In the year 516, king Hygelac of the Geats, a tribe in the southeast of Sweden, raided Frisia. Back then, this part of the Netherlands was impenetrable land with big rivers, little streams, swamps, peat, bog and damping forests covered with moss. Hygelac’s expedition could have gone better, since he was killed and not one of the other Geats made it home with booty.
From the Old English epic poem Beowulf we know king Hygelac was wearing the famous Brosing neck-ring, better known as Brōsinga mene or Brísingamen. After he was killed, his body was stripped of weapons, armor and jewelry. His bones were piled up at an island in the River Rhine to ward off future intruders. Besides this Apocalypse Now-esque story, and more importantly, what happened to the Brísingamen? Well, most parts of the collar have been found and the collar is nearly reassembled! The coordinates of the find location are 53.19667N, 5.47E. Please, do not tell. But before you rush off with your GPS, shovel and metal detector, please read the information below first.
þone hring hæfde – Higelác Géata
nefa Swertinges – nýhstan síðe
siðþan hé under segne – sinc ealgode
wælréaf werede – hyne wyrd fornam
syþðan hé for wlenco – wéan áhsode
faéhðe tó Frýsum – hé þá frætwe wæg
eorclanstánas – ofer ýða ful
ríce þéoden – hé under rande gecranc.
That ring [i.e. Brísingamen] had – Hygelac of the Geats,
grandson of Swerting, – on his last adventure,
when under the banner he – defended riches,
warded slaughter-spoils; – him Fate took away
after he from pride – sought misery,
feud with the Frisians; – he then wore the ornament,
the mysterious stone – over the waves’ cup [viz the sea],
the mighty prince; – he fell under the rimmed-shield.
(Beowulf, verses 1201-1208)
Not only the epic poem Beowulf testifies of the faéhðe tó Frýsum ‘feud to the Frisians’ undertaken by Beowulf’s nephew Hygelac. The raid and the seeking of misery in Frisia by king Hygelac is mentioned in two other early-medieval sources as well. These are the Historia Francorum ‘History of the Franks’ written by the generously quoted Gregory of Tours in the sixth century, and the anonymous Liber Historiae Francorum, also known as Gesta Francorum, written in first quarter of the eight century. Hygelac is called Chlochiliach by Gregory of Tours, by the way. The summery of both chronicles is: after having raided Frisia somewhere in the lower River Rhine area, king Hygelac was killed just after his ships had set out to deep sea and o silly Hygelac was still ashore, pretty much unprotected. Ships loaded with booty and slaves taken from the Frisians and/or Chatuarii. It was the Franks who killed the king of the Geats, and even got their stuff and captives back from the ships.
The scene of the crime must have been near the mouth of the River Old Rhine (Porck 2014). Therefore, near the former Roman castellum Lugdunum Batavorum. A fortress that was swallowed by the North Sea. A fortress locally known by the Dutch as Brittenburg ‘burh of the Brits’. Brittenburg was located near the settlement of Hrothaluashem or Rothulfuashem ‘Radulf’s home’. Hrothaluashem was located near present-day towns of Rijnsburg ‘Rhine-burh’ and Katwijk in province Zuid Holland. It is also where possibly the great pharus ‘lighthouse’ of Caligula stood, often named the Tower of Kalla in ancient literature (Dhaeze 2019). The island in the River Rhine where the remains of king Hygelac were ‘exhibited’ might have been Waardeiland near Leiden (Lugt 2021).
In 1159, a clergyman from Wales, Wizo Flandrensis, traveled through Frisia and wrote a trip report about it, the Itinerarium Fresiae. In his Itinerarium Fresiae Wizo mentiones the drowned Roman fortress at Rijnsburg too. It was Emperor Caligula who ordered the construction of an impressive lighthouse comparable to the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria in Egypt. Local tradition spoke of Kala’s tower, wrote Wizo.
Sightings of the remains of fortress Brittenburg at exceptional low tide, continued until the eighteenth century. Hence, at the time of Hygelac, the ruins of this fortress, and maybe the Kala’s Tower, must have been there still.
So, from all this we can conclude that the Brísingamen neck-ring or necklace was on Frisia territory in 516 when king Hygelac, wearing the gemstones and well-wrought gold, bite the dust. A date of death, by the way, generally assumed by scholars, and also based on the text Historia Francorum, mentioned earlier.
The raid of Frisia by Hygelac is considered the last twitch of five centuries of endemic piracy in the region. Read our post It all began with piracy to have an image of the this crucial period for bringing forth a common southern North Sea culture, and to realize what and who set the example for the Vikings centuries later.
Battle of Finnsburh – In our blog Tolkien pleaded in favour of king Finn we told a bit about king Hygelac already and, of course, we told about the legendary Battle at Finnsburh leading to the Freswæle ‘Frisian Slaughter’ that took place in that same era too.
Besides that the epic poem Beowulf mentions the famous Brísingamen necklace, the Edda does too. The Edda is a medieval compilation of Icelandic poems, poetics and mythical stories written in Old Norse in the thirteenth century. The Brísingamen is mentioned several times as the necklace of goddess Freyja. In Norse mythology, Freyja is the goddess of beauty and fertility, and -relevant for this post- also of war and death. In one of the stories guard Heimdallr, the god that can do without sleep and that sees in the dark, is described as ‘the Recoverer of Freyja’s necklace’. The one that finds back the beautiful ornament after it was lost. Besides the Edda, the Flateyjarbók, an Icelandic manuscript or yearbook written in the fourteenth century, makes reference of the Brísingamen too.
Part of most stories is that the beautiful and coveted Freyja and other women, receive beautiful jewelry in exchange for favors. When promises were broken or, for example, a candidate for marriage was unsuitable, they would break or smash the jewelry. That way elegantly giving expression to their disappointment and anger. Etymologically brísingamen can be explained as ‘red-fire neck-ring’ or ‘shining neck-ring’. We will come back to that later. Keep it in mind, though.
Folk tradition among the Frisians of today wants Freyja to be the goddess after which the Frisians are named. Although there is not much actual support for this oral tradition (read also our post Women of Frisia: free and unbound?), graceful Freyja does come into play regarding the Brísingamen. There is, namely, an image preserved of the neck-ring goddess Freyja wore. This image is a silver pendant found at Aska in province Östergötland in Sweden. Indeed, more or less where the Geats of king Hygelac lived, mentioned earlier. The silver pendant is dated between 800 and 1050. Below the pendant where we are talking about, which can be admired in real life in the Swedish History Museum:
“Look at her neckline. What the …?”
Indeed, a big disc-on-bow fibula! An early-medieval type of fibula found along the southeastern coast of the North Sea. Thus in former Frisia too, what is the northwest of Germany and the Netherlands today. Frisia then, included the coastal zone stretching from Sincfala in Flanders, up to the River Weser in Germany, including the central river lands in the Netherlands.
These big fibulae were high-end status jewelry and, in contrast to other types of (smaller) fibulae, not worn in pairs on for example shoulders, but as a single priceless item. The big disc-on-bow fibulae probably closed a beaded string around the neck (Schoneveld & Zijlstra 1999). In Frisia, disc-on-bow fibulae have been found in especially the central river area of the River Rhine, in the area called Kennemerland or Kinnlimasiðe, and above all in the old pagi ‘districts’ Austrachia ‘eastern island’ (current region Oostergo), and Uuistrachia ‘western island’ (current region Westergo) both in province Friesland. All these productive sites were part of Frisia during the Early Middle Ages. These big fibulae are generally dated first half of the sixth century.
“Hold on and wait a minute!” we hear you think, “That is exactly the time when king Hygelac found his peace near Rijnsburg after his plunder-blunder travels in Frisia!”
Indeed, it is. The plot thickens.
The most exquisite, cloisonné, disc-on-bow fibula of the Vendel Period ever found, is the one found in the Wijnaldum-Tjitsma terp. A terp being an artificial settlement mound made of clay and/or dung; read our Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps. The location is near the village of Wijnaldum in the old pagus ‘district’ Uuistrachia (Westergo). The terp itself has been continuously occupied from the second century all through the Early Middle Ages, until around 950 (Kaspers 2016). It was a terp of a single household. The fibula was nicknamed Finn’s Fabula twenty years ago, in a failed effort to connect it with the famous king Finn Folcwald known from, among other, the epic Beowulf.
When looking at the detail and the density of inlays, experts agree it is even more detailed than the jewelry found at Sutton Hoo in England. More than an amazing 300 individual pieces of almandine garnet have been used. This makes it also the largest early-medieval inlaid piece of jewelry found in Europe, as far as we know. The red almandines originate from Rajasthan, India. The mysterious stone from oversea ‘eorclanstánas ofer ýða ful‘, as the poem Beowulf (quoted above) spot-on described it. Underneath each tiny piece of almandine, foil of gold was laid. The highly qualified craftsmanship is evident too from the very fine spacing of the grid on the foil. That way reflecting light even stronger. Therefore, when sun rays touch it, making it a true fire-red, shining neck-ring. Even the bronze stencil to stamp the foil has been found. Lastly, the gold content is outstandingly high with 97%, nearly the maximum, and significantly higher than most objects found at Sutton Hoo for example.
All in all, a Freyja-worthy ornament.
Even archaeologist Bruce-Mitford, who researched the immeasurable impressive Sutton Hoo material, was impressed. The fibula was excavated in parts over different years and still not complete. First, in the year 1953. The farmer who found it, put the fibula part, i.e. the foot-plate, on his barn. Later it ended up at a windowsill at his sister’s house in the village of Hatzum. But it was too shiny and too impressive to stay unnoticed. It was ‘re-discovered’ by a family doctor. The foot-plate, still thought to be a buckle back then, was exhibited for the first time in the autumn of 1959 in the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden. Part of the exposition Van Friezen, Franken en Saksen ‘Of Frisians, Franks and Saxons’.
During the years 1991-1993, finally, a large-scale excavation took place at the terp of Tjitsma near Wijnaldum, and more small pieces of the fibula were recovered. The last piece, for now that is, was found in 2009. Yes, this ornament has had many Heimdallrs. The total length of the fibula is seventeen centimeters, and it can be admired in the Fries Museum in the Netherlands. But stay away from it. Like the Hope Diamond, this treasure might bring bad luck too. It was the possession of the goddess of beauty, and of war and death. The king or pirate, depending on your perspective, who wore it died at the sandy shores of western Frisia. Whose bones were piled up on an island in the River Rhine.
Adding everything up, the fibula of the Wijnaldum-Tjitsma terp must be the famous and legendary Brísingamen neck-ring. Everybody, three times hurrah!
And, the fact that the fibula was broken, must haven been due to the unpredictable behavior of goddess Freyja. Not because of ploughing the clay, as archaeologists do often blame local farmers. Always easy to blame farmers. No, Freyja must have smashed it after gotten angry for some reason. Or, when king Hygelac was killed, not only his skull was damaged. In any case, a simple plough cannot hurt this divine ornament.
We dare to go one step beyond imagination. Namely that the person who forged this divine piece of art is none other than the famous blacksmith Wayland, known from Germanic mythology. He too is mentioned in Beowulf. Blacksmith Wayland gave himself away being the creator of the fibula through a golden solidus found near the village of Schweindorf, region Ostfriesland in Germany in 1948. The coin is dated late-sixth century. On it is written in runes the name in Frisian language ‘Weladu’. Indeed, Wayland. The coin is kept in the Ostfriesische Landesmuseum Emden. Check out our post Weladu the flying blacksmith on this devilish smith.
Of course, our final conclusion might be a bit firm. However, the many links and connections between this specific big-type fibula, the fire-shining treasure, the red-mysterious stone from oversees (India), king Hygelac, his death at the mouth of the River Rhine in Frisia, the Norse mythology of Freyja, the pendant depicting her with the fibula, the Edda’s and the Beowulf’s references to both the costly ornament and to Frisia, the region southeast Sweden of the Geats and, of course, Frisia itself; all together compose a fascinating early-medieval history.
All these elements come together in the first half of the sixth century. Just like how the snake-like creatures are entwined on the foot-plate of the Wijnaldum-Tjitsma fibula. And, if it was not thís specific fibula, albeit it is the most impressive big disc-on-bow fibula we know, they had something very similar in mind back then in the sixth century, in the Vendel Period, when kings, warriors, bards and audience were talking, singing and bragging about the Brísingamen.
Some might argue to find it difficult to reconcile the Beowulf and the Edda. The first text clearly says it was a man, i.e. king Hygelac, who was wearing the Brísingamen. The latter text says it was a goddess, i.e. Freyja, thus a woman, who was wearing it. Well, maybe that is because we project a modern-conservative way of thinking onto a sixth-century society. What both Hygelac and Freyja had in common, was they both were associated with war. The big type disc-on-bow fibulae might, therefore, have been ornaments (for leaders) of war and battle. King Hygelac wore it proudly on his chest when he went into battle against the Frisians and the Franks, as described in the poem Beowulf. Freyja was the goddesss of beauty and war. Besides, are we not gaining more and more archaeological evidence that early-medieval women played an important role in warfare too? We also know that a neck-ring was worn by men. Lastly, we know that a disc-on-bow fibula was, or at least could be, part of a neck-ring. In the eyes of early-medieval people, war and beauty were two sides of the same coin.
Now go go go! Check out waypoint 53.19667 N, 5.47 E, and who knows you will find some of the still missing bits. If you are a real Heimdallr, who knows you even step on the still missing disc.
Go with one last word of advice. If you are a man, than do not mingle with Wijnaladum’s beautiful women! Read our post Expelled from regal grounds to understand why.
Note 1 – Famous scholar and writer, Tolkien, was inspired by the mythology of pre- and early-medieval mythology surrounding beautiful crafted ornaments. In his book The Silmarillions, it was Fëanor, son of king Finwë, who crafted the three shining Silmarils. It is not without reason Tolkien created the name Finwë based on the name Finn, the king of the Frisians as among others mentioned in the epic poem Beowulf too. Read also our post Tolkien pleaded in favor of king Finn to learn more about this all.
Note 2 – Although nearly everyone regards the Wijnaldum-Tjitsma fibula as a disc-on-bow, there is a minority report doubting it, and argues that this fibula originally might have had no disc at all (Olsen 2006). Mainly because the splendid filigree decoration on the bow would justify not to be covered by a disc. Well, who knows how much more beautiful the disc might have been, or still is.
Note 3 – At the village Hallum in province Friesland, twenty-five kilometers from the spot where the Wijnaldum-Tjitsma fibula has been found, parts of a so-called Vendel helmet also have been found dated sixth or seventh century. Furthermore, near the town of Dokkum, another fifteen kilometers from Hallum, a sword ring was discovered. Again, dated the sixth or seventh century. Similar sword rings indicating prestige, i.e. two rings clinging together and attached to the pommel of the word, have been found in a large area stretching from southwest Finland, Uppland and Gotland in Sweden, Denmark, mid and southern Germany, northern France and southeast England.
Note 4 – According to other sources than Beowulf, the anonymous eight-century Liber Historiae Francorum, Hygelac raided the pagus ‘district’ Hetware or Hattuaria more upstream the River Rhine, east of the city of Nijmegen. Unaware he is being chased by a Frankish army, Hygelac sends his fleet with the booty out to sea at the mouth of the Rhine in Frisia, and is then being killed. Also, the year the raid took place was not 516 but 526 (Lugt 2021). Furthermore, according to Lugt, the mouth of the River Rhine was not inhabited by Frisians, but by the Warini who originated from the region Thuringia in the centre of modern Germany. Lugt prefers to speak of North Sea Germanics and Rhinelanders, and where possible avoids, just like Willemsen, to speak of Frisians. Dijkstra, however, compared the material culture of Zuid Holland with that of the coastal north and concludes it was similar as that of the Frisians (2011). Nevertheless, the Warnen are indeed an intriguing and obscure people, known from legends and old texts.
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