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British Iron Age Tribal Names

Julian Ward-Davies

October 2018

Revising in Jan and Feb 2022

Note that this article is due a major revision and expansion in Feb 22.

Here is a list of 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.

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.

The letter 'v' should be pronounced as a 'u', or as the Welsh vowel 'w' (pr 'oo'), probably in all cases. All instances of 'c' should be pronounced as 'k'. The plural suffixes appear to have been Hellenised or Latinised. The recurring -ante- and -onii elements should be interpreted as 'men' and 'ones' respectively.

W: Welsh language; PC: Proto-Celtic; PIE: Proto-Indo-European; G: Germanic; AS: Anglo-Saxon.

Allobroges - (the) outsiders, W allan = out, bro = district. (Cf Combrogi > Cymru: Wales.)
Atrebates - (the) inhabitants.
Belgae - swollen (W bolg = belly) with anger people, or maybe they tended to have fat bellies. Devotees of the god Beli is another posibilty.
Brigantes - highlanders or noble people. PC brig = mountain.
Caereni - sheep people (ie shepherds).
Caledonii - tough, sturdy people, or possibly living in rocky places, or possibly cruel people (W caled = hard).
Cantiaci - people of the white cliffs (people of Kent)?
Carnonacae - dwellers among the cairns (W carn = cairn).
Carvetii - deer people (W carw = deer).
Catuvellauni - better in battle people (W cad = battle, gwell = better).
Corieltauvi - army tribe (PC korjo = army)
Corionototae - army tribe - PIE teuta = tribe, AS theod - people, race, nation. Cf G Deutsch, Dutch.
Cornovii - people of the horn (-god, -animal or salt). (W Cernyweg = Cornish language, Cernyw = Cornwall.)

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 W 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 W y gors = the marsh).

Creones - ?
Damnonii - ?
Decantae - fair haired/skinned people, or ten sub-tribes.(W deg = ten, teg = fair.)
Deceangli - fair (haired?) Angles(!)
Demetae - sheep people (shepherds).
Dobunni - victorious ones.This name seems to have been subject to metathesis: PC boudi = victory; cf Boudica = Vicoria, the Queen of the Iceni.
Dumnonii - dark, gloomy (place or people).

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

Durotriges - water (coastal) people. W dwr = water.
Epidii - horse people (affinities to the animal or a horse god).
Gangani - (in Ireland and the Llŷn Peninsula). W gan (prep) + geni = with + birth. See next item.
Iceni - no consensus, but I think it is cognate with W i (prep) + geni = birth, ie 'those who are born together' - PC ati-ganā = progeny.
Lopocares - ? possibly incorporating 'army'
Lugi - Possibly worshippers of the Celtic god Lugus, the deity of shoemakers. The tribe's speciality might have been the manufacture of shoes. Interestingly, Lleu was a shoemaker in Welsh mythology. Lug is also connected with oaths, lawmaking and the moon, so some or all of these factors may be involved.
Novantae - ? seems to incorporate the element new, possibly mentioned in Y Gododdin (mediaeval Welsh literature).
Ordovices - hammer people (W gordd = hammer.)

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. W helwyr = hunters. Note, several phonological sound shifts took place as Welsh evolved from Old British. For example, the initial sibilance of certain words shifted to a voicless exhalation of breath (technically known as a voiceless glottal fricative). Thus, an initial 's' became an initial 'h' in certain cases. Another example: Sabrina > Hafren (the River Severn).
Setantii - a sept or sub-tribe of the Brigantes possibly. Yet another possibility is the name simply means 'settlers' - PC sed = sit.
Silures - seed people, ie people of a common blood-stock - PC sīlo = seed.
Smertae - warriors who smeared themselves with the blood of their enemies, but devotees to the goddess Rosmerta has also been proposed.
Taexali - ?
Textoverdi - just claimants (presumably of the tribal lands) - PC text = obtain + wīro = truth.
Trinovantes - three sets of newcomers PC tri = three + newjo = new.
Vacomagi - cattle herders?
Venicones - hunters with white hounds or kindred hounds, Maen Gwyngwn (area of white hounds), a region mentioned in Y Gododdin.
Votadini - possibly foremost men, but a spelling of uort- (sic) might have been expected under those circumstances. Became Gododdin mentioned in early W literature.

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© Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons PGC 2018

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