Temporarily Under Construction
Franks Casket: The Stomping Ground of Romano Germanic Gods
The Panels and Lid
Because of just one picture with Christian background the Franks Casket has been regarded an object of religious purpose, a reliquary or a portable altar, for example . Strangely enough, none of the runic inscriptions refers to Christian religion, in what way ever. Nevertheless, more recent interpretations claim the carvings for an obscure biblical tradition, though – apart from the picture of the child adoring Magi – there is no clue, neither in the runic text nor in the pictures, for such an interpretation. As a matter of fact the Christian mission would demonise pagan ideas and means while the old creed readily adopted anything that was believed to be helpful, last but not least the bounteous Magi. Looking more closely at their picture, even this single image with a biblical background, is only ostensibly Christian.
Romulus and Remus (here: Romwalus and Reumwalus) on the left panel refer to Roman mythology, though the scenery (Woden’s two wolves along with warriors adoring the twins in a sacred grove) and even their names (wal, carnage, slaughter) have been adjusted to the martial pagan purpose, i.e. help on the ride to war.
Titus conquering Jerusalem as rendered on the back of the chest is a topic from classic Roman history, slightly adjusted to the carver’s intent by placing the beasts of the Æsir beneath the arch. This Roman triumph is meant to provide victory and fame.
Herh-Os, a Deity or Valkyrie of the grove, bringing death over some chosen hero, is the topic of the right panel. She will take her victim to Valhalla. There (on the lid) we meet an archer, Ægili, defending the fortress against the giants, thus referring to the essence of pagan creed. The intention of these two panels refers to death and afterlife. Actually, battlefield (right panel) and Valhalla (lid) adjoin here.
This way the sequence of carvings procures an ideal course of heroic life and the hereafter.
Looking at the runic texts we detect a number of regularities, very much beyond mere chance.
To sum it all up, the chest is likely to have been the hoard box of some Anglo-Saxon king, the pagan Penda of Mercia († 655) or Edwin of Northumbria († 633), maybe, who grew up as a pagan and eventually gave in to his wife and, possibly, to papal urging along with political considerations. He may have kept the casket on his lap when banqueting in the hall, honouring his warriors with golden trinkets out of it, Feohgift , as he might have said.
It may seem surprising that the pagan nature of the casket had not become apparent. Christian zealots often destroyed the meagre written tradition or – at best – adjusted it to their own religious views as they did with the “Runic Poem”, where among others the name os (god) for the o-rune o was replaced by the Latin meaning of os, “mouth”, while the god Tiw behind was replaced by Tir, "glory". Only the Icelandic tradition saved some of its heritage from purgatory, and had it written down in this or that Christian scriptorium of the 13th century. Thus there is a gap of 500 years between our magic box and those sources.
The other approach leads back to Roman tradition where – according to the Interpretatio Romana – the northern gods went by the names of their Roman counterparts. As for Sol and Luna this does not cause a problem, but if the gods were defined by their attributes identification may become uncertain. With a time gap of 700 years back to Roman days and 500 years up to Iceland’s scribes we have 1200 years of uncertain tradition, which makes a synopsis intricate.
The two antique sources we refer to are the notes by Julius Caesar and – a bit more detailed – by Tacitus. Caesar writes: “The Germans … rank in the number of the gods those alone whom they behold, and by whose instrumentality they are obviously benefited, namely, Sol, Vulcanus and Luna. They have not heard of the other deities even by report.” It is unlikely, though, that Caesar should not have heard of any other Germanic Gods.
About one hundred years later, Tacitus refers to another trinity in which “Mercury is the most venerated God, who at certain times even receives human sacrifice while Hercules and Mars are consoled with a sacrificial animal.” In this constellation Mercury stands for
If the runic casket is inspired by pagan views we should be able to detect traces of the one or the other trinity, if not of both of them. For this approach we relate to the front panel first and then we continue the research around the chest in a clockwise direction.
The Front Panel (F – G): Sol, Luna and Vulcanus
As we have already shown the picture of the Magi is a pagan adoption of a Christian motif. Most striking is the bird instead of the guiding (or guarding) angel. If pagan it is the child’s Fylgja, who appears to living people in her bird shape. The rosette would stand for the star of Bethlehem, but with its 13 rays it rather refers to a lunar calendar (13 m. x 28 d. = 364 d/y.) The third of the Magi, finally – he who brings myrrh, which is used for embalming dead bodies – is distinguished by a valknut, Woden’s hallmark of death. Of similar significance is the eoh-rune m meaning "year" (number 12 in the runic row; number 13 if read from the end to there) standing for the poisonous yew tree. It may be understood as a symbol of the endless cycle of life, death and resurrection, of waxing and waning. Several such seemingly ornamental marks are filled into this picture, among others 13 dot-marks filling the lower part of the throne, which reflect 13 lunar months under the rule of the moon as we shall see below. Wherever else on the casket appears (Right and Lid) it is used in the same context.
Different from all other presentations of this topic (Magi) is the group of mother and child. Instead of the Virgin sitting on a throne, holding the child on her lap and he greeting the visitors, there are only their disc-like faces, marked by halos – that of the child cross-shaped. This presentation is similar to that of Sol Invictus ("Unconquered Sun"), who was the official Sun-god of the later Roman Empire and a patron of soldiers.
This idea may have been inspired by the cult of Mithras, who also went by this title, a title which was soon adopted by the new Christian religion along with the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, the 25th of December, i.e. the birthday of the “Invincible Sun”. Thus Sunday is observed as a day of worship and rest, holding it as the Lord's Day, the day of Christ's resurrection. Along with this the Virgin was identified with Luna, who mirrors her faith in Christ like the moon reflects sunshine.
Many pictures show her with the crescent of the moon under her feet. Finally Pope Innocent III (around 1200) allowed the association of Mary and Moon: "Anybody buried in the shade of sin should look up to the moon. After having lost the grace of God, there will be no day, no sun to shine on him, but there is still the moon above the horizon. Let her talk to Mary under whose guidance many find the right way to God."
And here the picture of Wayland comes in. He is a skilful smith, just like his Roman counterpart, and like him he limps, though for different reason. Wayland originally (Völundarkviða) belonged to the elfish sphere of lower mythology . Nevertheless, his saga is not clearly based on a Roman or Greek archetype, but the maltreatment of children may be the common denominator as discussed below.
The Left Panel ( R ): Hercules
The picture of the Roman twins differs from all the others we know.
Either the twins are depicted all alone with the she-wolf or – rather seldom in the ancient world – their retrieval by the shepherd is rendered, but there is no piece known that would show them adored by a gang of armed warriors somewhere in a grove. The roots there seem to function as “tree runes” foretelling the fortune of the warriors and the fate the twins bring about. Ancient pictures would place the baby-brothers under the she-wolf where they are fed, but none would show them as youngsters. Moreover, we have Woden’s two wolves instead of just the lone lupa.
The text, framing the picture ends (bottom left corner) with 3 dot-marks. As we ascribe numeric value to such marks they refer to the third rune of the fuþorc, according to the “Runic Poem” ðorn (NE. thorn), which is quite likely the substitute for the pagan Þunor (Donar, Thor). This way the spell (text) based on is framed by the introductory 9-rune formula oþlæ unneg and the final invocation of Þunor/Thor, the god “in charge”. He is the counterpart of Hercules in Tacitus’ trinity. And Hercules, again, is sometimes regarded to be their father, though mostly Mars is held resposible.
The Back (T): Mars
The picture of Titus conquering Jerusalem is without any direct antique parallels though the arrangement on two horizontal levels vertically divided by an arch could be adopted from some ancient sarcophagus. The upper level shows the Roman victory and the escape of the Jews. The lower section, left, presents a court scene titled doom, while the right section renders the decampment of hostages, as the word gisl tells us.
So far the picture seems to follow a Roman pattern; only the three pairs of animals, horses (?), wolves (?) and raven (?) may be understood as the companions of the Germanic gods. The bird heads, linked by a valknut , point to
Here again we find a 9-rune formula, her/fegtaþ, on the left edge, followed on the upper edge by the rune , the first letter forming the name Titus. The name of the rune is Tir, which hints at the old god
Note: With the phrase HCFUGANTHEUALM the rune-master uses the language (Latin) and letters (majuscules), normally reserved for clerical purposes, for a trivial and fragmented comment. This shows that he had the means to deliver a religious message – if he had intended this – in the proper way. As to here, he used letters and language to create a Metonic cycle.
The Right Panel (H – S): Mercurius
The picture as a whole is without any parallel, neither in classical art nor in domestic pagan tradition. It is structured in three emblematic (i.e. non-dramatic) scenes, which correspond to the three staff rhyme verses of the runic text on this panel. Their background is altogether pagan. The text itself is kept cryptographic, replacing the vowels by marks similar to runes, so that the ill fate, death, may not come about before due time.
Left: Herh-Os seems to be the name of the creature sitting here on a mound (harmberg), a Valkyrie most likely. Herh (hearg) means the pagan holy grove; Os identifies the creature dwelling there as a deity. The shape of her head may be that of a cow elk, a species (elk) that is reflected in the rune elk sedge (O.E. eolhx), which seems to typify Valkyries and their bellicose power.
Centre: The victim lies in his grave; the 11 fillers inside may refer to the rune (is, ice) which is synonymous with “death”. There his Valkyrie, now in her human shape, comes to him, in order to restore him with a revitalizing drink - alu , maybe - from the chalice. She holds a rod which – ending in the rune in bita – turns into a spear. The horse, marked by two valknutr (Woden/Odin’s symbol) will carry the hero to Valhalla, the hall of the slain. This scene reminds us of the Scandinavian standing stones like Lärbro Tängelgårda, which show the triumphant arrival of the warriors and their welcome by the Einherjers at Odin’s place in Asgard.
Right: Two people, wearing cloaks, their heads covered with hoods, seem to have grabbed a (here mouthless) third one, a constellation we know from other objects like the Sutton Hoo purse. Maybe, these mysterious beings are trying to pull the victim to the one or other side. If opposing forces, the symbols behind their hoods could tell.
Actually, both of them have shown up before, the cross-mark (left) preceding the name Titus may be meant to conjure strength and victory, while the “yew-rune mark” stands for death and rebirth, here rather resurrection into Valhalla.
Quite obviously the three inserted words (risci, wudu, bita) are not supposed to comment the scene. The explanation for all this can be found in Northern mythology: A hurled twig turns into a spear and kills the victim. Baldur was killed by a mistletoe wand which turned into a "Then Starkathr thrust at the king with the wand and said: 'Now I give thee to Othinn.' Then Starkathr let go the fir bough. The wand became a spear and pierced through the king...."
All these episodes point into the direction of
The first stanza with its alliteration signals harm, but in the second stanza (A)< and
The Four Panels:
As we have seen the sequence of motifs follows very consequently a certain pattern:
In short, the two trinities Caesar and Tacitus report must have been known in Anglo-Saxon days, as they seem to form the background of Franks Casket’s pagan scenery. We may just wonder how the Lid fits into this pantheon, and: whether or not Freyr was known and venerated in the context of these trinities. In short, the two trinitie Caesar and Tacitus report must have been known in Anglo-Saxon days, as they seem to form the background of Franks Casket’s pagan scenery. We may just wonder how the Lid fits into this pantheon, and: whether or not Freyr was known and venerated in the context of these trinities.
The Lid (Æ): Asgard
Only the middle-segment of the Lid has survived. Anyway, it is very likely that the missing fragments had been covered with silver fittings which did not continue the central scene, nor did the Lid bear a text on its edges.
Right of the round segment, which once must have worn a meaningful element (not just a knob), there is a fortified enclosure with a gate, - not a house with a window as often maintained, – rather a horizontal projection. The elements attached to the wall are battlements and can be read as symbols of the 540 gates of Valhalla. The elements which compose the walls may be seen as s-runes [ significantly 24 or 27], which would turn the site into a realm of a Sun deity. The archer in the door is named Ægil(i). The initial rune (æsc) refers to the ash-tree and symbolizes “defence”.
Actually, in Skírnismál, it is Freyr who sits in Hliðskjálf when he looks into Jötunheimr and sees the beautiful giant maiden Gerðr, with whom he instantly falls in love. He asks Skírnir, his servant, to go to Jötunheimr to woo Gerðr for him. Freyr gives Skirnir a steed and his magical sword which fights on its own "if wise be he who wields it". Eventually, Gerðr becomes his wife. This is the casus belli for the giants. Although deprived of his weapon, Freyr defeats the jötunn Beli with an antler. However, lacking his sword, Freyr gets killed by the fire jötunn Surtr during the events of Ragnarök.
If we comprehend nakedness as a kenning for being unarmed we may detect Freyr in one of the two warriors above and below the disc which once may have held the golden emblem of the sun. Since Freyr was seen as the Lord of the Sun this closeness would suit his nature as the Sun is the main object of attack at Ragnarök and will eventually be devoured by the wolf Fenrir (or Skalli), just like Odin himself. The battle depicted here could very well show the fight over the Sun himself. The other bare person – if scenic - may be Freyr’s servant Skirnir, who according to his position would not be better equipped than his master. If emblematic, Freyr could stand for each of the two naked warriors. Due to the lack of perspective and room these two braves are (or just Freyr is) not lying on the ground, - not dead at all. As there is a remarkable difference in body height the bigger one may represent Freyr, the Lord, else it might be the same person at a different state.
From Asgard, the top of Yggdrasil, Freyr rules over the trinity of Sun (Sol), Moon (Luna), and Fire (Vulcanus) as depicted on the front panel, represented there by Christ, Mary and Wayland and simultaneously over the more familiar Germanic trinity of Thunor/Thor, Tiw/Tyr, and Woden/Odin, who correspond to the trinity of Hercules Mars and Mercury in Tacitus’ Roman interpretation.
The days of the Week
At a second glance we realize that the days of the week are represented along with these gods from the above trinities: Sun, Moon, Tiw, Woden and Thor. If so, Frigg and Saturn still need to be identified. Saturday (Sæternesdæg) is of Roman origin as it refers to Saturnus, god of agriculture and vegetation. Wayland, who stands for the Roman god Vulcanus, seems to fill in for him.
Friday (Frigedæg) refers to Frigg, the most prominent female member of the Æsir and spouse of the chief god,