Will the real Wildlings please stand up?
Think of the Wildlings or Free Folk north of the wall and the immediate analogy which comes to mind are the Pict barbarians living North of Hadrians Wall in what is now Scotland. This is an obvious parallel what with the wall and the Picts being hairy barbarians with blue tattoos and that is what I thought as I worked my way through the Free Folk army I've been painting for a regular customer.
However as I painted I began to think through other possibilities trying to meld the fluff, the miniatures and the History together as George Martin has done.
Public Health Warning - I am an expert in absolutely nothing just a general reader of History and Archaeology. I do have a degree in those subjects but that was 30 years ago.....
The first alternative to the Picts were the ancient Germanic peoples who famously wiped out 3 Roman Legions in the Teutoburger Wald in 9 AD, putting a fairly definite full stop to widescale Roman expansion Eastwards into Germany. In fact this is when the the German defences or Limes Germanicus were started and thence built upon by successive Roman Bran the Builder Emperors until the mid 3rd century AD. These defences were massive stretching 350 miles and manned with 60 full size forts and 900 watch towers! This puts Hadrian's Wall in the UK very much into the shade at a mere 75ish miles. Towards the end of the first century the Romans did again invade Germania around what is now Baden as this bulged into the Romanised areas in a dangerous salient. By cutting the salient they were able to shorten the defences considerably.
So we have a Bran sized wall but what of the Wildlings, were they Free Folk living off the land in egalitarian societies? First surprise for me is that the people of Germania were largely not Germanic as we think today. Most of Germania was culturally very similar to Gaul and was a distinctly Celtic culture. Near the Baltic were the people we think of as Germans with a different culture and language. I absolutely didn't know this and thought Arminius and his people were your stereotypical Germanic Roman killing nightmares. Instead it appears that both Roman writers and archaeology describe basically Celtic beliefs and rituals with just different names for similar Gods and spirits.
If we assume they were Celtic as per the Gauls then they were already a stratified society with Slaves and tribal Kings and possibly a bit too structured for the Free Folk of Game of Thrones. I feel the Free Folk are too egalitarian and anarchic to fit the bill as Germania Free Folk.
On the other hand what we do know about the end of the wall on the Rhine fits closely with the end of the Wall in Westeros. During the 3rd century AD the Germanic tribes starting in the East started hurrying westward en masse running from the dreaded White Walkers...er The Huns! These head deforming barbarians were apparently beyond the pale (see later!) even for Germanic barbarians who were pushing up against the Limes and clearly passing through the wall in numbers. Once again showing the absolute 'effectiveness' of walls for keeping out people who really want to get in.... The Romans realising the wall was not going to hold decided instead to invite these migrants inside the wall on condition they became a bit Roman and served as Foederati - troops in the Roman forces who would help keep out the real bad boys - The Huns. This wasnt hugely popular with many Romans but did work for a while. Sound familiar?
Anyway eventually even the foederati manned wall and territories failed in front of the Huns and the tribes they drove in Thralldom before them (Zombies anyone?). The Western Empire was doomed.
So are the Free Folk Germanic? On the one hand they lived on the other side of massive defences and eventually were invited inside to defend against the greater enemy. On the other hand they were a bit too stratified and hierarchical to represent the Free Folk properly. In addition I havent read anything about a shape-shifting tradition and they were well into the Iron Age by the time of contact with the Romans.
Candidate two - The Pre Christian Irish. In arguing a case for the Pre Christian Irish for being a model for the Free Folk I feel they are almost the opposite case to the Germania case as their society and beliefs are much closer to those of the Free Folk but they dont have a wall. Later on there is a soet of wall after the Anglo Norman conquest of the area around dublin - The Pale beyond which were the wildling Irish but that is 500 years after Pre Christian Ireland ends.
So no wall.
And no coming through the wall driven by White Walkers.
So what makes them a candidate for Free Folk? Well before being Christianised many historians believe Ireland was one of the most Egalitarian societies in the world. This belief is based on the widespread acceptance of an ancient law code called the Fenechas or Law of the Free men. This was also known as Brehonic law I believe as it was administered through Brehons who learned the laws by rote and were judges across the Island. Women could be judges and women had great independence, could own property and keep it during marriage and after divorce. Men could correct their wives by striking but if any mark was left could be taken to court and fined the original bride price. All men were subject to the common laws even warriors and kings. In fact punishments for 'crimes' were greater the higher up the social scale.
To me this sounds more in line with Free Folk ideas. There was stratification in society but little slave holding and all men were considered warriors and some women as well according to the story of Queen Mebd! Spear wives are a thing. Additionally as the land was so poor that although land was 'owned' it was worked in common as few areas were productive enough for one owner to cultivate.
In fact the early Christian church in Ireland re wrote the Behonic code as the Senchas Mar to be more in line with Christian Hierarchical concepts of society because they openly felt that there was too much egalitarianism in Ireland.
Lastly on the social political front there seems to have been no High King in Ireland to whom lesser kings paid allegiance. The High King idea personified by Brian Boru developed post Christianity, probably in response to the Viking invasions, so again no hereditary monarchy as per the Free Folk.
What else makes the Irish candidates as the Free Folk? Giants! Everybody knows the story of Finn McCool and the Giants causeway and most have heard of the Fomorians, a race of malevolent Giants.
These are the baddies in contrast to the Tuatha de Danaan who are the good gods of ancient Ireland. Giants then are real beings in Pre Christian Ireland. Similarly Shape changers called Puca exist, able to inhabit the forms of men or animals and even sometimes invisible.
Less convincing is the evidence for Rattleshirt and his skull/bone taking with the only reference ive come across in an admittedly cursory search being some Neolithic skull smashing from 2000BC ish. So there was a cult of bone during the Stone Age which fits with the Cave Dweller Savages box with their Neolithic technology but less so with the general Behonic society.
Finally on the subject of technology the Free Folk are way behind even the Starks (see earlier Blog). They appear to have literally just entered the Bronze Age whilst the Lannisters are going for the Renaissance! Weapons are largely stone - which i paint as a dark green Flint and even just large chunks of bone. While I find this a bit unrealistic ( but am happy with dragons apparently! ) It provides a good sense of cultural identity and sort of fits with the Ireland theory as unlike the rest of Europe the Bronze age was still going strong up to about 600 BC whereas it was ending about 1100 BC elsewhere!
There we have it then, two candidates for the Wildlings. The wall busting Germans fleeing from the Huns or the egalitarian Pre Christian Irish with Giants and Shape-Shifters, Spear wives and bone smashing savages? In reality I suspect its a combination of both with some Pictish elements thrown in for good measure.