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Arland O. Fiske: Tale of Denmark’s Jelling stone

It was with great excitement that my wife, Gerda, and I visited Jelling (pronounced “yelling”), the “birthplace of Denmark,” on a beautiful September day some years ago.

I was surprised that we were the only tourists that afternoon at this famous place.

 I told some of the local folks that if this had been in America, we’d have built a theme park around it. They claimed, however, that about 150,000 people visit the Viking remains in Jelling annually.

Jelling is a small city about 12 miles northwest of Vejle (pronounced VAI-la), in south Jutland where Lego Blocks are manufactured. It’s near the highway coming up from Germany through Jutland to the North Sea. Two large earth mounds, each with 50 steps to the top make the historic site. A white church stands in the middle. The mounds are ancient Viking burial sites. One of them was built as a tomb for King Gorm (d. 960), the first king to rule over a united Denmark. The other mound was for his wife, Queen Thyra.

Some interesting discoveries were found when the mounds were excavated. The investigation began in 1820, but no human remains were discovered. Among the objects found was a small silver goblet. King Frederik VII (reigned 1846-1866) continued the excavations. He had a special interest in archaeology. He was also the one who encouraged Norwegians to write a constitution in 1814.

The ground under the church was excavated after World War II. Remains of three earlier wooden church building were found. The oldest of these is believed to have been built by Gorm’s son, King Harald. It was larger than the present church and is the largest wooden church to have been found in Scandinavia. It was a Viking Age cathedral. The skeletal remains of a man who is believed to have been King Gorm were found under the church together with gold wire and jewelry. Not a trace of Queen Thyra has been found.

The most important discoveries at Jelling were two large stones with runic writing. On the smaller stone is written, “King Gorm made these sepulchral monuments to Thyra, his wife, the grace of Denmark.” This is the earliest mention of the name “Denmark” on Danish soil. Gorm and Thyra founded the royal line that extends to the present Queen Margrethe II. King Harald V of Norway and Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain also trace their ancestries to this line.

The larger runestone reads: “King Harald had these sepulchral monuments made to Gorm his father and to Thyra his mother, when Harald had conquered all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christians.”

This stone has been called Denmark’s “baptismal certificate.”  There is an image of Christ on the stone that resembles a victorious Viking king. I purchased a plaque of the larger stone with both the Old Norse and a Danish translation of the runic writings. Gorm remained a pagan to the end, but Thyra accepted the Chrstian faith. Further mysteries remain to be solved in the Jelling discoveries.

Looking about the city, I noticed that Thyra and Harald are commemorated better than Gorm. A restaurant claims the name of Queen Thyra and a steak house is named after King Harald “Blautand” (blue tooth). Perhaps he fell off a horse and damaged a tooth.

The present monarch is remembered by the Hotel Margrethe that advertises a night club discotheque called “Hot Maggie.” It seemed a bit disrespectful to this American tourist to refer to such a highly regarded queen in that manner. If you visit Denmark, try to get out into the countryside and see the place of Denmark’s baptism.

Next week: Helsinki’s “Rock Church.”

— Arland Fiske, a retired Lutheran minister who previously lived in Laporte and now lives in Texas, is the author of 10 books on Scandinavian themes.