A Viking King, A Crisis of Faith, and Twenty-five Years of Marriage

My husband Dave held a visitor center’s map of Sigtuna, Sweden, in his hands. Viking runestones marked the route, across a paper landscape of Sigtuna. We were on a search to find the stones embedded around town. Our twenty-five-year anniversary trip in Sweden ended tomorrow, and we still had not discovered remnants of our Viking heritage.

Dave pointed to a small square drawn on the map. “Let’s start here,” he said. I waited. “Then, let’s go this way.” He ran his finger along a series of ebony slashes, a walking path, and turned to follow it. My footfalls stepped in line with his, along a primeval path littered with century-old businesses. Dave had an excellent sense of direction—much better than my own—and over the years, I had learned not to question it. 

The dotted lines of the map led us to the manicured grounds of a quaint, medieval church bearing the name of St. Mary’s. Red brick with an exterior facade of blind arches decorated the sanctuary constructed in 1255. A Viking runestone marked a corner across a gravel driveway near a cemetery of beveled markers formed of crumbling stone. 

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Unmoving, and without a word, we stood in front of a runic inscription engraved with incised and carved patterns painted in red. Brawny Scandinavians, wearing leather and hyde, equipped with swords or battle axes, leaped through my thoughts. I pictured Barbarians as they raised the runestone in honor of its owner, the sacred inscriptions unknown to me. I wished for an understanding of the language. I swung my camera from my side and recorded the runic alphabet ingrained into the rock.

After, the runestone map led us to an age-old rock next to a shambled place of worship and another one perched high on the wall of crumbling sanctuary dating back to the Middle Ages. Informative plaques translated the runic inscriptions found on the memorial stones. In total, there were fifteen runestones on the walk. 

A cobblestone sidewalk surrounded the last stone amongst the residential homes of Sigtuna. I lowered my head and read the information board next to it:

“Runestones are not gravestones in the usual sense, but memorial stones. Most of them are explicitly Christian monuments, whether they bear crosses or not. The Viking Age tradition to erect memorial runestones began in Denmark c. 965 when King Harald Bluetooth had just been baptized, and to mark the arrival of a new age, he commanded the construction of a memorial runestone” (Sigtuna Museum). 

“Dave, look,” my voice and eyebrows raised in excitement as I tapped my finger on the board. “They mention our ancestor, Harald Bluetooth,” I said. 

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He hurried to my side. “Let me see.” His eyes scanned tiny, ebony print on the plaque. A few minute marks passed. I waited.

A smile spread across his face. My eyes blinked. I grinned in response to his joy, and said, “Point to Harald Bluetooth’s name on the board, and I’ll take your photo.” The camera viewfinder met my eye. Dave straightened his posture and posed. I said, “We have to tell your sister Diane about this when getting home.” The camera shutter clicked three times. I culled through the new photos. 

Silence fell upon us. The Viking king had shed a lifetime of pagan rituals and beliefs for Christianity. Questions about Harald Bluetooth overwhelmed me: Why did he do it? Was his decision the root of chaos or peace? Were his family and friends angry about his decision? Did his decision divide them? Or did they support and sustain him as a great Viking king?

Dave and I have questioned a religion which defined almost five decades of our lives. Our crisis of faith and twenty-five-year anniversary shared the same year.  Now, in front of a plaque about Harald Bluetooth, my doubts, and fears—doubts and fears I still hold, but am not ready to reveal—toward my faith, and periodically our marriage swelled. I thought, Harald Bluetooth was not much different than so many of us today. Even a mighty Viking king was trying to find his way. 

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Dave interrupted my thoughts. “Ingrid, let’s go down this narrow street.” He motioned to a small road in front of him. “It leads to the water.” 

“Okay,” I said and gathered up all of my camera equipment. Dave waited, then without asking, took the camera backpack and swung it over his shoulder. The sun dropped and brisk air rushed in as layers of wheat gold appeared in the sky. The afternoon light glowed around his silhouette. My hand slipped into Dave’s familiar grasp, and we mozied to a weathered dock, and thought about ancient Vikings.