The language of the Germanic people, and something of our culture, springs from a much greater stem. The Germanic language, like Celtic, Latin, Greek, Iranian, and Sanskrit (among others), is part of the Indo-European (I-E) language group, all going back to a common root called Proto-Indo-European.
Little is known of the Indo-European homeland; what we do know about it comes from the words that can be reconstructed from their variants in the Indo-European languages. We know that these early forebears lived where there were birch and willow trees; probably also ash, elm, and oak. Among the animals they knew were wolves, bears, lynx, salmon, elk, red deer, hares, otters, beavers, hedgehogs, mice, and perhaps roe deer; they seem to have known eagles, geese, cranes, and ducks, as well. Their domesticated beasts included cows, sheep, horses, pigs, and dogs. As far as their landscape is concerned, they had both mountains (or at least big hills) and large bodies of water. They were probably not a nomadic people, as both the domestication of pigs and the agricultural terms suggest permanent settlement and cultivation of land. The origins of the Indo-European community are still a matter for debate among scholars. However, there is general agreement that the people who lived on the steppes north of the Black Sea between six and four thousand years ago were speaking an Indo-European language, and were the cultural ancestors of the modern European peoples.
It is important to note that the settlement of Europe by the Indo-Europeans resulted in a cultural change, not a racial change. The peoples of Europe, eastern or western, are and have always been a heterogenous mixture of physical types.
What distinguished the steppes peoples from their western neighbors was their language and culture. Like their western neighbors, the steppe folk derived a large part of their living from hunting, fishing, and farming of grains (wheat and barley) and legumes (beans, peas, and lentils). However, the basis of steppe culture was cattle raising. Cattle were absolutely the heart and soul of their culture. The word *dhenu ("nourisher") was originally applied to milk cows. Later it was applied to nursing mothers as well. In time it became a name for the immortal spirit which was believed to nurture the soul of the individual. It survived in Avestan (an ancient Iranian language) as Daena, which meant "Religion".
The steppes people lived on the upper terraces of the Don, the Volga, and other rivers which drained into the Black Sea. They grew their crops on the lower terraces in summer and pastured their herds there in winter. In the summer the herds grazed on the vast expanses of the open steppe, watched over by groups of young men. These groups were the cultural root of the warrior-societies known to the various Indo-European peoples.
The cattle provided the muscle-power to pull the plows and wagons which the villagers used to grow and transport their crops. Horses became important for transportation only with the invention of the light two-wheeled chariot, about 4400 years ago. Cattle provided the means for migration, as well as the cause. Because the steppe people had developed a way of using the resources of the steppes for nourishment, their numbers increased with each generation. This new way of life was dairy farming. Steppe grasses were far too tough to be plowed; simple wooden plows could not cut through their roots. By raising cattle, then milking them and making butter and cheese, the steppe people found a non-destructive way to use the bounty of the steppes, as well as a way to obtain food from the animals without killing them.
Of course, the herds of cattle also provided meat, leather, horn, and bone for food, clothing, and tools. Sheep and goats provided wool, hides, meat, and horn. Horses were originally raised for meat and hides, but were later used for transportation. The men of the steppes were skilled craftsmen who made their own tools of wood, stone, bone, horn, and bronze. They used these tools to make wagons, chariots, boats, houses, and probably furniture, although no traces of beds or tables have survived. They also made jewelry of gold, silver, copper, and bronze. The women were skilled in spinning, dyeing, and weaving wool. They were also the basketmakers and potters, decorating their pottery with simple geometric patterns of lines and dots.
When the steppe people followed the Danube up into Europe, they found themselves in another world: a land of unlimited forests. They built their villages on islands or river promontories which they turned into islands by digging ditches. They erected palisades of upright logs for protection, and built log cabins to live in. Whereas the steppe people had lived with entire (extended) families under one roof, in these new houses, each man set up his own household when he married.
In the earlier system, all of the adults of one family had called all the children "son" or "daughter" and all the children had called all the men "father" and all the women "mother". In this system there had been no orphans and no private property, except personal adornments. In the new system, which we still employ, each family, though still part of the greater kinship system, was responsible for bringing up its own children and providing for them. The earlier system of clan and tribe still prevailed for several millenia, each tribe being made up of several clans, each of which claimed descent from a common ancestor. Ancient nations were made up of tribes which had allied with each other for mutual benefit.
The Indo-Europeans were a patrilineal (not to be confused with patriarchal - KHG) society. Descent was traced through the male line. Because life was short and many children died in infancy, a woman's most sacred duty was to provide children, especially sons, to carry on the clan. The steppe people believed that spirits lived on in the tomb and required nourishment. Failure to provide a proper burial and offerings doomed the dead to eternal suffering as a hungry ghost. This belief persisted for millenia among many branches of the Indo-European people, including the Germanic-speakers.
The religion of the Indo-European people has also been much debated. Sweeping and imaginative attempts have been made to reconstruct an original structure by the scholar Georges Dumézil and his followers. However, Dumézil's method has often been criticized severely, as he relied on impressions and sweeping assertions rather than actual information (cf. Page, "Dumézil Revisited", for instance). The structures which he claims to be common to the Indo-European folk cannot be upheld within any individual branch (as will be discussed briefly in the section on the god/esses), and so there is some doubt as to how far they can be taken in regards to the Proto-Indo-Europeans. We do know that there was a cultural emphasis on the number three and on tripartism in general. For instance: the Indo-Europeans had three primary colours - white, red, and black; there are comparative suggestions that at rituals, a constellation of three different types of animal was sacrificed; the number three is the chief number of magic and ritual throughout the Indo-European world.
The hearth was the center of the domestic religion. The head of the family was the priest and his wife the priestess. They made offerings of the hearth fire every day at dawn and dusk. The fire was a living god, which contained the vital spark of the family line. For it to die out was a terrible sin which would cause horrible consequences for the family. The father of the family made offerings to the ancestors every month at the New and Full Moon. He made sacrifices to the powers of the fields in the spring and harvest-tide of every year. All through the year the father and mother of the family made offerings to the minor deities of the household: the powers of the courtyard, the livestock, the trees and groves, all the host of godlets who protected the people from calamity.
The greater gods received their offerings from the priestly families of the clans and tribes. The knowledge of the correct ritual procedures and hyms, the right to conduct sacrifices and receive a portion of the offerings, were the property of particular families and were passed down from father to son. The steppe peoples built no temples. Their sacrifices were made in temporary enclosures, aligned along an east-west axis. The sky gods received offerings on rectangular or square altars facing east; the terrestrial powers received their sacrifices on round altars facing west. The enclosure surrounding the altars was usually rectangular, but occasionally oval. It was made by cutting concentric lines in the soil or turf. Each sacrifice was a recreation of the world. In the mythos of the Indo-Europeans there had been three primal beings: "Man" (*Manu), "Twin" (*Yema), and "Shaper" (*Tvastr). Man, the first priest, had sacrificed Twin, the first king. Shaper, the first artisan, had created the world from the body of Twin. His flesh became the soil, his bones the stones, his breath the wind, his blood the waters, his vital energy fire, his eye the son, his mind the moon, and his skull the vault of heaven. Whenever a priest sacrificed, he was recreating the primal sacrifice, renewing the cosmic and social order. All those who participated in the sacrifice were acknowledging their common descent and kinship, for it was believed that the first human couple had sprung up from the seed of Twin, spilled on the ground when he died. Each birth was a bringing together of the primal elements, a recreation of Twin. Each death was a recreation of the original dismemberment.
There is reasonably certain linguistic evidence that the Indo-Europeans worshipped a Sky-Father or Bright Father, whose name survives in the Latin Jupiter and Sanskrit Dyaus-pita, and in a more abbreviated form, Greek Zeus and Norse Týr. Dumézil theorizes a double sky-rulership, in which the Bright Father governed human law, social mores, the day, light and summer, while his counterpart, the "Seer", represented cosmic law, ancestral custom, the powers of magic, of night, and of darkness; the possibility of this set-up is spoken of further under "Tiw". The Indo-Europeans probably knew a Storm Lord, the god who brought the life-giving rain and snows, who was also been the warrior god who protected the herds and the people from enemies. The great enemy of the Storm Lord was the "Dragon". This was a terrible serpent-like creature who swooped down out of the sky during stormy weather and devastated the land before being bested by the Storm Lord. To any resident of the American prairies, the "dragon" is instantly recognisable as a tornado: it was only when the Indo-Europeans left the steppes and moved into areas with less violent weather that the "dragon" developed into a mythical beast.
Other important celestial deities included the Sun Goddess, the daughter of the Bright Father; the Dawn Goddess; and the Twins. The Divine Twins were the sons of the Bright One also. The Twins were originally the Morning and Evening Stars, which were regarded as two separate entities. The Moon was an unusual deity, for he died and was reborn every month. He was envisioned as taking the shape of a white bull, and being sacrificed at the full of every moon and reborn as a white calf two weeks later. His semen was the dew which was gathered by bees to make honey, from which the vision-giving mead was derived. The sacred mushroom also sprang up from his seed.
The terrestrial powers were even more numerous than the sky deities. Every grove and spring had its protecting powers. The two most important powers were the Lord of Water and the Moisture Mother. The Lord of Water was god of the waters beneath the earth. The Moisture Mother was the goddess of the fertile well-watered soils upon which the crops and the grasses depended for life. One version of the Moisture Mother was the goddess Danu, "River". She was the goddess of the river which still bears her name, the Don. She was regarded as the ancestress of many Indo-European tribes: the Danaans of India, the Danoi of Greece, the Tuatha de Danaan of Ireland, and the Danes of Denmark. Many rivers still bear her name, including the Danube, the "Holy River".
The Indo-Europeans had an alcoholic drink for ritual (and perhaps other) use, called *medhu, probably very similar to the fermented honey mead of Northern Europe. They were familiar with both verse-riddles and chanted magic: for instance, one Old Norse riddle (set to Heiðrekr by Óðinn in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks) has analogies throughout the Indo-European world, as does the "Zweite Merseburger Zauberspruch", an Old High German charm for healing a broken limb. No evidence for Indo-European shamanism has yet been put forward.
The Indo-European people probably began to migrate from their homeland sometime between the fourth and third millenium B.C.E. (Before the Common Era), spreading fairly rapidly. The first major linguistic change was the division between the Western European ("centem") and the Eastern European/Asian ("satem") branches (the terms centem and satem are both words for "one hundred", the marker of change being the initial letter). The major European branches are Italo-Celtic; Aryo-Graeco-Armenian; and Balto-Slavo-Germanic. Much is still uncertain about the process of this migration. It was probably not a process of one folk sweeping forth to conquer and colonize on a large scale (as with, for instance, the Celtic domination of Central Europe during the early Iron Age followed by the Germanic incursions), for the physical types of people who speak Indo-European languages differ so markedly as to suggest that, whatever the original physical character of the Indo-Europeans might have been, they did not spread in numbers great enough to affect the genetic makeup of the local population. However, the Indo-European influence must have been extremely strong, for very little pre-Indo-European vocabulary made its way into any of the Indo-European dialects, so the probability of warfare as one of the means through which Indo-European was spread cannot be dismissed. The technical advancements of the Indo-Europeans, (particularly marked in their use of horses), may also have contributed to the spread of their language and culture: an analogy might perhaps be drawn with the dominance of the English language in the latter part of this century.
Because of the homeland problem, there is considerable difficulty in finding out when the Indo-European language/culture might have reached Scandinavia. While there are many cultural changes evident in early Nordic archaeology, identifying one as Indo-European is impossible. If the Indo-European homeland was indeed near the Urals, then Scandinavia would have been on the farthest fringe, and thus not likely to have become Indo-Europeanized until perhaps the second millenium B.C.E. If that were the case, it would open the way to much discussion of which elements of the Elder Troth were originally Indo-European and which were absorbed from the native ways of the North. However, the possibility also exists that the Indo-Europeans originally stemmed from Northern Europe, in which case there would be no evidence for a major cultural discontinuity between the Scandinavians of the Stone Age and the Viking Age Norse. Currently it is considered likely that the Scandinavian population remained relatively stable, with cultural changes arising from a combination of adaptation to climactic alterations and technological innovations filtering up from the south: if migration was a major factor in the Indo-European spread, then current theory makes it more difficult to explain the Indo-Europeanization of the North. Linguistically, as well, the Celtic and Germanic speeches seem to preserve many Proto-Indo-European features intact, which may also argue for a Northern European homeland.
Most of this chapter was written by Sunwynn Ravenwood, author of a forthcoming book on the Indo-Europeans. Also contributing were:
D. James O'Halloran, Elder-in-Training, from Teutonic Culture: The Development of the Folk (Eldership thesis-in-process).
Gert McQueen, Elder
(as compiled by Sunwynn Ravenwood, with the comment, "There are dozens of books on the Indo-Europeans; (these), and the Journal, are those that I would require as absolutely essential)
DeCoulanges, Fustel, The Ancient City: A Study on the Religion, Laws, and Institutions of Greece and Rome (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor books, 1956. Orig. pub. 1864).
Dumézil, Georges. Archaic Roman Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970)
- Mitra-Varuna (New York: Zone Books, 1988)
Gimbutas, Marja, Bronze Age Cultures in Central and Eastern Europe (The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1965)
- The Prehistory of Eastern Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: Peabody Museum, 1956)
Mallory, James P., In Search of the Indo-Europeans (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1989)
The Journal of Indo-European Studies (periodical)