What The Hell Is Goth, Anyway?

Interestingly, the Bible was actually translated into Gothic before it was translated into Latin. The Ancient Goths were an east Germanic tribe best known as the destroyers of the classical world. Other tribes such as the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Angles, Saxons, Franks, Vandals, Burgundians, and Thuringians were also active in conquering Roman territories. Gothic culture can best be gleaned from study of the Scandinavian and Icelandic people prior to 800 CE.

The Goths were a herder-hunter society and had their own pre-Christian religion, oral and written language, politics, art, and music. Interestingly, the Bible was actually translated into Gothic before it was translated into Latin.

Although the Goths were considered barbarians, many of our political freedoms today stem directly from them and neighboring Germanic tribes. These include democracy, the right to trial by jury, the concept of innocence until proven guilty, and women’s right to own property and wealth. The “civilized” opponents Goths battled afforded no such notions.

Before battle, ancient Goths chanted songs in praise of their ancestors while playing the cithara, a type of harp. In De Musica, Vidigoia, an official of Theoderic the Great, wrote, “For the fiercer tribes are pleased by the harsher modes (special scales and tunings) of the Goths, but the gentle tribes by moderate modes.”

Of the harsh Phrygian mode, Theoderic II wrote, “Phrygian arouses strife and inflames the will to anger. Theoderic ruled the Visigoths from 453-466 CE.

Art, architecture, and even music created in the Middle Ages in western and central Europe is typically referred to as “Gothic.” Gothic art emerged out of Romanesque art and was in use between the 1200s and the 1600s.

The term “Gothic art/architecture” was coined by Italian writers of the Renaissance who felt medieval architecture was deplorably ugly and preferred the classical Roman look prior to 500 CE, which was destroyed by the barbarian Goths.

“What is most ironic is that the word ‘Gothic’ is simultaneously used to describe that which is ‘barbaric’ and ‘primitive,’ on one hand, and expresses a high point in European culture on the other. Its very meaning can at once conjure religious formality as well as it describes the shadowy depths of human consciousness,” mused Zap Tripper, a musician and self-taught historian in St. Louis.

Most scholars know that Gothic art has nothing to do with the ancient Goths, but the term remains a standard in the study of art history. The term retained negative overtones until the 1800s, when a positive appreciation for Gothic architecture occurred. At that time, many other compatible artistic elements were coming in vogue, which are still appreciated by goths today.

“The term Gothic is also reminiscent of that style of literary fiction prevalent in the late 18th and early 19th centuries which emphasized the grotesque, the mysterious, and the desolate. Some 20th century films and eventually musical styles echoed this artistic formula that endow significance to the dark side of the human psyche,” Tripper said.

Surprised? Even more surprising is that today’s “goth” usually knows nothing about the Gothic tribes of heathen Germania, although some have a fondness for the Gothic art of the Middle Ages, and many relate to the poetry and fashions of the Victorian era.

The modern goth sprang from the roots of a musical phenomenon which came out of the punk movement in the late 1970s and has enjoyed very limited commercial chart success in the music industry from the 1980s to the present. But they do know what they like and do not like, and they are not afraid to show it or to have their opinions known to the world.

“To me, gothic is a term to describe a style of music, dress, and lifestyle. It’s the dark side of life. A term that stemmed from punks that wanted their music darker and had a darker way of dressing about them…a movement which gave birth to bands like Bauhaus in the late ’70s. Nowadays, the term encompasses many different styles as it has grown over the years,” explains Rick Shaddix, a goth DJ in Urbana, Illinois.

Most people who are described as goth today share an appetite for freedom in creative expression, dark music, and dark attire, and a taste for subversive as opposed to mainstream elements in popular culture.

“To me, gothic means embracing the darker aspects of life and existence. More visually, ‘dressing’ for the occasion can be anything from period-influenced dress to cyber/vinyl attire. Music, of course is a dominant influence in all of this. I have always been an ‘artsy,’ creative type personally and never thought that I truly belonged in mainstream society. I am also very dark and depressive in nature, so ‘goth seemed to be the closest subculture that I felt that I could identify with philosophically. The music bridged the gap the most, being that most of the contents (lyrically) were subjects that I felt that I could relate to. I also enjoy costume and dress. I feel as though I can be as creative and unrestrained as I want to be and be accepted regardless, in this subculture,” explained Ninaz Salour, a fixture on the local goth scene.

So what defines an individual as “goth”? “An interest in the minor scale of life. If you could put life into a minor key, that would be goth,” said local goth DJ Jonathon Grimm.

Sometimes definitions are made for the individual, too. “I never considered myself goth. But when I moved to the city, people characterized me as such. I got typecast, then went out to some events and realized that I liked the people a lot. Now I am ‘the cook.’ I like to cook, so I make food for some of the events,” explained Deborah Hyde.

This sense of community is prized by many locals on the scene. Thomas Park said, “It was cool to see what happened when a young woman recently asked her goth associates what to do about an infected piercing—literally dozens of helpful people stepped forward with advice. These were nice people!”

Echoing that sentiment, Marian VanTassel explained, “I appreciate that we have a community outside of the club scene. We communicate whether we go out or not. It is like ‘six degreees of separation’—someone always knows someone who knows someone else you know.”

“I love the friendliness and camraderie! People are so willing to help newcomers,” agreed Vardi.

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