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The Jelling Stones

Updated on June 9, 2008

Harald's Stone and Gorm's Stone

As Opposed to the Rolling Stones

The custom of erecting rune stones to commemorate the dead was a fashion that became predominant during the latter years of the Viking age, with the high period starting around 950 AD and continuing for the following 80 years in Denmark, Norway, and southern Sweden. In northern Sweden the custom finally fully died out at the beginning of the 12th century, but in that ensuing time three thousand stones were erected in Scandinavia. It was at this time that Christianity was being introduced to the area, eventually supported by the local kings, and thus this time became a transition period between the old Norse pagan beliefs and the new religion. One of the most famous rune stones of this period is the Jelling Stone in Denmark, erected by King Harald Bluetooth sometime in the latter half of the tenth century - there is much scholarly debate over its exact dating and its history during this time. The stone is carved on all three sides, with an inscription that begins on face A, then wraps around the stone underneath relief carvings of a giant beast on face B and a depiction of Christ on face C. The inscription reads, "King Harald commanded this monument to be made in memory of Gorm, his father, and in memory of Thyre, his mother - that Harald who won the whole of Denmark for himself, and Norway, and made the Danes Christian." On the site there is also located two mounds (one containing a grave), another stone (dedicated by Gorm in memory of Thyre some thirty years before the creation of Harald's stone), and a ship setting, as well as a church which may or may not have been originally built around that time. The Jelling stones are considered to be the "birth certificate" of Denmark, as it is the first time that the unified country is named in writing.

There is some debate over the function of rune stones in Viking society: why they were built, who built them, and for what purpose. There is agreement that the stones come from the period of transition to Christianity, perhaps as a result of the increased movement and activity of the Viking age, or as a reaction against the new religion, resulting in the revival of extravagant, stereotypical Scandinavian funeral monuments, and a display of the wealth and status of the people who erected the stones. They also display the rights of inheritance between relatives and families during that time. An impressive amount of debate also surrounds the second of the Jelling Stones, hitherto referred to as Harald's stone. There is a wave of thought in scholarly literature that the original dating of Harald's stone is incorrect, and furthermore the assumption that the stone was carved all at the same time according to a single plan is misleading. These proponents of a "two stage" theory give arguments that can be easily counteracted; while exact knowledge of the stone's dating is at best imprecise, one cannot get around that problem by giving it two separate dates. The stone was created as a reaction to the uncertainty of a time period wherein people faced new forms of royal authority and a new religion, and Harald took part in this by authenticating himself by erecting a stone establishing his accomplishments and his right to rule.

All scholarly literature on the subject of Danish rune stones (and thus, King Harald's stone), is based at least in part on The Runic Inscriptions of Denmark by Lis Jacobsen and Erik Moltke from 1947 . It is a catalog of every runic inscription found in Denmark - from stones to coins - along with what can be deemed the most accurate translation as well as a relative dating of many pieces referenced to in the introduction. It gives the dating of Harald's stone as the second half of the tenth century before the (historically verified) death of Harald in 987 AD. This book also states that the oldest runic inscriptions in Denmark are from circa 200 AD and that the practice died out before 1350; there are 620 inscriptions in Denmark, with 240 on runic stones proper (as opposed to coins and other objects containing runic inscriptions). Denmark was Christianized around 960 and Norway was conquered by the Danes around 970. Other literature also references, for good or for ill, a number of medieval historians writing during this time period or soon after. Names that come up frequently are Svend Aggesen, Saxo, Widukind (author of the Saxon Chronicles), and Adam of Bremen, along with others. Some modern scholars claim that these historians cannot be counted on as accurate sources; for example, Svend Aggesen and Saxo both give accounts of Queen Thyre, mother of Harald Bluetooth, but each account is so drastically different that neither should seriously be taken as anything other than legend . Other scholars take the information gleaned from medieval sources as fact, and at times do not mention who these sources are other than naming them as "reliable sources," not stating if they are contemporary or prone to exceptional bias. It is therefore up to the reader to decide, discover, or simply wonder if these sources can be considered legitimate.

Rune stones are memorials to the dead, and most of them are dedicated to people who lived and died at home, rather than the popular misconception that they were primarily used as memorials to Viking warriors that died abroad. The custom was at first widespread among the higher classes in Jutland (Denmark) and then trickled down to the middle classes as well. While the size, quality, and amount of decoration varied depending on class, they all followed a very similar formula: "X raised this stone in memory of Y." The distribution of the stones was not even throughout the country, but rather many were often found conglomerated in a single area while other large areas contained none. In the tenth century, Denmark was the only well-established kingdom with powerful rulers in Scandinavia; it therefore at the end of the Viking Age able to control access to the Baltic and to regulate trade, garnering a lot of profit for the country, as did Viking activity. Christianity spread during this time as well.

Harald Bluetooth was the king of Denmark, with a reign generally accepted as from 958 to 987. His father was King Gorm, first in a new line of kings that had replaced an earlier dynasty, and his mother was Queen Thyre, who is commemorated on Gorm's stone in Jelling. Harald came into power after the death of Gorm and eventually converted to Christianity, taking Denmark with him. He was eventually deposed during a rebellion by his son Sven Forkbeard, who later conquered England and parts of Norway.

Birgit Sawyer's thesis is that Viking-Age rune stones come from the transition from pagan to Christian customs, and that these stones function to display the wealth and status of the deceased's family as well as to establish who inherits that wealth, which was often in terms of property. "It is clear that the erection of rune stones answered religious and social needs in a period of transition - the simple burial customs of the Christians broke dramatically with old traditions." Since after the switch to Christianity, the normal pagan custom of building a funeral mound replete with treasure and useful objects for the afterlife was looked down upon, the people needed another way to show off their wealth, as they could no longer do so by essentially throwing it away inside a now-forbidden funeral mound. It cost money to find a stone, bring it to the desired spot (usually along a road, near a crossroads, or by a bridge), and have it carved with an inscription. Some often built bridges as well as erected a stone, which facilitated travel and was looked well upon by the local missionaries of the church. Eventually as churches began being built more frequently and churchyards came into popular use, the use of rune stones to commemorate the dead petered out.

In her study encompassing the entire body of runic inscriptions in Scandinavia, Sawyer drew several conclusions about what the fashion of the rune stones meant. Many rune stones of the tenth and eleventh centuries declared themselves as Christian; others were emphatically pagan, or "illustrate the transition from pagan to Christian thinking and burial customs, for example funeral lamentations and prayers urging God to take revenge." These stones announced the religion of the deceased and their family for all to see. Sawyer claimed also that it was Harald Bluetooth's stone that was the impetus for stones to assert "religious and political affiliation... and claims to titles as well as land," as many stones that followed this formula were in the areas which were most affected by the direct royal authority controlled by Harald's - who used that authority to officially convert the Danes to Christianity. The random distribution of the rune stones mentioned above was a result of this transition, which took less time in some areas than others, "where there was a persistent resistance to the new kind of centralized royal power." The longer the transition lasted, the more rune stones were erected. It was noted that in areas that were predominantly Christian, the majority of stones were proclamations of paganism, while in mostly pagan areas the stones were for the most part very Christian.

Another conclusion that Sawyer makes is that the rune stones were built less for the commemoration of the dead, per se, but for the living. The stones mention not just the deceased, but also (and firstly) the person who paid to have the stone build, thus commemorating his or herself as well as their relative. As it was the heir who was expected to erect a stone, doing so would visibly establish to the rest of the community who was the rightful heir of the deceased's property. Therefore the study of rune stones is the study of inheritance rights and social customs in Scandinavia during the end of the Viking Age.

Else Roesdahl followed a very similar subject to Sawyer's in her study of burial mounds and sites of the late Viking age. She concluded that the rune stones (often found in or near these sites) were a revival of pagan customs as a reaction against Christianity, which threatened the old order of society. This was accomplished through the practice of extravagant, what she termed "stereotypical" pagan burial customs, which had died out several generations prior to its resurgence. Christianity was indeed introduced by kings, but not ones from the old ruling dynasties, creating a break with the traditional power structures of the area. While it is "known from written sources" that Denmark was officially converted by Harald Bluetooth circa 965 AD, it had been long known of as an approaching religion through foreign contacts and had been encountered by the Vikings in their travels. The new extravagant burial customs for the upper classes appeared around 900 AD, at a time when Christianity must have been known of, and spreading, even if it was still going to be another half a century before the official conversion. The chronology of the conversion in Scandinavia differed somewhat: Norway became Christian around 1000 AD, and while Sweden had had a Christian king sine 1000, some places were still partly pagan up until around 1100.

The complex at Jelling - with its two mounds, two stones, and ship setting - was the largest, most extravagant burial complex, and is also notable for the fact that it is partly pagan and partly Christian. This complex is the center of much debate. Roesdahl's opinion of the site is that it was completed in three phases. First, Gorm's stone to Thyre (here, the final resting place of Thyre is purported to be unknown). Then the north mound was built with a burial chamber built for a high-ranking man, which had been broken into sometime after burial and was without any human remains, though many artifacts remain. Thanks to a scientific procedure called dendrochronology it was possible to date the mound at sometime between late 958 and early 959, which "corresponds with written sources about the death of Gorm." Six to seven years later was the conversion to Christianity, and the possible building of a church on the site (according to excavations in the floor of the current church). Roesdahl concludes that at the time in which the rune stones gained predominance there "must have been a policy of tolerance and peaceful transition." This makes little sense - if the spread of Christianity was able to spur people into reverting back to pagan burial customs as a rebellion against the new religion, and as Sawyer notes, to erect very pagan-oriented stones, then there must have been tensions between the two groups during this time that could not have been expressed simply through rebellious funeral customs. But the main point remains - that the stones signify the transition period between pagan and Christian burial customs. They continued being built by both pagans and Christians while there was tension between the two religions, eventually dying out once the entirety of the population converted.

Lis Jacobsen and Erik Moltke do not have an argumentative purpose in The Runic Inscriptions of Denmark, but it is useful to note the assumptions that occur in the book and that are afterwards discounted, discredited, or argued against by later scholars. Already mentioned is the dating of the stone given in the book as the mid 980's, based on the historically known Christianization of Denmark, as well as the assumed death date of King Gorm and the known death date of King Harald. The book also claims that the pictoral carvings on faces B and C of Harald's stone must have been executed by a Danish-English artist, rather than by a native artist, though it does not give any reason or evidence other than that it looks like it.

Olaf Olsen's short article on Jelling is an argument against the theory by Ejnar Dyggve that the stone settings at Jelling and the setup and extravagance of the complex signify that Jelling was the site of a cult center. Olsen refutes this by stating that it is simply a funeral site in the normal style, and furthermore that it could not be the center of the conversion and the royal family. First, because the town was and still is small and unremarkable, and secondly because the royal family was not situated in just one place but traveled around at the expense of the nobility. I would also like to add that the complex at Jelling is naturally going to be extravagant, as it is the memorial complex of two powerful kings at a very prosperous period in Danish history.

Aksel E. Christensen, a proponent of the "two stage" theory, decided that Jacobsen and Moltke were wrong, in that no precise date was possible for either Gorm's stone or Harald's stone, the only preconceptions being that Gorm's stone was established after the death of Queen Thyre, and that Harald's stone was built before his death. The only dates we have for the family is of Harald's son, Sven (d. 1013) who succeeded him in a rebellion, and grandson Canute (d. 1035). The only certain knowledge that exists of Gorm and Thyre is from the two Jelling stones; while there is mention of them from other sources, Christensen disregards these sources as inaccurate. He does claim that German sources have information about a conflict between Harald and Otto II in 973, that the Saxon Chronicles of Widukind mention a story of his conversion to Christianity in 958-962, and that Adam of Bremen stated Harald ruled for 50 years (this last testimony is impugned as "deviant tradition and unreal construction.") In short, though relative dating exists, it is impossible to get a precise historical date of the complex at Jelling.

Christensen has other things to say about the complex, however. Unlike Roesdahl, Christensen states that the north mound at Jelling contained grave goods for a man and woman, therefore it must have been where Gorm and Thyre were buried - never mind that Thyre died a number of years before Gorm, at least long enough for him to be able to erect a stone in her memory. Although Harald's three accomplishments are each listed on a side of his stone, that doesn't mean, according to Christensen, that the achievements are named in chronological order. Nor must we believe that Harald accomplished all that he claimed, though there must be some element of truth in each statement or else he would have been mocked for lying. We know from German sources that Harald did in fact make the Danes Christian, and that through political maneuverings Harald could claim some limited or theoretical control over part of Norway. A unified Danish kingdom was taken for granted, although again according to these mysterious German sources, Denmark was under German "suzerainty" from 965 to 983, and therefore in order to be historically accurate the Harald stone must be dated to after 983.

Christensen finds a way around this dating by claiming that the Jelling complex was transformed from a pagan to Christian complex in several steps, much like Roesdahl's list above, but including changes to Harald's stone as well. First the north mound containing the remains of Gorm and Thyre was built along with Gorm's stone, then the south mound with Harald's stone including the first half of the inscription, then some time later the second part of the inscription as well as the decorations on the second and third face of the stone was added. The hypothesis of the secondary carving, the idea of which he originally attributes to C. C. Rafn and Sune Lindqvist, fits in with this plan for the development of the complex. The additional work on the stone "seemed obvious", as the inscription can be easily halved into the dedication to Harald's parents, and his self-commemoration, which must have been added far into his reign, in order to give him time to accomplish all of his achievements.

Visually, the part of the inscription dedicated to Gorm and Thyre is in a "carefully shaped and framed panel" on face A of the stone, and without the second half of the inscription the face of the stone would be very elegant and aesthetically pleasing. Meanwhile, the "Harald text is in striking contrast" in that it is not contained within the ornamental frame, and is written in an irregular and crooked manner. The elaborate style of pictures on faces B and C are stylistically and physically unconnected with the decoration of side A; the only connections are "feeble" at best. For these reasons, Christiansen claims that the "two stage" theory therefore must be judged as "technically possible," and more probable than the idea that the entire complex was created according to a set master plan.

Erik Moltke, one of the original authors of The Runic Inscriptions of Denmark, directly opposes Aksel E. Christensen and the "two stage" theory in his article on the Jelling monument . He first states the facts. Harald claims he made the stone. The stone is obviously Christian, with its proclamation, figure of Christ, and Christian symbols (the triquetra) in the decoration. The plundered north mound contained a man and a woman; the objects remaining inside were made in the same style as the carvings on Harald's stone, including a small figure of a man with a ring around his waist just like in the picture of Christ. As this article is written some years after his earlier book, Moltke now himself challenges the historical dating of Harald's stone at 983-85 AD, as well as the concept that the "Jelling lion" (face B) was English.

Moltke then recounts the inherent arguments of the "two stage" theory and its supporters, notably C.C. Rafn, Sune Lindqvist, Hans Christiansson, Aksel E. Christensen, and P.V. Globb. Lindqvist, the original proponent of the theory, had claimed there was not enough room for the inscription on face A of the stone, and that it looked like "two halves badly coupled together." Without the second half of the text the composition looked decidedly better, and therefore the second half must have been an addition, perhaps not even added until after Harald's death. Hans Christianssen cites the irregular punctuation and variation in lines between each row of text as evidence of two stages, and agrees with Lindqvist that the additional inscription does not fit with the ornamentation. Aksel E. Christensen's arguments have been cited above. P.V. Globb suggests that the additional inscriptions and ornamentation (including all of face B and C) are inferior, and that these additions were added only after Harald's death by his family, and the continuation of the inscription onto the other sides a random idea thought up on the fly.

Moltke then proceeds to refute each of these assertions with his own arguments based on close inspection of the stone, as well as a healthy dose of common sense. The suggestion that the stone would "look better" without the second half of the inscription is labeled a "subjective assertion," which is neither empirical nor able to be argued - someone could easily claim the opposite on the same basis, so such a suggestion has no place in this kind of a debate.

The fact that the stones were not dressed before being decorated, as was the tradition elsewhere and is done so now, means that the decorations and inscriptions were added around the stone's natural flaws.

About the "original" inscription, Moltke asks, "Why should a rune-master force the top row up into the cracked part of the stone and make the runes smaller if he only needed room for three rows?" Obviously if the first half of the inscription was originally the full inscription, it would take up far more space on the stone and would be arranged much differently, probably leaving even less room for any "additoion."

As for the "inferior" runes - the stone has been affected by a thousand years of erosion and weathering without protection, and what seems like poorly carved runes on closer inspection is simply the natural result of this weathering. Runes on the stone which are less weathered match the quality of runes in the first, "elegant," part of the inscription. Furthermore, again in reference to the undressed stone, the runes therefore follow the natural surface of the stone and look wobbly because of this, not because of poor craftsmanship. The difference in punctuation between the two parts can be attributed to normal variations often found in other stones at this time - and again, the weathering has made it difficult in some places to ascertain what the actual punctuation used was. Normal variation can also be attributed to the difference between each line.

In regards to the unused rune line at the bottom of the stone - Moltke comes up with the idea that this line, rather than an unused mistake, is actually supposed to indicate how deep the stone is supposed to be buried. This line was disregarded when the stone was dug up in 1586, leaving the stone crooked as a result. If it was actually buried so that the ground line was in the right place, it would stand up straight - and therefore the complaint that the whole thing was carved crooked would also be resolved.

Moltke claims that "it is wrong to judge a Viking Age runestone on the basis of the aesthetic criteria of today. Particularly a stone erected by a king, which ought to be of the highest quality." Having disproved each of its arguments, Moltke asserts that nothing can support the theory that the inscription was written in two parts, and that the stone was carved in its entirety at one time according to a master plan.

I would like to agree, and add that the idea that Harald's family added the second part of the inscription denies several facts. First, Harald's reign over Denmark did not end at his peaceful death of old age; rather, his son Sven Forkbeard initiated a rebellion against him. Whether Harald died violently during this rebellion or simply as a result of it is not able to be historically ascertained, but it is unlikely that Sven his heir would amend the inscription at Jelling for him after the rebellion. Furthermore, it was concluded above that rune stones were erected more for the benefit of the living than the dead. It is unlikely that someone in this society and tradition would anonymously finish Harald's proclamation for him. Instead they would mostly erect another stone stating, "I, so-and-so, erected this stone in memory of Harald, who..."

An idea that was prevalent in much of the literature on this subject was that Harald's stone would have had to be erected late in his reign in order for him to have time to accomplish everything he claimed to have done. But then why would he bother setting up a rune stone in memory of people who had died fifty years earlier? Perhaps if, in the face of his son's rebellion, he needed to publicly emphasize his connection to Gorm and his right as inheritor to the title of king, but a stone simply listing his accomplishments may have worked just as well as amending the first one - or neither could have worked at all. It makes more sense for Harald to have established the stone soon after his father's death, as was the tradition in that place at that time. But does that not give him enough time to accomplish everything? No, if we assume that Harald did nothing in life until his father died and he became king. But Harald must have been active in Viking Age life long before his time came around to inherit his title - he could certainly have accomplished political and military victories on behalf of the king his father, and the result would have been the same. Whether he was king or not at the time, he could very well have unified Denmark and conquered Norway (literally, or in theory) by the time he became king. Since, except for Gorm's stone, we have no record of the time before the Conversion, these accomplishments are entirely possible, and then he would not be lying when he wrote of these accomplishments on the stone dedicated to his parents.


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