The Germans: people and culture
by: Gn. Dionysius Draco Invictus

The ancient Germans. One thinks of muscular, tall men with strange pants and long hair, always ready to pick a fight: swamps, small villages and an occasional thunderstorm. Or was that the Celts? When describing Germans and Celts, we have one immediate problem, and that's our sources. Most of the sources in antiquity are Roman or Greek. Genuine – written – Celtic sources are virtually nonexistent, and written German sources are scarce until the 4th century CE, and not very helpful to create an ethnographic image.

Peoples from the south like the Romans and Greeks depicted both Celts and Germans as tall, primitive, blonde and furious. The only difference was that the Germans were taller, more primitive, more blonde and even more furious in battle. It was known though, that there was a difference between the two, described by Caesar in the opening chapters of his De Bello Gallico, in which he designates the Rhine as the border between the Celtic and Germanic peoples. This vision has long been accepted, but the truth is probably more "liquid". Id est, that the Rhine was only a temporary border. Frequently tribes of Germans crossed the Rhine to plunder the hinterland, or simply to settle there. These frequent interactions have also given rise to the ideas that the Helvetii and the tribes in Belgica were not purely Celtic, but probably mixed (Caesar seems to imply this in his basic division of the several Celtic areas, in which he doesn't name the Helvetii). And after the 3rd century and onwards, the Rhine was all but a stable border.

But back to the Germans now. Most of what we know about their ancient habits is based – next to archeological findings, of course – on Tacitus' Germania. Since he had been in the Germania Inferior border region for some years himself, Tacitus usually knows what he's talking about. The spirit of his work is rather laudatory. One would normally not expect this from a Roman historian in dealing with other peoples; usually the biggest compliments were dished out to their own kind. However, Tacitus was a very critical historian, and appears to be rather cynical about the Roman empire in his Annales and Historiae. This has given rise to the thought that Tacitus wrote about the "noble Germans" simply in order to project his vision of an ideal society on an exotic place and confront the Romans with their vices, much like Plato did in his State when he wrote about Atlantis.

Some reject this view, however. As mentioned earlier, Tacitus was not an inexperienced man when it came to down to the Germans, having been in Germania Inferior. Most of what he says can be backed up by archeological evidence. Additionally, his Annales and Historiae already contained so much criticism that writing an allegory about his ideal state would be superfluous. And while he admires their social qualities, and their relationship with nature (not an alien thought to modern historians describing "nature people"), he does appear to find them awkward and brutal just as well, with "poor cattle" (the Roman word for money, pecunia, is derived from pecus, or cattle).


The widest accepted hypothesis about the origins of the Germanic peoples is that of groups of Indo-European semi-nomads coming from the Black Sea area to the north, slowly merging with the already existent non-IE people indegenous to Europe (these would be responsible for monuments such as Stonehenge, and are hence also known as the "megalithic" people). This fusion was probably completed at around 1000 BCE, and took about two to four hundred years. Through this, the Germans differentiated themselves from the other Indo-European people, and did so more and more through the centuries. It is believed that the megalithical culture left its traces in the Germanic tribes and languages through among other elements the family structure (with the special position of women), and many words that clearly don't have an IE-origin. Almost all of these words have something to do with water or navigation. This is congruent with evidence that the non-IE-peoples of Europe were most likely good sailors and sea-faring peoples.

So, where did the ancient Germans live? Their core area was situated in what is now the north of Germany and Poland, Denmark and the south of Sweden. Much like the Celts, they were not one people, but rather tribes that occupied a certain area for some time, and then moved out when it became overpopulated (a frequently occurring problem). One can divide the Germans roughly into two groups: on one hand, there are the North- and East-Germans (Scandinavians, Goths) and on the other hand the South- and West-Germans. Of course, these again can be subdivided in many tribes and types, many of them based on their language.

In the north lived the Svìar, the Danes and the Gauti, among other tribes. These have evolved into the modern populations of Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Iceland and the Faeroer Islands. Originally their homeland was more up north, but due to the mass migrations in the 5th century they came to occupy the southern part of Scandinavia and the Danish peninsula. Also originating in the south of Sweden, but going through the east were the Goths, one of the most infamous East-German tribes. In the late 4th century CE, they split up into the Visigoths, and the Ostrogoths. Countrary to popular belief, these names do not mean West- and East-Goths (the names are just coincidences), but rather "Noble Goths" and "Radiant Goths" respectively. Other Germanic tribes from the east included the Burgundi and the Langobardi. These people were constantly on the move, going from what is now Poland through the Ukraine and around the Black Sea. Nowadays none of the eastern Gothic people has preserved their culture or language. The last one to exist was the Krim-Gothic people, which went up into the Turkish people somewhere in the 17th or 18th century.

The best known tribes are those of the west, mainly because the Romans had most contact with these. Famous tribes include the Suevi, the Saxones, the Angli, the Teutones and the Chauci. The Saxons and the Anglons moved away in the 5th century to the Celto-Roman Britannia, and evolved into the modern English people. A tribe in between the Rhine and the Weser, the Franks, evolved into the modern Dutch and Flemish people, while the rest can be found in Germany – although the tribes themselves have long since ceased to exist, of course. The Germans in the south, most notably the Alamanni, the Marcomanni and the Quadi also appear in the history books at the end of the 2nd century CE, being a constant nuisance to the emperor Marcus Aurelius and his successors. Other than most other Germanic tribes they didn't move much, and later came to be the modern Swiss, Austrians and German people from Bayern or Baden-Württemberg.

One of the best known German expansions is that of the Teutones and Cimbri. Originally they came from what's now Schleswig-Holstein (the small strip of land between Germany and Denmark). Due to overpopulation, a part of these two tribes went on a search for a new homeland. Eventually their journeys took many generations, and after many hostile encounters with other peoples and tribes, they entered the Provincia Romana in the beginning of the second century BCE. This was the first significant military encounter between the Romans and the Germans. At first, the Romans appeared to face defeat, but in the end it was the able general Gaius Marius who defeated them both; the Teutones at Aquae Sextiae in 102 and the Cimbri in 101 at Vercellae.

But what were their lands like? Roman authors get a cold, rainy and depressing impression. Of course, in comparison with sunny provinces like the Provincia, Etruria or the hot areas of Africa the lands the Germans inhabited were cold and dark. But usually this impression is quite simple-minded, and based only on observations from the border areas across the Rhine: indeed, these were densely forested, but beyond those were often fertile plains and other types of landscape features other than swamps or forests. In part the Roman impression of Germania was also psychological: the wilder their lands, the wilder the population and vice versa. Compare, for example, the name Hibernia ("Winterland") for Ireland. It was true, however, that the land didn't always lend itself to intense agriculture easily. A bad harvest or a cold winter could be very problematic, and the scarceness of resources helps to explain the mobility of a lot of the tribes and their problem of overpopulation.

Again like the Celts, the Germans are described as being a divided people. Their tribes fared war against each other or in coalitions against a bigger enemy (as frequently happened in their military encounters with the Romans). Even in post-Roman times the Vikings, which were still closer to the original Germans compared to their "civilised" brothers in the rest of Europe, were a force to be reckoned with. Partially because of this, they and their warlords have gained a bad reputation for being greedy, violent and untrustworthy. While some of them probably were, it is untrue that the Germans couldn't be trusted. Trust and loyalty were the highest virtues in their eyes, but with this they meant loyalty to an individual (i.e. a king), and not to an abstract principle such as laws. Their faith in the gods also helps to explain why they battled to fearlessly: they saw death on the battlefield not only as glorious, but simply regarded it as falling out of favour with Odin – something one couldn't go in against.

Above all, a German king had to be a good warrior. This may also explain why many German chieftains weren't especially impressed with some of the emperors, and broke agreements easily. German kings were appointed by a council of free men called the Thing. Logically the new king was from the same family as the previous one, but this wasn't always the case. They chose the person whom they believed was most likely to bring prosperity and fame to society. Family and descendance were also important; individualism didn't really exist. When one member of a family would do harm to another one of another family, immediately both families would be involved and sharing guilt or blame. Likewise, a marriage was a cause of two families rather than individuals, although when it proved not to work out, it could be dissolved again. Another important facet of family life was that the dead were still regarded as being amongst the living, like the roots under a living tree. Customs and practises like these were not alien to the Romans, who also had a form of ancestral worship.

As noted earlier, the Thing had quite some authority. It is sometimes referred to as "German democracy", but that would be as correct as referring to the Athenian type of government as "Greek democracy". In reality, only free men were allowed to take part in the meetings (which excluded women, slaves and half-free people), and people of higher age automatically had more respect and authority. Still, women were relatively free. They reigned absolute in the household, and were regarded as having divine or paranormal gifts. Sometimes women also joined men on the battlefield to encourage them: perhaps another motivation for their men to fight bravely. Adultery was not allowed, and punished severely.

The typical German house was not that large and cities didn't exist, partially because most farms were at quite a distance from one another. The house had a hearth in the middle, and a hole in the roof to let the smoke escape. The roof, in turn, was usually made of straw and the walls from clay or other natural resources found in the immediate area. Their shape was rectangular. The house of a leader or king was somewhat larger, and had a throne and more decorations.


Superficially, there are a lot of resemblances with the Religio Romana and to an extent most other Indo-European religions to be found in the Germanic religion. The specific Germanic religion we know most about is the Norse variant. The reason for this is simple: the European mainland and England were christened much earlier, and the original culture was preserved longer in Scandinavia. Additionally, most of our written sources are Icelandic. Iceland was a colony of Norway, and as such the written myths there have a typically Scandinavian character. Therefore, the names and terms used here will be mainly referring to the Scandinavian variants, although the Romans themselves had more contact with the tribes of western and central Europe.

So what are these resemblances? For example, the do ut des ("I give for you would give") principle. If a Germanic god didn't fulfill a wish or request made by a practicioner, the person in question would simply turn to another god and repeat the same procedure. However, this does not mean that they didn't respect their gods. Although they were fairly tolerant towards other religions, they can be considered as god-fearing people. The thought of impending doom is always lurking in the German's mind: the fall of the gods (Götterdämmerung) can come at any time. It's not difficult to imagine how they would come up with such ideas; the Germans' lands were often dominated by long, harsh winters and survival could depend on pure luck.

Another vague resemblance is the nature of their gods: they are very anthropomorphic, although they can shapeshift at will. They can lie, cheat, deceive, help, heal and fight. They defend their realm from the forces of chaos (monsters, giants), but they appear to carry the seeds of chaos within themselves. Like with the Romans and the Greeks, the Germanic pantheon is ruled by a god of thunder and lightning. His name is Odin. However, Odin is a far more ambiguous character and embodies the unpredictablity of the Germanic gods as a whole. The Romans themselves compared him to Mercurius. Like Mercurius, Odin guides the dead to the realm of Hel (not to be confused with "hell"!) and is able to move quickly to the sky. He owes this to his magical, eight-legged horse named Sleipnir. He commands an army of demons and warriors slain in battle, but is also the patron of artists, poets and seers. He is obsessed with his one mission: saving Asgard (the realm of the gods) from the inevitable destruction at the hands of the giants and other forces of corruption.

Balancing Odin, who was more the god of nobility and infamous for his unpredictability, was the sturdy Thor. Thor was more a god of the people, as can be seen in archeological findings: numerous hammer amulets have been found in common graves, and Thor was often invoked by common people to bring good luck. His primary function was also that of a warlord, however, and despite his good heart and loyal spirit, not seldomly he's characterised as a bit hot-headed or stupid. Often confused with Thor is Tyr. Not much is known about this god, except that he was also a war god. It was said that Tyr would never let one down, not even if Thor's favour was lost.

Goddesses included among others Freia, Odin's wife, who fulfilled a function comparable to Iuno: guardian of the marriage and also a fertility goddess. In the North Sea area, the specific North Sea goddess Nehalennia was worshipped, but sadly the details of this goddess or her worship have been lost. Other important gods are Balder, god of light, Aegir, god of the sea, and Heimdall, who would announce the day of the apocalypse. The richness of Germanic mythlogy of course stretches far beyond this limited overview.

Another important figure is that of Loki, the trickster. Although not purely evil – he resides with the gods at Asgard – his presence is dubious and corrupting. Eventually, he is the one who will start the inevitable process of Ragnarok and the Armageddon, the gods' destiny. This process is started by Loki. Balder, god of light, was under nature's holy protection. The other gods used to throw things at Balder just for fun, because they knew it wouldn't hit or hurt him anyway. However, one element of nature had not sworn to protect Balder, and that was mistletoe (compare this to the "invulnerable" Achilleus who was eventually killed by a "cowardly" Paris). Loki crafts a spear from this material, and then gives it to Balder's blind brother, who accidentally and unknowingly kills his brother with it.

In the final onslaught between the gods and their sworn enemies, the giants, the gods lose in spite of their bravery, and in spite of Odin's thousands of dead warriors from Valhalla (it was said that those who bravely died on the battlefield would be taken to Valhalla to feast and fight until the apocalypse). The world tree, Yggdrasil, is burnt to ashes and the oceans boil away. However, as in many other creation-destruction myths, the world begins anew, with new gods and new humans – and new forces of corruption. This is also represented in the symbol of the aforementioned world tree. Yggdrasil keeps growing, but at its roots, evil creatures are constantly gnawing away.
© 2001-2018 Societas Via Romana