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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Burn Beacons Burn. A Coastal Inferno - Nordfriesland



Nordfriesland or North Frisia. The western coast and islands of the region of Schleswig. Stretching from the Danish town Tønder in the north to the River Eider in the south, it is 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 of 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 the island of Föhr.


All the different names of the celebration touch immediately upon one of the difficulties when you start to write something about the region of 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 only few thousand active North-Frisian speakers left to date, presents a huge challenge for the survival of the language. Yes, the outlook of the North-Frisian language is grim. The language is already extinct in the south of Landkreis 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!


Biike celebrations take place on the North Frisian Wadden Sea islands, the Hallig islands, and on the peninsula Eiderstedt. They also occur on the Wadden Sea islands of southern Denmark. It is less common on the mainland of Nordfriesland, but Biike celebrations are gaining popularity there too.


Big stacks of wood are placed on beaches or elsewhere along the endless shores of Nordfriesland. The stacks are lit on the night of February 21-22. February 22 is the feast day of Saint Peter, patron of fishermen and sailors, among others. Traditionally, the Catholic feast day of Saint Peter marks the start of the sailing season for Frisian skippers and sailors, dating back to the Middle Ages. The sailing season ended on the feast day of Saint Nicholas in the first week of 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 der Mann actually symbolizes the Pope in Rome. Whatever it represents, this clearly also explains the origin of the annual event of Burning Man, which takes place in August or September in the hot desert of the state of 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 of Grou in the province of Friesland, and before also in the village of Gees in the province of Drenthe, the tradition of Sint Piter exists. The name day of Sint Piter is on the February 22. Today, Sint Piter arrives at Grou a few days earlier, but originally he arrived on the 21st, together with his helper 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 into 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 tradition in the Netherlands celebrated on the evening of 5th December.

 

Still, the origin of the North-Frisian fire celebration is unclear. We found three frequently given explanations.


The first explanation is, that the fires simply were to ward off evil ghosts and spirits.


The second explanation is that the fires 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 for the whalers leaving for the cities of Amsterdam, Altona, and Hamburg to embark on whaling ships departing from these major whaling ports. Read our post Happy Hunting Grounds of the Arctic to fully appreciate the involvement of the Frisians, and especially the Nordfriesen, in 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 the fires were 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 April 30 every year, to celebrate the transition from winter to summer.


A fourth explanation is given in a Frisian saga which tells that the origin of these fires is the celebration of Wodan and bringing an offer to it. Men would dance with their wife or bride around the fires. The day after, on February 22, the men would set sail. For long preachers had tried to banish this practice, but late in the nineteenth century older people still had a memory of these rituals (Muuß 1933).


Maybe there is another, fifth explanation possible. For this we take the reader back to ancient times.


We skip habitation during the Stone Age (3,000-2,500 BC) and the many megalithic graves found on the Wadden Sea islands of Föhr and Sylt, along the coastal zone of Nordfriesland, and in the Saxon region of Dithmarschen just south of Nordfriesland. Instead, we take a giant leap. All the way to the Roman period.


 

Terps - Notice we use the word 'terp' (i.e. an artificial settlement mound) and not the word 'Warf(t)' or 'Wurt(h)' which is more commonly used in the north of Germany. Nor do we use the word 'værft' used in Denmark, or 'wierde' in the province of 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 southern North Sea coast.

 

1. Roman and Great Migration periods

During the Roman period, the coast of Nordfriesland was relatively densely populated. Habitation concentrated on the so-called geests. Geests are sandy and gravelly soils formed as glacial outwash plain (viz. moraines). The word geest derives from the Frisian word güst which 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 of Föhr, Sylt (Archsum), Amrum, and Wiedingharde, and on parts of the Eiderstedt peninsula. Also, the salt marshes south of what is Nordfriesland today, the region of Dithmarschen, were quite densely populated during the Roman period.


 

Eiderstedt - The Eiderstedt peninsula was formed much later, out of the islands Utholm, Westerhever, Everschop and Eiderstedt at the end of the Middle Ages and the early modern period. It were the Dutch who were largely responsible for this. Check our blog post A Croaking Ode to the Haubarg by the Eiderstedter Nachtigall for more.

 

Habitation on the marshes at the mouth of the River Eider started in the first and second centuries. These were initially Flachsiedlungs 'surface-level settlements'. Settlement became possible because of a period of regression and a less energetic Wadden Sea. The estuary of the River Eider was an important area for transport and trade, and thus relevant for the regional economic system. Both on the north banks (i.e. villages Elisenhof, Tofting, and Welt) and south banks (i.e. villages Hemmerwurth and Flehderwurth) of the River Eider, settlements existed. Soon, from the second and third centuries onward, the yards of these settlements had to be raised because of a sea level that was rising again. A well-known excavation is that of Tofting in the year 1948, where the terp was initially raised to +1.85 meters above ordnance datum (MOD) in the first century, to gradually +4.08 MOD in the fifth century. This is in contrast to the tidal marshlands of the region of Ostfriesland and the provinces of Friesland and Groningen, where a terp culture existed centuries before the arrival of the Romans. In the region of Nordfriesland, terps only developed during the Late Roman period.


In the fifth century, habitation discontinued in the region of 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. 550. In the fifth century, the land was nearly empty. From the mid-sixth century onward, Nordfriesland was modestly repopulated. Despite these brave new inhabitants, there were merely a few, and the population during the seventh century continued to be modest in the region of Nordfriesland. These immigrants are commonly regarded as Frisian (Majchczack 2022).


2. The first colonization wave: the Geestfriesen

From the eighth century onward, population in the region of Nordfriesland increased, mainly thanks to 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 the island of Föhr, the salt marshes of the island of Pellworm, in the Hallig-islands area, and on the Mittelrücken 'central ridge' of the Eiderstedt peninsula. The island of Heligoland at 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 material culture, archaeological research sees parallels with grave goods of southern Frisia. Therefore, 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, they admixed into what became the Nordfriesen. From the eighth century onward, Scandinavian influence increased, possibly because of permanent settlers from that 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 sceattas 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.


A thing that receives little attention from historians is that this Frisian emigration 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, the peat soils in the region of Nordfriesland have been commercially exploited for the production of salt. This was already the case in the southern and western territories of Frisia, where systematic extraction of salt from peat started a few centuries earlier, say in the ninth century. In the process, the Frisians unlocked a huge carbon dioxide bomb into the atmosphere that lay buried for millennia along the north-western coast of Europe. Carbon dioxide trapped in the (former) near-endless peatlands.

 

Global Warming, an old story - In 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 approximately 150,000 square meters will disappear and shall release 30 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere. This was calculated by ecologists at Leeds University. Roughly estimated, the peat areas of Frisia encompassed approximately 25,000 square meters. Thus, 5 billion tons of carbon were 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 dairy culture for more than 2,000 years. Thank the Frisians for serious global warming! So, building dykes against the rising sea is actually their own problem.

 

During the High Middle Ages, the population of Nordfriesland increased further, despite the influence of the sea had become stronger from around the year 1000. And, at last, from the eleventh century onward, also terps were being built. In addition, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, besides terp being raised, the construction of dykes 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 dykes from the sea.


It is assumed that the second wave of colonists already possessed the knowledge of how to exploit peatland, how to erect terps, and how to build dykes. High-skilled migrant workers, you would say in today's policy slang. This second wave of colonists in the eleventh century originated mainly from the mouth of the River Ems.


From the twelfth-century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus, we learn that the new migration wave of mainly Ostfriesen, or East-Frisians, led to economic disputes between the so-called Geestfriesen predominantly living on the coastal strip on the mainland, on the one hand, and the so-called Marschfriesen or island-Frisians on the other hand. The Geestfriesen were bound to the leges Danica 'laws of the Danes', while the Marschfriesen were bound to the leges Frysonica 'laws of the Frisians'. Therefore, both had different toll tariffs to pay when passing the narrow Schlei inlet. Furthermore, the Danish king granted the Marschfriesen free use of the tidal marshlands against a yearly payment.


In the year 1362, the Saint Marecellus’ flood, also called the Große Mandränke in the German language, or the Grote Mandrenke in the Low-Saxon language, all meaning 'great drowning of men', radically and fundamentally reshaped much of Frisia. And that of the region of Nordfriesland in particular. Regular big losses of life, land, livestock, and of houses were something that was part of Frisian society for centuries, Nordfriesland not excluded. Read our post Half a million deaths. A forgotten North Sea disaster... to give you an idea of what living in this dangerous stretch of low-lying land meant.


Nordfriesland from 200 AD till today

The Marecellus' flood took much land, besides numerous lives, and it was during this great flood that the rich trading town of Rungholt on the island of Strand disappeared overnight into the Wadden Sea forever. Read our post How a town drowned overnight. After the Nordfriesen had recovered from this disaster, the Burchardi flood of 1634, also called the Zweite Große Mandränke 'second great drowning of men', put everything to waste again. An estimated 8,000 to 15,000 people drowned that night. The flood washed away most of the island Strand of which only the two islands Nordstrand and Pellworm, and the two Hallig-islands Südfall and Nordstrandischmoor remain.

4. Celebrating Biikin, its origin

What is there to celebrate with Biikin every February 21-22 after reading the dramatic history of the Nordfriesen above?


The word biik or biikin is related to the English word 'beacon', the German word Bake, the Dutch word baken, and, lastly, the Mid-Frisian word beaken. So, it is clear what it means: a fire to let ships know where the coast is, and to help navigate through or along it. Beacons are especially vital for navigating the Wadden Sea with all the islands, gullies and the lack of natural landmarks due to the flat landscape. Beacons were placed everywhere at the Wadden Sea and the adjacent shallow inland seas and bays. 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 treacherous coast, belong to the hard-core symbols of this water people.


When the reader thinks back to the two waves of colonization emigrating from southern Frisia in the Early Middle Ages, as described above, combined with the lack of modern means of communication, these fires were perhaps their way to maintain contact with where the Nordfriesen originally came from. Not a beacon for the ships that sailed off, and not to ward off evil spirits. No, it was a beacon to stay in contact with their distant relatives across the sea. The relatives and the motherland these colonists had left behind when they emigrated for better opportunities to an area that would become Nordfriesland.


To follow up on this theme, a more sophisticated explanation is that the practice of the Biikin celebration even dates back to the Great Migration period and testifies to the origin of the Frisian people. The Old-Frisian Hunsinger Law Code, written in 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 (transl. IJssennagger 2017).


So, maybe the Biikin celebration might be part of a social memory of the Nordfriesen and their migration origin (after IJssennagger 2017).


 


Note 1 - Read more about the legends of the North Sea peoples stemming from the Great 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.



Suggested music

The Pointer Sisters, Fire (1978)

The Trammps, Disco Inferno (1974)


Further reading

Bentschneider, A., Biikebrennen in North Frisia (2017)

Green, D.H. & Sigmund, F. (eds.), 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; 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 (2001)

Muuß, R., Nordfriesische Sagen (1933)

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)

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