History Files


Prehistoric Britain

Pytheas and Britain

by Peter Kessler & Edward Dawson, 23 December 2016

Around 325 BC, a Greek geographer and explorer by the name of Pytheas of Massalia undertook a voyage of exploration to north-western Europe.

In the process he became the first scholar to note details about the Celtic and Germanic tribes there. His voyage took him from the Pillars of Herakles (the modern Straits of Gibraltar), along the Atlantic coast of Spain and France, and to Armorica (modern Brittany), where he noted various Celtic tribes. At least some of those he mentioned can be linked to tribes which were also present in the region during the conquests of Julius Caesar in the first century BC.

During his trip he visited the British Isles, before finally making his way to Scandinavia, noting various tribes there and perhaps being the first man to note the name 'Thule', a far-northern location in classical European literature and cartography.

Pytheas in Britain

His time within the vicinity of the British Isles produced various interesting points. Apparently he travelled extensively around the 'isles', making notes of what he saw, and also provided what may be the earliest written report of Stonehenge.

He named the promontory of Kantion (land of the Cantii - modern Kent), the promontory of Belerion (land of the Cornovii - modern Cornwall), and Orkas (the Orkneys). To ascertain these names he must have visited each location, and probably many others besides. Belerion, he recorded, was home to a civilised people who were especially hospitable to strangers, apparently due to their dealings with foreign merchants who were involved in the tin trade. [1]

He also named the British Isles themselves the 'Prettanic' isles, although the spelling varies thanks to the translation from his original Greek. Whether he coined this name himself or (more likely) gained it from the inhabitants is unknown. Later sources recorded the name of Alba (meaning 'white') for the British Isles, and Ere (meaning 'west') for Erin (Ireland). 'Prettanic', on the other hand, refers not to the islands but to the people of the islands. The '-an' suffix is a plural suffix which is used in this case to indicate an entire people.

Later, when about two-thirds of the eastern island was held by the Romans, Alba was exiled to the far north - much as some of the region's inhabitants had been, marginalised by later arrivals such as the Celts, or escaping there to avoid the Romans.

The spelling of 'Prettanic' can vary, as mentioned. It can be shown with one 't' or two, and the final 'k' sound can either be written as a 'k' or as a 'c'. This is due only to different alphabets used by Romans and Greeks. Prettanic became something like Pretan to the Celts (or was already being used by them in this fashion), Britannia to the Romans, Prydein to the Welsh, and Britain to the English.

Ptolemy's map of Britain
The details recorded by Pytheas were interpreted by Ptolemy in the second century AD, and this 1490 Italian reconstruction of the section covering the British Isles and northern Gaul shows Ptolemy's characteristically lopsided Scotland at the top

[1] The tin trade may have begun as early as the sixteenth century BC, with visits to south-western Britain by Minoans and then Phoenicians being likely, so the occupants of the south-western peninsula had a long tradition of working and trading with more advanced cultures.

Name analysis

Prettanic is made up of three elements, these being 'pret', plus '-an', plus '-ic'.

The '-ic' suffix is a near-universal Indo-European suffix which is still used in English as '-ic' and '-ish' - 'Scandic, English'. As mentioned, the '-an' suffix refers to an entire people.

As for 'pret-', its meaning is obscure. Guesses can be made but it cannot be identified with certainty. Since the Q-Celtic language of Gaelic uses a hard 'k' sound to denote the Britons, as 'cruit, crut', then its usual to assume that the original form was a 'k', ergo 'kret-' not 'pret-'.

It's possible that this is incorrect, that the Irish may have assumed that the 'p' they heard should be a 'k', but most probably the original really was 'kret-'. A common guess is that it is from a word for 'form', 'kretta'. This is possible but it does seem unlikely, given the violent warrior culture of these people.

Another possibility is that there is a vowel missing. If there was originally a vowel between the 'k' and the 'r', then that opens up interesting possibilities.

In Latin a word for spear is 'curis' or 'queris'. That would provide a meaning along the lines of 'The Spear People', although as a possible source for 'Prettanic' that possibility seems slight. More intriguing is that perhaps the Latin for chalk, 'creta', is a close cognate of an unrecorded proto-Celtic word for chalk. That would make perfect sense given that the first impression of Britain from the shore of France at Pas de Calais is the chalk cliffs of Dover.

One other thing to remember is that, between the time Pytheas visited and the time in which Julius Caesar made his rather unsuccessful exploratory invasion, in the south of the island the 'p' was changed to a 'b'.

This was due to the migration of the 'Second Wave' P-Celtic-speaking Celts of the La Tène culture, largely replacing the earlier Q-Celtic in the south and east and pushing its speakers to the north, far west, and Ireland.

Note that a 'p' gets changed to a 'b' both in modern Welsh and in Cornish, depending on the sounds in use nearby. This is a continuation of the P-Celtic tradition.

The Q-Celtic to P-Celtic change

At some point in the homeland of the Celts - modern Switzerland, southern Germany, Bavaria, and western sections of Austria - the language there was altered due to some kind of influence. The migration from the Black Sea of Thraco-Cimmerian Indo-Europeans with a similar language is one of the favourite explanations, but also one of the most hotly-contested ones.

The change also occurred in Italic languages. A 'kw' sound ('qu' in Latin) was replaced by a 'p' by Celtic speakers. Most Italic speakers also changed to a 'p', except for the inhabitants of Latium (the early Romans). The only Celtic speakers not to take on board this change were those who were already outside the homeland areas, such as in Iberia and Ireland, and probably north-western Gaul too. They were later marginalised and pushed ever further west and north by a new wave of Celtic migrants, so P-Celtic became the dominant form of the language. This change, which did not occur in Ireland, explains why they continued to call the Britons 'crut-'.

Britain, as the name is pronounced today, appears to be a Roman alteration of the Brythonic word which started (by the time the Romans arrived) with a 'p'. It is retained today by the Welsh as the aforementioned Prydein. Southern Brythonic speakers may have used a 'b' themselves, at least to start with, but these speakers were isolated in the west by the arrival of the P-Celtic speakers to become the Dumnonians of Devon and Cornwall. The modern Cornish version of the name is 'Breten').

While seemingly resistant to intermixing with the neighbouring Celts to the east, the Dumnonii of Britain's south-western peninsula were still notably friendly to strangers, and also benefited from the tin trade with merchants from the length and breadth of the Mediterranean

So if 'Prettanic' is Celtic in origin, then an examination of similar words in proto-Celtic beginning with 'kw' might discover its meaning. The most likely candidate appears to be *kʷrit-jo- (?), meaning 'poet', *kʷrito-, 'poetry'. Could the country have been the '[land of] poets'?

Other words which have the required structure are *kʷrit-er-āje/o- (?) 'consider, look after', or *kʷritero- (?) possibly meaning 'care', or *kʷrīto-, 'expensive', or *kʷritu-, 'form'. Notice that none of those make any sense!

It was in Britain that the centre of the druidic practice was based. Druids were trained to memorise, and what they memorised was mostly poetry. Could the name 'Britain' simply be a reference to the island being the source of the druids? It's either that or the tenuous 'The Spear People'.


Main Sources

David K Faux - The La Tene Celtic Belgae Tribes in England: Y-Chromosome Haplogroup R-U152 - Hypothesis C

David K Faux - A Genetic Signal of Central European Celtic Ancestry

Fritz Hommel - The Civilisation of the East, translated by J H Loewe, Elibron Classic Series, 2005

Anne Katrine Gade Kristensen - Who were the Cimmerians, and where did they come from? Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, Hist-fil. Medd 57

Kristian Kristiansen - Europe Before History

David Rankin - Celts and the Classical World, 1996

Online Sources

The Works of Julius Caesar: Gallic Wars

Chiemgau Impact

Archaeology News Network



Text copyright © P L Kessler and Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.