• Hans Faber

Beacons of Nordfriesland

Nordfriesland or North Frisia. The western coast and islands of the 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 with all islands in between. It is here where a specific celebration of bonfires takes place every year. But there is a lot of speculation about the origin why the people of Nordfriesland started to make big fires on the night of 21-22 February every year. 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 Frisian dialect Fering, spoken at the island Föhr.

This touches immediately upon one of the difficulties when you start to write about Nordfriesland, namely its language and the many dialects that differ enormously, sometimes even several sub-dialects on one island. It starts already with the name Nordfriesland. Depending which North-Frisian sub-dialect you take, it is called Nordfraschlönj, Noordfreeskluin, Nuurdfriislön, Nuurdfresklun, Nuardfresklun, nordfriislun, or Nöördfreesklöön. The splintering over so many and very differing sub-dialects of the mere 10,000 North-Frisian speakers that are left to date, presents a huge challenge for the language to survive. Yes, the outlook voor this Frisian language is very grim. The language is already extinct in the south of Landkreis Nordfriesland, between the town Husum and the River Eider. If interested in this topic, check out our web page Language.

Back to the topic of this blog post: fire!

The Biikin celebration takes place at the North-Frisian Wadden Sea islands, the Halligs and the peninsula Eiderstedt. And at the Wadden Sea islands of southern Denmark as well. Less on the mainland of Nordfriesland though, but gaining popularity. Big stacks of wood are placed on beaches, or elsewhere along the endless shores. The stacks are lit in the night of 21-22 February. February 22nd is the saint's day of Saint Peter, patron of fishermen and sailors. Different rituals exist but the burning of straw puppets named 'Petermännchen' 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 the origin of the annual event of Burning Man that takes place in the month August or September in the hot desert of the state Nevada.

Simulacra - None other than Julius Caesar wrote in the first century about the Germanic ritual to make huge images, 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.

Still, the origin of the North-Frisian fire celebration is unclear. Some say it was to ward off evil ghosts and spirits. Others say it originally marked the beginning of the sailing season. With big fires the loving women wanted to guide their men as long as possible when they set off to open sea. Especially of whalers leaving for the cities of Amsterdam and Hamburg to embark on whaling ship there. Read our post Happy Hunting Grounds of the Arctic to fully appreciate the involvement of the Nordfriesen at the whaling. Or, another explanation, it was just to drive out the winter. The last explanation might be stolen from the bonfire Meierblis (in local dialect meaning 'May Fire') on the Wadden Sea island Texel in the Netherlands. That takes place on April 30 every year to celebrate the transition from winter to summer.

But maybe there is another explanation possible too. For this we take you back to early times.

We skip the habitation during the Stone Age (3,000-2,500 BC) and the many megalith graves found at the islands of Föhr and Sylt, at the coastal strip of Nordfriesland and in the region of Dithmarschen just south of Nordfriesland as well. In stead we take a giant leap, all the way to the Roman times.

Notice we use the word 'terp' (artificial dwelling mound) and not the word 'Warf(t)' or 'Wurt' that are more commonly used in Germany or 'værft' used in Denmark or 'wierde'in province Groningen in the Netherlands. Read our Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps to understand why and to learn more about these dwelling mounds and the nearly thirty different names for it.

Roman and Migration periods

During the Roman Period the North-Frisian coast was relatively densely populated. Habitation concentrated on the geest soils. Geests are sandy and gravelly soils formed as glacial outwash plain (viz moraines). The geest soils were formed during the Saale glacial period. More precisely, settlements were located on 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 densely populated in Roman times.

Actually, the peninsula Eiderstedt was formed much later, out of the islands Utholm, Westerhever, Everschop and Eiderstedt at the end of the Middle Ages.

Habitation of the high marshes along the River Eider started at first and second centuries. These were initially surface-level settlements (Flachsiedlungs). Made possible because of a period of regression of the sea. The River Eider estuary was an important area for transport and thus relevant for the regional economic system. Both on the north (e.g. Elisenhof, Tofting and Welt) and south banks (e.g. 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 was first raised to +1.85 MOD (Meters above Ordnance Datum) in the first century, to gradually +4.08 MOD in the fifth century. Thus, in contrast to the salt-marsh areas of region Ostfriesland and of the Netherlands, where a terp culture existed already centuries before the Roman Period, this was not the case at the salt marshes of 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 during ca. 400 until ca. 650. In the fifth century, the land was empty. From the sixth century onward Nordfriesland was modestly re-populated. But despite these brave new inhabitants it were merely a few, and population during the sixth and seventh centuries continued to be very limited in Nordfriesland.

First Frisian colonization wave: the Geestfriesen

From the eighth century, the 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, but possibly from the area between the River Weser and the River Ems. They settled mainly at the geest soils of the three islands Sylt, Amrum and Föhr. But also at parts of the salt marshes of island Föhr, the salt marshes of island Pellworm, in the Hallig Hooge area, and at the central ridge (the so-called Mittelrücken) of peninsula Eiderstedt. The island Heligoland was colonized too during this first Frisian migration phase. Lastly, settlements developed at 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.

The new settlers, or Geestfriesen, were people that were part of the Frisian culture, looking at the parallels with grave goods of southern Frisia. Also many of the medieval silver coins found are pennies (also called sceattas) of the Frisian porcupine type. 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 Nortdfriesen. From the eighth century, Scandinavian influence increased, possibly because of permanent settlers from that region. Do not forget, through the seventh till 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 southwestern Denmark, was established specifically to attract this rich Frisian free-trade. That Ribe might have been founded with the Frisians involved, is plausible because of the name. Ribe is related to the Frisian word ripe which is of Frisian origin. But also because of the finds of mainly Frisian secattas of the so-called Wodan-type combined with the fact nearly no Frankish coins are represented (Tuuk, 2011). To get a glimpse of the magnitude of their huge trade network, read our blog post Porcupines bore U.S. bucks.

The thing that receives little attention of scholars is that this migration took place amidst the turbulent Viking Age, and toward and very close to the heartland of the Danes. How can this be explained?

Second Frisian colonization wave: the Marschfriesen

From the eleventh century, the North-Frisian peat soils 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 was laying along the northwestern coast of Europe. Carbon dioxide trapped in the near endless peat lands.

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 tonnes 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 tonnes 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 further increased in Nordfriesland, despite the influence of the sea had become stronger from around 1000. And, at last, from the eleventh century, also terps were being built. And in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, besides terp construction, the construction of dikes took a flight too. Salt marshes that had grown naturally over the previous centuries had become suitable for livestock and (thus) 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 Frisian colonists already possessed the knowledge how to exploit peat soils, how to erect terps and how to built dikes. High-skilled immigrant 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.

From the twelfth-century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus we know this new immigration wave of the mainly Ostfriesen even led to economic disputes between the so-called Geestfriesen, predominantly living on the coastal strip of the mainland, and the so-called Marschfriesen or island-Frisians. The first were bound to the laws of the Danes (lege Danica), the latter were bound to the laws of the Frisians (lege Frysonica). Therefore, both had different toll tariffs to pay when passing the narrow inlet the Schlei. Furthermore, the Danish king granted the new Marschfriesen free use of the marshlands against a yearly payment. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Nordfriesen all together were pulled into geopolitical quarrels between the Danish kings and the Holy Roman Empire over the control of Schleswig, eventually pulled into the sphere of influence of the latter.

In the year 1362 the Saint Marecellus’ flood (also Große Mandränke in German language or Grote Mandrenke in Low-Saxon, 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 blog post Half a million deaths. A forgotten North Sea disaster... to give you an idea what living in this dangerous stretch of 'land' meant. 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 blog post How a town drowned overnight. After the Nordfriesen had recovered from this disaster the Burchardi flood in 1634, also Zweite Große Mandränke, put everything to waste again. An estimated 8,000 to 15,000 people drowned that single night and the flood washed away the island Strand, of which today only the two islands Nordstrand and Pellworm and the two Halligs Südfall and Nordstrandischmoor remain.

Celebrating Biikin

What is there to celebrate every February 21st when you read the history of the Nordfriesen?

Anyway. The word Biik is related to the English word 'beacon', the German word 'Bake', the Dutch word baken and lastly the Mid-Frisian word beaken. So, clear what it means. A fire to let ships know where the coast is and to navigate through or along it. And you will understand that beacons with such a violent sea-history belong to the core symbols of this water people.

When you think of the two waves of colonization emigrating from southern Frisia combined with the lack of smartphones, these fires were their way to maintain contact with where they originally came from. Not a beacon for the ships that still had to sail off that season or to ward off evil spirits. No, a beacon for their distant relatives behind Blanke Hans, the rough North Sea. The relatives and the motherland these colonists had left behind when migrating for better opportunities to what would become: Nordfriesland.

Another, more sophisticated, explanation is that the practice of biikin even dates back to the Migration Period telling about the origin of the Frisian people. The Old-Frisian Hunsinger Law Code (H) of the early-fourteenth century says 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 that he who went ashore first,

would light a barrel of pick to indicate to the others that they had gone ashore.

So, maybe biikin is a social memory of the Nordfriesen of their migration origin whether to keep their link with their distant relatives they left behind or as a social memory of the migration history. Read more about the legends of the Migration Period of the peoples of the North Sea in our blog We'll drive our ships to new lands.

PS: We very much appreciate suggestions for reading on studies about Nordfriesland. Relatively much is written about region Ostfriesland and province Friesland, including how these areas inter-related. But somehow rarely connection is made between Nordfriesland and the other parts of political Frisia. The Codex Holmiensis -or Jyske Lov- of king Valdemar II of Denmark (1170-1241) had jurisdiction all over the peninsula of Jutland to the river Eider, including the red rock-island Heligoland. Thus Nordfriesland was by then part of the Danish kingdom. But more insight into the social, cultural, political and administrative ties and relations between Nordfriesland and the other parts of Frisia during the Middle Ages (especially the Early Middle Ages) is very welcome!

PS: Besides the Frisia Coast Trail check out also this website of Komoot with 20 day hikes in Nordfriesland.

Further reading:

Bentschneider, A., Biikebrennen in North Frisia, Beyond History Blog (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)

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. Blog site Neue Etage. Leben Wohnen Norden (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, Meerblog (2011)