore Mommsen, Akademie der Wissenschaften der DDR, Berlin, 1873, mainly Volume 3, for Asia, Provinces of Greek Europe and Illyria.
Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical Analysis of a Proto-Language and a Proto-Culture, (Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 80, 2 Vol. Set), by Thomas V. Gamkrelidze and Vjaceslav V. Ivanov, with Werner Winter, ed., and Johanna Nichols, translator (original title Indoevropeiskii iazyk i indoevropeistsy), M. De Gruyter, Berlin & NY, 1995.
The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, by J. P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006.
Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture, ed. by J. P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams, Fitzroy Dearborn, London, 1997. This book has individual entries for most of these languages.

© 2009, last updated 3/22/2017,