Home Programme: Reliquary or Hoard Box?

Or: ... just a matter of content

The rather odd sequence of iconographic topics has puzzled scholars of various disciplines and provoked them quite often to audacious assumptions. The carver would have treasured them for that. However, let us turn to the pictures and confine ourselves to what is plain to see.

So the front plate, (F-panel), shows on its left side Wayland, the captured elfish smith, who with the help of his valkyrian wife takes gruesome revenge in order to free himself. The adjoining picture on the right side, Christ's adoration by the Magi (Magi), does not seem to correspond with the drama of rape and revenge. They are not the Holy Kings yet: the runes emphasise "MÆGI" and that is what matters! The runic inscription running around both pictures narrates the mishap of a big Fish that supplied the material whale bone.

The left plate (R-panel) presents a rather strange picture of the Roman twins, the Dioscuri Romulus and Remus. Instead of just the lupa (she-wolf) there are two wolves, and instead of just one shepherd, Faustulus, by the cavern near the river Tiber, we have four warriors here, kneeling as if praying. Different from the F-panel the text relates to the to picture.

The back plate (T-panel) shows - according to the text - the Roman general and later emperor Titus, here conquering Jerusalem in 70 AD, with the Jews fleeing that place (which is commented on in Latin language and letters). Then we have the general sitting in judgement over friend or enemy, and eventually a number of hostages being led away.

Far less clear is the right plate (H-panel). The picture is composed of three sections. According to the inscription, it is about some herh-os, a goddess of the grove (herh), who causes harm. Mysterious, too, is the text, as it is ciphered, i.e. the vowels look like runes, but they are not.

The lid (Æ-panel), finally, shows a battle scene, the defence of a fortified quarter. An archer, Aegil as the word above him says, facing great odds. Apart from his name, nothing is known of the event depicted here. Nevertheless he might be the famous archer Egil, who in later lore was turned into Wayland's brother.

As forms of scenic depiction are hardly known in traditional pagan art and as at least three out of six pictures are adopted from classic or Christian tradition, the basic question seemed to be answered: Such a piece of art must be of a religious artefact, that is a reliquary or a portable altar. True, only a wealthy person could have afforded such an object, a member of the high clergy, a bishop then, but it could have been a king or a nobleman as well.

It seems to be academic tradition - reflected in the general belief - that paganism did not produce anything while Christianity created everything. It is easy to maintain this view as the young church either adopted or destroyed whatever pagan there was. Thus, it needed only one Christian topic to baptize the whole box, though not a single word all over the box hints in that direction.

Just one Christian topic does not make the casket a sacred object, the less if name and motif were popular even with followers of other religions. Dogmatically not bound, they looked for assistance wherever they fancied that it could be provided. Already the word 'MÆGI' was promising enough and the more, as they were far travelled and, most important, brought gifts. That is why the word is put into the carving! Not to explain, but to cite them. Still today their protection is wanted and so, on the 6th January (2002), people write 20 + C + M + B + 02 on their front doors and "update" the following year. This way they hope to have effected a cut-price fire-insurance. They celebrate the "Holy Three Kings", not "Epiphany".

If the wish for wealth is the topic of the F-Panel, we may wonder what the other pictures were meant to effect and for whom they were meant. As a clergyman is most unlikely, if not apostate. The casket will have been made for a nobleman or a member of the royal family during a syncretistic period. As the court was under close observation of the clergy a retainer (thane) is more probable. This man, in return for military duties, held land and had retainers of his own, which he himself had to reward.

If the casket belonged to a worldly warlord, he will have hoped for gifts, stimulated by the Magi. He would get them as feohgift, part of some loot, in the royal hall. Reward and honour alike. Other jewels, may be from larger pieces broken up, were forged by the smith. Wayland (O.E. Welund) was the proverbial source of wealth (O.E. wel, wela .), in runic terms, of feoh.


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