Tag Archives: vikings

Rethink Aarhus: European Capital of Culture 2017

​It is nearly a week ago now that we came to Aarhus.

Aarhus is one of the oldest cities in Scandinavia, estimated to be founded at the mouth of Aarhus Å (the river) during the Viking Age around 770. It was named Aros which meant mouth of the river. The foundation stone of the Cathedral in the centre of the old town was laid in 1201, and following the Reformation in 1536, the town gradually grew into a merchant town. In the mid 19th century a major infrastructure project expanded the harbour and Aarhus gradually grew to be the second largest city in Denmark. Today it is home to over 300,000 people, many of whom are students.

And did I mention there is a world-class library right on the harbour, DOKK1, which is where I spent the last three days at the Next Library 2017 conference​​.

Stay tuned for more about this fantastic place.

Reading history

 

Christian Albrecht von Benzon (1816-1849) 1846 painting: The death of Canute IV of Denmark in the Church of Saint Albanus (1086). Photo: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christian-albrecht-von-benzon,_the_death_of_Canute_the_Holy.jpg

Christian Albrecht von Benzon (1816-1849) 1846 painting: The death of Canute IV of Denmark in the Church of Saint Albanus (1086). Photo: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Christian-albrecht-von-benzon,_the_death_of_Canute_the_Holy.jpg

How’s the new year resolution going, I hear you ask. It has been a while since I wrote about what I read. And I have been reading. 16 books so far in 2015.

Recently, I have read historical fiction. I have a keen interest in Danish history – I have traced my roots to the history books. I am fascinated by writers who can animate historic characters in historic scenes and make it seem real and believable. Of course, historical fiction is just that, fiction, and should not be mistaken for real history. But when history is told in a fictional genre, it is certainly easier to remember who is who in a turbulent time of Danish history.

Under Christiansborg Slot that houses the Danish Parliament, you can see the ruins of the previous castle, Københavns Slot, including the foundations of Blåtårn, the prison where Christian IV's daughter Leonora Christina was imprisoned for 22 years. Photo: Mick. 2015

Under Christiansborg Slot that houses the Danish Parliament, you can see the ruins of the previous castle, Københavns Slot, including the foundations of Blåtårn, the prison where Christian IV’s daughter Leonora Christina was imprisoned for 22 years. Photo: Mick. 2015

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Time, language and war

200 years ago, in 1864 Danish soldiers fought and lost a bloody war at Dannevirke - Denmark commemorates with a new drama series, 1864. Photo: Mick 2007.

200 years ago, in 1864 Danish soldiers fought and lost a bloody war at Dannevirke – Denmark commemorates with a new drama series, 1864. Photo: Mick 2007.

Reckoning of time is an arbitrary thing. The way we have arranged the days and months follows roughly the seasons, though the messiness of the natural world require us to make adjustments like leap years and daylight saving. Despite the word’s relationship with ‘moon’, the month never aligns with the lunar cycle and one can never rely on the length of the month. We count the years from the purported birth of a little boy in Bethlehem. Yet, what is a year in the timescale of the human species, the planet earth, the universe? Completely insignificant.

Imperfect as our reckoning of time is, we use time as markers to celebrate or commemorate events of the past. This year, 2014, has seen some important ones come around.

Thanks to the early Icelandic tradition of recording and writing down stories, the first edition of Saxo’s Chronicles of Denmark, Gesta Danorum, was first published in Paris 500 years ago in 1514. This amazing work covers Danish history from the ‘beginning of time’ with the mythological king Dan and his brother Angel to Saxo’s contemporary times when the Danes defeated the Wends of the Baltic in 1185. Written in the 12th century, Saxo’s manuscript showed great command of language and linguistics and hence he was given the name Grammaticus for the publication. While he probably had access to other historical sources, like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, the first many chapters cover the kings of Viking folklore rather than historic fact.

Though written in the 12th century, Saxo's Danmarks Krønike was published in 1514, 500 years ago. Photo: Mick 2014

Though written in the 12th century, Saxo’s Danmarks Krønike was published in 1514, 500 years ago. Photo: Mick 2014

Earlier this year I followed Michael Hirst’s historical drama, Vikings about Ragner Lodbrok. My son and I had already studied Saxo’s writings about Lodbrok when he did an assignment on the Viking king in grade 4 and was keen to go to Europe to study Medieval history when he finished school. Vikings is amazingly good drama, though Hirst probably exercised as much artistic licence as Saxo.

Fast forward three hundred years and 1814 was the year when Denmark ceded Norway. Since 1397 Norway, Sweden and Denmark had been in a union, the Kalmar Union. While Sweden and Norway remained separate countries, they were ruled by a single monarch, Queen Margrethe I of Denmark. In the 1520s, the Swedes got so jack of King Christian II – the tyrant king – that rebellion resulted in the Stockholm Bloodbath and the Swedes elected their own king, King Gustav of the Vasa. In 1536 the Danish Privy Council declared Norway a province of Denmark – an aggressive move indeed, which meant Greenland, Iceland and Faroe Islands came under Danish control, rather than Norwegian. In 1814, the Treaty of Keil forced Denmark to cede Norway to Sweden, but the Norwegians never accepted Sweden as their ruler and approved its own constitution and its own king, Christian Frederik, 200 years ago this year.

Wanting to shake off the shackles of the Danes, Norway set to change the official language from Danish to the two forms of Norwegian that are the official languages today. In a parallel across the world, 1814 marked the first time when missionaries in New Zealand tried to document the indigenous Māori language. Today New Zealand has two official languages: English and Māori. Language is indeed power.

The bold decisions about imposing Danish language on Germans in Holstein led to the bloody war of 1864, 150 years ago. Photo: Lone 2013.

The bold decisions about imposing Danish language on Germans in Holstein led to the bloody war of 1864, 150 years ago. Photo: Lone 2013.

The once mighty empire continued to shrink through the 19th century. 150 years ago in 1864, Denmark lost a war against Prussian soldiers – and the reason for the war was simplistically speaking: language. Emboldened by the victories against German sympathisers in the Duchies of Schleswig and Holstein in the Three Year War (1848-51), a nationalistic government not only formalised the inclusion of Schleswig into the Kingdom of Denmark, but also imposed Danish as the official language across the kingdom. This was as a provocation gladly accepted by the Prussian emporor and Bismarch and an uneven and swift war was fought at Dybbøl Mølle – which Denmark lost, together with the Duchies. The Danish-German border was drawn at Kongeåen and it was not until the referendum after World War II that northern Schleswig became part of Denmark again and the current border was established.

Perhaps the memory of this devastating war of 1864 was what caused Denmark to stay well out of the Great War, which has its centenary this year. World War I was the war to end all wars. Its comnemoration is a big deal in Australia. Only recently independent from the Mother Country following the 1901 Australian Constitution, Europe was still the centre of the universe and young Australians joined up in droves to serve alongside with the British against the Germans and the Turks. Australian slang for soldiers are diggers – thanks to the endless harrowing experience in the trenches. We remember up to 62,000 Australians who died in a senseless war that killed 16 million people.

Even if time is arbitrarily reckoned and a lifetime is insignificant in the history of the world, the markers we create to remember are important to our self-perception and identity. Danes proudly espouse their viking roots, verifiable in early literature, and perhaps our fallen soldiers are having a great time in Valhalla. Australians identify with the larrakin diggers who bravely fought hard in someone elses war – and remember those that the years will not weary. We count the years so that we remember and make meaning of it all.

Mortality and the art of living

The Danish birth certificate in Jelling. Photo: Mick 2005

Denmark’s birth certificate in Jelling. Photo: Mick 2005

It seems to me death is all around me. First, tragically, actor Robin Williams commits suicide, which makes me wonder how could such a funny man, who seemed to be able to summon joy for himself and other people, do that to the people he loves? Then, horrifyingly, American journalist James Foley is decapitated by members of Islamic State, which makes me wonder how people can hate so much to justify this violence? In Ferguson, Missouri police kill 18-year-old Michael Brown, sparking racial unrest, which makes me wonder why the colour of your skin should determine your life chances. Next, the 1975 Klaus Rifbjerg radio drama, De Beskedne, that I was listening to abruptly ends with the sad death of the family patriarch, which makes me wonder about the cleverness of writers to make you care so much about a character that you feel sad with his or her fictional passing. Finally, I see on Facebook that a childhood friend, the drummer of my brother’s teenage band, passed away before turning 50 years old, which makes me wonder about life’s fragility and my own mortality.

It happens all the time, death, it is a consequence of living; in its own way it is probably the very realisation of life’s finiteness that gives us motivation to live well. In a paradoxical sense, the living is so much harder to do than the dying. Precisely I was granted life through the amazing fact of the evolutionary success of every ancestor that has come before me: each one of them, right back to the primordial soup, were successful in navigating life and surviving at least until they could reproduce. How to make sense of the millisecond of life I have on life’s stage in the long history of the world? How to be secure in the knowledge of my own value and worth in the bigger scheme of things; how to live well; how to make a difference and make a mark? And then you die. And most of us will die twice – once those who remember us also die we will finally slip into oblivion.

Death is the certainty of living. Photo: Mick 2005

Death is the certainty of living. Photo: Mick 2005

In 1979, death first came close to my life when my grandfather, Morfar, died. It was suddenly, without warning; a heart attack, as he sat up in the bed in my mother’s sister’s house. I loved Morfar, who was always warm, funny and willing to read us Asterix comics because he himself was deeply interested in ancient history. He took my brother and I to see the archeological diggings for the remains of 1000 year old Gorm den Gamle in the church in his home town, Jelling. In viking times Jelling was the residence of the Danish monarch and to this day, the rune stone known as Denmark’s birth certificate still stands here. Sadly, at the time of Morfar’s funeral, Jelling’s church was still closed for these important investigations and we sat in a neighbouring community, singing for him and ourselves with our tears, memories and gradual realisation about life’s fragility, our own mortality, how irreversible death is and how long ‘forever’ really lasts.

In 2003, the last of my grandparents, my beloved grandmother, Farmor, died. I loved Farmor who had simply always been there for us. She had reminded me that I was going to come back to Denmark when my kids were ready for school – which I never did. I was across the world in Australia and could not be at her funeral. It was the end of an era. My father said to me: “My generation is next in line”. Ten years later he passed away and, given the fact that my mother died in 1997, I urgently feel my generation is now next in line. The untimely death of someone I knew when I was just a kid, someone just two years older than me, brought this fact straight home to me.

Next on my bucket list is our one year stay in Denmark in 2015. I will be home again, after 23 1/2 years living in another country. 23 1/2 years are roughly half my lived life. Does that mean I am Danish and Australian in equal portions? I look forward to reconnect with my culture, my family and friends. I especially look forward to spending more time with my nieces and nephews. Indeed, in the midst of all the mortality, a brand new member of my Danish family was also born. I cannot wait to meet you, Lillepigen.