Harii: Ghosts or Guerrillas

I have mentioned before how painful I found studying Tacitus in my formative years. Despite this I do seem to keep coming back to him. In this instance he is literally the only source I could find so its possible I am about to recount, in the minimal detail available to me, a two thousand year old fiction created due to Tacitus being hypoxic because his head was lodged too far up his father in laws arse.

Whilst watching a video by one of my favourite youtubers recently she passingly mentioned the Harii, given the pace of the video and the irrelevance of the Harii to the core theme it probably would have passed unnoticed had it not sounded familiar to me. In his Germania Tacitus offers us one paragraph on the Harii.

“As for the Harii, they are superior in strength to the others listed here; Savage as they are, they enhance their innate furiosity with trickery and timing. They blacken their shields and stain their bodies, and choose pitch-dark nights for battles. The shadowy horror of this ghostly army inspires a mortal panic. No enemy can stand so strange and devilish a sight. Defeat in battle always begins with the eye.”

That’s it. That’s all Tacitus gave us directly on the Harii. He appears to be relaying his knowledge of this particular teutonic tribe with a certain amount of respect which I don’t feel he offers to any of the other “Savages”.

Side Note: Across time and geography the universal definition of “savage” is “not us”.

Most prominently he describes their tactics in battle which isn’t surprising as he seems to struggle with the concept of these tribes having a culture. However hellenistic cultures like Greece and Rome have always placed a high value on cunning in battle. The great hero Odysseus from Homers Illiad and Odyssey holds the epithet “Master of Stratagems” above any other. Whilst the level of strategy he describes in the Harii seems far advanced of its time particularly for Germanic and Northern European cultures its important to note that these cultures didn’t keep written records, at least not records like chronicles that were meant ot be archived as such we don’t have any first person accounts and we are forced to rely on a paragraph in a heavily biased work by a man who saw anything not Roman as innately savage.

Side Note: Whilst I have no doubt several hundred men Oliviering up and charging you in the dead of night would be terrifying I do wonder how effective and safe a battle strategy it is to run around in the dark with a load of your mates and start swinging a sword around.

Tacitus refers to the Harii as the most power of the peoples he lists. In terms of context for the rest of his work I suspect he means wealthiest and in control of the most land. Which is why it is surprising neither he nor apparently any one else contemporary had anything to say about them. There are some works written hundreds of years after Germania which are either directly copied from Tacitus work or complete fictions, full of anachronistic impossibilities. Tacitus does however offer us one last clue about these mysterious people. In following his list of tribes in a line around Europe we can place the Harii between the rivers Vistula and Oder, squarely in modern day Poland.

Archaeology in Poland

Archaeological research in Poland isn’t as well resourced or funded as in places like the United Kingdom or France. Particularly in post-war Europe archaeological preservation and research would not have been high on the list of priorities for a country that had been occupied and exploited with its population decimated. That being said some work has been done around Poland’s bronze and iron ages leading into the classical antiquity described by Tacitus. However given the sheer volume of tribes that occupied the area both at the same time and consecutively its impossible to attribute any one find to a particular tribe. Whilst there were almost certainly cultural nuances they were all broadly speaking Germanic and due to trade and conquest the acquisition of technologies that worked from one tribe to another happened far to rapidly for us to distinguish through the murky lens of two thousand years.

Side Note: I should stress a lot of the above sits a bit uncomfortably because it relies on the homogenising perspective of rampant racists like Tacitus.

We know broadly that these people all seemed to worship the same Gods, in the same ways. They buried their dead with reverence in the same ways. The seem to use the same tools for the same jobs. So what can we infer about the Harii from what we know about the Germanic tibes as a whole?

When trying to understand a culture with no remaining written records there is always one reliable source of information. As with Homer and his contemporaries the oral tradition has been used to share intimate details of a culture for millenia and whilst we don’t have directly surviving tales from the period We do have The Brothers Grimm, in particular Jakob Grimm who was a folkloric anthropologist of totally unappreciated skill. He dedicated his life to collecting and codifying the oral folklore of the Germanic people. In doing so he managed to, for the first time, identify themes in the fables and folklore covering the geography of mainland Europe. He even managed to track the spread of some Gods, Goddesses and Spirits across the land and time, showing how the names and stories subtly shifted to suit the needs of their adopted cultures. From his work we can suggest that the Harii would have likely been pantheistic, which is supported by the archaeology, with heavy focus on spirits of nature and the elements. The tribes around the Harii are likely to be some of the earliest identified to celebrate a warrior class in death, ultimately evolving in the later lore of Odin, Valhalla and the Valkyrie. Many of the names of their Gods are lost to us however Jakob noted a link between three winter Goddesses suggesting a much older, darker and more primal ancestry with origins in these bronze age Germanic tribes (and possibly earlier).

Some Final Thoughts

I still cant decide if the Harii even existed as a specific and distinct people. I am always sceptical where only one primary source exists. Whilst I don’t like Tacitus, if the Harii did exist he provided them and their name its only real memorial.

Also whilst I am aware that I have referred to Tacitus as a sycophant and a racist in this post, that is due to significant editing. Originally this post was just a venomous rant about how Tacitus ruined my adolescence. Two well evidence insults is an improvement (and frankly evidence of personal growth on my part).

In researching this I became aware of a lot of work suggesting a link between the Harii as described by Tacitus and the Einherjar, dead warriors who follow and fight beside Odin in much later Norse mythology. Others may disagree but I think this link to be incredibly weak. “Odin has ghost soldiers and these guys might have looked a bit like ghosts when they were fighting several hundred years before”. If you believe that I’ve got a three legged horse to sell you that’s a sure thing in the next grand national.

I’ve not really gone into much detail about the cultural destruction caused by empire and how had the Romans not expanded in the manner they did we would probably know a lot more about the peoples of Europe at the time. I do have a good rant about the dangers of empire in previous posts though so feel free to check my back catalogue.

Finally, I think all of this emphasises the importance of oral tradition in the preservation of culture. Whilst its not as neat as having exact facts written down for you in context when read these stories can share a lot about a culture. I am unsure if they are the originators of this but the youtube channel Extra Credit often state –

“Myths are not stories that are untrue, instead they’re tales that don’t fit in the historical record, which serve as a foundation of a culture.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *