The Pelasgians

[Pelasgians in Homer] [The Tyrrhenian connexion?]  [A Lydian connexion?]
[A Proto-Greek connexion?]  [Conclusions] [Other theories about the Pelasgians]
 

When I originally set this page up in August 2003, I did not realize what a mine-field I was entering. I have learnt from patronizing and, sadly, abusive emails that the Pelasgians have been hijacked since the 19th century by the ethnic claims of the various populations of the Balkans. As a result I have been tempted to remove this page and the two pages on the Lemnos inscription. But, it has been pointed out to me, that would be giving in to extremists and bigots.

I agree; therefore, I leave this page and the pages on the Lemnian inscription for those who wish to pursue these topics without prejudice and with a scholarly regard to the evidence.

Pelasgians in Homer

The name Pelasgoi first appear in poems of Homer. The reference from the Odyssey is given and commented upon on the Eteocretan main page.

In the Iliad they are listed in The Catalog of Ships in Book 2. After listing various Hellespontine cities, the poem continues:

Ἱππόθοος δ᾽ ἄγε φῦλα Πελασγῶν ἐγχεσιμώρων,
τῶν οἳ Λάρισαν ἐριβώλακα ναιετάασκον·
τῶν ἦρχ᾽ Ἱππόθοός τε Πύλαιός τ᾽, ὄζος Ἄρηος,
υἷε δύω Λήθοιο Πελασγοῦ Τευταμίδαο.
    Hippothoos led the tribes of spear-fighting Pelasgians,
they who dwelt in Larisa with its rich soil;
their leaders were Hippothoos and Pylaios, scion of Ares,
the two sons of Pelasgian Lethoos, son of Teumanos.
[Homer, Iliad 2, lines 840 - 843]

After them are listed the Thracians (lines 844 - 845). This would place the Pelasgians in south-east Europe on the Hellespontine border with Thrace. In Iliad 10, 428 - 429, they are listed with the Karians, Paionians, Leleges and Kaukonians1, as camping by the Trojan seashore.

Two other passages in the Iliad have the adjective Pelasgic (Πελασγικός): Book 2, 681, applies the epithet to a district called Argos near Mount Othrys in southern Thessaly; Book 16, 233, applies the epithet to the temple of Zeus at Dodona. But neither passage actually mentions the Pelasgians (Πελασγοί). In fact the Myrmidons, Hellenes and Akhaians are specified as the peoples who live around Thessalian Argos; and Book 2, lines 749 - 750, lists the Enienes and Peraiboi as coming from Dodona. These peoples are nowhere described as Pelasgians.

It may be that 'Pelasgic' is being used connotatively to mean "formerly occupied by Pelasgians" or maybe merely "of time immemorial". Indeed, in later writers who expand upon these Homeric passages we find that two uses of the term 'Pelasgian' prevail: one is denotative, denoting peoples actually described as Pelasgian, speaking their own mutualy intelligble non-Greek dialects; the other connotative, meaning simply "aboriginal", "pertaining to any earlier, non-Greek inhabitants", "from time immemorial".

1These spellings are based on the Greek spelling are used, for example, by Richmond Lattimore in his translation of the Iliad. In older style translations one often finds Latin or Latin-based spellings used, i.e. Carians, Paeonians, Leleges and Cauconians.

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The Tyrrhenian connexion?

We find writers of the 5th century BCE connecting the Pelasgians (in the denotative sense) with Tyrrhenians (Τυρρηνοί, Τυρσηνοί, Τυρσανοί , Τυρρανοί - Tyrrhēnoi, Tyrsēnoi, Tursānoi, Tyrrhānoi). These are the people the Romans called Etrusci (Etruscans).

Thus we find the historian Hellanikos of Mytilene records that the Pelasgians of Thessaly departed for Italy where they first took Crotona and then founded Tyrrhenia (i.e. that the Pelasgians were the ancestors of the Etruscans). In a fragment of a missing play, Inakhos (Ἴναχος), Sophokles presents Inakhos as the elder in the lands of Argos, the Heran hills and among the Tyrsenoi Pelasgoi. The historian Thoukydides, History of the Peloponnesian War 4.109.4, mentions several settlements on the promontory of Akte "which are inhabited by mixed barbarian races speaking the two languages; there is in it a small Khalkidian element, but the greatest is Pelasgian - belonging to the Tyrsenoi who once settled in Lemnos and Athens - Bisaltians, Krestonians and Edonians; they live in small towns" (αἳ οἰκοῦνται ξυμμείκτοις ἔθνεσι βαρβάρων διγλώσσων, καί τι καὶ Χαλκιδικὸν ἔνι βραχύ, τὸ δὲ πλεῖστον Πελασγικόν, τῶν καὶ Λῆμνόν ποτε καὶ Ἀθήνας Τυρσηνῶν οἰκησάντων, καὶ Βισαλτικὸν καὶ Κρηστωνικὸν καὶ Ἠδῶνες: κατὰ δὲ μικρὰ πολίσματα οἰκοῦσιν).

Here we see specific mention of Lemnos. According to Herodotos, Histories 6.137, "After the Pelasgians had been cast out of Attika by the Athenians, whether justly or unjustly [here Herodotos give two different accounts of their expulsion]...and thus having departed out of the land, the Pelasgians took possession of several older places and especially of Lemnos" (πελασγοὶ ἐπείτε ἐκ τῆς Ἀττικῆς ὑπὸ Ἀθηναίων ἐξεβλήθησαν, εἴτε ὦν δὴ δικαίως εἴτε ἀδίκως ...τοὺς δὲ οὕτω δὴ ἐκχωρήσαντας ἄλλα τε σχεῖν χωρία καὶ δὴ καὶ Λῆμνον). Thus, according to Herodotos, Pelasgians had once lived in Attika, but had been driven out and settled in Lemnos; this accords with Thoukydides saying the Tyrsenoi once settled in Lemnos and Athens. As we shall see below, however, things are not so straightforward in Herodotos.

It may also be noted that the place-name Lari(s)sa, which occurred in Iliad 2, 841, is also found in several parts of Thessaly, Attika, Argolis, Elis, the Troad, Aiolis and Lydia. These were places associated with Pelagians or are were said to have been occupied by Pelasgians at one time. It is tempting to see a connexion with the Etruscan word lar ~ lars ~ larθ; 'lord'. Also the ending -issa has similar formation to a gentive-adjectival formation found both in Etruscan and in some of the languages of Asia Minor, thus possibly *lar-iss-a means 'the lord's [city]'.

In 1885 a stone stele was found near the vilage of Kamina on the island of Lemnos. It appears to be written in a language which shows strong structural resemblances to Etruscan, and thus lends support to the testimony of these ancient authors.

With regard to the stele, two points should be noted:

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A Lydian connexion?

According to Herodotos, Histories 1.94, the Ionians had a tradition that the Tyrsenoi (Tyrrhenians) had emigrated from Lydia, shortly after the Trojan war, under the leadership of Tyrsenos; as we read: "their king divided the whole Lydian people into two parts, and he appointed by lot one part to remain and the other to go forth from the land; and the king appointed himself to be over that one of the parts which had the lot to stay in the land, and his son to be over that which was departing; and the name of his son was Tyrsenos ...[they] sailed away to seek for means of living and a land to dwell in; until after passing by many nations they came at last to the land of the Ombrikoi [Umbrians], and there they founded cities and dwell up to the present time: and changing their name they were called after the king's son who led them out from home, not Lydians but Tyrsenians, taking the name from him" (τὸν βασιλέα αὐτῶν δύο μοίρας διελόντα Λυδῶν πάντων κληρῶσαι τὴν μὲν ἐπὶ μόνῃ τὴν δὲ ἐπὶ ἐξόδῳ ἐκ τῆς χώρης, καὶ ἐπὶ μὲν τῇ μένειν αὐτοῦ λαγχανούσῃ τῶν μοιρέων ἑωυτὸν τὸν βασιλέα προστάσσειν, ἐπὶ δὲ τῇ ἀπαλλασσομένῃ τὸν ἑωυτοῦ παῖδα, τῷ οὔνομα εἶναι Τυρσηνόν ... ἀποπλέειν κατὰ βίου τε καὶ γῆς ζήτησιν, ἐς ὃ ἔθνεα πολλὰ παραμειψαμένους ἀπικέσθαι ἐς Ὀμβρικούς, ἔνθα σφέας ἐνιδρύσασθαι πόλιας καὶ οἰκέειν τὸ μέχρι τοῦδε. ἀντὶ δὲ Λυδῶν μετονομασθῆναι αὐτοὺς ἐπὶ τοῦ βασιλέος τοῦ παιδός, ὅς σφεας ἀνήγαγε, ἐπὶ τούτου τὴν ἐπωνυμίην ποιευμένους ὀνομασθῆναι Τυρσηνούς).

Certainly by the Roman period, the tradition was so strong that we find the adjective lydius used to mean both 'Lydian' and 'Etruscan'.

However, the Etruscan language appears to show no obvious relationship to either the Indo-European (IE) group of languages or the Semitic group. But the Lydian language, known from surviving inscriptions of the 4th century BCE, is generally regarded as being related to the IE Anatolian group (Hittite/ Nesite, Palaic, Luwian), although its relatonship to this group is not clear. Also even if the Lydian of the inscriptions does have an IE core, there is no doubt that its vocabulary is largely non-IE and that the language has some non-IE characteristics. There can be no doubt that a non-IE language was spoken in this area in the 2nd millennium BCE and this may possibly have been related to Etruscan, Lemnian and Pelasgian.

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A Proto-Greek connexion?

In the late 1st century BCE Dionysios of Halikarnassos wrote in "Roman Antiquities", Book 1.17: "for the Pelasgians, too, were an Hellenic nation originally from the Peloponnesos" (ἦν γὰρ δὴ καὶ τὸ τῶν Πελασγῶν γένος Ἑλληνικὸν ἐκ Πελοποννήσου τὸ ἀρχαῖον). He is repeating an older tradition that regarded the Greeks as descendants of the Pelasgians.

Earlier in the 5th century BCE, Herodotos, Histories 1.58 had written: "As for the Hellenic race, it has used ever the same language, as I clearly perceive, since it first took its rise; but since the time when it parted off feeble at first from the Pelasgian race, setting forth from a small beginning it has increased to a great number of ethnic groups, and chiefly because many barbarian races have been added to it besides. Moreover, it is true, as I think, of the Pelasgian race also, that so far as it remained barbarian it never made any great increase" (τὸ δὲ Ἑλληνικὸν γλώσσῃ μὲν ἐπείτε ἐγένετο αἰεί κοτε τῇ αὐτῇ διαχρᾶται, ὡς ἐμοὶ καταφαίνεται εἶναί ἀποσχισθὲν μέντοι ἀπὸ τοῦ Πελασγικοῦ ἐόν ἀσθενές, ἀπό σμικροῦ τεο τὴν ἀρχὴν ὁρμώμενον αὔξηται ἐς πλῆθος τῶν ἐθνέων, Πελασγῶν μάλιστα προσκεχωρηκότων αὐτῷ καὶ ἄλλων ἐθνέων βαρβάρων συχνῶν. πρόσθε δὲ ὦν ἔμοιγε δοκέει οὐδὲ τὸ Πελασγικὸν ἔθνος, ἐὸν βάρβαρον, οὐδαμὰ μεγάλως αὐξηθῆναι).

This is not entirely clear and capable of more than one interpretation; but clearly Herodotos believed the Pelasgians and Hellenes to have had a common origin. But as far as language is concerned, he merely states the Hellenic peoples had always used the same language, not that this was the same language as the Pelasgians used. Indeed, in the preceding section (Histories 1.57) Herodotos wrote: "What language however the Pelasgians used to speak I am not able with certainty to say. But if one must pronounce judging by those that still remain of the Pelasgians ... the Pelasgians used to speak a barbarian language. If therefore all the Pelasgian race was such as these, then the Attic race, being Pelasgian, at the same time when it changed and became Hellenic, unlearnt also its language." (ἥντινα δὲ γλῶσσαν ἵεσαν οἱ Πελασγοί, οὐκ ἔχω ἀτρεκέως εἰπεῖν. εἰ δὲ χρεόν ἐστι τεκμαιρόμενον λέγειν τοῖσι νῦν ἔτι ἐοῦσι Πελασγῶν ... ἦσαν οἱ Πελασγοὶ βάρβαρον γλῶσσαν ἱέντες. εἰ τοίνυν ἦν καὶ πᾶν τοιοῦτο τὸ Πελασγικόν, τὸ Ἀττικὸν ἔθνος ἐὸν Πελασγικὸν ἅμα τῇ μεταβολῇ τῇ ἐς Ἕλληνας καὶ τὴν γλῶσσαν μετέμαθε).

This seems to me to imply that Herodotos believed that when the Hellenic race "parted off feeble at first from the Pelasgian race" it also changed its language, adopting the Hellenic language which it had used ever since, whereas the Pelasgic race in "so far as it remained barbarian" retained its barbarian pre-Hellenic language. It is admittedly far from clear how Herodotos thought the change of language came about and we should not project modern ideas about language change back onto an Ionian historian of the 5th century BCE.

Moreover, in the previous section, Histories 1.56, Herodotos claims that not only the Athenians but, indeed, the whole Ionian race had once been Pelasgic: " [Kroisos] found that the Lakedaimonians and the Athenians had the pre-eminence, the first of the Dorian and the other of the Ionian race. For these were the most eminent races in ancient time, the second being a Pelasgian and the first a Hellenic race: and the one never migrated from its place in any direction, while the other was very exceedingly given to wanderings" ([ὁ Κροῖσος] εὕρισκε Λακεδαιμονίους καὶ Ἀθηναίους προέχοντας τοὺς μὲν τοῦ Δωρικοῦ γένεος τοὺς δὲ τοῦ Ἰωνικοῦ. ταῦτα γὰρ ἦν τὰ προκεκριμένα, ἐόντα τὸ ἀρχαῖον τὸ μὲν Πελασγικὸν τὸ δὲ Ἑλληνικὸν ἔθνος. καὶ τὸ μὲν οὐδαμῇ κω ἐξεχώρησε, τὸ δὲ πολυπλάνητον κάρτα).

In claiming that only the Ionians had never migrated and had once been Pelasgic and that the Dorians, "exceedingly given to wanderings", had from the start been an Hellenic race, Herodotos seems to be denying a Pelasgic origin to the all the Hellenic peoples, though two sections later he appears to be claiming all Hellenic peoples had "parted off feeble at first from the Pelasgian race." So what are we to make of this?

Firstly, we must be aware that although Herodotos did make some attempt to report accurately he did have a tendency to include fanciful and dubious information. In some cases he does add own opinion about the reliability of the information; but this is not always the case. Secondly, it seems apparent to me that by the 5th century BCE there were different traditions concerning the 'Pelasgians' and my guess is that these traditions were not distinguished but were confused. I shall discuss thus further below under 'Conclusions'.

Despite the ambiguity and, in my opinion, confusion of Herodotos' testimony, there are those who hold Dionysios' claim that "the Pelasgians, too, were an Hellenic nation" and maintain that the Pelasgians were thus the direct ancestors of the Greeks of antiquity. While doubtless this theory looks to ancient texts for support, it has been given impetus in counter-acting the claims of Albanias, Romanians, Slavs and Turks to be descended from the Pelasgians. I have not myself seen any attempt to translate the Lemnos inscription as "Proto-Greek." but I am told that in "Πελασγοί, ἡ καταγωγή τῶν Ἑλλήνων" (Άννα Δημητρίου, Νέα Θέσις, 1994) such a 'translation' is given and attributed to Iakovos Thomopoulos (Ἰάκωβος Θωμόπουλος).

I have no further information about the book and the purported translation. I hope, however, the thesis is given with a little more scholarly evidence than I received from someone who emailed me with: "I send u 2 pictures that can help u translate Limnos inscription. But I'm certain that u can't! Cause u have to speak ancient Greek otherwise u could have done so already!"

I've merely been reading ancient Greek for just over 55 years at the time of writing (May 2010). I guess the writer's strictures apply not only to me but to all those many other scholars who, despite being well acquainted with ancient Greek, have failed to read the Lemnos stele as Greek.

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Conclusions

A consideration of the term 'Celt' in our own culture should lead us to treat the ancient confusion about 'Pelasgians' with caution. At one time 'Celts' referred to various groups on continental Europe that ancient Greek writers had called Κέλται and the Romans called Celtae. At no time in the ancient world were any of the inhabitants of Britain or Ireland ever called 'Celts'.

Then in the early 18th century, Edward Lluyd, who had noted connexions between Irish, Welsh and the language of ancient Gaul used the term 'Celtic' to designate that group of languages; soon those who spoke Irish, Welsh and related languages were called 'Celtic' and it was assumed continental Celts had invaded and settled Ireland and Britain, despite the lack of any ancient testimony to their having done so and the absence of any clear archaeological evidence of 'Celtic invasions' and, indeed, despite the speakers of the languages not exactly resembling one another. Then regions where these 'Celtic' languages are spoken or have been revived get called 'Celtic Nations', i.e. Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. Sometimes other places are included, e.g. Galicia in north-west Spain, although Galician is a Romance language and, as far I know, there has been no attempt to revived a pre-Roman 'Celtic' language there. The Galicians (or at least some of them) claim they were once Celts but that under Roman occupation they unlearnt their language and adopted the Romance language.

A great deal of confusion, in my opinion, arises when people assume 'Celtic' has a single definite meaning and do not distinguish the different layers of meaning - so much so, indeed, that J.R.R. Tolkien once observed: "'Celtic' of any sort is, nonetheless, a magic bag, into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come" [A lecture given at the University of Oxford, (21 October 1955) published in The Monsters And The Critics And Other Essays (1983), edited by Christopher Tolkien].

Something similar, I suspect, had happened to the term 'Pelasgian' in the ancient world. Is saying that the Ionians are Pelasgian rather like saying Galicia is a 'Celtic Nation' whose people 'unlearnt' their former language and adopted the Romanic language? We can only guess.

It seems to me that all we can say we any certainty is:

  1. The most ancient tradition, i.e. Homer, seems to place the Pelasgians in south-east Europe on the Hellespontine border with Thrace;
  2. Ancient commentators on the Homeric passage seem to have regarded the Pelasgians as an 'aboriginal' pre-Greek people;
  3. In the 5th century BCE we find that the logographer, Hellanikos, claims the Pelasgians migrated to Italy and gave rise to the Etruscan race, and we find that Thoukydides claims the Pelasgians were a Tyrsenian race which once lived in Attika and Lemnos;
  4. In the same century, Herodotos also tells us that Pelasgians, expelled from Attika, setlled in Lemnos; he also said the Pelagians spoke a barbarian language;
  5. However, Herodotos also claimed that the Athenians and other Ionians were Pelasgian and clearly thinks the Pelasgians and Hellenes (Greeks) had a common origin;
  6. In the 1885 a stone stele was found in Lemnos, which appears to be written in a language that shows strong structural resemblances to Etruscan.

From 1 and 2, I assume a non-Greek people, the Pelasgians, once inhabited south-east Europe on the Hellespontine border with Thrace; it is possible that this people also inhabited other areas before the Greeks did or before the spread of the Greek language. The non-Indo-European vocabulary in Greek may derive from Pelasgians, although we cannot be at all certain that Pelasgian was the only non-Indo-European language spoken in the Aegean area before the spread of Greek.

From 3 and 4, we find an ancient traditions linking the Pelasgians with the Tyrsenian (Tyrrhenian)/ Etruscan peoples; we also find a tradition that Pelasgians had settled in Lemnos (though Homer had had Minyans living there). From 5, I infer that by the 5th century BCE differing traditions had arisen concerning the Pelasgians; possibly the Ionians had claimed to be originally Pelasgians who had 'unlearnt' their earlier language and become Greek speakers and that from this there arose a more general view that the Greeks as a whole had once been Pelasgians.

The discovery of an inscription in Lemnos which appears to be related to Etruscan may be evidence that the Pelasgians and Etruscans were related peoples and that Pelasgians once inhabited Lemnos; one cannot, however, rule out the it merely shows that the language of a mercenary soldier buried there was related to Etruscan.

There were also ancient traditions linking the Etruscans with Lydia and, if the Etruscans were related to the Pelasgians, then it may be that Pelasgians had once settled in Lydia and may be responsible for some of the non-Indo-European elements in the ancient Lydian language.

Clearly other interpretations are possible and with the scant evidence we have we can only hypothesize; anything more definite, in my opinion, is unwarranted.

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Other theories about the Pelasgians

Inevitably a group of people, who are not clearly defined and whose language may be related to a language of unknown origin, will attract controversial theories. I have already mentioned that some hold that the Greek language is derived from Pelasgic and at least one 'translation' of the Lemnian stele has been made on that basis.

The other theories known to me are briefly listed below. As far as I am aware, the first two theories were not prompted by any ethnic or political considerations, but on linguistic grounds, even though they have not persuaded the wider linguistic community. The others, alas, are clearly motivated by the politics of Balkan ethnic claims and, as I know only too well from emails I receive from time to time, are held with zealous fervor and bigoted certainty; all these others claim to have 'translated' the Lemnian stele.

1. A lost Indo-European language
In the1950s a theory was widely propagated by A. J. van Windekens (see Le pélasgique, Louvain,1952) and others that identified the Pelasgians with IE-speaking settlers who occupied the northern Aegean region before the arrival of the Greeks. The proponents of this theory purported to have reconstructed an IE derived language, with a consonantal sound shift similar to that found in the Germanic languages and in Armenian. In 1965 D.A. Hester made a comprehensive review of the claims of this theory in an article "'Pelasgian' - A New Indo-European Language?" (Lingua 13, 1965, pages 338 - 384), and clearly showed how unsound it was. The theory now commands little support and, to my knowledge, no attempt has made to translate the Lemnian stele on the basis this theory.
2. A Caucasian off-shoot
Some Georgian scholars, such as M.G. Tseretheli, R.V. Gordeziani, M. Abdushelishvili and Dr Zviad Gamasakhurdia, connect the Pelasgians with the Ibero-Caucasian cultures of the prehistoric Caucasus. This has some plausibilty in that some have seen connexions between pre-IE languages of Asia Minor, such as Hattic, with the languages of the Caucasus. But the evidence is far from certain. As far as I know, no 'translation' of the Lemnian stele has been claimed on the basis of Georgian.
3. A Proto-Latin language
The Romanian scholar, Nicolae Densuşianu (1846 - 1911), considered the Pelasgians to be a Proto-Latin speaking people and, therefore, the ancestors of the Romanians; he considered Romanian not to be derived from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire but from 'Proto-Latin'. In Dacia Preistorica he offered a translation of the Lemnos inscription which I give on the '"Translations" of the Lemnos stele' page.
As far as I know, his views command little support even within Romania.
4. An ancient form of Albanian
The French author Zacharie Mayani (1899 - 19??) put forward a theory that links Etruscan to Albanian. This theory places Albanian (which is generally considered to be an IE derived langauge, probably a survival from the ancient Ilyrian IE) outside of the IE group of languages, sharing one branch with Etruscan and another with ancient Greek. (The latter language is also considered by nearly everyone else to belong to the IE group.)
Mayani's view is espoused by the Albanian poet, Nermin Vlora Falaschi, who has published a 'translation' of the Lemnian stele in accordance with this theory. This 'translation' and the other evidence she adduces in support of the theory may be found in L'Etrusco lingua viva (Antiche Civilità Mediterranee - II, Bardi Editore, Roma 1989). This point of view is also supported by Robert d'Angély, Giuseppe Catapano, Matthieu Aref and one or two others. The theory, however, commands little general support outside of Albania and the Albanian diaspora.
I give, with comments, her purported translation on the "Translations" of the Lemnos stele' page.
5. A Proto-slavic language
In his book "O Slovanech úplně jinak" (Lípa, Vizovice, 1991. ISBN 80–285–0010–1), Antonín Horák offers a proto-Slavic 'translation' of the Lemnos stele. There are, as a search on Internet will reveal, those who hold a Slav origin of the Pelasgians but this view is not generally accepted by the wider academic community. I know of no Internet copy of his book or of the purported 'translation.' Nor have I seen a copy of this 'translation'.
6. A Turkic language
A Turkish scholar, Polat Kaya, has recently offered a 'translation' of the Lemnian inscription, based on his theory that the language is related to Turkish. Most scholars believe that at the time of the inscription (6th century BCE) the Turkic peoples were several thousand miles away in southern Siberia, and did not begin to migrate eastwards till about 300 CE. Polat Kaya, however, identifies Scythians as Turkic peoples, thus putting Turkic peoples in Black Sea area at a much earlier date. His theory commands very little support. I comment on his 'translation' on my "Translations" of the Lemnos stele' page.
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