Germanic peoples

historical group of European people

The Germanic peoples are a linguistic and ethnic branch of Indo-European peoples. They came from Northern Europe and are identified by their use of the Germanic languages. Migrating Germanic peoples spread throughout Europe, mixing with existing local populations (like Celts, Slavs/Vends, and Romans). They eventually formed the basis of many nations. These nations are connected by similar languages, common history, and culture.

Thor, Germanic thunder god. The hammer is associated with the thunderbolt. Painting by Mårten Eskil Winge, ca. 1872.

The Latin word Germani was first used by Julius Caesar.

The Germanic tribes did not have a name for themselves that described all Germanic-speaking people. In English, German is first attested in 1520, replacing earlier use of Almain or Dutch. Today, in English, “Dutch” means the language or people of the Netherlands.

In the 1st century CE, Roman authors like Caesar and Tacitus wrote that Germanic-speaking peoples had divided into tribal groupings. The different tribes lived in different areas:

The Irminones, Ingvaeones, and Sons of Mannus Istvaeones are called West Germanic tribes. Germanic people who remained in Scandinavia called North Germanic. These groups all developed separate dialects. These eventually developed into different Germanic languages.

Germanic peoples did not call themselves West Germanic, East Germanic, or North Germanic. These categories were created in modern times.

The Germanic tribes were each politically independent, under a hereditary king (see Germanic king). Each tribe had a myth about who first created the tribe. For example, myths said that:

Odin riding on Sleipnir (Ardre image stone, 8th century).

Some Germanic kings claimed that they should have power because they were related to their tribe’s mythical founders.



Map of the Nordic Bronze Age culture, ca 1200 BC

The early Germanic tribes spoke different dialects, but could understand each other. They shared a common culture and mythology (see Germanic mythology). Beowulf and the Volsunga saga make this clear.

At this time, the Romans forced the different peoples of Italy to be part of one big empire. Unlike Italy, no large empire forced Germanic people to unite. Because of this, the various tribes remained free, led by their own hereditary or chosen leaders.

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