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Barbarian Europe

Second Wave Germanic Influences

by Edward Dawson, 5 June 2020

The so-called 'Thraco-Cimmerian Hypothesis', a rather controversial subject to say the least, has already been covered in detail elsewhere (see The Thraco-Cimmerian Hypothesis in 'related feature links' in the sidebar).

Briefly here, it concerns an Eastern Celtic 38 group, part of the Cimmerian-Scythian people, who blasted their way into the historical record in the eighth and seventh centuries BC, and eventually settled to a large extent amongst the Thracian tribes (just as the Cimmerians are supposed to have done).

Some modern writers believe that a Thraco-Cimmerian migration westwards out of Thrace (or several, more probably) triggered cultural changes which contributed to the transformation of the Celts. Similar eastern influences - this time Indo-Iranian - appear to have entered the early Germanic culture and language.

Germanic shields

The early Germanic deities, the Os, also called Æsir, are covered in detail on another page, Tribal Warfare of the Gods in Scandinavia (see links).

These deities originally appear to have been one of two tribes or groups which battled for superiority, and the Os/Æsir - possibly the Goths of history - were victorious. The second group, the Wanes (pronounced 'van-es') or Vanir became subordinate. One peculiar feature about the early Germanics is their apparent cultural similarity with or heavy influence by East Indo-Europeans (specifically Indo-Iranians/Indo-Aryans - see the Germanics page for a fuller examination of this feature).

It would seem there there was heavy and prolonged contact between early Germanics or proto-Germanics (to go back even further in time). Only this could account for several Indo-Iranic features of Germanic language and culture.

The postulation here is that, long after the end of the original period of prolonged contact between Germanics and Indo-Iranians, there was a second period of contact between them which further influenced Germanic culture and language.

Where and when?

This second wave of contact probably took place in the second century AD. Around that time the Goths migrated from their recently-acquired territory around the southern coast of the Baltic Sea, arriving in the area to the north of the Black Sea (in modern Ukraine).

But the region was already inhabited by a branch of the Sakas/Scythians who are known as the Sarmatians. In extending westwards at their height the Sarmatians appear to have taken over territory from the German Bastarnae tribe. Considerable cultural mixing is to be expected.

One may speculate that the subservience of the Wanes/Vanir has its origin in the dominance of the Bastarnae and Goths over the previous rulers of that same territory: the Veneti/Venedi (again the 'v' is usually pronounced as a 'w'). The similarity of Venet/Wenet to Vanir is intriguing, given a common habit both in Celtic and Germanic language groups to change a 't' into a voiced 'th', and often to drop it entirely, thereby turning 'Venet' into Vanir'.

Map of Late Bronze Age Cultures c.1200-750 BC
This map showing Late Bronze Age cultures in Europe displays the area occupied by Nordic Bronze Age societies which is where the original conflict took place between the Æsir and the Vanir (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Since the specific deity name of Æsir is used both by Hindus and Iranians (in the form of Asura and Ahura respectively), then it is not a stretch to suppose that the Sarmatians also honoured the same group of deities.

Heavy contact between Sarmatians and Germans is reported by Roman writers, who, quite frankly, seemed to have difficulty distinguishing between the two. Since the Sarmatians were horsemen, it is not unreasonable to expect that they ranged north into contact with Germans even prior to the move south by the Goths. This, combined with their subject Bastarnae population, indicates that a great deal of mixing may have occurred between the two groups.

Could it even have been this contact and mixing which made it clear to the Goths that they would find a new home on the northern coast of the Black Sea?

The previous home of the Goths before moving to the Black Sea steppe was the aforementioned southern Baltic coastline, roughly in the area of modern Poland, and Kaliningrad (East Prussia). They are recorded there as the Gutones (although the same name has also been applied to the Cotini and Butones). The name in that form is 'Gut', with the '-on' being a suffix, used as a definite article (as in 'the'), and the '-es' is a Latin plural added by Roman writers.

In his book, Das Reich und die Germanen (1990, translated into English as The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples, by Thomas Dunlap), Herwig Wolfram declares that the royal family of the Goths, the Amali, were known as Æsir. The family claimed descent from a deity named Gaut. While that is probably an invention to enhance their prestige, what is of interest is their association with the Æsir as reported by Wolfram.

Command of the Vistula

Well before the arrival of the Goths in Ukraine, it appears that the Bastarnae took over all of the territory of the Vistula-based Veneti, a tribe of awkward and very mixed parentage. Today they are usually tagged as Slavic, but they are much more likely to have had an Eastern Celtic origin as it would be a few centuries (in terms of second century AD Germanic tribal movements) before any Slavs migrated this far west.

The Germanic Bastarnae would have dominated these Celts, but not massacred them. Indeed their identity survived into modern times as the Wends. Linguistically it is likely that they lost the use of Common Celtic and went through a series of adoptions of German (Bastarnae), Iranic (Sarmatian) in the south, German a second time in the south (Gothic), and then vanished as an identifiable people. The Venedi survivors on the northern stretch of the Vistula probably adopted Baltic (Old Prussian) and finally Slavic.

The Bastarnae dominated the Venedi. The Sarmatians dominated the Bastarnae. And finally the Goths dominated them all by the early third century AD.

If we use the Norse set of deities as our guide, then this explains their gods. The Germans took over Celts (the Venedi, and also the Lugii and a few others), as mirrored in Norse legend which had itself formed long before from very similar circumstances in Scandinavia; the Æsir supremacy over the lesser and older gods, the Vanir.

In those legends the Venedi (Wenet) would become the Vanir (the 'Wan' if you drop the '-ir' suffix and pronounce the 'v' in the older manner, as a 'w'), and the Goth leaders with their dominance over the Venedi would adopt the guise of the Æsir.


Main Sources

Anthony, David W - The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

Mallory, JP & Adams, DQ (Eds) - Encyclopaedia of Indo-European Culture, 1997

Pokorny, J - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary, online database which updates Pokorny's Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch

Wolfram, Herwig - Das Reich und die Germanen (1990, translated into English as The Roman Empire and its Germanic Peoples, by Thomas Dunlap)

Snorri Sturluson - Prose Edda (13th century Icelandic composition)

Poetic Edda - (13th century composition from older Skaldic poetry)

Online Sources

Indo-European Chronology - Countries and Peoples

Linguistics Research Center, University of Texas at Austin

Online Etymological Dictionary

Pokorny - Indo-European Etymological Dictionary

The United Sites of Indo-Europeans



Text copyright © Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.