Ornament of the Gods found in a mound of clay
Updated: Jun 7
In the year AD 516 King Hygelac of the Geats, possibly a tribe in southeast Sweden, raided western Frisia. Back then, this part of the Netherlands was impenetrable land with big rivers, little streams, swamps, peat, bog and damping forests covered with moss. Hygelac's expedition was not very successful, since he was killed during this one and not one of the other Geats made it home with booty.
From the Old English epic poem Beowulf we know Hygelac was wearing the famous Brosing neck-ring, better known as Brōsinga mene or Brísingamen. His body was stripped of weapons, armor and jewelry. His bones were piled up at an island in the river Rhine to ward off future intruders. But besides this Apocalypse Now-esque story, and more importantly, what happened to the Brísingamen? Well, most parts of the collar have been found and the collar is nearly reassembled! The coordinates of the find location are 53.19667N, 5.47E. Please, do not tell anyone else. Before you rush off with your GPS, shovel and metal detector, read the information below first. There risks are involved.
Beowulf (verses 1201-1208)
þone hring hæfde - Higelác Géata
nefa Swertinges - nýhstan síðe
siðþan hé under segne - sinc ealgode
wælréaf werede - hyne wyrd fornam
syþðan hé for wlenco - wéan áhsode
faéhðe tó Frýsum - hé þá frætwe wæg
eorclanstánas - ofer ýða ful
ríce þéoden - hé under rande gecranc.
That ring [i.e. Brísingamen] had - Hygelac of the Geats,
grandson of Swerting, - on his last adventure,
when under the banner he - defended riches,
warded slaughter-spoils; - him Fate took away
after he from pride - sought misery,
feud with the Frisians; - he then wore the ornament,
the mysterious stone - over the waves’ cup [viz the sea],
the mighty prince; - he fell under the rimmed-shield.
Not only the epic poem Beowulf testifies of the faéhðe tó Frýsum 'feud to the Frisians' undertaken by Beowulf's nephew Hygelac. The raid and the seeking of misery in Frisia by King Hygelac is mentioned in two other early-medieval sources as well. These are the Historia Francorum 'History of the Franks' written by the generously quoted Gregory of Tours in the sixth century, and the Liber Historiae Francorum (also Gesta Francorum) written in first quarter of the eight century. The summery of both chronicles: after having raided the west of Frisia somewhere in the lower river Rhine area, King Hygelac was killed just after his ships had set out to deep sea, and o silly Hygelac was still ashore. Pretty much unprotected. Ships loaded with booty and slaves taken from the Frisians, by the way. It was the Franks who killed the king of the Geats and even got their stuff back from the ships. That must have been near the mouth of the river Old-Rhine (Porck, 2014). Therefore, near the former Roman castellum Lugdunum Batavorum (a fortress nearly swallowed up by the North Sea by then; a fortress also locally known by the Dutch as Brittenburg 'burh of the Brits'), and near the settlement of Hrothaluashem ‘Radulf’s home’ (the present-day town of Rijnsburg 'Rhine-burh') in province Zuid Holland. In our blog post Tolkien pleaded in favour of King Finn we told a bit about King Hygelac already and, of course, we told about the legendary Battle at Finnsburh leading to the Freswæle ‘Frisian Slaughter’ that probably took place in that same area and era too.
So, from all this we can conclude that the Brísingamen neck-ring or necklace was on Frisia territory in ca. AD 516 when King Hygelac, wearing the gemstones and well-wrought gold, bite the dust. A date of death, by the way, generally assumed by scholars and also based on the text Historia Francorum mentioned earlier.
The raid of Frisia by Hygelac, king of the Geats, is considered the last twitch of five centuries of piracy in the region. Read our blog post It all began with piracy to have an idea of the this crucial period for bringing forth a common, southern North Sea culture and which set the example for the Vikings later. Furthermore, the tribe of the Geats might also have been a mythical, unreal people (Leake, 1967), referring to the Getes or Getae being the 'origin people' of the Germanic tribes in Classical sources.
Besides that the epic poem Beowulf mentions the famous Brísingamen necklace, the Edda does too. The Edda is a medieval compilation of Icelandic poems, poetics and mythical stories written in Old Norse in the thirteenth century. The Brísingamen is mentioned several times as the necklace of goddess Freyja. In Norse mythology Freyja is the goddess of beauty and fertility, and -more relevant for this blog post- also of war and death. In one of the stories guard Heimdallr, the god who can do without sleep and who sees in the dark (the feeling you get when writing these posts during the night), is described as the ‘Recoverer of Freyja’s necklace’, the one who finds back the beautiful ornament after it was lost. Besides the Edda, the Flateyjarbók, an Icelandic manuscript or yearbook written in the fourteenth century, makes reference to the Brísingamen too.
Part of most stories is that the beautiful and coveted Freyja and other women, receive beautiful jewelry in exchange for favors. When promises were broken or, for example, a candidate for marriage was unsuitable, they would break or smash the jewelry. Elegantly giving expression to their discontent. Etymologically brísingamen can be explained as ‘red-fire neck-ring’ or ‘shining neck-ring’. We will come back to that later. Keep the etymologic explanation in mind.
Folk tradition among the Frisians of today wants Freyja to be the goddess the Frisians are named after. Although there is not much actual support for this oral tradition (read also our blog post Frisian women: free and unbound?) elegant Freyja does come into play regarding the Brísingamen. There is namely an image preserved of the neck-ring that goddess Freyja wore. This image is a silver pendant found at Aska in province East Gothland (Östergötland) in Sweden. Indeed, more-or-less where the Geats of King Hygelac lived, mentioned earlier. The silver pendant is dated between AD 800-1050. This is the pendant where we are talking about, and it can be admired in real life in the Swedish History Museum:
Let's zoom-in at her neck (and please do not stare at her little belly too much. Keep it polite):
What the ...? Indeed, a big disc-on-bow fibula! An early-medieval type of fibula found along the southeastern coasts of the North Sea and thus in former Frisia too, what is the Netherlands and the northwest of Germany. Frisia then included the coastal zone stretching from the estuary of the river Scheldt in the Netherlands up to the estuary of the river Weser in Germany, including the central river lands in the Netherlands. These big fibulae were high-end status jewelry and, in contrast to other types of (smaller) fibulae, not worn in pairs on for example shoulders, but as single priceless item. The big disc-on-bow fibulae probably closed a beaded string around the neck (Schoneveld & Zijlstra, 1999). In the territory of former Frisia disc-on-bow fibulae have been found especially in the central river area of the river Rhine, in the area called Kennemerland (or Kinnlimasiðe in Old Norse/ Old Icelandic) and above all in the old shires/provinces Austrachia 'eastern island' (current region Oostergo) and Uuistrachia 'western island' (current region Westergo) of province Friesland. All these 'productive' sites were part of Frisia during the Early Middle Ages. These big fibulae are generally dated the first half of the sixth century.
"Hold on and wait a minute!" we hear you think, "That’s exactly the time when King Hygelac found his peace near Rijnsburg after his plunder-blunder travels in Frisia!" Indeed, it is. The plot thickens.
Another early-medieval pendant of the goddess Freyja (or that of a Valkyrie) has been found in Denmark at lake Tissø, wearing the Brísingamen too.
The most exquisite, cloisonné, disc-on-bow fibula of the Vendel Period ever found, is the one found in the Tjitsma/ Wijnaldum terp (a terp being an artificial dwelling mound made of clay and/or dung; read our blog post to learn how to make a terp in 12 steps). This is near the village of Wijnaldum in the old shire Uuistrachia 'western island', todays Westergo. A fibula that was nicknamed Finn's Fabula twenty years ago, in a failed effort to connect it with the famous King Finn known from a.o. the epic Beowulf.
When looking at the detail and the density of inlays, experts agree it is even more detailed than the jewelry found at Sutton Hoo in England. More than an amazing 300 individual pieces of almandine garnet have been used. This makes it the largest early-medieval inlaid piece of jewelry found in Europe, as far as we know. The red almandines originate from Rajasthan, India. The mysterious stone from oversea 'eorclanstánas ofer ýða ful' as the poem Beowulf (see above) spot-on described it. Underneath each tiny piece of almandine, foil of gold was laid. The highly qualified craftmanship is evident too from the very fine spacing of the grid on the foil. That way reflecting light even stronger. Therefore, making it a true fire-red, shining neck-ring when sun rays touch it. Exactly the etymological explanation earlier. Even the bronze stencil to stamp the foil has been found. Lastly, the gold content is outstandingly high with 97%, nearly the maximum and significantly higher than most objects found at Sutton Hoo for example. All in all, a Freyja-worthy ornament.
Yes, even archaeologist Bruce-Mitford, who researched the immeasurable impressive Sutton Hoo material, was impressed. The fibula was excavated in parts over different years and still not complete. First, in the year 1953. The farmer who found it, put the fibula part (i.e. the foot-plate) on his barn and later ended up at a windowsill of his sister's house in the village of Hatzum. But it was too shiny and impressive to stay unnoticed. Here it was 'discovered' by a family doctor. The foot-plate, still thought to be a buckle back then, was exibited for the first time in the autumn of 1959 in the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, part of the exposition Van Friezen, Franken en Saksen 'Of Frisians, Franks and Saxons'. During the years 1991-1993, at last, a large-scale excavation took place at the terp of Tjitsma at Wijnaldum and more small pieces of the fibula were recovered. The most recent piece, was found in 2009. Yes, this ornament has had many Heimdallrs, thusfar. The total length of the fibula is seventeen centimeters and it can be admired in the Fries Museum in the Netherlands. But stay away from it. Like the Hope Diamond, this treasure might bring bad luck too. It was the possession of the goddess of beauty, ánd of war and death. The king (or pirate, depending your perspective) who wore it, died at the sandy shores of western Frisia where his bones were put on display.
Adding everything up, the fibula of the Wijnaldum/ Tjitsma terp must be the famous and legendary Brísingamen neck-ring. Everybody, three times hurrah! The fact that the fibula was broken, must haven been due to the unpredictable behaviour of goddess Freyja. Not because of ploughing the clay, as archaeologists do often blame local farmers. Always easy to blame farmers. No, Freyja must have smashed it after gotten angry for some reason. Or, when King Hygelac was killed, not only his skull was damaged. In any case, a simple plough cannot hurt this divine ornament.
We dare to go one step beyond imagination, namely that the person who forged this devine piece of art is none other than the famous blacksmith Wayland know from Germanic mythology. He too is mentioned in Beowulf. Blacksmith Wayland gave himself away being the creator of the fibula through a golden solidus found near the village of Schweindorf, region Ostfriesland in Germany in 1948. The coin is dated end sixth century and on it is written in Anglo-Frisian runes the name Weladu. Indeed, Wayland. The coin is kept in the Ostfriesische Landesmuseum Emden. Check out our blog post Weladu the flying blacksmith.
Of course, our final conlusion might be a bit firm. However, the many links and connections between this specific big-type fibula, the fire-shining treasure, the red-mysterious stone from oversees (India), King Hygelac, his death at the mouth of the river Rhine in western Frisia, the Norse mythology of Freyja, the pendant depicting her with the fibula, Edda’s and Beowulf's references to the costly ornament and to Frisia, the region southeast Sweden of the Geats and, of course, Frisia itself, compose a fascinating early-medieval history. All these elements come together in the first half of the sixth century. Just like the snake-like creatures are entwined on the foot-plate of the Wijnaldum/ Tjitsma fibula. If it was not thís specific fibula -albeit it is the most impressive big disc-on-bow fibula we know- they had something very similar in mind back then in the sixth century, in the Vendel Period, when the were talking and bragging about the Brísingamen.
Some might argue to find it difficult to reconcile the Beowulf and the Edda. The first text cleary says it was a man (i.e. King Hygelac) who was wearing the Brísingamen and the latter say it was a goddess (i.e. Freyja), thus woman, who was wearing it. Well, maybe that is because we project a modern way of thinking onto a sixth-century society. What both Hygelac and Freyja had in common, was they both were associated with war. The big-type disc-on-bow fibulae might therefore have been ornaments (for leaders) of war and battle. King Hygelac wore it proudly on his chest when he went into battle against the Frisians and the Franks, as described in the poem Beowulf. Above, are we not gaining more and more archaeological evidence that early-medieval women played an important role in warfare too? We also know that a neck-ring was worn by men. Lastly, we know that a disc-on-bow fibula was, or at least could be, part of a neck-ring. In the eyes of early-medieval people war and beauty were two sides of the same coin.
Now go go go! Check out waypoint 53.19667 N, 5.47 E and who knows you will find some of the still missing bits. If you are a true Heimdallr, who knows you even step on the still missing disc.
Note 1: Famous scholar and writer, Tolkien, was inspired by the mythology of pre- and early-medieval mythology surrounding beautiful crafted ornaments. In his book The Silmarillions it was Fëanor, son of King Finwë, who crafted the three shining Silmarils. It is not without reason Tolkien created the name Finwë based on the name Finn, the king of the Frisians as among others mentioned in the epic poem Beowulf too. Read also our blog post Tolkien pleaded in favor of King Finn to learn more about this all.
Note 2: Although nearly everyone regards the Wijnaldum/ Tjitsma fibula as a disc-on-bow, there is a minority report doubting it and that this fibula originally might have had no disc at all (Olsen, 2006). Mainly because the splendid filigree decoration on the bow would justify not to be covered by a disc. Well, who knows how much more beautiful the disc might have been, or still is...
Note 3: At the village Hallum in province Friesland, twenty-five kilometers from the spot where the Tjitsma/ Wijnaldum fibula has been found, parts of a so-called Vendel helmet also have been found dated sixth or seventh century. Furthermore, near the town of Dokkum, another fifteen kilometers from the village Hallum, a sword ring was discovered. Again, dated the sixth or seventh century. Similar sword rings (i.e. two rings clinging together and attached to the pommel of the word) indicating prestige, have been found in a large area stretching from southwest Finland, Uppland and Gotland in Sweden, Denmark, mid and southern Germany, northern France and southeast England.
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