Ancient Sparta, the most famous city of the Peloponnesos in southern Greece, was Dorian. The ancient Greeks divided themselves into several ethno-linguistic groups, and the Dorians were one of them: there were also Ionians, Achaians, Aiolians, and so on.
But there’s a legend that the Dorians didn’t always live in the Peloponnesos. They invaded eighty years after the Trojan War, led by descendents of Herakles. They displaced or conquered the people who previously lived there. Supposedly.
Modern historians don’t regard the Dorian invasion as historical. They do sometimes still talk of a Dorian migration, though even that isn’t taken super seriously. Outside academia, though, it’s regularly taken for granted that the Dorian migration is an established fact; and that the Dorians came from outside Greece, somewhere to the north.
Why? Well, first, it takes time for old theories to dissipate. Scholarly ‘drag’ is a problem.
Second, ancient accounts of the Dorian invasion myth aren’t going to just vanish.
And third, the myth is really really appealing to racists.
In particular, the Nazis — I mean the 1930s German ones, not the modern ones who ban books like Maus — treated the Dorian migration as a part of their insane racial theories. And, given that Sparta is an important symbol for white nationalists, it isn’t hard to see why this bit of Nazi crackpottery is also attractive to modern racists.
Where the Dorians came from
In any case, our ancestors weren’t living [in Germany] back then. At most they passed through it: our land was a pigsty. If anyone asks about our ancestors, we must always point at the Greeks!Hitler, ‘table talk’, 18/19 Jan. 1942
If you google a map of the ‘Dorian migration’, you’ll almost always find something like this.
|Notice the arrows indicating that the Dorians — and other ancient invaders — came from somewhere far to the north. There is no historical or archaeological basis for this notion.|
The main source people draw on for the idea of Dorians coming from ‘the north’ is Herodotos. Here’s what Herodotos actually says.
... the Dorians migrated a great deal. For in the time of the king Deukalion, they lived in the land of Pthiotis; then in the time of Doros son of Hellen, in the region beneath Ossa and Olympos, called ‘Histiaiotis’; they were forced by the Kadmeians to leave Histiaiotis, and they lived in the Pindos (mountains), in the place called Makednos; then again they went from that place to Dryopis; and from Dryopis they came to the Peloponnesos and were called Dorian.
Herodotos, Histories 1.56
|Note. If you follow the link to the published edition, observe the footnote: these locations ‘are all in northern Greece’. That’s a dogwhistle, trying to weasel in the notion that the Dorians are invaders from somewhere beyond northern Greece.|
And here’s an accurate rendition of the Dorians’ route according to Herodotos.
|Herodotos’ Dorians simply do a circuit around the plain of Thessaly. People really don’t like depicting this accurately when writing articles about the ‘Dorian invasion’.|
Now, the Nazis didn’t invent the idea of the classical Greeks coming from northern Europe. Back in 1824, Karl Otfried Müller’s book Die Dorier (‘the Dorians’) had claimed that they came from the north, ‘appearing’ in Thrace on the northern edge of Greece. Müller simply cherry-picked the bits of Herodotos he liked, and rejected the rest:
No one will regard this coherent account [in Herodotus] as flowing directly from ancient tradition; we can only regard it as the father of history’s personal scientific attempt to sort and arrange various sagas and traditions with each other; ... Eliminating this, we come to the second statement, which bears the stamp of ancient tradition: ‘Doros lived at Olympos and Ossa.’ Here, then, we latch on to genuine memory ... The Olympos range ... is also the place where the Dorians first appear in Greece.
Müller’s notion is based on cherry-picking. Yet ‘the Dorians came from outside Greece’ is deeply embedded in how northern and western European historians think.
Standard tradition, e.g. Thuc[ydides] 1.12, held that the Dorians were newcomers who subjected the Achaeans when they arrived in Greece and especially the Peloponnese ...S. Hornblower, ‘Dorians’, Oxford Classical Dictionary (4th ed. 2012)
Hornblower is a well known historian who has written a major commentary on Thucydides, so presumably he is aware that Thucydides doesn’t say the Dorians ‘arrived in Greece’. Neither does any other ancient source. In reality, ‘standard tradition’ held that they moved from one part of Greece to another.
In the 80th year [after the Trojan War] the Dorians occupied the Peloponnesos with the descendents of Herakles.Thucydides 1.12
Arrived in the Peloponnesos, yes. Arrived in Greece, no. An accidental slip? Perhaps. But it has some really bad baggage.
|Note. Ancient sources on the legend of the Dorian invasion/return of the Herakleids:
Diffusionism; Atlantis; Nordic ‘Hellenes’ and Slavic ‘Greeks’
The Germanics who stayed in Holstein were still flunkies after two thousand years, while their brothers who migrated to Greece rose up to civilisation. More than any other characteristic, what stays constant is the fodder. The soup I’ve found in Holstein is, I’m convinced, the soup of the Spartans.Hitler, ‘table talk’, 9 Feb. 1942
In the 18th–19th centuries, histories of early migrations typically took a ‘diffusionist’ stance. Diffusionism refers to the idea that cultural and racial traits originated once, and spread out from a single origin: cultural commonality is always monogenetic, never polygenetic.
Until the 1750s the usual assumption was that ancient Israel, the culture of the Old Testament, was the origin point of all human culture. That began to change with Voltaire’s Essay on the customs and esprit of nations (1756), which turned to ancient India instead.
And then along came Jean-Sylvain Bailly, who was deeply interested in Plato’s story of Atlantis. Bailly reconciled Plato’s Atlantis with Voltaire’s orientalism by claiming that Atlantis wasn’t a sunken continent in the Atlantic Ocean: it was actually one and the same thing as the long-lost northern land of Hyperborea. (In reality, Hyperborea is just as fictional as Atlantis: see my previous articles on Atlantis and Hyperborea). Bailly blended this with a form of euhemerism, the notion that myths have a kernel of truth. So when people go beneath the earth in Greek myth, like Herakles or Persephone, supposedly that’s because the myth originated in a place where the sun periodically vanished from the sky — the far north, Hyperborea, which in Greek means ‘beyond the north’.
An outstanding article by Dan Edelstein shows that Bailly transformed Atlantis into a ‘floating signifier’: a mobile geographical label. Once Bailly put Atlanteans in Hyperborea, anyone could transplant them anywhere.
... [R]ather than orientalize Atlantis, [Bailly] Atlanticized the Orient, making a snow-white, northern European people, the Hyperboreans, responsible for the cultural achievements and splendors of the East. ... In this Atlantean version, Orientalism became a means of honoring Western accomplishments; the present Enlightenment simply the completion of the Atlantean odyssey.Edelstein 2006: 273
Atlantis could be anywhere, Atlanteans could be anyone. Anyone that a northern European racist wanted to admire could be Nordic — including the ancient Greeks.
And by 1842 we find Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the English politician and novelist, saying precisely that.
For the pure Greeks, the Hellenes, whose origin has bewildered your dreaming scholars, were of the same great family as the Norman tribe, born to be the lords of the universe ...Bulwer-Lytton, Zanoni p. 137
He goes on to talk of the ‘sons of Hellas’ — that is, including Hellen’s son Doros — coming from ‘northern Thrace’, and refers to ‘blue-eyed Minerva’ and ‘yellow-haired Achilles’ (tendentious translations both) as signs of ‘Nordic’ race.
So the racists had their ‘Nordic’ classical Greeks. But, because racists gonna racist, they also had to make sure actual contemporary Greeks weren’t the same race. So along comes Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer.
Fallmerayer, a Tirolese byzantinist, argued in History of the Morea peninsula: downfall of the Peloponnesian Hellenes (1830–1836) that contemporary Greeks weren’t properly Greek — that is, they weren’t related to the ancient ‘Hellenes’. The ‘Hellenes’ disappeared in the Mediaeval period; the modern ‘Greeks’ were descended from the waves of Slavic and Albanian barbarian immigrants that replaced them.
The Hellenic race has been eradicated in Europe. ... The immortal works of its spirit, and some ruins on its home soil, are the only witnesses left that a Hellenic people once existed. ... The peoples whom we today call ‘Hellenes’ are Scythian Slavs, Illyrian Arnauts, children of midnight lands, blood relatives of the Serbs and Bulgars, Dalmatians, and Muscovites; and they move up, to their own astonishment, into the genealogical trees of a Perikles and a Philopoimen.Fallmerayer, Geschichte der Halbinsel Morea i (1830) pp. iii–iv
Fallmerayer’s introduction to volume 2 (1836) argues, in beautiful and snide prose, that it’s the enthusiasm of western hellenophiles that has encouraged modern Greeks to get above themselves.
It ought to go without saying that this is all nonsense. But unfortunately it doesn’t. So here are a couple of refutations: an anonymous scholar on AskHistorians in 2016 citing some relevant anthropological and genetic studies, and Spencer McDaniel in 2020 giving a fuller history of this racist idea.
Müller provided racists with a race of ancient Greeks who were supposedly ‘Nordic’; Fallmerayer let them classify modern Greeks as a separate race. And Bailly’s Atlantean theory gave them licence to appropriate the cultural prestige of anyone they admired — including the classical Greeks.
Put them all together, and you’ve got a recipe for Nazi lunacy.
How lunatic, exactly?
Thus the Creto-Minoan maritime culture, like the Mycenaean, is at its foundation fully Atlantean-Nordic. It fell victim to the last wave of the overseas Atlantic Volk, that of the Sea Peoples, just as the Dorian migration invaded from the north and overwhelmed the old Pelasgian land. This was the end of the millennia-long journey and migration of the Atlanteans.Herman Wirth, Der Aufgang der Menschheit (2nd ed. 1934) p. 432
How lunatic? Total pants-on-head raving bonkers. Atlantis and Hyperborea are just the beginning of it. We’re talking Fomorians and Tuatha Dé Danann, we’re talking Atlantean pyramids in Bolivia. We’re talking about people who thought the Mauri of ancient Morocco, the Amorites of Bronze Age Mesopotamia, the Armoricans of ancient Gaul, and the Māori of New Zealand were all descended from Atlanteans because they all have an ‘m’ and an ‘r’ in their names.
It would take forever to adequately cover all the insanity in the development of this story from Fallmerayer to the Nazis — such as
- Ignatius Donnelly’s American take on Bailly’s Atlantis theory, and Madison Grant’s take on Müller’s theory of Greek migrations;
- Helena Blavatsky’s The secret doctrine (1888) and her notion of ‘root races’, whereby Hyperborea gave rise to both Atlantean and ‘Aryan’ races, and her belief that Aryan leaders were telepathic;
- Guido von List, Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels, and Ariosophy, a proto-Nazi neo-pagan movement focused on Wotan (see Goodrick-Clarke 2004: 192–204 on Ariosophy’s influence on Hitler);
- the Thule Society founded in Munich in the 1910s by ‘Rudolf von Sebottendorf’ (a pseudonym), which taught that the Aryans were descended from Hyperborean ice-giants, and whose members included Alfred Rosenberg and Heinrich Himmler;
- Hans Günther, who provided the standard Nazi version of the doctrine that the ‘Hellenes’ were Nordic (‘The heroic sagas of the Hellenes are a clear reflection of the Nordic race ... The so-called Mycenaean culture, whose end was brought about by the intrusion of the Nordic conquerors’), and imagined a sequence of various ‘Hellenic’ groups invading Greece, the Dorians being the last and therefore purest (Racial elements of European history, 1929 English version, ch. 8 part 2); he specifically cites the excerpts of Bulwer-Lytton and Fallmerayer quoted above (1929 German edition, pp. 203 and 214);
- Edmund Kiss, a member of the Nazi Ahnenerbe, whose books claimed that pyramids at Tiwanaku in Bolivia were built by Aryan conquerors from Atlantis.
Let’s spend some time on Herman Wirth, who with Heinrich Himmler co-founded the Ahnenerbe, a race thinktank, in 1935. Here’s Wirth’s picture of Atlantean migration.
|Wirth’s idea of the ancient migration of the Atlanteans, Hyperboreans, and proto-Aryans, concluding with the Dorian invasion: Der Aufgang der Menschheit, 2nd edition (1934); pp. 85–188 on ‘the migration of the Nordic race’.|
Modern commentators sometimes distance Wirth from the Nazi leadership. He had an ideological clash with Himmler, who idolised ancient Germanic culture and religion; Wirth thought the real Aryans were Atlantean-Hyperborean rulers who dominated the peasantry, just as the Aryan Spartans dominated the Messenians. Wirth’s position as president of the Ahnenerbe became honorary in 1937.
But on the whole, Nazi ideas were far from being at odds with Wirth’s theories. Hitler did reject ‘Atlantean motif research’ in a speech at Nürnberg in September 1936 — ‘National Socialism sharply rejects that kind of Böttcherstraße culture’ — but many of Wirth’s ideas remained in favour. Alfred Rosenberg, too, derived the Aryans from Atlantis-Hyperborea, and idolised a ‘principle of light’. And Hitler sided with Wirth, against Himmler, on the idea that the ancient German peasantry were a debased people. For Hitler, ancient Germans didn’t rise to glory until they invaded Greece and started to enjoy the Mediterranean climate.
In times and places where there were too many people, some of them emigrated. It wasn’t necessarily entire tribes. In Sparta, 6000 Greeks met 345,000 helots; the helots were there, the Greeks came over them, and they became the big landowners. I was cured of the idea of Odin’s and Wotan’s forests when I visited the Odenwald one day. In the Rhine plain we saw magnificent people; in the forest, outright cretins. Then it became clear to me: the Germanic conquerors settled in the fertile plains, while the natives withdrew into the miserable mountains.Hitler, ‘table talk’, 5 Nov. 1941
|Notes. Hitler similarly writes of Germanic Aryans achieving greatness only once they moved to the Mediterranean in Mein Kampf, p. 433 (1943 edition; bk. 2, ch. 2). The 1936 speech: Reden des Führers am Parteitag der Ehre 1936, p. 38. On Himmler’s and Hitler’s different views of ancient Germans see e.g. Pringle 2006, ch. 4 (‘In Hitler’s view, the Aryans began to achieve their full potential only when they reached the Mediterranean ... Himmler was well aware of these views, but did not share them. He was besotted by old accounts of the fierceness and valor of the Germanic tribes’). Hitler’s reference to ‘Odin’s and Wotan’s forests’ looks like a jab at Ariosophy.|
And in spite of his 1936 rejection of ‘Atlantean motif research’, Hitler privately continued to refer to a primordial Atlantean ‘world empire’ in the 1940s — in Himmler’s presence, no less.
In one Greek source there’s a story of pre-lunar people, and we can see in that an allusion to the world empire of Atlantis, which fell victim to the lunar catastrophe.Hitler, ‘table talk’, 21/22 Oct. 1941
|Notes. ‘Pre-lunar people’ and a ‘lunar catastrophe’: this alludes to a notion that the Atlantis story is a folk memory of a time before Atlantis was flung away from earth into space to become the moon. This crackpot theory is built on the genuinely scientific theory of George Darwin that the moon was created by a fission of the rapidly spinning earth; the modern theory is that the fission was caused by a planetoid impact. The crackpot version is obscure, and how exactly Hitler came by it is unclear: it originates in a booklet by Morel Rathsamhausen, a French naval officer (La dernière époque géologique et explication des mythes et légendes cosmogoniques des divers peuples de l’antiquité, 1881, pp. 31–34). ‘Pre-lunar’ is an obscure epithet used of Arcadians in a handful of ancient sources; for a discussion by someone who’s actually sane, see Dueck 2020.|
Addendum, 13 March: this paragraph has been edited in light of feedback from Cesar Uliana, below. Originally I referred to the modern planetoid impact theory, rather than Darwin’s fission theory.
|These crazy ideas weren’t confined to Nazi Germany: this map (with my highlighting) is from an article by a French botanist, Jean Gattefossé, who shared the idea of Atlantean-Hyperborean migrations passing through Morocco, and the idea of a ‘lunar catastrophe’ causing Atlantis to become the moon. Gattefossé’s migrations have some common points with Wirth, but many divergences: Gattefossé imagines Atlantis as a former island where western Africa now is, rather than in the ocean; his Hyperboreans migrate to Atlantis, rather than the other way round; and Gattefossé is apparently uninterested in Greek migration legends. (‘L’Atlantide et le Tritonis occidental.’ Bulletin de la Société de préhistoire du Maroc 6.2 (1932): 53–155; map at 153–154; reference to Rathsamhausen and the ‘lunar catastrophe’ theory at 116.)|
Atlantis, Hyperborea, and the idea of Dorians invading Greece from the north: these are all integrated into Nazi ideas of racial history, based on no evidence whatsoever, a bundle of 19th century racist nonsense tied up by the thinnest of excuses.
If you’re sane, if you aren’t a Nazi, if you don’t go around making wild claims about Hyperborea or Atlantis — then please don’t go repeating other bits of the same bundle. Not even offhand remarks like ‘when the Dorians arrived in Greece.’
It’d be going too far to say that the Dorian invasion and Atlantis were integral to Nazi ideas. The Nazis didn’t murder Jewish people in service of crackpot theories, they seized on the theories to rationalise the murders.
But these notions were bundled into Nazism closely enough to generate a comic book superhero. When Mort Weisinger and Paul Norris were inventing a character to fight the Nazis in 1941, they seized on Atlantis. Weisinger, who was Jewish, must have been particularly happy to turn the Nazis’ own nonsense against them. Aquaman, originally the son of an explorer who discovered Atlantis, was later retconned as the king of Atlantis: he remains popular today.
|Scenes from the very first Aquaman story, in More fun comics 73 (November 1941); written by Mort Weisinger, art by Paul Norris.|
References and further reading
- Dueck, D. 2020. ‘A lunar people: the meaning of an Arcadian epithet, or, who is the most ancient of them all?’ Philologus 164: 133–147. [DOI link]
- Edelstein, D. 2006. ‘Hyperborean Atlantis: Jean-Sylvain Bailly, Madame Blavatsky, and the Nazi myth.’ Studies in eighteenth-century culture 35: 267–291. [DOI link]
- Goodrick-Clarke, N. 2004. The occult roots of Nazism. Secret Aryan cults and their influence on Nazi ideology. London, New York.
- Kennedy, R. F. 2018. ‘The Dorian invasion and “white” ownership of classical Greece?’ rfkclassics (Jan. 2018).
- Kennedy, R. F. 2020. ‘Debunking the Dorian invasion myth.’ YouTube (Aug. 2020).
- Losemann, V. 2007. ‘Classics in the Second World War.’ In: Bialas, W.; Rabinbach, A. (eds.) Nazi Germany and the humanities. How German academics embraced Nazism. London. 306–340.
- McDaniel, S. 2021. ‘Did the Dorian invasion really happen?’ talesoftimesforgotten (Jan. 2021).
- Pringle, H. 2006. The master plan. Himmler’s scholars and the Holocaust. New York.
- Rabinbach, A. 2020. Staging the Third Reich. Essays in cultural and intellectual history. London, New York.