Before the Christian era, the country we now call the Netherlands was inhabited by Germanic and Celtic tribes. Until the early 5th century, the area south of the Rhine was part of the Roman Empire. The earliest inhabitants of the Netherlands lived mainly on the ridge of hills near present-day Utrecht and survived by hunting and fishing. Stone tools that have been found show that the earliest Neanderthal inhabitants were already roaming around the Netherlands during the last glacial stage. Arable farming and animal husbandry were introduced around 5300 BC, allowing settlements to be established, although hunting and fishing continued to be important food sources. The imposing chamber tombs (‘hunebeds’) still found in the northern province of Drenthe also date from this period. They are built of huge boulders carried there by the glaciers.
During the Roman period, the Rhine marked the northern frontier of the Roman empire in the Netherlands. Forts were built at present-day Valkenburg, Utrecht and Nijmegen. The Frisians, who lived in the area now known as the northern provinces of Friesland and Groningen, were not under Roman rule, although they did have close trading relations with the Romans. Because the areas where the Frisians lived were regularly inundated by the sea, they built artificial mounds (known as ‘terps’ ) to raise their settlements above the level of the floods. South of the Rhine, large villas were built where the native inhabitants lived Roman-style in relative luxury and farmed the land using slaves, according to Roman custom.
The reign of Emperor Trajan (98-117) saw a long period of peace and relative prosperity, during which the Roman-occupied Netherlands became part of the province of Germania Inferior. In the course of the 3rd century AD, Roman power began to weaken. The Germanic tribes which had united and collectively become known as the Franks and the Saxons made ever more frequent incursions into the Roman-occupied area and in 406 a great invasion of Gaul finally put an end to Roman rule in the Low Countries.
Frankish culture evolved gradually out of that of the late Roman era. Clovis (466-511), grandson of the Merovech who gave his name to the dynasty, was the most successful of the Merovingian Frankish kings. He managed to expand the Frankish sphere of influence to include the whole of Gaul, from the Pyrenees to the major rivers of the northern Netherlands. On his deathbed, he divided his kingdom between his four sons. Belgium and part of the Netherlands were allocated to Chlotar I.
The Merovingians appointed officials called ‘mayors of the palace’ to advise them and supervise their households. As time went on, however, these officials gained more and more power and eventually usurped the throne. In 689, one of them – Pepin II – defeated the Frisian king Radbod near Dorestad and so extended his domains to the north and east. At that time, too, the conversion of the Netherlands to Christianity was just beginning. Missionaries roamed the country and in 629 a small church was built in Utrecht on the ruins of an old Roman fort. In the north, however, the Frisians continued to cling to their old beliefs and the Christian missionaries had little success.
An Anglo-Saxon monk called Willibrord is one of the best remembered of the missionaries who were active in the Netherlands, especially among the Frisians. Eventually the Pope ordained him archbishop of the Frisians and bishop of Utrecht. After Willibrord died in 739, his work was continued by Boniface (bishop of Mainz) until he was murdered by a band of Frisians in Dokkum in 754.
In 751, Pepin III deposed the last Merovingian king and had himself proclaimed King of the Franks. He did so with the Pope’s support and was anointed king by the missionary archbishop Boniface. Pepin’s action established the Carolingian dynasty, named after his celebrated son, Charlemagne (742-814). When Charlemagne succeeded his father, he at first shared the throne with his brother Carloman. After the latter’s death, he embarked on a struggle against the Saxons, who were resisting Frankish domination under the leadership of a Saxon noble called Widukind. In 785 Widukind capitulated and was forced to follow Charlemagne into Gaul, to swear allegiance to him and to be baptised. This brought the eastern Netherlands and Frisia definitively under Carolingian sway.
Charlemagne aspired to model his kingdom on the Roman empire and in 800 he had the Pope crown him Holy Roman Emperor. His 47-year-long reign was a period of administrative reform and cultural renaissance. At the height of his power, he ruled over an area that extended from the Elbe to the Pyrenees and from central Italy to the North Sea.
In the time of the Roman Empire and Early Middle Ages, the Low Countries resident peoples included: Germanic tribes north of the Rhine River (Low Franconians, Frisians, Tubanti, Canninefates, Batavians), as well as the decidedly more Celtic and Gallo-Roman Gaulish Belgae tribes of Gallia Belgica south of the Rhine. Old Dutch mythology can also mean the myths told in Old Dutch language specifically, however many of the myths in this language are ancient and part of larger movements across Europe, such as Roman mythology that spread through the Roman Empire, and Continental Germanic mythology.
Pre-Christian traditions of veneration of trees (particularly the oak, see Donar’s oak), springs and woods native to the Low Countries have survived in Christianized guise into the Middle Ages. Sources for the reconstruction of such pre-Christian traditions include the accounts of the Anglo-Saxon missionaries to the region, medieval and modern folklore and legend, and local toponymy.
From ancient regional mythology, most names of ancient gods and goddesses in this region come from Germanic origins, particularly in the North. Many of the deities are the same as West Germanic deities, especially in the north: Wodan is Dutch for Woden/Odin, the god of war and leader of the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt was retold in Dutch with Wodan leading under different guises: Gait with his dogs; Derk with his dogs; Derk with his boar; the glowing horse; Henske with his dogs.).Donar is Dutch for Thor the god of thunder.
In Dutch the days of the week are named for Germanic gods, a custom derived from parallel Roman practice. Note that the following days were named through Roman influence, because the Romans found them to be (roughly) equivalent to their Roman deities: dinsdag (Tuesday) named after Tyr – compared to “dies Martis” (Mars’ day), woensdag (Wednesday) after Wodan – compared to “dies Mercurii” (Mercury’s day), donderdag (Thursday) is named after Donar – compared to “dies Jovis” (Jupiter’s day), vrijdag (Friday) after Frîja – compared to “dies Veneris” (Venus’ day).
However other ancient deities are Druidic, Celtic and Gallo-Roman in nature, particularly in the south and throughout Flanders: Erecura the goddess of the earth, Góntia or Ghent (in Belgium) the moon goddess, Rosmerta, goddess of fertility, and the deities mentioned by Saint Eligius in Flanders (Jupiter, Neptune, Orcus, Diana, and Minerva). Finally some deities were regional or specific to one clan: Arduinna was the Celtic goddess of the Ardennes forest. Nehalennia was a goddess of travellers in Zeeland, where over 160 stone votives depicting her image were located in the sea. Vagdavercustis was an ancient goddess of the Batavians mentioned on an altar near Cologne. Tanfana is another more mysterious goddess recorded in the 1st century AD.
The Dutch words witte wieven and wittewijven in Dutch dialects means “women of wits” (wise women), although it sounds the same and often translated as “white women”. The witte wieven were similar to völva, herbalists and wise women in life; in myth they lived on as spirits or elves. These beings may have originated as deities or supernatural beings in mythology, and later characterized as nature spirits during the Middle Ages; The Dutch like other Germanic people believed in elves, the Dutch words for them are elfen, elven, and alven. The moss maidens, who appear in Old Dutch and Southern Germanic folklore were known as tree spirits or wood elves, often chased in the Dutch version of the Wild Hunt. The Kabouter was the Dutch name for the kobold (gnome), a household spirit and earth spirit who usually lived underground.
The first epic heroes, kings and leaders of The Low Countries, considered mythological, in the sense of supernatural and foundational, include: Tuisto (Tuisco) – the mythical ancestor of all Germanic tribes and Mannus – ancestor of a number of Germanic tribes, son of Tuisto. His son Ing (Ingwaz, Yngvi) – founder of the Ingaevones tribe, and finally Istaev – founder of the Istvaeones tribe, also a son of Mannus. Some Frisian heroes include:Redbad, King of the Frisians and Folcwald – hero of Frisian tribes. Finn (Frisian) – hero of Frisian tribes, Frisian lord, son of Folcwald is also mentioned din folklore.
Objects considered magical or sacred in the Low Countries (7th century) included: Oak trees, springs and wooded groves had sacred and medicinal powers. Corn dollies (“vetulas”) were thought to hold the spirit of the corn in harvest rituals. Amulets and charms were worn on the head or the arms (“phylacteries”) for protection and veneration of the gods and goddesses. Stone age tool shards were held sacred, thought to be Donar’s lightning.
The written biographies of the Christian missionaries to the Netherlands, sermonizing against pre-Christian beliefs, are coincidentally some of the earliest written accounts of the myths that existed in the region. The missionary texts written by the incoming Christian missionaries in the 7th century and 8th century recorded details of the pre-Christian myths of the native culture, although the missionaries showed religious hostility to them as pagan beliefs. The main missionaries of the Netherlands were Willibrord, Bonifatius and Saint Eligius.
The Frisians are the main reason the Romans were kept mostly south of the Rhine; about 450 they crossed the North Sea and invaded England, settling in Kent, East Anglia and Lincolnshire. They remained an important force from the latter part of the Roman period through about 800 AD, when Charlemagne conquered most of Europe. Since then, they continue to keep their cultural identity and language alive today. The origins of the Frisians lie in an area that roughly covers South Scandinavia, Denmark and the Weser/Oder region. In the period between 1750 and 700 B.C. they were still part of a larger group of peoples called the Germanics. This larger group was of the mainly of the Nordic race (dolichocranic). (Among the Nordics there also lived a -smaller- group of brachycranics whom probably had the position of slave).
Around 800 B.C. the original Germanic group had split into a West-, East- (Goths and Vandals) and North Germanic group (Scandinavians). The differences can be traced in language and culture. At the end of the Bronze Age (700 B.C.) the expansion of the West Germanics had reached the coastal areas of northwest Germany (currently the province Hanover).
The West Germanics can be divided, along religious lines, into three tribegroups, the Inguaeones, Istuaeones and Irminones. The Frisians belong to the Inguaeones. The name Inguaevones is derived from the god Inguz; the Frisians believed they descended from him. Inguz is another name for the Germanic god Freyr. Other tribes belonging to the Inguaeones were, the Jutes, Warns, Angles, and the Saxons. Of these tribes the Saxons were closest in kin to the Frisians. All Inguaeones lived in the coastal areas along the North Sea. The Chaukians, also a tribe that lived along the North Sea, belong to the Irminones.
From north-west Germany, to be exact the coastal areas around the mouths of the rivers Eems and Weser, the Inguaeones colonized the coastal clay-districts of the current Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen (700 – 600 B.C.). So between 700 and 600 B.C. the forefathers of the Frisians colonized the coastal clay-districts of the current Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen. The largest group came from the Eems/Weser region. Later also people came from the higher sandy regions to the east of Friesland (currently called Drenthe). Between 700 and 400 B.C. one can’t speak of a separate Frisian group, since there is still one homogenic culture between Texel (Netherlands) and the Weser (Germany). Between 400 and 200 B.C. significant cultural changes take place. From Leiden in the south to Delfzijl in the north a ‘Proto-Frisian’ culture was evolving. In 200 B.C. a distinctly Frisian culture can be found between the river Eems (Germany) and Wijk-bij-Duurstede (Netherlands).
To the north of the Eems lives a tribe called the Chaukians. An interesting fact is that the Chaukians belonged mainly to the Falian race (Dolichocranic with a broad face). The Frisians mainly to the Nordic race (Dolichocranic with narrow face). In the region currently known as the province of Groningen there was a melting together of both races. There was also a small group of brachycranic people living among the Nordic Frisians, of a non-Germanic origin. They inhabited the Netherlands before the Germanic-invasion, and were probably of pre-Indogermanic origin.
Two centuries after the colonization of the clay-district the sea level stars to rise. To encounter the periodical flooding of their homesteads the Frisians built earth-mounds known as terps. There were several periodes of sealevel rising (they were accompanied by storm flooding), consequently there are several separate terpbuilding periods that coincide with the periods the sea level rose.
There are three separate terpbuilding generations: The first terp-generation dates from 500 B.C.; the second terp-generation dates from 200 B.C. till 50 B.C.; and the third terp-generation dates from 700 A.D.. In 250 A.D. the sea level rising and the coinciding storm flooding was so dramatic that almost all of the Frisians left the clay district only to return in 400 A.D.
Under Emperor Tiberius the taxes became to high, and the Frisians could no longer comply with them. The result was that: first the Romans would take their cattle, after that their land and at last their women and children were taken to be sold in slavery. In 28 A.D. the Frisians rebelled, and hung the taxmen. To retaliate, the Romans sent their legions to punish and conquer Friesland. But the Roman army was slain in a battle at the Baduhennawood. The name of the Frisians was now a feared one in Rome. There was no Roman reprisal, since Rome had its own internal problems. For the next 20 years Friesland was free.
In 47 A.D. the Frisians made another truce with the Romans. This time with Corbulo. An agreement was made in which their was a mutual understanding that the Rhine was to be the border that both parties had to respect. Friesland would fall under a Roman sphere of influence, but it would no longer be occupied. In 58 A.D. Frisians colonized an uninhabited strip of land south of the Rhine, thereby breaking their agreement with Corbulo. Two Frisian leaders, Verritus and Malorix (these are Roman translations of their Frisian names), went to Rome to bid the Roman Emperor Nero if they could stay. Alas, the Frisians were violently extradited from the region below the Rhine.
In 69 A.D. the Batavians (a Germanic tribe situated in central Netherlands, and the southern neighbors of the Frisians) also rebel against the Roman occupiers. This region was the northwestern cornerstone of the Roman Empire. The Frisians and the Canninifats (also a Germanic neighbortribe of the Frisians in the west of the Netherlands) became the allies of the Batavians. Sadly the uprising fails. The Romans defeat the Batavians. The Rhine remains the Roman border until the collapse of the Roman Empire in 410 A.D.
Around 250 A.D. almost all Frisians disappear from the Frisian coastal-clay districts. The rising of the sealevel makes it impossible to live in the coastal areas of Friesland for the next 150 years (250 – 400 A.D.). In this period a fraction of the Frisians and the Chaukians (a Germanic tribe neighboring north of Friesland) form a new tribal alliance called the Franks. This is the tribe that will emigrate south and form the Frankish Empire (currently known as France).
After 400 A.D. the rising of the sealevel halted. Frisian people and their nobility returned to the Frisian clay-district which, by then, had already been colonized by peoples from the Elbe and Sleeswick/Holstein region. These tribes assimilated and continued as the Frisian tribe we know today. In 300 A.D. other smaller West Germanics tribes had also formed larger tribal-groups known as: Allemandes, Saxons, Thuringers, and Bayerns. The Chaukian tribe disappears altogether. It has assimilated in the Frisian- and Saxon-tribe.
For two centuries (350 – 550 A.D.) the tide of the Migration of Nations sweeps over Europe. Germanic tribes migrate all over Western Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Thereby forming new tribes in the newly conquered areas, and for the first time large organized Germanic states. In Europe the major Germanic states were the Jutish, Saxon, Anglo-Saxon, Frankish, Burgondish, West-Gothic, East-Gothic, Vandal and Frisian.
Around 450 A.D. Angles, Saxons, Jutes and a Frisian fraction cross the North Sea and establish the Anglo-Saxon empire (currently known as England). The Frisians colonized the county of Kent in southeast England. Around 480 A.D. Clovis establishes the Frankish Empire (currently known as France). As said before the Frankish tribe originated from the Chaukans and Frisians. Around 400 A.D. the Frisians started establishing their Frisian Empire. In 500 and especially 600 A.D. there was a fast expansion and a strong increase in trade. At its peak, in the 7th century, this empire consisted of the coastal areas from north Belgium to southern Denmark. And it controlled a large part of the North Sea traderoutes from Friesland to England, France, Scandinavia and northwest Russia. The Migration Period seems to have had only a slight change in racial characteristics.
In the sixth century the written sources begin to speak again about the Frisians. A ‘Great-Friesland’ (Magna Frisia) has been created. This historical Great-Friesland consisted of a long narrow strip of land along the North Sea, from the Swin (Belgium) in the south, to the Weser (Germany) in the north. This historic Frisian empire lasted from 500 A.D. to 719 A.D. It neighbored to the Saxons in the north and east, the Franks in the south and the Anglo-Saxons in the west across the North Sea.
Clovis converted to Catholicism for power-political reasons. The Gallo-Roman aristocracy in France and the church in Rome, whose support Clovis needed during his empire-building period, were both Catholic. Other Germanic tribes in the former hemisphere of the Roman Empire (Goths and Vandals) had converted to a form of Christianity more suitable to the Germanic soul, called Arianisme. The Germanic tribes in the north, including the Frisians, were still practicing the religious believes of there forefathers, currently known as Odinism or Asatru. In this article the term ‘Heathen’ will be used. In becoming Catholic the Franks automatically became the greatest antagonists of the Frisians.
Around 500 A.D. Clovis had formed his Frankish Empire, which was to be the heir of the Roman Empire with blessings of the pope in Rome. The most northerly border of this empire was formed by the cities Utrecht and Dorestad, neighboring to the Frisians.
After the death of Clovis in 511 A.D. the Frisians took advantage of the internal Frankish power struggle and captured Utrecht and Dorestad. Both cities would stay Frisian for over a hundred years (511 – 628 A.D.). The capture of these cities was of very great interest to the Frisians, since they were the gateways of trade from the Saxon and Frankish hinterlands to the North Sea. In the sixth and the seventh century the Frisians were the major traders on the North Sea. The North Sea was even called ‘Mare Frisicum’ during this period.
From a religious point of view the Frisian heatenisme was no longer under threat of Frankish Christianity since there was no sally port (Utrecht). In the year 628 A.D. the Frankish/Christian king Dagobert defeats a combined force of Saxons an Frisians (both Saxons and Frisians were Heathen). By doing so the city of Utrecht fell to the Franks. Dagobert erected a church in Utrecht and ordered a bishop to start converting the Frisians. Christianity had become a tool in the hands of the Franks to destroy the Frisian independence north of the Rhine.
King Finn Folcwalding (lived somewhere in the beginning of the 6th century) King Finn may have been a Frisian king in the sixth century. He is only named in Anglo-Saxons epics (Widsith, Beowulf and Finnsburg-fragment) which have been written some 50 to 100 years later.
King Eadgils ( ? – 677 A.D.) King Eadgils is the first Frisian king known by name. Two Christian scribes, Beda and Eddius, name him in their works. Under the rule of Eadgils the Frisians and the Franks live in peace with one and other. There are two reasons for this: The Franks were still in internal division, as to whom was to be the heir of the Frankish empire Clovis built, and Eadgils let bishop Wilfried (a pawn of Rome and the Franks) preach Christianity freely in the Frisian regions. This peaceful time was to change drastically ten years later, when the Redbad had become king of Friesland and Pippin leader of the Franks.
King Redbad (679 – 719 A.D.) The heathen king Redbad is the greatest folk hero of the Frisians. He is the defender of the Frisian freedom against the invading Frankish armies and against the Church of Rome. Redbad was a devout heathen. So when the Franks were internally divided as whom was to rule, he attacked the Franks, conquered Utrecht and distroyed the church. Christianity was then forcefully removed from the Frisian empire. In 689 A.D. Pepin II leads the Frankish conquest in the Frisian lands and he takes Dorestad. Between 690 and 692 A.D. Utrecht also falls into the hands of Pepin. Thereby controlling the important gateways of trade from the Frankish hinterland to the North Sea via the river Rhine. In 714 A.D. Pepin dies. Redbad takes advantage of this and he beats the Frankish armies under Charles Martel in 716 A.D. at Cologne, thereby winning back the Frisian Empire. King Redbad dies in 719, leaving behind a Great and Heathen Friesland.
King Poppa (Hrodbad) (719 – 734) Fifteen years after Redbad’s death Charles Martel reached the peak of his power and he saw the opportunity to deal with Friesland. In 734 A.D. he sent his forces to Friesland. In the heart of the Frisian land, on the river Boorne (‘Middelsea’), the decisive battle was waged, with Poppo (in full Hrodbad) at the head of the Frisian land- and sea-forces. Poppo was the son of Redbad, but not as successful as his father. He was killed in battle, and the Frisian forces (in disarray) were slain. Friesland, uptill the Lauwers, was incorporated in the Frankish Empire. It lost its freedom and the church got a foothold. The son of Poppa, Abba (in full Alfbad), became the first Frisian count under Frankish rule (749 – 775 A.D.).
East-Friesland (east of the Lauwers) was conquered 50 years later. The East-Frisians had bonded with their Heathen neighbors the Saxons. Martel’s son, Pepin the Short, was unable to defeat this coalition. Only under the leadership of Martel’s grandson, Charlemagne (Charles the Great), is the Saxo-Frisian alliance defeated in 785 A.D.. The legendary Widukind led this Saxo-Frisian heathen alliance. During the eight century the Frisian language is born. This birth can be traced by sound changes in the language. Thereby setting the Frisian language apart from other Inguaeonish languages.