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The Franks Casket is an odd and interesting relic from a forgotten time with a rather misleading name. It was neither crafted by the Franks nor is it a casket (in the most commonly understood meaning of the word, anyway). What it seems to be, more than anything, is a chest with a series of puzzling engravings that appear to bear no relation to one another on each side. It can be fairly safely dated to the middle of the seventh century and is covered with sometimes cryptic messages written in a runic form of the Anglo-Saxon language. As near as can be determined, it is carved out of whale bones (or perhaps just one bone?). It's rather small, measuring at nine inches long, about eight inches wide, and five and half inches tall. The images depicted, while not apparently related, are believed to tell a story of some sort about the man for whom the chest was made.

They seem to go in a specific order: front side, left side, rear side, right side, and lid. The front panel depicts two scenes: on the left, a scene from the tale of Völund, the ancient Germanic god of metalwork; on the right, the Magi offering gifts and praise to the Baby Jesus. The left panel shows a scene with a pair of twin boys with two wolves and four soldiers gathered around them. The rear panel is a depiction of the Roman Emperor Titus during and after his final conquest of Jerusalem in the year 70. This section also features the only non-runic, non-Anglo-Saxon words on the chest, reading in grammatically incorrect, crudely carved Latin characters "hic fugiaant Hierusalim." The right panel is an unclear image featuring a horse surrounded by two strangely dressed soldiers with spears on its left and what appear to be druids on its right. On the lid, Egil (the brother of Völund) is shown single-handedly fighting off a group of soldiers with his bow and arrow while his wife reclines behind him.

The meaning of all this, if indeed there is one, is obscure to say the least. The words etched into the side help somewhat, containing what might be the oldest surviving poetry in the Anglo-Saxon language (take that, Beowulf!) One of the most telling things about the whole work is the fact that only one Christian scene is present while all of the others are either pagan or historical. Somehow, the Franks Casket made its way to France from England and had resided there for centuries by the time of its acquisition by a certain Augustus Franks, for whom it is named, in 1857. The Franks Casket now makes its home in the British Museum, where it is viewable by the public.

One of the most fascinating things about the Franks Casket is the narrative that it weaves. Assuming that the order in which I've given the panels is the one by which it is correctly "read," the tale goes like this:

(Front) Whalebone - the fish was thrown onto the mountain of life;
The ghost king was sad when he swam onto the shingle.
(Left) Far away from home - Romulus and Remus, twin brothers;
The she-wolf raised them in Romechester.
(Rear) Here fights Titus and the Jews - here flee the inhabitants of Jerusalem (note: this last part is where the Latin appears);
The victims are judged.
(Right) The goddess of the grove is sitting on the mount of sorrow
She works fate, as Erta imposed on her;
They cause grief and distress.

The lid featuring the carving of Egil contains only the name of the god. Not that it matters, since it seems highly unlikely that another three-line message written in ancient runes would even begin to do enough to explain the meaning of the "poem." And yet, it must have made sense to at least two people -- the person who made it and the person to whom it was given. Perhaps a clue to the meaning of the chest is in its very nonsensicality. Kennings are a common motif here, just like they are in all ancient texts written in some type of Germanic language. A kenning, by its definition, is a more elaborate way of saying something without making a direct reference to it. For example, a fearsome warrior might be referred to as a "widowmaker" or a very talented chef might be called the "slayer of hunger." Phrases like "ghost king" and "mount of sorrow" are not meant to be taken literally, since there are no kings of ghosts and there are no mountains known to induce sorrow. Clearly, then, something is lost in the literal translation of the inscriptions.

The biggest problem in translating the writing on the Franks Casket is the fact that letters in the Latin alphabet -- with very rare exceptions -- are just symbols that indicate sounds. Runes also served this purpose, but each individual rune also had a particular name and meaning that was understood universally throughout the ancient (literate) Germanic-speaking world. For example, the Sig rune represented most sounds that we indicate by the letter "S," but it also meant "Victory" ("sieg" having the same meaning in the modern German language). What seems to be the most important clue to understanding the Franks Casket is not so much what the inscriptions say, but rather how the inscriptions say it.

It's rather lost in the modern English translation, but the inscriptions are fairly alliterative in the way that they are written. Alliteration, for those unfamiliar with it, refers to using the same letter (or sound) at the beginning of all or several of the words in a particular phrase. A really well-known example of this technique in modern English would be "Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers." Except for the inscription accompanying the panel with Titus, the inscriptions are all alliterative, although the alliteration sometimes varies from line to line. The alliterative agents are almost certainly the key to decoding the meaning behind the messages.

On the front panel, there are two pictures, that of the Magi and that of Völund. There are also coincidentally two types of alliteration here, specifically involving the runes that mean "F" (Feoh) and "G" (Gifu). Feoh signifies wealth while Gifu means charity. The Magi traditionally presented gifts to the baby Jesus while Völund as a smith would have worked with metal, which was a valuable commodity in seventh century Britain, whether it be gold for coins or steel for swords. The message seems clear - be charitable with your wealth. The reference to "the mountain of life" is almost definitely a kenning for "being born," underscored by the presence of the baby Jesus, with the understanding that life is the greatest wealth a person can possess because it is only through the charity of the divine that we have it. The fact that the box is made out whale bone and the first word of the inscription is "whale bone" is an obvious reference to origination. This is the first clue that indicates what the Franks Casket is really about and who it was probably meant for - it is a description of the different stages of life and given the subject matter, the intended recipient was probably a warrior or even a chieftain of some sort.

The next panel with Romulus and Remus and the warriors heavily features "R," signified by the Rad rune, which refers to travel (compare modern English "road," "ride," "rode," etc.). The inscription makes a strange reference to Romaecaestri, which is an otherwise unknown form of the word "Rome" that is generally translated as Romechester (compare Manchester and other assorted English toponyms). This may have something to do with the numeric values of the Runes, but a discussion on that subject would probably be too rambling for the purposes of this write-up. Given the relation to travel and the physical placement of the twins, it seems that Romulus and Remus are placeholders for Castor and Pollux, the twin sons of Zeus who were euhemerized into the constellation Gemini, regarded as caretakers of travelers in the ancient world. The soldiers therefore are traveling under the protection of the twins, a meaning made clearer by the reference to their being "far away from home." What is also worth noting is that Romulus underwent a type of apotheosis where he is said to have ascended into heaven and he supplanted the archaic deity Quirinus in Roman worship. Quirinus was the pre-Roman Latin god of war and there is only one purpose for which groups of soldiers travel long distances: to make war. The meaning of this panel is that the warrior for whom this box was intended would enjoy divine protection on his way to war.

The rear panel with Titus is linguistically speaking the strangest of the lot. There is no clear alliteration, which is made all the more difficult by the presence of a phrase that is not even in the same language as the rest of the message. Not only that, the Latin portion isn't even spelled right, calling into question the overall meaning of the panel. The clue is in the physical placement of the inscription. In the first two inscriptions, there is a brief declaration ("whalebone" and "far away from home," respectively) before the alliterative letter makes its appearance. The declarations are written on the left-hand side, reading up, while the first alliterative letters start at the top and read from left to right. In this instance, "Titus" begins the relevant portion, meaning that "T," as in the Tyr rune. Tyr is an ancient Germanic god, the earliest form of his name being Tiwaz. Tiwaz as a word is phonetically related to the Greek theos and Zeus, the Latin deus and Iovus (i.e. Jove), the Sanskrit Dyaus, and others, making him without a doubt the oldest god in the Germanic pantheon. Tyr was regarded as both courageous and wise, best exemplified by his willingness to sacrifice his hand to bind the wolf Fenris. This might presage a tragic fate for the recipient of the box as well: although Titus effectively ruled the Roman Empire as co-emperor with his father Vespasian beginning in the year 69, he did not actually ascend to the throne in his own name until 79 and only then for two years before dying of a mysterious illness in 81. Either way, Titus was victorious in his campaign against the Jewish Revolt and the carving clearly shows him in a state of almost divine power. The panel portrays or predicts success on the battlefield for our subject but is a mixed omen overall; Titus was regarded as just by most Europeans but he is referred to as "Titus the Wicked" among a certain segment of Judaism for his destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, and indeed, the Jews running away from him in the picture appear to be terrified. Titus' early death and the motif of sacrifice are worrying signs for our friend.

These fears are not assuaged by the final panel. The "mountain" theme returns, this time with a reference to the "mount of sorrow," which can't possibly be a good thing. The obscure nature of the scene and its lack of a basis in any known mythos makes it difficult to process the exact meaning. A warrior is fighting something that might not even be a human being, which probably relates to a final battle of some sort. This is a common archetype in Germanic lore, namely that great warriors are killed by monsters. For comparison, Beowulf (another Germanic hero of around the same time period) lost his life in a struggle with a dragon and the aforementioned Tyr was supposed to die in combat against Garm, a huge, vicious dog. Like the front panel, this one also has two images, and the second one is a group of what appear to be hooded mourners. Their gender and function are unclear -- are they women in mourning garments or are they men in ceremonial robes conducting a funeral rite? References to "earth," "fate," and "grief" are all indicative of death. There are two alliterations here, "H" (Hagl) and "S" (Sig). Hagl basically signifies a catastrophic event while Sig, as I mentioned, is symbolic of victory (its origin is as a symbol of the sun). But maybe it's not all bad; the reason great warriors are killed by monsters is because normal men are not capable of defeating them. It would be utterly unglorious to be killed after accidentally falling off your horse or by freezing to death or in the commission of a robbery. Actually, the morbid panel is quite flattering - it suggests that the owner is a man fated to be a hero.

I mean, of course everyone dies at some point, but the really powerful warriors die in epic battles against indescribable beasts. This, when coupled with previous comparisons to the divine and to earthly royalty, suggests that the owner of the box was someone who needed to be flattered, specifically a regional warlord in Northumbria. It is doubtful that the box actually belonged to a king (as it would certainly be made from a more precious material than whale bone and it would most likely bear his name) but it's clear that the owner was a man of at least some importance. While the Franks Casket is rich in meaning, it is above all a political gift. In effect, it describes a man's Wyrd - his destiny.

The final carving is the lid. It features no text except for the name of the figure depicted - Egil, whom we've established was Völund's brother. The particular rune in question would be "A", Ansuz, which referred to the attributes of Odin. Odin was a god of wisdom and hidden knowledge, among other things. The implication should be pretty obvious -- to understand the Franks Casket, you need to have a pretty firm grasp on interpretation and double-meanings. The more utilitarian function for the box, given its size and the runes on the front relating to wealth, would seem to be pretty basic: that of a treasure chest. Since it seems clear that the intended recipient was a warrior, it's not inconceivable to think that it was used as a box for storing coins and other valuables collected on a campaign. The strange addition of an iconic, non-Passion based Christian image on an otherwise thoroughly pagan artifact suggests that the owner and the maker lived in a time of religious transition where the free exchange of ideas occurred that the symbolism of the two faiths would be readily understandable by people on both sides. Whether the owner was a Christian or a Pagan or something in the middle is unknown and unknowable to us. We'll never know his name or whether he got his glorious death. However, this strange box gives us a rare glimpse into the values of a time about which not much is known or spoken, which gives both the creator and the owner an immortality that they never could have imagined.

Link to the British Museum's page about the Franks Casket, including pictures

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