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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Out of averting the inevitable a community was born

On March 25, 2020, the coronavirus pandemic was climbing towards its second peak. There was uncertainty about how destructive the pandemic was going to be in the long run. How many family members and loved ones would it take? It was a phenomenon of chaos and destruction that confronted us with the limitations of an engineered world. Some people exclaimed that it was a punishment from God. Others said it was Nature making us pay for the demolition of the planet. Yet others denied the severity and became convinced 'they' were executing a master scheme. Or is it simply the world's population density and global interconnection causing this outbreak? Whatever the origins or underlying reasons, if it had been devastating enough, it would have had an impact on the collective memory and behaviour of societies.

For the people living along the southern coast of the North Sea - that watery part of the world - the general anxiety and distress brought back ancient memories. Namely, the millennia-old memory of the fear of water. The balance between order and chaos. Between being safe or being submerged. Between cheerful birdsongs in the morning and massive violence during the night. Even similar, watery notions were being used to describe the pandemic: corona waves sweeping through the lands.

It has been a while since the people of the West have been confronted with large-scale, life-threatening events. With great fear and horror. For a long time, big natural disasters did not take place, and the threat of another great war is far away since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In historical perspective, this Western comfort is quite recent. Putting the socially traumatizing events of the great wars of the twentieth century aside, natural destructive forces always had a specific impact on the mentality of the people of the southern North Sea coast. From region Flanders to the region Jutland. From the city of Bruges to the city of Esbjerg. From the terp of Leffinge-Oude Werf in Belgium to the terp of Misthusum in Denmark.

In this post, we first outline the history of fighting the sea, being the mental roots of the coastal dwellers of the southern coast of the North Sea. After that, we will explain what this specific history meant for their psyche and mentality. The ambivalence of fearing the sea and trusting it at the same time. We will make a journey from archaeology and history to anthropology and psychology. From two and a half millennia ago to this very day. Because, let's be honest, who does not fear sea levels rising to destructive heights somewhere in the back of his or her head these days?

the 2nd Day of the Creation, by Frisian artist M.C. Escher

This post, or maybe more a long-read, builds on the study Nordsee ist Mordsee 'North Sea is murder sea' (Rieken 2005) which is, to our knowledge, a first serious attempt to identify the mentality and psyche of the Frisians by combining insights from (depth) psychology with (social) history. For that, it already deserves a compliment. It takes courage to study this topic. After the uncomfortable experiences of fascism and national socialism almost a century ago, these types of studies had become a touchy subject. Not least in relation to Frisian history; see the Annex at the end of this post. Although some of the identity characteristics might be typical Frisian, many must also apply, in our opinion, to the other coastal dwellers of the southern coast of the North Sea.

Nordsee ist Mordsee is also a teen movie of 1976 with the city of Hamburg as setting. The movie ends with two children of fourteen years old in a Segelboot 'sailboat', sailing down the river Elbe toward the sunset and the North Sea. The song played during this closing scene is Ich Träume Oft Davon, Ein Segelboot Zu Klau'n from Udo Lindenbergs.

The coastal dwellers were initially, in Roman times, the Ampsivarii, the Anglii (Angles), the Cananefates, the Chauci, the Frisiavones (i.e. Romanized Frisians), the Frisii or Fresones (Frisians proper), and the Saxones. During the Early Middle Ages, these were reduced to the Frisians and the Saxons. The latter living in the region of Dithmarschen and at the mouth of the river Elbe. Currently, these are the Zeelanders (Zeeuwen), Dutchmen/Hollanders (region Holland), the Frisians, the Groningers, the Ostfriesen, the Wurstfriesen, the Ditmarsians (Thiadmaresgaho), the Saxons, the Nordfriesen, and the Jutes. Perhaps the Westfriezen of region Westfriesland in the province of Noord Holland want to be listed separately from the Hollanders, but we have not checked that. All (sub)cultures share the characteristic of living in a dangerous strip of low-lying twilight land.

1. A History of Fighting Water

With the start of the inter-glacial period of the Holocene almost 12,000 years ago, temperatures rose. With it, the sea level did too. While the North Sea expanded, people retreated towards higher grounds. But around 2,600 years ago, people living in what is now the northwest of Germany and the north of the Netherlands made a stand against the sea. They erected dwelling mounds or house platforms, the so-called terps, and stayed. When Roman soldiers arrived in this wet territory at the beginning of the era, they found the tribes of the Chauci and the Frisii living on these little man-made mounds of clay and cow dung. The wider territory consisted of low-lying land, treeless tidal marshlands, dense wooded peatlands, bogs and swamps, lakes, rivers, rivulets, streams, long barrier beaches, islands, sandbanks, inlets, and bays. A dynamic and delicate balance of land and water, both sweet and salt. A gigantic delta, in fact, stretching from the coast of Flanders to the German Bight.

By the way, the border between the Phrissioi 'Frisians' and the Kauchoi 'Chauci' was, according to Ptolemaeus' Geographia, written in the second century, the river Ems called the river Amisios then. Ptolemaeus was, by the way, a delta-dweller too, namely from Nile delta.

The rise of the sea level during the Holocene was not a steady process. It still is not. The marine transgression Dunkirk II, a period when the sea level rose relatively fast, had a profound impact on the living conditions in the delta of the southern coast of the North Sea. Besides a transgression, other more locally specific circumstances further stimulated the worsening of living conditions. Read our post A Frontier known as Watery Mess: the Coast of Flanders to have more insight into these more specific (anthropogenic) factors which caused the environment to deteriorate. The result was that it all led to a near population hiatus along much of this coast. Only small pockets of people were left in the fourth century. Think of a few thousand.

From the fifth century, after the transgression, population recovered. Mostly through local migration movements of tribes living along the southern coast, more inland already, but this time including tribes from Denmark too, and later supplemented with migrants from southern Scandinavia. And, the by then eleven-centuries-old terp culture survived. People continued living on terps and exported this culture into the Saxon regions of the German Bight and Dithmarschen. The dwelling mounds on the flat, barren salt marshes grew bigger and bigger and became real settlement mounds with diameters of three hundred meters and a height of about four meters. In the late sixth century, Frisians also colonized the coastal plains of Flanders and the region of Nordfriesland, where terps appeared as well. Read our posts Beacons of Nordfriesland and A Frontier known as Watery Mess: the Coast of Flanders, to learn more about these colonization processes.

After the cultural and economically prosperous period of the Early Middle Ages, the marine transgression Dunkirk III messed things up again. The wetlands became even wetter. By then, it was the Frisians who inhabited the coastal zone of the North Sea in Germany and the Netherlands, from Flanders to Denmark, and the Saxons who inhabited the coastal zone of Dithmarschen, the Ditmarsians. Dunkirk III forced the Ditmarsians and the Frisians to adjust their strategy if they were to stay. So, with a leading role of monasteries and religious houses, they started to build high dikes around the year 1000.

Around 1300, after three hundred years of hard labor, they had completed the biggest earth- and woodwork in European history: the Golden Ring, or Gouden Hoepel. A massive patchwork of encircling dykes, terps, canals, ditches, and sluices. All connected to each other. Stretching from the current province of Friesland in the Netherlands to Kreis 'district' Nordfriesland in Germany, just south of the border with Denmark. A work even compared with the Great Wall of China (Steensen 1991).

thet wi Frisa hagon ene seburch to stiftande and to sterande, enne geldene hop, ther umbe al Frislond lith

that we Frisians shall establish a strong sea burh, and a golden hoop, that surrounds all of Friesland (First Riustringer Codex ca. 1300)

With bare hands, the coastal people moved more clay and earth than the sea did. Every day, every week, every month, every year. A rat race they were able to keep up. Just a few famous 'rings' we mention: the Westfriese Omringdijk ('Westfrisian encircling dyke'), the Slachtedyk ('sliced' dyke), and the Pingjumer Gulden Halsband ('Pingjum golden necklace'; see our blog post When the Gate of Hell opened at the Golden Necklace). The Pingjum Gulden Halsband is one of the oldest dyke systems on this planet. Much of it was erected in the tenth century already. Moreover, it has been in service until the end of the ninth century. Almost a jaw-dropping millennium. Please, close it again.

The Frisians, in fact, honoured their name. The Romans had given their tribe the name after the verb fresare, which is vulgar Latin for milling/cutting. In other words, those who cut the land. For more in-depth information about the origins of the Frisian tribe's name, check out our post A severe case of inattentional blindness: the Frisian tribe’s name.

Die erschreckliche Wasser-Fluth

The threat of a wild sea, nicknamed Blanke Hans 'white Hans' (i.e. named after the white sea foam of a wild sea) among the Nordfriesen, was not gone. Due to further temperature rising, the sea level kept rising in front of their new, fancy higher dykes. Moreover, dykes themselves also had an unforeseen, negative side effect. During storm floods, water could (and can) not flow out over the former vast area of tidal marshland anymore. This, in turn, caused the mean sea level to rise during great storms with an estimated additional one and a half meters, which is not chicken feed. The water was blocked and put even more pressure on the dykes. Furthermore, a dyke system along the coast must have had an impact on the constellation of the barrier islands and beaches as well.

Lastly, just after the Golden Ring was completed, the so-called Little Ice Age started in the fourteenth century. This drop in temperature caused bigger differences between the temperatures of the Arctic Ocean and the European mainland, which, in turn, led to more heavy storms. Mostly blowing from the west or northwest, hitting the Ditmarsians and the Frisians notably hard. Everything taken together, not the most favourable conditions. And it got worse.

Climate deterioration during the Little Ice Age also meant massive crop failures, leading to an economic recession. Dyke-building requires significant effort and is very expensive. The scarcity of resources led to deferred maintenance of the Golden Ring. Once the dykes were breached, livestock and crops were destroyed, and the soil turned salty. Poverty sometimes made it impossible to repair and strengthen the dykes. This was the case in the thirteenth century with the Dollart and Reiderland area, where the sea had free reign after the Saint Marcellus's flood in January 1219. But that's not all. Between approximately 1000-1500, there was extensive commercial peat exploitation in the immediate hinterland of the coastal zone, which caused a lowering of the mainland. In addition, more and more efficient land drainage also had a lowering effect on the land.

Adding all things up, the land was there for the taking by the sea in the High and Late Middle Ages. Waiting for disaster. This was just what happened. The inland Zuyderzee 'Southern Sea', the river Lauwers Inlet, the Jade Bay and the Dollart Bay were created during great storm floods. Above all, most of the land of Nordfriesland was washed away during this time. It went with massive loss of humans, livestock, farms and houses. As they say in Land Wursten, die Flut frisst Korn, Vieh und Menschen. 'the flood eats corn, livestock and people'. Not only people were killed during the flood itself. Also secondary casualties due to famine and diseases afterwards. Because of the loss of land, many Frisians in Nordfriesland and Ostfriesland living on islands and near the shores were forced to resettle more inland on higher and saver grounds.

For the third time in history, the people of the southern coast of the North Sea had to make up their minds: "Should I stay, or should I go?" They decided to clash and chose the first option. They stayed. The Phoenix confronted the Waterwolf.

Firstly, the waterfront dwellers invested in better and higher dikes. A proven good defensive strategy. We are still familiar with the phrase Wer nicht will deichen, muß weichen 'who doesn't want to dike, has to give way'. In Low-Saxon speech in the province Groningen the phrase is Dei nait wil diek’n mout wiek’n and in Oostfreesk, also Platt, in region Ostfriesland it is De nich will dieken, de mutt wieken.

An illustrative saga exists in Ostfriesland about Häuptling 'headman' Tidde Winnengha who refused to build dykes. Great floods followed, and many villages in the region of Reiderland, i.e., south of the Dollart Bay area, were swallowed by the sea. Other sagas even speak of little children being offered and immured inside dykes and sluices if somehow these would not hold the water. Imagine how much despair people sometimes felt during those times.


Meaning of dikes and their nature - The word dijk in Middle Dutch means both 'dike' as 'pool or waterhole'. The Old Frisian word dik means 'dam', and the Old English word dic means both 'dam' as 'ditch or canal'. Compare modern English dike and ditch. But also the Middle High German word tich meaning 'pond'. From all this, the basic meaning is 'to dig', which could be digging a ditch or digging a canal, and with that activity also raising a dam.

Besides its etymology, people in the Netherlands treat a dike as a living thing. A dike has a dijklichaam 'dike-body', which is the core of the dike. Furthermore, the top of the dike is called de kruin, meaning 'the head/scalp'. The base of a dike is de voet, 'the foot'. Lastly, a dike is always clothed. This is de bekleding 'the clothing' or de mantel 'the cloak', to strengthen the surface against rain and waves (Freriks & Storms 2022).

In modern Mid Frisian the word dyk means both 'dike' as 'road' since roads used to be on top of dikes.


Secondly, the coastal dwellers started to use a more brutal strategy, namely retaking land from the sea. At the end of the Middle Ages, bit by bit, inlets, bays, and inland seas were reclaimed. It was around 1500 when large-scale projects were launched to reclaim land from the sea. Big chunks at a time. The former seabed 't Bildt in province Friesland was the first modern, organized, and very rationally planned polder 'embanked land' in European history. The UNESCO-listed Beemster Polder in province Noord Holland soon followed. Might UNESCO have overlooked 't Bildt, or have the Dutchmen a better sales department? Anyway, the offensive strategy culminated with the sealing-off of the Zuyderzee 'southern sea' from the Wadden Sea, in combination with the creation of massive polders, namely the Wieringermeerpolder, the Noordoostpolder, and the Flevopolder. The latter is even the largest polder in the world. Casually, by shutting off the inland sea Zuyderzee, the biggest sweet water lake of Europe was created as well, namely IJsselmeer 'lake IJssel'.

In February 1825, another devastating storm hit the southern coast of the North Sea. From southern Scandinavia to Flanders. A heavy north-western storm coincided with springtide. In the Netherlands, province Friesland and the coast of the Zuiderzee were hit notably hard. The sea reached the town of Alkmaar and two-third of province Friesland was submerged. The Frisian towns of Harlingen, Workum and Stavoren lay in the frontline of the hurricane and barely escaped total destruction. People living at the Noorderhaven 'northern harbour' of Harlingen sought refuge on their roofs (Van der Woud 2022). After the storm a Frisian farmer wrote in his diary:

Hier en daar dreven lijken van menschen, en het doode vee bedekte, met de groote heuvels van halve woningen, daken en allerlei drijfgoed den uitgestrekten plas; zoo ver het verbijsterend oog reiken konde.

Here and there floated corpses of people, and the dead cattle covered, with the big mounds of decimated houses, roofs and all kind of floating stuff, the extensive water; as far as the perplexing eye could see.

Besides impoldering lakes and inland seas, from the mid-nineteenth century, everywhere along the Wadden Sea coast poor mud workers were building slender dams of thin brushwood to break the sea and speed up sedimentation. These dams are known in Dutch as slibvangers 'mud catchers'. The men, resembling black ants, started their daily labour when the tide was out, and they paused when the tide came in. With these dams, tidal marshland was created, after which it was incorporated into the mainland with a new dyke. With yet another new ring. The photo-genetic remains of their works can be seen everywhere in the Wadden Sea to this date.

Flood 1962
Great flood 1962

The Second World War threw a spanner in the works. Besides dykes being blasted at the Walcheren, De Beemsterpolder, Wieringermeerpolder, and the inundation of the northeast of the province of Groningen between the towns of Delfzijl and Harkstede, the maintenance of dykes had been poor during and after the war in Germany and in the Netherlands all this time. In February 1953, during a great storm flood, the dykes of the provinces Zeeland and Zuid Holland broke. 1,836 people died during the flood. The most recent disaster is the flood of February 1962, which flooded much of northwest Germany, including the city of Hamburg, and cost the lives of 315 people. Following these tragedies, both in Germany and the Netherlands, dykes were strengthened, and massive storm surge barriers were built.

Especially in the '60s and '70s, belief in a makeable and engineerable world was at its peak. At the same time, the downside became clear. A natural environment that was heavily polluted, with the river Rhine being the horrific symbol of it. A river where once sturgeons and salmon provided fishermen with a living. Pollution already started before the industrial revolution, with the acidic wastes of tanneries and blacksmiths. By the mid-'40s, it had become evident that the river Rhine had turned into a stinking sewer. The mines of the Ruhr, the potassium mines of Alsace, and the soda industry had turned the Rhine into an almost dead river with fish covered with ulcers. In 1986, the climax came with the Sandoz disaster at Basel. Tons of insecticides, mercury, and other toxic substances flowed into the river during this incident. Half a million fish died (Hendriksma, 2017). Where the environment had already cracked in the decades before, the belief in the makeable world started to crack slowly as well.

The upcoming environmental concerns meant also the end of the massive land reclamation in the mid '70s. The tidal marshlands and the Wadden Sea were more and more appreciated for their environmental value, than for their economic value. And, as a side remark, at the beginning of the twenty-first century the tidal marshlands are considered being part of the defensive system too, since they break the energy of the waves before these hit the dykes.

2. A Tight Community of Freeborn Republicans

Although the floods of 1953 and 1962 have not been forgotten yet, it normally takes three generations to forget traumatizing events. Let's see what our children will remember of these disasters when they have grown up. You will probably know the answer already. If not, put your tablet or laptop aside for a moment and ask them. Yeah, you knew.

The history of fear of water outlined above is one full of battle, misery, and loss. We estimated before the total number of lost lives at the Wadden Sea coast around half a million. Generation after generation after generation. Their whole world has revolved around water and the deep fear of it. Anxious when Affricus, the south-western wind, Zephyrus, the western wind, or Chorus, the north-western wind, picked up and grew stronger and stronger to create plundering waves. Fearing Neptune would break through the dykes and take possession of the land (Jansen & Janse 1991).

This has shaped the identity of the people and their collective memory. Although the threat of the sea faded into the background the last few decades thanks to the, short-lived, believe in an engineer-able world, the debate about global warming due to human activity has reactivated this fear. Not only among the Ditmarsians and the Frisians, but worldwide this time. Sea levels could be driven to colossal heights. Think of the Hollywood movies Waterworld (1995), The Perfect Storm (2000), the documentary Between the Tides (2009), the Dutch drama series Als de dijken breken 'If the dykes break', also titled The Swell (2016), and the Danish movie Qeda of 2017. Just a random selection. Are the dwellers of the southern coast of the North Sea standing on the doorstep of becoming climate refugees too?

politicians debating global warming by Isaac Cordal

So, we are almost out of malleable-world rehab. Good! It is a start. Unfortunately, we have not come into terms with this new situation yet. We still seem to look for a new opium or, in the language of the coastal dwellers, a beacon to cling to. Because, if we cannot control nature, what then will be the consequence? Letting Grim Reaper or Sensenmann freely haunt our cities, our streets and our bedrooms? Or, should we write C+M+B (Christus Mansionem Benedicat) above our front doors to keep evil at bay, as they do in the Alps? Or, perhaps better, should we smear blood of a Passover lamb on our doorposts so we won’t be struck down, as we can read in the Book of Exodus? Like the tradition of the red doorposts of the featured image of this post? Very much the corona lockdown avant la lettre. Indeed, parallels with today’s 'sudden', pandemic fears are there. It is understandably confusing for many.

But the coastal dwellers of northern Germany and the Netherlands already explained in the '70s, before the anthropocene climate change debate had started, that the force of the sea is not fully tameable. They just knew this. Their collective memory and roots told them so. As said earlier, traumatizing events, in general, take three generations to forget. Frisians, however, remember traumatizing events for six centuries. That is very unique when you speak of collective memories of a society.

It was the town of Rungholt that disappeared overnight into the sea during the great storm flood of 1362. This was the Second Saint-Marcellus' Flood, also known as the Grote Mandrenke 'Great Drowning of Men'. Estimations are that at least 25,000 people died in a single night. The Nordfriesen still told this story in the twentieth century, of which everyone had thought it was a mere legend. A myth. Until just before the Second World War, archaeological finds revealed that the town of Rungholt indeed had existed. It was washed away and even on the spot people said the town was located. Not exactly the forgiving type, those Frisians, but quite an achievement. Must be baffling for anthropologists. Speak a bit louder, please, because we cannot hear you.

regular Landunter, Nordfriesland

To day, if you tell a Nordfries that she or he lives on a beautiful island, you might get a response that it is not an island at all. It is land. Do not be confused. Do not be alarmed either. She or he is not suffering from hallucinations. Only confirming it is an island, a Frisian would be admitting her or his defeat against the sea. That all the great loss of lives and land for many generations has been for nothing. It also shows Frisians are experts in repressing tragic events without ever forgetting them. Thus, be careful when marrying a Frisian.


Mackerel in Ditches - Little anecdotes fitting within the tradition of the coastal peoples' memories say that during his childhood, the author was explained how the sea used to appear on the western side of the Slachtedyk one time and on the eastern side of this dyke another time. People were also told by their parents that mackerel from the open sea swam in the sweet water ditches of polders as an omen of a severe storm at hand, while the sun was still shining.


Another aspect of the Frisians is that their sense of identity, of being a community, is relatively strong. It was (and partially still is) a people scattered over islands, islets, peninsulas, separated by seas, lakes, and big rivers. Today, spread over countries as well. The number of dialects used to be enormous. Even on one small island completely different dialects of Frisian were and are spoken. Often hardly understandable for each other. There are less than 10,000 speakers of North-Frisian speech left, and within Nordfriesland, there are fifteen strongly different dialects spoken. Almost every village has its own Frisian dialect.

Some argue that an own, separate language is the core of a culture, of a people (De Vries 2019). Without an own language, no own identity. However, with this opinion the fact is ignored that many nations speak English but do not feel English. The same goes for Arab, Chinese, French, Spanish, etc. If, for example, the Flemings hear about his statement, De Vries might fear for his life. For the Frisians a common language is not a decisive characteristic either. The Ostfriesen and most of the Nordfriesen do not speak Frisian anymore for centuries already, but many generally still carry (also) Frisian as identity. In fact, the bigger picture is that most Frisians do not speak (proper) Frisian at all. Interestingly, the few thousand Ostfriesen who still do speak East-Frisian, i.e. the geographically isolated Saterland-Frisians in region Ostfriesland, for long were not regarded as Frisians by the Ostfriesen, who themselves speak Platt or German. Reason: they were Catholic, whilst the Ostfriesen were Protestant. Say cheese.

That the concept of community is still alive was illustrated in the province of Friesland in 2018. That year, the city of Leeuwarden was the cultural capital of Europe and had chosen Iepen Mienskip, meaning 'open community', as its central theme. Also, the fact that the inhabitants of the province of Friesland belong to one of the happiest people in the world, despite being relatively economically backward, might have to do with this somewhat stronger sense of identity and community.

Despite the seemingly geographical fragmentation, working together in the eternal fight against water was their vital connection. To maintain the soggy Golden Ring that connected them. Language, for example, was less important for being a community. Working together was.

The territory was also impenetrable for foreign powers to conquer, and at the same time it was fertile and connected to the world via seaways and river gateways. This made it possible for the Ditmarsians and the Frisians to do without central authorities, without feudal lords during most of the Middle Ages. Basically, every individual, every farmer was free. Every extended family had its own terp, wierde, or Warft, and its own private church built on it. The density of medieval churches along the Wadden Sea coast is even the greatest on earth. Also, the number of medieval monasteries was huge. In the late-medieval Frisia, between the river Vlie and the river Weser, there existed about 115 monasteries (De Boer 2017).

Therefore, a truly republican spirit and self-reliant society. Countless very small free-farmer republics, that were loosely united under collaboration of the league of the Seven Sealands. The seperate Frisian lands even founded a treaty to work together in the High Middle Ages, the treaty of Upstalsboom. Near the town of Aurich in region Ostfriesland, during the thing assembly, Frisians ruled in disputes, discussed matters of cooperation and above all chose new laws for the whole of Frisia. This choosing of their own laws, which were considered the highest and most sacred authority, was the core of the republican freedom.

The republican organization formed by the Seven Sealands was unique for Europe at that time, except for Switzerland where a similar development had taken place. The republican mishmash also meant that cooperation to ward off the threat of the sea and of external powers had to be organized bottom up. Cooperation was not imposed top down. And for centuries, they had been successful in doing that. In Frisia, the myth of being free, as a person and as a community, was dominant for many centuries. Only in the Late Middle Ages, the lord-free society of the Sealands came creaking and shrieking to a halt. The free farmer republics of Dithmarschen, Land Wursten and Frisia had been subdued by (mostly) foreign powers, finally.

This myth of freedom extended to the Frisians by Charlemagne himself, was still very much alive in the nineteenth century. A quote to illustrate this:

Unseren Vorfahren hat der Kaiser Karl der Grosse zum Lohne für ihre Redlichkeit und Tapferkeit ihre Privilegien gegeben, und von ihm stammen unsere Freiheiten her (an island Nordfrisian,1849)

Even today, being ‘Frisian and Free’ is still a phrase that resonates in all regions of former Frisia. The motto 'rather dead than slave' can be heard in many language variations, like Lever dood as slaav, Leafer dea as slaef or Leewer duad üüs slaav. But also the phrase "eala frya Fresena" is still being used, meaning 'stand up free Frisians'. Symbol of the national farmers protests in the Netherlands in the year 2020, was the Frisian flag. Farmers of province Noord Holland even drove their tractors over the thirty kilometers long Afsluitdijk 'enclosure dam' to province Friesland to hand over the Dutch flag, and to receive the Frisian flag. A change of allegiance. In the southern province of Noord Brabant, farmers hoisted the Frisian flag in front of the town hall in the town of Den Bosch.

The flip-side, by the way, of this independent republican society was that the outer world stigmatized the Ditmarsians, Wurstfriesen and the Frisians as unsophisticated, stupid farmers. Not anymore, of course...

3. The Psyche of the Coastal Peoples

Different from other peoples, Frisians did not indicate time by referring to past great battles of war, as was common practice. No, they referred to another great storm flood that had happened before. When in the year 1717 Frisia was hit by the Christmas Flood, killing an estimated 14,000 people, they still knew about a former great flood, the All Saints’ Flood of 1570 that killed an estimated 20,000 people. Many sagas and myths even go back to earlier times, and speak of a coastline that lay much further to the west. Which we know now is correct. We have already mentioned above the case of Rungholt, preserved in the collective memory of the Frisians for a staggering six centuries. But also memories of sea inlets like the Dollart Bay, created after a great storm that could not be closed again, are being recalled for a long time. Or the loss of the island Bosch.

This repetitive destruction, repetitive loss of life, livestock, houses, and - indeed - fertile land, has been traumatizing and shaped the psyche and mentality of the coastal dwellers. Turn it around, how could it not have? To get a glimpse of the loss of land and islands, read our post Atlantis found! Wait, there is another one, or 7, wait 12, what? 16 in total... No, 19!

great flood 1962

After reading all of the above, one might ask why in heaven’s name people continued to live at this low-lying, volatile waterfront of the North Sea. At the unshielded, barren tidal marshland. Even without quite crucial resources like stone, wood, and sweet water available? Two reasons help to explain their deviant behaviour.

The specific relevant content for this request, if necessary, delimited with ` characters: The first reason is that the salt marshes offered exceptional fertile pastures for livestock, especially cattle and sheep. In addition, the peatlands a bit more inland offered turf and salt. Besides these highly valuable resources, a big delta like this one is a great hub for trade. Connected with the wider world via sea and via the rivers Scheldt, Meuse, Rhine, Ems, Weser, Jade, Elbe, Eider, and Vidå, to name only the biggest and most important ones. The delta is a crossroad. The skills you need to have are knowing how to survive in this dynamic territory and how to sail. And you need ships, of course. This is how the Frisians became the central brokers of Western Europe during the Early Middle Ages already. Even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they were known as the freighters of Europe for the massive ship trade on the Baltic Sea, and the coasts of France, Britain, and Norway. In other words, there were many economic benefits.

The second reason is unrealistic optimism. From empirical psychology, we know that most people tend to perceive risks concerning personal health less than for others. The illusion of control, especially if there is something to gain.

A more deeper meaning of the landscape and psyche of the coastal dwellers is that they were physically and mentally literally living on the border of order and chaos, of structure and destruction.

Wo Es war, soll Ich werden (Freud 1933)

Where it [id; unconscious] was, shall I [ego; conscious] be

The border is even defined very clearly and sharply: the dyke. Behind the dyke is the inner world of order, culture, and structure. It is protected by the ring. Outside the dyke exists chaos, ruled by the wild forces of nature: the sea and its destructive capacity. The inner world is their conscious (Ich) and the outer world their unconscious (Es). A Frisian legend has it that heathen King Radbod rides with his horse over the salt marshes when it storms and thunders. Go to the crest of the dyke, look over the tidal marshlands, and wait for this spectacle of fear and destruction. With building dykes, the coastal dwellers tried to control the chaos by incorporating it into the mainland. In fact, they tried to culture nature. To culture wilderness. Each time pushing the boundary toward the sea with a new encircling dyke. Bringing Ich towards Es, as much as possible. Very appropriately, Sigmund Freud added in this respect:

Es ist Kulturarbeit wie die Trockenlegung der Zuydersee (Freud 1933)

It is cultivation labour, like the reclamation of the Zuiderzee 'southern sea'

This constant interaction, both physically and mentally, between order and chaos, between cultivation and wilderness, is not unique for waterfront people of the (former) tidal marshlands. Human nature is to de-nature itself, as it were. Much of the planet's land wilderness has been reduced to controllable parks and reserves, with humankind trying to position itself above it. At the same time, civilization has its roots in wilderness, like Romulus and Remus were brought up by a wild wolf and founded the Roman Empire. Therefore, true wilderness is also a fascinating mirror of humans. A reminder and alert of the destructive, dark forces every human carries within.

In European history, the wolf is pre-eminently the creature symbolizing this duality of pushing away and attraction. We are afraid of the wolf but love its cultivated variant, the dog. One's fear of the wilderness is the fear of their own wildness. Think also of the werewolf, a harmless human and harmful beast at the same time. Not for nothing did Freud sign his paintings with 'Wolf Man' (Smeyers 2023). Not for nothing did Quentin Tarantino create the character Winston Wolf in his movie Pulp Fiction (1994), who dealt with savage matters. Not for nothing is a wild sea nicknamed the waterwolf. Read for more background about the wolf and its relation with Frisia our post Who's afraid of Voracious Woolf?

Not without coincidence, the English word 'landscape' derives from the Dutch word Landschap. It expresses land being cultivated, ordered by human hands, and has a positive connotation. It is where nature and culture are in harmony, where you feel safe and secure. Cultivated land behind the dykes was considered a sacred inner world (Knottnerus, 2005). The French philosopher Lemaire (1970) explained that everything within humans wants not to be denied or ignored by nature. Instead, nature offers us shelter and houses us by providing a universe on a scale fitting for humans (Freriks & Storms 2022). The Frisians even had their own saint, namely Saint Walfrid, who transformed the swamp forests around Bedum in modern province Groningen into arable land suitable for human habitation. Check out our post Walfrid, You'll Never Walk Alone.

In this mental model, a great storm flood occurs during which the dykes of the Golden Ring break, is like a psychosis of someone suffering from borderline personality disorder. Contours and structures disappear. Land turns into the sea, chaos and destruction are everywhere. The landscape is destroyed and wilderness comes back. In other words, it's traumatizing. For the new kids on the block who find this difficult to grasp, think of The Wall in the series Game of Thrones (2011). When in season 7 The Wall comes crashing down, and the White Walkers and the undead enter civilization. Feel it? Well, that wall or icy dyke separated chaos from order too.

According to psychoanalysis, Ich and Es should be brought together as much as possible, knowing that it will never be fully achieved. As such, the coastal people already warned in an early stage, before the global warming debate, that the sea will never be fully controllable. Indeed, in the meantime new water management approaches are being developed and implemented that accept and embrace the dynamics of water, both sweet and salt, instead of the classic reflex of resisting it. These concepts give water more space once again. The mighty river Rhine, once straightened and channelled between high dykes, is now being released from its straitjacket, where possible. At the same time, research is being carried out to adjust coastal agriculture to the inevitable more saline environment in the future.

great flood 1962

When, as described above, in the mid '70s the environmental movement brought a justifiable halt to the activity of reclaiming land from the sea, most inhabitants of the provinces Friesland and Groningen just did not get it and were upset. How can you give up good land to the water? Your eternal enemy? Why should you stop trying to take back land from the sea which it had taken from you before, in the first place? Even recently in province Zeeland, these emotions resurfaced. In 2012, an unprecedented conflict arose between Belgium and the Netherlands because the latter refused to fulfil its part of a bilateral treaty, namely, to give the Hedwige Polder back to the sea, i.e. the river East-Scheldt estuary. It hit the ancient nerves of the fear of water. At the time of writing (2021), the matter still has not been completely resolved.

What we can make out of all this is that the coastal dweller is very sensitive to order, chaos, and water. They have been confronted for ages with a very and frequently destructive wilderness, namely the sea. At the same time, they have always depended on the sea for trade and nutrition. But they have also managed it themselves as free individuals.

Then water itself. Its meaning is ambivalent. In the biblical vision, water has two faces. On the one hand, water is used to wash one's feet, to be baptized, and the Bible speaks of a river that went out of Eden. On the other hand, the earth was deliberately brought back to a watery chaos after mankind had become corrupt and violent. Only Noah and some animals could survive in his Ark. Incidentally, Noah's grandson, Friso, son of the first King Sem, happened to be the ancestor of the tribe of the Frisians. According to legend that is.

Abbot Emo (ca. 1175-1237) of the monastery Bloemhof ‘flower garden’ at Wittewierum in modern province Groningen says in his Cronica Floridi Horti ‘chronicle flower garden’ the following about the destructive Marcellus flood in January 1219:

Contingit autem dilivium propter scelera nostra, quia scriptum est, quod sub Noe filii Chain abutebantur uxoribus fratrum suorum nimiis fornicationibus, iratusque Dominus peccatis bominum dixit: Penitet me fecisse hominem. Delebo hominem, quem feci; disperdam cum cum terra, videlicet cum fertilitate terrae, terra enim vigorem suum et fertilitatem perdidit per diluvium.

A great flood, however, takes place because of our crimes, because it is written that the sons of Cain in the time of Noah often indulged in shameful fornication with the wives of their brothers. Being angry at the sins of mankind, the Lord said: “I repent that I have created mankind. I will destroy mankind I created. I will destroy it together with the earth,” that is, with the fruitfulness of the earth; for the earth lost its fertility and strength during the great flood.

A more practical, temporary explanation why Frisia was affected by the Marcellus flood was because Frisians did not pay taxes, the so-called tienden 'tenths' and eerstelingen 'firsts'. This according to Abbot Menko of the monastery Bloemhof. All very foolish and silly, of course, because if they had paid taxes, they would have received a four-fold compensation. According to the church father Augustine, namely, when giving a tenth to the church in return, crops will be rich, besides enjoying good physical health too.

The fact that a great storm flood was a punishment of God shaped the minds of the coastal people too over the last thousand years or so. Think of the incalculable Frisian sagas concerning drowned or sunken cities or villages like Bense, Rungholt, Weene, Esonstad, Westeel, Torum, and many more. These often have as their theme that their citizens were filthy rich and flouted God and his commandments, and for that, they were punished.

In a way, 'punishment' gave meaning to people after a catastrophe had happened again. Until the great flood of 1953 in the province of Zeeland, called the Watersnoodramp 'flood disaster,' great storm floods always received the name of the Catholic Saint of the Day. For there must be a reason, an explanation for such evil to befall men. Similar social reflexes have been witnessed with the corona pandemic in Brazil: the collective in search of the source of evil when life-threatening disasters take place (Simõesa et al 2020). There must be an explanation, a relief, a way out, and an end to it all.

Whether or not it is an imaginary vengeful God, or an imaginary disgruntled Nature that punishes mankind for their wrongdoing by sending the corona pandemic into the world, accepting retribution is a way for people to comprehend and deal with deadly and uncontrollable catastrophes. Pointlessness is even harder to accept. Ora et labora 'pray and work'.

This might also be an explanation why the story of Moby-Dick has rooted in our collective memory for already 170 years. The wild white whale that kills Captain Ahab at high sea, but not after giving the vengeful, one-legged captain three clear warnings to give it up. The forces of nature will bring everything back to disorder if not respected. Revenge on nature is revenge on one's self. Note that the author of Moby-Dick, Herman Melville, is of Dutch and thus of 'watery' descent and infected with the antique psyche of the southern North Sea coast as well. Only read the famous opening lines of his novel:

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.

Hunting whales, by the way, is something Frisians passionately did in the Arctic during the early modern period. Check our post Happy Hunting Grounds in the Arctic and learn that the Frisians are to blame majorly for the (near) extinctions of the whale in the northern ice seas.


Besides being eager for individual profit, being republican by nature, packed with the illusion of risks control, and overly sensitive to creating order and structure, more importantly, repetitive natural catastrophes have also formed a tight, self-reliant community with a strong collective memory.

Indeed, out of averting the inevitable a community was born.


Note - Another fear has reshaped much of the landscape in the Netherlands, namely the fear of hunger. During the Second World War, the Dutch experienced hunger. A resistance hero and farmer, from the coast of the Wadden Sea in province Groningen, Sicco Mansholt (1909-1995), became the most influential politician in the Netherlands and Europe on agricultural policies ever. With his motto 'never to suffer hunger again,' he reformed agriculture into large-scale production. The landscape was fundamentally changed; made suitable for mass production and heavy machines. Every last piece of 'wilderness' was erased. Every tree was felled because every square meter meant more production. It happened without any care for or awareness of the consequences for nature. Read our post Golden Calves, or bursting udders on bony legs for more on Sicco Mansholt.



Bernd Rieken took in his book Nordsee ist Mordsee the mentality theory a deep step further. He explains that in the psychology the primary object of love is the mother, and that mother and water are similar, exchangeable. Out of water one is born. It nourishes, gives protection, connection and harmony. With that also comes the wish to merge with the mother or return to the water. Especially, if someone is in a state of crisis. A poem of Philip Booth illustrates this feeling. Pay specific attention to the last words.

Lie back daughter, let your head be tipped back in the cup of my hand. Gently, and I will hold you. Spread your arms wide, lie out on the stream and look high at the gulls. A dead- man's float is face down. You will dive and swim soon enough where this tidewater ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe me, when you tire on the long thrash to your island, lie up, and survive. As you float now, where I held you and let go, remember when fear cramps your heart what I told you: lie gently and wide to the light-year stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

Philip Booth

According to Rieken this is what the fascism movement offered the people: to merge into the greater whole. A concept very much in line with the mentality of the coastal people. That is the reason why the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP) received more than average support from the Frisians, again, according to Rieken. The paradox that most ‘freien Friesen‘ in Germany supported in the years 1932 and 1933 the enemy of freedom, the NSDAP (Steensen 2020).

To our opinion, extending the individual need to merge with the mother/water for security, which is a valid well-known theory, to an identical need of a collective, is a big step too far.

Furthermore, if you look at the Frisians living in the Netherlands before and during the war, there was little support for the fascism movement. The Dutch equivalent of the NSDAP, the Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging (NSB) secured only one seat in the regional parliament Provinciale Staten of Friesland in 1935. In 1939 the number of seats dropped to zero again. Despite specific interest of derailed personalities like Seys Inquart and Heinrich Himmler, aka Reichsheini, for the Frisian people supposedly being a pure Arian race, the Friese Beweging ‘Frisian movement’ did not took much interest either. Seys Inquart and Reichsführer Himmler even visited province Friesland immediately after the invasion of the Netherlands.

However, the two organizations forming the Friese beweging (namely Selskip foar Fryske Tael en Skriftekennisse, and Kristlik Frysk Selskip) díd start a cooperation with the fascist Fryske Folkspartij (FFP) in the so-called driemanschap ‘triumvirate’. But this cooperation went awry soon. The FFP, by the way, only had about thirty members.

Everything taken together, for us reason to think the difference in support for fascism between the Frisians in Germany and those in the Netherlands had other causes, and cannot be explained (only) with the psycho-analytical explanation of ‘Frisians wanting to return to their water, to return to their mama’. We must dig deeper! Maybe the modern history of Nordfriesland of being yo-yoed between the realms of Denmark, the House of Habsburg, and Prussia, and the empty promises made by these empires to the Nordfriesen for more autonomy, might have had something to do with it.


averting the inevitable

Suggested music

Udo Lindenbergs & das Panik-Orchester, Ich Träume Oft Davon, Ein Segelboot Zu Klau'n (1976)

Titantic Orchestra, Alexander's Ragtime Band (1912)

Further reading

Boer, de D.E.H., Emo's reis. Een historisch culturele ontdekkingstocht door Europa in 1212 (2017)

Deen, M., De Wadden. Een geschiedenis (2013)

Delfstra, T., Allerheiligenvloed 1570. Ramp voor Oostdongeradeel? (2020)

Döring, M. & Ratter, B., “I show you my coast…” A relational study of coastscapes in the North Frisian Wadden Sea (2021)

Freriks, K. & Storms, M., Grensverkenningen. Langs oude grenzen in Nederland (2022)

Hendriksma, M., De Rijn. Biografie van een rivier (2017)

Huisman, K., Penjumer Halsbân (1994)

Jansen, H.P.H. & Janse, A. (transl.), Kroniek van het klooster Bloemhof te Wittewierum (1991)

Jensen, L., Floods as shapers of Dutch cultural identity: media, theories and practices (2021)

Jensen, L., Hoe de strijd tegen het water de Nederlandse identiteit vormde (2021)

Knottnerus, O.S., History of human settlement, cultural change and interference with the marine environment (2005)

Knottnerus, O.S., Van Waddenland tot Waddenzee, of: Hoe de dijk tot scheidslijn werd (2023)

Kok, A., Randland. Portret van de Friese en Groningse kuststrook (2001)

Melville, H., Moby-Dick or The Whale (1851)

Mingren, W., Startling Similarity between Hindu Flood Legend of Manu and the Biblical Account of Noah (2015)

Nijmeijer, B., En God voor ons allen. In het buitenland bezoeken we al die kerken terwijl ze thuis aan je voeten liggen (2020)

Penning, Y., Stormvloed. De spectaculaire ondergang van het waddeneiland Bosch in het begin van de 80-jarige oorlog (2007)

Phoa, A.L. & Schaaf, van der M., Drinkbare rivieren (2021)

Pleijster, E.J., Veeken, van der C. & Jongerius, R., Dijken van Nederland (2014)

Post, J., Zoden aan de dijk. Dijken rondom en overal / Diken by ‘t soad. Seadden oan de dyk. De waterstaat voor 1500 in Friesland opnieuw bekeken, met uitlopen tot 1600 en 1700, aan de hand van onderzoeken, opgravingen en toevallige ontdekkingen (2020).

Rieken, B., Nordsee ist Mordsee. Sturmfluten und ihre Bedeutung für die Mentalitätsgeschichte der Friesen (2005)

Rijcken, T., Het water komt, maar wees niet bang (2022)

Rooijendijk, C., Waterwolven. Een geschiedenis van stormvloeden, dijkenbouwers en droogmakers (2009)

Simõesa, S.S., Blanchette T.G., Murray L., & Silvaac, da A.P., The prostitute, the city, and the virus (2020)

Smeyers, K., Wolf. Wildernisgeschiedenis (2023)

Steensen, T. Die Friesen. Menschen am Meer (2020)

Vriend, E., Eens ging de zee hier tekeer (2020)

Vries, O., Friezen en Fascisten (year unknown)

Vries, de A., De Brykfryske Mienskip. Lêzing hâlden foar de Jongfryske Mienskip, Oerterp, 1 November 2019, blog Seedyksterfeartfisk 2019

Winsemius, P., Het koningsvaandel. Reis door het verleden van Friesland (2014)

Woud, van der A., De Nederlanden. Het lege land 1800-1850 (2022)

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