Whenever anything seems insurmountable, I learned at a very early age to remind myself that I, like many other ‘northerners’, am a descendant of a proud people: the Vikings. Assuming that Viking blood really is coursing through my veins, it seemed unimaginable as a child to let myself be cowed by the biting, gusting wind in my face on the way to school, even if it meant I had to trudge through knee-deep snowdrifts on the worst wintry days. It’s part of being a Viking: you have to prove your resilience.
My Nordic ancestors were physically and mentally tough, skilled craftspeople, inherently bound to nature with an unbridled longing to explore. In reality, the Vikings were many things. Most were peaceful farmers, innovative boat-builders, trappers, skilled merchants or brave warriors. And, yes, some were ruthless treasure hunters who barbarically plundered, raped and killed, but the Viking Age was actually quite an advanced era socially and culturally. Although the age itself was relatively short (c. AD 800–1050), the Vikings’ way of life, culture and journeys have left profound marks on modern-day Denmark.
Viking culture has become hot in recent years. Not just in Denmark, but in large parts of the Western world, as well. We see this reflected in men’s beards and hairstyles, now heavily influenced by Viking culture. The full beard, hopelessly out of fashion since the 1980s, re-emerged with the advent of hipster culture around 2000 and has now made a serious comeback as a popular trend today. The full beard has renewed its allure and is once again used to radiate strength and masculinity. Lots of online shops are selling men’s beard and hair ornaments inspired by Viking jewellery designs, and a new men’s fashion trend is to braid silver or brass Viking patterned beads in beards and hair. And everyone knows the stylish ‘man bun’ hairstyle, the slightly more slovenly ‘messy bun’ or the signature look of Danish Viking king Ragnar Lodbrok, combining a longish beard with a razor-sharp, close-shaven undercut and a long, braided man ponytail. Ragnar Lodbrok the Viking was relatively unknown except to historians until the hit Netflix series ‘Vikings’ made him a household name in 2013, inspiring even the most well-kept metrosexuals to grow beards and locks of hair and acquire a more devil-may-care look and attitude.
Names like Thor and Ragnar have also increased in popularity. According to Statistics Denmark, 38 boys were named Thor in 1985 but this sharply increased to 184 in 2015. During the 1980s and 1990s, 0–2 children a year were named Ragnar, but the name gained momentum in 2013, and 14 children were named Ragnar in 2018.
According to written sources, tattoos or ‘body art’ also belonged to Viking culture, and although tattoos per se are nothing new in our age, we see an increasingly widespread use of motifs with runes and Norse symbols. Examples of this are interwoven triangles symbolising the nine worlds of Norse mythology, the sacred tree Yggdrasil, or tattoos of braided patterns and never-ending knots – all believed to be crucial to Vikings, symbolising life and its eternally changing quality.
For centuries, the Vikings and the Viking Age have been key to Denmark’s national identity. Although archaeologists, historians and other scientists have given us reams of factual knowledge of the period, our perception of the Vikings and the Viking Age is still changing, according to contemporary interpretations and societal interests. Today, thanks to mass media, Vikings permeate pop culture, and one might ask why Viking culture in particular is experiencing a revival of sorts. A simple explanation could be that the increasing multiculturalism of our society has created a need for an identity-shaping counterweight, as Viking culture is a unique, essential element of Nordic awareness.
The writers of Bornholm’s history had to put up with great uncertainty. Not just about where Vikings lived on the rocky island, but also regarding the date when Bornholm became subject to the Danish king and the date when the Norse gods lost their grip on the spirituality of Bornholm’s inhabitants in favour of Christianity.
The oldest description of the Nordic region we know of comes from the travel descriptions of Norwegian seafarer Ohthere and Wulfstan (of unknown origin) from c. 890, i.e. around the time of Gorm the Old. The two men were sent forth by Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great to learn more about the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. Linguists are probably enthused by reading an excerpt of their description, which states: “Wevnadland him væs on Steorbord and on Bæabord him væs Langoland and Loland and Falster and Sconeg and thas land allhvrath to Denemearcan. And thonne Burgendaland væs us on bæebord, and tha habbat him sylf Cyning”. The Burgendaland referred to in the text is Bornholm and reputedly had its own king (Cyning) at the time, which tells us that in the era of Gorm the Old, Bornholm was still outside the Danish realm. When the island joined, presumably fifty or sixty years later, after having deposed – or presumably murdered – a Viking ruler, a royal bailiff or earl was sent to Bornholm to attend to the king’s interests. It is believed that Bornholm lost its independence just before the year AD 1000, and that the people of Bornholm transitioned away from believing in the Norse gods in the latter half of the 1100s, after which a centuries-old culture and world view disappeared.
Traces of the Viking presence are visible at many sites on the island. In wildlife areas, you can find menhirs, runestones, hill forts, burial sites, etc.
Bornholm has more menhirs than any other part of Denmark. Some 1,000 have been registered on the island. Some menhirs stand near the remains of cremation burials covered with earth. It was common to erect a menhir at such burial sites during the Viking Age, but many menhirs are also unconnected to any grave site. Louisenlund, 3.5 km east of Østermarie, and Gryet, north of St Bodil’s Church, are Bornholm’s biggest collections of menhirs. The menhirs at these sites are believed to date from the Viking Age. Louisenlund has some 50 menhirs interspersed in a quiet grove of trees, and Gryet, a small, wooded area not too far from Louisenlund, encompasses more than 70 menhirs. Traces of Iron Age and Viking Age burial sites are found both east and west of Gryet.
The island’s highest menhirs stand at Frennemark, just south of Svaneke. The biggest of the three menhirs here is almost three metres tall. Menhirs are also found next to the coast road between Bølshavn and Listed, at what is known as the Sacred Woman (Hellig Kvinde). At the site, the bigger of two menhirs stands on a low stone mound, next to a small stone ship comprising short menhirs. According to an old legend, a raging husband of a sacred woman was threatening to kill her. He even intended to kill their children. In her distress, the woman entreated the gods to help her, and she and her children were turned to stone before the atrocity could be committed. To this very day, many native residents still respectfully greet the Sacred Woman and her children as they pass by.
A number of Viking Age burial sites are also found on Bornholm, a small number of which are presumably early Christian burial sites from c. 950–1060. Bøgebjerg, south of Østerlars, is perhaps the most splendid Viking burial site on Bornholm, with exposed stone-chamber graves. The burial site itself is situated in a gravel slope covered by more or less visible collections of laid stones, stone cists and menhirs from the Viking Age. Standing here on a sunny spring day, as sunlight bathes the anemones blanketing the forest floor, it is easy to imagine the atmosphere at a burial ritual held here when a Viking made his/her last journey to Valhalla in Asgaard.
Bornholm also has around 40 runestones dispersed over the entire island. Runestones replaced the menhirs (which have no inscriptions) and their runic inscription often pays tribute to a deceased person. Bornholm’s runestones are usually located near churches or bridges, perhaps because several were found being reused as building stones in bridges, stone churches or vicarages. For instance, during the rebuilding of St Bodil’s Church in July 1911, a large granite stone was found in the north wall of the nave, and the stone was removed and erected in the church porch. The ‘Brogård runestone’ south of Hasle is the biggest on Bornholm. It was rediscovered lying as a horizontal capstone in a bridge across Bagaa stream in 1868. The most recent ‘discovery’ is a runestone recorded a few years ago when a Swedish archaeologist caught sight of it over the door into St Knud’s Church in Knudsker. Although the church’s parish council had always known of its existence, it was not officially registered until 2017. There are many runestones worth seeing on Bornholm, and it is strongly recommended to Google their location and stop to see them as you explore the island during your visit.
Probably one of the most splendid relics of the Viking Age on Bornholm is Gamleborg, a hill fort in Almindingen Forest. Gamleborg is the oldest stone-built structure on Bornholm and is beautifully situated in one of the biggest forests in Denmark, filled with peaks and rift valleys. Gamleborg was built around AD 750 and was in all probability a residence of Bornholm’s kings during the Viking Age and into the early Middle Ages. The hill fort plateau covers an area of 2.5 hectares. The Vikings presumably built the thick stone and earthen ramparts surrounding the hill fort with their bare hands. It is 270 metres long in a north–south direction and 110 metres wide. This would have taken quite a long time to build.
The landscape surrounding Gamleborg is an experience in its own right, as the vegetation is exceptionally diverse. It is well worth your time to explore the area on foot and give your imagination free rein. Gamleborg is also included in ‘Go Raiding with the Vikings’, the Danish National Museum’s brand-new exhibition about the Vikings, opening at the museum in Copenhagen on 26 June 2021.
There are abundant opportunities to experience traces of the Viking Age on Bornholm. These skilled, hardy, innovative people who lived their lives on the island have left evidence of their presence in their own language for us to see. All this tell us that they were here, that they wanted to be remembered and that we can get to know them. Visiting them requires no preparation, admission ticket or special equipment. Just one thing you should remember when visiting prehistoric memorials of the Viking Age on Bornholm: please treat them with respect. They were created by human hands centuries before our time, they were valued and protected by previous generations, and they are now placed in our care. Go out and experience them in person. Because, when you stand at one of the remaining traces of the Vikings on Bornholm and close your eyes, you will undoubtedly feel their intimate, silent presence.