For People's Delight
The Christians left behind great churches, impressive buildings, books and everyday utensils in Scandinavia. Runes and archeological discoveries illuminate the life and religions of the Vikings. All of those and many other things demonstrate an old romantical time of greatness, which can make us proud.
However, the time before the Vikings appears to be very confusing, and too complex to grasp. Some may consider it even boring and irrelevant. People living before the Vikings didn't write books or runes about their thoughts and life. They didn't built houses, which would last the corrosion of time. All that is left behind of them is some scattered pieces of flintstone, bones and crocks, which are not too thrilling. The story these discoveries tell is often experienced as alien and agonizingly primitive.
J. Th. Lundbye: Efterårslandskab, Hankehøj ved Vallekilde, 1847 (Den Hirschsprungske Samling)
However, something besides this still exists from this incredible long and difficult period of time. What I mean with 'this period of time' is the unchanging and continuous time from the first man of Ice Age to the Vikings. This era left some important things behind, namely the burial mounds or barrows (Latin: tumulus), that is, dolmens or megalithic structures.
They defy the landscape with their hemispheric forms. They are a greeting from the time of myths, dreams and folklore, being an essential part of our collective consciousness. We simply coundn't imagine our scenery without them. Their symbolical message, even if we can't understand it, stimulates our fantasy and fills us with questions that have no conventional answers.
However, our ignorance and inability to give answers to the ancient mysteries does not deprive the value of prehistory. It is just a part of the magic of life. It was said about the 19th century romanticism, that it:
[...] considered the old times as new way to view the present. [...It] displays the past making it beautiful, fascinating and informing, above all visible, and in that way [...] worth protecting and for people's [...] delight.
Karsten Kjer Michaelsen: Politikens bog om Danmarks Oldtid, 2002. Translation: Author
I have the same wish, because these qualities of aesthetics and cultural history are being underestimated in our society based on pragmatic values. The connection between mankind and their experience of cultural nature is still far from being harmonious.
A Mound Should Be Raised
Odin established the same law in his land that had been in force in Asaland.[...]Thus, said he, every one will come to Valhalla with the riches he had with him upon the pile; and he would also enjoy whatever he himself had buried in the earth. For men of consequence a mound should be raised to their memory [...]which custom remained long after Odin's time.
The Ynglinga Saga: 8. Odin's Lawgiving
The burial mounds can be classified according to their materials, location (of the entrance), form, and date of construction. They can for example be called bank, bell, bowl, D-shaped, fancy, long, oval, platform, pond, ring, round, saucer and square barrows, and so on. These categories have no practical relevance for normal people. However, it can be told that the tree mounds were the first ones being built. The chamber inside that kind of mound has walls made of wood. Later on stone chambers replaced the wooden constructions.
In practise, huge stones were dragged and put together to form walls for a chamber. Some of the biggest stones, many of them weighing over twenty thousand kilos, were pulled up atop the other ones, creating a fully balanced ceiling. Then earth was assembled around and upon the chamber, and the mound was fenced in by standing stones.
J. Th. Lundbye: En gravhøj fra oldtiden ved Raklev ved Refsnæs, 1839, Thorvaldsens Museum
It should be remembered that the barrows today are a sad remnant of brilliant ritualistic constructions. Originally they looked completely different. In the picture above, there is only a ruin of a burial mound, not the building itself.
At their own time, the mounds were impressive structures, which could be compared with castles or skyscrapers:
When the burial mounds were holy places, they looked different than today. Often the sacred area was surrounded by a wooden fence, and the foundation of the barrow was encircled by some heavy blocks of stones. An elaborate stony decoration covered the base of the mound.
Jørgen Jensen: Oldtiden i Danmark: Bronzealderen, 2001. Translation: Author
A restored megalithic structure, Newgrange, Ireland
It can be imagined that the row of flat kerbstones [around the mound] are like a wall of granite. It was made of red slates between the bigger stones. Above this was the convex top of the mound, decorated with white burnt flintstones. A real play of colours was made of the red sandstones, grey granite and white flintstones.
Klaus Ebbesen: Stendysser og jættestuer, 1993. Translation: Author
It should be remembered that the burial mounds are an ancient and long-term tradition. They are a result of thousands of years of architectural and religious activity, being built and used for almost six thousand years, from the Stone Age to the Bronze Age, and from the Iron Age to the Viking Age. Despite practical life, burial forms and the social structure differing and changing in the course of time, burial mounds were being built.
Distribution of the megalithic culture in Europe.
Apart from that, megalithic barrows are to be found everywhere in the West Europe. It is amazing how similar these stone structures are, despite thousands of kilometers and years between them, and the builders having belonged to different cultures and tribes. Thus, it can be concluded that the mounds were a part of something huge, international and important.
The Devil Should Move those Barrows
In the beginning of the 19th century, the western society went throught some great innovations, reforms and changes in many ways. The ideas, born in the Age of Enlightment a bit earlier, bore fruit as people began to look forwards, no longer upwards to the gentry or backwards to old beliefs. An old peasant tells in 1807:
I have had my farm for already thirty years. As everybod knows, I have cleared huge stones away from my field, but never has any little stone or a lump of dirt given me as much agony and expence as the mounds of the Old Ones. I have had to level them down and plow them. I wish the ancestors would have understood how much annoyance these rocks and barrows have given me and the other descendants. If they had known this, they wouldn't have done such madness.
Carsten Henrik Bang: Guide til danske fortidsminder, 1994. Translation: Author
Or as in the play of Adam Oelenschläger:
The devil should move those barrows for they are standing there as futility.
Adam Oehlenschläger: Sct. Hans Aftensspil. Translation: Author
Due to this rather unsensitive irritability the barrows disappeared. The only thing keeping them erect was people's fear of revenge by the dead ancestors. Therefore the sanctity of the grave was sometimes given. The folklore is filled with examples of the horrors meeting the plower of the mound. However, the temptation became often greater than the respect for ancestors and warnings.
Originally the mounds were built in astronomical numbers in the West Europe. It is estimated there were at least 300,000 burial mounds spread over 43,000km2 in the Country (seven per every square kilometer!). As the megalithic mania was most active, about a hundred mounds were erected every year. Now there are only 25,000 left and they are still vanishing, despite the protection programs.
TStevns was the place in the country having most mounds, and as such also the place of most destruction. This is due to its very fertile fields, and people craving to cultivate every inch of them in the name of efficiency. The mounds simply disappeared under the plow, or were ripped up for getting stone and gravel.
An official guide for ancient monuments tells:
Thousands of burial mounds are memorials for the deceased.
Carsten Henrik Bang: Guide til danske fortidsminder, 1994. Translation: Author
This opinion emphasizes the barrows as dead. The guide continues:
One had to put enormous amounts of manpower for constructing these monuments that didn't even have any practical meaning. (Ibid.)
Thus the barrows are considered here both lifeless and nonprofitable, both in their own time as at ours. This modern understanding underestimates the life and death of our ancestors. For understanding people who lived thousands of years ago, one has to understand their relationship with the earth, the nature and the seasons they depended on. For the Earth was a living and life-giving body for the ancestors; it was a source of holy energy, fertility and vitality.
The ancient people wanted to use the visible materials from the earth for being able to display the invisible aspects of life understandable for themselves. Everything in the material nature had a natural aspect of spirituality. The ancestors wanted to optimize this powerful contact between the physical and the divine world by building sacred architecture, which really demanded great manpower. These sacred structures were meant to last forever, reflecting the human need for unchangeability in the changing world.
The endurance of the mounds or their use as tombs is not as essential. It has to be understood they were sacred, and therefore it is futile to say they have no productive or practical meaning. Especially when thinking about the huge amount of time and work people have invested in these structures. We can conclude that the meaning of the barrows has been colossal, and this meaning has penetrated the entire society. Therefore, it is naive to believe the barrows were built only for honouring a couple of dead, worldly chiefs.
In the beginning there were no class distinctions in the argicultural society. There is no reason to assume a local prehistorical chief could mobilize all the people of the land to build a great and difficult construction only for himself. Thus, the mounds have been sacred buildings, and the eagerness for building them originates from the feeling of being a part of something eternal and divine. People believing in this kind of divinity will gladly built a sacred structure.
Closer to Heaven
But why a mound of stone, gravel and peat?
Early people considered the mounds and the hills being closer to heaven, divine heavenly bodies and the heavenly gods. They created a connection between the Earth and the heaven, giving a feeling of being closer to the world of eternality and immortals. Additionally the mounds could be seen from afar in the terrain as signposts, usually even located on hilltops.
As regards to stones, they can be considered as eternal, unchangeable and powerful in this changing world. They were even believed to be personal living beings.
The modern man is used to the electrical light and is afraid of dark caves that gave the ancient people a feeling of safety. The narrow corridor leading inside the barrows is like a vagina leading to Mother Earth's round womb, the chamber itself. Thus the mound brings us back to the place we came from. This theory is supported by the burnt white flintstone on the floor of the chamber. It conjures an image of being inside a big egg. The egg is an old symbol of rebirth.
Futhermore, the Sun and astronomy are added to this rebirth. The location and the position of mounds is carefully chosen and calculated in proportion to the heavenly bodies. For example, almost all mounds have their doorway in East, where the Sun rises. Sometimes the doorway is placed so that the first ray of the Sun, on the day of winter solstice, meets a particular point on the back wall of the chamber. Thus the dead ancestors buried in the chamber could be born again by the rays of the rising and returning Sun. In the same way the living could calculate when the time was to plow, to sow, to harvest and to celebrate.
Of course, the dead were not lifeless or dead or powerless in any way. They were living in another place, where they continued their lives as well as possible. Their safety and comfort was vitally important for the descendants, because their task was to help, support and energize the living. Therefore the dead were as essential part of life as the Sun and the Moon. Without their goodwill life coudn't continue.
In folklore it is told how people used to 'sit ouside on the barrows for gaining wisdom', which is called outsitting, wake or omen-taking (Norse: útiseta, in Danish: udesidning, vågenat or varselstagning). In other words, one went to the burial mounds by night for meditating and consulting the ancestors. This happened especially at times of emergency or grief or when a decision had to be made. Additionally this was done at the solstices, equinoxes and at other annual celebrations.
The first thing the Christianity forbade by law in Scandinavia was exactly this social togetherness with the barrows. Therefore it can be concluded that it was a very popular and necessary part of the life in the old days. The mounds were places of energy for our forefathers. Not just did they protect the ancestors, but they also took care of the needs of the living, giving them wisdom, strength and peace of mind.
Not even legal or political decisions could be made without the burial mounds. Only those decisions, judgements and choosing of the king that were made at the vicinity of the mounds — and therefore before the eyes of the ancestors — were valid.
Thus it is wrong to consider the barrows as being only memorials of the dead. They were a part of the life of the living.