Rune Stones and a Church
Driving through Denmark, you pass small, primarily one-story towns that seem isolated and deserted. A few hardy folks ride by on their bikes on the winding and narrow roads. We were heading to Jelling where all Danes must go at least once in their lives. It’s a religious pilgrimage to their most ancient Christian site.
Other than the World Heritage symbol on all the road signs, you would never know how special Jelling really is. The town is small and quiet, unimpressive in many ways. Few tourists walked the streets, but if they weren’t there who would be?
As is our habit, we were pushing it for time. The Lonely Planet guidebook stated that in summer the site closes down at 5:00, and we arrived at 4:40. I was hoping it was wrong, and it was. The church site didn’t close down until 8:00 in summer, but the interpretive center across the street did close at 5:00. We hurried to the site, and relaxed when we saw we weren’t pushed for time. When we relaxed, we felt the fresh, crisp breeze, and you could feel the whisperings of times past. The bright blue sky and the white fluffy clouds sitting over the mound added to the sense of magic the site possesses.
The site hosts a church dating back to the 12th century, two huge runic stones, and two burial mounds. The current church was built over two previous churches, the first built by Harald Bluetooth when he accepted Christianity as the country’s religion. He also carved the second, larger, stone with a representation of Jesus for the same reasons. Both stones are located outside the church and encased in glass to protect them from the elements.
The church, of typical Danish design, is a longish brick building covered in a shallow layer of stucco and whitewash, standing proud amongst a well-manicured cemetery and in-between the two ancient mounds. The church’s interior was simply decorated, with plain white walls and few adornments, but the few things that were in it were well-made of simple elegance. A model viking ship hung from the ceiling, and the collection box looked all of its 800 years. There is a mysterious crinkled line on the floor, which is thought to mark the spot where Harald re-buried his father, King Gorm. King Gorm must have been a romantic, because he carved the smaller of the two stones in memory of his beloved wife, Queen Thyra, calling her the ornament of Denmark.
The Danes liked to bury their dead in fishing boats, surrounded by their wealth and things they would need in the afterlife. There are two mounds in Jelling, and when the mounds were excavated they had already been robbed, but they do dwarf the church and cemetery, and completely add to the air of mystery and intrigue that surrounds the site.
Jelling is one of the quietest, unprepossessing world heritage sites that I have visited, and for that reason, I really enjoyed it. The runic stones are nothing less than impressive. I loved them.