Danes (Germanic tribe)

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The Danes were a North Germanic tribe inhabiting southern Iron Age Scandinavia, whose descendants eventually founded what became the Kingdom of Denmark. The name of their realm means "Danish March", viz. "the march of the Danes" in Old Low German, referring to their southern border zone between the Eider and Schlei rivers.


The Danes are mentioned in the 6th century in Jordanes' Getica (551 AD), by Procopius, and by Gregory of Tours. They spoke Old Norse (dǫnsk tunga), which was shared by the Danes, the people in Norway and Sweden and later Iceland.[1]

In his description of Scandza, Jordanes says that the Dani were of the same stock as the Suetidi ("Swedes") and expelled the Heruli and took their lands.[2]

According to the 12th century author Sven Aggesen, the mythical King Dan gave name to the Danes.

The Old English poems Widsith and Beowulf, as well as works by later Scandinavian writers (notably by Saxo Grammaticus (c. 1200)), provide some of the original written references to the Danes. Archaeology has revealed and continues to reveal insights to their culture, beliefs, organization and way of life.



The Danes spoke Proto-Norse which gradually evolved into the Old Norse language by the end of the Viking Age. They used runes for writing, but did not write much apparently, except for occasional rune stones and carvings in wood and various items like weapons, utensils and jewellery.


As previous peoples of Scandinavia, the tribal Danes were practitioners of the Norse religion. Around 500 AD, many of the Gods of the Norse pantheon had lost their previous significance, except a few such as Thor, Odin and Frey who were increasingly worshipped. During the 10th century of the late Viking Age, they officially adopted Christianity, as evidenced by several rune stones, documents and church buildings. The new Christian influences also show in their art, jewellery and burial practices of the late Viking Age, but the transition was not rapid and clear cut and older customs from the Norse religion, remained to be practised to various degrees.[3]

Some sources such as the Beowulf, point to a very early Arianism in Denmark, but it has been a matter of intense academic debate for many years whether these sources reflect later adjustments or an actual early Germanic Christianity among the Danes in the Iron Age. There are several archaeological artefacts in and from Denmark however made as early as the 500s, depicting Daniel among the lions so the Danes must have had some knowledge of and influence from Arian cultures.[3]

Iron Age[edit]

Further information: Nordic Iron Age

In the Nordic Iron Age, the Danes were based in present-day Denmark, the southern part of present-day Sweden, including Scania and in Schleswig, now Northern Germany. In Schleswig, they initiated the large fortification of Danevirke to mark the southern border of their realm. It was extended several times, also in the centuries after the Iron Age.

The Widsith mentions a couple of semi-mythical kings in relation to the Danes of the Iron Age. Sigar who ruled the sea-Danes and Offa who ruled both the Danes and the Angles.

Up until around the 6th century, Jutland is described as being the homeland of the Jutes, another Scandinavian tribe.

Viking Age[edit]

Further information: Viking Age

From around 800 CE, the Danes began a long era of well-organised raids across the coasts and rivers of Europe. Some of the raids were followed by a gradual succession of Danish settlers and during this epoch, large areas outside Scandinavia were settled by the Danes, including the Danelaw in England and countryside and newly established towns in Ireland, Scotland and northern France. In the early 11th century, King Cnut the Great (died 1035) ruled the extensive North Sea Empire for nearly 20 years, consisting of Denmark, England and Norway.


In the British Isles, the Danes began settling England in 865, when brothers Halfdan Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless wintered in East Anglia. Halfdan and Ivar moved north and captured Northumbria in 867 and York as well. Danelaw – a special rule of law – was soon established in the settled areas and shaped the local cultures there for centuries. Cultural remains are still noticeable today.[4]


The Danes first arrived in Ireland in 795 AD, at Rathlin Island, initiating subsequent raids and fortified trade settlements, so called longphorts. During the Viking Age, they established many coastal towns like Dublin (Dyflin), Cork, Waterford (Veðrafjǫrðr) and Limerick (Hlymrekr) and were followed by Danish settlers. There were many small skirmishes and larger battles with the native Irish clans in the following two centuries, with the Danes sometimes siding with allied clans. In 1014 AD, at the Battle of Clontarf, the Vikings were eventually defeated and the remaining Danish settlers gradually assimilated with the Irish population.[5]


Historical texts[edit]

Important historical documents that tell about the tribal Danes include:

  • Widsith
  • Beowulf. The poem describes an event in Lejre around the year 500 and was probably originally written shortly after.
  • Saxo Grammaticus: "Gesta Danorum" (Deeds of The Danes) written in the 12th century.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Anderson, Carl Edlund. "The Danish Tongue and Scandinavian Identity" (PDF). p. 1. Retrieved 4 November 2013. Icelandic writers (who provide the bulk of our surviving documentation)commonly employed the term dǫnsk tunga (literally “Danish tongue”) to identify the language not just of those who were ruled by the Dana konungr, but of all Germanic-speaking Scandinavians. 
  2. ^ Jordanes. Mierow (1908), ed. Getica III (23). 
  3. ^ a b Described in "Hvad troede de på?"
  4. ^ Flores Historiarum: Rogeri de Wendover, Chronica sive flores historiarum, pp. 298–9. ed. H. Coxe, Rolls Series, 84 (4 vols, 1841–42)
  5. ^ "The Vikings in Ireland: 800AD–1169". DoCharra.com. Retrieved 10 February 2016. 

Sources and further reading[edit]

  • Mads Lidegaard (2004): "Hvad troede de på? – religiøse tanker i oldtid og vikingetid" [What did they believe in? – religious thoughts in ancient times and the Viking Age], Gyldendal, ISBN 87-02-02703-8 (Danish)
    Mads Lidegaard (1915–2006) was a prolific writer, teacher and theologian from Denmark.