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.

Review: ‘Brigantia: Goddess of the North’ by Sheena McGrath

BrigantiaBrigantia: Goddess of the North is a short e-book (81 pages long) by Sheena McGrath. As far as I am aware it is the first book to focus on Brigantia as an individual northern British goddess; there are many books about Brigit which cover her relationship with Brigantia but none, until now, focusing on Brigantia alone.

Our information about Brigantia is limited to seven Romano-British inscriptions, one (or maybe two) statues and the writings of the Roman historian, Tacitus, who records the tribal name of the Brigantes ‘High Ones’ of whom Brigantia is believed to be the tutelary goddess. I live in Lancashire and have experienced Brigantia’s presence on the West Pennine Moors. I’ve researched her background but never investigated the context of her dedications. This is where Sheena’s work excels and provides an original contribution to scholarship on Brigantia.

One of the most fascinating things Sheena reveals is that several of the inscriptions and the famous statue from Birrens date to around the time the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus lived in Britain (208 – 211CE). His base was at Eboracum (York). The Severans played a central role in shaping the Roman cult of Brigantia.

This is evidenced not only by the dates but by Brigantia’s identification with Caelisti and pairing with Jupiter Dolichenus in one of the inscriptions. Septimus was of African origin. He and his wife brought their deities to Britain. One of them was Tanit, an African goddess who was venerated by the Romans as Dea Caelistis. Another was the Romano-Syrian Jupiter Dolichenus. This inscription results from Brigantia’s assimilation into the Imperial cult. The statue borrows attributes from Caelisti and Juno (Jupiter’s consort) as well as Minerva, Victory and Fortuna. Sheena also examines the political motivations behind the inscriptions pairing Brigantia with Victory.

In the later part of the book, Sheena discusses what can be conjectured about Brigantia’s role as the goddess of the Brigantes tribes. She focuses in particular on Tacitus’ account of the Roman invasion of Britain and the conflict between Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes, and her husband, Venutius. One idea (unfamiliar to me) is that Cartimandua was an exile from south. This explains why she favoured peace with the Romans whereas her husband was hostile toward them. Another consideration is the possibility of a ‘special relationship’ between Cartimandua as Queen of the Brigantes and Brigantia as their sovereign goddess,

Brigantia provides a detailed and enticing examination of the context of Brigantia’s worship in ancient British and Romano-British culture. I’ve been learning about Brigantia for over five years and there were many facts I was unaware of and points I will be researching further. Sheena also provides an extensive bibliography. I would recommend this book as an excellent starting point for all polytheists wanting to learn about Brigantia from a scholarly perspective and to students of Celtic and Roman history and religion.

You can purchase a copy of Brigantia HERE.

*I reviewed this book as a PDF so cannot comment on how it looks or reads on an e-book reader.