Relief of Mithras from the Vatican. Source: Wikipedia

The Merovingians

The Merovingians literally means “The People of Merowech”. But who was Merowech? And what does his name tell us about the first Frankish kings?

It is told that one summer, when Chlodio was staying at the seaside with his wife, they went into the sea at midday to bathe; and a beast of Neptune rather like a Quinotaur found her. In the event she was made pregnant, either by the beast or by her husband, and she gave birth to a son called Meroveus, after whom the kings of the Franks were subsequently called the Merovingians (c. AD 736 – 751). [1]

In the fourth century nine different German kings or princes (reges, regales or duces) were named in Roman sources as taking part in the defence of the north eastern part of the Roman Empire. Their names were:

  • Genobaudes
  • Ascarius
  • Merogaisus
  • Nebigastes
  • Mallobaudes
  • Marcomeres
  • Sunno
  • Theodomeres
  • Richimeres
  • Ascyla

During the same period the sources mention four high-ranking Roman officers with Frankish names:

  • Mallobaudes (tribunus armaturarum)
  • Teutobaudes (protector domesticus)
  • Richomeres (comes domesticorum)
  • Nebigastes (utriusque militia)
Julian II, AD 355-363. Heraclea mint. Julian the Apostate or Julian the Philosopher advocated a return to the pre-Christian pagan gods of the Roman empire.
Julian II, AD 355-363. Heraclea mint. Julian the Apostate or Julian the Philosopher advocated a return to the pre-Christian pagan gods of the Roman empire. He was particularly interested in Mysterical Religion and believed to have been initiated into the Mithraic Cult. His coins would have paid the salary of the Frankish feoderati in the mid-4th century.Photo: Edgar Lowen

It is easily seen [2] that some of the names on these two lists in all likelihood refer to the same person. Less obvious, however, is the fact that a number of these persons probably were related. The basis for such an assumption is the fact that Germanic warrior names more often than not were constructed as double names, with two elements one of which would traditionally signify kinship. Thus it is highly likely that Genobaudes, Malobaudes and Teutobaudes were somehow closely related.

Looking further into the list another feature becomes obvious: the use of Mero- as first element in one case, and the use of the same lexem (-meres) as second element in three cases. Out of 11 distinct individuals, four were thus fitted with names varying the first lexem in the “Merovingians”, which also figured in the name Meroveus or rather Merovech, featuring in the fable of Fredegar, written 350–400 years later and quoted above . According to Gregory of Tours, this Merowech († c. 453/457) was the father of Childeric known from his excavated tomb in Tournais [3].

Studying Germanic names have yielded a clear expression of the semantic fields [4], which the lexemes of such names belonged to: mythology, cults, militia, social categories, tribes or people, property, law, cultural practice, personal attributes or animals.

Even though it is generally believed that knowledge about these semantic fields receded to make room for a new practice of name-giving based on kinship, it might still yield some insight to know the etymology of the præfix/suffix of Mero-/-meres.

Usually the meaning is said to derive from the adjectives mereis (goth) and māri (ahd) denoting famed. However, as all adjectives in German ends with a –ja, the construction would have been “Merivech” and not “Merovech”. The same argument applies to another explanation, which tells us that the lexem stems from Marei (got) or meri (ahd) both denoting “sea”. The last suggestion, that the name derives from the Dutch river Merwede can also be discounted for linguistic reasons.

The most reasonable explanation is that its roots may be traced in another way from

1) idg. *mēruks > germ. *mǣruhz > westgerm./frank. *mǣru/oh.
2) idg. *merus > germ. *mǣruz > westgerm./frank. *mǣru/o.

The meaning of this word is a “ruminant”, that is a “bull” or “ox”. Merovech would thus mean the hallowed or sainted “bull” or rather: the person consecrated to the holy bull. Mero-w(ech)-ingi would thus mean the people following the man, consecrated to or by the holy bull. [5]

The Cult of Mithras

Tauroctony form Sarrebourg. Painstakingly assebled from the fragments. Source: Wikipedia
Tauroctony form Sarrebourg. Painstakingly assebled from the fragments. Source: Wikipedia

This of course immediately draws the attention to a specific characteristic of the social milieu among German mercenaries in the Roman army: the well-established Mithras-cult, which flourished along the Rhine in the 4th century.

Mithraism was a mystery religion centered around the long-haired god Mithras, who – together with Sol Invictus – was worshipped in the 1st – 4th centuries. This cult was inspired by Persian worship but seems to have developed separately, especially in milieus connected with the Roman army.

Worshippers of Mithras operated a complex system of initiations leading through seven levels, during which the newcomer slowly rose, occasionally reaching the final status of “Pater”, signified by the symbols of a libation bowl, a rod, a Phrygian cap and what is generally described as a sickle, but which in a mosaic from Ostia looks much more like a bent sword (the sickle actually belongs to the fifth level). It appears that as “Pater” you were not only leading the local mithraeum, but also in charge of the sacrifices (the bowl), ruling by law (the rod), deputy of the God (wearing his headdress) and – in all probability – posing as invincible by having been resurrected through a ritual mimicking the death by sword. A sword, which was probably used in such a ritual may have been found at the Mithraeum in Riegel. The form of the bent sword found at Riegel suggests that “it could have been placed on someone to make it appear as though they had been run through with it”. [6]

It follows that at the centre was the participation in inner mysteries leading up to the ultimate sacrifice of a bull as a substitute for the initiated, followed by a communal feast of resurrection. The many sculptures and reliefs depicting these sacrifices always show Mithras killing a bull; in reality, however, this must have been very rare. A fine substitute seems to have been chickens. These rituals were played out in the numerous underground Mithraea or underground temples. Archaeological finds have easily identified these as they were often fitted out with sculptures or paintings showing the iconic scenes of the god being born form a rock, slaughtering the bull, and sharing the banquet with Sol Invictus (the sun).

The Mithraea also seem to have followed a specific architectural form with a long tri-partite aisle ending in a cave-like apse, where the main altar was located. Vats used for purification could be found outside in an antechamber. It is believed the carved relief sor sculptures of Mithras killing the bull, would have been lightened up by torches at the end of the ceremonies.

It has been estimated that there were perhaps 680 such underground temples or sanctuaries in Rome, some of which were located directly beneath the Christian churches, which came to supersede the cult in the 5th century (San Clemente and Santa Prisca). From the description above, it is understandable that Christian theologians claimed that the cult of Mithras was nothing but a devilish subversion of their own liturgies – purification, communal feasting, and resurrection. On the other hand, the main information we possess about the cult stems from these writings, which means that they may very well have been experienced quite differently by the participants.

It is generally believed that Mithraism petered out at the end of the 4th century. However, before this took place, the cult experienced a late revival. Thus, in AD 311 the dux of the new province of Noricum restored a decayed mithraeum in Virunum (Klagenfurt) and in AD 325 another mithraeum was constructed in Gimmeldingen near Neustadt, probably on a private property. It appears from the archaeological record that late Mithraeums were particularly densely located along the limes running along the lower and middle Rhine, the lively and economically appealing frontier between the Romans (Gauls) and the Germans (Franks), which attracted migrants, mercenaries (and refugees) from further east. In a study of 323 inscriptions it has been shown that 38% came from the military, 15% were freedmen and 27% were slaves. Of the last two groups app. a third were connected with imperial administration. Only one emperor has been directly connected with Mithraism, Commodus (AD161 – 192), but it should perhaps be mentioned that the emperor Aurelian made the Sol Invictus an official Roman cult in AD 274. It has been argued that the Mithraic clubs or congregations were especially important in a military context as they featured a strict hierarchical organisation, which mimicked society in general as well as the army; as Mithras also represented the ultimate resurrection, it may have appealed especially to soldiers looking for the confirmation of ultimate bliss in Elysium.

Somewhat later and in Rome, the cult enjoyed a distinct public revival during the heathen restoration between AD 360–80. This seems to have involved several members of the senatorial order, who it is generally believed fronted a backlash against the steadily more intolerant attitude among the Roman elite subscribing to the “new” official religion, Christianity. Finally, in an edict in 391, Mithraism was officially banned. Nevertheless, it is generally believed that the cult persisted for some time in the private underground sphere.

At this point, however, it is highly likely that the tight liturgical structure of Mithraic communities had been dissolved turning them into one of the many bland mystical societies surviving on the fringes of a world officially Christianised. One particular shift in the sacrificial practice seems to point in this direction. While inscriptions and donations of Mithraic sculptures, reliefs and other votive offerings (plus in all probability the financing of the feasts) seem to have been the main way of marking the attainments of a new level in the hierarchy up until around AD 250­–300, the most prominent votive gift in the 4th century became coins. These coin assemblages seems not to have been studied in detail, but it is probable that some will have featured the “Sol Invictus” on the reverse.

Witnessing to this is the remains of a Mithraeum excavated in Sarrebourg in Gallia Belgica. It has been dated by coins used between AD 254 and AD 395. This Mithraeum was built into a hillside in the late 2nd century outside a small town, which was abandoned in the 5th century, even though it lay near an important crossing of the river Sarre. The Mithraeum itself appears to have been destroyed at the end of the 4th century. At excavation a total of 274 coins were found, beginning with a series of Gallienus spread all over the floor together with the rubble of the statues and the smashed crookery. On top of the pedestal of the altar the skeleton of a chained man was found, covered by stone blocks. Apparently, the Mithraeum was destroyed at this point [7]. Whether Sarrebourg was destroyed by Christians or Germanic migrants and/or refugees taking part in the upheavals at the turn of the 5th century cannot be known.

However, we do know that Mithraeums along the Rhine seem to have been specifically targeted by the German marauders as part of the wars around AD 260, when the Romans abandoned the territories north of the Rhine. Part of this destruction consisted of the beheading of both people and sculptures as witnessed by the archaeological excavations at Krefeld, located exactly in the region, which later became the heartland of the early Frankish kingdom of Merovech and his son Childerich.

Naturally, it cannot be proven that the name of the Merovingians alluded to a group of German soldiers dedicated to follow a leader, who had been initiated into the full mysteries of the Mithraic cult. But it is an enticing thought that Merowech – he, who had been consecrated to the bull – was a descendant of a German war-leader who had been initiated into the cult of Mithras and given this – perhaps derogatory – nick-name by his compatriots. It is perhaps in this connection significant that although the name “Merowech” was used occasionally by the future Merovingian kings, it did not figure high up on the list when they named their sons [8].

Long-Haired kings

Commodus as Hercules. Museo Capitolini. Source: Wikipedia
Commodus as Hercules. Museo Capitolini. Source: Wikipedia

One of the peculiar characteristics of hair is that it continues to grow after death. Thus, when Mithras and Sol Invictus are always portrayed with long flowing and curly hair, it is highly likely that this was not just an iconographic relic of the eastern origin of the cult. It is more likely the long hair was kept to distinguish its members from the adherents to the mysteries of Isis, who were obliged to shear their scalp (which was experienced as especially denigrating for both Romans and Germans). However, the long – and still growing – hair may also have been especially attractive for soldiers on the look-out for not only survival but also resurrection and external life. This is the exact “religious product”, which the Cult of Mithras promised. Perhaps the adherents of Mithras were simply known as the long-haired?

One fascinating portrait of a Roman emperor may show us what they looked like. The Bust of Commodus shows the man with long flowing curls wearing a stuffed lion cranium on his head with the skin and paws draped around his shoulders. There is no doubt that we should understand Commodus as posing here as Hercules. The emperor was known to roleplaying as this god in the arenas, and here we see him in all his godly garb before embarking on one of his killing sprees clobbering people or animals to their dead. Hercules apart, it is nevertheless important to also note that the globe on which the emperor “sits” features the zodiacal signs of the Taurus, the Capricorn and the Scorpio – all associated with the Mithraic cult. As mentioned above, Commodus was known to be involved with Mithraism and his long hair seems sculpted to fit the role of Mithras as well as Hercules.

Now, to be longhaired was of course not a unique feature of members of the Mithraic military clubs. It is well known that the Germanic warriors (as opposed to their slaves or underlings) sported long, and probably well kept hair, which might even have been coloured red by what the Romans called “Chattic” or “Batavian” soap. Numerous finds of combs and pins in the furnished graves from the 5th and 6th centuries attests to this as does ethnographies like those of Tacitus, Ammianus Marcellinus and others [9].

Detail of the reconstructed jewellery from the grave of Childeric, found in Tournais. Source: RGZM 2015
Detail of the reconstructed jewellery from the grave of Childeric, found in Tournais. Source: RGZM 2015

It is perhaps permissible to speculate that one of the features of the Mithraic Cult, which appealed especially to German foederati trying to be integrated into the wider Roman army, was the long hair sported by the adherents; and thus permissible to be kept in a milieu otherwise culturally despising this habitus.

So here they are, the Franks: German foederati in the 4th and 5th centuries known as members of the Mithraic cults, and following their “Pater” aka the leader posing withhis long hair while busily developing a special set of symbols invoking steers and bulls.

One significant result of that is perhaps the famous bull, which was found in the grave of Childeric in 17th century Tournai. Now disappeared, it probably measured app. 3,4 cm and was made of hollow gold with inlaid garnets. Presumably used as a buckle on a sword belt, it may have been pared with the famous bees recalling the ancient myth that bees came from dead oxen cadavers. Another important piece of jewellery, signifying the continued linkage between the steers and the Merovingians is the belt from the grave of Queen Arnegunde (c. 1515/20 – 580), which sports at least three reliefs of steers. Finally, in the royal graves beneath the Cathedral in Cologne was found a strap end with yet another a schematic rendering of a steer.

The belt of Arnegunde with arrows pinpointing the heads of bulls. Source: Pinterest
The belt of Arnegunde with arrows pinpointing the heads of bulls. Source: Pinterest

A Royal Bull?

In another famous story about the Merovingians, we learn that in the end the last king had nothing else to do but to sit on his throne with his hair and beard uncut; and when he travelled about, it was on “a cart that was pulled by yoked oxen and led, as happens in the countryside, by a herdsman to wherever he needed to go. In this way he used to go to the palace and so also to the public assembly of his people, which was held annually for the good of the kingdom, and in this manner he also returned home…“[10].

It is obvious that when Einhard was writing  in AD 820 – 30 these old-fashioned carriages were considered of no other use than for symbolic reasons (much like the atavistic relics of the golden coaches used by 21st century royalty parading through their capitals at weddings and jubilees). According to Einhard, the modern way would of course be to either ride a horse or be transported in a carriage or cart drawn by horses, which had been fitted out with the new and modern horse collars. These advanced harnesses allowed for horses to use their superior capabilities for traction; yoked, they had been a pure substitute for an ox in the 6th century, when the Merovingian kings symbolically elaborated their new royal status.

Now, the point is that in the 5th and 6th century, when the idea of the itinerant kingdom was developed, the way forward for the royal entourage was not a horse-drawn carriage, but instead to have all the pick and pack transported on carts drawn by yoked oxen; as was also the practice of the local Roman governors in Late Antiquity [11].

David and Darius - Grey Cattle from Lorsch. Source: Freilichtlabor Lauresham
David and Darius – Grey Cattle from Lorsch. Source: Freilichtlabor Lauresham

It is probably that which lies behind a curious grading of the fines incurred by the thefts of different kinds of bulls in the Salic Laws [12]. Here we learn in §3,9 that the theft of a two-year-old bull would incur a fine of 35 solidii. More serious was the theft of the bull, which served a herd. This cost 45 solidii (§ III,8). (If the bull served the herds of three hamlets, the price was probably triple that, see § III,10.) However, the most valuable animal was a so-called royal bull, which cost 90 solidii to steal (§ III,11). Curiously enough, this “royal bull” is called the same in Frankish as the bull, which “reigns” over the herd of the hamlet (chamicheto or variations thereof, literally the “leader of the home”). Why the steeper price? Originally this has been explained by naming it an error of calculation [13]. However, a careful reading reveals the difference. In the first case (§ III,8) the animal is said to be not yet yoked; by which we can infer that the bull, which costs double was exactly that: yoked. A quality, we may speculate, also made it available for renting or probably commandeering by the Merovingian kings moving their households and treasures from place to place. Would one use a yoked bull to pull a cart and not a gelded ox? At least we hear about the daughter of Deoteria that she was placed in a in a cart drawn by untamed bulls, which tipped her over a bridge at Verdun. Here she fell into the river and drowned. [14]

As a side remark it should be noted that there is no reason to believe that the regal bull was one set aside for sacrifice (and thus not for long-distance hauling). Such sacralised animals were apparently exclusively found among the pigs, of which we learn that sacrificial gelded boars were the most valuable compared to boars, which had bee set aside for sacrifice, but apparently not yet gelded (§ II,17).

Granted, the evidence for identifying the early Merovingians as members of the cult of Mithras is sparse. It all rests upon the philological identification of what is in a name plus the insistent way in which specific royal symbols – long hair and oxen – continued to play an iconic role in a world, where other and more traditional symbols might have seemed more obvious choices – for instance pigs, eagles, wolfs or bears.

However, it seems slightly less fantastic than the old fable of Fredegar’s, which this short essay quoted at the beginning.


[1] Fredegar, Chronik III, 9. 171Chronicarum quae dicuntur Fredegarii libri Quatuor. Ed. Bruno Krusch. MGH SS Rer. Mer., Hannover 1888, p. 95

[2] Die Namengebung bei den ältesten Frankenkönigen und im merowingischen Königshaus. Mit genealogischen Tafeln und Notizen
By Eugen Ewig. In: Francia – Forschungen zur westeuropäischen Geschichte (1991) Vol. 17, pp. 21 – 70

[3] “Some say that Merowech, the father of Childeric, was descended from Clodio”. Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, II.9. Translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Classics (1974), p. 125.

[4] Prinzipien germanischer Personennamengebung. By Stefan Sonderegger. Walter de Gruyter (1997) p. 14 ff.

[5] Merowech. By Fr. Schröder. In: Beiträge zur Geschichte der deutschen Sprache und Literatur (1974) Vol. 96, pp. 241

[6] Development, Decline and Demise: the Cult of Mithras ca. AD 270–430. By David Walsh. Thesis submitted for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy. Department of Classical and Archaeological Studies. School of European Culture and Languages. The University of Kent, February 2016, p. 104. The most recent discussion of the artefacts and symbols involved in the Mithraic cult can be found here.

[7] The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and his Mysteries. By Manfred Clauss. New York, Routledge (2000; German edition 1990), pp. 31–32.

[8] Die Namengebung bei den ältesten Frankenkönigen und im merowingischen Königshaus. Mit genealogischen Tafeln und Notizen
By Eugen Ewig. In: Francia – Forschungen zur westeuropäischen Geschichte (1991) Vol. 17, pp. 21 – 70

[9] For a fine overview of the literature, see: Telling the Difference: Signs of Ethnic Identity. By Walther Pohl: In: Strategies of Distinction: The Construction of the Ethnic Communities, 300-800 edited by Walter Pohl, Helmut Reimitz.

[10] Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne, I:1. From: Charlemagnes’ Courtier. The Complete Einhard. Ed. and translated by Paul Edward Dutton, p. 16 – 17

[11] A suggestion also made by M. Wallace-Hadrill in his review of A.H.M. Jones: The Later Roman Empire, In English Historical review (1965), Vol 80, pp. 785 -790. See Deconstructing the Merovingian Family. By Ian Wood. In: The Construction of Communities in the Early Middle Ages: Texts, Resources and Artefacts. Ed. by Richard Corradini, Maximilian Diesenberger and Helmut Reimitz, Brill 2003, p. 171

[12] The relevant text reads like this

  • 3,8 Si quis taurum furauerit, qui illum gregem regit nec umquam iunctus fuisset (qui fuerit adprobatum), mallobergo chariocheto hos est, MDCCC denarios, qui faciunt solidos XLV culpabilis iudicetur excepto capitale et dilatura. –
  • 3,9 Si binum taurum furaraverit, mallobergo trassilo, solidos XXXV culpabilis iudicetur.
  • 3,10 Si uero taurus ipse de tres uillas communes uaccas tenuerit, hoc est trespellius, qui eum furauerit, mallobergo chamicheto hoc est, MDCCC denarios qui faciunt (in triplum) solidos XLV (cui fuerit adprobatum) culpabilis iudecetur excepto capitale et dilatura.
  • 3,11 Si quis taurum regem furauerit, mallobergo cham(ic)heto, sunt denarii MMMDC qui faciunt solidos XC culpabilis iudicetur excepto capitale et dilatura. From: Leges Nationum Germanicarum. Edidit Societas Aperiendis Fontibus Rerum germanicarum. Tomi IV, Pars I: Pactus Legis Salicae. Ed. by Kalr August Eckhardt. Hannover 1952, pp. 31 – 32.

[13] Which it cannot be, as it seems meaningless that a simple error in the calculation of a fine would have been carried forward into the numerous manuscripts of a law obviously used as a judicial and not just an ethnographic text; (in which case the Salic Law would not have been copied and amended to the extent, which took place).

[14] Gregory of Tours, The History of the Franks, III.26. Translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Classics (1974)p. 185