Beacons of Nordfriesland

Nordfriesland, or North Frisia. The western coast and islands of the region Schleswig. Stretching from the Danish town Tønder in the north to the river Eider in the south. A broad strip of land by the sea with all islands in between. It is here where a specific celebration of bonfires takes place every year. There is a lot of speculation about the (pagan) origin why the people of Nordfriesland started to make big fires on 21 February every year. The celebration is called Biikebrånen or Biikin, both in North-Frisian language. Or, Biikebrennen in Low-Saxon language. We shall use the word Biikin of the North-Frisian speech Fering spoken at the island Föhr.

This touches immediately upon one of the difficulties when you start to write about Nordfriesland, namely its language and the many dialects that differ enormously. Sometimes even several sub-dialects on one island. It starts already with the name Nordfriesland. Depending which North-Frisian sub-dialect you take, it is called Nordfraschlönj, Noordfreeskluin, Nuurdfriislön, Nuurdfresklun, Nuardfresklun, nordfriislun or Nöördfreesklöön. The splintering over so many and very differing sub-dialects of the mere 10,000 North-Frisian speakers that are left to date, presents a huge challenge for the language to survive. Yes, the outlook voor this Frisian language is very grim. The language is already extinct in the south of Kreis Nordfriesland, between the town of Husum and the river Eider. If interested in this topic, check out our page Language.

early-medieval settlement of Frisians

Back to the topic of this blog post: fire!

The Biikin celebration takes place at the North-Frisian Wadden Sea islands, the Halligen and the peninsula Eiderstedt. And at the Wadden Sea islands of southern Denmark as well. Less on the mainland of Nordfriesland though, but gaining popularity. Big stacks of wood are placed on beaches or elsewhere along the endless shores. The stacks are lit in the evening of February 21st. Different rituals exist but the burning of straw puppets named Petermännchen ‘little Peter men’ is quite often practiced. According to some the straw puppet or ‘the Man’ actually symbolizes the Pope of Rome. Whatever it represents, this clearly explains also the origin of the annual event of Burning Man that takes place in the month August or September in the hot desert of the state Nevada.

None other than Julius Ceasar wrote in the first century about the Germanic ritual to make huge images, simulacra. These big dolls or, indeed, giant Petermännchen made of willow were stuffed with living humans. After that the giant doll was lit and the humans inside, burned alive.

Still, the origin of the North-Frisian fire celebration is unclear. Some say it was to ward off evil ghosts and spirits. Others say, it originally marked the beginning of the sailing season. With big fires the loving women wanted to guide their men as long as possible, when they set off to open sea. Or, another explanation, it was just to drive out the winter. The last explanation might be stolen from the bonfire Meierblis, in local dialect meaning ‘May Fire’, on the Wadden Sea island Texel in the Netherlands. That takes place on April 30 every year, to celebrate the transition from winter to summer.

Petermännchen

But, maybe there is another explanation possible too. For this we take you back to early times.

We skip the habitation during the Stone Age (3,000-2,500 BC) and the many megalith graves found at the islands of Föhr and Sylt, and at the coastal strip of Nordfriesland and in region Dithmarschen just south of Nordfriesland as well. Instead, we take a giant leap, all the way to Roman times.

Notice we use the word ‘terp’ (i.e. an artificial dwelling mound) and not the word ‘Warf(t)’ or ‘Wurt’ which are more commonly used in Germany. Nor do we use ‘værft’ used in Denmark, or ‘wierde’ in province Groningen in the Netherlands. Read our Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps to learn more about these settlement mounds, and the nearly thirty different names for it along the North Sea coast.

Roman and Migration periods

During the Roman Period the North-Frisian coast was relatively densely populated. Habitation concentrated on the geest soils. Geests are sandy and gravelly soils formed as glacial outwash plain (viz moraines). The geest soils were formed during the Saale glacial period. More precisely, settlements were located on the edge of geests near the fertile salt marshes. Especially, habitation existed on the islands Föhr, Sylt (Archsum), Amrum and Wiedingharde, and on parts of the peninsula Eiderstedt. Also, the salt marshes south of what is now Nordfriesland, region Dithmarschen, were densely populated in Roman times.

Actually, the peninsula Eiderstedt was formed much later, out of the islands Utholm, Westerhever, Everschop and Eiderstedt at the end of the Middle Ages.

Habitation of the high marshes along the river Eider, started in the first and second century. These were initially Flachsiedlungs ‘surface-level settlements’. Settlement was made possible because of a period of regression of the sea. The Eider estuary was an important area for transport, and thus relevant for the regional economic system. Both on the north (e.g. the villages of Elisenhof, Tofting and Welt) and south banks (e.g. the villages of Hemmerwurth and Flehderwurth) of the river Eider, settlements existed. Soon, from the second and third centuries, the yards of these settlements had to be raised because of a sea level that was rising again. Tofting is a well known excavation anno 1948, where the terp was first raised to +1.85 MOD (Meters above Ordnance Datum) in the first century, to gradually +4.08 MOD in the fifth century. Thus, in contrast to the tidal marshlands of region Ostfriesland and provinces Friesland and Groningen, where a terp culture existed already centuries before the Roman Period, this was not the case in Nordfriesland. Here terps developed during the Late Roman Period.

In the fifth century, habitation discontinued in Nordfriesland. Like in the terp region of the Netherlands during the fourth century, here too the inconvenient truth for a while: ‘you could only hear the seagulls cry’. A dramatic decline of population from ca. 400 until ca. 650. In the fifth century, the land was empty. From the sixth century on, Nordfriesland was modestly re-populated. Despite these brave new inhabitants, it were merely a few, and population during the sixth and seventh centuries continued to be very limited in Nordfriesland.

First colonization wave: the Geestfriesen

From the eighth century onward, population in Nordfriesland increased, mainly because of settlers emigrating from southern Frisia. From which part of southern Frisia these colonists came exactly, is difficult to establish. Possibly from the area between the river Weser and the river Ems. The immigrants settled mainly at the geest soils of the three islands Sylt, Amrum and Föhr. But also at parts of the salt marshes of island Föhr, the salt marshes of island Pellworm, in the Hallig Hooge area, and at the Mittelrücken ‘central ridge’ of peninsula Eiderstedt. The island Heligoland was colonized too, during this first migration phase. Lastly, settlements developed at the higher banks at the mouth of the river Eider. All settlements were so-called flat-settlements. So, no house podia or terps proper were built.

The new settlers, or Geestfriesen, were people that were part of the Frisian culture, looking at the parallels with grave goods of southern Frisia. Also, many of the medieval silver coins found are sceattas of the Frisian type. Read our blog post Porcupines bore US bucks. about Frisian money and trade. Of course, settlers from elsewhere than southern Frisia must not be ruled out. Together with probably a small original population and the southern Frisians, admixing into the North-Frisians. From the eighth century, Scandinavian influence increased, possibly because of permanent settlers from that region. Do not forget, through the seventh till the ninth centuries, the supra-regional trade of the Frisians was legendary. The wealthy trade might have attracted people from the wider region.

A well known idea is that Scandinavia’s oldest town Ribe, in the southwest of Denmark, was established specifically to attract this rich Frisian free-trade. That Ribe might have been founded with the Frisians involved, is plausible because of the name. Ribe is related to the Frisian word ripe which is of Frisian origin. Also, because of the finds of mainly Frisian secattas combined with the fact nearly no Frankish coins are represented (Tuuk, 2011). To get a glimpse of the magnitude of their huge trade network, read our blog post mentioned earlier Porcupines bore US bucks.

Second colonization wave: the Marschfriesen

From the eleventh century onward, the North-Frisian peat soils are being exploited for the production of salt. This was already the case in the southern and western territories of Frisia, where the systematic extraction of salt from peat started a few centuries earlier, say in the ninth century. In the process, the Frisians released a huge carbon dioxide bomb that was laying along the northwestern coast of Europe. Carbon dioxide trapped in the near endless peat lands.

January 2017 the Democratic Republic of Congo hit the news because future palm-oil production would mean that big tropical forests with peaty swamps of ca. 150,000 square meters will disappear and shall release 30 billion tonnes of carbon. This was calculated by ecologists of Leads University. Roughly estimated, the peat areas of Frisia encompassed ca. 25,000 square meters. Thus 5 billion tonnes of carbon was unlocked and brought into the atmosphere during the Middle Ages, if you simply take the same ratio of the Congo basin peatland complex. That is without the cattle and massive dung production, part of Frisian culture for nearly 2,000 years too. Thank the Frisians for serious global warming. So, building dikes against the rising sea, is actually their own problem to solve.

During the High Middle Ages, the population further increased in Nordfriesland, despite the influence of the sea had become stronger from around 1000. And, at last, from the eleventh century onward, also terps were being built. Furthermore, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, besides terp construction, the construction of dikes took a flight too. Salt marshes that had grown naturally and silted up over the previous centuries, had become suitable for livestock and for permanent habitation. The so-called Marschfriesen moved in. From then on, these tidal marshlands were protected with dikes from the sea. It is assumed that the second wave of colonists already possessed the knowledge how to exploit peat soils, how to erect terps and how to built dikes. High-skilled migrant workers, you would say in today’s policy slang. This second wave of colonists in the eleventh century originated possibly mainly from the mouth of the river Ems.

From the twelfth-century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus, we know this new migration wave of the mainly East-Frisians even led to economic disputes between the so-called Geestfriesen (predominantly living on the coastal strip, mainland) and the so-called Marschfriesen or island-Frisians. The first were bound to the laws of the Danes (i.e. lege Danica), the latter were bound to the laws of the Frisians (i.e. lege Frysonica). Therefore, both had different toll tariffs to pay when passing the narrow inlet the Schlei. Furthermore, the Danish king granted the new Marschfriesen free use of the tidal marshlands against a yearly payment. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the North-Frisians all together, were pulled into geopolitical quarrels between the Danish kings and the Holy Roman Empire over the control of Schleswig. Eventually the Frisians came under the sphere of influence of the latter. Therefore, Nordfriesland was never political part of Frisia.

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

destruction of Nordfriesland

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

Celebrating Biikin

What is there to celebrate every February 21st when you read the history of the North-Frisians?

Anyway, whatever the answer on the above. The word Biik is related to the English word beacon, the German Bake, the Dutch baken, and lastly the Mid-Frisian beaken. So, clear what it means. A fire to let ships know where the coast is, and to navigate through or along it. Beacons are vital for the Wadden Sea coast, with all the islands and gullies, and the lack of natural beacons. You will understand that beacons, together with such a violent sea-history, belong to the hard-core symbols of this water-people.

When you think of the two waves of colonization emigrating from southern Frisia, combined with the lack of smartphones, these fires were their way to maintain contact with where they originally came from. Not a beacon for the ships that still had to sail off that season, or to ward off evil spirits. No, a beacon for their distant relatives behind Blanke Hans. The relatives and the motherland these colonists had left behind, when migrating for better opportunities to what would become Nordfriesland. Blanke Hans ‘fair Hans’, is the pet name of a rough sea.

Another, more sophisticated, explanation is that the practice of biikin even dates back to the Migration Period, telling about the origin of the Frisian people. The Old-Frisian Hunsinger Law Code (referred to as H) of the early fourteenth century, says the following:

“Tha alle Fresa skipad weren, tha leweden hia, hoc hira sae rest thene londgong nome, thet hia ene pictunna bernde end tha otherum thermithe kethe, thet hia londgong nimen hede.”

When all Frisians were shipped-in, then they promised, he who went ashore first, that he would light a barrel of pick to indicate to the others, that he had gone ashore.

So, maybe biikin is a social memory of the North-Frisians of their migration origin whether to keep their link with their distant relatives they left behind, or as a social memory of the migration history. Read more about the legends of the Migration Period of the peoples of the North Sea in our blog post We’ll drive our ships to new lands.

Post scriptum

We very much appreciate suggestions for reading on studies about Nordfriesland. Relatively much is written about region Ostfriesland in Germany and the Netherlands’ Frisia, including how these areas cultural and political inter-related. But somehow, rarely connection is made between Nordfriesland and the other parts of Frisia. The Codex Holmiensis, or Jyske Lov, of King Valdemar II of Denmark (1170-1241) had jurisdiction all over the peninsula of Jutland to the river Eider, including the red rock-island Heligoland. Thus Nordfriesland was by then part of the Danish kingdom. But more insight into the social and cultural (and political?) ties between Nordfriesland and the other parts of Frisia during the Middle Ages, especially the Early Middle Ages, is very welcome.

Besides the Frisia Coast Trail check out also this website of Komoot with 20 day-hikes in North Frisia.

Suggestions for further reading:

  • Bentschneider, A., Biikebrennen in North Frisia (2017)
  • Green, D.H. & Sigmund, F. (ed), The Continental Saxons. From the Migration Period to the Tenth Century. An Ethnographic Perspective (2003)
  • IJssennagger. N.L., Central because Liminal. Frisia in a Viking Age North Sea World (2017)
  • Langhans, V., Über den Ursprung der Nordfriesen (1879)
  • Meier, D., Küstenarchäologie – Coastal Archaeology (website)
  • Meier, D., Kühn, H.J. & Borger, G.J., Der Küstenatlas. Das schleswig-holsteinische Wattenmeer in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart (2013)
  • Munske, H.H. (ed), Handbuch des Friesischen – Handbook of Frisian Studies (2001); Århammer, N., Die herkunft der Nordfriesen und des Nordfriesischen, p. 531-537; Kühn, H.J., Archäologische Zeugnisse der Friesen in Nordfriesland, p. 499-502; Timmermann, U., Nordfriesische Ortsnamen, p. 366-380
  • Nissen, J., Rummelpott, Biikebrennen, Ringreiten: Über Traditionen und Brüche in Schleswig-Holstein (2019)
  • Schuyf, J., Heidense heiligdommen. Zichtbare sporen van een verloren verleden (2019)
  • Tuuk, van der L., De eerste Gouden Eeuw. Handel en scheepvaart in de vroege middeleeuwen (2011)
  • Weiler, E., Tanz der Flammen (2011)

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