Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Gorm and Thyra Danebod. English text.

Thyra Danebod and Gorm
- who was "Tanmarkar bot" really?

The small Jelling-stone from about 935AD bears one of the most famous and disputed rune inscriptions of all times (transcribed):

"GormR konungR gærði kumbl þǿsi æft Þōrwē konu sina Tanmarkar bōt"

Generations of researchers have correctly translated this simple text as:

“Gorm konge gjorde dette mindesmærke efter sin kone Thyra Danmarks bod”

(King Gorm made this memorial after his wife Thyra Danebod)

Everyone, from school children to academics, have celebrated Thyra as the builder of Danevirke, the major east-west running fortification at Jutland’s root.
Alternatively, if this was too much to expect, she has as at a minimum become famous for some unknown (undocumented!) deed as the saviour of Denmark - or perhaps just the “embellishment” of Denmark.

Every historian after Saxo and Svend Aggesen have purported these “facts”.
As they were closer in time to the events, the assumption is that they must have been right.
But were they really?

I am not trying to defame Thyra or to take away her glory as a powerful and significant person.
I am merely attempting to a) use a little brain logic when trying to interpret the text correctly and b) perhaps help right a wrong that may have lasted over 800 years. Even the powerful minds of Lis Jakobsen and Hans Brix (1927) have failed to convince the population that the inscription could have, and perhaps should have, a totally different meaning.

If Thyra really performed an act worth remembering in carved runes, the smoking trail must be out there somewhere, waiting to be found.
Until then, perhaps another explanation would be worth considering as more likely?
And here it is.

The Historic core
Thyra is mentioned for the first time in Svend Aggesens History of Denmark from around 1180. In a chapter of pure fiction he praises her beauty, virtue and wisdom and why she let build a major defence, Danevirke, as protection against the aggression of the German emperor Otto I.

For a start, this defence-system deserves a brief comment.

According to Frankish annals, king Godtfred had built a wall-system already in 808 AD, only broken by a narrow gate (porta angustissima), but excavations from the 1970s have shown that the first attempts to establish a fortified border could go back to at least the 7th century.
The 3 segments, Danevirke I-II-III, mentioned in Andersen, Madsen and Voss’ excavation report provide some clarification:

Danevirke I (the North Wall, the oldest Main Wall and the East Wall that cuts off the peninsula Svansen) were constructed just after 737 AD, as proven by dendro-chronological analysis.

Danevirke II (Kovirke) is next. The origin is not clear, but it is possible that this wall could be part of Godtfred’s wall from 808 AD. Due to its regular design and construction it is also possible that it is part of Svend Tveskaeg’s (Forkbeard’s) improvements. He was well known as a great fortress builder and strategist.

Danevirke III (starting at the Semi-circular Wall around Hedeby/Haithabu, via the Connecting Wall, the Main Wall and the Curved Wall) has been improved and extended on several occasions. Dating via tree rings establish the start date for this work to be ca 968 AD.
Conclusively, Danevirke is a major defence construction, which was initiated by an unknown, but major Danish king, at least 150 years before Thyra’s birth. Further improvements by Harald Blaatand (Bluetooth), Svend Tveskæg and king Canute took place well after her death. Name attributes such as the Thyra-Wall and Thyra-Castle are figments of the imagination of later romanticists.

It is highly likely that Aggesen knew about this, but in line with his objective of creating a monumental Danish queen-figure he quietly kept his silence.
There is no source, neither historic nor archaeological, that supports Aggesen’s description.
This was 'spin', model 12th C. !

Saxo’s account in Gesta Danorum is slightly different, as he combines his history with information from Adam of Bremen. He lets Emperor Otto’s attacks be directed towards Harald and Thyra, i.e. mother and son.
But this is even more confusing and only makes sense if Gorm died before Thyra, which is pertinently incorrect. Gorm died ca. 959 and Thyra ca 935.

However, praised be the old Scribe! We can learn a lot from the fact that he ALWAYS included every bit of data he could find - also the fractions that didn't make sense.

It is true that there is a lot we don’t know about the period in Denmark’s history before 1200, but many of both Aggesen’s and Saxo’s stories might contain a historic nucleus. However, what we do know is that they struggled with contradictory facts and used their imagination to create a whole raft of ‘stories’, trying to make sense out of information they could not consolidate.

The rune monuments have a story to tell both on and between the lines. Gorm’s Jelling stone clearly states that Thyra died first, a fact with which the historians through the times have had a big problem, when comparing with the annals and sagas.

There is NO other contemporary record of Thyra’s alleged characterisation, Tanmarkar bōt! It looks as though this inscription has forced the activation of endless imagination and that it ignited the creation of a ‘Thyra Saga’, written only to justify the name.

If for a moment we assume that bōt means someone, who has defended Danmark or built strategically important defence works, the natural question must be: “Where was Gorm in all this”? Having a nice time on his back drinking mjod and watching slave girls dancing? And then having a rune stone raised in his wife’s memory, admitting to his own lazyness?

A closer analysis of the word bōt reveals what may have happened!
Runic inscriptions are short, even terse and the 'FUTHARK' alphabet only contains 16 letters.
The rune for 'U' can be read as O, U, Y or Ø.
It is well known that e.g. 'thusi' refers to 'thausi' which in old Danish becomes 'thøsi' - or as in the word 'laukar' (onion) which changes in Danish to 'løg'.
'bōt', the word used by Aggesen and Saxo, is a word only known 250 years after the one used on Gorm's stone, now with the probable meaning pride, help or improver.
However, the words pride or helper seem rather tame when compared to the words Aggesen and Saxo also used in their accounts: Danicae Majestatis Caput and Decus Datiae - words passed down through the times and, due to a different grammar and plain ignorance, suddenly appended to Thyra.
This does not make sense.
The explanation is that bōt should be read bøt!
According to the umlaut-change explained above, the original word is Old Norse 'Bauta', meaning to beat, found in the name of standing stones 'bautasten', originally a 'stone with which to hit or beat'.
bøt, therefore, means: the person who hits hard - and THAT is Gorm.
One only needs to remember Karl Martel (hammer), Erik Thexla (axe) or SigmundR Spaerr (spear)
(See KUML, 1982-3 pg. 218)

It seems that the inscription and the sagas are in direct contradiction. Both Svend Aggesen and Saxo lived during the last half of the 12th Century, 250 years after Thyra had died. Most of the stories and memories had long been diluted or forgotten and they fought a losing battle trying to put virtual flesh on long dried bones.
More importantly: Neither Aggesen or Saxo had access to the technology or research methods we use, nor did they have the overview created by centuries of academic studies and available to us today. Finally, they had very clear nationalistic, individual agendas that did not support a critical, unbiased view of the Danish past. Their being closer in time to the events is thus a false and useless argument, too often used to corroborate their Thyra account.

The conclusion is, therefore, as simple as it is surprising:
Different historians, runologists and philologists have untangled how the name Tanmarkar bōt could generate the plethora of fairytales. What they haven’t shown us is why or how Thyra got the name in the first place?

The explanation is simple: the nickname is not Thyra’s.
It is Gorm’s!

But what justified Gorm to take this name, the saviour, the pride of Denmark?
Again a simple answer: nothing – or better, just his general assertiveness, result of his battles and reputation as a king! “I’m the greatest”. Pure bragging.
In this context 'bøt', a very strong man, makes more sense than the softly-softly 'pride'.
If you add 'il' (instrumentalis formen) til baut ('bøt') and soften the 't' to a 'd' you get a very well known modern Danish word: bødel = executioner.
A very strong man indeed.

A king was a superior being, as long as he stayed in control, made sure his people were prosperous and as long as he was able to defend his land against its enemies. Danish historians from Lauring to Grove have long been aware of the king as an omnipotent leader – and a sacrificial target when things went wrong.

Gorm was born in tough times, just after 900, and died towards 959, not as old as his nickname says: Gorm the old, but surviving Thyra by almost 25 years.
Denmark was under attack, both spiritually through Christianity and directly, from south of the Danevirke border. In Heithabu (Hedeby) a Swedish group of Vikings had taken control. A key figure was a certain Gnupa (Knubu) mentioned on contemporary runestones, Hedeby 2 and 4.
It remains unclear who actually finished off the Swedish rulers, Gorm or Harald, or even king Sven, but it happened and it would have been a considerable feat worth using in an attempt of self aggrandizing. Perhaps it was done in phases.
This discussion is too long for this review, but Gorm no doubt had a few tussles with the Gnupa-klan before he could safeguard the southern border.
If Thyra really built Danevirke – or rather reinforced it – then the Swedes MUST have been thrown out before, as Danevirke starts from the walls of Hedeby. It could only have been Gorm doing this.
And it is quite frankly more likely that Gorm subsequently repaired the wall although all archaeological evidence points to the fact that it was Harald Bluetooth, Svend Forkbeard and Canute who continued to improve the defence system.

Emperor Otto I also had a couple of agendas to maintain: to make all non-Christian lands Christian and, while he was at it, take control over a source of taxation. There must have been several skirmishes between the German emperor and the Danes at Gorm’s time. Certainly enough for Gorm to make sure that Danevirke stayed in a good nick without Swedish intervention!
I find it unlikely that all this was left as Thyra’s responsibility.

The Large Rune stone at Jelling, Harald’s stone, says: “ - - - som gjorde Danerne kristne” (who christened the Danes). It is a master stroke in strategic diplomacy, nothing else: By public statement Harald had eliminated Otto’s potential attack on Denmark, as it would not have been a justifiable act to attack another Christian nation.
So, with a mother who died around 935, a father who died ca 959 – and an intact nation that had not been – and now probably wouldn’t be - overrun by the Germans, it is unlikely that the German superpower had been beaten by Thyra 30-40 years before – watched by a lazy Gorm.
It simply doesn’t make sense.

The rune stones and their design.Let us take a look at the design of rune stones in the Viking age.
Most late stones display a design that indicates

“who did it – in respect of whom – describing the dead”.

We accept this readily, as it corresponds roughly to the way we think today, e.g.

“Jorgen created this memory of his father who was a very respected leader”.
or in the old Norse language:

"Iurkin risti stin þansi æft faþur sin harþa kuþan þegn"

The characterisation of the father corresponds grammatically to the father.
The problem with rune stones, however, is that there were several formulas for the inscription and not all followed our way of thinking. In addition, the carver had to be economic with the text. First of all, not everyone knew how to write the runes and secondly chopping away on the stone was a cumbersome and time-consuming affair. Many runes, therefore, were carved so lightly that erosion – and miserable handwriting – later made them illegible.

And now the surprise: Early rune stones (before 1000 AD) indeed exhibit a very different and succinct text structure from the later ones. There are several of these early ones, enough to be on firm ground in the attempt to interpret them correctly.
This ‘old’ design works as follows:

Who did it – in respect of whom – who/what was I who did it

Or as in the example above:
Jorgen; created this memory of his father; (Jorgen) is a very clever guy.

The Ferslev stone for example has:

Toki satti sten þansi æft Asta sun sinn Lutaris sun - - or in proper text:
Toke, Lotar’s son, created this memorial after Asti his son

It should be clear that Asti couldn’t both be Lotar’s and Toke’s son!
Grammatically the text cannot be misunderstood either. It is really all about where one puts the comma. Once understood, it becomes a very powerful message with no doubts presented to the minds of contemporary people:
The stone creator provides a strong statement about him/herself at the start and the ending, often ‘forgetting’ even to provide the name of the dead.

A certain professor Jonsson attacked the theory brought out by Hans Brix in 1927, saying that there were no other stones [than the small Jelling stone] that design-wise or grammatically would support this construction.

He spoke through his elbows and here are 3 in addition to the Ferslev stone:
1. The Kolind stone:
Tosti resþi sten þannsi æft Tofa, es warð døðr østr, broður sinn, smiðr Aswidar (Toste, Aswidar’s blacksmith, made this memorial after his brother who died in the east)
2. Vedelspang stone:
Asfriðr gærði kumbl þausi dottir Oðinkars
(Asfred, Odinkar’s daughter, created this memorial)
3. Skærn stone:
Sasgærðr resþi sten : Finnulfs dottir

Prof. Jonsson only needed to walk a couple of yards away from Gorm’s stone, to the younger and larger Jelling stone, to find an example: Harald mainly describes himself and not his father or mother or their deeds! This stone is a bragging memory to Harald’s deeds, despite ostensibly a memorial for his parents:

"Haraldr konungr bað gørwa kumbl þausi æft Gorm faður sin auk æft þorwe moður sina :

sa Haraldr es sær wann Danmark alla auk Norweg auk Dani gærði kristna"

or translated:

"King Harald raised this memorial for Gorm, his father, and Thyra, his mother; I am
the Harald who won all of Denmark and Norway and christened the Danes"

A little research proves that this ‘framing’ of the target for the memorial, starting with naming the originator and ending with a praise or characterisation of the originator, was quite normal in the early days of the rune stones.

Summary conclusion - and a PS.Saxo and Aggesen were nationalistic fairy tale writers in respect of Thyra. All references and ‘facts’ about Thyra are their inventions, unless a now lost source suddenly turns up. Thyra is not mentioned anywhere else and the appendix Tanmarkar bōt has no link to anything known about Thyra.
Tanmarkar bōt could grammatically refer to both Gorm and Thyra.
The attempts to link Gorm directly to a major event such as the killing of Gnupa and his son Silfraskalli in Haithabu have not been conclusive. Lis Jakobsen tried in her book “Svenskevældets fald” (The fall of the Swedish hegemony), referring to the rune stones Haithabu 2 and 4, but some of her arguments have been critisised by Prof. La Cour. She might still have been right in general terms, though, and Erik Moltke, another famous rune researcher supported her. In that case we have at least one reason for Gorm to praise himself, but his defence of the southern border over the years and firming up what Gotfred started could easily have been enough to earn him the nickname “Denmark’s jewel in the crown” or something like that. bōt is not a well defined word; it could mean protector, pride. Saxo and Aggesen took a stance that suite them on this.
However 'baut', or 'bøt', is very well defined and perfectly justifiable as a runic word, although it doesn't exist in other known inscriptions.
So why pick an unknown, dubious word, when a more linguistic, logical and contextually correct word falls off the lips without guessing?

Many others tried to prove that Lis Jakobsen and Hans Brix were wrong, but most arguments have been emotional, falling on stony ground. A sharp mind like Lis Jakobsen’s made sure her attackers knew!

What remains is :
The design of inscriptions on early rune stones support the assumption that Gorm could have been Tanmarkar bōt – and people understood it in the 900-960 years.
It is a reasonable assumption that Gorm, as king, would have mentioned himself as a hero or ‘pride’ before his wife, or better: Denmark's Strong-man. The king was synonymous with luck and the realm – otherwise he was not king for long. This fact had to be firmly communicated.
There is an extreme unwillingness in the Danish population, even amongst academics, to drop a beautiful and romantic story, a complete invention, that has been told for 800 years

There is, of course, still a possibility that Tanmarkar bōt refers to Thyra, but if pros and cons are put on a scale, this assumption is on a losing track.
Danish school children still have to swallow Aggesen’s and Saxo’s fairy tales - if they learn history at all today! It is a pity that at least the alternative and even more likely interpretation has been swept under the carpet since first mentioned in 1927.

This means that the runes on Gorm’s stone should read (translated):

"GormR konungR, Danmarkar bōt, gærði kumbl þǿsi æft Þōrwē konu sina"

And that is quite a different matter, fitting a Viking king considerably better than the one which implicitly makes him a lazy bastard!
- and here's the PS:

The Jelling monuments are vital for understandinging the dawn of the Danish kingdom. They are unique and yet incomplete as we see them today. Consequently there is a lot we don’t quite understand and a lot is open for further interpretation. My choice is based partly on facts, partly on strong circumstantial evidence and cultural observations.

There is another enigma to consider: “Kumbl” is in the plural! The memorial has been larger and more elaborate, perhaps encompassing either an earlier sanctuary (Danish: “Vi”) or a stone construction simulating a ship. Gorm’s stone has been moved from its original, unknown position and may safely be regarded as a central element of this vanished construction. The question, therefore is: does the word “kumbl” refer just to the runes or to this more elaborate monument? Is it conceivable that Gorm, using a grammatically ambiguous text, referred to both his wife and himself? In my opinion this would be to fabricate an artificial interpretation, based on too little knowledge. One thing is certain: there are still many unanswered questions buried in the soil of Jelling.

Svend Aggesen
Lis Jakobsen, Hans Brix og Niels Møller: “Gorm Konge og Thyra hans kone”
Lis Jakobsen, Erik Moltke: “Danmark’s runeindskrifter”
Lis Jakobsen: “Svenskevældet’s fald”
Kuml 1982
Diverse easily ‘Googled’ Internet write-ups, e.g. V. LaCour.

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