November 12th, 2021


No, the Danes are not the Danites

I was making crème puffs in the kitchen at a retreat center in northern Indiana this week, talking about this and that with a couple of new friends with a Vineyard church background. One of these friends was exploring what happened to the tribe of Dan. Oholiab, one of the craftsmen/artists who made the Tabernacle and all its furnishings, was a Danite, and she was intrigued by him and his partner Bezalel (being an artist herself). The tribe of Dan disappeared along with the other northern tribes of Israel when Assyria overran the northern kingdom in the 8th Century BC. The Danites had acquired an infamous reputation by that time, and centuries later, Dan is not mentioned as one of the twelve restored tribes in the Book of Revelation. She had somewhere come across the idea that the Danites wound up in the far north and might have become the Danes, and what did I think of that?

This suggestion that the Ten Lost Tribes wound up becoming the Germanic/British/Celtic peoples is an old ethnological idea that has long since been debunked. It survives still in the weird form of British Israelitism. The idea was first proposed in the 15th Century, but became most prominent in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Presumably, the similarity of names between the Danes and Danites is the source of this particular association. Some schools of Biblical interpretation keep recirculating these old canards. Now, this lady is an intelligent person and very well read in terms of the Bible, but not as well read in history or linguistics. So I gave her a quick rundown on where the Germanic peoples actually derive from – which is something I know a goodish bit about.

The speakers of Proto-Indo-European started expanding out of their ancient homeland about 2500 BC. Our best guess is that the speakers of PIE were those who belonged to the Yamnaya Culture of the western Steppe (modern Ukraine and environs). Some of those who went west conquered or merged with or otherwise gave their language and social structure to the people who lived in northern Europe, whom we thereafter refer to as the Corded Ware Culture. These intermarried with the last hunter-gatherers of the area and their dialects increasingly diverged from PIE. By the time of the Nordic Bronze Age, we assume that the people living around southern Scandinavia and northern Germany were speaking Proto-Germanic. The Northern Bronze Age lasted from about 1700-500 BC, after which the Germanic tribes began to expand south into what the Romans would come to call Germania.

There are various theories about the origin of the name of the Danes. The best guess is that “Dane” meant originally “flatlander.” The people themselves, whether they called themselves Danes or not at the time, were originally from Scania, which is now the southern tip of Sweden. They began expanding into the islands to their west and eventually into Jutland around the 5th Century AD, subduing the Heathobards and the Jutes (and probably others) along the way. Danish identity was in the process of formation at the time, but all the people eventually called Danes had been in the area for centuries; indeed, since the Nordic Bronze Age.

So, what was going on in the Middle East during the Nordic Bronze Age? Well, 1700 BC was not long after the lifetime, give or take a century, of the Biblical Dan, son of Jacob, one of the original Children of Israel. This Dan is said to have relocated to Egypt under his brother Joseph. His descendants then are thought to have come out of Egypt in the Exodus (variously dated) and certainly present during the time of King Saul, who dates to about 1050 BC. A portion of the Danites relocated to the far northern frontier of Israel, where they remained near their chief town (called Dan, the source of the phrase “from Dan to Beersheba”) until the destruction of the northern kingdom by Assyria in 721 BC. Assyria then took the northern tribes into captivity, although they probably left a fair number in place, suppressing their original identity and replacing it with another. In any case, the tribe of Dan is not traceable past this point. The best guess is, they assimilated to the surrounding Gentile culture they found themselves in, whatever it was. Their genetic descendants, no longer aware of themselves as Israelites, are presumably still in the same general area of the Middle East.

So the idea that they might have wandered north into Scandinavia at the end of the Nordic Bronze Age to give their name to the Danes – who probably weren’t called that for another few centuries – is without support. Incidentally, the Ethiopians claim to be descended from Danite refugees (and others of the Lost Tribes). Make of that claim what you will. It's more probable than the Nordic connection, but only just.