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Folklore: Its Stability and Self-correcting Power
Hildegard Wiencke-Lotz

[*!* Image: Is our fairy-tale Cinderella an echo of the historical Gudrun, epic heroine and Chief Judge of the Ancient Gothic Federation?]

Introductory notes

Led by Homer's Iliad, in the year 1870, Heinrich Schliemann excavated a mound near Hissarlich expecting to find the remains of Troy. Although possibly mistaken about which of the many levels was Homer's Troy, his conviction that the Iliad contained more truth than fiction was vindicated, and the science of archaeology made a great step forward.

According to the consensus of scholars that the Gudrun Epic was little more than a fairy tale in three parts, of which the middle part possibly reflected some historical events. According to its style, it first was committed to writing in the 13th Century A.D. Hildegard Wiencke-Lotz has offered a new view of these traditions and their origins in the history of the ancient world. Through years of travel and study centered on the Gudrun stories, she has developed extensive evidence that the Gudrun Epic is an ancient oral tradition representing a unified whole which loses its meaning when the three parts are considered separately. She argues that the entire Gudrun Epic has a sound historical basis and that all specific places mentioned can be found where expected geographically, though their distribution covers a large geographic area. She has identified and visited the numerous places named in the tales and has traced the specific period of Gudrun's life in relation to Roman history.

Of special interest here is the role of community folklore in maintaining the continuity and accuracy of oral traditions of ancient cultures. Wiencke-Lotz presents insight into how this occurs by sharing her own observations and participation in European community folklore-telling sessions which recounted versions of the Gudrun Epic.

Each of eight clans originally involved played different roles in the history behind the tradition and told versions of the story from a unique points of view. By cross-comparisons of these various clan versions and from archaeological and historical evidence regarding specific places and events, Wiencke-Lotz reconstructed the various elements into a common whole.

The key to the historical solution of the traditions is that the Goths were not an ethnic group as is commonly supposed, but were more like a trade union or guild whose specialization and responsibility was government. They functioned as a large federation (Pliny the Elder described it as composed of 500 states) with representatives. At the helm of the government system was the Supreme Court and the heads of state were Judges. Wiencke-Lotz found documentation to this effect in the works of the Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus [see Rerum Gestarum Libri, Vol. 2, (Leipzig, 1978). trans. by W. Seyfarth]. Seyfarth specifically notes in the translation that Marcellinus clearly indicates the Gothic leaders did not wish to be called "King", but "Judge".

This article documents the stability of the repertoire of a folklore-telling community and shows in vital form one means by which some stories have managed to survive basically intact for millennia even though those who repeat the tales may long since have lost contact with the historical realities which gave rise to them. The alert reader will notice the similarity between details in the ancient tradition and the fanciful children's story of Cinderella. The experience and findings below were obtained and compiled by the writer between 1969 and 1984. -Ed. [from notes by W. J. Douglas]

A story telling

Lottie was almost a six-footer in the third grade, and we were friends from the start. 'Would you like to come home with me for supper and stay for the evening? It's ordinary fare, but you are welcome - you'll like it." When I accepted I did not know I was to have an unforgettable insight into a folklore-telling community.

Lottie's father and grandfather were Master Bakers, heading the "Zunft" (union). They employed about eight or so young lads, ranging in age from 12 to 19, and three or four journeymen. Lottie herself had four older brothers also in the business. A day in the bakery starts long before dawn, about 2:00 AM. When we arrived from school, Lottie charged right into a narrow room filled with bunkbeds where the lads had dropped for a well-earned nap. Not wasting any time, she took up here guitar and started a tune, varying tempo and volume at the proper time. She was an expert on the guitar and, half-speaking, half-singing, her voice had a certain mellow quality. As the lads awoke, they each joined in.

We helped set up the table - and what a table! Sawhorses and bakeboards filled the workroom, the kitchen and a spacious den, enough to seat 35 or more people along with the toddlers and older children. Lottie's mother ladled out soup and bread was broken and passed around in baskets. After the meal was eaten in relative silence, the baker spoke the gospel passage for the day, and all said the blessing. Then many gave a hand in removing the entire table setup and in setting up chairs along the walls, while others washed the dishes and returned them to their place in the cabinet.

Meanwhile, people from all over town filed in through the back door and found a place to sit; benches were added as needed. Some of the old folk stayed close to the two big tile stoves which radiated a gentle heat that soothed their arthritic limbs. Mothers rocked their babies and the children sat on the floor. Women without babies to rock were busy with darning, knitting, and sewing. I counted 24 but more were coming. The men in the baker's trade entered in the Sunday "uniform" - black pants, white shirts, and royal-blue aprons. The lads under 17 years of age sat with us on the scoured white-pine floor.

At last, when every one was present, Grandfather Bernhardt seated himself on a high stool a little off center, and took up his guitar. It was very quiet and the little ones gazed at him wide-eyed. He placed his fingers on the strings and started a tune, partly talking, partly singing or chanting. Then, with eyes twinkling mischievously, he went off the track, introducing something new. Immediately, there was a drastic interruption, even from the toddlers; "No, no, no, that is not right; he went in and kidnapped the lad..." The Master Baker nodded: "Oh, surely you are correct! I'm glad you listened; let me start that passage over again." When appropriate, we all sang or spoke along with him, shouting or whispering, or repeating the refrain. At the end of the story, or to give himself a break, he handed his guitar to one of his journeymen to take over.

A journeyman is a young man who has finished his apprenticeship and has moved on to another master where he stays until he has acquired his new master's skills. He must hold a journeyman's license from each master he's served, which includes letters of reference and his police record as a citizen. Without such documents, no one would hire him. When he had acquired the skills to pass the Master's test he was ready to become his own boss. To find a new master these young journeymen would travel with their reference letters across Europe, from Russia to France and from Norway to Italy. They not only spread recipes, but also the stories from their home province. At their new seasonal or yearly place of work they learned the stories indigenous there. By the time they had their own bakery they would have acquired a remarkable repertoire. Tonight, Master Baker Bernhardt gave his oldest journeyman a chance. All ears and eyes were intent to hear new stories from other parts of the world. Lottie and the lads grew up with Master Bernhardt's stories. Now was her chance to learn and try out new stories told by the journeyman.

This method of transmitting stories is ages old. Who wants to be called stupid or to be chided as forgetful? It was of utmost importance to remember the essentials; the names, the plot, and the rhythm which goes with the descriptions. When an illiterate story teller had a chance to see the inside of the palaces in Budapest, she was astonished to see in reality the splendor just as she had described it a thousand times over in her 80 years of story telling.

There is no argument with the assumption that the original manuscript of the Gudrun Epic had been preceded by a long period of oral tradition. Oral tradition for these peoples was the foundation of the educational system before literacy and formal education as we know it. Memory was trained during the folklore-telling sessions since earliest infancy as illustrated above. Transmission of the stories is amazingly precise and stable. Because of this 1 was able to locate the homeland of Gudrun and to establish the historical period in which she had lived.

The Gudrun Epic and the Gothic Federation

I mapped all the places in which the Gudrun stories were recorded. These included Yugoslavia, Austria, Greece and Asia Minor, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Denmark, England, Germany, France, Spain, and even Morocco and Tunisia. Further analysis showed that these stories were found exclusively in territories occupied at one time or another by the Goths.

In analyzing the components of these stories, it became quite evident that they could be divided into eight groups. Each of the eight clans - Friesians, Chauken, Anglo-Saxons, Franks, Warries (Thuringians), Langobardes, Danes and Wandals had their own version of the original events. The individual versions depended on the involvement of each clan in the original event, but the names of persons and places agreed in the various accounts. This led me to the conclusion that the event recorded must have taken place prior to the Migration of the Peoples, that is, before 250 A.D..

Research into the Germanic law codes of the 4th to Ilth Centuries A.D. by Almira and Eckhardt has led them to the conclusion that the eight Germanic clans had lived in a common federate system for at least 300 years prior to the Migration of the Peoples at 250 A.D. This conclusion was based on the high degree of commonality and development in their law codes. Since, according to the Gudrun Epic, Gudrun was founder of the Gothic Federation, the events recorded therein must have taken place as early as the Ist Century, B.C.

Some of the traditions mention Caesar by name. Julius Caesar, in his war reports to Rome, attests to his dealing with the Germanic peoples in 71 B.C. and in summer to late fall of 58 B.C., which synchronizes with the encounter of the Romans as described in the Gudrun Epic. Julius Caesar reports on Ariovistus (a title), its counterpart in Germanic being Herwig (ruler of the army). In the Gudrun Epic, Gudrun's husband was called Herwig. Caesar, in his reports to the city of Rome, mentions Ariovistus as the Suebian, and King of the Cimbrians, Danes, and of other Germanic clans. The accounts of Herwig in the Gudrun Epic coincides not only in the title, but also in every other detail, including Herwig/Ariovistus' withdrawal in the autumn of 58 B.C. while in a position militarily favorable for attack.

[*!* Image: Julius Caesar's war reports told of Ariovistus]

Place names

The Gudrun Epic was copied about 1500 A.D. when Emperor Maximilian authorized the collection of heroic tales. The collector claimed to have copied the legends precisely in the form he found them. There is no reason to doubt that he did just that with the Gudrun Epic. The original manuscript can be dated to about 1233 A.D. since the language in the story was in use at the beginning of the 13th Century.

The Gudrun Epic gives 36 place names which are obvious. However, on inspection at the sites, 1 was able with surprising ease to identify over 70 placenames. The place-names appear in clusters; the province, the capital, the assembly grounds, the courts, the township, the residence, the names of rivers, lakes, coastlines, and even oceans. Once one place in a cluster was located, each one of the whole cluster would follow and all could be visited for inspection.

Most places named are still on maps in use today. Every one of these place names appeared in the earliest records available in the respective local archives, if not given already in Roman or Greek documents. Most records begin with the 8th through the 13th Centuries, either predating or coinciding with the date assigned to the original manuscript of the Gudrun Epic, that is, 1233 A.D.

Archaeological data

Even though publication is lagging by 30 or 40 years in some places, archaeological data is also available locally, especially in the Scandinavian countries, and behind the Iron Curtain. Traveling 45,000 miles throughout those parts of Europe named in the Gudrun Epic to examine the evidence, I realized a unique feature which bound each area identified to the others; the archaeologists have uncovered artifacts peculiar to the historical period between 90 B.C. and 50 B.C.

If, as the Gudrun Epic claims, Herwig took the combined federate army against the Romans down to the Rhone River, we will find not only the accounts of Caesar, but also the archaeological evidence of pottery, swords, buckles, etc., all along his trail. If, as the traditions say, the Danubian broke into Suebia and other territory belonging to Herwig's homeland, carrying the torch, burning and looting, then Danubian artifacts should be found pertaining to that period in Thuringia, Seeland, etc., along the Elbe and Oder Rivers. If the armies of the confederates from Denmark and Schleswig came to Herwig's aid, artifacts from Denmark and Schleswig should be uncovered in soldiers's graves throughout the whole sector. All this and more was found.

The landfall of the armies with the kidnapping, burning and looting in a three-day frenzy, left a trail in Gudrun's heartland, Holstein, in a narrow corridor from the Baltic Sea to about 20 miles beyond Lake Plon. Here, not having time for the traditional funerals for the guardsmen slain while trying to protect Gudrun, the local inhabitants hastily buried their ashes in pottery jars taken from the burned settlements; 100 B.C. was too early a date, and 50 B.C. too late. Roman records pinpoint the date to June, 70 B.C. The Gudrun Epic claims that Gudrun's father had founded the settlements, and that they were not rebuilt after her kidnapping. To this too, the local archaeologists attested.

All parties involved had an encounter on Hiddensee Island where archaeologists found artifacts from Norway (belonging to the kidnappers), from Holstein (goods that they had stolen with the women and could not be carried off), from Thuringia (belonging to Herwig's men), and from south of the Danube (belonging to the Danubians who became Herwig's new allies).

Furthermore, the Gudrun Epic claims that Herwig's sister married the Danubian and followed him south with a sizable retinue. That, and much more could be documented at the places named by this tradition and by other legends pertaining to it.

In summary, the eight Germanic clans founded their law codes on a common foundation which, by its complexity, must have had a minimum of 300 years of stable government to develop. It could not have developed during the Period of Migration of Peoples. By necessity these 300 years must be assigned to a period prior to 250 A.D., beginning with about 50 B.C. For the events described, 50 B.C. is too late according to the local archaeologists. Caesar reports his encounters with Ariovistus/Herwig in 71 B.C. and 12 years later in 58 B.C. Caesar was murdered in 44 B.C. Archives contain the mentioned place names in their earliest records, predating the earliest manuscript of the Gudrun Epic. The Gudrun Epic, indeed, is historical.

Folklore tellers

Folklore-telling communities still exist, and the stories told have not changed. In 1970 1 was still able to locate tellers who, when asked for a Gudrun song or tale, were glad to respond. Their rendition was absolutely trustworthy. The names of places were accurately transmitted phonetically. For instance, a Yugoslavian teller remembered Gudrun as she was held in bondage on the Ser River, far away, and her discovery and rescue by her brother and her husband, the king, in a little boat. Of course, the teller had no idea that the Ser River is a part of the Glomma river in southeast Norway and that the Glomma has in that part so strong a current that a boat trip up the river is a foolhardy undertaking. The Gudrun Epic tells about the same event, relating that Herwig and Gudrun's brother set out in a light canoe, hugging the shore line or sometimes carrying it along the shore. It took them all day from long before dawn to dusk when they came upon two women washing clothing in the river. The story continues, relating how they were whipped down the river by the current in minutes, reaching their camp in darkness.

The Yugoslav teller of 1970 and the Gudrun Epic of 1233 as well as dozens of legends from wherever the Goths had governed tell how, on the day Gudrun was discovered, the kidnapper's mother had flung at her the single shoe in which she (Gudrun) had arrived. She had lost her other shoe on Hiddensee Island in the struggle which ensued when she was dragged for the second time on board the sailing vessel. That shoe was in Herwig's possession when they came upon her washing clothes along the Ser River. His army had found it on the Island of Hiddensee when the allied armies had combed the beach at the break of dawn, 13 years before.

Her countrymen did not doubt to whom it belonged. It was a small custom-built leather shoe seeded with pearls of amber (called "glasum" by the Romans) shaped in a hexagonal design, as was customary in Holstein. The amber was identical with that found there. Her brother showed the shoe to the women washing the clothing and they fetched the other one, which had been flung at her that very morning, from the bottom of the basket.

The founder of the Gothic Federation

Why would anyone try to kidnap Gudrun? throughout the rule of the Goths, and even before, women played an important role in public life. Gudrun was head of state, and only women could inherit landed property. The men these women chose as consorts were in line for top offices dealing with men; that is, the education of boys, priests, the court, army, the trades, industry, the navy, etc. What man would not have given his all to stay in the running? In this case, Gudrun was duly elected President and Chief Justice. Her people were the "Goths" (Judges), a heterogeneous federation of about 500 states reaching from Norway to Persia.

Upon her nomination to office she had made her choice from among three contestants, choosing Herwig/Ariovistus, the Suebian from Thuringia..The law was on Gudrun's side; she was legally married in front of delegates from every part of the federation. The law dealt very harshly with adulteresses. According to the law, a kidnapped woman was a slave, bare of social rank, without rights to inheritance or property. It further stipulated that the offspring shared the rank of the mother (not the father). Since a female slave was subject to the wiles and whims of the kidnapper, this meant that if the kidnapper abused her and she gave birth to a child, the child possessed no more rights than the mother; a slave for a mother meant also that the child was a slave, owning nothing.

Realizing all this, the kidnapper was shrewd enough to try to persuade Gudrun to marry him; he was goaded by his mother who was the driving force behind the whole scheme. When Gudrun would not yield to his will, he withdrew and let his mother take over. she in turn thought that if she treated Gudrun like a lowly servant, depriving her of even the minimum amenities of life, Gudrun would give in and marry her son. They spread the rumor that her husband Herwig/Ariovistus was killed, which was picked up by Caesar in his report to Rome. In spite of her tribulations, Gudrun held fast to the letter of the law. She thwarted all their hopes and aspirations, rendering the deed and the purpose of her kidnapping an abortive undertaking. She, the warden of the law, would not be coerced to be the first to break the law for temporary personal advantages.

When she was freed 13 years after the kidnapping, Gudrun insisted that there should be no revenge because it would breed the same kind of ills, more cause for revenge by others wronged; a lesson the modern world seems to have forgotten. She insisted that, by law, she was the only one who could claim complete jurisdiction over all the subjects of the federation, including the conquered subjects of Norway. She demanded the loyalty of the army. The army complied and acclaimed her Chief Commander, a title which would endure the ages. The contingencies from Pannonia (Lower Austria, Hungary, and Yugoslavia), called her kind (unun), the men from home called her Aske-Biddle, and her husband's men, Aske-Brödel. It meant in all cases the same title: Chief of the Army. The first came from the Greek, the second was Anglo-Saxon, and the third was a common designation in the Eastern European states (Old Southeast Slavic). One year later, in June 56 B.C., she returned home after an absence of 14 years. She was probably by then 36 or 37 years of age and was reunited with her mother. At a congress that was summoned on short notice (termed a "Called Ting") she was re-elected President (she was Chief Justice for life). She then arranged, with the consent of the women, the marriages of her brother, the Norwegian, and the Danubian, the latter marrying Herwig's sister (which brought the influx of Thuringian pottery to the south of the Danube River. Gudrun's marriage to Herwig was pompously reaffirmed, even though she was beyond safe childbearing age.

Undaunted, Gudrun followed her husband to Suebia, precisely, to Seeland, where she set up the new capital since this area was much more central. Her dialect became the new court language, Anglian. Seeland became 'Mast Anglia". On the earliest maps from the 8th Century A.D., the territory was listed as the Navel province, around the Kyffläuser, southeast of the Harz mountains. "East Anglia" has many "Angel" towns; Irestedt (Ichstedt), Bendeleben and Aschersleben, next to Herwig's old seats, Falkenburg and Kolleda, designations which survive to this day. All the towns ending in -leben and -stedt owe their beginning to her move. Kolleda was the place where Herwig had been elected leader of his people before he met Gudrun (72 B.C.). It is also one of the places where the earliest artifacts from Holstein have been found, matching in style those date to about 50 B.C.

[*!* Image: Skull of an adult whose head had been bound as a baby. This intentional distortion of skull shape was apparently a common practice from around 100 B.C. to 500 A.D. across the widespread territories of the Goths. [It is interesting, with respect to Dr. Fell's (see last issue) evidence for early European contacts with America, that the Maya who flourished around the same time also practiced the curious custom of deforming the skull to achieve die flattened, elongated shape. Could the custom have migrated with ancient seafarers to the New World or did they, perhaps, bring the practice back to the Old world?]


Folklore is self-correcting and very stable; the involvement of the respective peoples furnish the tenor of the content. In this case there were eight viewpoints remembered, those of the people on the side of the Norwegian kidnapper, the Danubian people, the homefolk from Holstein, the folk of Herwig, the vassals from Jutland (Wandals), the Friesians, the Franks, and her grandmother's and grandfather's clan, the Anglo-Saxons.

Names of places and persons are rendered phonetically and can be trusted. They appear in the oldest records and on site have been proven by archaeologists to have roots to the era of the actual event. Legends and historic reporting by Caesar coincide in chronology, geographic arena, and tenor of the scenario with the Gudrun Epic. The geographic distribution of the locations through which the legend had moved are huge, but are limited to the areas in which the Goths had established a firm government. Also it seems that the era of original events can be delineated by the age of basic laws common to all clans. These formed an integral part of the various Codices of the Germanic peoples regardless of the actual historical time when they were formally set down in writing.

[*!* Image: Crown-mask fitting the skull of an adult woman (Gudrun, herself?) Whose head had been bound in infancy, forcing skull growth into elongated form.]

Selected references:

1. Jane Acomb Leake, The Geats of Beowulf (Madison, Wisconsin) 1968.

2. Friedrich Schlette, Germanen zwischen Thorsberg und Ravenna (1972).

3. Andras Mócsy, Pannonia and Upper Moesia; A History of the Middle Danube Provinces of the Roman Empire (1977).

Hildegard Wiencke-Lotz is a graduate of Ursinus College (B.A. 1964) and holds a Master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania in Folklore and German (M.A. 1965). She continued graduate studies in archaeology, Germanic history and folklore at the Universities of Basel, Switzerland (1966) and Freiburg, Germany (1967-68). A.B.D. University of Maryland, in German (1971).


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