The Geats are the protagonists of the epic poem Beowulf (in fact, the titular character Beowulf himself was a Geat). The poem gives us a picture of a society of northern Germanic warriors who lived near the coast. They spent the summer accomplishing feats of valor–raiding and fighting through the lands around the Baltic and the North Sea–and then they returned home to pass the winter in their mead halls drinking and telling great tales.
It is a compelling picture and such a tribe did indeed exist. Historiae Francorum by Gregory of Tours recounts a raid against Frisia by the Geatish king, Hygelac, which took place in 516 AD. The Geats inhabited what is now Götaland (“land of the Geats”) in Sweden. Their lands were bounded by the Baltic Sea to the South and the haunted forest of Tiveden to the North. In the great Norse Sagas they are referred to as the “Gautar”. It seems they lived much in the manner suggested by Beowulf and the Sagas–albeit with fewer mythical monsters and less political unity. Wikipedia somewhat blandly informs us that, “The Geats were traditionally divided into several petty kingdoms, or districts, which had their own things (popular assemblies) and laws.” Ultimately the Geats were integrated into the Kingdom of Sweden. This annexation was more a matter of political expediency than via conquest: the Swedes and the Geats shared many cultural similarities and they shared a terrible enemy—the Danes. In fact many Swedish rulers and elite were Geats.
All of this has a larger context: looking further back into ancient history, one discovers that the Geats are the presumed Goths. Jordanes, a sixth century Roman bureaucrat who wrote The History and Deeds of the Goths decided that the ancestral home of the Goths was the southern edge of Scandinavia–which he describes as a great island named Scandza. Here is how Jordanes explains the origin of the Goths:
Now from this island of Scandza, as from a hive of races or a womb of nations, the Goths are said to have come forth long ago under their king, Berig by name. As soon as they disembarked from their ships and set foot on the land, they straightway gave their name to the place. And even to-day it is said to be called Gothiscandza…But when the number of the people increased greatly and Filimer, son of Gadaric, reigned as king–about the fifth since Berig–he decided that the army of the Goths with their families should move from that region. In search of suitable homes and pleasant places they came to the land of Scythia, called Oium in that tongue.
Many historians have questioned Jordanes’ accurac–not least because he wrote a century or more after the events described had taken place. In fact some scholars have written off The History and Deeds of the Goths as utter mythology. Other writers, however, accord Jordanes greater respect for his primary source of information was Cassiodorus, a Roman statesman who served under the king of the Ostrogoths at the end of the fifth century. Many of Cassiodorus’ works are lost, but Jordanes had access to them. Archaeological and linguistic evidence has indeed tied the Wielbark Culture to the Geats. The Wielbark culture in turn gave rise to the Gothic kingdom of Oium, a part of the Chernyakhiv culture. Um, hopefully the following map will make this more clear.
If you have been following my topic thread concerning all things Gothic, you will know that I am baffled and delighted by this inpenetrable muddle. The origin of the Goths seems to flow into the north in the distant past and dissolve into myth. Yet somehow these ancient barbarians have lent their name to lovely Northern Flemish art, horror fiction, the sack of Rome, medieval architecture, and an entire contemporary youth movement. With this in mind, it seems completely appropriate that the original Goths were Geats (or their progenitors). The violent and exquisite Anglo Saxon Poetry of Beowulf seems as appropriate a place to find the Goths as anywhere. I like the idea that the Goths did not vanish forever in the sands of northern Africa. Some of them stayed home and became the Vikings. The Swedes like the idea as well and the name “Goth” is to be found everywhere in southern Sweden. Indeed until 1973 the King of Sweden was also styled as the King of the Goths. But can any of that explain why kids in black still identify as goths?