A drive up through Denmark’s Jutland Peninsula a few days ago offered the opportunity to visit one of Europe’s most unique stone monuments. I was familiar with a copy of this stone on the Dom Square in Utrecht, Holland, a gift from the Danes to commemorate the 300th anniversary of that city’s university in 1936. But here in the town of Jelling was the real thing: the so-called Jelling Stone.
Carved over 1000 years ago, the Jelling Stone was commissioned by Harald Bluetooth in memory of his parents, to celebrate his conquest of Denmark and Norway, and his conversion of the Danes to Christianity. The stone is dubbed ‘Denmark’s birth certificate’, as it names Denmark in the inscription and records Danish transition from Viking paganism to Christianity.
The stone stands in the churchyard of Jelling church between two large man-made mounds, today a UNESCO World Heritage site. The runic inscription, perhaps the best known in Denmark, translates as follows: King Harald ordered this monument made in memory of Gorm, his father, and in memory of Thyrvé, his mother; that Harald who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian.
On one side, the stone has a figure of Jesus Christ–the oldest known depiction of Christ in Scandanavia–and on another a serpent wrapped around a lion. Christ is depicted as standing in the shape of a cross and entangled in what appear to be branches. Some suggest this image reveals Christ as replacing the Norse pagan god Odin, who was believed to have hung for nine nights in the tree Yggdrasill.
Traces of coloured paint have enabled experts to reconstruct the stone’s original colours, and a facsimile is on display nearby. Apart from losing these colours, the stone has survived a millennium of storms, hail, rain and snow. Only now is it beginning to show cracks, prompting work presently underway to create a protective outdoor display case.
The stone is also a reminder to Danes of the longevity of their royal house, surely the oldest in the world? For their current Queen Margrethe II–Denmark’s first female sovereign–is the 49th Danish monarch in a direct line of succession from King Harald Bluetooth!
Another remarkable feature of this stone is its inspiration of a very contemporary icon, probably visible at the top of your laptop or mobile phone screen right now. For when the developers of the Erikson mobile phone looked around for a symbol of the technology that enabled different phone systems to talk to each other, they superimposed the initials ‘H’ and ‘B‘ from the Viking runes on this stone–for Harald Bluetooth.
After all, as the stone says, Harald (whose surname came from his habit of eating blueberries) was the one who united the Viking tribes and languages.
The Christianisation of the Danes was a longer process than Harald implied on his stone. Archeologists have discovered many metal items of Christian imagery dating well prior to the 10th century. Some of the earliest contacts with Christians were Viking raids on the English coast beginning in the 790’s when sacramental ornaments, as well as Christian girls, were collected as souvenirs.
We also know that the Danish King Harald Klak, together with more than 400 of his retinue, was baptized in Mainz in 826 during a souvenir-hunting trip down the Rhine. The Frankish Emperor Louis the Fair witnessed this event.
The Jelling Stone is thus a silent reminder of a seismic shift that took place all across Europe, mainly in the first millennium–giving birth to a Europe of peoples who shared a common conversion from polytheism to monotheism, after hearing the story of Jesus of Nazareth. While this process was far from purely spiritual, often political and often enforced by sword, it was this worldview shift of values and beliefs that truly shaped the European soul.
Yet the figure represented on this monument is himself the stone rejected all too often by Europe’s modern builders.
Till next week,