“The Ghost King was rueful”: a panel from the Franks Casket

The Franks Casket – also known as the Auzon Runic Casket – (named after the chap who donated it: Sir Augustus Franks, rather than the Frankish peoples) is a unique whalebone box measuring 23cm long by 18 wide by 10 high, which is now in the British Museum. On its four vertical sides (or faces) and the lid are carved scenes from Germanic, Christian and Roman historical or mythological pasts. The silver fittings which presumably held it together have now been lost, but have left behind the pin holes at the corners and the hole at the front for fitting a lock. As it’s a tad difficult to imagine all of this at once, here’s a picture:

The Franks Casket

The Franks Casket

First things first: there’s inscriptions which run around the panels in the border which has a very small decorative rope edging and corner animals. Strangely they change scripts, in runic or roman alphabets, and in one case a mixture of both.  The inscriptions display a deliberate linguistic and alphabetic virtuosity; though they are mostly written in Old English and in runes, they shift into Latin and the Roman alphabet; then back into runes while still writing Latin. Some are written upside down or back to front.  Mostly the inscriptions relate to the panel they surround.   The front panel is a bit different: this inscription doesn’t relate to the panel it surrounds, but rather the material the casket is made of. In true Anglo-Saxon style its been carved in the form of a riddle, just in case you really don’t get it, they give you the answer too.

hronæs ban
fisc . flodu . ahof on ferg (compound continued on next line)
enberig
warþ ga:sric grorn þær he on greut giswom

Which may be interpreted as:

“whalebone
fish flood hove on mountain
The ghost-king was rueful when he swam onto the grit”

The modern interpretations have it somewhat like as follows:

“The fish beat up the seas onto the mountainous cliff
The King of Terror became sad when he swam on the shingle.  Whalesbone”

To say that it’s an oddity is an understatement. The box cannot be dated accurately,- being made out of bone doesn’t help – so the only clues that you can date it by are the art style used to carve the panels and the words, spelling and grammar used to write the inscription. It’s not much to go on. Still those academic bods have had a go, and their best guess is that it was made in Northumbria in the first half of the eighth century.  It’s a period of great upheaval in the religious sense, a mash of Christianity and paganism, Christianity willing to adopt and mingle with pagan imagery to bring more souls to God.  The first millennium is fast approaching, a time when the Christian priests understood that the Tribulation would happen and strove to bring as many as they could to God before the Day of Judgment.  They have seen the impending signs, the Bible tells that one of these will be men arriving from the North to wreak havoc, the viking raids began in 793AD, arriving onto British shores from the North East.  The Franks Casket is representative of this era of mingling traditions and customs,  the front panel is my favourite of all: and so I’ll take you through for a bit of an explore.  At first glance it’s a confusion of figures, writing and strange shapes, but don’t worry; it’ll become clear (or at least hopefully a bit clearer by the end) 🙂

Brace yourself: here’s what the front panel looks like:

Franks Casket front panel

Franks Casket front panel

At first look there’s a big messy hole at the top and centre where the lock used to be fitted.  There’s the inscription in runes running all the way round the outside with the thin rope border and the animals in the corners filling in the gaps between the inscriptions and the blank rectangles with a little hole in (for the silver fittings which originally held it all together).  If you look carefully, the panel is split into two by a thin twisted rope edging, which is directly below the lock hole.  Conveniently the panel contains not one, but two scenes.  Oddly, they’re from two completely separate ways of thinking.  Lets deal with the right hand side first, as it’s the easiest to decipher:

Franks Casket front panel right scene

Franks Casket front panel right scene

This is the decorative panel as above, but with the edging cut off so you can see the figures clearly.  You’ve got three figures on the left of the image, and some kind of pillared domed-roof building thing to the right.  if I told you that the three figures, nattily dressed in their Germanic style cloaks and ring pins with shoulder length hair and beards (two standing, one kneeling) were the three kings, or Magi, you’d probably guess that the building thing would be a stable.  And you’d be right, see, I told you that this panel would be easy to decipher… So, the other bits to this image.  There’s what looks like a flower in a circle right at the top and centre.  If you’ve got Magi and a stable you’d probably guess that it isn’t a flower, but a star, and just in case you don’t get the hint, the carver has helpfully written MAEGI just to the left of it.  The stable part is a little tricky, but you can see there are two faces one above the other, complete with halos surrounding them, (that would be Mary and baby Jesus), and straw underneath (represented by dots) with a floor or manger under that (represented by a thin panel with a zig zag)  So, here you have the Adoration of the Magi, complete with star, stable and halos.  The carver has filled pretty much every available space with imagery, even fitting in two interlocking triangles in the top left corner, just over a magi’s shoulder.  And a bird.  Did I forget to mention it?  Do not ask me about the bird, you will only make me cry…

The left panel is a bit busier and a tad trickier:

Franks Casket front panel left scene

Franks Casket front panel left scene

The first thing that you’ll notice is that there are four figures, each doing something different.  It helps to read this panel as a cartoon strip, in which the narrative story moves on as you look from left to right.  The first figure you see on the very left hand side is a man, the beard helps, he’s holding a cup and some tongs in his hands and one of his legs is bent at a funny angle.  The next two figures are cloaked and wearing long dresses, and so are women.  The fourth, just under where the lock hole is, whilst it looks like he’s wearing robes or a cloak, is actually another man.  Again the carver has used every available bit of space to put something in , and so it’s very crowded and confused.

Let’s start with a legend and relate it back to the panel:

Most of you will already have heard of Weland or Weyland the Smith, and so some of this will be familiar.  He’s a character from the old Germanic tales, we can be sure these were current in England at the time, because they are referred to in the Old English Poem Deor. Weland the smith of the Gods, the fabulous artificer, had been deliberately lamed by King Nithad, the King had one of Weland’s legs broken and put him on an island so he could not escape.  By this Nithad hoped to be the recipient of Weland’s magical gifts forever.  Weland, as you can well imagine, was not impressed, and planned a terrible revenge.  if you look at the first figure on the left, you’ll see Weland, with his broken leg folded underneath him, surrounded by the tools in his smithy.  He had befriended one of the kings sons (who came to visit him frequently), got him drunk and then killed him by cutting his head off.  You can see the corpse under Welands feet, the legs sticking out by the anvil.  Weland turns the boys skull unto a drinking cup, you can see this being held in Weland’s tongs, with a ghastly grin still visible.

Weland’s other hand holds the finished cup out to the first of the two female figures in the centre of the panel.  These are the Kings daughter Baduhild and her attendant.  In the story Weland plies them with strong alcohol until they are unconscious, and then he rapes the Kings daughter.  Having taken his revenge by murdering the son and raping the daughter,  Weland had to make his escape from Nithad.  This he did with the help of his brother Egil, who is the very right hand figure.  There is Egil busy wringing the necks of birds to make a set of magic wings so that Weland can make good his escape.

So unlike the right hand side image, which can be read all at once, the left hand image is a narrative, which is ‘read’ from left to right to tell the whole story in four figures and a few objects.  And just think, there are another four panels on the casket, thankfully reading and understanding their imagery is not as tricky as the whole of the front panel: they contain single narrative scenes, detailing what would have been familiar imagery, to enable the viewer to recall familiar legends, history and stories.  The right side panel containing a horse called BITR (probably) is still happily causing academic havoc 🙂

If you’d like to have a further explore, there are some good websites out there:

Theres a good website translated from German here, the Wikipedia page can be found here, and of course, the page from the British Museum itself.

(The bird you say?  Oh all right: because academics don’t know what it’s there for.  And they don’t like not knowing stuff.)

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