We'll drive our ships to new land
Updated: Jun 7
In the series Myths of Nations we disclose to you this time that the Frisians actually did not come from India, as the old legends tell us. And, what is proven yet again in this blog post, we should listen to Led Zeppelin more often. In particular to their Immigrant Song. Install yourself, click this link to listen to Robert Plant’s whining and crying voice, and above all read about the nonsense and truth behind origin of nation myths.
We come from the land of the ice and snow | From the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow | The hammer of the gods | W'ell drive our ships to new lands | To fight the horde, and sing and cry | Valhalla, I am coming! | On we sweep with threshing oar | Our only goal will be the western shore | We come from the land of the ice and snow | From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow | How soft your fields so green | Can whisper tales of gore | Of how we calmed the tides of war |We are your overlords | On we sweep with threshing oar | Our only goal will be the western shore | So now you'd better stop and rebuild all your ruins | For peace and trust can win the day despite of all your losing
Have you memorized the lyrics above? Especially elements like: soft green, grass fields, overlords, ships, sea, new land? Check also the record label 'Atlantic'. Good! Please, you may continue reading now.
The oldest documented myth about the origin of the Frisians can be found in the Hunsinger Codex of the early fourteenth century. It recounts:
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
The language is Old-Frisian and it translates as: “When all the 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.” By the way, the whole barrel-lighting thing is still practiced by former (medieval) Frisian emigrants or colonists at the northwestern shores of the Wadden Sea in Germany. Known as biikin or biikebrennen. Read our blog post The beacons of North Frisia to learn about these bonfires.
In the second half of the fifteenth century, the so-called Gesta-group legend surfaces. 'Gesta' meaning deeds in Latin language. These gesta are different documents with a similar (fame) history of Frisia. It is assumed by smart people these all go back to a common -lost- source, probably written between AD 1300 and AD 1340 (Bremmer, 2004). Examples of these different documents are: the Gesta fresonum, the Gesta frisiorum and the Olde Freesche Cronike. Although some have a title in Latin language, these were nevertheless written in Old-Frisian language. The closest document to the original source is the Historia frisae which ends its history in the year AD 1248. The Historia frisae probably is written around the middle of the fifteenth century.
The Gesta papers are quite militant and nationalistic pieces of work and therefore thought not to have been written by clergy. Such nationalistic papers are quite, or even very, unique for Europe at that time. In the meantime we are flooded with the stuff, worldwide. But this aside. Its purpose then was to convince the people of Frisia of the fame and glory of their apparently noble history. All in an effort to mobilize them to fight against the Habsburg threat at that time and to defend the much celebrated and mythical Frisian Freedom. Yes, the Gesta stories even draw parallels with the Jewish people, suggesting the Frisians too were a by-God-chosen people. Off topic: chosen for what?
Relevant for this blog post is that the Gesta papers also contain an origin-of-nation story. This origin legend is about three brothers living in province Fresia of the island India and who were forced to leave their lands. They were called Bruno, Friso and Saxo and they all sailed to the southern coast of the North Sea. Predictably, Friso became the founder of Frisia. Friso's father was Ragau and Friso's grandfather was Shem. The biblical Shem of the book of Genesis, son of Noah. Friso had seven sons and each son became ruler of a Sealand, thus forming the (historical) league of the Seven Sealands stretching from the region Westfriesland in the Netherlands to the river Weser and bordering the autonomous and lord-free region Dithmarschen in Germany. Click the link above to read more about this supranational organisation avant la lettre. To complete the picture, Saxo founded Saxony and Bruno founded Brunswick.
The province Fresia of India is not to be confused with the mythical Island Frisland that appeared on nautical maps by sixteenth and seventeenth centuries cartographers. A mythical Island in the Nordic Sea, maybe mixed up with Iceland. On some eighteenth-century maps the island Frisland is still present (Smith, 2019).
Apart from myths, the Brunonids did exist. This Saxon dinasty was founded by Brun the duke of Saxony in the late ninth century. During the eleventh century, they governed the shires Westergo, Oostergo and Zuidergo, i.e. current province Friesland.
Imported from India
Interestingly, the almandine stones used in the magnificent fibula from the seventh century found in a terp near Wijnaldum (Mid Frisia) the Netherlands, have been traced back to ... India. But, like almandine, pepper cinnamon etc were imported from India by then as well. And, it was also the Anglo-Saxon King Alfred who send the thanes Sigehelm and Æthelstan to India in AD 880. They brought alms for the shrine of Saint Thomas in southern India. And, Sigehelm brought back marvelous precious stones. Read our blog post Ornament of the Gods found in a mound of clay to read more about this piece jewelry and its creator.
In the year AD 1517 Cornelius Gerardi Aurelius (or Cornelis Geritsz.) wrote the Cronycke Van Hollant, Zeelant ende Vrieslandt 'chronicle of Holland, Zeeland and Friesland' also called the Divisiekroniek. In this chronicle Coninc Diderick van Frieslant 'King Diderick of Friesland' is an ancestor of the famous King Redbad. Diderick was king from around AD 305 and had his castle in the town of Medemblik in present-day province Noord Holland.
This same Diderick guy appears in a history book again a century later. It is in AD 1609 that Martini Hamconii (or Maarten Hamckema) printed his version of the Frisian history in two volumes titled Frisia seu de viris rebusque. One of the legends is about Diederik Haronis. This time not an ancestor but a grandson instead of the famous King Redbad. According to Maarten Hamckema, Count Diederik crossed lake Flevo (present-day lake IJssel, IJsselmeer) in the year AD 300. There, at the shores of the lake, he founded the town of Medemblik. In the year AD 330 he proclaimed himself king. This against the will of King Haron of Frisia. Finally, Haron gave him the title count (dux) of West Frisia. Voila, the start of the counts of West Frisia and later to become the powerful counts of Holland.
Grand Dame Medemblik
Read our blog post In debt to the beastly Westfrisians to learn why the town of Medemblik is called the grand dame of West Frisia and our blog post The Abbey of Egmond and the rise of the Gerulfings to know all about the emergence of the counts of Holland.
A legend related to the former is the legend of the thirteen asegas. These (asegas) were judge-like functionaries or legal experts in the High Middle Ages. The legend is preserved in the thirteenth-century Old-Frisian law book the Codex Unia. It recounts how the twelve asegas as a way of punishment were send by Charlemagne, himself, on a ship to open sea without rope, rudder and oar. They were saved by a thirteenth asega (of course, this was Christ) who suddenly appeared on the ship too. At the spot where they went safely ashore the thirteenth asega (viz Christ) created a water source with his axe, since there was no rock to be hit with a stick which is the more common thing to do, of course. This place was named Eswei since. In region Dithmarschen in Germany, bordering the Wadden Sea as well, such a water source would be named quickborn, meaning a fast-running source. The asegas also founded Axenshove at the spot where they went ashore. Above anything else, they received the divine laws for the Frisian people. Want to know more about this legend of the twelve asegas and their exciting round trip at sea?, read our blog post In debt to the beastly Westfrisians.
What do we make of all these excellent stories?
First of all, all credits go to Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin. He is right in the way that the people came from overseas (or across the lake, in the case of Count Diederik) with ships and they became new overlords. They were stranger-kings, stranger-founders. Indeed, they were immigrants. And rightly so, they were attracted by the soft green fields, as the song tells. Exactly the tidal marshlands of Frisia. In the case of the Frisians, however, they did not came from ‘the land of ice and snow’ according to the Immigrant Song. Founding father Friso came all the way from India, instead. Unless, of course, province Fresia in India was located high in the Indian Himalayas.
Are the Frisians unique for this type of origin legends? Let's take a look at their siblings, the Anglo-Saxons. For this, of course, we must have a glance first at the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle written as early as in the ninth century.
According to the Chronicle, the Britons were the first inhabitants. They came all the way from Armenia and settled in the south of the island. You could say, a cradle not even that far remote from province Fresia in India where the three ancestors of the Frisians came from. And, believe or not, the Picts came from Scythia. Scythia being the Great Steppe of Eurasia. Chew on that! The Picts came with long ships which they drove to northern Ireland. Things would never be the same again there. In AD 449 everything really started moving. It was the year the south-Scandinavian brothers Hengest and Horsa invaded Britain with a fleet full of angry Angles, Saxons and Jutes. In the year AD 477 more invaders came. This time three ships landed at the shores. Ships that were under the command of Ælla who would found Wessex (West Saxon). The same year two ships of a warlord Port landed at the spot that would be known as Portsmouth from then on. In AD 514 West-Saxons landed with -again- three ships at Cerdic’s-ore. After this, landings of foreigners with ships at the British shores paused for a while, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Indeed, the Migration Period had come to an end.
Then there is also the Old-English epic poem Beowulf. The events of Beowulf date back to the Migration Period too. One of the stories is that of the hero Scyld Scefing. He was an orphan and “who in former time forth had sent him sole on the seas, a suckling child”. But this little Moses of the North Sea survived and became an important leader of the Danes. Again, an overking crossing the seas.
So, the Frisians are not unique with overseas keels (cyulis) 'ships' and immigrants founding new peoples. The interesting thing about these stories is that, according to some historians (IJssennagger, 2017), these legends might be the social memories of the dramatic events of the Migration Period. A period many people(s) were on the move and new peoples and cultures were founded or emerged. In the case of the Frisians -and that of the Anglo-Saxons as well- it was a maritime migration, colonization history. To get a sense of this dark era, please listen to the long howls of Robert Plant in the Immigration Song again. Do you feel it now? Or, read out blog post It all began with piracy how important this line of maritime business was to create a new common North Sea identity during the Late Antiquity, and that subsequently spread into Britain.
At the same time, maybe in spite of the Social Memory Theory explained above, it all merely might be part of a process of ethnogenesis as we so often see: authorities and/or people deliberate creating myths of origins and royal dynasties and so forth, to bind a society and legitimate its existence against the hostile 'outside' world.
People migrating overseas did not stop after the Migration Period. Sometimes in a hostile manner, sometimes in a more friendly way. For example. At the turn of the seventh and eighth centuries, many more ships reached the shores of Britain, namely that of Viking war bands. In AD 865 the Great Heathen Army landed near Kent, an army, probably originating partly from western Frisia with 'Ubba the Frisian' being one the three commanders of this dreaded pagan army. In AD 1066, yet again, invaders at the doorstep of British isles. This time it was William the Conqueror from Normandy saying hello, and no goodbye. All this, exactly the thing the Immigrant Song of Led Zeppelin is all about. An expedition of founding immigrants from overseas with a peaceful goal, however, was the ship the Mayflower that sailed with hundred colonists on board and who founded the Plymouth Colony in the Americas in AD 1620.
Many more examples can be listed that tells us migration via sea is probably of all centuries. Even in modern times. You get our drift.
Note 1. If you are interested in what historically happened origin-wise with the Frisian people during the Migration Period and to what extent these events match the social memory of this period, read our blog post Have a Frisians Cocktail.
Note 2. Other scholars contest the idea that the British isles turned into chaos after the Romans had retreated, leaving only their chickens and cats behind, and was invaded by hordes of Angles and Saxons, as there is actually no real support for, neither historical nor archaeological (Oosthuizen, 2019). Instead, Romano-British society was never invaded and continued to exists, but 'only' re-oriented itself as being part of the North Sea (if you like Germanic) culture after around AD 400 the Romans had pulled out all together and the society was culturally detached from the Mediterranean or Roman culture. The presence of Anglo-Saxons warriors in the fifth century can be seen as a continuation of the Roman tradition to hire Germanic mercenaries from the Continent, as had been done for centuries, including Frisian mercenaries (both the Frisii and the Frisavones tribes). Read out blog post Frisian Mercenaries in the Roman Army. So, if there was no dramatic migration shift in Britain there is no support for a social memory of these dramatic events either, including of origin legends. Then origing legends are new legends.
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Green, C.R., King Alfred and India: an Anglo-Saxon embassy to southern India in the ninth century AD (2019)
Groth, K., Quickborn (1852)
IJssennagger, N.L., Central because Liminal. Frisia in a Viking Age North Sea World (2017)
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Wiersma, J.P., Friesche sagen (1934)
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