Latið meg ei á Frísaland fordervast! ‘Do not let me perish in Friesland!’ A cry-out of a Faroese young woman when she was being kidnapped by Frisian pirates in the Middle Ages. The question of this post is not about how on earth it was possible that young people of the Faroes had such a bad image of Friesland. No. Instead, we will review the old Faroese sagas about Frisians.
Faroese oral accounts tell about encounters with Frisian pirates. Accounts that were codified at the end of the eighteenth century. Especially of a Frisian settlement on the south end of the archipelago. These are the folk song/poem called Frísa kvæđi ‘Frisian poem’ or Frísarnir ‘Frisians’ and the children’s rhyme called Frísaspæl ‘Frisian game’ or Frísa vísa ‘Frisian tune’. In this post we combined the different sagas and legends into one story, which might, who knows, roughly be the history of the Frisians in relation to the Faroes.
From the beginning of the eighth century onward, the Franks conquered much of Frisia. The Frisians were heathen and therefore the Franks also put a lot of effort in trying to convert the people. Some Frisians could not live with foreign domination and wanted to stay loyal to their ancient pagan believes. So, many set off to sea. Their second home. At sea they lived from piracy; raiding merchant ships. If we are to believe the stories, these pirates were real gentlemen because the crew of the merchant ship was never done any physical harm.
One of the fleets of these pirates who harbored a fierce hatred towards Christianity, made landfall on Suðuroy ‘south island’. That was not long after Grímur Kamban had settled. He was the first Norwegian settler on the Faroes, and who was Christianized by the papar around 825. Papar, meaning ‘father’, were Irish monks who wandered over the world to the most remote places and lived as hermits. From sheep dung we know, it were Celts from the British Isles who colonized the islands first, around the year 500. They brought their sheep with them, with as result soon no tree left standing, and all replaced by the typical green pastures of today.
When the Frisians arrived, the archipelago was inhabited by Norsemen who already had been converted to Christianity. Therefore, the Frisians did not feel the urge to integrate with the other islanders and formed their own, isolated pagan community. They remained true to forn siðr ‘the old custom’. Neither did they desire the Faroese women. No explanation is given for this, and apparently they brought their own women. Any other explanation would raise an eyebrow.
The settlement of the Frisians, descendents of the medieval pirates, consisting of only thirteen houses, was located on the mountain Akraberg (featured image of this post) and was defended with a bulwark. Here, the Frisians lived off fishing, farming, and off piracy. They had two, lean (pirate) ships. Ships that were locally known for their maneuverability. Each ship had place for twelve oarsmen. The ships were moored at the settlement of Sunnbøur, current Sumba. The Frisians, after a while, did trade with the Faroese, but the islanders were not allowed to enter their little colony, village.
For long, the new settlers gave no food for more oral accounts. Until around the year 1300, when Bishop Erlendur wanted to build a genuine stone cathedral, dedicated to Saint Magnus, in the village of Kirkjubøur on the southern tip of island Streymoy. Such ambitions have a price tag, and thus taxes were raised. The Faroese people south of Hórisgøta, i.e. the islands Sydstreymoy, Sandoy, Skúvoy en Suðuroy, revolted against the northerners. A civil war broke out. A first battle took place at Mannafellsdal, a valley north of the village Kaldbaksbotnur on Streymoy. The southerners lost the battle. That many men fell, so much blood was spoiled, that to this day the grass of the dale is colored red. Also, you can still see many mounds which are graves of the men who died that day. North of the valley stands the brynjumanna borð ‘the table of the brynmen’, the fountain men. This big stone received its name after the northerners celebrated their victory at this spot.
But the revolt was not over, and bishop Erlendur launched a second punitive expedition a year later. The second battle took place at the inlet Kollefjord, a bit more north of Kaldbaksbotnur. This time the southerners had asked the heathen Frisians for help. The help of bondin í Akrabyrgi ‘the farmer of the Akra mountain’ and his seven sons. Some say his name was Hergeir. The Frisians were known for their stature and strength (read also our post The Giants of Twilight Land to learn more about the specific features of Frisians). Why the Frisians took part this time and not in the first battle already, is not being told. Maybe they were handsomely rewarded. If so, it would support the story that the Frisians on Akraberg were still a pirate-like colony, and to be feared in battle. But to involve them on your side, you, of course, needed to have a trade-off. You had to pay the prize.
The Frisians arrived at Kollefjord with two Viking ships, disembarked and led the charge at the northerners. The army of the bishop lost many men and fled to Kirkjubøur. Here the armies came to a standstill. This, because the Christian southerners did not dare to enter Kirkjubøur. Afraid of being cursed by God and the Pope. In the Middle Ages a church was a refuge and violating its immunity was severely punished (Blauw 2021). However, the heathen Frisian farmer and his sons did not care, and chased the bishop all the way to the cathedral which was still under construction, and where Erlendur had taken refuge on top of a wall. The farmer of Akraberg and his sons were in no hurry and did not sacrilege the place. Instead, they surrounded the cathedral’s wall and waited for three days and three nights. By then the bishop was exhausted due to severe thirst and hunger, and fell of the wall. The farmer killed the bishop, which must have been a piece of cake. After that, there was peace on the Faroes.
The construction of the Saint Magnus Cathedral was never finished, and the ruins of it are still there to see as a witness (and warning) of people who become overambitious.
In the years 1349 and 1350, the Black Death haunted the Faroes. Many were killed and most of the Frisian colony as well. Only a few Frisians on Akraberg survived. They left the place and settled at Sumba, Hargar and Laðangarður near Froðbøur, where they became proper Christians and mingled with the locals. That was the end of the Frisian pirate colony. The people of Sumba, however, claim to be descendants of these Frisians to this day. Sumba is also considered the oldest Norse settlement on the Faroes. Maybe the Norsemen and Frisians teamed up in many things, including war against the bishop and Christendom.
Christmas in Eiði
There is the legend that Frisians on Akraberg joined the feasting during Christmas in the village of Eiði on the island Eysturoy. The heathen Frisians got into a fight with the men of Eiði and one of them was killed. The house where the fighting happened, is called Myrðmannstova ‘the murdered man’s house’. It is also said that this death was the reason for the Frisians to participate in the revolt against bishop Erlundur.
Besides the sagas Frísanir and Myrðmannstova, there is also Frísa vísa. It is a children’s rhyme and game wherein a young woman is about to be kidnapped by rude Frisian pirates, and who want to take her back to Friesland.
To play the game, the girl and her family make one team, and the Frisian pirates make the other one. The game is to try to ransom the girl with singing verses. It starts with the father who refuses to ransom his daughter. Then her mother refuses, then her brother refuses and so forth. Up to the game when the team gives in. If they do, it is always her fiancé who rescues her.
Frísar lögdu sínar árar í sjó,
so vildu teir frá landi ró;
jomfrúin græt og hendur sló:
“Lati meg ei á Frísaland fordervast!
Bía, bía min, Frísar!
meg mann fair loysa;
eg trúgvi so gott til fair mín,
hann loysir meg vi borgum sínum,
hann letur meg ei á Frísaland fordervast.”
“Eg havi ikki borgar uttan tvá,
hvörga kann eg lata fyri teg gá;
forvist mást tú á Frísaland fordervast.”
The Frisians laid their oars in sea, | they wanted to row away from the land; | the maid cried and wrung her hands in despair: | “Do not let me perish in Friesland! | Wait, wait, Frisians! | my father will ransom me; | I believe him so good, | he will ransom me with his castles, | he will not let me parish in Friesland” | [reply of the father] “I have no castles except two, | neither of them I can give up; | indeed you may perish in Friesland”
A variant of the same rhyme, also with Frisian pirates, exists on Iceland. Apparently, pirates were associated with Vikings and Scandinavians by non-Scandinavians, whilst Scandinavians themselves associated Vikings and pirates with Frisians.
Note 1 – We modified the sagas a bit, especially on the timeline. The first choice we made, was that there are stories which date the arrival of the Frisian pirates back to the Early Middle Ages and others that say the Frisian pirates arrived in the eleventh century. We chose the first period, since that fits indeed the time of Frankish expansion and Christianization. After all, in 839 even emperor Louis the Pious personally received complaints from a Danish king that Frisian pirates created a burden (Van der Tuuk 2021).
The other choice we made, is the time the struggle with the bishop took place. The saga namely says that -historically correct- in 1350 the Black Death decimated (also) the Frisians, and only one very strong and tall farmer and two (or seven or eight, numbers vary) sons survived. Soon after that, the whole incident with bishop Erlendur took place, according to the saga. This cannot be correct, since bishop Erlendur lived around 1300, which is also the date of the partly completed Magnus Cathedral. So, we turned it around. First the bishop thing and then the plague thing. It would also explain better why the Frisian settlement ceased to exist.
Furthermore, there is the legend that a certain bloke named Hergeir burned down the house of bishop Erlendur in Kirkjubøur and killed the deputy bishop named Mús. It must have happened in 1307. Except that Hergeir was really strong, had eight big sons, and this story illustrates Erlendur was really, really not popular on the Faroes, we have found too little information on Hergeir. We simply suggest that he might have been the Frisian farmer annex pirate.
Note 3 – Besides at the Faroes, also in Switzerland exist origin legends that the people there descend from Frisians. For more about this Swiss-Frisian DNA, check our post Make way for the dead.
Note 4 – In 2002 Hilbert Vinkenoog made a video explaining the Faroese sagas about Frisians as well.
- Blauw, van S., Nabij, in en rond de kerk. Het godshuis en zijn gebruikers (2021)
- Child, F.J. (ed), The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Volume II (1986)
- Debes, H.J., Føroya søga. Skattland og len (1995)
- Duby, G., Les Temps des cathedrals. L’art et la société 980-1420 (1976)
- Gershon, L., Ancient Sheep Poop Tells the Tale of the Faroe Islands’ First Inhabitants (2021)
- Halink, S., “Almost Like Family. Or Were They?” Vikings, Frisian Identity, and the Nordification of the Past (2022)
- Hoekema, Th., Fan Friezen, Føroyingers en Frislanda-biwenners (1962)
- Hoekema, Th., In nij Förringer Friezeliet op in âlde Deenske folkswize (1976)
- Jiriczek, O.L., Faeröische Märchen und Sagen (2013)
- Joensen, P.F., Frísarnir (1964)
- Nielsen, J.S., Die Erinnerungen (2011)
- Proctor, J., The Bradt Travel Guide, Faroe Island, 5th edition (2019)
- Tuuk, van der L., Gjallar (website)
- Tuuk, van der L., Handelaren en ambachtslieden. Een economische geschiedenis van de vroege middeleeuwen (2021)
- Wiersma, J.P., Friesche mythen en sagen (1937)
- Wiersma, J.P., Friesche sagen (1934)
Featured image: Akraberg by faroephoto.com