The Franks Casket

Novice Pages

Franks Casket (front)

Franks Casket (back)

Franks Casket (lid)

Franks Casket (left side)

Franks Casket (right side)

Here is a physical description of the Franks Casket, just in case my scanned images are not enough ! I would like to thank Ray for some of the typing he has done for me, as I'm currently writing another essay...

"It is a box made of whalebone measuring about 23cm long by 18 wide by 10 high. On its four vertical sides or faces and on its lid it bears scenes carved in relief which are drawn variously from the traditional Germanic, the Christian and the Roman historical or mythological pasts. The scenes are accompanied by inscriptions in either the runic or the Roman alphabets (in one case a mixture of the two), in either the Latin or the Old English language, inscriptions which in every case but one refer to a dialect from northern England. Dating would seem to be within a generation or so either side of about 700.

Let us now advance a little closer and examine the scenes on the front of the box. There are two of them, and they are enclosed by an Old English/runic inscription which runs all the way round the edge, of the casket, itself bordered on the outside by a cablework pattern, simulating rope, which bounds the entire composition. This inscription is the single one which does not refer to the scenes it accompanies. Instead it tells us, in the form of one of the riddles of which the Anglo-Saxons were so fond, what the box is made of. 'The fish beat up the seas on to the mountainous cliff; the king of terror became sad when he swam on to the shingle. Whale's bone.'
The scenes enclosed by the inscription form a strange juxtaposition. On the right side is the Adoration of the Magi, helpfully identified for us by the artist, who has carved MAGI in runic characters above them. There is the star hovering above Bethlehem, there are the Mary and Jesus, there are the three magi in Germanic costume, their cloaks held in place by prominent shoulder-buckles. In front of them there stands on the ground a bird, apparently joining in their obeisance to the Infant Jesus; its unexpected appearance in a familiar iconography is puzzling. The artist's determination to leave no space unfilled with decoration has led him to place a knot formed of two interlocking triangles behind the bent back of the left-hand magus.
The scene on the left-hand side is more problematical. Whilst there is disagreement over details there is general acceptance that what we have here is an episode from a traditional Germanic cycle of tales about Weland the Smith. We can be sure that these tales were current in England 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 his legs broken so that he could not escape. By this means, Nithad hoped to profit from Weland's magical skills forever. But Weland planned a terrible revenge.
Now to the casket. There is Weland in his smithy on the left-hand side, his broken leg plain for all to see. He has killed one of the king's sons: the decapitated body lies at Weland's feet. Weland is working on the boy's skull, turning it into a cup. The boy's head, marked by a ghastly grin, is gripped in the tongs which Weland holds in his left hand. With his right hand he holds out a goblet to the first of two female figures who occupy the central portion of the scene. They are probably meant to represent Baduhild, the king's daughter and an attendant. In the story Weland piled her with strong beer until she was relaxed and comatose: then he raped her. Having taken his revenge by murdering the son and violating the daughter Weland had to make his escape from Nithad's anger. This he did with the help of his brother Egil, whom we see in the right hand portion of this scene. There is Egil busy wringing the necks of birds so that he can use their feathers to make magic wings on which Weland can fly away from the king's wrath. It is a gruesome narrative, conveyed with economy and artistry.

We do not know by whom the casket was commissioned - though ingenious guesses have been made - nor what it's original purpose might have been. This makes it all the more difficult to discern any plan or meaning in the scenes it represents. In the past, enquirers have been robustly confident that attempts to interpret the casket were misplaced. An 'arbitrary jumble' was the verdict of one distinguished art-historian; a 'meaningless sequence' indicative of 'intellectual confusion' was another's. One cannot help reflecting that these reactions were a little dismissive. The juxtapositions on the front panel contrast a non-Christian order with a Christian one: there can be no disputing that. The non-Christian order is violent, composed of maiming, murder, deceit, rape and revenge. The Christian order is peaceful. The magi bow the knee to the little Child who shall lead them; and a bird is with them - which might have had all sorts of meanings for the primary audience: ominous or magical bird? Woden's raven? But now submissive to Christ, as the raven who brought lard to Cuthbert was submissive, or the raven who fed the hermits Paul and Anthony in the desert. The narrative moves from left to right, so a Christian order has superseded a pre-Christian one. The loosing letters of a magical past are bound by the rope that surrounds them. The creature to which they refer, the king of terror, the monster of the deep, that old leviathan, is beached impotently on the shingle. The magic knot, as bound or loosed by women who sit on the ground in the Merseburg charm, has joined, like the bird, a Christian dispensation. It is now mass singing priests who loose bonds, as Imma's brother did for him.
Reflections along these lines are prompted by the front panel of the Franks Casket. They can quickly become undisciplined, and the most that can ever be claimed for them is plausibility. That plausibility gains strength from a context: if the Franks Casket is in part 'about' leading people to faith in Christ, so is in part the Heliand. If Woden's bird can be brought within a Christian ring-fence, so too can Woden's day (except in Portugal) The casket stands as a monument, albeit a puzzling one, to this epoch of conversion and transition."

The Conversion of Europe from Paganism to Christianity 371 - 1386 AD
Richard Fletcher
ISBN 0 00 686302 7
Fontana Press,1998
Pg. 268 - 271