A mysterious queen named Thyra who lived during the Viking era may have been one of the founders of what is now Denmark. Multiple commemorative “runestones” mention her by name, suggesting she was a central figure.
“Because of the many runestones erected in honour of Thyra, we can conclude that she must have been very powerful and that she came from a very powerful family,” says Lisbeth Imer at the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen.
Denmark’s Viking Age lasted from around AD 800 to 1050. A key figure was Harald “Bluetooth”, who was king from about AD 958 until his death in 987. The Bluetooth wireless technology standard is named after him. Harald’s parents were King Gorm, who came to power in around 936, and Queen Thyra.
Under these two generations of monarchs, Denmark became a unified state. Previously, it was divided into smaller kingdoms or territories. “We have no idea of how many, and who may have governed them, because of the lack of written sources,” says Imer. The lack of records also means we know almost nothing about Gorm and Thyra.
However, Imer had reason to suspect that Thyra was a major figure. In Viking-era Denmark, powerful people were often commemorated with runestones: tall slabs of granite with runes engraved on them. The name “Thyra” is found on four runestones from the mid-900s. Two are from Jelling, where the monarchs lived, and were erected by Gorm and Harald. The other two, the Læborg and Bække 1 runestones, were found elsewhere and seem to have been carved by an unknown individual called Ravnunge-Tue.
To find out if the runestones referred to the same Thyra, Imer and her colleagues set out to determine if they had all been carved by the same craftsperson. This would suggest that they were all produced around the same time and probably referred to the same person. To find out, the researchers examined the methods of engraving and the sizes and shapes of the runes.
One of the Jelling runestones was too poorly preserved to get reliable results, but the other was in good condition and the style of its engravings matched the Læborg runestone. This suggests that Thyra was commemorated not just by her immediate family, but by other people elsewhere in the country.
Thyra may not have been unusual in Norse societies, says Imer. “Elite women probably had much power,” she says. “A large burial mound in Oseberg in Norway contained the bodies of two women, who must have had some of the highest positions in the community.”