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In earlier times the Balkan mountains were known as the Haemus Mons (pron.: / /). It is believed that the name is derived from a Thracian word *saimon, 'mountain ridge', which is unattested but conjectured as the original Thracian form of Greek Haimos.
Another classic etymology derives the name 'Haemos' from the myth about the fight of Zeus and the dragon Typhon:
- “He was again driven to Thrace and hurled entire mountains at Zeus in the battle around Mount Haemus. When these bounced back upon him under the force of the thunderbolt, blood gushed out on the mountain. From this, they say, the mountain is called haemus (“bloody”).”
In antiquity, the mountain range and the area around it was populated by free Thracian peoples such as the Bessi, Dii, and Satrae. Herodotus records that an oracle-shrine of Dionysus (originally a Thracian god whose cult became widespread among the ancient Greeks) was located atop one of its mountains.
- Tunc etiam aërei divulsis sedibus Hæmi
- the summit even of lofty Haemus shall crumble;
- Hark! Haemus resounds with the Bacchanals' cries.
In Greek, the Balkan Peninsula is thus known as the Peninsula of Haemus (Χερσόνησος του Αίμου).
In classical Latin poetry Haemus was drawn into association with the Roman civil wars; although geographically incorrect, it was attractive most likely because it was a homonym with the Greek word for blood (haema) and bloody (haimon), as well as for its connection to the singer Orpheus. (See Lucan Civil War 6.576, 7.174, Ovid Metam. 10.77, Ex Ponto 4.5.5, Virgil Georgics 1.492.)