Musings on the Definition of Frisia

Written by Dyami Millarson

This is a page from a book written in Latin on the history of the Frisians. The author of this book is Ubbo Emmius.

I have often used the place name Frisia on the Operation X blog, but I have never really come around to defining it. To be frank, I have been somewhat reluctant to deal with this topic: Frisia can be somewhat difficult to define due to various factors, including cultural and political. This could therefore potentially be a sensitive topic for the Frisians and in general, I want to steer away from controversy. In dealing with this topic, empathy for the Frisian tribes is important; I believe that we should let the various Frisian tribes be themselves and let them define for themselves what Frisia is.

Over the years of living, interacting and working with the Frisians, I have listened to what Frisians who belong to various tribal denominations told me and I have studied their historical perspectives as documented in texts written in their huge variety of tribal languages. I will here offer my insights on the definition of Frisia based on what I have learned from the various indigenous perspectives of the Frisian tribal factions that all have their own language and locality.

The definition of Frisia is traditionally intentionally ambiguous for a variety of political and cultural reasons. Furthermore, there is a multitude of definitions of Frisia. The most important definitions fall into 2 main categories:

  1. A Frisian ethnic region limited by administrative boundaries that the national government has determined
    1. The area in the Netherlands that is officially called Frisia
    2. Any area in Germany, generally prefixed by North or East, that is officially called Frisia
  2. The territory of all Frisians (i.e., the entire family of Frisian tribes)
    1. The contemporary area inhabited by Frisian-speaking peoples
    2. The historical area inhabited by all ethnic Frisians

I use definitions falling into both categories in my writings, depending on context. Whenever discussing Netherlandic Frisian languages, I am inclined towards using definition 1.a. for practical reasons, though I do never dismiss the other definitions, particularly not category 2. definitions that are probably more spiritual and cultural in nature, esp. definition 2.b.

Frisians implicitly seem to agree on the aforementioned definitions in practice, which is why I have never really felt the need to explicitly define it either. Frisia has to be felt. The sensitive issue for many Frisians is, however, category 1. They feel they belong to something bigger than category 1.; Frisians do not allow themselves to be limited by national borders. That is why ethnic Frisians tend towards category 2. definitions, especially definition 2.b. is very prevalent among Frisians.

Referencing Frisian folklore, Frisians from the Netherlands have always told me that “Frisia is much bigger.” It would be incorrect actually to translate this as “Frisia used to be much bigger” and I will explain why. Whenever they told me this, they gave me the feeling that they meant Frisia is still much bigger than what the official maps are telling us. I questioned them about this further and they confirmed that they have a feeling that the historical territory of Frisia is an eternal truth; Frisia is not limited by contemporary reality, but it is a reality beyond time and politics. It is perhaps hard to explain this sentiment of the Frisians, and I will do my best to translate it in a respectful manner.

We have to ask: how can Frisians hold on to definition 2.b. in a contemporary setting? The answer to this lies in how speakers of Frisian languages interpret Frisia. They may not always share their true sentiments with outsiders, particularly not if they do not speak the same Frisian language. Frisians confided their sentiments honestly in me when I assured them that I would treat it respectfully; I take their opinions seriously and I hope to communicate their indigenous views well to outsiders. When Frisia is meant in sense 2.b., it has also been called Magna Frīsia Great Frisia in Latin. However, I would rather call it Aeterna Frīsia Eternal Frisia in Latin, because this expresses the Frisian perspective better than the former.

Frisians of various tribes appear to perceive Frisia as a virtual nation, basically a nation of the soul. Nation comes from the Latin word nātiō, which comes from the verb nāscī to be born. The Latin word nātiō primarily means birth, but it could also mean country of birth (= one’s native country) or people of birth (= one’s native people). Not all peoples have countries; Frisians do not have their own country, as can already be surmised from the category 1 definitions of Frisia. This means practically that Frisians are rather a people of birth, and therefore souls are traditionally born into Frisian tribal culture.

Being Frisian, therefore, transcends borders. The fact that Frisian identity transcends national borders (i.e., Frisia is more than category 1. definitions) has also been an important factor in the rediscovery of Frisian identity among speakers of Frisian languages who had forgotten they were Frisian, such as the Sagelterland Frisians. (Rediscovery of Frisian identity, nevertheless, generally works best in areas that can be defined as Frisian in sense 2.a. rather than 2.b.)

Category 1 definitions are, thus, rather definitions reflecting political reality. They do not reflect the cultural reality of the Frisians. While Frisians have strong ties to their own tribal faction, they do also have strong feelings of affinity with the other Frisian factions; there appears to be a spontaneous feeling of recognition that the others are equally Frisian. For instance, while the Hindeloopen Frisians identify as Hindeloopen people first and foremost, they define themselves as Frisians afterwards; it might therefore be more appropriate to call them Frisian Hindelopians (< Lat. Hindelōpia) than Hindeloopen Frisians. Something similar is going on among other Frisian groups, such as the Schiermonnikoog Frisians.

The cultural aspect of definition 2.b. is very strong, and while I study the traditional knowledge of the Frisian peoples, I perceive that a folkloristic explanation is appropriate here. Definition 2.b. is intricately tied to Frisian folklore, as can be expected while Frisian culture and Frisian folklore are inseparable. One cannot speak of Frisian culture without taking Frisian folklore into account, it has to be taken seriously as a psychological portal to understanding the Frisian mind-set. The eternity of Frisia presupposes a folkloristic reality; Frisia is a dream reality for Frisians. When people become Frisian, through a process of rediscovery of Frisian identity, they become part of this greater Frisian dream world. Folk tales often start with phrases like ‘long ago’ and ‘once upon a time,’ which sets the story in an undefined time. This is the same way that Frisians perceive Frisia emotionally; this is how they trend to define Frisia implicitly as they feel comfortable with this. In other words, Frisia is a timeless reality that Frisians identify with.

Radbōdus, the last High King of the Frisians, is an important symbol for Frisian ethnic unity in Frisian folklore. He is fondly remembered, basically as the Eternal King of the Frisians. The Frisians perceive Radbōdus as a folk hero as he made himself useful for the Frisian cause; Frisians never forget anyone who fights for the Frisians. Radbōdus, whose name is prominently featured in Waling Dykstra’s authoritative work on Frisian folklore titled Uit Friesland’s volksleven van vroeger en later (Taken From Frisia’s Folk Life of Earlier and Later Times) and who is said to be commonly known among today’s Frisians, ought to be perceived as a figure akin to Guan Yu, who is worshipped eternally as a heroic general of the Chinese, and Radbōdus may to a great extent even be likened to the Jade Emperor, who has a role of eternal emperor in Chinese culture.

Radbōdus himself placed high value on ancestor worship and therefore it also makes sense that the Frisians remember him as a very important ancestor. Frisians do hold their ancestors in high esteem. While Frisia is a kingdom that exists beyond our earthly reality, it can be understood that Radbōdus presides over Frisia as its eternal ruler; Frisia – if definition 2.b. is faithfully maintained – is essentially a thanatocracy or necrocracy, i.e., a nation that is ruled by a dead leader (deceased ancestor). There is no other logical conclusion that one can arrive at: not only does the territory not alter in the dream world of the Frisians, but neither does its ruler and all other aspects of that reality. Frisia is eternally Frisia no matter what governments do with the national borders, and if this historical Frisia is eternal, then Radbōdus is forever the King of this historical Frisia.

Of course, thanatocracy or necrocracy presupposes that the leader is truly dead and cannot truly continue to influence the world of the living from beyond the grave, but Frisians are actually believing in a reality where the dead Frisians continue to have some sway over the affairs of Frisia; these ancestors are basically still living on after their own death and continue to benefit the Frisian cause in a variety of ways that are available to them as incorporeal beings tied to the lands of Frisia.

The Frisian attitude of not caring what governments decree by law is real. This is not necessarily a hostile attitude, but what it means is that Frisians hold on to their own reality; they can let others have their reality, yet Frisians have theirs. There is a similar notion in the Bible where it is said in Matthew 22:21: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” This separation of realities is the same as what Frisians are doing; they are giving the governments what is theirs, yet they are also paying homage to their spiritual Eternal Kingdom of Frisia.

So, I should summarise Frisia as a spiritual reality or entity; it is not just a geographical or linguistic reality. Definition 2.a. makes sense from a linguistic point of view, but definition 2.b. makes sense if you take folklore into account. Definition 2.b. postulates a spiritual Frisia; it sees it as a realm that is beyond modern nationhood. After all, Frisians regard themselves as elder than the nations that they are nowadays part of, and they are right in doing so; they are indigenous tribal groups.

Frisians see the national borders as arbitrary as these changed over the ages, yet they see the historical Frisian ethnic lands as eternally Frisian; they see these natural lands as having spiritual ties with Frisia. After all, Frisian ancestors lived there and so, from a Frisian perspective, there must be Frisian ancestral spirits or Frisian genii locorum residing there. Once a region has been populated by indigenous Frisians, it is forever populated by Frisian spiritual beings who call it their home. This is why a modern linguistic perspective, as definition 2.a. is based on, does not work for the Frisians; they cannot accept being separated from all of the natural lands that have ties with the Frisian ancestors, Frisia is eternal.

Aspects of implicit Frisian animism, Frisian ancestor worship and hero worship (which includes martyr worship) are important for getting a better view of why Frisians perceive reality in this way. While Frisia is another plain of existence, basically a virtual or spiritual reality on top of or behind the reality we can see, we should realise that this has nothing to do with politics, but everything with culture. Outsiders may misunderstand this as a political view, but this is rather an apolitical aspect of Frisian culture; Frisians can be part of their nations yet also part of their own spiritual kingdom. Frisians are citizens of the nations they live in, yet they are also loyal subjects of Eternal King Radbōdus who forever rules over Frisia, the eternal land of all Frisians. Radbōdus himself did also show a perception of Frisian lands as eternally Frisian whenever the Franks tried breaking Frisia apart, so this cultural perception is already really old.

Finally, I would like to ask my readers whether they find this post useful for getting an insight into Frisian culture as a whole and appreciating the indigenous perspective of the Frisians on what Frisia is and is not. Please let me know in the comments below. If readers indeed find this content useful, I might write a more elaborate post on this topic in the future; this follow-up article will probably be titled “What Is Frisia?” In the comments below, you might also let me know what you would like me to talk more about in that follow-up article: would you like me to tell more about who Radbōdus is? Would you like me to include more anecdotes of my interactions with Frisians and what they told me about how they perceive Frisia?

4 comments

  1. Great stuff, thanks for this. To answer the question posed at the end, personally, the mythology/folklore/stories are what interest me the most. Would love a deep dive into some of those stories and perspectives and the degree to which they play a role in modern life. I’m always completely fascinated by just what events occur in the stories that are told across different cultures. Cheers.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Despite being very comprehensive, I feel like you grazed the surface on so many topics. That’s so exciting! Perhaps break it up into specialized segments. Cover the details of the interviews with the Frisians. I would to read more stories of the folklore itself as well. Would love to learn about cultural interactions and day to day life.

    Liked by 2 people

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