Were it not for Tacitus, our knowledge of Germanic mythology would have been limited to most fairly late mediaeval sources, like the prose – and poetic Edda. Not that Tacitus goes much into detail, but what he gives is of significant interest as we glimpses of myths unattested in later sources.
In the first part of chapter 2, Tacitus states that he believes that the Germanic people are indigenous No wonder, as no other people wants to live there! Of course Tacitus is wrong: they result from a mixture of tribes speaking an Indo-European language and original inhabitants. This process must have taken place from Southern Sweden from 500 BC onwards, when proto-Germanic tribes migrated to the European continent and mixed with people speaking an unknown language. Given the fairly high number of words without cognates in other Indo-European languages, the conclusion must be that these words derive from that unknown substrate language. Isn’t that fascinating?
In the second part Tacitus mentions a myth about the origin of men: Tuisto had a son, Mannus, who is the father of three Germanic tribes covering the whole Germanic area. This myth has not survived in Old Norse sources, but a parallel myth is known from the Rigveda: Manu is the first mortal and father of mankind. Tuisto has at first sight no parallel in the Rigveda, but there is the god Yama, ruler of the dead and brother of Manu. His name means `double’, so the same is Tuisto. In later Norse mythology we find the giant Ymir, out of whom the world is created, exactly as in the Purusha hymn Rigveda x.90. There is no exact correspondence, but it is clear that both the Germanic and the Vedic myths must have a common source.
I can’t go into many details and will leave questions about Germanic tribes aside. Scholarly commentaries tend to run into pages for every chapter of the Germania and though highly interesting, I don’t feel inclined to translate and take over the 25 pages Rudolph Much has spent on chapter 2 in his Die Germania des Tacitus (1967), however intersting. It goes without saying that with such a difficult text, I have made use of the commentaries by Furneaux, Much and Anderson.
Tacitus Germania c.2
 Ipsos Germanos indigenas crediderim minimeque aliarum gentium adventibus et hospitiis mixtos, quia nec terra olim, sed classibus advehebantur qui mutare sedes quaerebant, et inmensus ultra utque sic dixerim adversus Oceanus raris ab orbe nostro navibus aditur. Quis porro, praeter periculum horridi et ignoti maris, Asia aut Africa aut Italia relicta Germaniam peteret, informem terris, asperam caelo, tristem cultu adspectuque, nisi si patria sit?
Celebrant carminibus antiquis, quod unum apud illos memoriae et annalium genus est, Tuistonem deum terra editum. Ei filium Mannum, originem gentis conditoremque, Manno tris filios adsignant, e quorum nominibus proximi Oceano Ingaevones, medii Herminones, ceteri Istaevones vocentur. Quidam, ut in licentia vetustatis, pluris deo ortos plurisque gentis appellationes, Marsos Gambrivios Suebos Vandilios adfirmant, eaque vera et antiqua nomina. Ceterum Germaniae vocabulum recens et nuper additum, quoniam qui primi Rhenum transgressi Gallos expulerint ac nunc Tungri, tunc Germani vocati sint: ita nationis nomen, non gentis evaluisse paulatim, ut omnes primum a victore ob metum, mox etiam a se ipsis, invento nomine Germani vocarentur.
indigena – ae: a native, autochthonous
classibus advehebantur: Tacitus must have had colonization of various places around the Mediterranean and The Black Sea undertaken by Greek city states in mind and of course the journey of Aeneas.
mutare sedes: migrate
inmensus ultra utque sic dixerim adversus Oceanus raris ab orbe nostro navibus aditur: and the immense Ocean beyond, and so to say contrary, is but rarely entered by ships from our world.
(adversus is problematic and the translation `hostile’ is by some adopted)
porro: moreover, further
peteret: who would have left
informem terries: rough in landscapes (terris and caelo are ablatives of description. cultu and adspectu are mostly taken as supines: awful to inhabit and to behold.)
unum memoriae et annalium genus est: the only kind of tradition and history. Writing in their vernacular languages was unknown to the Germanic tribes and it was not until bishop Wulfila (ca 311-382) translated major parts of the Bible in the Gothic, that anything substantial was written in a Germanic language.
Mannus: the same word as English `man’
editum terra: born from the earth
Ingaevones, medii Herminones, ceteri Istaevones: that is the near the ocean, in the middle of Germania and along the Rhine
originem gentis conditoremque: (hendiadys) `forefather of the people’ (some editions have conditoresque, taking Tuisto and Mannus together as forefathers)
quidam: now lost Roman sources? Germanic speakers providing information? Probably the first. The remainder of c.2 is depending on quidam…adfirmant
ut in licentia vetustatis (fit): as happens within the margins allowed by antiquity
pluris deo ortos plurisque gentis appellationes: that more (pluris = plures) (sons) are borne from god and more names of a tribe. (What follows is an asyndetic enumeration)
ceterum: to the contrary
Germaniae vocabulum: the name `Germania’
ac nunc Tungri, tunc Germani vocati sint: this belongs to the most disputed passages in Latin literature. Clear is that from the tribal name Germani the whole area with Germanic tribes has been designated. The etymology of the name Germani is unclear, but probably not Celtic, as has been suggested by some. Roman folk etymology readily derived it from Latin germanus `brother’, but this is of course of no great help. I am of Germanic stock, but have no clue what that name means. Let’s hope that germani doesn’t mean `ass-holes’…
ita nationis nomen, non gentis evaluisse paulatim: thus what has been a tribal, not national name, prevailed gradually (Furneaux)
ut omnes primum a victore ob metum, mox etiam a se ipsis, invento nomine Germani vocarentur: so that all were initially called germani after the victor because of fear (the fear they inspired), soon however they were called by themselves with this recently acquired name.
(But the sentence is difficult and the exact meaning is disputed. Tacitus is wrong in asserting that they called themselves Germani: they did only so when in Roman service.)
Translation by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb , 1876.
The Germans themselves I should regard as aboriginal, and not mixed at all with other races through immigration or intercourse. For, in former times, it was not by land but on shipboard that those who sought to emigrate would arrive; and the boundless and, so to speak, hostile ocean beyond us, is seldom entered by a sail from our world. And, beside the perils of rough and unknown seas, who would leave Asia, or Africa, or Italy for Germany, with its wild country, its inclement skies, its sullen manners and aspect, unless indeed it were his home? In their ancient songs, their only way of remembering or recording the past, they celebrate an earth-born god, Tuisco, and his son Mannus, as the origin of their race, as their founders. To Mannus they assign three sons, from whose names, they say, the coast tribes are called Ingævones; those of the interior, Herminones; all the rest, Istævones. Some, with the freedom of conjecture permitted by antiquity, assert that the god had several descendants, and the nation several appellations, as Marsi, Gambrivii, Suevi, Vandilii, and that these are genuine old names. The name Germany, on the other hand, they say, is modern and newly introduced, from the fact that the tribes which first crossed the Rhine and drove out the Gauls, and are now called Tungrians, were then called Germans. Thus what was the name of a tribe, and not of a race, gradually prevailed, till all called themselves by this self-invented name of Germans, which the conquerors had first employed to inspire terror.