Whatever floats your longboat: Decipher the Norse code on a Danish adventure

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As the largest longship ever found goes on display in Copenhagen for the first time, Jonathan Lorie explores the land of the Vikings

Two blond warriors in green tunics draw their swords and rush into a village hut. They drag out a man and slice his throat. Villagers run out and broadswords clang in the twilight. Bodies fall across the beaten earth until a blast of horns is heard from the Earl’s longhouse. The attackers scatter among the trees.

It’s the opening night of the Viking play at Frederikssund in Denmark. Staged by a fjord each summer, it is the largest Viking celebration in the country and as close as you can get to Norse life. And that’s why I’m here – to explore the world of the Vikings, as the largest longship ever found goes on display for the first time in Copenhagen. The ship and its exhibition will come to the British Museum next spring, so this is a chance for a sneak preview of the show and of the terrifying raiders of our myths.

The play isn’t doing too much to dispel those myths. After the Earl has surveyed the heap of corpses, four Valkyries in horned helmets lead the dead to Valhalla (Hall of the Slain). Offstage, a Viking market is doing a roaring trade in mead and chain mail. Half the audience are dressed in cloaks and leggings. But there’s more to it than this. On stage, two lovers are meeting in secret. Their families are rivals. His clansmen have killed her brother in a fight. He sneaks into her bedroom, but is discovered and sentenced to death. Distraught, she poisons herself. The shock ending has the two star-crossed lovers laid to rest beside each other, united at last in death.

It is, of course, Romeo and Juliet. Or rather Hagbard and Signe, a Viking saga from the 5th century. And it’s not the only Shakespearean debt to Norse culture. Frederikssund’s most popular play is Amlet, a Dark-Age thriller in which the king of Jutland is killed by his brother, who weds the dead man’s queen while her son plots revenge. Perhaps William Shakespeare was nodding to his sources when he set his own Hamlet in the Danish castle of Helsingor, or Elsinore.

As tonight’s play finishes, the 180 amateur actors line our path through the Viking market, holding flaming torches aloft. It’s a graceful gesture from a community proud of its heritage. As organiser Carsten Malle explains: “We have people who have spent their whole lives doing these plays. Some were in the first play in 1952. They all want to awaken our ancient culture to life.”

They’re doing quite a lot of awakening backstage, where a makeshift Norse village has been built among the fir trees. Actors and their families in 9th-century costumes are carousing in wooden halls lit by candles. It’s a scene from another time – apart from the bottles of wine.

Next morning I head for the exhibition in Copenhagen. The National Museum is a handsome 18th-century building among cobbled alleys. Inside is a treasure trove of Viking items from 12 countries. They include swords with runes etched in the hilt, ivory chessmen, fine gold jewellery and trade goods like amber and silk. At its centre is the dramatic hulk of that 37-metre longship, which could carry 100 warriors for King Canute. In Old Norse, the word “viking” means a pirate raid, and a mock-up film of a raid flickers behind the boat. It looks terrifying, as grim fighters wade ashore and loot a town in flames.

The first account of such a raid dates from AD793, when the English monk Alcuin wrote: “On the Ides of June the harrying of the heathen destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne, bringing ruin and slaughter.” To keep the Viking raiders away, the English paid a tax or Danegeld to prevent their land being ravaged. And here in a showcase is a pot of the stuff – a pile of silver coins stamped with the head of Ethelred the Unready. They are thin as paper and bent with time. Seventy thousand have been found across Scandinavia.

But it wasn’t enough. The raiders settled in northern England, founded Dublin and ruled Scotland from Orkney. Their traces can be found in our vocabulary and our place names. Their final victory was a ship-borne invasion by William of Normandy, a Viking by descent, whose dynasty remains on our throne.

Ships defined the Vikings’ world. Fast and shallow-drafted, these allowed them to venture as far as Cairo, or Newfoundland in Canada, for plunder or for trade. They explored the Russian rivers, founding the kingdoms of Novgorod and Kiev and sailed on to Byzantium. There the emperor kept a squad of Norse warriors, his elite Varangian Guard, and in his mighty cathedral – now the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul – where you can still see Viking runes scratched in the ancient stones.

To learn more about these boats, I drive to the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde. It’s a pretty waterside town on a fjord, where five craft were lifted from the mud in 1962. They had been scuttled as defences across the fjord in the 11th century. Some were sleek warships, others fatter cargo boats. One was built in Ireland. Today they lie next to each other like a fleet of ghosts in the hushed museum building. But their curves are built for speed and waves, their sweeping prows are taller than a man.

Outside on the dock there’s a carpenter’s shop, where techniques of the time are used to build replicas of historic craft. You can buy your own, for anything above £25,000. And the museum allows you to ride in one. I hop into the Embla, along with some visitors from Ireland. It’s a nine-metre inshore vessel with black planked sides, eight rowing benches and a 30cm draft. Such boats were used in the once-Viking Faroe Islands of the North Sea, from ancient times to the 1960s.

Rough-hewn oars are handed out, and the 10 of us pull in a vaguely co-ordinated fashion towards open water. After much laughter and some cursing, we are far enough out for Peter the boatman to raise the sail. It’s a brown square of waterproofed wool that leaves wax on your fingers. Embra surges forward and all is quiet except the slapping of waves on its shallow hull. This must be how it was.

Roskilde became the Viking capital under the splendidly named Harald Bluetooth, a 10th-century king who united the warring Norse clans for the first time into a single kingdom. He also built vast earthern forts all over Denmark, which can still be seen. But the key place to make contact with his reign is a tiny whitewashed church in southern Jutland, and that’s where I go next.

I drive through the lush countryside of Denmark in midsummer. Corn stands high in the square fields, scarlet poppies sprinkled across the green. Little houses of mustard yellow or sea grey stand among fluttering birches. The country is a series of islands linked by bridges, and the first one is 7km (4.3 miles) long, a slender arc whose far end you cannot see when you drive onto it.

The church is in Jelling and Danes revere it as the birthplace of their nation. Here Bluetooth had his first capital, built the largest church in the Norse world and converted his people to Christianity. He marked this with a 10-tonne boulder outside the front door. Runic letters have been carved into one side, proclaiming his achievements. Another side shows the first Scandinavian portrayal of Christ, who is crucified among branches. A third face carries a common pagan motif of a lion fighting a dragon. A similar carving was found on a grave in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, dating from the 11th century. In such places, the connection between pagan and modern worlds can be seen.

But the roots of the Viking culture can be followed deeper to a glass showcase in the Silkeborg Museum, 30 miles further north. Inside the case is the blackened body of a naked man who has been dead for two and a half millennia. He was found by turf-cutters in a bog nearby in 1950, perfectly preserved by the peat. He lies on his left side, curled as though in sleep. You can see his eyebrows, his high Nordic cheekbones, the stubble on his chin. You can stare into the slightly smiling face of a man from 350BC. And then you will notice the leather noose around his neck.

Tollund Man, as he is known, represents the rawness of those early times and the edges of our knowledge. Museum curator Karen Margrethe Boe tells me: “He was hanged and then buried in the bog. We believe this was a ritual death. If you stand at the edge of a bog, what do you see? A mirror of land in water. It could be seen as a sacred place, an entrance to the underworld of the gods. He may have been taking a message to them. In Norse mythology, Odin was the head god. He sacrificed himself to himself, hanging from a sacred tree. So we can say that hanging was a sacred death.”

Similar bog bodies have been found across Scandinavia, Germany, Holland and even England. They date mostly from 500BC to AD100, though Lindow Woman from Cheshire could be as late as AD440. The Viking Age began only a few centuries later and hangings from sacred trees are pictured in Norse tapestries and runestones. Tollund Man is at the root of their beliefs – and perhaps of ours, with those echoes of a wounded god sacrificed on a tree.

The Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney has written a celebrated series of poems about the bog bodies, with “Tollund Man” at its heart. He saw them as emblems of a common culture, a world of the European North to which his people belong. And it was personal. Opening an exhibition at Silkeborg in 1996, he spoke of “being in the presence of a human face which seemed related to me in some very intimate way … the face of an old countryman such as my great-uncle Hughie, a man whom I first saw standing tall in a turf-cart, profiled and gaunt, moustached and remote, as lean-featured in life as he would be when he lay in his coffin in death – exactly as if he were the Tollund Man lying in peace and in profile on the turf of a Jutland bog.”

My final destination is also a resting place. On a windswept hillside beside a fjord in North Jutland lie 700 graves of Vikings. They are circles and ovals of boulders, many shaped like ships, with a taller stone at prow and stern. Inside each circle, a funeral pyre was lit for a villager when they died. Now nothing remains of them but ashes in the earth – and the memory of their ships in stone.

From here at Lindholm Hoje, the Norsemen controlled the best route from the Baltic to the North Sea, and from here their long voyages began. Here they launched those slender craft bound for Scotland, Ireland or England – where they left their mark in our words, our stories and our genes.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Jonathan Lorie travelled as a guest of Visit Denmark (visitden mark.com). Flights to Copenhagen are available from a range of UK airports on easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com); Norwegian (020-8 099 7254; norwegian.no); SAS (020-8990 7000; flysas.com); and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com).

DFDS Seaways (0871 574 7235; dfdsseaways.co.uk) also offers a ferry link from Harwich to Esbjerg.

Visiting there

Viking is at the National Museum in Copenhagen until 17 November (00 45 3313 4411; natmus.dk/en; admission free), before moving to the British Museum in London from 6 March, 2014 (020-7323 8181; britishmuseum.org).

The Frederikssund Vikings Play runs until 14 July this year and then annually in June-July (00 45 4296 9596; vikingespillet.dk).

Staying there

Ibsens Hotel in Copenhagen (00 45 33 95 77 44; ibsenshotel.dk) has doubles from Dk931 (£107), including breakfast.

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