Monday, 30 December 2019


I just finished The Black Sea by Neil Acherson which has been a journey taking loops a long long way from the littoral of the Euxine Sea. Euxine? = hospitable is an alternative name more commonly used in English when writers were familiar with ancient Greek. We'll get to Tamga [L] in due course.

Euxine reminds me of the Εὐμενίδες, Eumenídes =The Kindly Ones as the 'nice' name of the Erinyes Ἐρινύες = Furies the vengeful chthonic relentless divine instruments of justice in ancinet greek mythology. The intrusive power of Alecto Megaera Tisiphone was so frightening that folks referred to them as Eumenides as a soft answer to turn away wrath. Same with the sea whose standard name in olde Greek Πόντος Ἄξεινος Póntos Áxeinos the inhospitable sea. Áxeinos being a corruption of an old Persian root *axšaina = dark coloured. The sea-bed is littered with wrecks so the transliterated name made some sort of sense.

I've learned a lot of random shite from reading Acherson's book, but that's okay: I'll forget 95% of it within the week. One of the biggest demographic players in the history of the Northern hinterland of the Black Sea were the Sarmatians (no; not Samaritans those lads lived in The Levant and the Good Ones were kind to strangers). Never 'eard of 'em? Me neither.  They were one of a rolling cast of interlopers from beyond the frontiers of civilisation. which included at different times Goths, Vandals, Huns, Mongols. Archaeologists are able to have a stab at whether these lads spoke an Indo-European language or Turkic based or something yet more exotic. But I think everyone is agreed that there was lot of miscegenation, and also a lot of language assimilation. 23andMe will have a field day with telling people that they aren't really whom they think they are. Unfortunately, knowing who you are (and where your people are buried) is invested with a lot more certainty than the evidence justifies. Far too often, the definition of Self requires The Other as a sort of definitional ante-mirror. The difference between civilised and barbarous might hinge on whether folk can rub along with The Other rather than polishing up the hatchet for the next pogrom.

For many of these migratory hordes, the Black Sea coast was a temporary posting before they swept off Westward on the tide of history. The Alans, for example, a subset of the Sarmatians, have claims to have named Alençon, Orléans, Valence in France and the Alentejo in Portugal.
One of the more tenuous claims to ancestry is when the szlachta of Poland and Lithuania believed they were direct descendants of Sarmatian horsemen. The Szlachta were the hereditary nobility who, regardless of their economic status or mental capacity, reckoned they were a cut above their proper common neighbours. As Acherson puts it "Its members ranged from princely damilies wealthier than many European kings to muddy-arsed squireens who dug and hoes their own patchhes of rye." Part of the illusion was vested in the peculiar armorial signifiers that, in some eyes, bore a striking resemblance to the Tamgas [a selection shown R] on artifacts that have been recovered from tombs more than 1000 years old.  Seems that you'd put the family tamga on a) your cattle and horses b) your spear, quiver and shield and whatever else was valued enough to finish up with you in your grave,
Shown L is a sample of Polish heraldic marks which have been used by particular families for as long as as anyone can remember. I guess its a bit like knights-in-armour in the more familiar to Westerner like me: medieval romances of Roland, The White Company, condottiere and the quattrocento and the Wars of the Roses. Each baron would have heraldic banners to identify the goodies and baddies. But those have been more a mix of geometric shapes and familiar objects and animals: lozenges, wolves, swords and cups rather than the opaque almost-writing symbols preferred by their counterparts in The East.

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