112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

“Erta” on the Anglo-Saxon Franks Casket and a Familiar Giant in My Landscape

Marijane Osborn, University of California, Davis

The eighth-century carved whalebone box called the Franks Casket contains a coded runic reference to a being named Erta (or Yerta) in an inscription framing an intriguing series of picture. This paper explores the possibility that this Erta figure may bear some correspondence to the cave-giant Yorda inhabiting the Yorkshire landscape where we lived. The names appear cognate (see proposal) and Yorda’s role as local cave-monster may be a debased form of Erta’s role as guardian of the entrance to the Other World.


“Erta…and a Familiar Giant” proposes an affinity or identity between the Anglo-Saxon Erta and the local earth-giant named Yorda who inhabits the Scandinavian-inflected landscape where we lived in Yorkshire. ERTA is named on the right side of the whalebone box known as the Franks Casket, of eighth-century Northumbrian provenance. This panel of the casket contains three pictures that may allude to a single story, surrounded on all sides by a coded runic inscription containing the name Erta (or Yerta). YORDA (cp. Old Norse jörð, Old Scots yearthe) is a name associated with a cavern in upper Kingsdale large enough to hide cattle from Scottish raiders during the Border Wars. They say the giant Yorda who lives there eats little boys. Could Erta on the right side of the Franks Casket and Yorda of the cave be two variations on a demonic guardian of the Otherworld threshold? Are those similar names as cognate as they seem, and if so, do they name the same supernatural being, or kindred beings? Does the strange creature shown sitting on a mound on the Franks Casket panel represent this being? The paper investigates these interesting possibilities.


After introducing the casket with photographs, I’ll briefly describe the problems about the right side, sample the wildly disparate interpretations of text and pictures suggested by various scholars, and give the British Museum’s approved interpretation: that a person named Erta is oppressing someone named Hos. Then, quoting the British Museum’s Leslie Webster about the casket’s complicated and ambiguous program, I will demonstrate how the carver has inscribed by means of ambivalent code-runes a clearly intended alternative meaning where Erta vanishes (my discovery), although the message remains much the same. Reviving Erta, I’ll suggest that the name refers to the hybrid male mound-sitter at far left in the picture-series, a wonderfully strange animal-man who guards the entrance to the other world and determines who may enter. I will argue that the inscription on the back of the casket with roman and runic letters in carefully manipulated Latin and Old English offers clues about the inscription on the adjacent right side, and moreover that the two runic labels inserted in pictures on the back, DOM (judgment) and GISL (captive), are re-narrated by picture and text on the right side, as the Erta figure sits in judgment forbidding entrance to a petitioner (picture at left) who is simultaneously dead in a grave-mound (central picture), and in both cases trapped, unable to proceed beyond the grave. All this leads to the argument that the eighth-century Northumbrian designer of this complex artifact is making use of a traditional threshold figure that is still known in the Yorkshire countryside, although now he has been demoted from the hieratic guardian of the otherworld entrance to a demonic child-eating giant that lives in a cave.