As I’ve done more of these posts over the past two years, I’ve changed the way I talk about Thor and the Aesir. They’re not Norse gods from Northern Europe so much as they’re Germanic gods who are associated with cognate deities not only throughout Europe, but well into Asia and parts of Africa as well. While the most thorough literature is from Iceland, and the best-preserved artifacts from Scandinavia and Northern Europe, these gods and the people who worshiped them lived in many places, and traveled to many more.
So it should come as no surprise that a band of Aesir-worshippers held dominion in part of Italy before the Viking Age (793-1066ish CE), right?
I’m specifically referring to the Langobards, more commonly known as the Lombards, who ruled a portion of the Italian peninsula from around 568 to 774 CE. While they weren’t major players who participated in the fall of the Western Roman Empire or the diminishing of the remainder of the Empire, their own flourishing, as a band of Germans taking charge of land on Italy itself, shows just how far the mighty had fallen.
A reasonably plausible origin story has been written about these people by Benedictine monk and historian Paul the Deacon. As you’d expect of a tale told of Northern invaders, it has a bit of the epic written into it as well, making the Lombards into legend as much as they were men and women. The key story of their emigration from the Historia Langobardorum is not too lengthy, and therefore shared here in full:
7. The Winnili then, having departed from Scandinavia with their leaders Ibor and Aio, and coming into the region which is called Scoringa, settled there for some years. At that time Ambri and Assi, leaders of the Wandals, were coercing all the neighboring by war. Already elated by many victories they sent messengers to the Winnili to tell them that they should either pay tribute to the Wandals or make ready for the struggles of war. Then Ibor and Aio, with the approval of their mother Gambara, determine that it is better to maintain liberty by arms than to stain it by the payment of tribute. They send word to the Wandals by messengers that they will rather fight than be slaves. The Winnili were then all in the flower of their youth, but were very few in number since they had been only the third part of one island of no great size.
8. At this point, the men of old tell a silly story that the Wandals coming to Godan (Wotan) besought him for victory over the Winnili and that he answered that he would give the victory to those whom he saw first at sunrise; that then Gambara went to Frea (Freja) wife of Godan and asked for victory for the Winnili, and that Frea gave her counsel that the women of the Winnili should take down their hair and arrange it upon the face like a beard, and that in the early morning they should be present with their husbands and in like manner station themselves to be seen by Godan from the quarter in which he had been wont to look through his window toward the east. And so it was done. And when Godan saw them at sunrise he said: “Who are these long-beards?” And then Frea induced him to give the victory to those to whom he had given the name. And thus Godan gave the victory to the Winnili. These things are worthy of laughter and are to be held of no account. For victory is due, not to the power of men, but it is rather furnished from heaven.
9. It is certain, however, that the Langobards were afterwards so called on account of the length of their beards untouched by the knife, whereas at first they had been called Winnili; for according to their language “lang” means ” long” and ” bart ” “beard.” Wotan indeed, whom by adding a letter they called Godan is he who among the Romans is called Mercury, and he is worshiped by all the peoples of Germany as a god, though he is deemed to have existed, not about these times, but long before, and not in Germany, but in Greece.
Godan, of course, is Odin and Frea is Freyja/Frigga. As is common in historical accounts of Germanic peoples, Odin is not only explained away as a misnaming of a more important figure, Mercury, it’s explained that none of these gods ever existed, and were just famous men, a practice called Euhemerism. And on top of that, victory “is rather furnished from heaven,” ensuring that the reader and the author both know that these strange pagan savages misunderstand that the real power in the world is derived from the one true God.
The extent to which any of this story corresponds to actual events can be questioned, of course, but we can certainly see that whoever told this story to Paul the Deacon knew of roots for the Langobards (which is more accurately translated as “hound clan,” related to one of Odin’s many names) going back to Germany and to Scandinavia, and also knew of a Winnili association with Odin. There is controversy among academics whether the association with Odin dates back to Scandinavia or whether the Winnili took on the name Langobard and Odin as their patron once they left their homelands, for his protection in travel and battle. However that happened, the point for today is that these “long-beards” who at one point held more than half the Italian peninsula were originally the hounds of Odin sent to the South to seek their fortunes. They did pretty well for themselves.
This is far from the only tale of ancient Germanic peoples taking their culture and beliefs abroad. We’ve talked about Vinland, but we’ll get to other stories like the Varangian Guard in Byzantium another time.