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Sicel language

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Title: Sicel language  
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Sicel language

Not to be confused with the Szekely, also called Siculi in Latin.

The Sicels (Latin Siculi; Greek Σικελοί Sikeloi) were an Italic tribe who inhabited eastern Sicily during the Iron Age. Their neighbours to the west were the Sicani. The Sicels gave Sicily the name it has held since antiquity, but they rapidly fused into the culture of Magna Graecia.


Archaeological excavation has shown some Mycenean influence on Bronze Age Sicily. The earliest literary mention of Sicels is in the Odyssey. Homer also mentions Sicania, but makes no distinctions: "they were a faraway place and a faraway people and apparently they were one and the same" for Homer, Robin Lane Fox notes.[1] There are four incidental mentions of Sicels or Sicania, as a source for a devoted household slave or a likely place to sell a slave.

It is possible that the Sicels and the Sicani of the Iron Age had consisted of an Illyrian population who (as with the Messapians) had imposed themselves on a native, Pre-Indo-European ("Mediterranean") population.[2] Thucydides[3] and other classical writers were aware of the traditions according to which the Sicels had once lived in Central Italy, east and even north of Rome.[4] Thence they were dislodged by Umbrian and Sabine tribes, and finally crossed into Sicily. Their social organization appears to have been tribal, their economy, agricultural. According to Diodorus Siculus,[5] after a series of conflicts with the Sicani, the river Salso was declared the boundary between their respective territories.

The common assumption is that the Sicels were the more recent arrivals; that they had introduced the use of iron into Bronze Age Sicily and brought the domesticated horse. This would date their arrival on the island to the early first millennium BCE. But there is some evidence that the ethnonym may predate the Iron Age, based on the name Shekelesh given to one of the Sea Peoples in the Great Karnak Inscription (late 13th century BCE).

The Sicel necropolis of Pantalica, near Syracuse, is the best known, and the second largest one is the Necropolis of Cassibile, near Noto; their elite tombs "a forno" or "oven-shaped" take the form of beehives.

The chief Sicel towns were: Agyrium (Agira); Centuripa or Centuripae (Centorbi, but now once again called Centuripe); Henna (later Castrogiovanni, which is a corruption of Castrum Hennae through the Arabic Qasr-janni, but since the 1920s once again called Enna); and three sites named Hybla: Hybla Major, called Geleatis or Gereatis, on the river Symaethus; Hybla Minor, on the east coast north of Syracuse (possibly pre-dating the Dorian colony of Hyblaean Megara); and Hybla Heraea in the south of Sicily.

With the coming of Greek colonists— both Chalcidians, who maintained good relations with the Sicels, and Dorians, who did not—[6] and the growing influence of Greek civilization, the Sicels were forced out of most of the advantageous port sites and withdrew by degrees into the hinterland. Sixty kilometres (forty miles) from the coast of the Ionian Sea, Sicels and Greeks exceptionally lived side by side in Morgantina to the extent that historians argue whether it was a Greek polis or a Sicel city. Greek goods, especially pottery, moved along natural routes, and eventually Hellenistic influences can be observed in regularised Sicel town planning. However, in the middle of the fifth century BCE a Sicel leader, Ducetius, was able to create an organised Sicel state as a unitary domain in opposition to Greek Syracusa, including several cities in the central and south of the island. After a few years of independence, his army was defeated by the Greeks in 450 BCE, and he died ten years later. Without his charisma, the movement collapsed and the increasingly Hellenized culture of the Sicels lost its distinctive character. But in the winter of 426/5 Thucydides noted the presence among the allies of Athens in the siege of Syracuse of Sicels who had "previously been allies of Syracuse, but had been harshly governed by the Syracusans and had now revolted" (Thucydides 3.103.1) Aside from Thucydides, the Greek literary sources on Sicels and other pre-Hellenic peoples of Sicily are to be found in fragmentary scattered quotes from the lost material of Hellanicus of Lesbos and Antiochus of Syracuse.


Region Sicily
Era attested 6th–3rd century BCE
Language family
  • (unclassified)
    • Sicel
Language codes
ISO 639-3 scx
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Linguistic studies have suggested that the Sicels may have spoken an Indo-European language[7] and occupied eastern Sicily as well as southern Italy[8] whereas the Sicani (Greek: Sikanoi) and Elymi (Greek Elymoi) inhabited central and western Sicily. It is likely that the two latter peoples still spoke non-Indo-European languages, although this is far from certain, particularly with regard to the Elymian language, which some would consider related to Ligurian or to Anatolian.

Of the Sicel language the little that is known is derived from glosses of ancient writers and from a very few inscriptions, not all of which are demonstrably Siculan.[9] It is thought that the Sicels did not employ writing until they were influenced by the Greek colonists. The first inscription, of ninety-nine Greek letters, was found on a spouted jug found in 1824 at Centuripe;[10] it uses a Greek alphabet of the 6th or 5th century BCE. Four Sicel inscriptions have been found in recent decades. An important inscription has been found at Centuripe.

The best evidence for Sicel having been of Indo-European derivation is the verb form pibe "drink", a second-person singular present imperative active exactly cognate with Latin bibe (and Sanskrit piba, etc.), but it may just have been a loan word; pibe itself is not enough evidence to assign Sicel as an Indo-European language.[11] Membership in the Italic branch, perhaps even close to Latino-Faliscan cannot be ruled out: Varro states that Sicel language was strictly allied to Latin as many words sounded almost identical and had the same meaning, such as oncia, lytra, moeton (Lat. mutuum).[12] The longest and most well known Sicel inscription is scratched on the lid of a guttus (vine jug) found in 1824 near Centuripe (ancient Centuripae, then Centorbi). It reads:


There have been various attempts at interpreting it (e.g. V. Pisani 1963, G. Radke 1996) with no sure results.


Their characteristic cult of the Palici is influenced by Greek myth in the version that has survived, in which the local nymph Talia bore to Adranus, the volcanic god whom the Greeks identified with Hephaestus, twin sons, who were "twice-born (palin "again"; ikein "to come"), born first of their nymph mother, and then of the earth, because of the "jealousy" of Hera, who urged Mother Earth, Gaia, to swallow up the nymph. Then the soil parted, giving birth to the twins, who were venerated in Sicily as patrons of navigation and of agriculture. In the most archaic level of Greek mythology, a titan, Tityos, grew so large that he split his mother's womb and had to be carried to term by Gaia herself. He came to the attention of later Greek mythographers only when he attempted to waylay Leto near Delphi. If such a mytheme is set into action as ritual, it is usual to see a pair of sacrificial children laid in the earth to encourage the green growth.

In the temple to Adranus, father of the Palici, the Sicels kept an eternal fire. A god Hybla(or goddess Hyblaea), after whom three towns were named, had a sanctuary at Hybla Gereatis. The connection of Demeter and Kore with Henna (the rape of Proserpine) and of the nymph Arethusa with Syracuse is due to Greek influence.


See also


  • Thucydides, vi.2 and vi.4.6
  • Price, Glanville Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe s.v. "Sicel (Siculan)"

Further reading

  • L. Bernabò Brea, 1966. Sicily Before the Greeks (revised edition; originally published in Italian, 1966)

External links

  • Archaic Italy: the Siculi (URL Checked 2006-03-26)
  • Sicilian Peoples: The Sicels by Vincenzo Salerno [1]

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