The first golden horn of Gallehus
On the 20th of July, in 1639, in the village of Gallehus near the town of Møgeltønder in Southern Denmark. A poor Danish woman by the name of Kirsten Svendsdatter was on her way into the town to sell her lace when she suddenly stumbled over something on the ground.
At first, she thought it was just a tree root sticking out from the ground, but at a closer look, she could see there was something shining underneath the dirt. She reached out for it and pulled it out of the ground. She sat down on the ground and started turning it around in her hands while brushing the dirt off, she realized that she had just discovered something extraordinary, a long golden horn that was worth more then what she could make in her entire lifetime.
She brought the horn home with her and wrote a letter to Christian IV (4) who was the King of Denmark. At this time in history, the Danish King owned the rights to the gold that was found in the soil in Denmark, something that is called “Danefæ” a law that is still in effect today, but, instead of the Royal family receiving the finds, it has to be handed into the government, who then hands out a reward based on the value of the objects.
Kirsten was only given a skirt by the King as a reward, but I do really hope that was one kind of a remarkable skirt for such a great find, and I think the King should probably have given her some silver coins as well.
The horn was 75.8 centimeters long and weighed approximately 3.1 kilos. The horn consisted of two layers on the inside it was made of gold alloy that was mixed together with silver. On the outside of the longhorn, it was decorated with rings made of pure gold. On the upper seven rings, the horn was decorated with figures of animals, humans, and other symbols. Some of them were punched, and other figures were soldered.
The second golden horn of Gallehus
On the 21st of April in 1734 and almost 100 years later, and just about 15-20 meters away from where the first golden horn was found. There was found a second horn by a man named Erik Lassen who was out in the fields digging for clay. This golden horn was a bit shorter, but a little bit wider than the one that was discovered in 1639.
Erik traveled to the Schackenborg Castle and delivered the golden horn to the Earl, who then gave him 200 rigsdalers as a reward. Rigsdaler was from silver, and it was one of several currencies that was used in Denmark until 1875. 200 rigsdaler was a lot of money in the 18th century, and to give you an idea of how much it was, 200 rigsdaler was equivalent to about 800-900 days of work. Since all the gold still belonged to the King, the horn was delivered to the Christiansborg Castle.
The Shorthorn was 71.3 centimeters long, but it is estimated that the shorthorn could have had the same length as the longhorn, the Shorthorn was a bit heavier and weighted approximately 3.7 kilos, but we can never be certain. The horn was made from the same materials as the first one, and as I said it is believed it used to have the same length as the first Longhorn, but this horn was probably damaged by plowing through the years, and the missing piece has most likely been melted down a long time ago.
This horn was divided into five rings, and within which of these five rings there were decorations with figures. In the top of the horn and unlike the other horn, it a runic inscription that was written with the Elder Futhark runes, a runic language that was primarily used before the Viking age.
The runic inscription on the horn reads as following:
Elder Futhark: ”ᛖᚲᚺᛚᛖᚹᚨᚷᚨᛊᛏᛁᛉ᛬ᚺᛟᛚᛏᛁᛃᚨᛉ᛬ᚺᛟᚱᚾᚨ᛬ᛏᚨᚹᛁᛞᛟ᛬”
Transliteration: ”ekhlewagastiR : holtijaR : horna : tawido”
English: ”I Lægæst, son of Holt (or “from Holt”) made the horn”
Another possible translation into English made by Finn Rasmussen
”I, guest of the living, from Holt, the horn I have done”
However, this translation is still debated, and other suggestions of the translation have been made. Hlewagastiz (Hlewagastir) may not be a person’s name, at least if we look at it from a philological point of view. Hlewagastiz could also be translated into “The famous guest” or “The protected guest”, and the word Holtijaz (HoltijaR), could mean “Holt’s son” or “of the wood”.
They are not Viking horns
We are absolutely certain that this is not a Viking horn since it was not written with the Younger Futhark which was the runes used in the Viking age, but the inscription is written as I said with the Elder Futhark, and the depictions do also not fit within the Viking era. The two golden horns have been dated to the early 5th century (400 CE), which was in the period in time that is known as the Germanic Iron Age (400CE – 750CE).
The archaeologists are convinced that they have been made in Denmark, due to the technique of how the horns were made and the ornaments on the horns have been seen before in Nordic designs. The inscription on the shorthorn also seems to indicate that it was made in the southwestern part of Denmark.
It is possible that these horns were sacrificed to the Gods in the 5th century when a group of Angles emigrated from the southern parts of Jutland to the British Isles.
We do not know what the horns original use was, but judging from their appearance they could have been used in a religious context, and maybe they were also used by a Jarl or King during the Viking age. However, if they were used as a drinking horn or as an instrument is something that we simply do not know for certain.
The images on the horn can be linked to myths from the Mediterranean as well as to Nordic myths, and perhaps also to the Celtic myths. These horns have been subjected to numerous attempts to interpret them.
The interpretation of the images depends on three questions. Should the images be read as a coherent account from the mouthpiece? Does it describe a ceremony, or is it a story? And where in the picture rings does the text start?
The images on the Longhorn
The first attempt to interpret the longhorn was made by the German professor Ole Worm in 1641 when he described the first golden horn in his book “De Aureo Cornu”. He was of the opinion that the longhorn was a war horn dating back to King Frode, and the images where an admonition to how the people should act in regards to each other. It probably goes without saying that he and many others looked at the depictions with a Christian mindset.
The archeologist J.J.A Worsaae was of another opinion and wrote in 1880, that the depictions on the longhorn illustrated Helheim, which is the underworld in Norse mythology, and the saga about Baldr’s death. The stars on the shorthorn represented according to him the houses in Asgard where Odin, Thor, and Freyr lived.
In 1949 the Swede Lars-Ivar Ringboms, who probably was high on meatballs at the time… Whereof the opinion that the images showed situations and performances from pagan party games. Thus, the images were to portray the great joy of the return of spring, were the people dressed up for a parade, as they do at carnivals.
In 1969 Willy Hartner who was a historian of science in Frankfurt tried to decipher the two rows of images in the top segment of the longer horn. And according to him, the figures should be translated into “May I, the potion of this horn, bring help to the clan”.
It is difficult to say what exactly they illustrate, and there has been made many more interpretations then I care to list here. We should also be very careful not just to make guesses and read something into it.
An interpretation of the golden horn long that was published in July 2017 by Finn Rasmussen, has in my eyes the best explanation of what these images on the Longhorn really are symbolizing. I won’t be going into details on all the symbols, but just the main ones, so you will be able to understand his interpretation of the longhorn.
If we start by looking at the figures at the top of the longhorn, we see two rows that have twelve figures each. According to Finn Rasmussen and Jens Juhl Jensen, these figures are based on an old Germanic language which is called Gothic. When we decipher the text “EK IM UNMURDSA EK ThIK GUIDA”, it reads as follows:
Translation into English: “I am the immortal, I guide you.”
According to Finn Rasmussen, it is essential to understand the inscription on the Longhorn, to be able to decipher the rest of the decoration on the horn.
Finn Rasmussen also proposes that there is a difference between the upper and lower figures. The upper illustrations are supposed to indicate the good and guide the man in the right direction in life, and the figures beneath are indicating evil shown with men in chains, which indicate what happens when you choose to go down an evil path in life.
The double snake represents an immortal and invisible spirit that is punctured in order to show its invisibility. The snake appears many times on the Longhorn because it observing man throughout his life and guiding him on a path.
The rest of the figures on the rings should be read from the bottom of the longhorn and up. If we take a look at the depictions on ring 7 we see a conception. Which is symbolized with two human bones, which might be the bones of an ancestor, who is going to be reborn.
On ring 6 the figures illustrate the fetus which is symbolized as a plant with a bud, at birth the flower will bloom.
On the next ring (five), we see the newborn together with his two parents, who are playing a board game. The fish on the left side is symbolizing the child striving towards the next stage in its life.
On the fourth ring, we see a worker who is symbolized as a figure with an ax and a digging stick in its hands. These tools were quite common at the time for both men and women.
The third ring is depicting a ruler, which is symbolized with a human wheel. The idea behind this human wheel figure is when one ruler fall, another ruler will take his place.
The second ring is symbolizing the transition to the afterlife. Here we see a spirit riding on a horse to meet its Goddess, at the arrival, it is greeted with a horn filled with the elixir of life.
The images on the shorthorn
Just like on the Longhorn, there have been many attempts to decipher the shorthorn. One of these attempts was made in 1969 by the same Willy Hartner as I mentioned before. Willy Hartner proposed that the figures were representing constellations, and he claimed that the images and symbols were referring to a lunar eclipse that happened on the 4th of November in 412 CE, and also a solar eclipse on the 16th of April in 413 CE.
Finn Rasmussen has also written his thoughts about the shorthorn, and again I like his interpretation the best. Just like before I will not go into details on all the figures since there are just too many and the depth of their meaning will just take too long to explain.
I’ve already talked about the meaning of the runes, so we will continue just below them on the first ring. According to Finn Rasmussen, this first part represents the Germanic heaven.
One of the figures that stood out quite notable to me, was the figure with the horns. These are the Gods, and they are referred to as the Divine Twins. They are naked and have no sex because Gods does not need to have certain sex. Their helmets with the horns are meant to illustrate the power and signalize the power of creation.
The divine twin to the left is the God of life and growth which is symbolized with the ring that symbolizes the circle of life, and a wand that symbolizes an object that will revive you and bring you to life again. The twin also has a spear in its hand which stands for strength and courage.
The divine twin to the right is the God of death and harvest, which is symbolized by the sickle. Maybe the Grim Reaper that has been depicted many times in Christianity has its roots in old Germanic paganism. The twin also uses a stick on the other hand to guide people through the realm of the dead.
It is possible that religious leaders of the society dressed up as the Gods when they performed their rituals. There have been found helmets that do look very similar in Denmark, dating back to the bronze-age.
These helmets with horns were found at Veksø on Zealand (In Danish: Sjælland) in Denmark, and they are estimated to date back to around 1000 BCE which would put them in the middle of the bronze-age. However, if they were used at religious ceremonies or only as offerings at the bogs is something we can only speculate about today.
When the Germanic tribe known as Angles (Latin: Angli) settled on the British Isles, they probably brought their culture with them as people so often do. The Angles originate from what today is Denmark and Germany, but this area has mainly been part of the Danish territories throughout history.
One of the reasons why I think they probably brought their culture with them, is because of the helm that was found at the Sutton Hoo ship monument was Redwald, the King of the East Angles were buried sometime at the beginning of the 7th century.
This is a replica of the helmet, and here you can see it more clearly, and the resemblance of the two twins is remarkably close to those that are depicted on the golden short horn from Gallehus.
It is also possible that these ancient depictions of the Divine twins refer to the two Vanir twins Freyr and Freya that are the children of Njord in Norse mythology. If true, then these Gods and Goddesses seem to get thousands and thousands of years older, every time we discover new objects in the soil from our ancient ancestors.
While the worship of the Divine twins seem to have been common for all the Germanic tribes, and possibly also under different names, from area to area, they were not Gods that seem to have been particularly Germanic.
The concept of the Divine twins are also known in other cultures, the Romans were also familiar with the Divine twins, something that can be seen on the wall painting in the ruins Pompeii in Italy.
However, their names were not the Divine twins to the Romans, but they called them Castor and Pollux (in Greek: Polydeuces). Castor and Pollux were twin half-brothers in both Greek and Roman mythology.
The concept of the divine twins can also be found in Hinduism. Nara-Narayana (Sanskrit: नर-नारायण; nara-nārāyaṇa) were twin sage brothers, and they are to some devotees considered the fourth incarnation of Lord Vishnu. If there is a connection between Neopaganism and Hinduism or if this is just a coincidence is not something that I can answer, and it would require a lot more research on the topic.
The two warriors are not depictions of the common man, they are the leaders and the chieftains of their society. The sword was an expensive weapon and only the people with a vast amount of wealth could afford to purchase or have such a sword made.
The two warriors are also equipped with a gold necklace which also is a symbol of high status and only something that has been found in the graves of the leaders of their time.
For those of you who have a keen eye, you might have noticed the symbol that looks very much like the Ægishjalmr symbol (Old Norse Ægishjálmr, pronounced “EYE-gis-hiowlm-er”). This symbol, also called the Helm of Awe is a defense symbol and it is supposed to strike fear into the hearts of the enemies, and thus protect you from any harm. If this is indeed the helm of Awe symbol, it raises another question, and that is, how old is this symbol really? And what does it mean in this context?
According to Finn Rasmussen, the other four rings on the shorthorn depicts the same stages of life as the longhorn. But unlike the images on the longhorn that describes the behavior of the individual and their inner life. This short horn describes a stage of human life, which he calls the giving force, the force of dedication, and the receiving force.
The golden horns were stolen
You might have noticed that I was talking about these golden horns as something of the past… and that is unfortunate because…
In the darkness of the night on May the 4th in 1802 the two golden horns (In Danish: Guldhornene) were stolen from the Royal chamber of art in Copenhagen. The next day when the theft was discovered, there was put a huge reward of 1.000 rigsdalers in all the Danish papers, to anyone who had some information that could lead to the arrestment of the thief.
The thief who would turn out to be a poor goldsmith and watchmaker by the name Niels Heidenreich. Wiped out the golden horns’ original appearance and their cultural importance, when he one night melted them down and turned the gold into useless junk.
Niels tried to sell the earrings and coins that he made from the gold, but because he had mixed the coins with brass. He was eventually caught for fraud, which leads him to confess where he had gotten the gold from. Niels was sentenced, and he spends the next 37 years in prison.
Golden horns of Gallehus drawings
Today we do only know how the horns looked from drawings that were made between 17th and 18th century, by Ole Worm and Paulli, and because of this, we are a bit unsure of some of the details.
If these horns were intended as drinking horns or as blowing horns is simply something we do not know. Although I think it is safe to say, that these horns belonged to someone with a massive amount of wealth or very high status.
However, there is no doubt that drinking horns were used for rituals by the Germanic tribes, and there has been found plenty of drinking horns in almost all the graves of the important people from this time period.
Julius Caesar also wrote about how the Germanic tribes hunted for Aurochs in the first century, in order to get their hands on these horns.
”Their horns differ very much from those of our oxen in size and shape, and kind. The Germanic tribes collect them eagerly, encase their edges in silver, and use them as beakers at their most magnificent banquets”. – Julius Caesar
Since we do not have the originals, it is uncertain if the golden horns were curved or whether they had a winding helix-like curvature like a natural ox-horn.
Besides the fact that they could have been used as drinking horns, we do also know that blowing horns were used both before and during the Viking Age, and the God Heimdallr is also known to have a horn, which is called Gjallarhorn (Old Norse “Resounding Horn”).
Heimdall is the God that guards the rainbow bridge known as Bifröst, and he will use this horn during Ragnarok (Ragnarök) to warn all the Gods and Goddesses that the final battle has begun, and they should put on their war gear, and gather their huge armies so they can travel to the battleground at Vigrid were they will be meeting the Jotnar and the army of the dead.
Replicas of the golden horns
In 1861 two new replicas of the golden horns of Gallehus were made, by the orders of Frederik VII (7) of Denmark, who then donated them to the museum. However, these replicas were not in the right size and were also not curved as some of the archeologists believe.
In 1978 two additional copies were made, and these did have the right size and were also curved, to some of the researcher’s satisfaction.
In 1993 the two golden horns were stolen again from the Moesgaard Museum in Jutland, but they were recovered shortly after, probably because they were made of gilded brass, and had no value besides the historical aspect.
In the early morning on September 17 in 2007, replicas of these horns were stolen for the third time, this time it was from a museum in the town of Jelling. These copies were made from gilded silver, but luckily for those of us who like history, they were recovered two days later on September 19.
The golden horns were used in various designs
The Gallehus horns have inspired many artists throughout history and they have been used in a wide range of designs such as, on porcelain figurines, cups, stamps, matchboxes, apple cider bottles, statues, drawings, paintings, and possibly also on the painting the golden horn (Guldhornet) by Theodor Kittelsen.
Replicas at the museum
If you want to see these gold horns for yourself, you can do so at the Danish national museum in Copenhagen. There is also a copy at the Moesgard museum in Northern Jutland just outside of the city of Århus (Aros).
Leif Ericson has a Gallehus horn
If you are unable to travel to Europe to see one of these replicas of the golden horns, you can see a copy, if you are in the USA, and go to Juneau Park, Milwaukee. Here there is a bronze sculpture of Leif Ericson that was created in 1887 by the artist Anne Whitney. In the right hand, Leif is holding one of the golden horns from Gallehus. There is another replica of this bronze sculpture in Boston Massachusetts, at Commonwealth Avenue (at Charlesgate East).
Sources: De aureo cornu by Ole Worm, The Galdrabók: An Icelandic book of magic by Stephen E Flowers, The Golden Horns by Finn Rasmussen, The Prose Edda: Norse Mythology (Penguin Classics) by Jesse L. Byock, Journal for the History of Astronomy by Arthur Beer.