Posted by Dennis » 2 Comments »
One of our trusty field correspondents asked about the etymology of Helot, those serf-like minions of the Spartans, after being told that it may be derived from a verbal root.
I’m not buying it. My instinct was that this was an ethnic name.
The root in question is *hel-, which supplies the aorist of αἱρέω (e.g. εἷλον).
The lexicon records three forms, two masculine and one feminine:
One might fool oneself into thinking Εἵλως formally the perfect active participle of *hel-, but that the word is supposed to be passive in sense (‘the captured,’ rather than ‘those who have captured’), and perhaps more importantly the stem of the perfect active participle is -οτ- rather than -ωτ-.
Considering the three forms it seems safe to say that the root is *εἱλωτ-. I might be willing to wager that should you compare any number of 3rd declension dental stems, 1st declension masculines, and 3rd declension feminines of the -ις/-ιδος type you wouldn’t find any suffixed/lengthened deverbal nouns.
Correct me if I’m wrong, though. I haven’t bothered to do serious research because *hel- is too easy an answer that seems to require too many shadowy shifts in the mists of time.
The old story that the Helots were the original inhabitants of Laconian Ἕλος is at least as probable.
But I would rule out the theory of a verbal root until someone is able to offer parallel constructions, which to my knowledge no one has done.
The fact that the Helots were viewed as a social class and that others might be described as living like Helots (in reference to social conditions) does not indicate that the term Helot originated as a descriptive term. It is at least as probable that the Helots as a people simply came to represent a certain social condition in the Greek world.
Regardless, no effort to root out the ‘truth’ or origin behind the name seems worthwhile or conclusive.