‘Odin’s breath’ and a New Type of Cruciform Brooch

During my ongoing research on early Anglo-Saxon cruciform brooches, I’ve come across a number of frustratingly unclassifiable fragments, so far only recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database.  Although they looked so much like they came from the so-called “florid” series of cruciform brooches (and the PAS recorded them as such), this was not strictly demonstrable.  Nothing larger than these little plates, to my knowledge, had yet been found (I link to all 10 of these fragments at the bottom of this blog).

One of the mysterious fragments recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database (NMS-312CA1)

One of the mysterious fragments recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database (NMS-312CA1)

Among the cruciform brooch series they seemed unusual.  They have an uncharacteristic square outline, and the decoration is strikingly realistic among the more abstract and compositionally complex decoration that is typical of the period.  They are decorated, quite clearly, with unambiguous human faces, staring out at us with wide eyes, chubby cheeks and occasionally open mouths, apparently focusing a stream of breath towards us.  Occasionally, this motif is referred to as a ‘divine breath’ or a ‘tongue of fire’.  Some (perhaps overly imaginative) accounts have even referred to this motif as the breath of Odin, probably referring to the story where he breaths life into Ask and Embla, the equivalents of Adam and Eve in Norse mythology.

Needless to say, these items were produced considerably earlier (5th-6th century) than the Norse myths were written down (13th century), which makes such a specific link extremely tenuous.  That is not to say these motifs did not have specific symbolic significances, but we might equally see the mask as singing or shouting, especially in those other cases of the motif where from the mouth seems to issue forth a plethora of symbols (in a form of animal art known as Salin’s Style I).  This is depicted in the drawing of another cruciform brooches below.   A triangular field containing two crouched beasts (perhaps amphibious ones judging from their tapering bodies) erupt from the mouth of the moustachioed human mask.

Another example of the open-mouthed human mask motif, from a cruciform brooch from grave 81, Empingham II, Rutland (drawing by T. Martin)

Another example of the open-mouthed human mask motif, from a cruciform brooch from grave 81, Empingham II, Rutland (drawing by T. Martin)

The one thing that I did note down as important on the unclassified fragments was the occasional presence of up-curled eyebrows or fringes, a feature seen among a small group of “florid” cruciform brooches (which happen to fall into my sub-group 4.6).   I used this observation to loosely associate these fragments with that classification.  The other unusual thing about that sub-group, is that they have perfectly square head-plates, lacking the flanking wings seen on nearly all other cruciform brooches.  For these two reasons, I grouped them all together in the hope that one day a complete example would be found that shared similar traits.

Lo and behold, a larger example has finally arrived on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database with both of these features: a square head-plate and a human face with up-curled eyebrows.  It’s still a pretty fragmented specimen, but in my opinion it’s enough to conclusively identify these fragments as parts of cruciform brooches.  Interestingly, it’s only the knob at the top of the head-plate that is furnished with up-curled eyebrows (or hair), which explains the rarity of this feature among the other examples.  Differential treatment of the top-knob among the “florid” series of cruciform brooches is a relatively late trait.

Cruciform brooch head-plate from Marham, Norfolk (NMS-13B110 on the PAS database)

These new cruciform brooches actually represent quite an important group, probably being among the latest in the whole series, dating approximately to a point around the mid-6th century AD.  However, among this group they are very unusual for not being gilded and silvered (a decorative technique known as “bichrome”).  Based on that fact, one might be able to make an argument for them being a little earlier than this.  There is little unusual about their distribution, which is concentrated in Lincolnshire and Norfolk.

The only downside to this discovery is that I found out about it pretty much the day I submitted my manuscript that details a new typology for cruciform brooches…

 

Known examples of the new type

NMS-13B110PAS record number: NMS-13B110

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Norfolk

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/597117

LIN-FE8EA4

 

PAS record number: LIN-FE8EA4

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Lincolnshire

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/154169

 

ESS-0C29F8ESS-0C29F8PAS record number: ESS-0C29F8

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Essex

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/79085

 

NCL-C90E94PAS record number: NCL-C90E94

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: North Yorkshire

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/384278

 

NMS-E911A6PAS record number: NMS-E911A6

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Norfolk

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/141708

 

NMS-5D0970PAS record number: NMS-5D0970

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Norfolk

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/235055

 

NMS-55AC65PAS record number: NMS-55AC65

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Norfolk

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/181112

 

NLM-CDB1D0PAS record number: NLM-CDB1D0

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Lincolnshire

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/51263

 

NMS-312CA1NMS-312CA1PAS record number: NMS-312CA1

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Norfolk

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/383504

 

NLM4175PAS record number: NLM4175

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Lincolnshire

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/11545

 

NCL-D4DF11PAS record number: NCL-D4DF11

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: North Yorkshire

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/108656

 

Finally, there is a single possible lead example, though I think I am now more inclined to see it as a fragment of some kind of mount, quite possible from a horse harness given its stylistic similarity to some other examples:

 

LIN-7E9045

PAS record number: LIN-7E9045

Object type: Brooch

Broadperiod: Early Medieval

County of discovery: Lincolnshire

Stable url: http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/143676

 

 

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2 Comments on “‘Odin’s breath’ and a New Type of Cruciform Brooch”

  1. David Leigh says:

    Tim, are you sure that the curls on the “curled up eyebrows” you have spotted aren’t the headgear or hair seen in profile, the two conjoined profiles making a single full frontal face?

    • Toby Martin says:

      Absolutely, if not a more likely explanation. As I’ve said above, they could well be representative of a curled fringe. I hadn’t thought of them as part of headgear, but given that many of these masks/profiles quite clearly wear helmets I think that’s perfectly plausible as well. In fact, given that a lot of those slightly later Vendel/Sutton Hoo helmets have particularly accentuated eyebrows (and even occasionally curled ones), perhaps it’s stretching it only a little too far to suggest both simultaneously!


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