Gullgubber (Norwegian pronunciation: [ˈɡʉlɡʉbəɾ]) or guldgubber (Danish), guldgubbar (Swedish), are art-objects, amulets, or offerings found in Scandinavia and dating to the Nordic Iron Age. They consist of thin pieces of beaten gold (occasionally silver), usually between 1 and 2 sq. cm. in size, usually stamped with a motif, and are the oldest examples of toreutics in Northern Europe.
The word gullgubbe means "little old man of gold" and is taken from a report published in 1791 by Nils Henrik Sjöborg, in which he said that villagers in Ravlunda, Scania who found them in the dunes called them guldgubbar.
Approximately 3,000 gullgubber have been found, from approximately 30 sites in Norway, Sweden, and the greatest number in Denmark. No fewer than 2,350 were found at the settlement of Sorte Muld on the Danish island of Bornholm, while over 100 were found at Lundeborg, near Gudme on the Danish island of Funen, and 122 at Uppåkra, Scania, Sweden. Relatively few gullgubber have so far been found in Norway, although 19 were found during excavations at Vingrom church in Oppland between 2003 and 2005, and the distribution of finds may be affected by modern circumstances as much as the political situation at the time they were laid down.
They date to the late Iron Age, from the end of the Migration Age to the early Viking Age, particularly what is referred to in Norway as the Merovingian era, in Sweden as the Vendel era, from 550 to about 800, but can be hard to date because they are often found in contexts that do not establish date. It seems likely that they replaced bracteates, which require far more metal, after obtaining gold from the Byzantine Empire became difficult.
Iconography and purpose
Many of the gullgubber that have been found in Norway and Sweden depict a man and a woman facing each other, sometimes embracing, sometimes with a branch or a tree visible between them. Sometimes the figures' knees are bent and they may be dancing. They are almost always clothed, with the clothes generally depicted carefully and more formal than casual. Some have only a single figure, either male or female, or an animal. A few are unstamped cutouts. Sharon Ratke, in her dissertation on the gullgubber, has added a further category of "wraiths" and suggests that they may indicate that some gullgubber were a tribute to the dead or to travellers. She rejects the notion of dancing, interpreting those figures as static and classing them among the wraiths.
A common interpretation of the motif of the man and woman on the gullgubber is that it symbolises the sacred marriage between the Vanir-god Freyr and the jötunn Gerðr, which we know of from the Eddic poem Skírnismál. Some have interpreted the tree branch as a reference to the grove, Barri, where Gerðr agrees to meet Freyr; others have noted its resemblance to the Garden Angelica, a plant associated with fertility. The thinking is that the deposition of the gullgubber was intended to ensure fertility, or that it was intended as a depiction of the mythical pair who gave rise to a chieftainly line. From historical sources, for example, we know that the Yngling line traced its ancestry to Fjölnir, son of Gerðr and Freyr.
Recent finds have somewhat changed the view of gullgubber. Almost 2,500 have been found at Sorte Muld, on the Danish island of Bornholm, by far the highest number at any site. And in 2000-2004, 122, the second highest number, were found not far away at Uppåkra, Scania, Sweden (previously also part of Denmark). Several of those found at the two sites are similar; some were made using the same dies or patrices, and four dies and part of a fifth were found at Uppåkra, which was therefore presumably the point of manufacture for at least some of the Sorte Muld gullgubber. In addition, some gullgubber found at some other sites also show strong similarities to some from Uppåkra, and some from Uppåkra are unusually sharp in their details. At Uppåkra they were found in postholes and wall ditches of a building that is interpreted as a heathen hof partly on the basis of their presence as votive offerings, which is how they are now generally interpreted.
Recent attempts have been made to interpret the gestures of the couples depicted on gullgubber in terms of medieval sources such as the Sachsenspiegel, as denoting betrothal, for example. However, at both Uppåkra and Sorte Muld, the majority of the gullgubber do not depict couples. At Uppåkra, most depict men, a smaller number depict women, and only a few depict couples. Some iconographic features of the single figures - a thumb to the mouth gesture associated with being a seer as in representations of the legend of Sigurð, a group of figures with clubs and two others with staffs or sceptres of differing lengths - have been seen as relating to individual Norse gods.
Locations of finds
Gullgubber have been found at 42 sites in Norway, Sweden, and in greatest numbers in Denmark. Some of the most notable locations are:
- Borg, Lofoten, Norway
- Borge, Østfold, Norway
- Mære church, Nord-Trøndelag, Norway - 9th century, found during excavations in 1968
- Vingrom church, Lillehammer, Norway - found during excavations between 2003 and 2005
- Kongsvik, Tjeldsund, Nordland, Norway - found in the 1740s
- Hauge, Klepp, Rogaland, Norway - approx. 700-800 C.E.
- Slöinge, Halland, Sweden - approx. 690 C.E.
- Helgö, Uppland, Sweden
- Uppåkra, near Lund, Scania, Sweden - 111 found
- Sorte Muld, Bornholm, Denmark - 2,480 found, dated together with those at Uppåkra to the 6th century
- Lundeborg, Gudme, Funen, Denmark - about 100
- Västra Vång, Blekinge, Sweden - 29 found in 2013, the third highest number in Sweden.
- Margrethe Watt, "The Gold-Figure Foils (Guldgubbar) from Uppåkra," in Lars Larsson, ed. Continuity for Centuries: A ceremonial building and its context at Uppåkra, southern Sweden. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2004, ISBN 91-22-02107-8, pp. 167-221, p. 167.
- Topographia paroeciæ Raflunda et monumentorum quæ circa sunt: quam publico examini offerunt praeses Nicolaus H. Sjöborg et respondens Gustavus Sjöborg (dissertation, University of Lund, 1791, Latin), OCLC 248443661; later account in Swedish in Nils Henrik Sjöborg, Försök till en nomenklatur för nordiska fornlemningar, Stockholm: Delén, 1815, p. 112.
- Watt, pp. 168 (map), 169 (Uppåkra).
- Martin Rundkvist, "Östergötland's First Gold Foil Figure Die Found at Sättuna in Kaga Parish," Fornvännen 102 (2007) 119-22, p. 120 makes this point with respect to the dies used to make gullgubber: unlike the foils themselves, they register on metal detectors, and the fact that they have so far been found concentrated in southern Scandinavia likely reflects the relative prevalence of metal detectorists.
- Rundqvist, p. 119.
- Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions, Manchester University Press, 1988, ISBN 071902207X, p. 121.
- Sharon Ratke, "Guldgubber - Einblicke in die Völkerwanderungszeit," PhD dissertation, University of Bonn 2009 (German), category D, Schemen in German: pp. 79-95. For memorials or thoughts of travelers (her suggested third purpose for gullgubber), see the summary (German and English).
- Sharon Ratke and Rudolf Simek, "Guldgubber: Relics of Pre-Christian law rituals?" in Anders Andrén, Kristin Jennbert, Catharina Raudvere, eds., Old Norse Religion in Long-Term Perspectives: Origins, Changes, and Interactions: an international conference in Lund, Sweden, June 3-7, 2004, Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2006, ISBN 91-89116-81-X, pp. 259-66, p. 262. See also Ann-Britt Falk, "My home is my castle: Protection against evil in medieval times" in Andrén, Jennbert and Raudvere, pp. 200-05, p. 202: "Ratke and Simek instead propose an interpretation of their body positions as being of refusal or incapability, they might even be dead".
- E.O.G. Turville-Petre, Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia, London: Weidenfeld, 1964, OCLC 460550410, Caption, Fig. 43.
- Ellis Davidson, pp. 31-32: "It has been thought that they symbolise the marriage of god and goddess and that they may have been used at weddings, or to bless a new home".
- Watt, p. 217, citing this as a more modern view espoused by Gro Steinsland.
- John McKinnell, "On Heiðr," Saga-Book 25 (2001), 394-417, p. 409 refers to the painstaking methods of the Sorte Muld excavation and suggests that there may have been far more gullgubber at other sites than were found.
- Lars Larsson, "The Iron Age ritual building at Uppåkra, southern Sweden," Antiquity 81 (2007), p. 16; pictures p. 18.
- Watt, pp. 169, 170, 214.
- For example McKinnell, p. 409 simply refers to "the custom of using goldgubber as temple offerings".
- Watt, p. 208, citing Rudolf Simek.
- Sharon Ratke makes a detailed case for such interpretations on the "Interpretations" page of her site at http://www.guldgubber.de. See also Ratke and Simek in Andrén, Jennbert and Raudvere.
- Larsson, p. 16.
- Watt, p. 216: "the gold-foil figures from both Uppåkra and Bornholm form the core of [a] southeastern Scandinavian group of mainly single figures".
- Watt, pp. 206, 208-11, citing Karl Hauck and on the thumb gesture, Hilda Ellis Davidson. The "seer" figures Hauck relates to Odin, the long-staffed figures to Thor. The few naked, ithyphallic figures may plausibly be related to Freyr.
- Ratke, p. 21; Fig. 3.5, p. 22, reproduces a map from Jan Peder Lamm's 2004 article, "Figural Gold Foils Found in Sweden".
- Andreas Haugdahl, Gullgubber from Mære church, Steinkjer Kunnskapsportal, retrieved 4 May 2010 (Norwegian): 22 gullgubber were found.
- Gullfunnet i Kongsvik, Tjeldsund lokalhistorielag, 2004, retrieved 4 May 2010 (Norwegian): at least 11 gullgubber were found, likely more.
- Ratke, p. 24.
- Watt, p. 216.
- Lillemor Birgersson, "TV: Fynd av guldgubbar väcker sensation", Sveriges Television, 15 November 2013 (Swedish)
- Jan Peder Lamm. "Figural Gold Foils Found in Sweden". In Helen Clarke and Kristina Lamm (ed.) Excavations at Helgö XVI: Exotic and Sacral Finds from Helgö. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell, 2004. ISBN 91-7402-339-X
- Margrethe Watt. "Die Goldblechfiguren ('guldgubber') aus Sorte Muld, Bornholm". In Karl Hauck (ed.) Der historische Horizont der Götterbild-Amulette aus der Übergangsepoche von der Spätantike zum Frühmittelalter: Bericht über das Colloquium vom 28.11.-1.12.1988 in der Werner-Reimers-Stiftung, Bad Homburg. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992. ISBN 3-525-82587-0. pp. 195–227.
- Margrethe Watt. "Guldgubber". In Christian Adamsen, Ulla Lund Hansen, Finn Ole Nielsen, Margrethe Watt (ed.) Sorte Muld. Rønne: Bornholms Museum og Kulturarvsstyrelsen, 2008, ISBN 87-88179-11-7. pp. 42-53.