The Golden Horns of Gallehus: Stolen and Recovered Danish Heritage
The Golden Horns of Gallehus are a pair of richly decorated, 5th-century BC Germanic drinking horns that were discovered in Gallehus, a town in southern Denmark in 1639. The horns were made from sheet gold and were ornately decorated with images of animals and mythological scenes. They were likely used as ceremonial drinking vessels by Germanic chiefs or kings, and later buried as offerings and grave goods.
The larger of the two horns, known as the Golden Horn of Gallehus, measures approximately 75 centimeters (30 in) in length and weighs nearly 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds). The smaller horn, known as the Silver Horn of Gallehus, is also made of sheet gold but is decorated with silver inlays and measures about 50 centimeters (20 in) in length.
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They are among the most important artifacts from the Germanic Iron Age , and they have been the subject of much scholarly study and debate. In 1802, a goldsmith and watchmaker by the name of Niels Heidenreich, who was commissioned to restore them, stole and melted them instead! All that we have left are replicas which were made using old drawing copies and were placed in the National Museum, only to be stolen again in 2007 and subsequently recovered!
The Golden Horns became popularized after their theft in 1802, and after they became the subject of one of the best-known poems in Danish literature, The Gold Horns ( Guldhornene) by Adam Oehlenschläger:
“Glimpses two from period olden
Lo! in modern time appearing;
Strange returned those glimpses golden,
On their sides enigmas bearing.
Holiness mysterious hovers
O’er their signs, of meaning pond’rous;
Glory of the Godhead covers
These eternal works so wondrous.
Reverence them, for nought is stable;
They may vanish, past all seeking.
Let Christ’s blood on Christ’s own table
Fill them, once with red blood reeking.
But their majesty unviewing,
And their lustre but descrying,
Them as spectacles ye’re shewing
To the silly and the prying.
Storm-winds bellow, blackens heaven!
Comes the hour of melancholy;
Back is taken what was given,—
Vanished is the relic holy.”
The first theft was even referenced by renowned Danish author Hans Christian Andersen when writing the tale of The Princess and the Pea . It is thus no surprise that the golden horns are today a symbol of Denmark and carry with them a rich and interesting history.
Replicas of the Golden Horns of Gallehus on display in Denmark. ( Public domain )
Etymology and Origins: The Golden Horns in Popular Culture
The origin of the Golden Horns of Gallehus can be traced back to the Germanic Iron Age, around the 5th century, although their exact use remains uncertain. The precious materials and intricate decoration suggest that they may have been used in religious rituals or ceremonies, but whether they were used as drinking horns or wind instruments is unclear due to a lack of documentation.
The motifs on the horns depict various human and animal figures, as well as mythical and fantastic creatures, and have been interpreted in various ways. Some of the images may be linked to Mediterranean, Nordic or Celtic myths , and their meanings have been the subject of much debate.
The inscription on the shorter horn, Ek HlewagastR HoltingaR horna tawiðo , has been interpreted in different ways. Some have suggested that it means “I, Lægæst, Holt's son, made the horn,” while others have doubted this interpretation. One possible translation of Hlewa is “shelter,” which could refer to a camp where people stay, and “forest” could have referred to a place of darkness or danger during the Migration Period.
Depiction of one of the Golden Horns of Gallehus found in 1734 near the village of Gallehus in Denmark. ( Public domain )
Historian Dan Hemming has suggested that Lægæst may actually be Liutgast, a Danish king who was said to be “rich in gold” in the German epic poem Nibelungenlied. This poem dates back to the Middle Ages, but the stories it contains are believed to have originated during the Migration Period. Liutgast's story is also known from the Elder Edda, an ancient collection of Norse mythology .
In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of The Princess and the Pea (1835), the theft of the horns features in a critical scene in the narrative. A prince wants to marry a true princess. His mother decides to test the eligibility of a young woman who claims to be a princess by placing a pea under a stack of mattresses that she must sleep on.
In the morning, the young woman complains of having a sleepless night due to something hard in the bed, proving her sensitivity and thus, her royal identity. The story is often associated with the theft of the Golden Horns because it takes place in a castle, and the mattress test is seen as a reference to the hiding place of the horns in a bed of hay – a clever metaphorical reference.
The Girl Who Finds the Gold Horn by Harald Slott-Møller. ( Public domain )
Rediscovery and Reacquisition of the Golden Horns of Gallehus
The Golden Horns of Gallehus were discovered separately, over a century apart. The first horn, a long golden one, was found on July 20, 1639, by a young girl named Kirsten Svendsdatter. The second horn, a shorter one made of gold and silver inlays, was discovered on April 21, 1734, by Erik Lassen. Both horns were found on a field near Gallehus in Schleswig, which is why they are known by that name.
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After finding the long horn, Kirsten wrote to the king to report her discovery and was rewarded with a skirt as a finder’s fee! Erik delivered the short horn to the Count at Schackenborg, who then passed it on to the king. Lassen received 200 Richsdaler as a reward for his find. The horns were subsequently granted to the crown and stored at the Royal Kunstkammer at Christiansborg.
Christian IV , the Danish king at the time of the discovery of the long horn, gave it to his son, Prince Christian (also known as “the chosen prince”). The prince reportedly used the horn as a drinking vessel !
It should be emphasized that the precise details surrounding the discovery of the golden horns remain shrouded in uncertainty and are not fully documented. There are some missing details surrounding their recovery. An additional series of casts from the 18th century were also lost, leaving us with a fragmented knowledge of this unique find from the Migration period. Nonetheless, the two separate discoveries by ordinary people and their eventual acquisition by the Danish crown have contributed to their status as important cultural artifacts.
Top image: Replicas of the Golden Horns of Gallehus at the National Museum of Denmark. Source: Public domain
By Sahir Pandey
Borrow, G. 2009. The Gold Horns . Available at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/29124/29124-h/29124-h.htm
NHH. 25 September 2022. “The Golden Horns from Gallehus from AD 400” in Medieval Histories . Available at: https://www.medieval.eu/the-golden-horns-from-gallehus-from-ad-400/
Mobjerg, L. 20 December 2007. “Gold Horn Theft was commissioned work” in DR. Available at: https://www.dr.dk/nyheder/indland/guldhorns-tyveri-var-bestillingsarbejde
Skjalden. 18 February 2019. “Golden Horns of Gallehus” in Nordic Culture . Available at: https://skjalden.com/golden-horns-of-gallehus/