Thyra’s Remarkable Legacy in Viking-Age Denmark

Background

Runestones reveal the power of a Viking queen

Runestones reveal the power of a Viking queen

In the midst of the Viking Age in Denmark, spanning from approximately 800 AD to 1050 AD, a notable transformation was underway, despite the Vikings’ known penchant for raiding and trade. An instrumental figure in this evolving era was King Harald Bluetooth, who passed away around 987 AD. King Harald was the son of King Gorm and Queen Thyra, about whom little is documented. Nevertheless, these enigmatic figures are inscribed on two runestones at the royal site of Jelling. The first, a smaller stone, was raised by Gorm in honor of Thyra, while the larger stone was erected by Harald to commemorate both of his parents.

Gorm’s rise to power around 936 AD remains shrouded in mystery. Some accounts propose that he could have been a “Stranger King,” hailing from either Norway or Normandy. Conflicting historical narratives depict him variously as a feeble and indolent character, while Norwegian sagas extol his prowess as a warrior. The details of Gorm’s departure from the throne are equally elusive, but it seems that his son Harald succeeded him after a visit to Denmark in the 960s by the cleric Poppo, who presided over Harald’s baptism.

Thyra, Gorm’s wife, is one of the rare women who appear in legends and written accounts from this period. According to some sources, she is celebrated as a wise and resolute queen who initiated the construction of the Danevirke, a fortification designed to defend Denmark against southern intruders. While Saxo Grammaticus portrays her as the daughter of the English king, sagas place her in Jutland as the offspring of the semi-legendary figure Clac-Harald. The smaller runestone in Jelling describes Thyra as “Danmarkaʀ bót,” signifying ‘Denmark’s adornment’ or ‘Denmark’s strength/salvation.’

While written historical records offer limited information, the archaeological findings from Viking-Age Denmark are more abundant but not always conclusive. Jelling was the focal point of Harald’s dynasty, encompassing a complex site enclosed by a trapezoidal wooden palisade. Within this enclosure, two significant mounds exist, one traditionally associated with Thyra and the other with Gorm. Excavations in the northern mound unveiled remnants of a grave chamber, dated to AD 959/60, although no body was found. In contrast, investigations beneath the Jelling church’s floor revealed a grave containing a male skeleton, presumed to be Gorm, who was initially interred in the northern mound and later relocated by his Christian son, despite the traditional attribution of the northern mound to the queen.

Thyra’s reign as queen is obscured by uncertainties about where and how she wielded her authority. The discussion has revolved around seven runestones from southern and western Denmark, dating to the mid-tenth century AD. Two of these are located in Jelling and were erected by Gorm and Harald in Thyra’s honor. Four other stones are associated with an individual who identifies themselves as Ravnunge-Tue, forming the Bække-Læborg group. A fifth stone is the Randbøl stone, which references Tue Steward, potentially synonymous with Ravnunge-Tue. Past discussions have debated a link between Jelling and the Bække-Læborg group, based on whether the Thyra mentioned on the stones is considered the same individual. In this article, we delve into historical, runological, and linguistic sources, along with analyses of carving techniques, to shed light on the Jelling dynasty’s key figures and the role of the queen. If a connection between the Bække-Læborg group’s stones and Jelling can be established, it is likely that the Thyra referenced on all four stones is indeed the same person, expanding the royal influence of Jelling into other regions of Jutland and introducing new members to the Jelling dynasty. A crucial clue in this quest lies in the Læborg stone, which explicitly names Ravnunge-Tue as the rune-carver and designates Thyra as Ravnunge-Tue’s ‘queen,’ indicating Thyra’s authority in relation to Ravnunge-Tue, and her role as the female counterpart to ‘lord.’

Source: (Quantend, 2023)

Runestones in Medieval Denmark

Locations of Danish runestones c. 900‒970. The analysed stones are marked with place-names (map by Rasmus Kruse Andreasen and Lisbeth M. Imer).

Locations of Danish runestones c. 900‒970. The analysed stones are marked with place-names (map by Rasmus Kruse Andreasen and Lisbeth M. Imer).

A Symbol of Lineage and Power

In medieval Denmark, a total of around 260 runestones have been identified, with origins dating from the eighth century to approximately 1100. These ancient monuments, predominantly found in regions like Scania and Schleswig, hold a significant historical value.

The Impact of Christianity

The majority of these runestones were erected over a span of about 50 years, following Denmark’s conversion to Christianity around 965 AD. This shift in religion marked a pivotal moment in the history of these stones.

Social Circles and Connectivity

During the preceding decades of the tenth century, only a limited number of runestones were erected. These were typically associated with specific social circles. This suggests that the individuals who sponsored and crafted runestones in the geographically neighboring region of mid-west Jutland likely had connections with each other.

Purpose and Placement

Runestones were more than just ancient markers; they served as granite manifestations of lineage and power. These stones were strategically placed in the landscape, often near grave fields, grave mounds, ship-settings, and crossroads. They were painted in vibrant colors and positioned in areas owned by prominent families with specific administrative privileges.

Commemorative Inscriptions

The texts engraved on these runestones most commonly paid tribute to men. These inscriptions followed a consistent format, typically stating, ‘X placed/erected this stone after (in commemoration of) Y, his father/brother/son.’ While single runestones were commonly erected in memory of an individual, there were instances where sponsors chose to erect two monuments in different locations.

Gender and Commemoration

In Danish tradition, it was more common for women to sponsor runestones in memory of men, rather than the other way around. Interestingly, fewer than 10 runestones from pre-conversion Denmark were dedicated to women, with four of them mentioning Thyra.

Exploring Potential Connections Between Runestones and Their Carvers through 3D Scanning

Jelling 2 with runes chosen for analysis. (3D-scanning by Zebicon, drawing by Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt).

Jelling 2 with runes chosen for analysis. (3D-scanning by Zebicon, drawing by Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt).

In a quest to unveil potential connections among four runestones bearing the name Thyra, a 3D-scanning approach was employed. This cutting-edge technique aimed to determine if the same runecarver was responsible for the inscriptions on these stones.

3D Scanning for Insights

The carved surfaces of five runestones associated with the Ravnunge-Tue group, along with selected portions of the Jelling stones, underwent 3D scanning in September 2021, led by Henrik Zedig. Additionally, 3D scans from 2007, related to the Jelling stones (Trudsø Reference Trudsø2010), were also incorporated into the analysis.

Analyzing Rune Carving Techniques

To characterize the runic inscriptions and discern whether they were the work of a single artisan or multiple craftsmen, a method for groove analysis of runestones was employed. This method, originally developed at the Archaeological Research Laboratory at Stockholm University (Freij Reference Freij1990; Kitzler Åhfeldt Reference Kitzler Åhfeldt2002), has since been further refined and utilized in various research inquiries concerning the work practices, mobility, and other related aspects of rune carvers (e.g., Kitzler Åhfeldt Reference Kitzler Åhfeldt2016, Reference Kitzler Åhfeldt2019; Kitzler Åhfeldt & Imer Reference Kitzler Åhfeldt and Imer2019).

The Two-Part Method

This approach consists of two fundamental components. The first part deals with the technical procedures used to record various variables, while the second part delves into interpretation guided by experimental studies.

Individual Motor Performance and Signatures

The fundamental premise underlying this method is that over time and with experience, runecarvers, like any skilled craftsmen, develop their own unique motor skills. This evolution in their craft results in distinctive methods of work, ultimately creating a personal signature within the rune grooves.

Conclusion

Intriguing discoveries from the Jelling region indicate that a series of runestones from Viking-Age Denmark are the work of different rune-carvers, as supported by three independent analysis methods. Multiple analyses converge to suggest that Ravnunge-Tue was the artisan behind the Læborg and Jelling 2 runestones. Conversely, the Horne, Bække 1, and potentially Randbøl stones bear the mark of another craftsman. An outlier in the collection, the Bække 2 runestone, appears to have been crafted by an inexperienced individual, according to the analyses. The extensive damage to the surface of the Jelling 1 runestone hinders any firm conclusions based on groove analyses.

Drawing a fascinating link between the Læborg stone and the Jelling complex, the investigation suggests that Thyra, commemorated on both Jelling stones and mentioned on Bække 1, is indeed a singular historical figure. Thyra’s name is uniquely featured on four runestones in Viking-Age Denmark, setting her apart from others of her time. In contrast, Gorm is mentioned on only one stone, Jelling 2, and alongside Thyra. Even her famous son, Harald Bluetooth, is not commemorated as extensively.

If we consider runestones as expressions of status, lineage, and power, the evidence points to Thyra’s royal Jutlandic heritage. Both Gorm and Harald reference her in runestone texts, with Ravnunge-Tue describing her as his “dróttning” or ‘lady’ and ‘queen.’ Her title as “Danmarkaʀ bót,” translating to ‘Denmark’s strength/salvation,’ further underlines her as a powerful woman who held land, status, and authority in her own right.

The analyses and the geographical distribution of runestones suggest that Thyra was a key figure, possibly even the central figure, in the formation of the Danish realm. Her active involvement in shaping the nation cannot be ruled out. This evidence rekindles the debate about the occupant of the larger, central north mound at Jelling. Traditional association with Thyra gains more support than the recent assumption of Gorm’s presence, indicating the latter’s potentially lesser role in history.

The basis for these conclusions lies in the application of 3D-scanning of runestones, alongside analyses of carving techniques, rune forms, and language usage. This method presents a promising approach for delving into the dynamics of power and patronage in ancient societies, even when written sources are scarce or absent.

Sources

  • Imer, L., Laila Kitzler Åhfeldt, & Henrik Zedig. (2023). A lady of leadership: 3D-scanning of runestones in search of Queen Thyra and the Jelling Dynasty. Antiquity97(395), 1262–1278. https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2023.108‌

  • Quantend. (2023). Using 3D scanners, archaeologists have identified the person who carved Jelling Stone Runes [YouTube Video]. In YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YvSHOqJr6LE

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