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British Iron Age Tribal Names

Julian Ward-Davies

October 2018

Here is a list of all the known British Iron Age tribal names, together with translations of their names where possible.

The language of the Iron Age in Britain.
Almost all the names are examples of the Brittonic language, with some showing Irish and possibly Germanic influences. Brittonic, or Old British, eventually evolved into Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

Interpretation
The names can be interpreted in most cases with a knowledge of modern Welsh. It is as well to bear in mind that many of the names may have been used by people who were outsiders relative to the tribes concerned and in some cases certain of the the tribes may have used an entirely different name from the one recorded. However, on the other hand, it is known from inscriptions that many of the names were actually used by members of the tribes cited below. The Cornovii is a good example.

The sources of the names
Besides those recorded on inscriptions, tribal names are mentioned variously by the Greek geographer Ptolemy and by Julius Caesar in his book Commentaries on the Gallic War. Some of the names can be deduced from the names of their tribal capitals as given in the Antonine Itinerary.

Atrebates - (the) inhabitants
Belgae - swollen (Welsh bolg = belly) with anger people, or maybe they tended to have fat bellies
Brigantes - highlanders or noble people
Caereni - sheep people (ie shepherds)
Caledonii - possessing hard feet, (tough, sturdy people)
Cantiaci - people of the white cliffs (people of Kent)?
Carnonacae - ?
Carvetii - ?
Catuvellauni - better in battle people
Corieltauvi - ?
Corionototae - army tribe
Cornovii - people of the horn (-god, -animal or salt)

A detailed plan of the hill fort at Stonnall, undoubtedly a stronghold of the Cornovii. Its ancient Celtic name was still in local usage as late as the 18th century and was recorded as Hean Castell (cf modern Welsh hen gastell = old fort). The hill fort was protected by the high ground of Shire Oak Hill to the north and by the marshy area, Stonnall Gorse, to the south (cf modern Welsh y gors = the marsh).

Creones - ?
Damnonii - ?
Decantae - good people, or ten (sub-tribes?)
Deceangli - fair (haired?) Angles(!)
Demetae - sheep people (shepherds)
Dobunni - victorious ones
Dumnonii - dark, gloomy (place or people)

The tribes of southern Britain according to Ptolemy. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Durotriges - water (coastal) people
Epidii - horse people (affinities to the animal or a horse god)
Gangani - ? (in Ireland and the Llŷn Peninsula)
Iceni - no consensus, but I think it is cognate with Welsh geni = birth, ie 'those who are born together'
Lopocares - ? possibly incorporating 'army'
Lugi - ?
Novantae - ? seems to incorporate the element new, possibly mentioned in Y Gododdin (mediaeval Welsh literature)
Ordovices - hammer people?

Ptolemy's map of Great Britain and Ireland. Image: The National Library of Wales

Parisii - cauldron users, fighters, commanders - take your pick
Regnenses - the proud ones
Selgovae - the hunters
Setantii - no consensus, but a sept or sub-tribe of the Brigantes possibly
Silures - seed people, ie people of a common blood-stock
Smertae - providers or purveyors?
Taexali - ?
Textoverdi - addicted to texting only truthful messages (ok just kidding with that one)
Trinovantes - newcomers? vigorous people?
Vacomagi - ?
Venicones - hunters with white hounds or kindred hounds, Maen Gwyngwn (area of white hounds), a region mentioned in Y Gododdin
Votadini - ? became Gododdin mentioned in early Welsh literature

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© Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons 2018

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