Gothic Heritage of Ukraine


A new documentary film project in development

"The Goths are incomparably more just and humane than the Romans, both the nobles and the commoners" - Salvianus Massiliensis, 5th century"

The "Gothic agenda" has never been given proper attention in Ukrainian and Russian science. At the beginning of the 20th century, mainly through the efforts of archaeologist Vikentij Hvojka, a Czech whose name bears one of Kyiv's streets, the so-called "Chernyakhovska archaeologic culture" was found. It became clear that this culture must be attributed to the East Germanic tribe of Goths. But the moment was not very good then - Germany soon became an enemy, and no one wanted to explore the heritage of the Gothic kingdom on Dnipro (Danpar) river. And, in general, wars and revolutions are not the best time for archaeology.

But when the opportunities for the quiet work of scientists reappeared, it turned out that Germany was the enemy, again. Moreover, it was the enemy appealing to the legacy of the ancient Germanic tribes in the attempts to justify the nazi expansionism. Therefore, in the USSR, the issues of ancient Germans playing a significant role in the history of Slavs were disregarded, at least till the early 1990s. The official standpoint was: yes, there were some Goths, they came to the territory of modern Ukraine for a short time and then immediately left, disappeared, dissolved, having had no influence and leaving no traces. This point of view can still be found in the school books, and the general public still knows very little about the Gothic heritage of Ukraine.

But the fact is that the Goths were there, at the very cradle of Slavic civilization and culture, for several centuries. There still are many unsolved problems of their history, their cities and settlements are still poorly researched, and the capital of their kingdom is still not found.

However, in Western Europe, the situation is entirely different. The history of the Western Goths is much better studied. The Gothic language is considered a valuable source on the earliest stages of development of Germanic languages ​​and dialects. The Gothic literary monuments, first of all, the "Silver Codex" (Codex Argenteus) of Ulfilas, are invaluable cultural treasures.

"The People of Flooded Lands"

The endonym of the Goths is 𐌲𐌿𐍄𐌸𐌹𐌿𐌳𐌰, (gutþiuda), from the verb giutan, which means "to pour" or "to flood", and þiuda (thiuda), - "people" or "men". Perhaps it means "the people of flooded lands", "people of floodplains", or even "people of the flood". In the 2d century, they exited Scandinavia and gradually advanced through continental Europe in all directions. Eastern Goths settled on the bank of Dnipro in the 2d-3d centuries.

Their homeland was the semi-legendary Scandinavian Gotiscandza - the land of the still unknown location. Besides, it is not at all clear how an area in Scandinavia could have generated such a powerful wave of migration that flooded half of Europe. Some scientists mention the vicinity of Gothenburg (Göteborg), as well as of the island of Gotland, although it is possible that Gotiskandza is a mythological concept rather than a geographical one.

As of the end of the 4th century, a large Gothic kingdom formed in the territory of Ukraine. King Ermanarich (Aírmanareiks, or Jörmunrekkr) united under his rule the Goths, Proto-Slavs, and some other tribes into one powerful state called Oium. The name Oium, or Aujum, perhaps, harks back to the Old German "auwo", which means "wet meadow", "pasture", or "floodplain". Yes, it's again about flooding waters. We cannot forget the interesting legend about the island of Gotland: it says that in ancient times this island was so profusely spellbound that it was flooded with seawater during the daytime, and surfaced only at night.

The Goths on the banks of Dnipro

According to the material findings, the power and influence of the Gothic king spread over a vast area - from the Carpathians to the Don, Volga, and Oka rivers. Many traces of Gothic toponymy are still preserved in these areas. The Goths also penetrated Crimea. They used small boats to cross the Black Sea and attack the coasts of Asia Minor and even the outskirts of Constantinople - doing this twelve centuries before the Ukrainian Cossacks did the same. Oium became a prototype of the "barbarian" kingdoms in early medieval Europe - and certainly the largest of them.

The kingdom had great ethnic and cultural diversity. Perhaps, in a way, it shaped the Ukrainian predestination to become a "boiling pot" for different nations and cultures. The Germanic and Proto-Slavic elements were combined here. Apparently, the Anti and the Sklavins, (commonly viewed as Proto-Slavs), were in a subordinate position in Oium, but they definitely were not enslaved. It seems that the Goths were only an organizing and state-building factor.

It is generally known that the barbarians who had built their kingdoms on the ruins of the Roman empire had a relatively lower level of culture and civilization than the people they had conquered. In Oium, it was different. The archaeological evidence is convincing: the Goths introduced not only statehood but also more developed material culture and crafts. For example, it was the Goths who brought the potter's wheel to the banks of Dnipro.

They also spread Christianity (Arian brand). In the 4th century, the Gothic bishop Ulfilas (his name means "a wolfling") translated the Bible from Greek into Gothic. In 325, two bishops from Oim - Cadmus of Bosporus and Theophilus of Gotha - took part in the First Council of Nicaea.

The Lords Prayer (Atta Unsar - "Our Father") sounded in Gothic on the riverside hills of Dnipro back then.

The Lord's Prayer in Gothic (Atta Unsar - Our Father)r)
The Lord's Prayer in Gothic (Atta Unsar - Our Father)r)

The ancient Icelandic sagas (Hamðismál, Guðrúnarhvöt, etc.) contain intriguing information about the Eastern Goths. The Vikings who settled in Iceland in the 9th-10th rightfully considered the Goths their ancestors and preserved memories of Oium in their epic literature. These sagas might tell a different story about Lybid' and her brothers, the legendary founders of Kyiv. Some researchers believe that Swanhild (Sunilda, or Swanhildr, meaning "swan girl") and Lybid ("swan girl", too) are one and the same person. Although, now it is pretty difficult to find out what exactly happened in the kingdom of Oium during the reign of Ermanarich. After all, we are talking about the distant and turbulent 4th century - the Migration of People time.

The Gothic language, although generally assigned to the Early Germanic, has a huge vocabulary of still obscure origin. "Bread" in Gothic is hlaif (𐌷𐌻𐌰𐌹𐍆) and it is not very clear whether the Slavs borrowed the word from the Goths, or vice versa - or, perhaps, this is the evidence for both language groups having very deep common roots.

Archaeology confirms that the economic and cultural rise of Oium was notable and that the trade with the "Roman world" (Pax Romana) and the East was very intensive. All Roman coins abundantly found in Kyiv are mostly from the Gothic period. But the mysteries of these times still puzzle us. One such mystery is the Serpent's Walls. Shrouded in strange legends, it is an impressive system of earthworks, gigantic even by modern standards. The most sizeable part of it was built during the Gothic times. Such work could have only been carried out under a state power with great economic and mobilization potential.

It is often said that the whole system of the earthworks had a defensive purpose, but it is rather doubtful. The layout does not correspond well to the known directions of nomadic invasions from the East during the times of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages. Moreover, apparently, these earth walls did not help much when the Huns attacked Oium in the 4th century.

Invasion from the East and scattering across Europe

The Huns invaded, Ermanarich died, a number of internal conflicts followed, and the kingdom of Oium eventually ceased to exist. Economic and cultural life on the territory of modern Ukraine went into a deep decline for several centuries, as evidenced by excavations. A large part of the population joined the Great Migration. Some of the Goths went on to Europe with the Huns, some moved to the Balkans, others moved to the mountainous Crimea. There were also Trapesite Goths who relocated eastwards, living for some time at Taman Peninsula - but their traces are lost in the times of the Khazar Khaganate.

Other Goths remained on the banks of Dnipro and took part in the formation of the modern-time Ukrainian ethnicity. For example, it is known that for a long time among the Cossacks there was a belief: "We kozacks are the descendants of the Goths."

The kingdoms the Goths founded in Europe lasted for several centuries but never saw High Middle Ages. The Gothic kingdom on the Apennine Peninsula was destroyed by the Byzantines who sought to restore the Roman Empire within its ancient borders. And the kingdom of the Western Goths (Visigoths) once occupying the Iberian Peninsula and Provence fell to the Muslim conquerors.

Crimean Gothia

Surprisingly, of all Gothic enclaves, the smallest one lasted the longest. It was the Crimean Gothia. The Crimean Goths became real mountaineers who learned well to manage effectively the difficult conditions of the mountainous Crimea and defend their last homeland. They built cities, castles, roads, and temples - the remains can still be found in the Crimean mountains.

For many centuries, the Crimean Goths were experiencing a strong economic, political and cultural influence of Constantinople. Gradually, they became a part of the medieval "Greek world". Their kingdom was called Theodoro, or Doris, or simply Gothia. Peaceful relations with the young Crimean Khanate were established but some conflicts with the Italian colonies of the southern coast often occurred. The small kingdom of Theodoro, however, did not last much longer than the Byzantine Empire. In 1475, it was conquered by the Turks. The ruins of the capital city, Theodoro, located on the Mangup Plateau (not far from Bakhchisarai) in Crimea still impress occasional visitors with their grandeur and beauty.

However, the ethnic history of the Goths did not end there. The Goths took part in the ethnogenesis of the Crimean Tatars, as well as the Urum and Romei Greeks (the latter ethnic groups live to the north of the Azov Sea, Ukraine). In the Crimean mountains, they joined the Alans, Greeks, Italians, and others. The famous literary monument of 12th century Kyiv Ruthenia (The Word of Igor's Campaign) mentions "the beautiful Gothic maidens singing on the shore of the blue sea". There is also some information that the vernacular Gothic was spoken in the mountainous Crimea in the 16th-18th centuries.

Till the end of the 18th century in the Crimea, there was a diocese of Gothia and Kaffa (since 1678 - the metropoly), subordinated, as in ancient times, to the Patriarch of Constantinople. It was put out of existence during the first Crimean deportation - when Russia forcefully relocated all Crimean Christians in the late 18th after occupying the peninsular (1st time).


Thus, the Crimean Tatars, as well as Romei and Urum Greeks of the Donetsk region of Ukraine are the living descendants of the Goths. This may seem strange, but today, in our time, these people suffer from the invasion from the East - just as well as their ancestors, the Goths of Ermanarich's time.

To be continued

Gallery: the ruins of Theodoro - the capital of the Crimean Gothia