Scandinavia, Day 4: Jelling

Travel by Adam on 2009-02-21 03:32

The Norse runic alphabet is not a language, but rather a character set - meaning, a set of symbols which map to sounds. You can render any language in runes, the same way that English is normally rendered in the Latin character set, or Russian in Cyrillic, or Japanese in Kanji or Katankana.

The nordic peoples did not write books, letters, or personal journals in runes. They believed that runes had magic properties, and thus were used only for ceremonial purposes - typically imbuing the engraved objects with special powers. For example, writing “Bloodseeker” on the blade of a sword to make it a magic blade. Contrast with most other writing systems, which typically are created first as a tool for practical purposes, and only later used ceremonially. (The oldest written documents we’ve found, cuneiform tablets by the Sumerians, are what today we would call receipts.)

The best surviving examples we have of runic text are on runestones. Runestones are stone markers set at gravesites or at the head of stone ships (more on that later) to commemorate great people or deeds. Runestones have been discovered all over Scandinavia, though most are badly eroded and often broken.

Perhaps the most noted all of runestones are the two large stones at Jelling, Denmark, which I visited today.


I debated whether it was worth spending an entire day of my trip, including about six hours on a train (I’m writing this on the return journey), to go see a couple of old rocks. The pictures on Wikitravel didn’t look very exciting. But, runestones. I had to go.

It turned out to be a worthwhile excursion. The runestones are very impressive, and the site that they belong to is rich with history.


The stones lie at the centerpoint between two large burial mounds (known elsewhere as barrows or tumuli), vaguely pyramidal earth structures containing burial chambers. Remnants of a stone ship - a serious of large stones arranged in the shape of a longship - enclosed the mounds, with one mound at the aft and one at the stern. The ship would have been as long as four football fields, the largest ever discovered.

It gets more interesting: in the center of the two mounds is a Christian church. Here is a view of the church from atop the south mound:


This church was not, as you might expect, built by later missionaries who did not understand the significance of the pagan burial mounds. Rather, the church, the mounds, and the runestones were all commissioned by the same person: Harold Bluetooth, one of the mightiest kings of the viking age. Harold united Denmark and Norway for a brief period, successfully preventing Scandinavia from being conquered by Germany. But while he was the savior of viking Scandinavia, he was also its destroyer: he was the first viking king to convert to Christianity, which was the beginning of the end for traditional Norse culture. The viking age ended, and the age of the Crusades began.

The larger burial mound is guessed to be for Gorm the Old, who was Harold’s father. (There’s an art gallery across from the south mound named Gallerie Gorm. You know you’ve succeeded as a fearsome viking sea-king when people are naming art galleries after you a thousand years later.) But there were no bones in the burial chamber under the mound; evidence suggests that the body was removed and interred under the first church, where his bones remain todaay. (The church was built of wood three times and each time was burned down. Eventually it was rebuilt of stone in 1100, which is the structure that still stands today.)

History’s Lens

The museum across the street has some excellent displays, including grave goods and work tools excavated from the burial chamber. (It was also my favorite kind of museum: empty. I guess that’s the benefit of going on a weekday, at the end of the day, during the off-season, in the middle of a snowstorm.)

Perhaps the most intriguing displays were the ones that showed how historians and others have recorded their exploration of the site throughout the past half-millennium. The first drawings of the site (including detailed diagrams of the runestones) date back to the 1500s. Which was a long time ago, but the site was already 500 years old at that point. Looking at these drawings alongside others from later periods (1700s, 1800s) seems to reveal as much about the people who did the renderings as it does about the Jelling site. All of the runestone sketches, for example, are very detailed and accurate; yet somehow, each has a distinct feel that matches the style of other works of its time. Hindsight may be 20/20, but we each view history through our own lens.

The first archaeological dig was in the 1820s. Some farmers trying to tap a spring broke into the upper part of the burial chamber. Given the attitudes of the time, it’s impressive that they stopped digging, and sent for the advice of Antiquarians. (The term “archeology” did not exist at the time. I suppose that an antiquarian is to an archaeologist as a natural philosopher is to a scientist.)

Subsequent digs in 1891, the 1940s, and most recently in the late 1970s have yielded further artifacts and new data. Moreover, since the artifacts from previous digs have been preserved, they can be further analyzed by new technology as it emerges. It is likely that there are more secrets of history at Jelling, to be unlocked by future technologies and investigative techniques.

The Stones

So, how about those “old rocks” I came so far to see?


The smaller stone, which contains only vertical runic text, was not part of the original burial monument. It probably came from someplace nearby; it was in use as a bench outside the church until 1891, at which point someone realized that people were parking their asses on a priceless historical artifact, and decided to set it upright next to the larger stone.

(This type of story is not unusual for runestones. The S√łnder Vissing runestones were discovered in use as a piece of pavement and a piece of a fence at a church in the nearby town of Horsens.)

The smaller stone, with a view of the south mound in the background:


The larger stone is probably the most impressive runestone ever found. It has never been moved from its original position in the center of the stone ship and just outside the church. Moreover, its contents represent a very significant piece of history.


The stone is three-sided. On one side is carved a mythical animal, something of a cross between a snake and horse. This is very traditional viking-age art.


The second side almost completely runic text which honors the memory of Gorm, and declares Harold the king of all Denmark and Norway. One unusual feature is that the text is written horizontally instead of the traditional vertical orientation. This is significant because horizontal text had recently become known to the Scandinavians through exposure to Latin writing.


The final side depicts a figure with arms spread and a halo around its head. Although the style is very traditionally viking (the figures arms are entwined by the snake-like weaves so common in that style), it’s quite clear that this is intended to be an image of Jesus Christ.


In short, this stone - like the entire site - is a juxtaposition of old traditions and new. Harold was both proclaiming his power in the tradition of the viking sea-kings, paying respect to his elders via pagan burial rituals, and writing in the runic alphabet. But at the same time he builds a church to house his father’s remains, and the runestone - a traditional Norse monument - includes Christian imagery, a clear statement of the importance of this new god.

Runes have a special significance for me, as may be evident from two years of Burning Man projects. Seeing these stones in person was far more powerful than what is conveyed in photographs.

Misc Tidbits

The Rundata project has created a central database and naming scheme for runestones, following a scheme similar to that used by astronomers for stars. The Jelling stones are DR 41 and DR 42.

Expenses: $75. $30 hostel, $25 food (I’m getting better at finding cheap food), $20 train.

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