Tarshish and the Origins of the Gaelic Language: 1

Last night at the launch of my friend Roger Blaney’s book Presbyterians and the Irish Language I spoke of Phoenicia and the origins of the Gaelic Language.

Phoenicia was the ancient name of a very small country situated between the 34th and 36th degrees of north latitude on the Eastern Mediterranean Coast to the North of Palestine.  The northern boundary is stated by our old friend Ptolemy to be the River Eleutherus and Pliny, Mela and Stephanus place it rather more northward in the island of Aradus, but the confines of the Republic must have varied at different times.  On the coast were numerous cities – the most famous were Tyre and Sidon.  The climate of that place was agreeable and salubrious, and the soil fertile and productive, so that this Land of Lebanon was a prosperous and pleasant land.

 But listen with me to the words of the Prophet Ezekiel in his 27th chapter of the Book of God written about 500 B.C. when the Tyrians had already been trading for centuries – “Say unto Tyre, O Thou that art situate at the entry of the sea, and carry on merchandise with the people of many isles, thus saith the Lord God, ‘O Tyre, thou has said, “I am of perfect beauty. Thy borders are in the midst of the seas, thy builders have perfected thy beauty.  They have made all thy shipboards of fir trees of Senir, and have taken cedar trees of Lebanon to make thy masts.  Of the oaks of Bashan have they made thine oars; the company of Asurites have made thine hatches of well worked ivory, brought out of Chittim.  It was of fine linen and Phrygian broidered work from Egypt which thou madest thy spreading sails; and thy covering was of the blue and purple of the isles of Elishas.  The Sidonains and the men of Arvad were mariners in thy service, and wise men thy Pilots, O Tyre were in thee.  The elders of Gabel, and their able workmen were those who caulked the seams of thy vessels, and all the ships of the sea were employed in carrying thy merchandise.

The merchants of Tarshish traded at thy fairs on account of the great variety of all kind of thy riches, and brought silver, iron, tin and lead to thy market.  The ships of Tarshish did sing in praise of thy commerce, and thou wert replenished and made glorious in every part of the ocean.  Thy rowers brought thee into great waters, the east wind hath broken thee in the midst of the seas.  What city is like Tyre, like the destroyed in the midst of the sea.  When thy waves went forth out of the seas, thou fillest many peoples; thou didst enrich the kings of the earth with the multitude of thy riches and they merchandise’.  “Where Ezekiel speaks of the rich purple dyes from the Isles of Elishas we may have the first written reference to the British Isles.  The purple dyes of our Islands were celebrated among the later Greeks and Romans and were very expensive.

These words of Ezekiel were of a Phoenecia in decline, but they show the magnificence of the great Ships which plied between Tarshish and Tyre in Olden Times.  Traditionally Tarshish has been connected with the region of Tartessos in Southern Spain, which is known principally from a Greek logbook, the Massaliote Periplus of the 6th century BC. (Ora Maritima of Festus Avienus), and thought to be in the Guadalquiver valley.  But Tarshish stood also for all the lands of the far west with which the Phoenecians traded, for it was the collecting point for produce from West Africa, tin from the mines of North-west Spain, or the richer deposits of Cornwall, as well as the rich mines of silver and other metals to which the navigable rivers of Guadiana and Guadalquiver gave easy access.  The tin islands (Casssiterides) were reached from Brittany, and are always distinguished from the British mainland.  Strabo dates the settlements west of the straits of Gibraltar soon after the time of Tyre’s first expansion which we know from the travelogue of the Egyptian Den-Ameer, written about 1070 B.C. was already in progress.

It was the special trade with Tarshish which made the commercial greatness of the Phoenicians, and led to their colonisation of Spain and the West African coast.  This explains why the latter settlements are related to the earliest phase of Tyrian and Sidonian expansion in the early centuries of the first millennium B.C.  Thus the farthest points were settled first, and the need for intermediate stations to secure connection was felt later.  Josephus has fortunately preserved for us extracts from two Hellenistic historians, Dius and Menander of Ephesus, which supply us with a synopsis of the history of the Golden Age of Tyre.  Thus we learn that Hiram 1, son of Abibal, reigned from 980 to 946 B.C. and was the great friend of Solomon, king of the Jews.  The relations between Jews and Phoenecians had been generally friendly before this; it appears from Judges V. 17, Genesis XLIX, 13 and 20, that Asher, Zebulon, and Dan acknowledged some dependence on Sidon and had in return a share in its commence.

The two nations grew closer under the kings.  Hiram built David’s palace (2 Samuel, V, 11), and also gave Solomon cedar and fir trees from Lebanon, as well as workmen for his palace and temple, receiving in exchange large annual payments of oil and wine.  With similar commercial interests it was only natural that the two kings should send joint expeditions to King Solomon’s Mines on the coast of Aqaba at Ophir, and to the British Isles via Tarshish.  What were the names of the two great islands by which they knew them?  Our earliest sources are Greet so that we don’t really know, though Avienus writing about the year 380 A.D. (Ora Maritima) mentions the voyage of Himilco the Phoenecian to Ireland in the year 510 B.C. and Himilco states our island to be called Sacra, its inhabitants to be mariners navigating in hide-covered barks to the Irish Sea.  That these people were not Celts we can see in their matrilinear form of inheritance, the polyandrous nature of their society and their original non-Indo-European speech, which survived latest in Caledonia.

We know that Tartessos had been trading with the Greeks since the voyage of Colaeus beyond the Pillars of Hercules about 638 B.C.  On the site of present day Marseilles in Southern France, the enterprising Greek mariners of Phocaea in Asia Minor founded about 600 B.C. the colony of Massalia (in Latin Massilia).  This settlement of Greeks in waters which the Phoenecians and their children the Carthaginians jealously reserved for their own commerce was not effected without a naval conflict.  It is, indeed, not improbable that the Phoenecians were settled at Marseilles before the Greek period, and that the very name of the place is Phoenician.The people from Tartessos became important trading partners of the Phoenicians, whose presence in Iberia dates from the 8th century BC, and who nearby built a harbour of their own, Gades (present-day Cadiz).

The great fall of the Ionic cities before the Persians, however, cut off the remote city of Massalia from close connection with the mother country.  Isolated amidst alien productions, the Massaliots made their way by the greatest prudence in dealing with the inland tribes, by the vigilant administration of their oligarchial government, and by frugality and temperance united to remarkable commercial and naval enterprise.  Their colonies spread east and west along the coast from Monaco to Cape St. Martin in Spain, carrying with them the worship of Artemis.

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