Sweden in the 12th century before the incorporation of Finland during the 13th century

The Geats (/ˈɡts/, /ˈɡəts/, or /ˈjæts/)[1][2] (Old English: gēatas [ˈjæɑ̯tɑs]; Old Norse: gautar [ˈɡɑu̯tɑr]; Swedish: götar [ˈjøːtar]), and sometimes Goths[3]) were a North Germanic tribe inhabiting what is now Götaland ("land of the Geats") in southern Sweden. The name of the Geats also lives on in the Swedish provinces of Västergötland and Östergötland, the Western and Eastern lands of the Geats, and in many other toponyms.


Earliest mentions

The earliest known surviving mention of the Geats appears in Ptolemy (2nd century A.D.), who refers to them as Goutai. In the 6th century, Jordanes writes of the Gautigoths and Ostrogoths (the Ostrogoths of Scandza); and Procopius refers to Gautoi. The Norse Sagas knows them as Gautar; Beowulf and Widsith as Gēatas.[4]


The etymology of the modern English form Geat (Old English Geatas, from the Proto-Germanic *Gautaz, plural *Gautōz) is similar,[5] although not identical, to that of Goths and Gutar (*Gutô, plural *Gutaniz). The names are derived from different ablaut grades of the Proto-Germanic word *geutaną, meaning "to pour".[6][7] They are generally accepted to have originated as heiti for "men (of the tribe)", with the literal meaning "they who pour their seed".[8] (For more information see Goths § Etymology.) It could also allude to watercourses in the land where they were living,[9] but this is not generally accepted to be the case, partly because that would mean that the names' similarity would be coincidental.[5]

A more specific theory about the word Gautigoths is that it means the Goths who live near the river Gaut,[7] today's Göta älv (Old Norse: Gautelfr).[10] It might also have been a conflation of the word Gauti with a gloss of Goths.[11] In the 17th century the name Göta älv, 'River of the Geats', replaced the earlier names Götälven and Gautelfr.[7] The etymology of the word Gaut is as mentioned derived from the Proto-Germanic word *geutan, and the extended meaning of "to pour" is "flow, stream, waterfall" which could refer to Trollhättan Falls or the river itself.[7]

The short form of Gautigoths was the Old Norse Gautar, which originally referred to just the inhabitants of Västergötland, or the western parts of today's Götaland, a meaning which is retained in some Icelandic sagas.[7]

Early history

Beowulf and the Norse sagas name several Geatish kings, but only Hygelac finds confirmation in Liber Monstrorum where he is referred to as "Rex Getarum" and in a copy of Historiae Francorum where he is called "Rege Gotorum". These sources concern a raid into Frisia, ca 516, which is also described in Beowulf. Some decades after the events related in this epic, Jordanes described the Geats as a nation which was "bold, and quick to engage in war".

Before the consolidation of Sweden, the Geats were politically independent of the Swedes or Svear, whose old name was Sweonas in Old English. When written sources emerge (approximately at the end of the 10th century), the Geatish lands are described as part of the still very shaky Swedish kingdom, but the manner of their unification with the Swedes is a matter of much debate.

Based on the lack of early medieval sources, and the fact that the Geats were later part of the kingdom of Sweden, traditional accounts assume a forceful incorporation by the Swedes, but the only surviving traditions which deal with Swedish-Geatish wars are of semi-legendary nature and found in Beowulf, Johannes Magnus, and the like. The actual story in Beowulf, however, is that the Geatish king helps a Swede to gain the throne. What historians today think is that this realm could just as well be the force behind the creation of the medieval kingdom of Sweden. The historians make a distinction between political history and the emergence of a common Swedish ethnicity. The, so far more or less imagined, Swedish invasion of Geatish lands has been explained as Geatish involvement in the Gothic wars in southern Europe, which brought a great deal of Roman gold to the people of Götaland, but also naturally depleted their numbers (see Nordisk familjebok). The Hervarar saga is believed to contain such traditions handed down from the 4th century. According to that work, when the Hunnish Horde invaded the land of the Goths and the Gothic king Angantyr desperately tried to marshal the defenses, it was the Geatish king Gizur who answered his call, though there is no actual evidence of a successful invasion.[12]

Today, historians believe that the medieval kingdom of Sweden was created as a union to oppose foreign forces, mainly the Danes, where the mainly inland Västergötland was easier to defend and be protected in than in the coastal areas.[13] According to Curt Weibull, the Geats would have been finally integrated in the Swedish kingdom c. 1000, but according to others, it most likely took place before the 9th century, and probably as early as the 6th century.[13] The fact that some sources are silent about the Geats indicates that any independent Geatish kingdom no longer existed in the 9th century.[13] In Rimbert's account of Ansgar's missionary work, the Swedish king is the sole sovereign in the region and he has close connections not only with the king of the Danes but also with the king of the Franks.[13] However, the oldest medieval Swedish sources present the Swedish kingdom as having remaining legal differences between Swedes and Geats for example in weights and measurements in miles, marks etc.[13] They also tell us that there were kings, ruling by the title of Rex Gothorum as late as in the 12th century, and that one of those kings went on to become king of a united realm.

Viking age

In the Heimskringla, Snorri Sturluson writes about several battles between Norwegians and Geats. He wrote that in the 9th century, there were battles between the Geats and the Norwegian king Harald Fairhair, during Harald Fairhair's campaign in Götaland, a war the Geats had to fight without the assistance of the Swedish king Erik Emundsson. He also wrote about Haakon I of Norway's expedition into Götaland and Harold I of Denmark's battle against Jarl Ottar of Östergötland, and about Olaf the Holy's battles with the Geats during his war with Olof Skötkonung.

Middle Ages

The Geats were traditionally divided into several petty kingdoms, or districts, which had their own things (popular assemblies) and laws. The largest one of these districts was Västergötland (West Geatland), and it was in Västergötland that the Thing of all Geats was held every year, in the vicinity of Skara.

Unlike the Swedes, who used the division hundare, the Geats used hærrad, like the Norwegians and the Danes. Surprisingly, it would be the Geatish name that became the common term in the Swedish kingdom. This is possibly related to the fact that several of the medieval Swedish kings were of Geatish extraction and often resided primarily in Götaland.

In the 11th century, the Swedish House of Munsö became extinct with the death of Emund the Old. Stenkil, a Geat, was elected king of Sweden, and the Geats would be influential in the shaping of Sweden as a Christian kingdom. However, this election also ushered in a long period of civil unrest between Christians and pagans and between Geats and Swedes. The Geats tended to be more Christian, and the Swedes more pagan, which was why the Christian Swedish king Inge the Elder fled to Västergötland when deposed in favour of Blot-Sweyn, a king more favourable towards Norse paganism, in the 1080s. Inge would retake the throne and rule until his death c. 1100.

Sveær egho konong at taka ok sva vrækæ and the following sentences in the Westrogothic law

One can not say that the Geats were not treated as equals with the Swedes. For example, Saxo, wrote about a situation that happened well before his birth, where one of the participants had to be pictured in black. For Saxo, Magnus Nielsen was a bad person. In his Gesta Danorum (book 13), the Danish 12th century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus noted that the Geats had no say in the election of the king, only the Swedes, but Saxo did not know how kings were chosen in Sweden around 1120. When in the 13th century, the West Geatish law or Westrogothic law was put to paper, it reminded the Geats that they had to accept the election of the Swedes: Sveær egho konong at taka ok sva vrækæ meaning "It is the Swedes who have the right of choosing ["taking"] and also deposing the king" and then he rode Eriksgatan "mæþ gislum ofvan""with hostages from above [the realm]" through Södermanland, the Geatish provinces and then through Närke and Västmanland to be judged to be the lawful king by the lawspeakers of their respective things. The king was "taken" by the first thing possibly similar to the customs in early medieval Norway where the king was chosen by acclamation (see about this custom called konungstekja ("choosing king") and also the section Coronation, in the article Monarchy of Norway). The way to become king in Sweden could however also be to defeat opponents in battle and not only to be elected by the formal procedure.

One of these Swedish kings was Ragnvald Knaphövde, who in 1125 was riding with his retinue in order to be accepted as king by the Geats of Västergötland. As he despised the Geats, he decided not to demand hostages from their prominent clans. He was slain near Falköping.

In a new general law of Sweden that was issued by Magnus Eriksson in the 1350s, it was stated that twelve men from each province, chosen by their things, should be present at the Stone of Mora when a new king was elected.

The distinction between Swedes and Geats lasted during the Middle Ages, but the Geats became increasingly important for Swedish national claims of greatness due to the Geats' old connection with the Goths. They argued that since the Goths and the Geats were the same nation, and the Geats were part of the kingdom of Sweden, this meant that the Swedes had defeated the Roman empire. The earliest attestation of this claim comes from the Council of Basel, 1434, during which the Swedish delegation argued with the Spanish about who among them were the true Goths. The Spaniards argued that it was better to be descended from the heroic Visigoths than from stay-at-homers. This cultural movement, which was not restricted to Sweden went by the name Gothicismus or in Swedish Göticism, i.e. Geaticism, as Geat and Goth were considered synonymous back then.

Modern times

After the 15th century and the Kalmar Union, the Swedes and the Geats appear to have begun to perceive themselves as one nation, which is reflected in the evolution of svensk into a common ethnonym.[14][15] It was originally an adjective referring to those belonging to the Swedish tribe, who are called svear in Swedish. As early as the 9th century, svear had been vague, both referring to the Swedish tribe and being a collective term including the Geats,[14] and this is the case in Adam of Bremen's work where the Geats (Goths) appear both as a proper nation and as part of the Sueones.[14] The merging/assimilation of the two nations took a long time, however. In the early 20th century, Nordisk familjebok noted that svensk had almost replaced svear as a name for the Swedish people.[16]

Today, the merger of the two nations is complete, as there is no longer any tangible identification in Götaland with a Geatish identity, apart from the common tendency of people living in those areas to refer to themselves as västgötar (West Geats) and östgötar (East Geats), that is to say, residents of the provinces of Västergötland and Östergötland. The city Göteborg, known in English as Gothenburg, was named after the Geats (Geatsburg or fortress of the Geats), when it was founded in 1621.

Until 1973 the official title of the Swedish king was King of Sweden (earlier: of the Swedes), the Geats/Goths and the Wends (with the formula "Sveriges, Götes och Vendes konung"). The title "King of the Wends" was copied from the Danish title, while the Danish kings called themselves "King of the Gotlanders" (which, like "Geats", was translated into "Goths" in Latin) were also used by Danish royalty. The Wends is a term normally used to describe the Slavic peoples who inhabited large areas of modern east Germany and Pomerania. See further in the Wikipedia articles King of the Goths and King of the Wends.

The titles, however, changed when the new king Carl XVI Gustaf in 1973 decided that his royal title should simply be King of Sweden. The disappearance of the old title was a decision made entirely by the king. The old title in Latin was "N.N. Dei Gratia, Suecorum, Gothorum et Vandalorum Rex."


Main article: Goths
  traditional Götaland
  the island of Gotland
  Wielbark culture in the early 3rd century
  Chernyakhov culture, in the early 4th century

Geatas was originally Proto-Germanic *Gautoz and Goths and Gutar (Gotlanders) were *Gutaniz. *Gautoz and *Gutaniz are two ablaut grades of a Proto-Germanic word *geutan with the meaning "to pour" (modern Swedish gjuta, modern German giessen). The word comes from an Indo-European root meaning to pour, offer sacrifice.[17] There were consequently two derivations from the same Proto-Germanic ethnonym.[18]

It is a long-standing controversy whether the Goths were Geats. Both Old Icelandic and Old English literary sources clearly separate the Geats on one hand (Isl. Gautar, OEng Geatas) from the Goths/Gutar (Isl. Gotar, OEng. Gotenas); on the other, however, the Gothic historian Jordanes wrote that the Goths came originally from Dacia to the island of Scandza. Moreover, he described that on this island there were three tribes called the Gautigoths (cf. Geat/Gaut), the Ostrogoths (cf. the Swedish province of Östergötland) and Vagoths (Gutar?) - this implies that the Geats were Goths rather than vice versa. The word Goth is also a term used by the Romans to describe related, culturally linked tribes like the Tervingi and the Greuthungs, so it may be correct to label Geats as Goths.

Scandinavian burial customs, such as the stone circles (domarringar), which are most common in Götaland and Gotland, and stelae (bautastenar) appeared in what is now northern Poland in the 1st century AD, suggesting an influx of Scandinavians during the formation of the Gothic Wielbark culture.[19][20] Moreover, in Östergötland, in Sweden, there is a sudden disappearance of villages during this period.[21] Contemporary accounts beginning in the 4th century further associated these groups with the earlier Getae of Dacia, but this is now even more disputed and controversial.

Jutish hypothesis

There is a hypothesis that the Jutes also were Geats, and which was proposed by Pontus Fahlbeck in 1884. According to this hypothesis the Geats would have not only resided in southern Sweden but also in Jutland, where Beowulf would have lived.

The generally accepted identification of Old English Gēatas as the same ethnonym as Swedish götar and Old Norse gautar is based on the observation that the ö monophthong of modern Swedish and the au diphthong of Old Norse correspond to the ēa diphthong of Old English.

Old Norse Swedish Old English
brauð bröd brēad
laukr lök lēac (onion, cf. leek)
lauf löv lēaf
austr öst ēast
draumr dröm drēam
dauðr död dēað
rauðr röd rēad (red)

Thus, Gēatas is the Old English form of Old Norse Gautar and modern Swedish Götar. This correspondence seems to tip the balance for most scholars. It is also based on the fact that in Beowulf, the Gēatas live east of the Dani (across the sea) and in close contact with the Sweon, which fits the historical position of the Geats between the Danes/Daci and the Swedes. Moreover, the story of Beowulf, who leaves Geatland and arrives at the Danish court after a naval voyage, where he kills a beast, finds a parallel in Hrólf Kraki's saga. In this saga, Bödvar Bjarki leaves Gautland and arrives at the Danish court after a naval voyage and kills a beast that has been terrorizing the Danes for two years (see also Origins for Beowulf and Hrólf Kraki).

The Geats and the Jutes are mentioned in Beowulf as different tribes, and whereas the Geats are called gēatas, the Jutes are called ēotena (genitive) or ēotenum (dative).[22] Moreover, the Old English poem Widsith also mentions both Geats and Jutes, and it calls the latter ȳtum.[23] However, Fahlbeck proposed in 1884 that the Gēatas of Beowulf referred to Jutes and he proposed that the Jutes originally also were Geats like those of southern Sweden.[24] This theory was based on an Old English translation of Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People attributed to Alfred the Great where the Jutes (iutarum, iutis) once are rendered as gēata (genitive) and twice as gēatum (dative)[23] (see e.g. the OED which identifies the Geats through Eotas, Iótas, Iútan and Geátas). Fahlbeck did not, however, propose an etymology for how the two ethnonyms could be related.[24]

Fahlbeck's theory was refuted by Schück who in 1907 noted that another Old English source, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, called the Jutes īutna, īotum or īutum.[24] Moreoever, Schück pointed out that when Alfred the Great's translation mentions the Jutes for the second time (book IV, ch. 14(16)) it calls them ēota and in one manuscript ȳtena.[25] Björkman proposed in 1908 that Alfred the Great's translation of Jutes as Geats was based on a confusion between the West Saxon form Geotas ("Jutes") and Gēatas ("Geats").[25]

As for the origins of the ethnonym Jute, it may be a secondary formation of the toponym Jutland, where jut is derived from a Proto-Indo-European root *eud meaning "water".[26]

Gutnish hypothesis

Since the 19th century, there has also been a suggestion that Beowulf's people were Gutes (from the island of Gotland in Sweden). According to the poem, the weather-geats or sea-geats, as they are called are supposed to have lived east of the Danes/Dacians and be separated from the Swedes by wide waters. Some researchers have found it a little far-fetched that wide waters relates to Vänern in Västergötland or Mälaren. The weather in weather-geats, and sea-geats marks a people living at a windy, stormy coast by the sea. The Geats of Västergötland were historically an inland people, making an epithet such as weather- or sea- a little strange. Moreover, when Beowulf dies he is buried in a mound at a place called Hrones-naesse, meaning "the cape of whales". Whales have for obvious reasons never lived in Vänern, where, according to Birger Nerman, Beowulf is buried. However, an expanse of water separates the island of Gotland from the Swedes. The island lies east of Denmark/Dacia and whales were once common in the Baltic Sea where Gotland is situated. The name of the Gutes in Swedish, Gutar, is an ablaut-grade of the same name as that of the Geats in Beowulf. These facts made the archaeologist Gad Rausing come to the conclusion that the weather-Geats may have been Gutes. This was supported by another Swedish archaeologist Bo Gräslund. According to Rausing, Beowulf may be buried in a place called Rone on Gotland, a name corresponding to the Hrones in Hrones-naesse. Not far from there lies a place called Arnkull corresponding to the Earnar-naesse in Beowulf, which according to the poem was situated closely to Hrones-naesse.

This theory does not exclude the ancient population of Västergötland and Östergötland from being Geats, but rather holds that the Anglo-Saxon name Geat could refer to West-geats (Västergötland), East-geats (Östergötland) as well as weather-geats (Gotland), in accordance with Jordanes account of the Scandinanian tribes Gautigoth, Ostrogoth and Vagoth.

See also


  1. Geat in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary
  2. Geat in the American Heritage Dictionary
  3. E.g. Microsoft Encarta (on Swedish history), translations from Old Norse, Anglo-Saxon or Latin and the Primary Chronicle and modern scholarly works on Germanic tribes.
  4. Michael Alexander's 1995 (Penguin Classics) edition of Beowulf mentions a variant: Gēotas
  5. 1 2 Hellquist, Elof. "göt". Svensk etymologisk ordbok (in Swedish). Retrieved 1 Mar 2014.
  6. Compare the modern Swedish gjuta, modern Dutch gieten, modern German gießen, Gothic giutan, old Scandinavian giota, old English geotan all cognate with Latin fondere "to pour" and old Greek cheo "I pour".
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 Nordisk Familjebok, the article "Götar" (in Swedish).
  8. Svenskt ortnamnslexikon, Språk- och folkminnesinstitutet, Uppsala 2003, pages 103 och 92 (articles "Götaland" and "Gotland").
  9. An interpretation of both names of Götaland and Gotland according to the etymology sentences in their respective articles in Nationalencyklopedin.
  10. Nationalencyklopedin, the article (in Swedish) about Klarälven, which says that Klarälven was called Gautelfr in records from the 13th century. See also Nationalencyklopedin, the article "Göta älv" (in Swedish).
  11. Götar in Svenska Akademiens Ordbok.
  12. The Battle of the Goths and the Huns. Christopher Tolkien, in Saga-Book (University College, London, for the Viking Society for Northern Research) 14, part 3 (1955-6), pp. [141]-63.
  13. 1 2 3 4 5 Ståhl, Harry (1976). "Ortnamn och ortnamnsforskning". Uppsala: Almquist & Wiksell: 131. ISBN.
  14. 1 2 3 The article Svear in Nationalencyklopedin.
  15. The earliest attestation of this meaning is from the mid-15th century Swedish Chronicle.
  16. The article Sverige, språkv. in Nordisk familjebok
  17. "god" in The Oxford English Dictionary Online. (2006).
  18. cf. Serbs and Sorbs, Polans and Poles, Slovenes and Slovaks in Slavic languages.
  19. "The Goths in Greater Poland" (in Polish). Retrieved 2010-06-14.
  21. Oxenstierna, Graf E.C. : Die Urheimat der Goten. Leipzig, Mannus-Buecherei 73, 1945 (later printed in 1948).
  22. Nerman, Birger (1925). "Det svenska rikets uppkomst". p. 108
  23. 1 2 Nerman, Birger (1925). "Det svenska rikets uppkomst". pp. 108-109
  24. 1 2 3 Nerman, Birger (1925). "Det svenska rikets uppkomst". p. 109
  25. 1 2 Nerman, Birger (1925). "Det svenska rikets uppkomst". p. 110
  26. Hellquist, Elof (1922). "Jut-, Jute". Svensk etymologisk ordbok (in Swedish). Project Runeberg. Retrieved 2007-11-21.
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