The Lombards were a northern Germanic people who, according to tradition, originated from Scandinavia and eventually migrated to the Elba River region. According to The History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon (c. 720-799), the tribe originally called themselves the Winnili, and when they reached the Elbe, they were confronted by other regional powers who gave the new arrivals an ultimatum of either paying tribute or facing war. The Winnili, despite being few in number compared to their neighbors, did not shy from war—a trait later recognized by the Romans. Instead of paying tribute, the early Winnili reportedly chose war.
As told in folklore and myth, the Lombard name originated in this period of war in the Elbe region. According to the Origo Gentis Langobardum and the aforementioned work of Paul the Deacon, the Winnili were soon confronted by a group called the Wandals. These foes are sometimes identified as the Vandals, and other times connected to the Wends—whatever the case the tale soon becomes swamped in myth, and the identity of the so-called Wandals makes little difference, at least for this story.
The Wandals, whomever they may have been, were reportedly devout followers of the Germanic god, Wotan (i.e. Odin). Wotan, according to myth, returned the affection and often answered their prayers. The goddess Frea (Freyja), on the other hand, favored the newly-arrived Winnili. Therefore, when the Winnili and Wandals went to war, so too did Wotan and Frea, entering into a Homer-esque battle of wits in the realm of the gods.
According to the tale, the Wandals called on Wotan’s support when they knew that a battle was imminent. Responding to their plea, Wotan promised victory to the first army he saw at sunrise. Although the god’s decree looks fairly unbiased at first glance, his favoritism was betrayed when it was only the Wandal army that was informed of the pledge. Furthermore, Wotan made sure to keep his head facing toward the Wandals before he went to sleep for the night.
Although Wotan went to his slumber expecting to give victory to the Wandals in the morning, Frea had another outcome in mind. While Wotan slept, Frea visited the Winnili camp and told them of the divine decree—or, at least, she advised them to mobilize their forces before sunrise. The Winnili, however, were still small in number, so to make the group more visible and eye-catching, Frea told the Winnili women to accompany their men into battle. The goddess further instructed the women to gather their lengthy hair around their chins in order to make their locks look like long beards. With this plan in place, Frea returned to Wotan. Yet, the goddess took one last step before dawn arrived. Silently and gently, Frea rotated Wotan’s bed to face the direction of the Winnili. To ensure that her favored people emerged victorious, Frea made sure to wake up Wotan just as the Winnili were amassing in the morning light. When the awakening god opened his eyes, the Winnili masses, with all their hair, were the first people that he saw. According to theOrigo Gentis Langobardorum, the scene played out in the following way:
“And he, looking at them, saw the Winniles and their women having their hair let down around the face. And he says, ‘Who are these Long-beards?’ And Frea said to Godan [Wotan], ‘As you have given them a name, give them also the victory.’ And he gave them the victory, so that they should defend themselves according to his counsel and obtain the victory. From that time the Winniles were called Langobards.” (Origo Gentis Langobardorum, I, trans. William Foulke)
As the myth colorfully illustrates, the early medieval Lombards believed their name derived from facial hair. Other etymologies have been suggested, but the long-beard origin of the Lombards remains a fan-favorite. Whatever the case, the tribe had embraced their new name by the time the Romans began taking notes on Germania. Rome found the Lombards still in the Elbe region, calling them the Langobardi, and classified them as being part of a larger group called the Suebi. Despite their battle prowess and Frea’s support, the Lombards had, by then, become subject to the Marcomanni. Around 17 CE, they rebelled against Maroboduus of the Marcomanni and became a politically-influential force in the region. Around the 5th century, the Lombards migrated to the Danube, then to Pannonia. Finally, around 568, the Lombards invaded Italy to form the Kingdom of Lombardy, which survived until its destruction at the hands of Charlemagne in 774.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Depiction of King Alboin entering Pavia, illustrated by Charles F. Horne c. 1900, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The History of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, translated by Lewis Thorpe. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, translated by Michael Grant. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.
- Agricola and Germania by Tacitus and translated by Harold Mattingly and revised by J. B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2009.
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.