Jordanes On The Emigration Of The Goths Gepidae And Herulians The Migration Saga Of The Burgundians Traces Of An Alamannic Migration Saga

: Teutonic Mythology

The most populous and mighty of all the Teutonic tribes was during a

long period the Gothic, which carried victorious weapons over all

eastern and southern Europe and Asia Minor, and founded kingdoms between

the Don in the East and the Atlantic ocean and the Pillars of Hercules

in the West and South. The traditions of the Goths also referred the

cradle of the race to Scandinavia. Jordanes, a Romanised Goth, wrote in

sixth century the history of his people. In the North, he says,

there is a great ocean, and in this ocean there is a large island called

Scandza, out of whose loins our race burst forth like a swarm of bees

and spread over Europe. In its capacity as cradle of the Gothic race,

and of other Teutonic tribes, this island Scandza is clearly of great

interest to Jordanes, the more so since he, through his father Vamod or

Alano-Vamut, regarded himself as descended from the same royal family as

that from which the Amalians, the famous royal family of the East Goths,

traced their ancestry. On this account Jordanes gives as complete a

description of this island as possible. He first tells what the Greek

and Roman authors Claudius Ptolemy and Pomponius Mela have written about

it, but he also reports a great many things which never before were

known in literature, unless they were found in the lost Historia

Gothorum by Cassiodorus--things which either Jordanes himself or

Cassiodorus had learned from Northmen who were members of the large

Teutonic armies then in Italy. Jordanes also points out, with an air of

superiority, that while the geographer Ptolemy did not know more than

seven nations living on the island Scandza, he is able to enumerate many

more. Unfortunately several of the Scandinavian tribe-names given by him

are so corrupted by the transcriber that it is useless to try to restore

them. It is also evident that Jordanes himself has had a confused notion

of the proper geographical or political application of the names. Some

of them, however, are easily recognisable as the names of tribes in

various parts of Sweden and Norway, as, for instance, Vagoth,

Ostrogothae, Finnaithae (inhabitants of Finved), Bergio, Hallin,

Raumaricii, Ragnaricii, Rani. He gives us special accounts of a

Scandinavian people, which he calls sometimes Svehans and sometimes

Svethidi, and with these words there is every reason to believe that he

means the Swedes in the wider or more limited application of this term.

This is what he tells about the Svehans or Svethidi: The Svehans are in

connection with the Thuringians living on the continent, that Teutonic

people which is particularly celebrated for their excellent horses. The

Svehans are excellent hunters, who kill the animals whose skins through

countless hands are sent to the Romans, and are treasured by them as the

finest of furs. This trade cannot have made the Svehans rich. Jordanes

gives us to understand that their economical circumstances were not

brilliant, but all the more brilliant were their clothes. He says they

dressed ditissime. Finally, he has been informed that the Svethidi are

superior to other races in stature and corporal strength, and that the

Danes are a branch of the Svethidi. What Jordanes relates about the

excellent horses of the Swedes is corroborated by the traditions which

the Icelanders have preserved. The fact that so many tribes inhabited

the island Scandza strengthens his conviction that this island is the

cradle of many of the peoples who made war on and invaded the Roman

Empire. The island Scandza, he says, has been officina gentium,

vagina nationum--the source of races, the mother of nations. And

thence--he continues, relying on the traditions and songs of his own

people--the Goths, too, have emigrated. This emigration occurred under

the leadership of a chief named Berig, and he thinks he knows where

they landed when they left their ships, and that they, like the

Longobardians, on their progress came in conflict with the Vandals

before they reached the regions north of the Black Sea, where they

afterwards founded the great Gothic kingdom which flourished when the

Huns invaded Europe.

The saga current among the Goths, that they had emigrated from

Scandinavia, ascribed the same origin to the Gepidae. The Gepidae were a

brave but rather sluggish Teutonic tribe, who shared the fate of the

Goths when the Huns invaded Europe, and, like the Goths, they cast off

the Hunnish yoke after the death of Attila. The saga, as Jordanes found

it, stated that when the ancestors of the Goths left Scandza, the whole

number of the emigrants did not fill more than three ships. Two of them

came to their destination at the same time; but the third required more

time, and therefore the first-comers called those who arrived last

Gepanta (possibly Gepaita), which, according to Jordanes, means those

tarrying, or the slow ones, and this name changed in course of time into

Gepidae. That the interpretation is taken from Gothic traditions is


Jordanes has heard a report that even the warlike Teutonic Herulians had

come to Germany from Scandinavia. According to the report, the Herulians

had not emigrated voluntarily from the large islands, but had been

driven away by the Svethidi, or by their descendants, the Danes. That

the Herulians themselves had a tradition concerning their Scandinavian

origin is corroborated by history. In the beginning of the sixth

century, it happened that this people, after an unsuccessful war with

the Longobardians, were divided into two branches, of which the one

received land from the emperor Anastasius south of the Danube, while the

other made a resolve, which has appeared strange to all historians,

viz., to seek a home on the Scandinavian peninsula. The circumstances

attending this resolution make it still more strange. When they had

passed the Slavs, they came to uninhabited regions--uninhabited,

probably, because they had been abandoned by the Teutons, and had not

yet been occupied by the Slavs. In either case, they were open to the

occupation of the Herulians; but they did not settle there. We

misunderstand their character if we suppose that they failed to do so

from fear of being disturbed in their possession of them. Among all the

Teutonic tribes none were more distinguished than the Herulians for

their indomitable desire for war, and for their rash plans. Their

conduct furnishes evidence of that thoughtlessness with which the

historian has characterised them. After penetrating the wilderness, they

came to the landmarks of the Varinians, and then to those of the Danes.

These granted the Herulians a free passage, whereupon the adventurers,

in ships which the Danes must have placed at their disposal, sailed over

the sea to the island "Thule," and remained there. Procopius, the East

Roman historian who records this (De Bello Goth., ii., 15), says that

on the immense island Thule, in whose northern part the midnight sun can

be seen, thirteen large tribes occupy its inhabitable parts, each tribe

having its own king. Excepting the Skee Finns, who clothe themselves in

skins and live from the chase, these Thulitic tribes, he says, are

scarcely to be distinguished from the people dwelling farther south in

Europe. One of the largest tribes is the Gauts (the Goetar). The

Herulians went to the Gauts and were received by them.

Some decades later it came to pass that the Herulians remaining in South

Europe, and dwelling in Illyria, were in want of a king. They resolved

to send messengers to their kinsmen who had settled in Scandinavia,

hoping that some descendant of their old royal family might be found

there who was willing to assume the dignity of king among them. The

messengers returned with two brothers who belonged to the ancient family

of rulers, and these were escorted by 200 young Scandinavian Herulians.

As Jordanes tells us that the Herulians actually were descended from the

great northern island, then this seems to me to explain this remarkable

resolution. They were seeking new homes in that land which in their old

songs was described as having belonged to their fathers. In their

opinion, it was a return to the country which contained the ashes of

their ancestors. According to an old middle age source, Vita

Sigismundi, the Burgundians also had old traditions about a

Scandinavian origin. As will be shown further on, the Burgundian saga

was connected with the same emigration chief as that of the Saxons and

Franks (see No. 123).

Reminiscences of an Alamannic migration saga can be traced in the

traditions found around the Vierwaldstaedter Lake. The inhabitants of

the Canton Schwitz have believed that they originally came from Sweden.

It is fair to assume that this tradition in the form given to it in

literature has suffered a change, and that the chroniclers, on account

of the similarity between Sweden and Schwitz, have transferred the home

of the Alamannic Switzians to Sweden, while the original popular

tradition has, like the other Teutonic migration sagas, been satisfied

with the more vague idea that the Schwitzians came from the country in

the sea north of Germany when they settled in their Alpine valleys. In

the same regions of Switzerland popular traditions have preserved the

memory of an exploit which belongs to the Teutonic mythology, and is

there performed by the great archer Ibor (see No. 108), and as he

reappears in the Longobardian tradition as a migration chief, the

possibility lies near at hand, that he originally was no stranger to the

Alamannic migration saga.