Beacons of Nordfriesland
Nordfriesland or North Frisia. The western coast and islands of region Schleswig. Stretching from the Danish town Tønder in the north, to the river Eider in the south. A broad strip of land by the sea, together with fifteen islands and Hallig-islands in front of it. It is here where a specific celebration of bonfires takes place on 21 February every year. There is a lot of speculation about the (pagan) origin why the people of Nordfriesland started to make these big fires. The celebration is called Biikebrånen or Biikin, both in North-Frisian language. Or, Biikebrennen in Low-Saxon language. We shall use the word Biikin of the Fering speech spoken on island Föhr.
All the different names touches immediately upon one of the difficulties when you start to write something about Nordfriesland, namely its language and the many dialects which differ enormously. Sometimes even several sub-dialects on one island. It starts already with the name Nordfriesland. Depending on which North-Frisian sub-dialect you take, the region is called Nordfraschlönj, Noordfreeskluin, Nuurdfriislön, Nuurdfresklun, Nuardfresklun, nordfriislun or Nöördfreesklöön. This splintering over that many and very differing sub-dialects of the few thousand active North-Frisian speakers left to date, presents a huge challenge for the language to survive. Yes, its outlook is grim. The language is already extinct in the south of Kreis Nordfriesland, between the town of Husum and the river Eider. If interested in this topic, check out our page Language.
Back to the topic of this post: fire!
Biikin celebration takes place on the North-Frisian Wadden Sea islands, the Hallig islands, and the peninsula Eiderstedt. On the Wadden Sea islands of southern Denmark as well. Less on the mainland of Nordfriesland, though, but Biikin is gaining popularity there too.
Big stacks of wood are placed on beaches or elsewhere along the endless shores of Nordfriesland. The stacks are lit in the night of 21-22 of February. February 22 is the saint's day of Saint Peter, patron of fishermen and sailors among other. Traditionally, the Catholic feast-day of the Chair of Saint Peter is the start of the sailing season of the Frisians, already from the Middle Ages. The sailing season ended on the feast-day of Saint Nicholas in December. Different rituals exist, but the burning of straw puppets named Petermännchen 'little Peter men' is quite often practiced. According to some, the straw puppet or 'the Man' actually symbolizes the pope of Rome. Whatever it represents, this clearly explains also the origin of the annual event of Burning Man which takes place in the month August or September in the hot desert of the state Nevada in the USA.
(Pagan) Rituals - None other than Julius Caesar wrote in the first century about the Germanic ritual to make huge images called Simulacra. These big dolls or, indeed, giant Petermännchen made of willow were stuffed with living humans. After that, the giant doll was lit and the humans inside burned alive.
In the village Grou in province Friesland, and before also in the village Gees in province Drenthe, the tradition of Sint Piter exists. The name day of Sint Piter is on the 22 February. Today, Sint Piter arrives at Grou a few days earlier, but originally he arrived on the 21st, together with his help Hantsje Pik. He used to wear a long coat on which candy was attached. In the evening, Sint Piter would go from door to door, and ask if there were any naughty children to put in the sack to take with him. If not, children could take some candy from his coat. These days, Sint Piter’s appearance is similar to that of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas), which is a traditional in the Netherlands celebrated in the evening of 5 December.
Still, the origin of the North-Frisian fire celebration is unclear. We found three frequently given explanations.
The first is that it simply was to ward off evil ghosts and spirits.
The second explanation is, that it originally marked the beginning of the sailing season. We already referred to the Catholic feast-days. Specifically for Nordfriesland, it was the start of the sailing season of the whalers leaving for the cities of Amsterdam, Altona and Hamburg to embark on whaling ship from these ports. Read our post Happy Hunting Grounds of the Arctic to fully appreciate the involvement of Frisians, and especially the Nordfriesen, at the whaling. With big fires the loving women wanted to guide their men as long as possible, when they set off to sea.
A third and last explanation we could find, says it was to drive out the winter. This explanation is similar to the bonfire Meierblis, in local dialect meaning 'May Fire', on the Wadden Sea island Texel in the Netherlands. This event takes place on 30 April every year, to celebrate the transition from winter to summer.
But, maybe there is another, fourth, explanation possible. For this we take you back to early times.
We skip habitation during the Stone Age (3,000-2,500 BC) and the many megalith graves found on the Wadden Sea islands of Föhr and Sylt, at the coastal strip of Nordfriesland, and in the region Dithmarschen just south of Nordfriesland. Instead, we take a giant leap, all the way to Roman times.
Terps – Notice we use the word ‘terp’ (i.e. an artificial dwelling mound) and not the word ‘Warf(t)’ or ‘Wurt’ which are more commonly used in Germany. Nor do we use ‘værft’ used in Denmark, or ‘wierde’ in province Groningen in the Netherlands. Read our Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps to learn more about these settlement mounds, and the nearly thirty different names for it along the North Sea coast.
1. Roman and Migration periods
During the Roman Period, the coast of Nordfriesland was relatively densely populated. Habitation concentrated on the so-called geest lands. Geests are sandy and gravelly soils formed as glacial outwash plain (viz. moraines). The word geest derives from the Frisian word güst what means 'infertile' land. The geests were formed during the Saale glacial period. More precisely, settlements were located at the edge of geests near the fertile salt marshes. Especially, habitation existed on the islands Föhr, Sylt (Archsum), Amrum and Wiedingharde, and on parts of the peninsula Eiderstedt. Also, the salt marshes south of what is now Nordfriesland, region Dithmarschen, were quite densely populated in Roman times.
Eiderstedt – Peninsula Eiderstedt was formed much later, out of the islands Utholm, Westerhever, Everschop and Eiderstedt at the end of the Middle Ages.
Habitation on the marshes along the river Eider, started in the first and second century. These were initially Flachsiedlungs 'surface-level settlements'. Settlement was made possible because of a period of regression and a less energetic sea. The river Eider estuary was an important area for transport, and thus relevant for the regional economic system. Both on the north banks (the villages of Elisenhof, Tofting and Welt) and south banks (the villages of Hemmerwurth and Flehderwurth) of the river Eider, settlements existed. Soon, from the second and third centuries, the yards of these settlements had to be raised because of a sea level that was rising again. Tofting is a well known excavation anno 1948, where the terp or settlement mound was first raised to +1.85 meters above ordnance datum (MOD) in the first century, to gradually +4.08 MOD in the fifth century. Thus, in contrast to the tidal marshlands of region Ostfriesland and of the provinces Friesland and Groningen, where a terp culture existed already centuries before the Roman Period, this was not the case in Nordfriesland. Here, terps developed during the Late Roman Period.
In the fifth century, habitation discontinued in Nordfriesland. Like in the terp region of the Netherlands during the fourth century, here too the inconvenient truth for a while: 'you could only hear the seagulls cry'. A dramatic decline of population from ca. 400 until ca. 650. In the fifth century, the land was empty. From the mid sixth century onward, Nordfriesland was modestly re-populated. Despite these brave new inhabitants, it were merely a few, and population during seventh centuries continued to be modest in Nordfriesland. These immigrants are commonly regarded as Frisian (Majchczack 2022).
2. The first colonization wave: the Geestfriesen
From the eighth century onward, population in Nordfriesland increased, mainly because of settlers emigrating from southern Frisia. From which part of southern Frisia these colonists came exactly, is difficult to establish. Probably from the area between the river Weser and the river Ems. These immigrants settled mainly on the geests of the three islands Sylt, Amrum and Föhr. But also on parts of the salt marshes of island Föhr, the salt marshes of island Pellworm, in the Hallig Hooge area, and on the Mittelrücken 'central ridge' of peninsula Eiderstedt. Island Heligoland in the North Sea was colonized too, during this first migration phase. Lastly, settlements developed on the higher banks at the mouth of the river Eider. All settlements were so-called flat-settlements. So, no house podia or terps proper were built.
Looking at the parallels with grave goods of southern Frisia, the new settlers, or Geestfriesen, were people who were part of the Frisian culture. Also, many of the medieval silver coins found, are sceattas of the Frisian type. Read our post Porcupines bore U.S. bucks about this Frisian money and free trade. Of course, settlers from elsewhere than southern Frisia must not be ruled out. Together with probably a small original population and the southern Frisians, admixing into the Nordfriesen. From the eighth century on, Scandinavian influence increased, possibly because of permanent settlers from that region. Do not forget, throughout the seventh until the ninth centuries, the supra-regional trade of the Frisians was legendary. The wealthy trade might have attracted people from the wider region.
A well known idea is that Scandinavia's oldest town Ribe, in the southwest of Denmark, was established specifically to attract this rich Frisian trade. Probably Ribe was founded with Frisians involved around the year 700. Of the early-medieval coinage Frisian secattas dominate the finds. For more about the history of Ribe and the Frisian connection, see our post To the end where it all began: ribbon Ribe, and if you want to get a glimpse of the magnitude of the huge trade network, read the post mentioned earlier, Porcupines bore U.S. bucks.
A thing that receives little attention of scholars, is that this Frisian migration to the north took place amidst the turbulent Viking Age, and moreover, toward and very close to the heartland of the Danes. How can this be explained?
3. The second colonization wave: the Marschfriesen
From the eleventh century onward, peat soils of Nordfriesland are being exploited for the production of salt. This was already the case in the southern and western territories of Frisia, where the systematic extraction of salt from peat started a few centuries earlier, say in the ninth century. In the process, the Frisians released a huge carbon dioxide bomb that lay along the northwestern coast of Europe. Carbon dioxide trapped in the (former) near endless peatlands.
Climate Change - January 2017 the Democratic Republic of Congo hit the news because future palm-oil production would mean that big tropical forests with peaty swamps of ca. 150,000 square meters will disappear and shall release 30 billion tons of carbon. This was calculated by ecologists of Leads University. Roughly estimated, the peat areas of Frisia encompassed ca. 25,000 square meters. Thus 5 billion tons of carbon was unlocked and brought into the atmosphere, if you simply take the same ratio of the Congo basin peatland complex. That is without the cattle and massive dung production, part of Frisian culture for nearly 2,000 years too. Thank the Frisians for serious global warming. So, building dikes against the rising sea is actually their own problem.
During the High Middle Ages, the population of Nordfriesland further increased, despite the influence of the sea had become stronger from around 1000. And, at last, from the eleventh century onward, also terps were being built. Furthermore, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, besides terp construction, the construction of dikes took a flight too. Salt marshes which had grown naturally and silted up over the previous centuries, had become suitable for livestock and for permanent habitation. The so-called Marschfriesen moved in. From then on, these tidal marshlands were protected with dikes from the sea.
It is assumed that the second wave of colonists already possessed the knowledge how to exploit peatland, how to erect terps and how to built dikes. High-skilled migrant workers, you would say in today’s policy slang. This second wave of colonists in the eleventh century originated possibly mainly from the mouth of the river Ems.
Competing Jurisdictions - From the twelfth-century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus, we learn this new migration wave of mainly Ostfriesen 'East-Frisians' led to economic disputes between the so-called Geestfriesen (predominantly living on the coastal strip, mainland) on the one hand, and the so-called Marschfriesen or island-Frisians on the other. The first were bound to the laws of the Danes (i.e. lege Danica), the latter were bound to the laws of the Frisians (i.e. lege Frysonica). Therefore, both had different toll tariffs to pay when passing the narrow inlet Schlei. Furthermore, the Danish king granted the new Marschfriesen free use of the tidal marshlands against a yearly payment.
During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Nordfriesen ‘North-Frisians’ all together, were pulled into geopolitical quarrels between the Danish kings and the Holy Roman Empire over the control of Schleswig. Eventually, the Frisians came under the sphere of influence of the latter.
In the year 1362, the Saint Marecellus’ flood, also called Große Mandränke in German language or Grote Mandrenke in Low-Saxon language, meaning 'great drowning of men', radically and fundamentally reshaped much of Frisia, and that of Nordfriesland in particular. Regular big losses of live, land, livestock and of houses was something that was part of Frisian society and culture for centuries, Nordfriesland not excluded. Read our post Half a million deaths. A forgotten North Sea disaster... to give you an idea what living in this dangerous stretch of low-laying 'land' meant.
Nordfriesland from 200 AD till today
The Marecellus’ flood took much land, besides numerous of lives, and it was during this great flood the rich trading town Rungholt disappeared overnight into the sea forever. Read our post How a town drowned overnight. After the Nordfriesen had recovered from this disaster, the Burchardi flood in 1634, also called Zweite Große Mandränke, put everything to waste again. An estimated 8,000 to 15,000 people drowned that single night. The flood washed away most of the island Strand of which only the two islands Nordstrand and Pellworm, and the two Halligs Südfall and Nordstrandischmoor remain today.
4. Celebrating Biikin, its origin
What is there to celebrate with Biikin every night of 21-22 February, after you read the dramatic history of the Nordfriesen?
The word biik or biikin is related to the English word beacon, the German Bake, the Dutch baken, and lastly the Mid-Frisian beaken. So, clear what it means. A fire to let ships know where the coast is, and to navigate through or along it. Beacons are vital for navigating the Wadden Sea coast, with all the islands and gullies, and the lack of natural landmarks due to the flat country. Beacons were placed everywhere at the Wadden Sea and the adjacent shallow inland seas and bay. Maintenance and making sure the beacons were timely replaced when the course of gullies changed, cost money. Therefore, in the Early Modern Period skippers had to pay a tax called bakengeld 'beacon money'. Anyway, you will understand that beacons, together with such a violent sea history and dangerous coast, belong to the hard-core symbols of this water people.
When you think of the two waves of colonization emigrating from southern Frisia, as described above, combined with the lack of modern means of communication, these fires were their way to maintain contact with where the Nordfriesen originally came from. Not a beacon for the ships that sailed off, nor to ward off evil spirits. No, a beacon to stay in contact with their distant relatives. The relatives and the motherland these colonists had left behind when they emigrated for better opportunities to an area what would become Nordfriesland.
Following on from this, a more sophisticated explanation is that the practice of Biikin even dates back to the Migration Period, and testifies of the origin of the Frisian people. The Old-Frisian Hunsinger Law Code of the early fourteenth century, states the following:
Tha alle Fresa skipad weren, tha leweden hia, hoc hira sae rest thene londgong nome, thet hia ene pictunna bernde end tha otherum thermithe kethe, thet hia londgong nimen hede.
When all Frisians were shipped-in, then they promised, he who went ashore first, that he would light a barrel of pick to indicate to the others, that he had gone ashore.
So, maybe Biikin is part of a social memory of the Nordfriesen and their migration origin.
Note 1 - Read more about the legends of the North Sea peoples stemming from the Migration Period in our post We’ll drive our ships to new lands.
Note 2 - Another, cynical, bonfire in the Wadden Sea area, is called Holmes Bonfire. During the Second Dutch-Anglo War, the English burned down a merchant fleet of 170 vessels in August 1666. This happened in Strait Vlie near the island of Terschelling. It was Rear-Admiral Holmes who led the attack. Not too bon for the Republic.
Pointer Sisters, Fire (1978)
Bentschneider, A., Biikebrennen in North Frisia (2017)
Green, D.H. & Sigmund, F. (ed), The Continental Saxons. From the Migration Period to the Tenth Century. An Ethnographic Perspective (2003)
Holm, S., Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte des Walfangs der Nordfriesen (2003)
IJssennagger. N.L., Central because Liminal. Frisia in a Viking Age North Sea World (2017)
Langhans, V., Über den Ursprung der Nordfriesen (1879)
Majchczack, B.S., A new light on early medieval North Frisia: Harbours and trading sites on the islands of Föhr and Sylt (2022)
Meier, D., Küstenarchäologie – Coastal Archaeology (website)
Meier, D., Kühn, H.J. & Borger, G.J., Der Küstenatlas. Das schleswig-holsteinische Wattenmeer in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart (2013)
Munske, H.H. (ed), Handbuch des Friesischen – Handbook of Frisian Studies (2001); Århammer, N., Die herkunft der Nordfriesen und des Nordfriesischen, p. 531-537; Kühn, H.J., Archäologische Zeugnisse der Friesen in Nordfriesland, p. 499-502; Timmermann, U., Nordfriesische Ortsnamen, p. 366-380
Nissen, J., Rummelpott, Biikebrennen, Ringreiten: Über Traditionen und Brüche in Schleswig-Holstein (2019)
Schuyf, J., Heidense heiligdommen. Zichtbare sporen van een verloren verleden (2019)
Steensen, T., Die Friesen. Menschen am Meer (2020)
Tuuk, van der L., De eerste Gouden Eeuw. Handel en scheepvaart in de vroege middeleeuwen (2011)
Weiler, E., Tanz der Flammen (2011)