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Simek R. Gods, Kings, Priests or Worshippers? The Status of the Figures on the Migration Age Scandinavian guldgubber  

Источник: Норна у источника Судьбы. – М.: Индрик, 2001


In the past two decades, the discovery on the island of Bornholm of about 2500 tiny figures punched into gold foil has brought this iconographical source material into the centre of attention both of archaeologists and scholars of comparative religion. The guldgubber (Danish for «little gold men»), as they are usually called, have actually been known for at least 200 years, but the finds were always relatively isolated and were thought to be a peculiarity of the Danish Migration age. Additional finds of one hoard in Jaere in South Western Norway of eight gubber (at the time of their discovery in 1899 thought to be a Norwegian peculiarity1), over 90 items from the digs in Gudme and Lundeborg on eastern Fyn, and several finds in southern Sweden, among them 56 from Slöinge in Halland, together with the enormous quantities unearthed on Bornholm, have significantly altered the peripheral role of the gubber as source material for early historic times.

Because of the location of the finds in one major centre, Bornholm, with the second largest find being in the religio-economic center of Gudme-Lundeborg, and 19 Norwegian finds discovered both under the floor of Mære church (believed to stand on the site of a heathen temple) and buried at the post hole of the huge feasting hall in Borg on the Lofoten islands, it soon became clear that these artefacts were religiously significant. They would be impractical as monetary units as they are extremely thin and light, and their actual value in terms of gold price is minimal. The fact that these figures have been carefully imprinted into thin gold foil must, therefore, lie in the symbolic value of the precious material, and it has been suggested that they could be a kind of sacrificial money2, or token payment, in the larger context of a (well-) organised cult. To my knowledge, nobody has as yet investigated the equally likely possibilities of them being votive gifts or else commemorative plaques produced to celebrate certain official and religious feasts.

The aim of this paper, however, is primarily not to study the function of the gubber in a cult and therefore their religious role, but rather to concentrate on the identity or rank of the figures presented on them. The answer to this question will have bearings on the function of the guldgubber, but I shall leave these to subsequent studies.

As far as mere statistics are concerned, we currently know of somewhat more than 2800 items, but identical copies made from the same die reduce the number to about 600 different imprints3. Additionally, there are more than 85 figures, cut out of gold foil but not pressed and therefore lacking in any detail, which are similar to the guldgubber in size and material, but which form a separate group. Significantly, this group also contains five animals, and most of the human figures cannot be assigned with any certainty to either sex.

Of the guldgubber proper, about 80% depict a single figure, and 20% show a couple. As opposed to the single gubber, where the figure is usually shown in profile, only occasionally frontally, the double gubber show a man and a woman in profile, facing and touching each other. All the guldgubber show complete, dressed, and standing figures. Of the 600 different imprints, c. 120 are double gubber, 50-55 show single women, and 215-220 show single men. The rest are either too fragmentary or too damaged to allow clear attributions to be distinguished, but may also belong to the group of single figures shown in a dancing pose, in profile. These cannot be attributed to either sex with any certainty but are usually considered to show male dancers.

The regional distribution within these groups is very uneven: virtually all Norwegian finds are of double gubber, but, of roughly 430 different imprints, Bornholm has yielded only 15 double gubber, 30 female figures, but over 200 male ones. The finds in southern Sweden represent all these types, with a strong emphasis on double gubber and female figures, while in Gudme-Lundeborg the double gubber form the majority. There are only about 20 localised finds of guldgubber in Scandinavia.

As far as production is concerned, so far six bronze models or dies have been found4, two in Uppåkra (Sweden) representing a male and a female single gubbe each, two in Bornholm (Møllegård and Sylten), both male, and another two in West-Zealand, both female (Neble). Norway and the double gubber are thus not represented in these finds. Nothing points to Gudme-Lundeborg being a place of production for the many items found there. Most of the guldgubber that have been created with the help of the bronze models are rectangular, although some of them have been rounded off at the top end afterwards to stress the effect of a rounded arch framing the figures. Most of these rectangles measure between 7 and 20 mm in length and 3 to 10 mm in width, but despite the miniature size, there is still space for a sort of frame round the figures in most cases, making the whole appearance more formal. When this frame, made up of individual dots, coincides with the rounded top, this results in a rounded arch of a pseudo-architectural type, closely paralleling the aediculum known from classical and Christian iconography, «which signals the august position of the figure it surrounds»5.

The single male figures, forming the majority of all known guldgubber and the bulk of the finds on Bornholm, are pictures of formally dressed men, shown in profile, usually holding a staff, but not unfrequently also a glass beaker (Fig. 3b). The type of beaker is archeologically well known and is the Sturzbecher of Franconian origin and production. This type of elaborate glass beaker (the Spitzbecher) had either a round or pointed bottom end and could therefore only be put down upside down once emptied6. In Scandinavia, even as late as the Viking Age, beakers like these were highly prized import articles and therefore surely significant of high social status. However, compared with the ca 225 different imprints of males with a staff, the beaker-bearing males are a minority. A small group of actual guldgubber (as opposed to the imprinted cutout figures mentioned above) denotes dancers and most likely shows male figures, as may be construed from the hairstyle and the absence of any female sexual characteristics. Because of the staff and their formal attire, the figures on many of the guldgubber were originally likened to chieftains or royals, thus called the «princely» or «parading» type (terms coined by M. Watt7, German Furstengruppe).

Some of the finds can be dated: the 64 gubber of Gudme-Lundeborg were deposited in around 600 or in the decades thereafter8; three of the 19 pieces found under the church in Mære in Norwegian Trøndelag are identical with one item from Gudme, thus dating those gubber to the same period; a Swedish find from Slöinge, containing eight different double gubber, could by means of dendrochronology be dated to around 7109. The difficulty with dating the large number of the guldgubber from Bornholm is that the finding place does not represent the original place of deposition, but rather a heap, later removed, of earth from a pre-Viking Age settlement, where ashes, animal bones, ceramic shards, domestic objects made from wood, iron, bronze and bone are found interspersed with small amounts of gold, Roman coins, weights, glass pearls, glass sherds and the guldgubber form the typical remnants of a settlement, the whole heap not measuring more than 100 sqm.10 More striking are the occasional finds of spearhands, lances and arrowheads alongside, most of them deliberately bent and thus reminiscent of the Iron Age booty sacrifices in bogs on other Danish islands and Jutland11. Even without closer stratigraphy it is possible to date most of the objects to the late Migration Age and early Merovingian period12, thus in keeping with the other finds. The guldgubber seem thus to be mainly a seventh century phenomenon.

A summary of these bare facts can lead us to the following, preliminary conclusions:

1. The centre for the production of guldgubber seems to be the area

between Bornholm, Skåne and Fyn.

2. The male single gubber form the vast majority of the finds on Bornholm.

3. The dancers are found predominantly on Bornholm.

4. The double gubber are more frequent further west, from Fyn to Norway.

5. The female single gubber are less common, but more evenly spread out among all the c. 20 finds.

Without trying to infer too much from the hypothetical uses of the guldgubber in the cult of the seventh century, I shall try and analyse as much as one can from the actual iconographic realisations of the figures in the guldgubber, and as I have written about the female gubber elsewhere13, I shall here concentrate on the male figures.

The most frequent group of guldgubber are the single male representations, and they also show the greatest variety. The technique used to create them can be used to differentiate them into two groups, those pressed over a die like the other gubber, and a smaller group of cut-out figures with or without die-print. Some of the latter have either a belt or a torque round their neck indicated by an engraved line or looping-around of a tiny strip of metal foil (Fig. 2a). This looks like a decorative ornament or necklace rather than an implement of execution, By posture, the male single gubber can be classified into a «princely» or «parading» group and the «dancers» or «nude» group (Fig. 2b).

By far the largest number, at least since the discovery of the finds from Sorte Muld on Bornholm, are those of the «parading» or «princely» type. These show, typically, a richly dressed male in a coat with shoulder length hair, shown in profile, who might be holding a sort of staff (Fig. 3a), and/or a glass beaker (Fig. 3b), a sort of longish tubular object (Fig. 3b), a sword or a sax (Fig. 3c). Some imprints also seem to show a ring, not worn but loosely integrated into the picture (Fig. 3b).

Most of these objects are well known from archaeological finds: the glass beakers are mainly of the Sturzbecker-type, and were imported from Franconia to Scandinavia from the Migration Age to the Viking Age, with particularly many examples found in Sweden. The swords are of the well-known ring-sword type, the one-edged sax was also widely used. Whether the ring is an arm-ring or a torque is impossible to decide, as other figures can be shown with both. More difficult to explain are the staff – traditionally interpreted as a «long scepter», – and the tubular object with a bulge towards the lower end.

The staff is usually as high or even slightly higher than the bearer and does not end in a point, but rather a blunt end, making it clear that it is not meant as lance or spear. There are, however, no details shown which would make it easier to decide if it was indeed a type of long scepter, which surely would have shown some kind of decoration, or whether it could possibly be a Migration Age precursor of the type of thin metal staff, known from several Viking Age finds and usually interpreted as a magical wand14. However, the numerous Viking Age examples are all considerably shorter (under 1 m, usually 70 cm) and therefore this identification is not very likely. One also should ask oneself if there is a connection with the next object to be mentioned, namely the possibly tubular longitudinal object held diagonally by some of the princely figures, as it sometimes seems to have a thickened section towards the lower end, sometimes not.

This seemingly tubular and mostly bulbous object on several of the Bornholm gubber is very difficult to interpret. If the object is interpreted as flat, it could be seen to depict a short paddle (whilst it would be far too short for an oar), although this does not make sense in the cases where the widening towards the end is missing, the same goes for the interpretation as a wooden club, which would anyway be out of context if a princely figure was holding it. It vaguely resembles an oboe or rather a cor anglais, but there is absolutely no indication that it would be a musical instrument. Interestingly enough, whenever this object, held diagonally and measuring just over 1 m, is shown, it is always in conjunction with the cup. There is to my knowledge no preserved object to match it, and the only new explanation I could suggest is that it is the equivalent of a wine-lifter, of an instrument to get wine (or similar liquids) out of vats or barrels in modern times. This would be in keeping with the full cup held in the figure’s other hand, but as long as such an object has not been unearthed this is of course impossible to prove.

It has been noticed before that the cup (Fig. 3b), and also a longer container shown on a single example from Sorte Muld (Fig. 3d)15, have one or two «tongues» extending from it, in the shape of a splash. Hauck, who interpreted the protuberances from the longer container as the bows of the ship skíðblaðnir16, a somewhat far-fetched explanation which depends on the identification of the male figure as the god Freyr and totally ignores the «splash» on the glass beakers (unlikely to contain the folded-up ship; I cannot detect Hauck’s «wave symbol» with which he bolsters up this interpretation, at all). It is much more likely that the «tongue» or «splash» on both type of containers stands for the same message, namely that the container is full or even overly full of liquid.

It has to be admitted that we do not know what the liquid in the glass beakers and similar containers actually is. The evidence of literary parallels to the horn-bearing women of the guldgubber and similar representation makes it likely that the horn is meant to contain mead. The consequent distinction of horn-bearing women and of men bearing glass beakers make it unlikely that the beakers also contained mead. As beer and ale were also served in horns, it was probably wine that was served in the beakers, wine was, like most of the beakers, imported from Franconia, and both would be very much luxury goods, not only esteemed for their actual use but also for the social prestige connected to them. It has escaped previous interpretations that both in Slöinge in Halland and Borg on the Lofoten, where the guldgubber were found at the central pillar of the great hall, these guldgubber were found together with quantities of glassware, so that the beakers buried with the gubber may have served a similar function to the beaker shown on the gubber. The source of the largest find of guldgubber, Sorte Muld on Bornholm, contained also the most important find of Migration Age glassware in Northern Europe, and likewise in Helgö as well as in Eketorp on Öland concentrations of imported glassware are found together with the guldgubber17. In Lundeborg glassbeads, glass sherds as well as debris from glass production was found in place I (dating to 200-400) as well as in place II, dating from the Migration Age18. We may therefore assume that the fact that in many cases the male figure is holding a glass beaker and not just a horn was considered to be extremely relevant, even if we have not a clue as yet as the role of glassware in a cultic context.

Whether it was a human or divine figure holding this beaker, the overfull glass cup would serve to convey the message of plenty and riches. The sentiment implied is probably the same as in Psalm 23 about The Good Shepherd:

You prepare a table for me
under the eyes of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil,
my cup brims over.

This sentiment would certainly be in keeping with the idea of a protective being, but it does not answer the question whether the person depicted is actually the protecting, giving god or the recipient of these gifts. The rich clothes imply that it is in any case not just any worshipper that could be meant, but it could possibly be the representative of the human following of a god, as in the person of a king, a priest, or the member of a royal priesthood. It must not be forgotten, although this is not the topic of the present paper, that most of the single male gubber come from the factual or supposed cult-centre on Bornholm, whilst the double gubber and even the female single gubber are far more widely dispersed.

So far, three interpretations as to the position and actual names of the male figures on the guldgubber have been proposed, all of them by Karl Hauck. In an early paper, he had suggested that the male figures of the single gubber were representations of Odin, basing this theory on the – indeed striking – correspondence between the «calling»-gestus of two gubber from Sorte Muld, Bornholm19, with a number of gold bracteates whose subjects he had long identified with Odin. These figures, which have raised their left hand to their mouth in an act of calling or shouting, are strikingly different from other male gubber, and depict naked (or half naked) males in a somewhat dynamic pose of stepping forward, calling, raising their right hand either to the chest or to a staff. It would seem that these figures stand closer to the «dancer» type of single gubber, and thus, despite the striking similarities to the bracteates, in my opinion these figures probably depict worshippers (or their representatives, priests) engaged in a dance as part of the adoration of gods; the calling-gesture would then have to be interpreted as an imitation of a mythological act of the god (in this case, the healing). It has, however, also been suggested that the gesture could mean both a salute and the swearing of an oath20, although I think Hauck’s connection with the similar gesture on the bracteates is irrefutable.

In the same paper, Hauck suggested the identification of the male on the double gubber as being Freyr, a far-fetched theory I dealt with elsewhere21 and which he later expanded in another article to the extent that at least the god with the longitudinal drinking vessel mentioned is identified with Freyr, the vessel as a container that holds the (folded up) ship skíðblaðnir22. Both the identification of the figures in question with Freyr and the folding-up property of the ship skíðblaðnir – a literary addition of the thirteenth century – are totally untenable.

The third interpretation offered by Hauck concerns the single gubber of the «princely» type, usually holding a staff23. Using the evidence from Adam of Bremen's description of the supposed temple in Uppsala (written ca. 1070), he identifies the figure with a scepter as Thor, just as Adam equates Thor with Jupiter and describes him as holding a scepter. Thor’s identification with the staff bearer seems at first sight the most convincing of Hauck’s three attributions to date, but even here we have to ask if the eleventh century description may so easily be used for the seventh century guldgubber, and it also presupposes that the staff actually is a scepter and not something else. Also, Thor in all of Viking Age literature and iconography is shown with a hammer, not a staff, making the latter as his attribute in Adam alone somewhat unlikely.

Hauck arrives thus at several gods depicted on the guldgubber, namely Freyr on the double gubber and some single gubber, Odin on two rare single gubber, Thor on the majority of the single gubber in the form of the «parading» type. The underlying reason for his attempt to see gods in the figures is a hypotheses which I fail to accept, namely: «Nur Götter und vergöttlichte Aristokraten waren in der Völkerwanderungs- und Merowingerzeit im vorchristlichen Europa bildwürdig»24. I consider it blatantly incomplete that only gods and deified aristocrats could be depicted, as other iconographical sources, such as the Gotland picture stones, and even if slightly later, Viking Age tapestries, runestones and loose items (like the Franks Casket) serve to prove. At least one will have to formulate that mythological scenes are even then worth showing in formal iconography if they contain other pictures than of gods and half-gods, like those of a dedicator, his ancestors and possibly even his role-models (including figures of heroic poetry).

But Hauck has rightly pointed to an aspect of the cult in the seventh century which becomes obvious through the main areas from which guldgubber have been retrieved: In Gudme-Lundeborg the power (shown by immense long houses up to 47 m long25, settlements, harbour) and wealth (represented in an extraordinary amount of gold and other treasures found in the area) points, together with the concentrated religious placenames (Gudme < *guðheimr, Gudbjerg < *guðberg, Albjerg < *alberg, Galdbjerg < *gjaldberg, Gurann < *guðrann, Guaaker < *guðakr)26 around the complex of Gudme and Lundeborg, to religio-political double functions of the rulers on Fyn. To describe them as «Magier-Könige als Opferherren» (Magic-kings in the role of lords of the sacrifice)27 may sound somewhat too grand, but that these chieftains served a double function as rulers and priests (or at least organisers or supervisors of the cult, precursors of the ON góðar?), seems quite likely. The discovery of the enormous hall on Borg on the Lofoten island with a length of 74 m points to a similar social structure28. Petty kings seem to have ruled quite independently over Bornholm (according to the Anglo-Saxon trader Wulfstan in the ninth century) as well29 and must have had their secular as well as religious centre round Gudhjem, which was for 300 years up to 900 the dominant settlement on Bornholm30. The rulers of Helgö, as well as the chieftains in Slöinge/Halland (termed «a magnate’s farm and cultic sites»31), seem to have enjoyed a fair amount of independence within the Swedish kingdom. It is obvious that they were rich from the finds in these settlements, and also it is clear that they were interested and participated in the cult from the guldgubber and bracteates found in their context.

These chieftain-priests surely did not lack the self-confidence to depict themselves, whether in the role of their gods – as shown as propagators of the cult in the «princely» type gubber, – or in the role of human worshippers asking for the assistance of their divine role – models at important junctions of their lives – as shown in the marriage scenes of the double gubber (buried under the high seat post both in Borg and Slöinge), – or recalling the ever-present protection of their female ancestors (whether one calls them matronae or dísir). Thus, the question whether the guldgubber show gods, kings, priests, or worshippers is probably immaterial. The chieftain-priests had pictures of gods (whose actual names are probably not so important) made in their own image, because they took on the role of these gods for the sake of the practical cult within their jurisdiction. It need not be doubted that because they were also worshippers of the gods, they were guaranteed the continuity of rule and wealth.

Therefore we need not necessarily distinguish between gods, kings, priests and worshippers: indeed it is possible that the figures depicted on the guldgubber represented all four groups at the same time. Or, to put it another way, the chiefs, those powerful human representatives of the gods on earth, used the image of contemporary rulers and priests as well as their ancestors to depict this unity32. If this is the case, then it has also relevance for the objects depicted on the gold gubber, so that, conversely, we should not seek the equivalents of the Viking Age god’s attributes in these Migration Age pictures. Just as the figures themselves depict both the ruler and the god at the same time, so the objects shown are most likely those of a public and representative cult of the seventh century, which were, on the guldgubber, depicted in the hands of the gods as well as their human representatives. We should not draw conclusions from seventh century iconography about the state of religion in the Viking age, as has been the tendency, but should rather accept them for what they are, representations of a Migration Age religious reality.


1. Magnus O., Haakon S. De to runestener fra Tu og Klapp paa Jæderen // Bergens Museums Årbog. 1909. Nr. 12. S. 14.

2. Watt M. Die Goldblechfiguren ("guldgubber") aus Sorte Muld // Der historische Horizont der Götterbild-Amulette aus der Übergangsepoche von der Spätantike zum Frühmittelalter / K. Hauck. Göttingen, 1992. S. 195-227.

3. For an update and additional material in these statistics, I am most indebted to several conversations with Margarethe Watt and a letter by her dated 7 February 2000.

4. For these dies or stamps, see especially: Watt M. Guldgubber og patricer til guldgubber fra Uppåkra // Uppåkra-Studier. 2: Fynden in Centrum (Acta Archeologica Lundensia, Ser. in 8vo, No 30.). 1999. S. 177-190.

5. Watt M. Kings or Gods? Iconography Evidence from Scandinavian Gold Foil Figures // The Making of Kingdoms Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 10 / T. Dickinson and D. Griffiths. Oxford, 1999. P. 177.

6. For discussion and depiction of the various types of Sturzbecher, see Koch U. Glas § 5 Merowingerzeit // RGA / H. Beck. Berlin, N.-Y., 1998. Bd. 12. S. 160.

7. Watt M. Kings or Gods? P. 176.

8. Thomsen P. O. Die neuen Goldblech-Figurenpaare (Doppelgubber) von Lundeborg, Ami Svendborg, Funen // Frühmittelalterche Studien 24 (1990). S. 123.

9. Lundqvisl L. Slöinge – en stormangård från järnåldern // Slöinge och Borg Stormansgårdar iöst och väst / L. Lundqvist et al. (= Riksantikvarämbetet Arkeologiska undersökningar. Skrifter nr 18. 1996). Stockholm, 1996. S. 17. Fig 10, a-h.

10. Watt M. Goldblechfiguren. S. 202.

11. Ibid, this phenomenon should not be overlooked when trying to interpret the function and use of the guldgubber. Was the earth removed from a settlement site perhaps mixed with that of a sacrificial site?

12. Ibid. S. 220 f.

13. Simek R. Rich and Powerful // Old Norse Myths, Literature and Society Sydney, 2000. P. 468-479. Idem. The Image of the Female Deity // Studies in Honour of Lotte Motz. Vienna, 2001 (in print).

14. Price N. The Archaeology of Seiðr: Circumpolar Traditions in Viking Pre-Christian Religion (in print).

15. Illustration in Watt M. Goldblechfiguren. S. 211. Fig. 6h.

16. Hauck K. Macht und Meer im völkerwanderungszeitlichen Ostseeraum, erhellt mit Schiffsresten, Goldhorten und Bildzeugnissen // Gesellschaftsgeschichte. Festschrift für Karl Bosl zum 80 Geburtstag / F. Seiht. München, 1988. S. 139-156, über Freyr und Njord. Idem. Altuppsalas Polytheismus exemplarisch erhellt mit Bildzeugnissen des 5-7 Jahrhunderts // Studien zum Altgermanischen. Festschrift für Heinrich Beck. Berlin, N.-Y., 1994. S. 197-302. Idem. Völkerwanderungszeitlicher Seeverkehr, erhellt mit Schiffsresten und Fundorten von Goldbrakteaten // Trade and Exchange in Prehistory Studies in honour of Berta Stjernquist. Lund, 1988. P. 197-212.

17. Hansen U. L., Koch U. Glas. § 4 Römisches G. der römischen Kaiserzeit im Barbaricum // RGA. 1999. Bd. 13. S. 152.

18. Thrane H. Das Reichtumszentrum von Gudme in der Völkerwanderungszeit Funens // Der historische Horizont der Götterbild-Amulette. S. 333 and 335.

19. Hauck K. Frühmittelalterliche Bildüberlieferung und der organisierte Kult // Der historische Horizont der Götterbild-Amulette. S. 543.

20. Cultural Atlas of the Viking World / J. Graham-Campbell. N.-Y., 1994. P. 28.

21. Simek R. Lust, Sex and Domination // Sagnaheimur. Studies in Honour of Hermann Pálsson. Vienna, 2001. S 229-246. Idem. Rich and Powerful. P. 475.

22. Hauck K. Die bremische Überlieferung. S. 436 f.

23. Ibid.

24. Idem. Frühmittelalterliche Bildüberlieferung. S. 564.

25. Sørensen P. Ø. Gudmehallerne. Kongeligt byggen fra jernalderen // National-museets Arbejdsmark. Copenhagen, 1994. S. 25-54.

26. Beck H. Namenkundlich-Religionsgeschichtliche Bemerkungen zur Gudme-Diskus-sion // Nordwestgermanisch / E. Marold, C. Zimmermann. Berlin, N.-Y., 1995. S. 41-55, Thrane H. Gudme §1 Archaologisches // RGA. 1999. Bd. 13. S. 144.

27. Hauck K. Frühmittelalterliche Bildüberlieferung. S. 558.

28. Munch G. S. Hus og hall. En høvdinggård på Borg i Lofoten // Nordisk Hedendom. Et Symposium / G. Steinsland et al. Odense, 1991. S. 321–353.

29. Cf Wuhrer K. Bornholm §2 Historisches // RGA. 1978. Bd. 3. S. 296-297.

30. Becker C. J. Bornholm II Archaologisches // RGA. 1978. Bd. 3. S. 311 f.

31. Lundqvist L. Slöinge. S. 111.

32. A similar, if certainly not identical, unity found within the Catholic popes may geographically far fetched, but can illustrate the point the popes who understood themselves to be Christ’s representatives on earth depicted themselves in the shape of their ancestor, St Peter with the keys, wearing, however, the clothes of a contemporary pontifex maximus and earthly ruler, but they were also the protagonists of all the worshippers. The comparison is of course lame as there are far fewer elements of an ancestral cult contained in Christianity than in the Germanic religion.

Оцифровка: Сергей Гаврюшин