Graves of pre-Christian Danish monarchs and their historical background


View Publication Info
Field Value
Title Graves of pre-Christian Danish monarchs and their historical background
Hedenske danske kongegrave og deres historiske baggrund
Creator Andersen, H. Hellmuth
Crabb, Peter
Description Graves of pre-Christian Danish monarchs and their historical background
Based on three presumptive royal graves -the boat-chamber grave at Hedeby, the Ladby ship, and the wagon burial at Søllested- all older than the royal tumuli at Jelling containing the graves of Gorm and Thyra, a reappraisal of the period before Gorm, the first half of the 10th Century, is attempted. It is emphasized that this is a hypothetical exercise, and that it is inspired by M. Müller-Wille's research (1, 2) Essentially, it leads to a revaluation of the so-called Swedish Hedeby-dominion, which here, in agreement with the notions of the Danish King Svend Estridsen († 1076) is rehabilitated as a national Danish dynasty preceding the Gorm dynasty.
This section is a historical analysis of the political situation before Gorm, contrasting the literary court tradition around 1200 (3) with Svend Estridsen's personal notion of the dynastic history of the period under consideration. At the same time, Gorm's chronology is reassessed: (4) the usual early dating of Gorm rests on information contradicted by contemporaneous sources, which in the 930s have Gnupa as king of the Danes (Widukind) (5) The literary tradition -Svend Aggesen and Saxo Grammaticus -lets, despite its tendency to be a royal history, the princes in question -according to Svend Estridsen Kings Olaf, Gyrd, Gnupa and Sigtryg -vanish from history, though leaving room for a regency held by one Enni-Gnup (= Gnupa). He is known from the Scylding Saga as a Jutish king.
Modern research has placed the aforementioned princes in Hedeby as petty kings, on account of runestone finds there mentioning the two last, Gnupa and Sigtryg. Their imputed Swedish origin is derived from Svend Estridsen's information that Olaf and his sons Gyrd and Gnupa came from Sweden. If they were kinglets in Hedeby, however, it is difficult to explain the literary tradition's attempts to miscredit the Olaf dynasty around 1200.
Based on the older sources including Svend Estridsen, (6) it may be postulated that these kings were Denmark's rulers in the first half of the 10th Century and followed an even older dynasty which may be traced back to the 8th Century. "They took possession of the Kingdom of Denmark by force of arms", said King Svend of Olaf and his sons. King Harald brings a similar message about himself on his runes tone at Jelling: " ... won all Denmark". He and his father Gorm repeated, according to this hypothesis, Olafs feat of arms. Sources from 854 report a coresponding attempt to usurp royal power in Denmark. Here it is clearly members of the royal clan returning from a Viking expedition who are at work, and theoretically one can imagine the same thing about both Olaf and Gorm. King Svend himself called the members of the Olaf dynasty his "atavi" (predecessors) and described them as Denmark's rulers before a certain Hardegon (= Gorm?), according to Svend the one who destroyed the dynasty. Only by disregarding Svend's testimony (7) can the Olaf dynasty be relegated to small kingships in Hedeby, which also assumes that the King had no idea that the progenitor of his own line, Gorm, simultaneously (i.e. according to the traditional Gorm-chronology) ruled in Denmark proper.
We see in the contradiction between the court tradition in the year 1200 and the royal tradition in the year 1050 reason to accept the older tradition and suspect the younger of falsifying history, i.e. to accept Svend Estridsen's account.
Unfortunately, the subject did not hold much interest for the King's collocutor Adam of Bremen, who gave only an extremely brief, rather confused report of Svend's account. (8) "They were all heathens", writes Adam -information which he must have had from the King.
It is remarked that the Lund clergy reckoned Olaf and Gyrd to be kings of Denmark when they died, reputedly in 906 and 916 (9), respectively, and that political manipulation may lie behind the late court tradition with its increasing disparagement of the Olaf dynasty.
One other member of that dynasty is known: Queen Asfrid, Gnupa's consort. In a runestone inscription she describes herself as daughter of Odinkar. While we do not see why the Hedeby runestones should link the Olaf dynasty particularly closely to Hedeby, because the known royal runestones are scattered throughout the kingdom, (10) we do believe that Odinkar (11) can be identified with a member of the mighty Jutish chieftain clan of the 10th century, the Odinkar clan, and conclude from this that Gnupa's marriage was political: it secured him Jutland. These internal power-political relations do not leave, any more than the external political ones do, room for a separate Jelling kingdom.
As the central major political event in Gnupa's reign is the defeat in 934 to the first Ottonian ruler, described by Widukind and followed up with Ottonian victory fanfares (12, 13) that would be meaningless if directed at a petty king on the Sli. What we actually know about Gnupa supports the credibility of the older tradition of the history of the dynasty. It should at the same time be pointed out that the Olaf dynasty fills an otherwise embarrassing hole in the dynastic history of Denmark, and that it is unlikely that powers unknown to us in Denmark proper would for 50 years accept the loss of the politically important border country (the Swedish dominion in Hedeby in the old sense).
This section treats three magnificent graves from the 1st half of the 10th century and interpreted as dynastic graves: Denmark's sole two ship burials (Hedeby, Ladby) and Denmark's largest chamber grave (Søllested), and links them hypothetically to the Olaf dynasty with hegemony over Denmark. Only one of these graves is in Hedeby: the two others are in Funen. The old theory of a special Hedeby dominion, which has remained standing as a historical half-truth, (14) can thus be subjected to archaeological examination. The three graves place themselves as precursors of the Jelling necropoles, all these graves having their roots in ancient beliefs. They are also an example of V. Gordon Childe's thesis, as "royal graves in a barbaric area under the influence of an advanced culture". (15)
The boat-chamber grave has been interpreted by German archaeologists. (16) Under a Viking ship in a barrow, a chambergrave was found with three horses. In this grave from about 900 we see Denmark's oldest royal interment, presumably Olafs. The bottom layer conjures up scenes from the life of the prince. At the iconological centre of rank, he lay with a magnificent Carolingian sword as symbol of royal power(?), while in the right part of the grave the early Carolingian swords as insignia of rank (?) of the two attendant persons, testify to "imitatio imperii". The position of the other grave goods is illustrated. Two functionally affined object pairs -wooden vessel and glass beaker, and stirrups and spurs- are discerned and attributed to the different persons: beaker and spores to the prince, wooden (drinking-) vessel and stirrups respectively to the other two. It has been concluded that the two attendant persons were housecarls, taster and horse-marshal. Here foreign court ceremonial is imitated, and custom at the Danish court of the time illuminated -features which are otherwise undocumented until much later, in the form of high offices of state- chancellor and marshal.
Cultwise there is a duality of death cult ("the eternal feast") and the Odin cult of the reigning powers (manifested in the ship, in which the voyage to Valhalla was made): "The dead person resting in the grave is simultaneously an inhabitant of Valhalla". (7)
The Ladby ship, admittedly plundered, was at the time of its discovery considered to be a chieftain's burial.(18) But on our present knowledge, such ship graves as at Lady and Hedeby must be said to be extremely uncommon. It is obviously the ship that separates them from other contemporaneous rich graves, the chamber-graves. The Ladby ship is dated today to the 1st half of the 10th century, but later than the boat-chamber grave, and on the basis of the affinity of the two graves it is suggested that the Ladby ship be without reservation interpreted as a royal grave. In the unplundered forebody, 11 horses and a pack of dogs were found. These hecatombs are augmented with a large find of riding equipment left in the plundered part of the ship, where there were notwithstanding still remains of treasure, and from the total find picture it may be concluded that we in Ladby are in the presence of a prince buried with his housecarl retinue. It is also discussed whether there is a theoretical possibility of a chamber under the ship, as in the Hedeby boat-chamber grave. The excavators believed, however, that they had found the actual principal burial up in the ship, although in the plundered state.
A litterary source connects the Jelling mounds with the crown estates in Jelling, also know from King Valdemar's Land Survey (1231). In Bjerge District, too, in which the Ladby ship is situated, there are wealthy crown estates, (19) and it is a safe assumption that there is a connection between the landingplace (Ladby) and the crown estate Sællebjerg. (20)
Hedeby, too, was royal demesne. A picture thus emerges of several places of Jelling type and of princes being buried on the royal estates where they lived and from which they exercised peripatetic jurisdiction. This feature contrasts with the royal grave churches which arose in Christian times and around which the royal graves were concentrated.
The plundering at Ladby may have been motivated by a desire to violate a royal grave, "mound-breaking" in A. W. Brögger's sense. (21) There are indications of a no longer extant royal runestone at the Ladby ship. Unfortunately the pillage at Ladby cannot be dated.
The Søllested grave 22) contained two magnificent finds, but was otherwise severely plundered. The chamber-grave measuring 10 X 3 m contained a wagon with a team of horses. The two showpieces of the find (horse-collar fittings) are considered by D. M. Wilson to be art-work of a quality unparalleled at that time anywhere else in Europe. (23) The grave is interpreted as a woman's burial, in our context a queen's grave. Its position follows the pattern outlined above: Søllested is a very wealthy crown estate according to the Land Survey.
These heathen graves, of which the boat-chamber grave has already been linked to the Olaf dynasty as the grave of its progenitor Olaf, exhibit in respect of dating, equipment and cult common features indicating a dynastic line before Gorm. In addition, from Gorm on, who was translated by his son after the latter's accomplished conversion, (24) we are well acquainted with the last resting-place of the Danish kings. (25) On our premisses, we must focus on one of the princes of the Olaf dynasty, if we wish to give a name to the king in the Ladby ship, and nominate Gnupa († after 934) as an obvious possibility. That he was involuntarily converted hardly affects the issue. The Norwegian king Håkon Adelstensfostre was christened, but his death (960) was nevertheless lamented in a memorial dirge, the main theme of which is the arrival of the blood-spattered King at Valhalla with his housecarls. In Søllested, here interpreted as a queen's grave from the 1st half of the 10th century, we employ Thyra's interment at Jelling to rule out her or a later queen, which means that we are thus faced by a queen of the Olaf dynasty.
It is found that three graves are in accordance with G. Kossack's preconditions for dynastic burials in magnificent graves, (26) and that we presumably with these graves have access to manifestations of a "vanished" dynasty, which in no way should be confined to a local power base on the Sli. These graves were in mind, when Gorm and Harald as the successors (and destroyers?) of the Olaf dynasty created the necropoles in Jelling, apparently in an attempt to surpass their predecessors, cf. P. V. Glob's idea that the ground pattern at Jelling makes up a giant ship-setting. They acquired the tradition of royal runestones from Asfrid Odinkarsdatter.
In a concluding note, (27) a plea is made for inserting the Olaf dynasty between the royal house of the 8th-9th Centuries and the Gorm dynasty. It follows from this that Olaf and his sons found a renowned object of conquest -the kingdom of Denmark. Gorm's and Harald's reputed specific importance for the development of this kingdom should consequently be reduced. The outline of an early state is seen, which around 900 functions as an imitatio imperii, partly by revealing the presence of highly placed persons in the immediate vicinity (marshal and steward), and partly by a striking propinquity of royal graves and royal estates, revealing that the Land Survey's power base has ancient precursors. These considerations are also of interest for the interpretation of circumstances prior to 900.
H. Hellmuth Andersen
Publisher Jysk Arkæologisk Selskab
Date 1985-10-08
Type info:eu-repo/semantics/article
Format application/pdf
Source Kuml; Årg. 33 Nr. 33 (1985): Kuml 1985; 11-34
Kuml; Vol 33 No 33 (1985): Kuml 1985; 11-34
Language dan

Contact Us

The PKP Index is an initiative of the Public Knowledge Project.

For PKP Publishing Services please use the PKP|PS contact form.

For support with PKP software we encourage users to consult our wiki for documentation and search our support forums.

For any other correspondence feel free to contact us using the PKP contact form.

Find Us


Copyright © 2015-2018 Simon Fraser University Library