Cauldrons, Top Knots and Sarcophagi

The Suevian knot is supposedly known from several works of art.  Take these, for example:

Mušov cauldron

Czarnówko cauldron

Portonaccio sarcophagus

But here is the interesting thing.  These “Suevian knots” do not seem to be the kinds of knots that are described by Tacitus.  There is nothing dramatic about these hairstyles.  In fact, they seem to be fairly ordinary ways for managing overlong hair – just tie it at the side.  Some of the Germanic figures in the battle scene on the above sarcophagus have them but most do not.

But did not Tacitus talk about “Suevian knots”?  Yes, but in the wishful thinking of those eager to find proof in his words, researchers seem to have concluded that all these male hair knots must be the Tacitan Suevian knots.  What did Tacitus write again?

“Insigne gentis obliquare crinem nodoque substringere: sic Suevi a ceteris Germanis, sic Suevorum ingenui a servis separantur. In aliis gentibus seu cognatione aliqua Suevorum seu, quod saepe accidit, imitatione, rarum et intra iuventae spatium; apud Suevos usque ad canitiem horrentem capillum retro sequuntur. Ac saepe in ipso vertice religatur; principes et ornatiorem habent. Ea cura formae, sed innoxia; neque enim ut ament amenturve, in altitudinem quandam et terrorem adituri bella compti, ut hostium oculis, armantur.”

What does this mean?

“We must now speak of the Suebi, who do not, like the Chatti or the Tencteri, constitute a single nation. They occupy more than half Germany, and are divided into a number of separate tribes under different names, though all are called by the generic title of ‘Suebi’. It is a special characteristic of this nation to comb the hair sideways and tie it in a knot. This distinguishes the Suebi from the rest of the Germans, and, among the Suebi, distinguishes the freeman from the slave. Individual men of other tribes adopt the same fashion, either because they are related in some way to the Suebi, or merely because the imitative instinct is so strong in human beings; but even these few abandon it when they are no longer young. The Suebi keep it up till they are gray- headed; the hair is twisted back so that it stands erect, and is often knotted on the very crown of the head. The chiefs use an even more elaborate style. But this concern about their personal appearance is altogether innocent. These are no lovelocks to entice women to accept their advances. Their elaborate coiffure is intended to give them greater height, so as to look more terrifying to their foes when they are about to go into battle.”

So… is it sideways or upwards?  The words are crinem nodoque substringere. Let’s compare another translation:

“This people are remarkable for a peculiar custom, that of twisting their hair and binding it up in a knot. It is thus the Suevians are distinguished from the other Germans, thus the free Suevians from their slaves. In other nations, whether from alliance of blood with the Suevians, or, as is usual, from imitation, this practice is also found, yet rarely, and never exceeds the years of youth. The Suevians, even when their hair is white through age, continue to raise it backwards in a manner stern and staring; and often tie it upon the top of their head only. That of their Princes, is more accurately disposed, and so far they study to appear agreeable and comely; but without any culpable intention. For by it, they mean not to make love or to incite it: they thus dress when proceeding to war, and deck their heads so as to add to their height and terror in the eyes of the enemy.”

That is right. Nothing is done sideways.  Here is the deal… Tacitus clearly describes hair being raised up not sideways like some dead rat hanging from one’s head.  If you want to know what Tacitus describes, take a look at this famous work of metallurgy:To get to the point: he is describing a top knot:

even this is not exactly right (though better):

Thus, none of these (except that guy in a t-shirt) are sporting Tacitan Suevic knots.

And if you long for bright blond Suevi then you will be disappointed.  Take this guy:


Sorry.  According to Peter Vilhelm Glob’s “The Bog People” the hair of the Osterby Man has been coloured a reddish brown by the acids in the bog; microscopic analysis showed that it had been dark blond and that the man had had some white hairs.

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August 27, 2017

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