A British Museum Treasure - Franks Casket
Updated: Jul 18, 2019
One of the many treasures within the British Museum - the Franks Casket; an Anglo-Saxon chest dating back to the early 8th century, generally believed from the Northumbrian region. It's made of whale's bone, and decorated with intricately carved narrative scenes with inscriptions mainly in Anglo-Saxon runes and Old English.
There's a huge amount going on, and what's strange is the diversification of subject matter; Christianity intermixes with Roman myths, legends from the Germanic people and perhaps of Norse mythology. As with many subject matters and objects in history, all knowledge and information on the Franks Casket is speculation, and a lot of guess work - which makes it even more interesting, and open to personal interpretation!
This side depicts elements from the Germanic legend of Wayland the Smith on the left - the legendary master blacksmith, and the Adoration of the Magi on the right. You can spot Wayland on the very far left; he's being held as a slave by King Niðhad whose cut his hamstrings to hobble him. Just below is the headless body of King Niðhad's son, whom Wayland killed, and made a goblet from his skull. He's holding the head with a set of tongs in one hand, and the goblet containing drugged beer in the other - which he offers to Bodvild, Niðhad's daughter, who he then rapes when she is unconscious. On the right Wayland is seen catching birds, he uses the feathers to makes wings and manages to escape.
All quite harrowing stuff, look to the right for a more joyous scene. The Three Magi, led by the star are on their way to the enthroned Madonna and Child bearing their usual gifts. The Holy Spirit (normally represented as a dove or angel) is probably the goose looking bird by the feet of the leading magus. Around the panel is a riddle about the material the casket is made from, and specifically a stranded whale.
This scene is a little easier to decipher - Romulus and Remus, the mythological twins who founded Rome are being suckled by a wolf lying on her back. The same wolf (probably) is seen again with two men with spears approaching it from either side. The inscription reiterates the narrative.
The rear panel depicts the Taking of Jerusalem by Titus, in the First Jewish-Roman War. The inscription is party in Old English and partly in Latin; "Here Titus and a Jew fight:Here its inhabitants flee from Jerusalem. Judgement/Hostage".
In the upper left corner, Titus leads the Romans to attack a domed building, probably the Temple of Jerusalem. In the right corner, the Jewish people flee, casting backwards glances and in the bottom left, a judge announces the fate of the defeated Jews; to be sold into slavery. In the lower right, the slaves are being led away.
The "Bargello panel" has produced the most controversy and there's a wide range of ideas of what the texts and images actually portray. The original is found in the Bargello Museum, Florence which is a bit of a shame, but the cast in the British Museum is a worthy substitute. There's so much speculation over this panel and if you're interested I recommend delving a little deeper and seeing which depiction you think it shows. I like to think it's Hengist and Horsa, the legendary founders of England. According to our favourite historian Bede, the brothers led an army of Angles, Saxons and Jutes and invaded Britain in 455. The Anglo-Saxons were victorious but Horsa was killed in battle, Hengist survived and went on to become the first King of the English.
Back to the panel, in the centre stands a sad looking horse, who appears to be grieving over a mound which contains a little person. It's been suggested that this is Hengist, whose name literally means stallion in Anglo-Saxon. The person in the mound would therefore be the recently deceased Horsa.
Between the stallion's legs are two symbols; the first is a knot (Valknut) which appears in Germanic art to indicate a deceased warrior, or as a reference to Woden an Old English god associated with death, battle, wisdom and healing (known as Odin in Germanic mythology). The second symbol appears to be a raven, also symbolising Woden.
The figure infront of the horse holding a staff is thought to be Hengist's daughter, Renwein who perhaps crops up again on the lid.
There's a lot of interpretations on the subject matter on the lid, and I came across hundreds of different suggestions of whose who -
even the inscriptions have been translated into very different texts!
The lid has several parts missing, so it's impossible to say for certain what it would have looked like. There are suggestions that it may have had relief panels of silver, and perhaps a handle too. On the parts which remain there seems to be an archer defending a fortress against a group of giant attackers. It has been suggested that this is Waylands brother (character from the front panel), Egil. Behind him sits a women in a house, possibly Egils wife Ölrún. But the idea has also been given that this could in fact be Horsa and Hengist, with Renwein, Hengist's daugther on the right of the panel. Or perhaps it shows a scene from The Trojan War depicting Achilles about to be slain by Paris?
You could literally get lost in subject matter about the Franks Casket, I know I certainly did - and never got any closer to what any of the panels really show. This is really just a few thoughts of mine and the stories I have swayed towards believing each of the panels may represent. It's pretty addictive, but if you have any other thoughts of your own I would love to hear from you so please get in touch!
Heard in London