The Germanic peoples have a history that dates back many thousands of years. Long before the Roman Empire expanded, the people of Northern Europe beyond the Rhine had developed unique cultures and traditions that set them apart from other Europeans. Although there was little in the way of a feeling of overarching cultural identity between the many clans and tribes, from the icy north where the fjords of Norway offered protection from the stormy North Sea to the deep, dark forests of Central Europe, the Germanic tribes shared commonalities. They worshipped the same gods, performed similar rituals, and spoke similar languages. The ancient German people were a mysterious and powerful force that inspired plays and legends, from the tales of Siegfried and Beowulf to the realities of wiping out entire Roman legions.
The Origins of the Ancient Germans
Widely regarded as the ancestral culture of both the peoples who lived in Scandinavia and those who lived in Germania, the Nordic Bronze Age culture stretched from the western shores of Norway to the northern half of what is now Germany, to the Baltics in the east. This period lasted from around 2000 / 1750 to 500 BCE, and although it is uncertain if there is genetic continuity between the people of the northern portion of this culture and what is considered the Germanic people, there is distinct evidence of cultural continuity.
This period in European history is characterized by the building of massive trade networks. The Bronze Age in Northern Europe created immense wealth for many of its inhabitants, and in Europe, it was comparable in success to the Mycenaean Greeks. While many goods were imported, most importantly copper and tin (the ingredients for crafting bronze), the most important export was amber, which could attain extraordinarily high profits.
Because of these well-established trade networks, there was much traveling and migration of peoples. For this reason, many academics reject the notion of using DNA as a tool for determining what was and wasn’t part of Germanic culture. A case in point is the Egtved Girl, dating to around 1370 BCE. This woman lived in the Black Forest area of southern Germany before marrying and moving to Denmark. Throughout her life, it is believed she traveled back and forth between the regions, eventually being laid to rest in Denmark.
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Such was the strength of this culture that it survived the Bronze Age Collapse for centuries after the collapse had decimated kingdoms and empires in the rest of Europe and the Middle East.
In terms of religion, there are clear signs that certain religious ideas survived through the Nordic Bronze Age right up until the introduction of Christianity millennia later. One such example is the depiction of horses transporting the sun in a chariot across the sky. In Norse religion, the personification of day, Dagr, is pulled across the sky in a chariot drawn by a horse named Skinfaxi. It is believed many of the Norse gods also had their roots in Nordic Bronze Age culture.
Language is a massively important part of cultural identity. As such, it is important to note the geographical usage of Germanic tongues throughout northern Europe. The Pre-Proto-Germanic, spoken around the time of the Nordic Bronze Age, evolved into Proto-Germanic from around 750 BCE. The thousand-year period between 500 BCE and 500 CE saw the further evolution of Proto-Germanic into three distinct linguistic branches: West Germanic, North Germanic, and East Germanic.
After the evacuation of the Romans from Britain in 410 CE, the Germanic peoples brought their languages into England, replacing the Celtic languages that had existed there for thousands of years.
Today, English is considered a West-Germanic language based on the foundational vocabulary of English. An opposing theory, however, posits that because of the adoption of North Germanic syntax brought in by the Danes, English should actually be classified as a North Germanic language. The latter theory is convenient in that studies show that the easiest language for native English speakers to learn is, in fact, Norwegian.
The period around 500 BCE is considered a distinct period in which Germanic culture can be distinguished from what came before. This can be measured by the evidence of a uniform religion that stretched across the areas inhabited by what is considered to be the Germanic people. This religion is known today as Germanic Paganism.
While today, we are more familiar with the Norse names of the gods, the West Germanic names were similar but varied through the many dialects. Odin or Óðinn in Old Norse was also known as Wōden, Uuôden, Wuodan, Wêda, and Wuotan. All of these names, including the Old Norse version, stem from the Proto-Germanic Wōðanaz, which means “leader of the possessed,” or “lord of frenzy.”
Similarly well-known is the god Thor or Þórr in Old Norse. Alternative names include Þunor, Thuner, Thunar, and Donar, all of which stem from the Proto-Germanic Þun(a)raz, meaning “thunder.”
Considering these are the two most famous gods, it paints a picture of the ancient Germans as chaotic and violent. Naturally, however, cultures are far more nuanced than they appear.
Roman historians, most notably Tacitus, wrote about the Germanic people and included a substantial account of their gods, of whom he drew parallels to the Roman deities. He did not note the Germanic names but instead used Roman names to describe the Germanic gods. He notes Mercury, Hercules, and Mars. Modern scholars have interpreted these as Odin, Thor, and Tyr, respectively.
Tacitus also mentions a goddess named Nerthus, who is associated with a ceremonial wagon procession. Most scholars identify Nerthus as Njörðr, appearing in Norse mythology a thousand years later, although Njörðr is male and Nerthus was depicted as female. There are debates as to why the change exists.
Aside from the gods, the ancient Germans believed in elves, dwarves, trolls, and giants. Their religion was rich in stories detailing the escapades of the gods. These stories would become embellished over the centuries as the religion persisted in Scandinavia for many centuries after their southern cousins had been Christianized.
The ancient Germans did not have a priestly caste like the Celts and their class of druids. Instead, the duties of the priests and priestesses were carried out by individuals whose lives were not wholly dedicated to religious rituals.
Germanic priestesses gained a grisly reputation among the Romans and were particularly feared as they turned captives into sacrificial victims.
The center of village life was the mead hall, where feasts took place. It also served as a home for the king and his followers. While the king’s followers often slept in the mead hall, the king would sleep in a separate structure.
Timber was, by far, the most common construction material. Houses were simple, rectangular structures built from wood and daubed with clay. The roofs were made from thatch. Simpler, dugout buildings with dung roofs were also constructed and served as storage buildings or housing for the poor.
Settlements were generally small and existed near coasts and rivers, as well as built-in forest clearings.
Like many other cultures, life was centered around the family. Fathers were usually the head of the household, but women were well-respected and had much freedom. Enslaved people existed but were uncommon. Usually prisoners of war, enslaved people generally had a household of their own and were used as domestic servants.
To sustain the numerous settlements, the Germanic people naturally turned to farming. Wheat, barley, oats, and rye were their main crops. Beets, turnips, peas, and beans were also popular. Tacitus writes that although agriculture was widespread, the Germanic people were more pastoralist in nature.
Crime and Punishment
The Germanic tribes were ruled through an elective monarchy. The king was elected by free-men in the tribe who could trace their lineage back to the tribe’s founder.
General assemblies or things were convened regularly to discuss matters of importance and, in particular, to settle disputes. Guilt was determined by the accused having to gather enough witnesses to support their innocence. Failure to do so would lead to the accused suffering trial by ordeal, or trial by combat, known as a holmgang.
For crimes against society in general, punishment was usually determined by priests and priestesses.
According to Tacitus, punishment in ancient German culture also included hanging for traitors and drowning in bogs for cowards. Capital punishment, however, did not feature prominently, and it seems the most common and convenient way of dealing with those found guilty was simply banishment.
Some crimes could also be settled by the weregild, which was a sum of money that could be paid, the amount depending on the severity of the crime, from the family of the accused to the family demanding compensation. The weregild was designed to avoid and settle blood feuds.
Inter-clan and inter-tribal rivalry were common among the Germanic peoples. A strong emphasis was put on warfare in ancient Germanic culture from the second millennium BCE with the introduction of iron. Tacitus writes that iron was rare in Germanic culture, and as a result, body armor was uncommon and was usually reserved for high-ranking individuals in society.
Up until the 1st century BCE, the regions inhabited by the ancient Germanic people (known to the Romans as Germania) were separated from the Roman Republic by lands inhabited by Celts. After Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul, however, Rome and Germania shared a border along the Rhine. While trade was fruitful, war quickly became a common occurrence.
After the Roman attempt to invade and subjugate Germania in the latter half of the first century BCE, many of the German tribes, under the leadership of the Cherusci, Arminius, led the Germanians in revolt against the Roman conquerors. The Battle of Teutoburg Forest was Rome’s worst defeat in its entire history. Retaliatory campaigns were launched, but Rome decided that conquest of the Germanic peoples was not worth the effort.
Wars with Germanic peoples would come to characterize the last centuries of Rome’s existence. The Marcomanni Wars and wars with the Vandals would weaken Rome’s ability to expand and put Rome at risk of invasion itself. The city of Rome was captured in 410 CE by the Visigothic army led by Alaric, and in 476, the Ostragoth Odoacer conquered Rome, finally bringing an end to the Western Roman Empire.
The Dark Ages would be an era of expansion for the Germanic peoples. Of particular note were the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes, who expanded into and settled in England, displacing the native Celts. The Franks, too, expanded into Gaul and created Francia, which would become a large and powerful empire.
Modern Representations of Ancient Germans
There is much about the ancient Germans that we do not know. A lot of our conceptions are based on romantic ideas of Germanic culture. Much of the architecture, for example, has been lost because the Germanic people built virtually all of their buildings out of wood, which has since rotted into the soil. Some of the foundations exist, which can give us a clue. Likewise, we know what musical instruments they had, but we know little of the actual music they made.
Modern interpretations in media, therefore, have to fill in the gaps with assumptions. Wagnerian epics and, sadly, Nazi propaganda helped stimulate romantic notions of Germanic culture. Much of the imagery and symbolism has been thus tainted by associations with Nazism. A perfect example of this is what we call the swastika. In the Germanic Iron Age, the symbol was associated with Odin or Thor, but before that, it was associated with the sun. Its roots predate Germanic culture, and it is found all over Eurasia in a multitude of cultures and contexts.
In film and television, there have been various representations of ancient Germanic culture. Of note is the Netflix series Barbarians, which, relative to other historical dramas, is fairly accurate and depicts the events surrounding the Battle of Teutoburg Forest.
Modern media has also created musical contexts to explore the ancient Germans and their culture. Of particular note is the group Heilung. Made up of members from Germany, Denmark, and Norway, the band does not use any modern instruments and sings in a variety of old languages, including Proto-Germanic, Gothic, Old Norse, Proto-Norse, Icelandic, English, and German. The band’s visual aesthetic is also inspired by ancient German culture, and the costumes are elaborate reproductions of Nordic Bronze Age clothing.
The ancient Germans were rich in culture with a robust and fascinating society. From the Roman perspective, they represented uncivilized barbarians. Nevertheless, it was from these barbarians that western civilization emerged after the fall of the West Roman Empire.