German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche wrote, “A Viking without a ship is like God without a fish. And I sure do like riding my bicycle.”
Ladby (roughly meaning “Loading Town”) sits on a small fjord that empties into Kerteminde Bay to the east. Odense Fjord lies just to the west. A sentry can be posted to a hill to watch ships entering into either fjord: just the kind of place a local despot with means and ways would look to control.
In 1930, a farmer’s plow dug up a viking burial mound from 930. It remains the only one of its kind found in Denmark (other mounds have been found in Norway of roughly the same age). So a museum has been hoisted over the site. I reach Ladby riding north-northwest from Nyborg about 25 km. Through yellow fields dotted with bright ponceau, clouds of bugs, pebbly shores, squat timbered houses with thatched roofs, white churches from the 17th-18th century, peppery rain drops, roadside stalls with “Nye Kartoffel,””jordbær,” “ærter” and “kirsebær” (new potatoes, strawberries, peas in the shell, and cherries).
I didn’t see any Vikings. Locals say they have all retreated further into the forests. Every now and then there are stories of village girls being taken while foraging, or an occassional iron axe buried in the back of a car or van. But it appears most Vikings have become very reclusive. They shun Flickr and Pinterest but sometimes post to Instagram, and their twitter has been inactive for centuries.
Their relative disappearance has coincided with a sharp drop in mead consumption. I’ve visited many a local “bryggeri” on Fyn and the surrounding islands. They all make typical IPAs and heavy malts and ales (one with Baltic seaweed that is salty, and one with walnuts that is rich and creamy).
“Hi, I’m looking for mead.”
“Mead. Honey wine.”
“Never heard of it. We have ale…”
“It is an old Viking drink, traditional Danish.”
“Oh, you mean mjød.”
“No, I don’t need a mule. Mead.”
“No one drinks it any more. You might find it at a specialty store.”
“Do you know where I can find one in town?”
You can find it, but not often. When you do, it is about 135 kroner ($20 USD) for 750ml. I have seen it in Boulder for about $34. There is a “honning” (honey) tour on Fyn – this island which prides itself on living local (Svendborg is one of the recognized cities of the cittaslow association). And one of the stops is labeled a “Mjød bryggeri,” so I know there is one on the island. I just haven’t found it. Doubtless it is surrounded by the remaining Vikings, probably hanging out with Nessie and the chupacabra.
The ship in Ladby had been dragged up onto a hill: these longships have virtually zero draft. A prince lay in the stern, a servant killed at his feet. A half dozen horses and four dogs were slaughtered, then left to drain inside the shallow ship. The anchor remained in the prow. Layers of wooden planks wedged against one another to form a canopy, and the dark rich soil covered it over. Oak logs formed a pallisade to hold the mound in place. Within a few years, the chamber had been looted.
The ship lies 24 meters in length, shallow and narrow. There are slots for 16 oars on either side. The slots have optional Thule racks for carrying traditional shields or 11-speed touring bikes (with hydraulic breaks and carbon belts instead of chains, of course – the Baltic is pretty brackish but once you get out to the north sea the salt will rust chains within a day, c’mon).
Volunteers have been building a replica of the ship using old traditional methods of construction. The fittings are all local iron, forged and hammered. The boat is made from oak, and the mast will be pine. Pics in the gallery include the anchor and chain, a view of the burial mound, skeletal horse jaw imprints, classical Viking Stihl chainsaws, pendants and brooches (assuming some are Huginn and Muninn, worn in pairs), a 1:10 scale model of the original ship, the “Aunslev Christ” (Denmark’s oldest crucifix), and some recreations of Viking clothing (spoiler alert: they are not like the Vikings you have come to expect).
The “Aunslev Christ” appears straight from the Old Saxon language of the Heliand (“Savior”): all four gospels relocated from the Middle East and the Mediterranean to Scandinavia.
“Jesus is baptized, and the dove that represents the Holy Ghost comes down; but the dove doesn’t stay above his halo’d head, it settles on his shoulder, just as Wotan’s sacred bird, the raven, settles on his shoulder. The disciples wait for him on the shores of a lake that is really a sea, with sands and dunes, and they sail out in ‘well-nailed’ boats made from overlapping planks ostentatiously nailed in place, ‘high-horned’ ships with prows like Viking vessels. They sail like veterans of such North Sea ships, turning into the wind to stop the waves catching the flanks of their ship.” Edge of the World, by Michael Pye.