Oftentimes, archaeological finds out-of-context may not be especially informative. However, there are exceptions, not least the Franks Casket. Perhaps the most culturally significant artefact to be uncovered from the Migration Period, this small box (22.9 cm long, 19 cm wide and 10.9 cm high) fashioned from whale-bone and deeply carved on all sides with Christian, Pagan and even Roman imagery, has helped shape our understanding of Anglo-Saxon culture, mythology, technology, and their “place in the world”.
An expert on the casket, Dr Alfred Becker has written a short introduction on the box for us, with his thoughts on this fascinating object. An ocean of additional analysis and discussion of the Casket can be found at http://www.franks-casket.de/ .
The Franks Casketor “The King’s Hoard Box” in a Nutshell© Dr. Alfred Becker (2012)
The Franks Casket, named after its donator to the British Museum, A.W. Franks, first became known to the public around 1850 when it popped up in a middle class house in Auzon, France, thence its other name “Auzon Runic Casket”.
Most interpretations up until now believe it to be an 8th century Christian object, a reliquary or portable altar. The reason for this assumption is the picture of the “Magi”, and it may be due to this ostensibly Christian motif on the front (right) that the box has survived. This dating, and the casket’s assumed association with the kingdom of Northumbria is speculative and it may be the case that it originated from a different kingdom (perhaps Mercia?) and a different time. Given the juxtaposition of Christian imagery with a much larger ammount of Germanic paganism, it seems more likely that this object was made for a pagan king, which would push its dating back to the 7th century at the latest.
There are two motifs from Roman history – the Roman twins Romulus and Remus (left) and Titus (back) – and three others referring to Germanic mythology: Welund the Smith (front, left), a funeral scene (right) and Ægil, the archer (lid). Many scholars tend to regard the pictures as intellectual decoration rather than a meaningful programme.
Franks Casket Front: Weland (left) and the Adoration of the Magi (right)However, an alternative interpretation is that the sequence of pictures constitutes a “course of life”. We start on the front panel (right) with “Birth”, a topic reflected in the Adoration of the Magi at the birth of Christ. Different from the traditional presentation is the rosette of 13 leaves, which give it away as a lunar calendar; the bird which takes the place of the angel, in this case the fylgja (female following spirit, in animal disguise) of the new born king; and the Valknut, which is Woden’s hallmark of death, over the back of the myrrh-bearing worshiper.
Eolh (elk); the 'z' runHelping “Partnership” between man and wife is the next theme (left) – here represented by Welund the Smith, and his Valkyrie wife. Different from the Gotland standing stone Ardre VIII, this picture shows a woman with a bottle between two eolh* runes, most likely Welund’s wife the Valkyrie/Fylgja, who helps him to take revenge and thus free himself.The text that runs around this panel tells of the whale whose bones, hronæsban, were used for this chest. The verses alliterate on F and G, i.e. F= feoh (cattle, wealth) and G= gifu (gift). Welund the goldsmith stands for wealth as the Mægi stand for gifts. If we understand fg as feohgift this Old-English word reveals the purpose of the chest, as it is the (poetic) term for treasure-giving, i.e. dispensing of gifts to the retainers; the King’s duty, thus linking the Franks Casket to a monarch.This may have been Edwin of Northumbria or perhaps Penda of Mercia. If so, we date the chest early 7th century, the transition period from Heathenism to Christianity.
Franks Casket Left: Romulus and RemusWe continue on “the Way to War”, rendered on the left panel with the picture of Romulus and Remus. Different from the traditional images the twins, helpers at war, they are not infants, and there are two wolves instead of one. It should be noted that two wolves follow Woden, Germanic counterpart of Mars, Roman God of war and father of the twins.Instead of one shepherd, there are four armed men (Germanic warriors in the Holy Grove).The text, surrounding the picture is introduced by the term “far from home” and alliterates on R, and as this rune refers to the perilous “ride” to war, the Roman twins suited this topic well. The roots of the trees, which seem to serve as camouflage, tell fortune or fate of each warrior.
"Victory” along with “justice” practiced by the winner is topic of the back panel. Here we see Titus, the later Roman Emperor, conquer Jerusalem (70 AD). This is the peak of life for our rune master’s protégé. Different from the else traditional representation there is an arc in the centre, topped by the eolh* symbol (rune of the Valkyrie) and with three pairs of animals, probably companions of Woden (raven and wolf) and of Tiw (horse) below it.In the upper right corner the text sets in with Titus, a topic chosen by the rune master, as the later emperor’s name begins with T and the rune means “victory and justice”. The Old-English runic text turns into slightly corrupt Latin, kept in 20 Roman letters, 19 of which constitute a Metonic cycle, before swinging back to runes but keeping to corrupt Latin. Two Old-English words on the bottom (dom = verdict and gisl = hostage) refer to the pictures, but could render a well reported name, Domgisl.
Franks Casket right: Mysterious pagan triptychDeath, topic of the right panel, puts an end to earthly magnificence but is the beginning eternal glory. The saga behind this picture, somehow a pagan triptych, is mysterious.
On the left side, creature with animal features in human clothing, holding a twig with leaves, brings death (snake) to the hero. Actually, this may be the warrior’s Valkyrie in her paralyzing animal shape, in which she meets the living. The start of the text reads herh-os; “The grove-god sits…”The first rune forecasts the disaster: ‘hail’ which is synonymous with it.
The middle section shows a horse (perhaps Woden’s Sleipnir) with two “knots of death” (valknutr) between its legs, a corpse in a grave, next to it a woman with a chalice and a staff. Three tituli read risci (rush or wand), wudu (wood) and bita (biter?). The words may be heiti (ON replacement word) for the twig that turns into a lance (mentioned in Gautrek’s Saga) which, now in the hands of the lady as a t-shaped spear has killed her chosen warrior.
Gautrekssaga: "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...."
She is the Valkyrie, who meats the dead hero in her human shape, revives him with beer and perhaps with her body heat. We find very similar scenes on Gotland’s standing stones, e.g. Lärbro Tägelgarda.On the right side of this panel, two hooded persons grasp the one between them. Demons abducting a coward to Hel, realm of the shadows? Actually, we do not know.
At this point of the text alliterates on S to stop that fate. This rune means “light” and “life”, and thus turns death into eternal life.
Franks Casket Lid: Aegil the Archer defends Valhalla
Finally, the lid shows where such eternal life plays out. Here a famous archer, Ægil, defends a fortress against a band of giants. If this is Valhalla (and the two valknutr behind the fortification make it likely) then the defender is (pars pro toto) an Einherjer, a warrior of Woden’s chosen elite. He is backed by his personal Fylgja (Valkyrie), as we can tell by the animal heads above her. She had been present from birth to death: first in the shape of a swan at Mary’s throne, then as the partner of the elfish smith, later substituted by the beasts of war, eventually as monster and lady-love on the battlefield and now at the Einherjer’s side till the twilight of the Æsir. There is little text commenting on the picture, just: Ægil(i). The deeper meaning of these runes seems to correspond with the picture: Strong resistance against attackers.
As can be seen, the imagery of the Franks Casket provides fascinating insights into the language and culture of the Anglo-Saxons, but crucially, the heterogeneity of images shown is a clear indication that the Germanic societies of the early Medieval Era were not inward-looking and undergoing a “Dark Age” as is often claimed, but rather, had a rich culture influenced by civilizations from across Europe and beyond.
More information on the Franks Cakset, on magic, numbers and values which keep the spell going can be found at www.franks-casket.de