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 on 21 Frebruay every year. There is a lot of speculation about the (pagan) origin why the people of Nordfriesland started to make these big fires. 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, among other 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 which differ enormously. Sometimes even several sub-dialects on one island. It begins already with the name Nordfriesland. Depending which North-Frisian sub-dialect you take, it is called Nordfraschlönj, Noordfreeskluin, Nuurdfriislön, Nuurdfresklun, Nuardfresklun, nordfriislun or Nöördfreesklöön. This splintering over that many, and very differing, sub-dialects of the mere 10,000 North-Frisian speakers left to date, presents a huge challenge for the North-Frisian language to survive. Yes, the outlook is 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!

Biikin celebration takes place on the North-Frisian Wadden Sea islands, the Hallig islands, and the peninsula Eiderstedt. And, on the Wadden Sea islands of southern Denmark as well. Less on the mainland of Nordfriesland, though, but Biikin is gaining popularity there too.

Big stacks of wood are placed on beaches or elsewhere along the endless shores of Nordfriesland. The stacks are lit in the night of 21-22 of February. February 22 is the saint’s day of Saint Peter, patron of fishermen and sailors. 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 which takes place in the month August or September in the hot desert of the state Nevada in the USA.

Pagan Rituals – None other than Julius Caesar wrote in the first century about the Germanic ritual to make huge images called 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. We found three frequently given explanations.

The first is that it simply was to ward off evil ghosts and spirits. The second explanation is, that it originally marked the beginning of the sailing season. Especially that of whalers leaving for the cities of Amsterdam, Altona and Hamburg to embark on whaling ship from these ports. Read our post Happy Hunting Grounds of the Arctic to fully appreciate the involvement of Frisians, and especially the Nordfriesen, at the whaling. With big fires the loving women wanted to guide their men as long as possible, when they set off to open sea. A third and last explanation we could find, says it was to drive out the winter. This explantion is similar to the bonfire Meierblis, in local dialect meaning ‘May Fire’, on the Wadden Sea island Texel in the Netherlands. This event takes place on 30 April every year, to celebrate the transition from winter to summer.

Petermännchen

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

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

Roman and Migration periods

During the Roman Period, the coast of Nordfriesland was relatively densely populated. Habitation concentrated on the so-called geests. Geests are sandy and gravelly soils formed as glacial outwash plain (viz moraines). The geests were formed during the Saale glacial period. More precisely, settlements were located at 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 quite densely populated in Roman times.

Eiderstedt – 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 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 River Eider estuary was an important area for transport, and thus relevant for the regional economic system. Both on the north banks (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 of 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 onward, 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 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. Probably from the area between the River Weser and the River Ems. These immigrants settled mainly at the geests 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. Island Heligoland in the North Sea 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 U.S. 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 Nordfriesen. From the eighth century, Scandinavian influence increased, possibly because of permanent settlers from that region. Do not forget, through the seventh until 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. The tradition that Ribe was founded with Frisians involved, is supported by its name. Ribe is related to the 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 (Van der Tuuk 2011). To get a glimpse of the magnitude of the huge trade network, read the post mentioned earlier, Porcupines bore U.S. bucks.

The thing which receives little attention of scholars, is that this migration took place amidst the turbulent Viking Age, and moreover, toward and very close to the heartland of the Danes. How can this be explained?

Second colonization wave: the Marschfriesen

From the eleventh century onward, peat soils of Nordfriesland 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 (former) near endless peatlands.

Global Warming – 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 of Nordfriesland further increased, 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 which 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 peatland, 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.

Competing Jurisdictions

From the twelfth-century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus, we know this new migration wave of mainly Ostfriesen ‘East-Frisians’ 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 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 Nordfriesen ‘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.

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 Nordfriesen 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. The flood washed away most of the island Strand of which only the two islands Nordstrand and Pellworm, and the two Halligs Südfall and Nordstrandischmoor remain today.

Celebrating Biikin, its origin

What is there to celebrate every February 21, after you read the history of the Nordfriesen?

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, as described above, combined with the lack of smartphones, these fires were their way to maintain contact with where the Nordfriesen originally came from. Not a beacon for the ships that sailed off, nor to ward off evil spirits. No, a beacon to stay in contact with their distant relatives. The relatives and the motherland these colonists had left behind, when migrating for better opportunities to what would become Nordfriesland.

Following on from this, a more sophisticated explanation is that the practice of biikin even dates back to the Migration Period, and testifies of the origin of the Frisian people. The Old-Frisian Hunsinger Law Code of the early fourteenth century, states 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 part of a social memory of the Nordfriesen and their migration origin.


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)
  • Holm, S., Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte des Walfangs der Nordfriesen (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)
  • Steensen, T., Die Friesen. Menschen am Meer (2020)
  • 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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