Danish Myths and Legends : King Dan
The story of King Dan is part of the legendary underpinnings of the Danish national self-image. Essentially, it is the story of the eponymous hero/king Dan, and of how Denmark (or Danmark, as the country is named in Danish) acquired its name.
All names and placenames are given in the English form where applicable - see the glossary of names/placenames at the end.
The story is told that, in olden days, there were three brothers: Dan, Nor and Østen. They were the sons of King Ypper, who lived in Uppsala in Sweden, which was named for him.
The brothers went their separate ways, settling each in a different country. Dan went to Denmark, Nor to Norway, and Østen stayed in Sweden, in the countries to the East.1
At that time, the realm of Denmark did not yet exist. Dan ruled only over the island of Zealand and the lesser isles.2 Jutland, Funen and Scania were each separate kingdoms. The Jutes were, at that time, at war with the German king. They built up earthworks and a palisade along their southern border, in that place where Queen Thyra later caused Dannevirke3 to be built. They named this wall Kovirke.4 But, when the German king came with a mighty host, they sent messengers to King Dan asking for his help.
Dan went to war with the Germans, and a great battle was fought before the wall. Most of the enemy fell, "biting the grass", as the saying goes, and the rest fled. When the Jutes saw how brave King Dan was, they led him to their thing-place, and placed him upon a great stone, proclaiming him their king. This stone was since called Daneryge (ryge being a Jutish word for "large stone"), and it was there, later, that Danish kings were acclaimed. Daneryge was to be found on the the thing-place outside Viborg, and the entire place has also been called Danerlyngen.5
When the people of Funen and Scania heard of this, they also elected Dan their king. Dan now summoned the best men in all the realm, and he said to them: "This land is fair and fertile, yet it has one flaw: it lacks for a name."
They answered him: "You are Dan, and therefore the realm shall be called Danmark6, and this name shall last for so long as the world lasts."
King Dan built himself a royal palace at Lejre near Roskilde Fjord. He was called Dan the Grand or the Mighty7, because no man before him had had such a great domain. After his death, the Danes built a barrow. They placed him in the tomb chamber fully armed and arrayed for war, mounted on his horse. Then they cast earth upon the tomb, making a mighty burial mound.
1 In Danish, Østen means "to the East". Notice that Nor becomes the eponymous ancestor of the Norwegians.
2 The "lesser isles" being Lolland, Falster, Møn, and the other minor islands around them and Zealand/Sjælland.
3 Dannevirke ("Danish Wall") was a defensive wall/earthwork along the southern border of Jutland, which played a significant part in Danish national defense, from the 8th century until the 19th century.
4 Kovirke ("Cow Wall") is one of the older and lesser sections of Dannevirke.
5 Danerlyngen translates as "the Danish meadow". Lyng is the Danish word for "heather".
6 Despite this pretty tale, Danmark would appear to be named for the Danish people, and not this mythical eponymous founder. The character of Dan appears to have been made up out of whole cloth, possibly by early French chroniclers in the early 11th century, to explain the national origin of the Danish vikings that were such frequent (and unwelcome) visitors to northern France. Biblical and classical influences can be detected in most versions of the tale.
7 Dan Mikil-lati in the original Old Danish version, Dan den Storladne in modern Danish.
Glossary of names and placenames:
Danish / English
Danmark / Denmark
Sverige / Sweden
Norge / Norway
Sjælland / Zealand
Jylland / Jutland
Fyn / Funen
Skåne / Scania
Jyde / Jute
Dane(r) / Dane(s)
The Lejre Chronicle (c. 1180).
Saxonis Grammatici Gesta Danorum (c. 1200).