The Golden Horns

The Golden Horns

Contributor: Robert W. Rix

Location: The National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen.

Description: In December 1802, Adam Oehlenschläger (1779–1850) published Digte [Poems], a collection of new poetry which is today widely regarded as having inaugurated literary romanticism in the Nordic countries. In this collection, the most famous poem is ‘Guldhornene’ [The Golden Horns], which focuses on two horns made of sheet gold, which had recently been stolen from the Kunstkammer (Royal Collection) at Christiansborg palace, Copenhagen. The two horns were archaeological finds that have since been dated to the early fifth century. They were discovered in Gallehus, southern Denmark, at locations only a few metres apart, in 1639 and in 1734, respectively. The horns were for ceremonial use and had numerous figures (anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and hybrid subjects) embossed on their sides. One of the horns also bore a runic inscription in Elder Futhark. The theft and the subsequent police investigation were followed closely in the press; ‘Guldhornene’ can be situated as part of that national fascination with the loss of these artefacts.

Throughout ‘Guldhornene’, Oehlenschläger aggrandises the national/Nordic past as a contrast to a present-day materialistic and mercantile worldview. In the beginning of the poem, we hear the ghostly voices of the ancient forefathers, who decide to bequeath the horns to the people of the present. Oehlenschläger then moves on to imagine the two scenes where simple farmhands dig up the golden artefacts from the mould. These scenes can almost be seen as emblematic of a central theme in national romanticism: the urge to unearth a glorious ancestral past for the benefit of the present. In both cases, the discovery of a horn leads to a deepened, mystical perception of the natural universe. This is an effect of beholding the sides of the horns, whose decorations reveal a lost mythopoeic perception of nature. As an example of how the forefathers would enliven the physical universe with divine significance through their heightened imaginative capabilities, the poem’s chorus describes Skinfaxi (the horse of day) unlocking the ‘Morn’s gates’. The allusion here is presumably to the sun symbol and horse figures on the horns, which Oehlenschläger seems to interpret as images of the horse that pulls the sun across the sky every day in Norse mythology.

The golden horns are therefore said to provide a ‘glimpse’ of ‘days long past’, when ‘the North was uplighted’. In other words, the present is empowered to reconnect with a higher, imaginative understanding of nature that has otherwise been lost. Oehlenschläger wrote his poem celebrating the spiritual power of the horns as a criticism of a contemporary culture he thought was no longer able to appreciate the unity of religion, nature, and imagination. It should be noted that the horns had been exhibited in the Kunstkammer as curiosities (or, as Oehlenschläger puts it, ‘spectacles’ for the ‘silly and prying’) without any attempt at contextualising them within a focussed national history. In the last line of the poem, we find the only direct reference to the theft: ‘Vanished is the relic holy’ – thus, Oehlenschläger ends on a wistful (and recognisably romantic) note indicating the loss of vision.

Not long after the poem was published, the thief was apprehended. The culprit was a penniless goldsmith named Niels Heidenreich, who had gained access to the Kunstkammer using forged keys. He spent 37 years in prison for his crime. The horns were irretrievably lost, however, as Heidenrich had melted them down in order to make buckles, earrings, and not least copies of Indian coins from the Danish colony of Tranquebar (now Tharangambadi). These were all objects Heidenrich knew he would be able to sell. It is ironic, of course, that relics later hailed as priceless national treasure were stamped out to resemble foreign money.

Replicas of the original horns were made in 1859-1860, but these were not the correct size. A new set, based on drawings of the originals, was produced in 1979 with the correct measurements. The photo in this article is of the modern replicas. But despite the loss of the original Golden Horns, Oehlenschläger’s poem about the relics has made them permanent symbols of Danish national identity.

All translations are from the English version of Oehlenschläger’s ‘Guldhornene’ by George Borrow (1803-1881). The translation (as well as the original Danish poem) can be found at Borrow had intended the translation for inclusion in Romantic Ballads: Translated From the Danish; and Miscellaneous Pieces (1826), in which he included several other poems by Oehlenschläger as well as traditional folklore ballads. Borrow’s collection of translations from Danish is evidence of the pan-European interest in the Nordic past that others such as Johann Gottfried Herder and Thomas Percy had shown before him.

Date: The horns are dated to c. 400. Adam Oehlenschläger wrote the poem ‘Guldhornene’ in 1802.

Creator: The runic inscription on the shorter horn reads ekhlewagastiR : holtijaR : horna : tawido, which has been interpreted to mean ‘I Lægæst, son of Holt (or ‘from Holt’) made the horn’.

Subject: Adam Oehlenschläger

Media:  Main image: Replicas of the Golden Horns

The Danish antiquarian Ole Worm’s drawing (1641) of the larger of the two golden horns:

Short film about the horns:

Media rights: Nationalmuseet, CC BY-SA 3.0

Object type: Replicas of the Golden Horns (1859-1860)

Format: Two gold-sheeted horns. The original longer horn was c. 71 cm with a weight of c. 3.1 kg. The shorter horn is missing a part but weighed c. 3.7 kg.

Language: The runic inscription on the shorter horn is in proto Old Norse.

Publisher: Photo by The National Museum of Denmark


Greenway, John L. The Golden Horns: Mythic Imagination and the Nordic Past. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1977 (paperback edition 2008).

W. Rix, Robert. ‘”In darkness they grope”: Ancient Remains and Romanticism in Denmark’, European Romantic Review, 26.4 (2015): 435-451.