Pirates, marauders, and homos, oh my!
Homosexuality amongst the Ancient Heruli
Kai mixeis ouch hosias telousin
"And they [Heruli] have intercourse contrary to the ends of divine nature..."
- Prokopios of Caesaria, early Christian historian (circa 560 AD)
With these words, the early Catholic historian Prokopios is our only certain witness that the ancient Germanic Heruli did in fact practice a warrior-based male homosexuality. A small but spread out and extremely influential tribe of fierce mercenaries and pirates, the Heruli were part of the larger Suebian family of tribes and terrorized Europe from before the time of Jesus until the tribe finally died out around 550 AD. In addition to the testimony of Prokopios, several other sources strongly imply that the Heruli and affiliated warriors were predominantly homosexual both culturally and religiously. We know much about the Heruli because they were mentioned in the writings of at least 17 Greek and Roman authorities, beginning with Julius Caesar in 58 BC until Paulus Diaconus and Prokopios who both wrote about the demise of the Heruli around 560 AD. Unfortunately much of what these writers tell us is legend, myth, and rumor, but we do have one first-hand account of fierce Heruli pirates attacking Christian strongholds in northern Portugal. Unfortunately, these stories are confusing, difficult to translate from the obscure Latin, contradictory at times, and often biased because of the Catholicism practiced by many of the later authorities.
However, these authorities do agree on several key points regarding the Heruli: many report that the Heruli were the fiercest, fastest, tallest and strongest of all the German warriors, who fought exclusively on foot while only lightly-armed and virtually naked in order to prove their courage and manliness. They also report that the Heruli practiced two unique and extremely effective forms of attack: First, each Heruli foot soldier was affiliated exclusively with a non-Heruli soldier on horseback (usually from another Suebian tribe called the Chabiones or Aviones, or sometimes the Alani). Holding his spear or sword with one hand, the Heruli would hold onto the reins or mane of his partner's horse with the other hand and charge thus into battle, literally running alongside of and as fast as the horse! If one of the Chabiones were ever unhorsed in battle, a band of Heruli on foot would then encircle him to protect him until he could mount again. The second form of attack, which the Roman historian Tacitus described, is that on darkest nights (probably just after the new moon, for both practical as well as religious purposes) the Heruli would paint their bodies and shields pitch black and then sneak into enemy encampments, slaughtering them in the ensuing pandemonium, and blending into the darkness, "a shadowy, funereal host" as Tacitus calls them.
The name Heruli is the Latin form for the Germanic heruloz (plural) and herilaz (singular). Herilaz literally means "belonging to the marauding band", from the compounds heri, "marauder or band of marauders" and -ilaz "belonging to". In ancient Germanic cultures there were two kinds of militaristic forces: the fyrd who were the defensive forces that protected land and possessions from other tribes; and the heri who went out marauding against other tribes. Our modern English verbs "to harry" and "to harass" come from heri. The Heruli were originally called just Heri (also spelled Harii or Hirri in Latin) but around 200 AD their tribal name began to include the -ilaz suffix.
The origins of the Heruli are lost in the mists of time. While our earliest historical accounts place the Heruli in northern Poland, along the Vistula River around the time of Jesus, one important myth places their original homeland in the famous Maeotian Swamp at the mouth of the Don River in the Ukraine; this myth is a very important clue for our domain. Quite tellingly this same swamp is also the mythological homeland of those other Queer warriors, the Amazons! Why do Greek and Roman myth claim that these two barbarian tribes of fierce warriors both originated in the very same swamp in southwestern Russia? I can only surmise that the swamp or marsh to the Indo-European worldview represented a liminal space in-between solid earth and open water - some "Other" place. Thus the marsh or swamp may have been seen by these ancient people as a naturally occuring liminal portal which led to the realm of the gods (the underworld/afterlife); what better place for the mythological origins of two "in-between peoples" like warrior women and ritually homoerotic warrior men? Take note that this is not the last time that the Heruli are associated with this and other swamps! (And please do recall my earlier article on the Lindow Man, a homosexual Druid who was ritually sacrificed and buried in a bog in England on April 31, 60 AD to prevent the Romans from entering Ireland.)
The Heruli's nomadic and anarchic warrior lifestyle was of paramount importance to them. They cared not why or whom they marauded but only that they could. To settle down and become farmers (which is what Rome and Catholicism both tried to force them into) was considered a great dishonor to them and their warrior code. This intense resistance to assimilation, coupled with their well-deserved reputation of being fiercest, fastest, and strongest led them to be hired out as mercenaries by just about every standing army in the western world - but mainly by Rome itself. The Gothic historian Jordanes in his history of the Goths stated that indeed "there was at that time [400-550 AD] no race that did not choose from the Heruli its light-armed troops for battle", and in fact the Heruli were often hired to fight against even closely-related tribes, which they did as a matter of the warrior code of honor.
In the late second century of our era, as Goths from Sweden, and Jutes and Chabiones from Jutland (Denmark) migrated southeast to the Crimean or southwest to Bavaria, they apparently pushed the Heruli ahead of them, splitting the tribe into two major branches, one branch moving with the Goths and Jutes back to the Don River and Maeotian Swamp area, and the other heading southwest to Bavaria with the Chabiones.
From the third to the fifth centuries, various sources record that bands of nomadic Heruli were found from Gaul and Moravia to Greece, Turkey and Africa, acting as mercenaries for the highest bidders in various conflicts either against or for Romans, Greeks, Christians, Goths, Persians, Turks, Egyptians, and Huns, inter alia. Heruli pirates of the southeastern branch are also credited with sacking Athens in 276, and destroying most of the public buildings there, including the famous Parthenon.
Our one eyewitness of the Heruli was the ultra-pious Catholic bishop of Aquae Flaviae, Portugal named Hydatius. Around 460, he and many other Catholics of the time had become convinced that the world would come to an end on 27 May, 482 (exactly 450 years after Jesus' alleged ascension to heaven), so he began to write an extensive historical Chronicle that he felt would act as a witness against the impious on the Christian judgment day. Hydatius twice mentions attacks of Heruli pirates against Christians of Northern Portugal and Spain, as he considered the Heruli to be barbaric agents of the Anti-Christ and harbingers of the impending apocalypse.
Hydatius first notes that in 456 seven ships of Heruli (totaling some 400 pirates) attacked a town in northern Portugal but lost their battle with the locals even though only two Heruli were killed. They returned to their naval base in Gaul (coastal France), pillaging "most viciously" other areas of northern Spain on their way home. Two years later, on their way to the straits of Gibraltar, Hydatius reports that Heruli pirates attacked northern Portugal again "with excessive brutality". Hydatius himself was also taken prisoner for three months by what seems to have been a small contingent of Heruli.
Around 554 CE, Prokopios of Caesarea (a Byzantine Christian), noted in his History of the (Gothic) Wars that even though the majority of the Heruli had converted to Christianity in the early 500s, (but only after being nearly annihilated by Gothic troops in Catholic employ), they actually remained "faithless", wealth-focused, and violent; yet more scandalous to Prokopios, they openly practiced homosexuality. But most shocking of all to Prokopios was the utter disregard of the Heruli for authority and hierarchy. He reports that in displaying their "beastly manner", one major branch of Heruli simply killed their king (Ochos or "Big One" by name!) in the early 6th century, as they no longer wished to have anyone rule over them. What's more, even before this act of regicide, Prokopios was incensed that their king had virtually no advantage over any other tribal member and in fact, any Heruli had the right to sit and eat with their king, "and without restraint, whoever wished could insult him". So Prokopios' final ringing indictment against the Heruli? "There are no people who are as less bound by treaties and as unstable as the Heruli" - anarchists to the bitter end!
Decimated in their battles against invading Huns, Persians and Catholic-employed Goths, or forcefully yet gradually assimilated into "civilized life" by Romans and Christians, the Herulian tribe ceased to exist as a distinct cultural identity in the middle of the 6th century. Fortunately, just as they were coming to an end, several Heruli who had escaped to Scandinavia left more than a dozen known inscriptions in runes during their sojourn in the north. In next month's column, we will examine these simple but fascinating inscriptions (as well as the recent discovery of what must be a Herulian pirate ship!) and take a closer look at the warrior-based homosociality and homosexuality of the Heruli, as well as their probable use of transexuality as a religious practice.
In last month's article, I introduced the Heruli - a fierce tribe of ancient Germanic warriors, who were nomadic mercenaries and pirates that terrorized Europe for almost 600 years.
Let us now turn to the topic of the queerness of the Heruli. Not only do we have early Catholic historian Prokopios' blanket condemnation of them for the prevalence of homosexuality amongst the Heruli ("they have intercourse contrary to the ends of divine nature"), but their naming practices, cultic and runic practices, origin myth, and the homosociality of warrior culture all indicate that the Heruli practiced both trans- and homosexualities. I speculate that the previously mentioned fearsome duos of Heruli foot soldiers coupled with Chabion equestrian soldiers were most likely lovers, much like the "Sacred Theban Band" of ancient Greece who were invincible for many generations, because an army of lovers are not easily conquered.
Now Prokopios was a pious Christian who hated and distrusted the Heruli, so we must take his statement about the Heruli predominantly practicing homosexuality with a grain of salt. While the western band of Heruli in the area of Bavaria did convert to Christianity in the 500s, Prokopios knew this nominal conversion was simply opportunistic. He was horrified more by their profound lack of respect for authority than for what he considered their sexual perversions.
Regarding the intense homosociality of all Germanic warrior cultures (not just the Heruli's) the Roman historian Tacitus wrote in 90 AD that many ancient Germanic tribes selected their chiefs from among the most
"robust men [literally 'more oak-like'] who have long before been proven; it is not shameful to be seen among their retinue. In fact, the retinue itself has ranks, judged by him whom they follow. There is a great rivalry among the retinue for first place with their chief, and even great rivalry among the chieftains themselves as to who has the largest and fiercest retinue. This is honor and manliness: always to be surrounded by a great circle of elite young men; in peace it is a beautiful thing, in war, a defense."
I believe that there is obviously something sexual going on just below the surface of this account of the chieftains and their devoted retinues - why else would Tacitus affirm that the Germans found nothing "shameful" about having rretinues of "elite young men" unless Tacitus himself thought them to be so? His calling the retinues "a beautiful thing" is also very suggestive.
David Greenberg, in his seminal book The Construction of Homosexuality, wrote that the homosexuality practiced by the Heruli was ritualistic and initiatory in nature, for "pederasty was practiced in connection with the transition from youth to manhood" in the early Germanic "men's societies (Männerbünder)" as well as being common to all Indo-European cultures (such as the aforementioned Sacred Theban Band of the Greeks).
The Chabiones (horse partners with their distant kinsmen the Heruli foot soldiers), also according to Tacitus, are one of several Suebian tribes who worshipped a Mother Earth goddess who annually (probably on May Day) was driven about the Danish countryside in a wagon so that She could bless Her people literally in person; but there was a deep secret associated with the identity of this goddess who came to visit Her people, for all the servants who then washed the garments, wagon, and body of the goddess after her circuit through the countryside were drowned in an isolated lake to preserve the Her true identity. I believe that this was no goddess being carted about, but in reality one of Her male priests dressed in drag to portray their Earth goddess.
Another Suebian tribe that Tacitus associated with the Heruli were the fierce Nahanarvali. Most interestingly, Tacitus relates that they worshipped two beautiful young male gods, twin brothers (like the Greek Castor and Pollux); and in the rites of veneration for these twin-brother gods, "a priest presides dressed as a woman". So in the cases of the Chabiones and the Nahanarvali, two tribes closely associated with the Heruli have transvestite priests, and one tribe worship young twin gods. I would also like to point out that both the cultural ancestors and successors of the Heruli had transexual and/or homosexual priesthoods: the Scythian nomads of the Russian steppes had transexual priests called Enaree (which literally means "not man" or possibly "non-warrior" from 900 BC to the time of Jesus; and the Norse Vikings several hundred years after the demise of the Heruli recognized some of their priests as being ergi, "soft men".
While both Mammertinus and Prokopios do indicate that the Heruli had wives, it is clear from the Heruli lifestyle that these warriors spent the vast majority of their time in their own company. They only rarely visited their wives, who seem to have remained in camps safely distant from the battlefields.
Fortunately, the Old English Rune Riddles preserve a stanza of poetry describing the Herulian belief in the bisexual (or pansexual) Germanic fertility god called Ing (whose name literally means "Bent One", and is related to the modern English words angle, anchor, and yes, England!) This ancient riddle informs us that the Hearlingas (probably the Old English form of Herilaz/Heruli) considered Ing an ancestral hero of theirs after they (while out pirating on the open sea?) witnessed him riding a wagon over the waves of the Baltic Sea eastward from Denmark toward Sweden. If the Herulian tribe were indeed notably inclined to homosexuality, then their honoring a "bent" ancestral hero-god makes perfect sense.
Now the Heruli were not only the most formidable of the Germanic warriors - but they are also responsible for adapting the runic alphabet to Germanic languages and spreading its usage all over Europe and the Middle East in their marauding journeys. At least 12 runic inscriptions carved by Heruli are still extant. These inscriptions record that the rune scribe was a member of the Heruli tribe, and then gives the scribe's name or nickname. These names combine the cultic, humorous, and sexual in a way that I can only call camp.
Various Heruli identify themselves in their runic inscriptions as being named Sa Wilagaz (the Wily One), Hrozaz (Agile), Ubaz (Mischievous) who changed his name to Hrabanaz (Raven), Wiwila (Little Wiggler), Wagigaz (Audacious), and last but not least there was even a Heruli who was called Marsh or Bog (Muha - related to the English word "muck")!
[Kragehul Spearshaft, bearing the inscription, "I am Heruli of God's Hostage, Bog I am called]
We also know the Greek or Latinized versions of names of Herulian leaders, such as Rodoulphos (Red Wolf - a fox?), Okhos (Big One!), Aordos (Earth?), and Souartouas (Swarthy). Arguably, all of these names have a Queer and/or cultic significance . There are also other Herulian names found in Latin or Greek sources that have no known meanings like Datios, Pharas, and Alaric.
The most impressive of all the Heruli inscriptions though comes from a sword that forms part of a huge trove of weapons that were buried along with what can only be a 4th century oaken ship belonging to a band of Heruli pirates. In 1995, in Nydham Mose, Denmark, an archaeological excavation in a swamp there uncovered what is to my mind the most remarkable rune find ever. A runic inscription dating to approximately 320 AD was found on the bronze strap suspension for a sword, consisting of two words: harjilaz ahti, most likely meaning "a Heruli possessed me". Carefully excavating this site, Danish archaeologists have determined what must have happened to this shipful of (Heruli?) warriors. About 40 warriors in a 75 foot long oak ship (the earliest of its kind ever found) landed on the eastern coast of Jutland around 330 AD to attack a small local village. However the village was larger or better armed than anticipated and somehow the locals managed to drive off or kill all the pirates. The villagers then discovered the ship on their coastline, hooked it up to draft horses and hauled it inland to - yes, a large swamp surrounding a small lake! Once there, the villagers commenced to smash, bend, and twist every single belonging of the marauders that they could find: coins, nail clippers, tweezers, lances, and lockets; they fractured spears, axes, and arrow shafts and then bent the arrowheads. The village blacksmith also heated all the metal objects and then twisted them into torturous shapes to be hurled into the swamp, apparently as offerings to the bog, thanking their gods for victory over the marauders. The villagers also hacked a hole into the hull of the Heruli ship, which has been described by the head archaeologist of this project as being "the great-great grandmother of all Viking ships", which were not to come into being for another 500 years! With its hull broken, it was pushed into the small lake to sink. Not even the most valuable objects were kept or reused. Every single item, even the woolen clothing of the warriors, was ritually thrown into the swamp. Several sacred horses were then also ritually slaughtered and thrown into the water with the sunken ship, a thanksgiving offering for being saved from the raiding warriors.
Kris Kershaw has written a brilliant book on the Indo-European wolf-warrior brotherhoods (including the Heri) in The One-Eyed God: Odin and the (Indo-)Germanic Männerbünde. I am also writing a history of the Heruli, tentatively to be called Wolf Warriors of God: The Heruli, Ritual Homosexuality, Runes, and the Labyrinth in Pre-Christian Europe.