Monday, December 14, 2015

Of Huns and Skraelings

The Germans themselves I should regard as aboriginal, and not mixed at all with other races through immigration or intercourse. ... For my own part, I agree with those who think that the tribes of Germany are free from all taint of inter-marriages with foreign nations, and that they appear as a distinct, unmixed race, like none but themselves. Hence, too, the same physical peculiarities throughout so vast a population. All have fierce blue eyes, red hair, huge frames, fit only for a sudden exertion. 
(Tacitus, Germania, ch 1 & 4, written 1st century CE)
You'd think this would be a pretty innocuous sentiment
There exist within Heathenry two schools of thought; the folkish and the universalist. The folkish believe that race is relevant to religion, and we best honor the gods that were honored by our ancestors before the coming of the followers of Jehovah of Sinai (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). The universalists believe that Heathenry is appropriate for everyone, and anyone should be welcome to honor the Germanic gods, whether or not they have a majority (or any) Germanic blood.

I am folkish, but my circles of friends and correspondents is broad enough that I count many universalists among them. I don't tend to cut people off simply because I disagree with them on a particular issue.

So, when I posted my picture on Friday on Facebook (reposted above), one of my universalist friends there felt compelled, with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season, to say:
"Of course not only were the Norse happy to marry, adopt and free Thralls from China to Vineland (a genetic founding Mother of Iceland is an East Coast Native American) there are lots of people like my nephew half-Chinese American, 1/2 Norwegian/Scots/Apache American..."
Which I think completely misses the point and overstates the case. There's quite a bit to unpack in there, so I'll try to be systematic.

"The Norse [were] happy to marry, adopt and free Thralls from China to Vineland"

Well... no.

There's no evidence from the written record that this happened as a regular thing, if ever (the Norse in Ireland and Britain being an exception, but intermarriage between Irish and Norse is not the point of the present discussion), and the number of thralls who came from beyond the coasts of Europe would have been quite small. Certainly nothing in the written record about the voyages to Vínland records a skraeling being taken to wife (thrall or no), and there's no record of any direct contact with China during or before the Viking era.

Now, I did ask for clarification on that last point, and was told that my commenter was referring to the Huns. The problem is that, while the exact origin of the Huns is in dispute, none of the likely candidates includes a group of Chinese origin. The closest they get is a central Asian tribe that was found beyond the boundaries of Chinese territory. So, points off for getting the facts wrong.

Still, the point is taken; the Huns were most certainly a non-European, Asiatic (dare one say Mongoloid?) folk, and we have direct evidence from the written sources that there was intermarriage between the Huns and the Goths and Burgundians, at least at the level of kings and princes. There are hints that Hunnish DNA can be found in Scandinavia and central Europe. We even have written records of this happening in a handful of cases, in the sense of political marriages designed to cement alliances between tribes and inter-tribal groups, and perhaps most tellingly those unions are almost always shown to end disastrously. Just look at what happens to Atli ("Atilla the Hun") at the hands of his wife Guðrún (she feeds his sons to him, and then kills him in his bed - it's entirely possible the writer of Atlakviða wasn't even aware of the Asiatic heritage of the Huns, as he certainly wasn't writing an account based on history).

If anything, the written record seems to read like a cautionary tale against such intermarriage.

But perhaps more to the point, it must be remembered that the Huns were the overlords of a great empire in central Europe for over three centuries, and the Germanic tribes within that empire were their subjects. They were the rulers, and it was their customs, not the customs of their Germanic subject tribes, that were followed (there's even some evidence that skull deformation, a common practice among the Huns, was taken up by some of their Germanic subjects). There is every reason to believe that the sort of intermarriage that the written evidence describes among the aristocracy, and DNA evidence also suggests, was the end result of a Hunnish willingness to intermarry with others outside their own folk.

And it should also be noted that the Huns don't exist as a people today, because of that willingness. Their only legacy is a few strands of DNA and appearances in, somewhat ironically, Germanic heroic poetry.

"A genetic founding Mother of Iceland is an East Coast Native American"

This is a reference to a report from 2010 about a genetic survey of Icelanders, which came up with the surprising finding that a particular DNA sequence (subclade C1e) might have its origins amongst Amerindian tribes (or Skraelings, as the Norse called them, meaning "wretches") in the east coast of America (Inuit people in Greenland and northeast Canada can be ruled out because they don't have the same subclade). The whole "founding mother" thing is mere hyperbole.

First, it should be pointed out that the authors of the paper are somewhat more circumspect in their conclusions:
While a Native American origin seems most likely for C1e, an Asian or European origin cannot be ruled out.
It's also the case that the C1e segment also appears in Germany, although the authors of the paper say it's "extremely unlikely" that the German and Icelandic subclades are related, for reasons that escape me, me not being a molecular biologist and all. But as a layman, it really seems a lot more likely that C1e in Iceland would have come from Germany, where there are clear historical records of trade and travel, rather than North America.

But even assuming that the C1e subclade did have its origins with one or more aboriginal Americans having interbred with Icelanders at some point before 1700 CE, who happened not to get mentioned in the just because one person fifty generations ago happened to rape a skraeling who whelped a child, who then went on to have kids of their own, that does not make a convincing case that such behavior was normative in Norse society. If it were, there would surely be dozens of references to it somewhere in the written record, whether it be in the law codes, the family sagas, Landnámabók, Heimskringla, the Eddas, or someplace else.

But there aren't.

Now, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, to be sure, but it is also true that the burden of proof lies on the party making the assertion; in this case, the assertion that such intermarriage was commonplace.

"There are lots of people like my nephew half-Chinese American, 1/2 Norwegian/Scots/Apache American..."

I've said before that folkishness is a spectrum, and someone who feels that "one drop is enough" could legitimately call themselves folkish (although I'm pretty sure my commenter would be horrified at the prospect of being so labeled). I think in practical terms, that end of the spectrum is pretty small, and I don't fall within it myself, but it's not completely illegitimate if one believes that "race is relevant to religion" as a general principle.

However, I don't quite think that it's entirely fair to latch onto one ancestor from three or four generations ago, and say "that's the ancestor that matters; that's the one I identify with," and use that as an "excuse" to claim to be Asatru. I'm much more of a majoritarian when it comes to this sort of thing, and in most cases it's very, very obvious which side of one's ancestry one favors.

To play games with one's ancestry, saying "but I had a German great-great-grandfather, even though the rest of my ancestors were from Africa, so I'm German" is more than a little disingenuous, just as those who have a family legend of an Amerindian ancestor from 200 years ago attempt to glom onto Cherokee identity. I think, on a practical level, one should explore the gods of one's own ancestors (or at least, the gods of the majority of one's ancestors) before heading down into the single-digits or lower in terms of percentage of ancestry.

That's about it for my my commenter's points, but there's still more to be said on the subject.

But what about Þórhall?

Although my commenter didn't bring it up, another argument often brought up by those in favor of the "enlightened, non-racially aware, completely integrated Viking" idea is the character of Þórhall from Eiríks saga rauða (Erik the Red's Saga). In that saga, he is described thus:
Thorhall was a big man, dark, and of gaunt appearance; rather advanced in years, overbearing in temper, of melancholy mood, silent at all times, underhand in his dealings, and withal given to abuse, and always inclined towards the worst. (Sephton translation, ch. 8)
As one might expect, the universalists zero in on the use of the term "dark" in his physical description. In the original Old Norse, the term used is "svartur og þurslegur", literally "black and of gaunt, demon-like (!) appearance" (Cleasby-Vigfusson, "svartr" and "þurs-ligr")

A lot of people use this description to posit that Þórhall had dark skin, and might even been a Negro. It's especially popular among the fringe "everything came from Africa" crowd that somehow thinks that Ireland was originally populated by Africans (which should give you some idea of just how stupid the notion is).

Of course, the problem with this whole idea is that speakers of Old Norse didn't use the word "svartr" like that. It was primarily used to describe hair color, or as a more metaphorical description of one's disposition. The term used to describe Negroes of the time was ON blámaðr (literally, "blue man").

So, so much for Þórhall.

In conclusion...

Despite the desperate attempts by those on the universalist end of the Asatru spectrum to demonstrate otherwise, there really isn't any evidence that the Germanic peoples practiced intermarriage outside the broad European group on anything like a regular basis (the closest one might come is intermarriage with the native Celts of the British isles, but in terms of physical appearance, that isn't anything close to Negro or Asiatic populations). Nothing in the written record supports the idea that such intermarrying was normative. Indeed, contemporary outside observers indicated exactly the opposite (see Tacitus' quote at the top of this article).

While there is DNA evidence to suggest at least some sort of intermarriage, it still doesn't point to a regular practice among the Germanic tribes. In the case of the Amerindians, no written record survives to support the notion of skraeling wives being taken back to Iceland (Greenland would have been a much more likely destination in any case), and the DNA evidence is not conclusive, even according to the scientists who undertook the study. In the case of the Huns, the Germanic peoples were in no position to dictate policies of intermarriage, and the written Germanic accounts that survive indicate that the narrative accounts of such marriages were cautionary tales that ended badly.

That's not to say, of course, that such marriages and matings didn't happen occasionally. It would be foolish to argue so; not every individual is going to follow the norm in any society. But on the whole, there's no reason to suggest the Germanic people had a particularly "progressive" (in today's parlance) attitude towards intermarrying with people of different races. If anything, the evidence suggests the opposite.


  1. I suspect that any very odd relations was probably more to people having sex with thrall concubines than marriage and that it probably wasn't common.

    However trying to make Vikings into race-less progressives or Flyting in battle rap for that matter is the usual suspects up to no good .

  2. While I understand the folkish aspect of the faith, I do not like the concept of turning someone away because their appearance may not seem Germanic enough. I have one native american ancestor 7 generations back and have traits that show this, does that mean I should not be allowed to honor the faith of the vast majority of my ancestors?

    1. As I clearly said in the article, I'm a majoritarian when it comes to such things, and in my experience most folkish Asatruar are as well. It's one thing to have high cheekbones or black hair (or whatever your "traits that show this" might be), but I'm speaking of the reverse of your situation, where someone has 1/128th European blood and uses that as an excuse to claim European identity. I know plenty of folkish Asatruar who have dark hair or other physical traits that aren't stereotypically Nordic.

      Interestingly, your one ancestor from 7 generations back wouldn't qualify you for membership in any of the following Amerindian tribes, *by law*, and many of them require genetic testing nowadays to claim tribal membership. Think on that when you complain that some folkish Asatruar are too strict...

      Chippewa Cree, Kialegee Tribal Town, Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians,
      St. Croix Chippewa Indians of Wisconsin, Pueblo of Isleta, New Mexico, White Mountain Apache Tribe, Arizona, Yomba Shoshone Tribe, Nevada, Absentee-Shawnee Tribe of Indians, Oklahoma, Ak-Chin Indian Community, Arizona, Blackfeet Tribe of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation of Montana, Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, Oklahoma, Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, Washington, Confederated Tribes of the Chehalis Reservation, Washington, Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, Hopi Tribe of Arizona, Kickapoo Traditional Tribe of Texas, Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma, Oklahoma, Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, Oklahoma, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, Arizona
      Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes, Montana, Navajo Nation, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, Oneida Tribe of Indians, Wisconsin, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, Arizona, Penobscot Nation, Maine, Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, Kansas, Seminole Tribe of Florida, Florida, Shoshone Tribe of the Wind River Reservation, Wyoming, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, North and South Dakota, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, Oklahoma, Utu Utu Gwaitu Paiute Tribe, California,
      Yavapai-Prescott Tribe, Arizona, Zuni Pueblo (Ashiwi), New Mexico, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, California,
      Apache Tribe of Oklahoma, Comanche Nation, Oklahoma,
      Delaware Nation, Oklahoma, Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Reservation, Oregon, Fort Sill Apache Tribe of Oklahoma
      Hooopa Valley Tribe of California, Karuk Tribe of California
      Klamath Tribes, Oregon, Muckleshoot Indian Tribe of the Muckleshoot Reservation, Washington, Northwestern Band of Shoshoni Nation of Utah (Washakie), Otoe-Missouria Tribe of Indians, Oklahoma, Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, Ponca Nation, Oklahoma, Sac and Fox Nation, Oklahoma, Sac & Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska, Squaxin Island Tribe of the Squaxin Island Reservation, Washington, Suquamish Indian Tribe of the Port Madison Reservation, Washington, Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation, Upper Skagit Indian Tribe of Washington, Yurok Tribe of California
      Wichita and Affiliated Tribes (Wichita, Keechi, Waco and Tawakonie), Caddo Nation, Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, North Carolina
      Fort Independence Indian Community of Paiute Indians of the Fort Independence Reservation, California, Fort Sill Apache Tribe, Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma, Kaw Nation.