The Origins of the British – Germanic people here millenia before the Anglo-Saxon invasions

I have just finished reading Stephen Oppenheimer’s The Origins of the British. My purpose, at the outset, was to acquaint myself with how his argument, based on genetic research (first brought to my notice in Barry Cunliffe’s Britain Begins), dispels the myth of Celtic invasions during the Iron Age.

Oppenheimer summarises the main message of his study: ‘three quarters of British ancestors arrived long before the first farmers. This applies in varying proportions to 88% of Irish, 81% of Welsh, 79% of Cornish, 70% of the people of Scotland and its associated islands and 68% (over two-thirds) of the English and their politically associated islands. These figures dwarf any perception of Celtic or Anglo-Saxon ethnicity based on concepts of more recent, massive invasions.’

As cited by Cunliffe, Oppenheimer’s study reveals that the first people to arrive in Britain, and the majority from whom the British are descended, were from Iberian refuges. Then, in the Neolithic, further Iberian influxes occurred along the west coast via the Atlantic seaways and people from the Near East and the Balkans moved up the Danube and crossed the North Sea to arrive on the east coast. It was around this time the Celtic languages developed as a ‘lingua franca’.

Cunliffe leads the reader to believe all of Britain and Ireland were Celtic-speaking before the Roman invasion. The view present-day England, Wales, and southern Scotland were Brythonic-speaking until this time is held by most linguists. It was a presupposition I held myself as a Brythonic polytheist.

A large part of Oppenheimer’s argument, which Cunliffe does not cite, which surprised me, is that the Neolithic people on the south-east coast of Britain may have been Germanic and have lived there and spoken a Germanic language millennia before the Anglo-Saxon invasions.

This is of interest to me as my surname is Smithers, an Anglo-Saxon name, and a DNA analysis confirmed that my paternal line is of Saxon origin*. My descent from the Saxons, who are renowned for invading Britain and replacing the Brythonic culture with their own, has been a source of dissonance and discomfort since I learnt about these histories following my calling by the Brythonic gods.

The notion that the Germanic peoples had a long-standing presence in Britain, which may not always have been one of hostility with their Brythonic neighbours, struck me as an alluring possibility that might explain why the Brythonic gods reached out to me in spite of my Saxon name and ancestry.

I will share Oppenheimer’s argument. His genetic research shows that the Ivan (I) gene group ‘makes the largest non-Iberian contribution to the British Isles (16% of all males), in particular in England, where it is most common.’ Ian (I1a) served the ‘role of the main north-western expanding Early Neolithic Line’ ‘he spread to occupy roughly the present distribution of Germanic languages – that is, southern Scandinavia (e.g. Denmark 37%), Germany (25%), Holland (16.7%), Switzerland (5.6%) and England (10-32%). The British distribution is particularly interesting, since it excludes most of Wales and misses Ireland. In addition, Ian is also found in France, although favouring the north, particularly Caesar’s Belgic Gaul (23%) and Normandy (at 11.9%), rather neatly fitting the ultimate spread of LBK pottery.’ ‘The largest British cluster is I1a-2 (32% of British Ian)… Although this cluster is found throughout Scandinavia, it centres more on Schleswig-Holstein and north-west Germany (part of the putative Anglo-Saxon homeland) at 14%… This cluster dates to the Neolithic in Britain… although 11a-2 features in the so-called Anglo-Saxon homeland, its age, distribution and unique diversity in England suggest that much of the movement had occurred in the Neolithic.’

This counters the traditionally held belief that most of the Anglo-Saxons arrived with the Dark Age invasions. (It has long been accepted that some Germanic people arrived with the Roman armies).

Oppenheimer backs up his claim by citing Caesar who, in the Gallic Wars, says ‘the greater part of the Belgae were sprung, from the Germans’ and that the Germans, who dwell on the southern side of this (southern) side of the Rhine, had joined themselves to them’. He maps the Belgic tribes, according to Caesar, labelling the Remi, Suessiones, Catalauni, and possibly the Treveri as Celtica/Belgae, the Menapii, Morini, Atrebates, Vironmandui, Ambiani, Caleti, Vellocasses, and Bellovaci as ‘Belgic related to the Germani’, and the Nervii, Eburones, Atuatuci, Condrusi, and Paemani as ‘Tribes said to be Germani’. This fits with place-name evidence with the only odd one out being the Treveri whose capital was Triers where there a number of place-names and inscriptions. He notes the Belgae occupied South-East England where Celtic place-names are scarce (there are only six).

This interested me because the Belgae may have been the people of the Celtic god, Bel(inus). This is suggested not only by the name of their tribal confederacy but of one of their leaders, Cunobelinus ‘The Hound of Belinus’. It suggests both Brythonic and Germanic people were drawn together under the name of Bel and that both may have worshipped him as the god of their war-host. Perhaps they were drawn together not only in battle but engaged in other cultural exchanges.

Oppenheimer introduces Forster’s theory that the Germanic peoples may have spoken ‘an Island Germanic’. This is supported by a ‘network analysis’ that ‘reveals a Scandinavian influence on English and apparently a pre-Scandinavian archaic component to Old English. All Germanic lexica spoken today appear to converge in the network on an ancestral Common Germanic lexicon spoken at an unknown time, but constrained to before AD 350 and probably after 3600 BC.’

This is supported by a reference to ‘Saxon Shores’ in ‘a late fourth-century Roman military inventory, the Notitia Dignum (‘Register of Offices’)’ which may not have been defended against but by Saxons. Vortigern invited ‘those Saxons who lived overseas to Britain’ to support the existing populace in their battles against Pictish and Scottish raiders.

Our conception of the Anglo-Saxon invasions is deeply rooted in the sixth century History of the Britons by Gildas. Oppenheimer says: ‘Gildas… describes an inferno of rapine, blood-shed and genocide which has formed a basis for a persisting view of the Dark Ages ethnic cleansing of the ‘Celts’ from England… Despite Gildas’ nationalist agenda and endless religious ranting, this extreme view can still be regarded as an orthodox position’. ‘Thanks to Gildas, our English ancestry was orphaned and stripped of any context beyond the Dark Age threshold.’

Genetic research shows that ‘intrusions from the traditional Anglo-Saxon homelands of Schleswig-Holstein (Angeln) and north-west Germany (Old Saxony)’ certainly took place but that ‘Only an average of 3.8% British male gene types have matches in the Anglo-Saxon homeland region.’

The replacement of the Brythonic by the Anglo-Saxon culture in England was primarily one of culture not genes. However, it has had a profound impact on the cultural landscape of Britain and its legacy lives on in the oppression of the Welsh by the English, which continues to affect the lives of each today.

There is little evidence about how the Brythonic and Germanic peoples related to each other in the millennia prior to the Anglo-Saxon invasions but one might guess, as ever, their relationship consisted of both of periods of conflict and more fruitful alliances and cultural exchange. There were possibly times during which there were crossovers between cultures and the gods they worshipped.

Maybe, just maybe, my Saxon ancestors were amongst those early Germanic peoples who, as well as their own gods, were called to worship Bel, his son, Nodens, and his grandson, my patron, Vindos/Gwyn ap Nudd.

*My Saxon ancestry on my paternal side was no surprise but I was surprised when I found out my maternal line is Yenisei, meaning I am descended from the Ket people of Siberia.

Britain Begins – Debunking the Myth of Celtic Invasions

I have recently read Barry Cunliffe’s Britain Begins for the first time as part of my research into the origins of the veneration of the Brythonic gods. This excellent book has overturned one of the faulty preconceptions I have held since coming to Brythonic polytheism – the myth of Celtic invasions.

Up until now I had been working under the popular misconception put forward by earlier scholars that the Celtic people came from the east and migrated across Europe to invade Britain bringing their gods with them at some point during the Iron Age. This was based on the combination of the Biblical story of Noah’s children spreading out after the flood and classical sources recording Celtic migrations into Italy and Greece and the Balkans and Asia Minor. It was problematic for me as it ran against my gnosis that the Brythonic gods have been venerated here far longer and was a source of confusion.

Cunliffe has thankfully debunked this myth. He argues that there is no evidence for Celtic invasions. He begins his account of the beginnings of Britain with the first hunter-gatherer people moving north from Northern Iberia along the Atlantic seaways and west from the North European Plain across Doggerland. His argument is based on contemporary genetic research.

‘There is broad agreement amongst geneticists that a high percentage of the modern population can trace its ancestry back to the period of recolonization between the end of the Last Glacial Maximum and the beginning of the Neolithic period. One study offers quite startling figures for the percentages of the population whose ancestry pre-dates c.4000 BC: 88 per cent of the Irish, 81 per cent of the Welsh, 79 per cent of the Cornish, 70 per cent of the Scots, and 68 per cent of the English.’

‘Genetics… is demonstrating beyond reasonable doubt that a very high percentage of the British population, both male and female, are descended from hunter-gatherer pioneers who arrived before 4000BC, and it is showing that the Atlantic littoral zone provided one of the major corridors of movement.’

Archaeology combined with genetic studies and linguistics shows that the Celtic language, culture and religious system developed in Western Europe, in western and central Iberia, Gaul, Britain and Ireland.

Rather than our religion being imported the evidence suggests its origins may lie with the first people to repopulate Britain after the Ice Age and their networks of interactions with nearby peoples via the Atlantic and North Sea seaways and with settlers who arrived in two main movements.

Firstly people carrying the Linearbandkeramik and Impressed Ware cultures from eastern Europe and the Mediterranean brought ‘the Neolithic package’ – ‘a fully developed food-producing strategy based on the cultivation of barley and emmer wheat and the husbanding of domestic cattle, pigs, and sheep’. This spread amongst the indigenous people between 4200 – 3800. The excess time and energy created by farming led to the communal monument building traditions of long barrows, passage graves, cursus monuments, causewayed camps and later henge monuments and stone circles.

Secondly the influx of ‘Beaker people’ originating from the Tagus Valley in Iberia in 2500 BC brought metallurgy and the tradition of single burials with the famous bell beaker.

Cunliffe argues that the Celtic language developed as a Lingua Franca spoken in the Tagus Valley in Iberia between 4500 and 3000 BC and developed along the Atlantic seaways. Celtic was spoken in Britain and Ireland by 2000 BC and this was when the split appeared between the Goidelic and Brythonic languages.

It would have been at this time that the gods who were honoured in natural places such as rivers, lakes, springs, and groves, and at man-made monuments became known by Brythonic names.

Cunliffe suggests that, as the Celtic language developed in the West, so did the religious system. He says: ‘It may even be that Caesar was correct and that it had originated in Britain. At any event, the practice that became recognised as druidism in the last century of the first millennium BC had its roots deep in prehistory.’

Cunliffe’s argument fits with my gnosis that the veneration of the gods who I worship may have originated with the first people to colonise Britain and that they became known by Brythonic names as the language developed. Rather than, for example, Bel being imported by the Belgic peoples he may long have been a presence in Britain whose veneration spread to a continental tribe who made him their patron.

I have long felt that Vindos/Gwyn has been venerated here since at least the Ice Age as a hunter god who led the people back to Britain following the reindeer and wild horses with his wolves and ravens. Also that Rigantona/Rhiannon may have been a leader of these horse followers. Both have felt like very old and primal presences within the land and live on to today as Fairy King and Queen.

Cunliffe’s debunking of the myth of Celtic invasions has not only freed me from a flawed misconception but confirmed that it is legitimate to enquire into the origins of my deities in Britain’s deeper past.