Though they play an important part in the formation of the Danish nation and are an important Viking artifact, they are also the story of one royal family's love of power, conquest, Christianity, and… themselves.
A Viking monument etched in stone
The small town of Jelling only has just over 3,600 inhabitants. It's not exactly the place you would expect to find a Viking monument etched in stone that is both a UNESCO world heritage site (selected for its "cultural" heritage that is of "outstanding value to humanity") and a symbol of one family's grip on the early reigns of power in Denmark.
Yet Jelling contains just this in the form of the world-famous "Jelling runestones."
These huge pieces of rock, carved on in with runic inscriptions, are said to be raised by two seminal kings in the creation of Denmark – Gorm the Old and his son, Harald Bluetooth, in the 10th century CE.
So before we get onto why these were raised, we must first know what a runestone is.
What makes a runestone a runestone?
Runestones were big business in Scandinavia – and the lands where Vikings roamed, raided, and settled – during the early medieval period.
There are believed to be 3,000 runestones, with the vast majority in Scandinavia, and especially Sweden. In fact, the Swedish district of Upland has over 1.196 runestones, the highest proportion in the world – gaining its current nickname "Runerike" (or "Rune Kingdom").
Runestones have also been found in countries where Vikings once went, including Scotland, Ireland, and as far away as the Ukrainian island of Bezeran, where the Dnipier River meets the Black Sea.
These runestones were quite often pieces of rocks or boulders with a variety of inscriptions on them written. The main purpose of a runestone was to mark boundaries and territory, tell of important events or battles, glorify dead ancestors and, in some cases (definitely not so) humble bragging and explicit self-promotion.
The majority of these runestones were raised by the pinnacle of the political and social elite of the area – often a chieftain. Think of the runestones as sort of an early form of most national government's Twitter accounts – part information, part policy, and part spin.
The inscriptions were made in runes; these are letters found in the runic alphabet, which most peoples in Viking societies throughout Scandinavia had at least a very basic understanding of in the early medieval period.
This alphabet was developed by Germanic peoples during the 1st century CE but was eventually replaced by the Latin alphabet by the "end" of the Christianization of Scandinavia by about the 12th century CE.
This was also the approximate date when runestones appeared to stop as forms of mass communication.
The larger of the two runestones was believed to have been erected by King Gorm's son, Harald Bluetooth. Photo: auralaura / Shutterstock
A king's love for his queen
The older of the two runestones at Jelling dates back to 950 CE. It is believed to have been raised by the first historically accurate King of Denmark, Gorm the Old, who ruled between 936 and 958 CE.
Gorm was the scion of a (semi) legendary family whose father was the fabulously named "Sigurd the Snake Eyed," and grandfather was the even more impressive Ragnar Lothbrok, the scourge of Paris.
Regardless of Gorm's famous ancestors, his father was said to have come to western Denmark from northern Scandinavia and seized the throne. When he died, Gorm ascended to the throne and went about uniting what would become Denmark.
With Gorm on the throne, he married a woman called Thyra, and this marriage seemed to be a match made in political heaven. She is credited with the foresight to construct the Danevirke, a series of walls between the region that Gorm ruled over (Denmark) and its southern border with unfriendly Saxon tribes and other enemies.
In recognition of this, Gorm constructed a huge burial mound for her at Jelling. This would not be Gorm's last monument to his better half. The smaller of the two runestones had this message on it:
"King Gormr made this monument in memory of Thyrvé, his wife, Denmark's adornment."
The image of a Viking king stating his love and appreciation of his wife so openly is a bit against the common stereotype of Vikings as mindless, lustful, and violent rage balls.
Furthermore, this is the first time that the name "Denmark" has been used and is strongly associated with the creation of the Danish state.
For God, for family, for Denmark
The larger of the two runestones was believed to have been erected, in 965 CE, by King Gorm's son, Harald Bluetooth.
Taking the Danish reigns of power when his father passed away, he ruled Denmark from 958 – 986 CE. Not only did he strengthen his grip on power in Denmark – by building a variety of fortifications and ring forts throughout the country – but he also seemed to have subjugated the people of Norway into letting him ascend to the throne, for two decades, after the assassination of (the marvelously named and obviously stylish) Harald Greycloak in 970 CE.
Harald Bluetooth is said to have first helped introduce Christianity into the Danish realm and may himself have been Christian. Both of these points, however, are the source of an ongoing academic debate.
Bluetooth was said to have been baptized in 960 CE when a monk picked up a lump of iron from a fireplace and received no harm. Holy smokes!
The rune stone not only has an inscription but a picture of Christ on the cross and a serpent wrapped around a lion. Both are powerful early Christian symbols, yet each has a Norse mythological and religious influence.
The crucifix of Christ appears to be branches – much like the branches from Yggdrasil, the Norse "tree of life" from which Odin hung himself.
The serpent and lion are said to represent Satan in Christianity, whilst Jörmungandr was a huge giant serpent from Norse mythology. This is a rare example of the fusion of early medieval Christian and Nordic culture and religion.
The inscription on the larger rune stone reads:
"King Haraldr ordered this monument made in memory of Gormr, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother; that Haraldr who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian."
This may be the exact type of bragging that was common on some rune stones. Harald Bluetooth definitely did not make all "the Danes Christian," nor did he win all of Norway and Denmark, but, like the sagas, you must never let the truth get in the way of a good story…or runestone.
In that regard, it seems Harald Bluetooth wasn't a chip off the old block.
The runic inscriptions on the Jelling runestones are not only considered the finest in Demark but some of the most important left to us from the so-called "Viking Age" (793 – 1066 CE).
Whilst the larger stone highlights the interconnectedness of the Viking world and one son's respect for his parents, the other stone commemorates one man's admiration and appreciation for his wife.
The larger stone also shows Denmark's transition from a pagan to a Christian country, whilst the smaller stone highlights the transition of Denmark from an idea of the mind to a nation-state.
It is no wonder then that during the 18th session of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee, in 1998 CE (over a millennium since they were raised), the Jelling runestones were officially recognized as being "culturally significant…for mankind…"
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