Written by Dyami Millarson
Once upon a time, there was the veneration of the God Fosite, the Frisian Poseidon, on the island of Helgoland, ‘Holy Land’. The Frisians tended to the holy cows and a sacred well on the island, thus protecting the nature of the island. The holy cows must have drunk from the sacred well; this created a sacred mystery, a natural cycle and ecosystem, that the polytheists revered. It was believed by the Frisian ancestors, who practised ancient nature religion, that anyone who destroyed the sacred nature of the island would suffer illness or bad luck. Destruction of sacred nature was considered the greatest blasphemy, for that would go against the very basics of nature religion, which promotes peace with nature.
I do not say Heligoland or Heligolandic in this article, but I say Helgoland and Helgolandic without the i in the middle of the word, following the German examples Helgoland and Helgoländisch. Furthermore, Encyclopaedia Britannica follows the same convention in its article on Helgoland. Helgoland, which, according to Britannica, now has a periphery of 13 kilometres and had a periphery of 190 km around 800 AD when the Frisians settled it during their northward exploration, is situated in the North Sea and it is the Frisian island that is the furthest away from the European mainland. Due to the small size of the island, the Frisians on Helgoland made a living as fishermen and sailors in historical times and today they live from tourism, which is similar to Schiermonnikoog. Helgoland is ideal for the scientific study of rare birds, and due to the historical proximity of all speakers of Frisian languages to the sea, all Frisian languages have plenty of words to describe birds. Helgoland means ‘holy land’, because it was sacred to the Frisian polytheists, who first inhabited it. The red rock (sandstone) of the island is special according to geologists, and I believe it may also have had special meaning to the polytheists, who would have seen the red colour as having sacrificial-religious meaning, for red is the colour of blood and it is the colour of blood sacrifice.
Helgoland influenced the religion of the Norsemen, who took the Frisian worship of Fosite from there, for the island used to be the centre of the worship of Fosite. The Norsemen worshipped the God as Forseti, and the religious contact between the Norsemen and Frisians, presumably taking place on Helgoland around 800 AD, is a very interesting chapter in the history of Norse religion. Polytheist King Radbod the Second may also have retreated to Helgoland with his Frisian polytheist government after his defeat in 775 AD (?) and continued his polytheist style of rule over there. Helgoland was one of the first islands to be colonised by people speaking Old Frisian during the northward expansion of the Frisians during the 7th and 8th centuries, which gave rise to the insular North Frisian languages. The mainland North Frisian languages emerged later with the eastward expansion of the North Frisians during the eleventh century. Helgolandic is one of the insular North Frisian languages, which came from the first expansion or migration.
There were still only 150 fluent speakers of Helgolandic in 2009. Since the fluent speakers of Helgolandic are chiefly elderly, I know that the number must be even lower today. The number of fluent speakers of Helgolandic today in 2019 might be similar to that of Aasters (around 100) or that of Eilauners (around 30), which we studied in 2018. We hope to find out this year what the exact number of remaining speakers is. I have a hunch that North Frisian is most closely related to East Frisian. This is initially confirmed by the similarity in the articles, such as Helg. deät and Saterlandic dät. However, I noticed as a first impression that Helgolandic has many short vowels where East Frisian has long vowel. Many words start with dj- in Helgolandic, that start with a simple j- in West Frisian and Saterlandic East Frisian. The language of this fascinating Frisian island in the North Sea we are going to learn. Today, 1 March 2019, is our starting date for the study of Helgolandic. This will be the first North Frisian language that we are going to learn, and this is historically appropriate, since Helgoland was one of the first places to be settled by Frisian-speaking people, who would later go on to speak North Frisian as a result of natural evolution over the course of many successive centuries. Some people call the North Frisian languages mere dialects, but I treat them equally as languages, for their separate historical evolution makes them languages in their own right, being worthy of separate study.
I want to investigate the worldview of the Helgolanders and its intricate link with the life and renewal of the island that the Helgolanders call home since ancient times, and for this the study of the historical perspective of the Helgolanders is relevant. To understand the Helgolanders, I know it is vital to empathise with the Helgolanders and their viewpoint. Historical trauma strengthens language and identity. We have seen this in Hindeloopen as well. The Helgolanders have suffered a particularly recent historical trauma and their understandable reaction was to hold on to their language and identity. The Helgolanders, who are the indigenous Frisian inhabitants of the island since ancient times, are a tiny vulnerable ethnic minority that was victimised by forced expulsion from their homes, subsequent British occupation until 1952 and the intended destruction of their island home and heritage in 1947 with the largest non-nuclear blast in the recorded history of that era. To the Helgolanders, it was unsure whether the island would survive and they lived in anxiety that nothing would be left of their sacred rocky island. The Helgolanders had to hear for years how their island was being mistreated and destroyed, for it was being used as a bombing ground by the British, but it was a miracle, in their eyes, that the island survived the blast of 1947 and all subsequent bombings. The island proved sturdy like the Helgolanders themselves and had a strong will of its own. It must have been divine destiny that the island survived, even a warning omen that the island is protected by Providence. ‘What does not kill you makes you stronger.’ This saying really appears to apply to the Helgolanders and to their island. After the forced exile from the mysterious island, the Helgolandic diaspora displayed unity by having meetings near the German coast and singing songs, reciting poems and narrating oral history in the Helgolandic language. This was their peaceful way of protesting against the injustice suffered by their small vulnerable community. The island has had many rulers, such as the Danish (1714-1807), British (1807-1890, 1945-1952) and Germans (1890-1945, 1952-present), but despite all man-made and natural calamities the historical Helgolanders never lost their language and identity. When the island returned to Germany in 1952, the Helgolanders could finally return home, but much damage had already been done. The island and its inhabitants have suffered much, particularly in the recent history of the 20th century, but together they have prevailed. This is why it is so tragic that the Helgolandic language is currently endangered with extinction. So I want to save the language. I want to give the people of Helgoland hope and support. It is destiny that I am going to learn to speak and write the Helgolandic language.