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Barbarian Europe

Tribal Allegiances

by Edward Dawson, 2 March 2013

In the period before and during the Roman empire, there was no concept of nation among the barbarian peoples to their north.

Allegiance was given to an individual leader of one's extended family (ie. tribe). A tribe was indeed regarded as a family. This is indicated both in Celtic and Germanic cultures by their words. In Common Celtic the word for tribe is from the same root as the word for family: teuta-/touta- (this word appears to have been borrowed into the German language from Celtic and forms the basis of their word for themselves, Deutsch). And in English / German the word for a relative (kin / kunni in Old High German) forms the basis of the word for a ruler (king / konig) with the addition of an -ing / -ig suffix.

So a group in both cultures was formed around kinship; and the group was led or commanded by a relative. A different tribe calling themselves by a different name might be regarded as relatives, or they might not if no narrative existed telling people that they were once a single tribe.


Tribes could ally themselves to other tribes and fight battles alongside them, but they would tend to be led by their own kings. Even late in the tribal period we see the brothers, Aethelfrith and Theodbald of Northumbria, in battle with the Scots of Dalriata, but each commanded their own band of warriors.

Alliances made with another tribe which allowed that tribe's leader to be in command would be tantamount to submission, and this would therefore be repugnant in a warrior society. Even between brothers as in the Northumbrian example, Theodbald would have been shamed if he had allowed his brother to lead his warriors. He stood with them and they with him, and that entire wing of the Northumbrian army was destroyed as a separate unit.

The same is true of tribal alliances. Tribes could and did ally themselves to one another, but they took to the field as distinct units during the barbarian period.

In order to get around this problem of submission it seems likely that, among thise tribes which were located farthest from Mediterranean civilisation, alliances were formed around a god or goddess, or around an ancestor. Sometimes this was the same thing (more on that later).

The Lugii would be formed of an alliance which had been created in the name of Lug (Lugh). The Brigantes of Britain and Ireland appear to be similarly formed around the goddess Brigit (Brigant?). The Goths (gods) are another possible such group. And certainly the three major groupings of the German tribes were formed around the semi-mythical ancestors Yngvi (the Invaeones), Hermin (the Irminones) and Ystaev (the Istaevones).

Belgic tribesmen
These Belgic Celts typify the warrior appearance of a people which once occupied much of eastern and Central Europe before they were pushed out or absorbed by later arrivals

Two types of god

Mention should also be made of the fact that there appear to be two type of gods in German and Gaulish (Celtic) cultures.

One is a god based on a physical or mythological object or idea, such as the sun, light, underworld, home, and so on.

The second is a god formed of a deified human leader. Of course, the latter is often transformed into the former as time passes.

Once an alliance was up and running in the name of a god, tribes might join as needed or drop out at will without betraying any oath given to a mere human who might take their departure as a personal affront. This then solved the dual problems of allegiance to a mere human: no humiliation of a great king occurs if he makes his allegiance to a mythic or divine figure; and dropping out of a military alliance is easier.

While Celtic culture appears to have been more forgiving of oathbreaking, a promise made by a German was taken very seriously by everyone. The problems of survival as a group dictated that alliances be formed and dissolved as the need arose, yet their cultures either forbade or made repugnant the actions which were frankly necessary. This then appears to be a way in which these groups solved this problem prior to contact with Mediterranean civilisation.

Gallo-Belgic quarter stater
Celtic coins such as these appeared on both sides of the Channel in the last couple of centuries BC, distributed by trading and possible even kinship connections



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