Ancient Germany

Though ancient Germania was much more then one tribe united by language, the Teutonic migrations into the crumbling Roman Empire set the stage for the transformation of Europe.

Ancient German family.Costumes of all nations (1913)
The Ancient Teutonic World

Celto-Germanic Early Deity, La Tène, Holzgerlingen 5th to 4th Century BCE

The Teutonic tribes have inhabited Central and northern Europe since earliest times. Possibly displacing and assimilating with Celtic peoples when they migrated south from their original homelands, these early Germans quickly settled and organized themselves into a myriad of tribes and cultures along the Rhine and further east. Due to pressure from Slavic tribes moving towards them, the Germanic people began to come into direct contact, and then conflict with the Romans during the period of the later Empire. As Rome itself began to weaken and eventually crumble, the Germans took advantage of this and begun a period of migration that set up a number of Germanic kingdoms in the remnants of former Roman provinces. These are the lasting foundations of many European nation states, including the German nation itself, the proud inheritor of this ancient culture.

Early History of Germania

Loki directing the blind Hodur’s arrow in a 19th century sculpture

The origins of the Name “Germany. ” In their ancient songs, their only way of remembering or recording the past they celebrate an earth-born god Tuisco, and his son Mannus, as the origin of their race, as their founders. To Mannus they assign three sons, from whose names, they say, the coast tribes are called Ingaevones; those of the interior, Herminones; all the rest, Istaevones. Some, with the freedom of conjecture permitted by antiquity, assert that the god had several descendants, and the nation several appellations, as Marsi, Gambrivii, Suevi, Vandilij, and that these are nine old names.

The name Germany, on the other hand, they say is modern and newly introduced, from the fact that the tribes which first crossed the Rhine and drove out the Gauls, and are now called Tungrians, were then called Germans. Thus what was the name of a tribe, and not of a race, gradually prevailed, till all called themselves by this self-invented name of Germans, which the conquerors had first employed to inspire terror. The tribes of Germany are free from all taint of intermarriages with foreign nations, and that they appear as a distinct, unmixed race, like none but themselves. Hence, too, the same physical peculiarities throughout so vast a population. All have fierce blue eyes, red hair, huge frames, fit only for a sudden exertion.

Top of Section

German Warfare

Germanic warriors on Trajan’s column, Rome

Unlike the people of the Roman Empire, who bowed down before Caesar, these tall warriors felt that every mart should be free to do as he pleased. Some of the tribes had kings, but when anything of importance was to be decided all the freemen came together in a meeting called a “folk-moot.” Here, with their weapons in their hands, they listened to what the chiefs proposed and shouted out their approval or dissent. If the king died, or was slain in battle, the warriors chose another, raising him on a shield with loud cries and the clashing of weapons.

Every tribe, every district, even every village had its meeting, and if all the warriors could not come together, it was the custom for the villages to send picked men to speak for them as representatives. Yet even when some question had been decided, each warrior was free to do as he pleased. If he did not wish to take part in an expedition, no one could compel him to go. It was deemed cowardly, however, to refrain from war.

Top of Section

Accounts of Germanic Tribes

A map of Germania, as described by Roman historians

Up to the last century, it was a widely held belief that German history began in the year A.D. 9. That was when Arminius, a prince of a Germanic tribe called the Cherusci, vanquished three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest (southeast of modern-day Bielefeld). Arminius, about whom not much else is known, was regarded as the first German national hero, and a huge memorial to him was built near Detmold in the years 1838-75.

Nowadays a less simplistic view is taken. The gradual emergence of a distinctly German nation was a process which took hundreds of years. The German nation essentially grew out of a number of German tribes such as the Franks, the Saxons, the Swabians and the Bavarians. These old tribes have of course long since lost their original character, but their traditions and dialects live on in their respective regions. Those ethnic regions are not, however, identical to the present states (Länder), most of which were only formed after the Second World War in agreement with the occupying powers. In many cases the boundaries were drawn without any consideration for old traditions. Furthermore, the flows of refugees and the massive postwar migrations, but also the mobility of the modern industrial society, have more or less blurred the ethnic boundaries.

A portrait of Tacitus, the Roman author of the first German history

A portrait of Tacitus, the Roman author of the first German history

Much of what is known about the Germanic people comes from historical accounts written by two Roman authors: Commentaries (51 BC) by Julius Caesar and Germania (98 AD) by Cornelius Tacitus. By comparing the two writings, it is possible to trace the evolution of Germanic society in the intervening period. In Caesar’s time, land tenure did not involve private property; instead, fields were divided annually among clans. By the time of Tacitus, however, land was distributed annually to individuals according to social class. The basic sociopolitical unit was the pagus (clan). In Caesar’s period, some pagi had military leaders as chiefs, but only during wartime. By Tacitus’s time, however, several pagi, at least, had full-time, elected chiefs. These leaders did not have absolute power but were limited by a council of nobles and an assembly of fighting men. Military chiefs had groups (comitium) of men who swore allegiance to them in both peace and war.

The first clash between the Germanic peoples and the neighboring Romans was in the 2nd century BC, when the Cimbri and Teutons invaded Gaul and were defeated in present-day Provence, France. By this period, however, much of Germany was occupied by such Germanic tribes as the Suevi, Cherusci, and others. When the Romans in turn attempted to conquer the area east of the Rhine River early in the 1st century, they were defeated by the Cherusci chief Arminius (Hermann). By the mid-2nd century AD Germanic pressures on the Roman frontiers intensified. The emperor Marcus Aurelius waged successful warfare against such tribes as the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Iazyges. By this period, German mercenaries were beginning to be used by the Roman armies. During the 3rd century, more migrations caused a crisis within the empire, as Goths, Alamanni, and Franks penetrated German borders. The movement stopped temporarily in the late 3rd century during the reigns of the emperors Diocletian and Constantine the Great, but it resumed under pressure from the non-Germanic Huns, who came out of Central Asia in the 4th century. In the 5th century the Germans occupied the whole Western Roman Empire. Over the next few hundred years, the Germanic tribes adopted Christianity and laid the foundations of medieval Europe. Germanic languages are still spoken today in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa, and the English-speaking countries.

Top of Section

Myths of Germanic Origins

A Germanic Soldier in the late Roman army

In the dim days of very long ago there was a country called Fensalir. It was a low-lying country of rich green meadows and fair cornfields. Beside the slow-flowing streams trees drooped their branches laden with wondrous fruit. Upon the endless meadows countless herds of cattle browsed. It was a rich and peaceful land, but no man knew where it began or where it ended, for round the fair green meadows there hung ever a soft white mist, and any who strayed far were lost in its rolling folds. Weary of the quiet peace, stung by the longing to adventure and to know, some indeed wandered forth, never to return.

Over this strange land there rifled a beautiful giantess. Her hair was gold with the gold of the cornfields, her dress was rich and green with the rich green of the meadows. Only she knew the length and breadth of the fair country over which she ruled. Only she knew what lay beyond the rolling mists. All who remained under her rule found lasting peace and gladness. For she was to them a gracious, tender mother. She spread her hands abroad to bless her land with warmth and fruitfulness; she stretched forth her skirts to shelter her people from cold and frost.

So long years passed, and to this fair giantess there Tew came a son. This son she called Tew. He was bold and he was wise. To him was given victory in war. To him was given the wisdom of words. So it came to pass that if a man was very brave it was said of him, “He is as brave as Tew”; if a man was very wise it was said of him, “He hath the wisdom of Tew.” And at length people made songs about Tew, in which they told of his deeds of valor and his wisdom.

And so as years went on, to the people Tew became a god, even as the sun and the moon. One day of the week was called after him, and to this day we still call it Tuesday. Now Tew had a son, and he again had many children, so that soon the land was filled with people. Of these people there were many tribes, each taking its name from one of the grandsons of Tew; but the whole people were called Teutons, after the name of the great god himself.

This is a fairy-tale and an allegory. The beautiful giantess is a giantess we all know, for she is Mother Earth, and from her broad green lap there rose the god Tew, the father of the great Teutonic race. It is a race which stretches far and wide, and nearly all the peoples of Northern Europe belong to it. The Germans are but one of its many branches, and it is of them I mean to tell in this book.

They first got the name of Germans in Roman times. North of the Rhine dwelt the Teutons, south of the Rhine dwelt the Gauls. But there came a time when a wild horde of Teutons crossed the Rhine, and drove the Gauls out. The Gauls then gave to the wild tribe the name of Germans or neighbors, and by degrees the name was given to the whole race. We still call them Germans, but they call themselves die Deutschen. That is a much newer name, and they did not receive until the end of the ninth century.

Tiw, the god of War

Tiw, the god of War

It too has a meaning which is interesting. The Gauls and the Franks who had settled south of the Rhine; gradually began to talk Latin, or the Roman language, which later grew into French. It was the language of the learned. But the tribes on the north of the Rhine continued to speak the old language. It was the language of the common people. Thiod means “people”; theotisce means “of the people.” So the language was called theotiscos, meaning “the people’s language,” and gradually it became changed from theotiscos to Deutsch.

So Deutsch means nothing less than “a son of the soil, a son of Mother Earth.” And perhaps the little fairy-tale at the beginning of this chapter may help to make some of us understand better why we so often speak of Fatherland or Mother Earth. And it is interesting to find in the early story of the German people the dim outlines of this tale, for they more than any other people have given to their country the name of Fatherland.

But whence really came these Teutons or Germans? In the dim far-off days of the long-forgotten past, in a time so far back that neither history nor legend can tell us ought of it, they dwelt in Asia. But their home was never settled. They loved battle and hated labor. It was easier to conquer new lands than to till that they already possessed. So slowly they moved westward from country to country until they reached Europe. At first they settled along the shores of the Baltic, but by degrees they passed southward to the country of the Gauls.

Ariminius, the leader of the German rebellion

Ariminius, the leader of the German rebellion

These ancient Teutons were heathen, but not Druids like the Britons or the Gauls. They worshiped other gods. Wodan was chief of them all, but they worshiped also his son, Thor, the god of the hammer, and many a god besides. And when they died these old heathens believed that they went to Wodan’s palace, the splendid hall of Valhalla. There, in company with all the gods and heroes of their race, they would lead, they believed, for ever a life of feasting and drinking, such as they had loved on earth.

They were fair-haired giants those Germans of old time—”Children with old men’s hair,” the Romans called them. Huge they were, strong of limb, and able to endure both cold and hunger. They cared nothing or gold and ornaments, and were clad only in a cloak of cloth, or the hide of some animal. This was held about their shoulders by a simple clasp or even by a thorn. They were armed with long spears and short javelins. Few wore helmets or armor of any sort.

As they dashed to war the very sight of them struck fear to the hearts of their enemies. Their fierce blue eyes and yellow streaming hair, their huge bodies, the shrieks of the women and children who surrounded the battle-field, and, above all, the hoarse sound of their war-chants, which rose and fell in harsh roar, all added to the terror of their attack.

These ancient Germans loved battle. They held it more honorable to win their daily bread by blood and conquest than to earn it by the sweat of the brow. Yet even the best and bravest warriors in times of peace did nothing but eat and drink. “It is marvelous,” says a Roman writer, “that the same men should so love sloth and hate peace.”

Top of Section

Teutonic Legends; Siegfried and Kriemhilde

Siegfried, the Teuton hero of German lore

In an area between the Black Forest and the Vosges Mountains the Rhine runs through green banks surrounded by fruit trees and vineyards. After the Romans had left, the Burgundians appreciated the fertile land and decided to settle there. The old town of Worms was filled with new life. Three brothers shared the regal dignity: Gunther, Gernot and Giselher. The beautiful blonde sister Kriemhilde attracted suitors from near and far. They offered gold and jewelery as morning gifts. But Kriemhilde dreamily said to her mother Ute: “He is not the one my heart fancies!” Lady Ute could only bow her head and think:”What one sees in one’s dreams is only a fairy prince.”

Kriemhilde’s dream did, however, become reality. From the far north came a young, blond man on horseback. Strong and well-built, this stranger had behind him a large number of pack-horses carrying well-filled leather satchels. He came grown up on the left river bank, a three day journey and more by ship downstream from Worms, in the old Roman city of Xanten There, his father Siegmund reigned as king.

Siegfried was the son’s name, and when he had learned how to tame a horse and to handle a weapon, he felt the urge to go upstream. He wanted to know from where all the water was coming. The pull of fate was stronger than the supplications of his parents who begged him to stay and inherit the royal crown. But he was not to live ling enough. The father outlived the son, though the name Siegfried is still surrounded by glorious splendor. Kriemhilde was standing on the high balcony of the royal castle in Worms when Siegfried came riding up the river meadow. Her blonde hair waved in the wind. Her whole attention was on the newcomer, and she disregarded his menial presents. Siegfried did not look up at her once, focusing his eyes rather on the towers of the royal castle, its walls and merlons and the wide locked entrance door.

The guest, being of royal blood, was admitted into the castle. He was allowed to measure his strength against that of the three kings of the Burgundians in competitions, and he offered them proof of his power, dexterity and adroitness. Kriemhilde watched them with great interest when they tried their physical strength in a sword fight, in the long jump or in a race. Afterward they were all sitting at the open fireplace , drinking and eating. King Gunther invited Siegfried to stay and he readily agreed. Siegfried grew very fond of the sister of the three kings of the Burgundians.

The young hero passed the time hunting and fishing, so that the days passed quickly. Every evening there was a reason for celebrating: the biggest salmon he had caught, the huge stag he had killed with a spear, and whose larded back was now being prepared on the spit. The prince got used to going for a brief walk through the rose garden, which was in full bloom, before he finally went to sleep. In this garden on the summer evenings, he listened to the nightingale and was burning with love. Late one evening he heard light footsteps in the dark. When he had hidden himself, he saw Kriemhilde in the moonlight. His pulse quickened. He seized her hand and she did not resist. He kissed her on the forehead, pressed her tenderly against his breast and told her that her loved her. She asked all the questions lovers usually ask, but when she tenderly caressed his arm, she became scared. The skin that she hat touched seemed strange, almost as if it were not the skin of a living human being.

Siegfried explained the reason for this. After a super human fight he had succeeded in killing a dragon on the Drachenfels, a rock where dragons used to live. This had happened when Siegfried had been near Königswinter on the banks of the Rhine. The blood of the monster immediately congealed, where it came in contact with his body, into an impermeable, horny skin.

Consequently, he took a bath in the blood and became invulnerable. The immense golden treasure of the Nibelungs which Siegfried had wrestled from the dwarf Alberich, was hidden by Siegfried in the cave of the dragon.Now he promised the Nibelungen hoard to Kriemhilde as a morning gift, and he kissed her long and tenderly. But now she asked the fatal question: ” Is this horny skin then really all over your body?” Reluctantly, Siegfried showed her the place between his shoulders where a linden tree leaf had fallen when he was taking the bath. This was the only place where the dragon’s blood did not cover his body. Thrilled, she rested her head against this place. When Siegfried asked permission to marry Kriemhilde the next morning, , King Gunther, her brother, made one condition. He himself was also courting. As a consequence, he wanted Siegfried to accompany him as a shield bearer. After their happy return, they would celebrate a double wedding. Siegfried gladly agreed. H accompanied King Gunther by ship to Iceland where the beautiful Queen Brunhilde was waiting for her suitor from Worms.

She was the dark-haired sovereign who ruled over the land of the volcanoes. Many suitors had come to Brunhilde before Gunther, but they had lost their lives in the course of the competitions with the queen because they were not in a position to defeat her. Brunhilde walked towards Gunther, full of pride and confident of victory. Gunther became very frightened when he sensed to power which emanated from Brunhilde, but he could no longer back out, so he asked Siegfried for assistance on the next day when the competition was to take place. Siegfried fetched from the ship the magic hood which he had taken from the dwarfs. This hood made him invisible and, without being seen, he was able to assist Gunther in his fight against Brunhilde. Gunther was not capable of withstanding the terrible attacks from Bruhnilde. When Siegfried recognized this, he defeated Brunhilde and forced her to the ground. Brunhilde was obliged to grant Gunther sovereignty over her country and had to accompany him as his bride to Worms. When all had returned, Siegfried went to his fiancée Kriemhilde, and they celebrated their wedding together with Gunther and Brunhilde. On the wedding night Brunhilde challenged Gunther again for a competition, just to convince herself again of his strength. After a short struggle she defeated him, tied his hand and feet and left him lying on the floor of her bedroom. When she had released him, Gunther went to see Siegfried and poured out his troubles to him again. Siegfried slipped , the following night, into Brunhilde”s rooms, using again the magic hood to make himself invisible. When Brunhilde appeared, he defeated her and surreptitiously took her belt and ring. On the next day, he gave these things to Kriemhilde.

In Worms the proud Icelandic queen now began to compare Gunther and Siegfried in her thoughts. She sensed that the hero from Xanten was the stronger of the two. How she envied her blond sister-in-law! She expressed her annoyance one morning when both women were ascending toe steps to the cathedral. Bruhnilde, the queen, wanted to enter before Kriemhilde, the wife of the vassal. At this, Kriemhilde lost her temper and hurled the truth into the face of the dark-haired queen: Gunther had not defeated her, but Siegfried. As proof Kriemhilde showed her the ring and the belt given to her by Siegfried and then crossed the threshold of the cathedral first. Brunhilde was mortally offended. Gunther was obliged to obtain satisfaction for Brunhilde. This he confided to his armorer, the fierce Hagen.

The plan to destroy Siegfried was hatched and to his end they invited him to participate in a big hunting event in the Odenwald. Before they left to go to the forest Hagen went to Kriemhilde and feigned concern for Siegfried’s life. “The forest is full of risk”, he said wondering. ” One angry bull is stronger than ten strong men!” The princess laughed at him and said “Siegfried is invulnerable!” Cunningly, Hagen doubted this and then she divulged the secret and history of the death of the dragon. Unfortunately she also told him of the linden-tree leaf. Now Hagen knew exactly where Siegfried was vulnerable.

After the strenuous hunt, Siegfried knelt down at a spring to quench his thirst. At that moment Hagen thrust a hunting spear between Siegfried’s shoulders. With his last strength Siegfried turned around and saw the deadly hatred in the eyes of his murderer. He bled to death and the Burgundians placed his corpse on the mule which originally was to carry a bag containing their hunting kill. Gunther and Hagen placed the body at Kriemhilde’s door in the castle and there she found him, cold and rigid, as she was leaving for church in the morning. With a loud cry she sank to the floor.

Wanting to keep the truth from her, the brothers lied: “We found him killed by robbers near the spring.” Their eyes flickered when telling this lie and their faces were treacherously pale. Kriemhilde was suspicious, thinking that they knew who Siegfried’s murders was. She requested a trial by ordeal, and thy had to comply: Siegfried’s corpse was laid in state in front of the altar and everybody belonging to the court had to walk past his dead body. When Hagen approached the bier, Siegfried’s wound began bleeding again. Kriemhilde, now knowing exactly who Siegfried’s murderer was, demanded Hagen’s head . Her brothers refused. Kriemhilde was not to be deterred and recognizing this, Hagen secretly fetched the Nibelungen hoard out of the vault and threw it in the Rhine, thus depriving Kriemhilde of the means for revenge. Never again did one single piece of the treasure come to the light of day.

Kriemhilde buried her dead husband in the monastery of Lorch. For thirteen years she lived close to it and her heart hardened in vengeance.When the matchmakers from Hungary came, Kriemhilde agreed to marry the King Etzel, the powerful king of the Huns. This she did not for love, but rather to gain the weapons to carry out her vengeance.

She fascinated the king and gained the means to carry out her plan. Then she invited her three brothers to attend the baptism of her child. Hagen had a presentiment of danger, but the kings threw his warnings to the winds. Armed as if for war, but with peaceful intentions, they rode on horseback with all their men to Etzel’s court. There they found festive attire prepared for every one of them. Following Hagen’s advice, they put these over their coats of mail and cuirasses. The festive dinner table bent under the load of food and wine jugs.

Kriemhilde knew exactly how to start a quarrel between the guests and the hosts and suddenly weapons were drawn from every corner. The Burgundians had to fight for their lives and they made a bloody path through hordes of Huns toward the door. But before they ultimately reached the exit into the protection of the dark night, Kriemhilde gave orders to set fire to the tapestries on the walls and to the wooden ceiling of the hall. The kings of the Burgundians fought their last battle in smoke and flames, bleeding from countless wounds. The last to be defeated was Hagen. With her own hands Kriemhilde cut his head from his shoulders. She had no opportunity for rejoicing over her revenge, as Hildebrand, the armorer of Etzel’s ally, the king of the Goths, killed her in disgust. The greatest poetic work of the early history in the German language, the song of the Niebelungs has immortalized the extinction of the Burgundians.

Top of Section

Additional Resources

Coming soon..

From our Sponsors

[spb_products_mini title=”Our Shop” asset_type=”latest-products” item_count=”5″ width=”1/1″ el_position=”first last”]

People & Places


Leave a reply