The Phoenicians

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter IV

It is not known at what time this ancient nation obtained the specific appellation of Phoenician. The word is not found in Hebrew copies of the Scriptures, but is used in the Machabees, the original of which is in Greek, and in the New Testament. According to Grecian historians, it was derived from Phoenix, one of their kings, and brother of Cadmus, the inventor of letters. It is remarkable that our annals mention a king named Phenius, who devoted himself especially to the study of languages, and composed an alphabet and the elements of grammar. Our historians describe the wanderings of the Phoenicians, whom they still designate Scythians, much as they are described by other writers. The account of their route may differ in detail, but the main incidents coincide. Nennius, an English chronicler, who wrote in the seventh century, from the oral testimony of trustworthy Irish Celts, gives corroborative testimony.

He writes thus: "If any one would be anxious to learn how long Ireland was uninhabited and deserted, he shall hear it, as the most learned of the Scots have related it to me.[3] When the children of Israel came to the Red Sea, the Egyptians pursued them and were drowned, as the Scripture records. In the time of Moses there was a Scythian noble who had been banished from his kingdom, and dwelt in Egypt with a large family. He was there when the Egyptians were drowned, but he did not join in the persecution of the Lord's people. Those who survived laid plans to banish him, lest he should assume the government, because their brethren were drowned in the Red Sea; so he was expelled. He wandered through Africa for forty-two years, and passed by the lake of Salinas to the altars of the Philistines, and between Rusicada and the mountains Azure, and he came by the river Mulon, and by sea to the Pillars of Hercules, and through the Tuscan Sea, and he made for Spain, and dwelt there many years, and he increased and multiplied, and his people were multiplied."

Herodotus gives an account of the circumnavigation of Africa by the Phoenicians, which may have some coincidence with this narrative. His only reason for rejecting the tradition, which he relates at length, is that he could not conceive how these navigators could have seen the sun in a position contrary to that in which it is seen in Europe. The expression of his doubt is a strong confirmation of the truth of his narrative, which, however, is generally believed by modern writers.[4]

This navigation was performed about seven centuries before the Christian era, and is, at least, a proof that the maritime power of the Phoenicians was established at an early period, and that it was not impossible for them to have extended their enterprises to Ireland. The traditions of our people may also be confirmed from other sources. Solinus writes thus: "In the gulf of Boatica there is an island, distant some hundred paces from the mainland, which the Tyrians, who came from the Red Sea, called Erythroea, and the Carthaginians, in their language, denominate Gadir, i.e.,the enclosure."


[3] Me.—"Sic mihi peritissimi Scotorum nunciaverunt." The reader will remember that the Irish were called Scots, although the appellative of Ierins or Ierne continued to be given to the country from the days of Orpheus to those of Claudius. By Roman writers Ireland was more usually termed Hibernia. Juvenal calls it Juverna.

[4] Writers.—The circumnavigation of Africa by a Phoenician ship, in the reign of Neco, about 610 B.C., is credited by Humboldt, Rennell, Heeren, Grote, and Rawlinson. Of their voyages to Cornwall for tin there is no question, and it is more than probable they sailed to the Baltic for amber. It has been even supposed that they anticipated Columbus in the discovery of America. Niebuhr connects the primitive astronomy of Europe with that of America, and, therefore, must suppose the latter country to have been discovered.—Hist. of Rome, vol. i. p. 281. This, however, is very vague ground of conjecture; the tide of knowledge, as well as emigration, was more probably eastward.