Make way for the dead!
Updated: Jun 24
High in the Alps of Switzerland, in the region Bernese Oberland, many men, women and children have experienced the great horror of the dead Frisians marching back to their homeland in the middle of the night. The path they follow is The Frisians Way, connecting the Haslital ‘Hasli valley’ in the Bernese Oberland with the shores of the North Sea of former Frisia. The dead do not speak ‘friend’ and enter, if they want to pass through your house. No, you better not stand in their way, not an inch, and immediately open the doors.
In the heart of Switzerland, the highlands south of Bern, a remarkable persistent saga exists that the inhabitants of these valleys and alps, descend from the Swedes and the Frisians. Even the family of the Knights of Resti claims to be desecendents of the Frisians. It is the legend as preserved in the Ostfriesenlied der Oberhasler ‘the East-Frisians song of the Oberhasli people’. It is unsure how old the song is and who wrote it down, but the suggestion is in the sixteenth century by a person named Ringwaldt (Binkes, 1839). The song consists of seventy-seven strophes, each with six lines. Below the eleventh strophe to give the reader an idea.
Auss Ost-Friesen zoch ein gross Schar,
Kamend mit den Schweden dahar,
Die sach nahmen sie zhanden;
Sie mussten ziehen vberall,
Auss Bergen vnd auss tieffe Thal,
Von Stätten vnd von Landen.
Whereas the Swedes settled mostly in the canton of Schwyz, the Frisians mostly settled in the canton of Bern, especially in the Haslital. The valley with Meiringen as main settlement and where the river Aare begins.
The legend has it that in ancient times, there was once a great famine in Sweden and in Frisia. Harsh decisions had to be made back then. In accordance to Germanic tradition, the people of Sweden and of Frisia decided to cast lots to determine who, together with their wife and children, had to leave the land to settle elsewhere. In total 6,000 Swedish men were chosen by fate. When the Swedes arrived in Frisia, 1,200 Frisian men joined together with their families.
The leaders of this Swedish-Frisian mob were Schwytzerus, Remus and Wadislaus (also known as Switer, Swey and Hasius). Schwytzerus and Remus led the Swedish arm. Wadislaus led the Frisian arm. Unsure to which tribe Wadislaus belonged originally. Before the party ended up in Switzerland, they roamed big parts of Europe and lived of plundering. They settled in the Bernese Oberland of Switzerland. For the Swedes, these mountains were a familiar landscape. For the Frisians, it was the bright-green alpine pastures that reminded them of back home. Despite they cultivated the land successfully and made this part of Switzerland their new home, it was the Frisians that always longed for their homeland. This longing was, and is, so strong that after they died, they regularly return to the muddy seashores of Frisia during the night. When they do, they follow the exact track they travelled after the great famine. It is (a first English translation of) the legend Der Friesenweg:
Der Friesenweg ‘The Frisians Way’
There is a region in the Bernese Oberland in Switzerland, Saanenland, where the nights can give you the heebie-jeebies. It is better if you do not have to be on the road at night and you safely stay in your bed at home. Because outside the house, there is often a terrible roar, thunder, and howling. Whoever hears it, makes the sign of the Cross and hides himself under the covers, since he or she knows that the Frisians are on their way.
In the old days, the Frisians were driven out of their land after great floods and famine. They moved into the beautiful valleys of Saanenland. Because they favoured the green mountain world, they made it their home. The green pastures were cultivated, and the wild animals were driven back into the mountain forests.
But, the Frisians could never forget their old homeland, to this day. Therefore, these dead Frisians often rise from their graves on certain nights, especially around the winter equinox. They gather to return home, to the distant shores of the grey North Sea. The path they follow is the same they had followed when they came to the Bernese region, long ago. The same night they also return to their burial mounds, but not after they heard the noise of the sea.
But woe to those who hinder the way of the dead Frisians, because they will not deviate one inch from their original route! The angry ghosts will shred houses and walls and wipe out everything of their way, as if an avalanche leads ahead of them.
Many, many years ago, a farmstead with barn was carelessly built in the high mountains, in the middle of The Frisians Way. Fortunately, by chance, both doors of the barn had been placed where The Frisians Way entered and ended, so that the ghost path could go right through the stable. Therefore, as soon as the cattle had been let out into the night after being milked, the farmer carefully left the barn doors wide open. No matter how often the procession of dead Frisians roared through the barn, it was never devastated, nor did anything happen to one of the alpine farmers lying on the hayloft, albeit filled with horror.
One day the farmer thought to visit his loved ones in the valley again, since he had not seen them for most of the summer. So, he took a fork on his back and put a bag of butter on it. Before he left, however, he spoke to his master farmhand and strongly recommended that he never would lock the stable's doors during the night. This to make sure that the dead Frisians could make their way freely through the stable, if they were to do so.
When the farmer had left down to the valley, the master farmhand informed the other men of the farmer’s warning. They had a great laugh together and mocked the simplicity of their boss. Moreover, they even agreed to block The Frisians Way and therefore closed the stable doors. They locked both doors tight. Then lay down on the hay, still laughing. Outside it started to wind. At first, only weakly but then more and more. The men ignored it and fell asleep.
They may not have been asleep for long when suddenly they were awakened by a strange grumble that sounded like distant thunder. At first, they believed a thunderstorm was coming up, but the stars still shimmered through the cracks in the roof. The grumbling and growling grew stronger and became an ominous row. Then, it was as if they were hearing mighty horns blow, horses fume and dogs bark. Also, they heard the threatening sound of clanging of weapons.
Startled, they sat up and listened. They could now clearly hear the trotting, and there was something like a ceaseless lashing of the roof. Then an enormous bang on the door, like a terrible thunderclap, from which the whole barn shook. A voice called out in the night: "Open the door, because the Frisian people want to pass!"
"Tüet uf die Tür, wan ds Friesenvolch wott grad derdür!"
Scared to death, the men crouched on their hayloft. No one dared to clear the blocked path and open the doors.
There was a terrible noise. The entire roof of the stable, including the heavy roof tiles, was lifted, so that the horrified farmhands saw the sky above them for a while. But the heavy roof slowly lowered down, back on the stable walls. Now the master farmhand realised with horror that they would all be doomed if the doors were not opened quickly. Knowing that his own bravado and disobedience earlier was the cause behind the wild raging of the dead, he called down into the dark stable: "In the name of God, I will open it!"
“In Gottesnamen tu’ ich auf!”
Shivering all over, he went down from the hayloft into the stable and opened the two doors as far as he could. Then he stood trembling, half dead with fear, next to the doorway.
No sooner was the passageway open than strange men passed him. All tall and towering over his head, and friendly wished him a good evening. Then, a whole army rushed past him, like a storm wind.
The warriors were dressed in fluttering bull skins, their horns looking frightening over their blond, curly hair. They carried long spears or huge battle axes on their shoulders, and broad swords hung from their belts. Also, they carried a huge shield on one arm. As soon as they had passed, horse riders appeared, who could hardly tame their fuming horses. The stars were reflected in the feather-decorated helmets of the riders. The riders raced through the barn like a storm and were followed by foot soldiers. Behind the foot soldiers, huge wagons rolled with thundering speed through the barn, carrying women and children with golden-blonde hair. Skilful boys and rough-haired dogs chased after them. Then warriors came again, and it went on for a long, long time. It did not want to end.
The master farmhand stared with horror and trembling at the endless march of Frisians. None of the men was laughing anymore. Instead, they were pale and terrified. The master farmhand could not move. When the tremendous procession finally came to an end, the wind-encircled fringes of the snowy mountains glowed; it was day. Then the master farmhand crept through the barn, shivering all over, climbed back up to the hayloft where the others waited with fear. There he lay down and told what he saw with a worried and trembling voice. After that, he did not say a word anymore.
When it was evening, he had died. For no one who has seen the dead Frisians with his own eyes, may live.
* * *
Till this very day, there are owners of barns and houses in Switzerland who follow the tradition not to lock their barn during the night. One example is the owner of the so-called Friesenhaus “Frisians house’ that stands in the village Beinwill am See. The house is also known as the Geisterhaus ‘ghosts house’. In this village too, legend has it the dead Frisians are still homesick. Now and then they leave their graves, to see and smell their homeland. If a house stands in their way, they might knock once but not twice. You must open quickly otherwise something terrible will happen. Indeed, an impatient bunch of homesick zombies, is what they are. Also according to the people of Beinwill am See.
A variant of this sage is about the typical dry föhn winds in the Alps. When these winds come down the mountains, alpine herders leave the doors of their stables open. Then, carried by the föhn winds, an army of Frisians, with chariots, men of war and helmeted knights goes through the lands they once conquered. And woe to anyone who has built a chalet through which this army of Frisians cannot pass. Only its walls will remain.
There is another Swiss legend that recounts of Frisians settling in the Alps. This legend has it that after the Frisians had liberated Rome around AD 800 and received the so-called Freedom Privileges in return from Charlemagne, they travelled home over the Alps. Along the way the Frisians became ill and stopped in the region Schwyz to recover. It is a region east of the Haslital. Here, they decided to stay. After that, they subdued the surrounding villages and even killed the dukes of Austria (i.e. Habsburg). This way the Frisians preserved their freedom. For this reason, as the legend goes, the Swiss call the Frisians Vatter ‘father’ and the Frisians call the Swiss Sohn ‘son’.
This legend explains why during the High Middle Ages the Swiss and the Frisians, though part of the Holy Roman Empire, were two nations that were free from monarchs, kings, dukes and counts. The only lord they were submitted to, was the emperor himself. That was especially the case for the so-called Waldstätte, namely the three core regions Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden. In other words, both Switzerland and Frisia were Reichsunmittelbar or Rechsfrei, and were, in fact, a loose federation of republican entities. A quite exceptional status in Europe, back then. The Frisians did not have political institutions, although they did give it a try with the treaty of Upstalsboom, founded around AD 1200. It was also called the alliance of the Seven Sealands of Frisia. It was no success, read our blog post Upstalsboom: why solidarity is not the core of a collective. The Swiss, however, became better politically organized and were united within the Alte Eidgenossenschaft ‘Old Confederacy’ founded at the end of the thirteenth century by the three districts Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden. Frisia politically dissolved during the Late Middle Ages. Switzerland, however, is still there to see.
In the heraldry, certain Frisian families could carry the black half-eagle with yellow background on their coat of arms. The coat of arms of the region Oberhasli is also a black eagle on a yellow background. Not a half eagle, though, but a whole one. Both coats of arms express the imperial immediacy or Reichsfreiheit. A sign of the freedom privileges they had received from the Holy Roman Emperor.
Besides the bedtime story of The Frisian Way, the migration of Frisians to Switzerland and the similar freedom sagas relating to their political republican structure, there is another intriguing resemblance. These are the church-building legends.
In the region of (former) Frisia quite a few local legends exist about how the location where to build a new church was determined. Often this involved two oxen. Either the animals were tied together, or they let two oxen pull a cart without a driver. They let the beasts of burden wander for a while, for example during the whole night. The place where they would find the oxen resting the next morning, would be the designated spot to build the church. Occasionally, it is only one bull. In the neighbouring region Dithmarschen, horses did the job instead of cows. It could be a single horse, or two horses tied together as well. Dithmarschen; just like Frisia a conglomerate of free farmers republics at the tidal marshlands of the southern North Sea. Several two-cows-wander legends are also found just outside Dithmarschen and (North) Frisia, especially in villages in central Schleswig-Holstein.
The places where this type of legends have been recorded, are: Aduard, Bedum, Blexen, Breklum, Delve, Dronrijp, Edam, Haddeby, Hemme, Imsum, Jevenstedt, Kisdorf, Neuenkirchen, Nijemirdum, Nijland, Schwesing, Sønderburg, Stintebüll and Witzwort. Maybe there are more. Interestingly, despite the legends are found in province Friesland in the Netherlands (i.e. Mid Frisia) and in Kreis Nordfriesland in Germany (i.e. North Frisia), they are not found in the region Ostfriesland, Germany (East Frisia) as far as we know. Remarkable, if we recall the Ostfriesenlied der Oberhasler mentioned earlier. Close to Ostfriesland at the mouth of the river Weser, near Bremerhaven, two villages do know these legends.
Surprisingly, in Switzerland practically identical legends exist. These have been recorded in five places: Sankt Stephan, Reichenbach, Blumenstein, Einigen and Grindelwald. All these places are in the Bernese Oberland, although east from the Haslital.
We stop at Reichenbach for a while. Reichenbach is located in the Kandertal 'Kander valley' with the town of Frutigen as its main town. The Frutigen people of the Kandertal also claim to be descendents of the Frisians. The Kandertal and Haslital are connected with each other via the lakes Thun and Briensz. Every other year, the people of both valleys came together in Meiringen in the Haslital and Frutigen in the Kandertal to have wrestling events, or Schwingfeste as they call it. These Schwingfeste are still quite popular in Switzerland.
In Britain there is one church-building legend that has some resemblances with those of Frisia, Dithmarschen and the Bernese Oberland. According to the legend of Alfriston, the people wanted to build a church on the west-side of town. But, during the night the stones miraculously were thrown over the town to a field named The Tye. An old and wise man noticed that there where the stones had landed, four cows were resting in the shape of a cross. It was decided, that became the location of the new church.
The underlying reason of this type of legends probably is that two groups of people, for example two competing villages, could not reach consensus on the location where to build a (new) church. That were, in the past, important events. In other words, what humans could not accomplish, two animals condemned to each other must (Schoo, 1934). Of course, the examples of one animal wandering, might have a similar background. But, in this instance the decision was left fully to the supernatural. And, who knows, in republican societies the need to find a compromise is more eminent than in centrally led states. Nor worldly nor ecclesiastical powers telling you what to do, or to perform a judgment of Solomon. Thus, this practice of livestock running around at soft salt marshes and solid alpine pastures, was a useful instrument to solve disputes in Dithmarschen, Frisia and Switzerland.
What to make of all this?
The oldest written Swiss texts documenting the sagas of the Frisians (and Swedes) migrating to Switzerland and about The Frisians Way, are probably from the second half of the fifteenth century. It is impossible to say how much older these sagas are, if at all. But, it is possible they were created around AD 1300 when Switzerland as a republican political entity emerged. Following the example of the Seven Sealands of Frisia. It is reasonable to assume that by then, the Frisian freedom sagas already existed.
In province Friesland in the Netherlands also different sagas exist about Frisians settling in Switzerland. This after they had liberated Rome and received the freedom privileges. So, instead of coming from the north, they arrived from the south. The pure fictional person Magnus Forteman is the main character in these sagas, but he is a later addition to already existing sagas. The leader of the Frisians fighting for Charlemagne. Read our blog post Magnus’ Choice. The Origins of the Frisian Freedom to learn more. In another variant of this saga, the Frisians had fought under Charles Martel against the Saracens and lost their leader Poppo during the battle at Tours in France. After that, the warriors ended up in Switzerland and decided to stay. They chose a new leader, named Swittert. That is how Switzerland received its name. There are more variants of these founding sagas in province Friesland, but these give the reader an idea.
The similarity of the church-building sagas in Switzerland and in former Frisia (and the wider southern North Sea coast) are also curious (Wiersma, 1934). Up to now, we have not found any study on these church-building legends. Only pre-Second World War articles and semi-academic studies exist on this topic. In general, the whole item of Switzerland and Frisia receives little to no attention the last hundred years or so. But who knows, simply because this is all there is to know.
We might never know if there is some truth in the sagas and if so, what that was? Or it must be that future DNA research can either confirm or debunk the sagas. But, what is great anyway, there are Swiss people who tell the tale to this day!
Note 1: There is also a theory that the Frisians and Swiss have the same law origin. That theory was based on claimed similarities in the early-medieval legal tradition of the position of women compared to men when it came to the right to possess goods (Ficker, 1904). This theory can be put aside, since the Lex Frisionum, which was the main source, does not regulate the position of women in succession anyhow. We only know from the Lex Frisionum that a weregeld for a man was the same as that for a woman. Read our blog post You killed a man? That’ll be one weregeld, please.
Note 2: On the Faroe Islands also sagas exist about Frisians who settled there. Though not soldiers, but heathen pirates. Read our blog post Latið meg ei á Frísaland fordervast! So, the Swiss got off best.
Note 3: Some people might get overexcited and think the village of Zurich in province Friesland in the Netherlands and the city of Zürich in Switzerland, is yet another connection. Good thinking, but alas. No, Zurich is a contraction of 'south' and 'riege'. Riege is related to English 'ridge' and means 'elevated shore'. Thus south of the (sea)shore.
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