The Franks Casket is an eighth century lidded rectangular box made of whale-bone, carved on the sides and top in relief with scenes from Roman, Jewish, Christian and Germanic tradition.
It is believed to be of Northumbrian origin, probably of monastic manufacture. Wilfred’s foundation at Ripon being a possible location for the workshop that produced it.
Research has shown that the casket had once belonged to the church of Saint-Julien, Brioude in Haute Loire, France. It was possibly looted during the French Revolution.
The casket was bought from a Parisian antique shop by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks donated the casket to the British Museum in 1867.
The Front Panel is divided into two scenes. The left-hand scene shows a depiction of the Wayland legend.
The scene is a composite one, showing several aspects of the myth. To the left of the scene stands Wayland at his forge, with his smith’s tools. The decapitated body of one of King Niðhad’s sons lies at his feet. He is holding one of the goblets, fashioned from the skull, which he is offering to a woman – presumably the king’s daughter, Bodvild. The second female figure in the scene is either a female attendant, or a second representation of Bodvild.
To the right of the scene a male figure, either Wayland himself, or one of his brothers, is strangling the royal geese to obtain the feathers to make the flying machine.To the right of this scene, a second scene show the three Magi visiting Mary and the Christ Child. Above the Magi is a runic inscription that reads ᛗᚫᚷᛁ (MAGI).
A runic inscription runs around the panel which is a riddle describing the material from which the casket is made:
ᚠᛁᛋᚳ.ᚠᛚᚩᛞᚢ.ᚪᚻᚩᚠᚩᚾᚠᛖᚱᚷ | ᛖᚾᛒᛖᚱᛁᚷ | ᚹᚪᚱᚦᚷᚪ:ᛋᚱᛁᚳᚷᚱᚩᚱᚾᚦᚫᚱᚻᛖᚩᚾᚷᚱᛖᚢᛏᚷᛁᛋᚹᚩᛗ | ᚻᚱᚩᚾᚫᛋᛒᚪᚾ
Fisc flōd āhōf on firgenberig. Wearþ gāsric(?) grorn þǣr hē on grēot geswam. Hranes bān.
The flood cast up the fish on the mountain-cliff The terror-king became sad where he swam on the shingle. Whale’s bone.
The Rear Panel depicts the Siege of Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Roman general, later emperor, Titus in the First Jewish-Roman War. The inscription is partly in Old English and partly in Latin with part of the Latin portion is written in Latin letters.
At the centre of the panel is a building, possibly representing the Temple of Jerusalem. In the upper left of the panel Titus leads the Romans as they attack the building.
The text reads: ᚻᛖᚱᚠᛖᚷᛏᚪᚦ | +ᛏᛁᛏᚢᛋᛖᚾᛞᚷᛁᚢᚦᛖᚪᛋᚢ – Hēr feohtaþ Tītus and Iūdēas – Here Titus and the Jews fight.
In the upper right the Jewish population flee from the battle.
The text reads: hicfugianthierusalim | ᚪᚠᛁᛏᚪᛏᚩᚱᛖᛋ – hic fugiant Hierusalim habitatores – Here the inhabitants flee from Jerusalem.
In the lower left of the panel a seated Judge delivers judgement on the defeated Jew – they were to be sold into slavery. In the lower left corner is a single word in runes: ᛞᚩᛗ – dōm – Judgement.
In the lower right of the panel the hostages are lead away. In the lower right corner is a single word in runes: ᚷᛁᛋᛚ – gīsl – hostages.
The Right Panel displayed in the British Museum is a copy as the original is on display in the Bargello Museum, Florence.
This panel depicts a central animal figure (a horse?) facing a figure with a stick. The short runic inscription over this central scene probably reads as ᚱᛁᛋᚳᛁ|ᛒᛁᛏᚪ|ᚹᚢᛞᚢ – Risci Bita Wudu – Rushes Biter Wood.
To the left of the panel, an animal figure sits on a small mound facing an armed and helmeted warrior. On the right of the panel are three figures.
The runic inscription running around the scenes are difficult to translate as a number of runes are illegible, and a number of different readings have been proposed. The runes are as follows:
ᚻ[?]ᚱᚻ[?]ᛋᛋ[?]ᛏ[?]ᚦ[?]ᚾᚻ[?]ᚱᛗᛒ[?]ᚱᚷ[?][?]ᚷᛚ|ᛞᚱ[?]ᚷ[?]ᚦᛋᚹ[?]|ᚻ[?]ᚱ[?] [?]ᚱᛏ[?] [?]ᚷ[?]ᛋᚷᚱ[?]ᚠᛋ[?]ᚱᛞᛖᚾᛋ[?]ᚱᚷ[?][?]|ᚾᛞᛋ[?]ᚠᚪᛏ[?]ᚱᚾ[?]
a suggested reading by Thomas A. Bredehoft1 is:
agl[.] drigiþ, swæ hiri Eutae gisgraf
sæuden sorgæ and sefa tornæ.
she endures agl[.] as the Jute appointed to her,
a sæuden of sorrow and troubles of mind.
Raymond Page has an alternative reading:2
Her Hos siteþ on hearmbeorge:
agl[?] drigeþ swa hire Erta gescræf
sar-denn sorge and sefan torne.
Here Hos sits on the sorrow-mound;
She suffers distress as Ertae had imposed it upon her,
a wretched den (?wood) of sorrows and of torments of mind
The Left Panel depicts Romulus and Remus, the mythological founders of Rome. They are being suckled by a wolf lying on her back at the bottom of the panel. Above this is another wolf and two men with spears approach from each side.
The inscription reads: ᚱᚩᛗᚹᚪᛚᚢᛋᚪᚾᛞᚱᛖᚢᛗᚹᚪᛚᚢᛋᛏᚹᛟᚷᛖᚾ | ᚷᛁᛒᚱᚩᚦᚫᚱ | ᚪᚠᛟᛞᛞᚫᚻᛁᚫᚹᚣᛚᛁᚠᛁᚾᚱᚩᛗᚫᚳᚫᛋᛏᚱᛁ: | ᚩᚦᚳᚫᚢᚾᚾᛖᚷ – Rōmwalus and Rēomwalus, twēgen gebrōðera: fēdde hīe wylf in Rōmeceastre, ēðle unnēah – Romulus and Remus, two brothers, a she-wolf nourished them in Rome, far from their native land.
The Top Panel is incomplete. There is an empty roundel in the centre which may have held the metal boss for a handle. The scene shows an archer , who is labelled ᚫᚷᛁᛚᛁ – Ægili, who is defending himself against a group of attackers whose large size may indicate that they are giants. A woman sits in a building behind the archer.
This scene has been interpreted in a number of ways. It has been suggested that Ægili may be Egil, Weland’s brother. It has also been suggested that Ægili is Achilles, and that the scene represents the Fall of Troy. Others have interpreted the scene as carrying a Biblical or Christian message.
The British Museum webpage for the Franks Casket states “The lid appears to depict an episode relating to the Germanic hero Egil and has the single label ‘aegili’ = ‘Egil’.”