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 during tand not one of the other Geats made it home with booty.
From the Old English epic poem Beowulf we know Hygelac was wearing the famous Brosing neck-ring, better known as Brōsinga mene or Brísingamen. When 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 Liber Historiae Francorum, also 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: 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, by the way. It was the Franks who killed the king of the Geats, and even got their stuff 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. At the time of Hygelac, this fortress almost must have been swallowed up by the North Sea already. A fortress locally known by the Dutch as Brittenburg ‘burh of the Brits’, and near the settlement of Hrothaluashem or Rothulfuashem ‘Radulf’s home’, the present-day town of Rijnsburg ‘Rhine-burh’ in province Zuid Holland. In 1159, the 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 order the construction of an impressive lighthouse comparable to the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria in Egypt. Local tradition spoke of Kala’s tower, wrote Wizo.
In our blog post 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.
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 blog 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.
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 who can do without sleep and who sees in the dark, is described as ‘the Recoverer of Freyja’s necklace’, the one who 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 to 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 the Frisians are named after. Although there is not much actual support for this oral tradition (read also our blog 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 800-1050. This is 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. Frisia then, included the coastal zone stretching from the estuary of the river Scheldt in the Netherlands up to the estuary of 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 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 shires Austrachia ‘eastern island’ (current region Oostergo) and Uuistrachia ‘western island’ (current region Westergo) 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.
Another early-medieval pendant of the goddess Freyja, or that of a Valkyrie, has been found in Denmark at Lake Tissø wearing the Brísingamen too.
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 shire Uuistrachia. 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, making it a true fire-red, shining neck-ring when sun rays touch it. 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 of 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 and whose bones were piled up on an island in the river.
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.
And 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 know 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, and 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 blog 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 the costly ornament and to Frisia, the region southeast Sweden of the Geats and, of course, Frisia itself, 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 they 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, and the latter 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. 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.
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 blog 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 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 the village Hallum, a sword ring was discovered. Again, dated the sixth or seventh century. Similar sword rings, i.e. two rings clinging together and attached to the pommel of the word, indicating prestige 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.
Suggestion for further reading:
- Alexander, M., Beowulf. A verse Translation (1973)
- Besteman, J.C., Bos, J.M. & Heidinga, H.A., Graven naar Friese koningen. De opgravingen in Wijnaldum (1992)
- Besteman, J.C., Bos, J.M., Gerrets, D.A. & Koning, de J. (ed), The Excavations at Wijnaldum. Reports on Frisia in Roman and Medieval times (1999); Schoneveld, J. & Zijlstra, J., The Wijnaldum brooch (1999)
- Bruce Mitford, R.L.S., Gold and Silver Cloisonné Buckle from Wijnaldum, Friesland (1974)
- Carmiggelt, A., De ‘Koningsterp’ van Wijnaldum. De Friese elite in de vroege Middeleeuwen (2000)
- Görman, M., The Necklace as a Divine Symbol and as a Sign of Dignity in the Old Norse Conception (1996)
- Heeren, S. & Feijst, van der L. (ed), Fibulae uit de Lage Landen. Brooches from the Low Countries (2017)
- Heeren, S. & Willemsen, A. (ed), Fibula’s. Vondsten, vormen & mode (2017)
- IJssennagger, N., Nicolay, J., Hattenberg, T. & Amsterdam, E., Gemeten goud. Een onderzoek naar goudgehaltes van vroegmiddeleeuwse objecten uit Friesland (2016)
- Jørgensen, L., Manor and Market at Lake Tissø in the Sixth to Eleventh Centuries: The Danish ‘Productive’ Sites (2003)
- Lasance, A., Wizo van Vlaanderen. Itinerarium Fresiae of Een rondreis door de Lage Landen (2012)
- Kaspers, A., It all started with the pieces of one brooch. A new way of looking at the brooch of Wijnaldum-Tjitsma (2016)
- Kramer, E., De Hada-runensolidus opnieuw bekeken: eremetaal voor moed, godsvrucht en smeedkunst? (2016)
- Kramer, E. & Langen, de G., Van Vikingschat naar Finn en andere Friese koningen. Jan Zijlstra (1941-2018), oudheidkundige tussen eigenbelang en dienstbaarheid (2019)
- Looijenga, T., Runica Francia (2018)
- Mitchell, S., Beowulf (2017)
- Nicolay, J. & Aalbersberg, G., Wijnaldum; koningsterp aan de Ried (2018)
- Nicolay, J. & Boer, de J., Roem voor de eeuwigheid. Een vroegmiddeleeuwse zwaardknop uit Friesland (2019)
- Nicolay, J., Oortmerssen, van G., Os, van B. & Nobles, G., Een Vendelhelm uit Hallum? Verslag van een archeologische zoektocht (2017)
- Olsen, V.S., The development of (proto)-disc-on-bow brooches in England, Frisia and Scandinavia (2006)
- Otten, M., Edda. De liederen uit de Codex Regius en verwante manuscripten (1994)
- Porck, Th., The Oegstgeest bowl and the bones of a giant king mentioned in Beowulf (2014)
- Russchen, A., New Light on Dark-Age Frisia (1967)
- Tolkien, J.R.R., The Silmarillion (1977)
- Tulp, C., Tjitsma, Wijnaldum: An Early Medieval Production Site in the Netherlands (2003)
- Tuuk, van der L. & Mijderwijk, L., De middeleeuwers. Mannen en vrouwen uit de Lage Landen, 450-900 (2020)