The Ancient Germanic Tribes

Table of Contents:

  1. Proto-Germanic Origins
    1. Culture
    2. Society
  2. The Migration Period

Other than the name might suggest to some Germanic doesn’t equal German. The Germanic peoples today are considered Germanic because they speak a Germanic language. German is part of this branch of Indo-European languages but not the sole ‘twig’ so to speak. It shares this position with Dutch, English, the Scandinavian languages and a few others descendant from the aforementioned. All these languages are descendant from a common Proto-Germanic language, spoken by multiple closely related Proto-Germanic peoples with their own dialects.

Proto-Germanic Origins

Where exactly the Proto-Germanic language formed is the topic of ongoing debate. That they’re in part descendant of the Proto-Indo-Europeans that moved westward and in part of the indigenous population of Northern and Central Europe seems obvious, as this was the case in most of Europe, just the proportions of admixture differed. But in regards to where these newcomers and the Old Europeans met and formed the first Germanic groups no consensus has been reached yet. According to linguist Harald Haarmann the homeland of the Germanic peoples lies somewhere in north-central Germany whilst some Archaeologists believe the history of the Germanic peoples and their language as a distinct branch of the Info-European languages began with the Nordic Bronze Age in southern Scandinavia. Under Influence of the Nordic Bronze Age from the North and the Celtic La Tene Culture from the South the Jastorf Culture took hold of large parts of northern Germany and gradually spread southward. Whether these people can be associated with the ancient Germanic peoples, however, remains uncertain.

By Sveriges fana – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6957099

The first person to call the peoples east of the river Rhine and north of the river Danube Germani was Iulius Caesar, as he tried to describe the difference between the Celtic Gauls and the barbarians from the north. In fact he started his invasion of Gaul at least in part under the pretext of supporting an allied Gallic tribe which suffered from a Germanic Invasion in modern-day Alsace. The people that we consider Germanic, if in the past or present, never considered themselves as such. They viewed themselves as members of their own tribe and other Germanic tribes possibly where as strange or at least as hostile towards them as the Celtic tribes to the west or as the Romans to the south. If there was a real sense of belonging together or even a common identity at this stage remains unclear, although Tacitus mentions an interesting myth after which all Germanic peoples are descendant of Mannus. How widespread this myth was is unknown, however the name Mannus is cognate with Vedic Manu, who also fathered mankind in the ancient Vedic traditions of India, which speaks for the legitimacy and the age of this ancient Germanic creation myth. For more information on the Germanic and related cosmogenic myths, see here.

To conclude, the exact location of the homeland of the Germanic peoples, if there was such a thing, is unknown, however it probably lay somewhere around southern Scandinavia and northern Germany. They gradually expanded both southward and northward and displaced, assimilated and intermixed with the native population. There never was one Germanic People that all Germanic Peoples of today descend from but rather many more or less slightly different tribal groups.

Germanic Tribes and the Roman Empire
Germanic Tribes and the Roman Empire. By Modification · Bearbeitung · Prilaboro: D. Bachmann – File:Romia Imperio.png, originally by Jani Niemenmaa., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1485399

Culture

The culture of the early Germanic tribes was of course highly influenced by that of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, just as their language was. Many of their customs, their myths and gods can be traced back to these people as is for example shown by the first encounters of the Romans with the barbarians of the north. Tacitus recognized Greco-Roman gods like Iupiter, Mars and Hercules in the deities of the ancient Germanic peoples. The horse seems to have played a big role in the rites of these tribes as well, as is shown by the myth of Hengist and Horsa, literally meaning stallion and horse, the first Germans to land in Britain and the heralds of the Anglo-Saxon settlement of what is now England. They didn’t build temples for their gods as they thought they were supposed to be worshiped in remarkable natural landmarks, like forests, mountains, rivers, bogs and lakes and not hemmed in by walls.

The Germanic tribes lived in rather small settlements, barely the size of villages and even rarer were actual towns. According to Tacitus they preferred to live on their own or in small family groups, rather than in large cities. Although Tacitus described the early Germans as a semi-nomadic people, archaeologists discovered that they were an agrarian society, living off of crops for the most part, substituted by meat mainly from domesticated animals from time to time.

Only for the purpose of raiding other tribes or Roman territory they banded together in larger groups to achieve their more or less ambitious goals. It would take until the migration period for the Germanic peoples to form their first proper kingdoms.

For the first few centuries or even millennia of their existence, depending to what point in time the ethnogenesis of the Germanic peoples is dated they most likely were illiterate, before some learned the Latin alphabet from the Romans and later developed their own script, the famous runes, which exact origins are still shrouded in mystery.

Society

Until the beginning of the Migration Period, which we shall be looking into shortly, the Germans didn’t know kingdoms in the classical sense. Although there was a recoreded king of the Suebians, which had settled in modern-day Alsace by 55 BC, the translation and interpretation of the word “rex” (usually lat. “King”) is disputed. For the most part it seems like the Germans were devided into tribes and probably furthermore into family groups or clans with their own leaders. As mentioned before, they only banded together for raiding other tribes or defending themselves from such raids. In times like these a supreme military leader might’ve been chosen, who ruled the tribe(s) for the duration of the raid and perhaps for a bit longer, but usually their rule didn’t last too long. A good example for this is the famous Arminius who united many northwestern Germanic tribes to drive the Romans out of Germania. Even though Arminius certainly intendet to rule these tribes and possible even to unite all Germanic tribes against the Romans his ambition was his downfall and he was probably poisoned by his own people.

The tribal landscape of Germania is usually divided into three major branches: the Ingaevones, the Istaevones and the Irmiones. They settled around the North Sea, the Weser-Rhine region and along the river Elbe respectively, which gave them their alternative name North Sea Germans, Weser-Rhine Germans and Elbe Germans. Today they can roughly be identified with certain archaeological and linguistic groups that would later develop into the Low German and Anglo-Frisian, Low Franconian (Dutch) and High German dialects. In addition to these tribes there were the East Germanic Tribes, most famously the later Goths and Vandals, and the North Germanic Tribes, the ancestors of modern day Scandinavians.

The Migration Period

Although the Germans were certainly less sophisticated than their contemporary Romans, Greeks, Egyptians or even the neighboring Celts, which to the Mediterranean world were already considered barbarians, they were to a large degree responsible for the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The Kingdoms which they built upon the ruins of the Imperium gave Europe a new face which can still be recognized today in countries such as France, which was the kingdom and later the Empire of the Franks under Charlemagne (as was Germany) or England, literally the country of the Angles, a tribe from northern Germany which conquered England from the Romano-Britons together with the Saxons, Jutes and Frisians.

The East Germanic tribes left their homelands in east-central Europe under pressure from the Huns to found kingdoms of their own in Italy, Spain and even North Africa, all of which didn’t survive until the present day, however, and their culture and language vanished with them, apart from a possible remnant on the Crimean peninsula up until the 17th century.

The tribes that remaind in Germania and Scandinavia gave rise to powerful kingdoms of their own, which eventually developed into today’s Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries as well as many more that have already vanished from history.

Featured Image: CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=485094


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