Once upon a time in Scandinavia, a country emerged where the Covid restrictions that many other nations are still living under were completely lifted.
Denmark’s decision to become the first European Union member to fully relax Covid-19 rules is thanks in large part to the successful way local traditions of samfundssind or “social mindedness” have helped stop the spread of the virus.
With Covid passes no longer required to enter restaurants and nightclubs, Copenhagen is open and ready for business, its friendly citizens primed to welcome new and returning visitors to enjoy its understated charm.
A fairy tale ending to a dark chapter? It would certainly be apt in the Danish capital where few things are as central to culture as fairy tales. Especially those by Hans Christian Andersen.
Although the author of classics such as “The Little Mermaid” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” died nearly 150 years ago, his spirit is very much alive in modern Denmark.
And anyone encountering performer Torben Iversen could be forgiven for thinking Andersen is very much alive in person.
Iversen, who can regularly be found dressing and speaking like Andersen, along with a band of fairytale enthusiasts have taken it upon themselves to keep the author’s stories alive for future generations.
“Somebody has to act Andersen, to travel the world to present the stories,” says Iversen, dressed in full 19th century garb. “I don’t say to people ‘I am Andersen’. I play Andersen because Andersen said ‘to travel is to live’. I say to play is to live. So, that’s what I do.”
Iversen founded the Hans Christian Andersen Parade in 1988 and has taken his show, featuring 20 characters from Andersen’s fairytales, all around the world. It’s back home in Denmark, however, where he has chosen to continue his work, today conducting special guided tours around the Andersen Museum in Odense, west of Copenhagen.
Andersen’s writing and stories are, says Iversen, all about ensuring we keep our sense of wonder and imagination beyond the early years of childhood.
“I will tell you that you shall always make your own life a fairytale. If you remember that, that will be the most important thing.”
The tales, in their balance between light and dark, are part of the human spirit.
“[People] get vitamins for their life, for their mind, for their thinking, for their heart, for their feelings,” says Iversen of Andersen’s work. “That’s what art is all about, that is what culture is all about, vitamins for your life.”
A date with a Viking
If tales of mermaids, naked emperors and princesses are deep within Danish culture, then so too is the long and storied history of the Vikings. These marauders were dominant throughout much of northern Europe throughout the early Middle Ages, traveling as far as Russia, Greenland and North America. Their pillaging has led to a reputation which endures to this day, one which has violence at its heart.
It’s a reputation that flamboyant artist, designer and photographer Jim Lyngvild is trying to change, attempting to shift perceptions and showcase the Vikings’ Norse beliefs and pagan rituals.
For Lyngvild, this is personal. He is descended from Viking royalty and has the family tree to prove it. But his skills as a designer mean he’s taken things to the next level, building his own Viking castle and even a temple to the Norse gods which is, he says, the first to be built on Scandinavian grounds in a thousand years. It was completed in 2016.
“My goal here in life is to not promote, that’s the wrong word, but to tell people about old Norse beliefs and Vikings. And make them less stereotyped.”
“Vikings have been taken hostage by the stupidest of people,” adds Lyngvild. “The Nazis used the symbols… So, I am torn between being extremely proud of my inheritance, but also being extremely aware that nothing evil will come from it.”
Lyngvild’s extravagant take on Viking history has seen him become one of Denmark’s most renowned people. He wears the clothes, he has taken on the religious beliefs and has created magic around this often misunderstood part of Danish history. But he has also invited Syrian refugees to a reconstructed Iron Age village in Odense to give them an experience of Danish culture. It speaks to his singular approach to showing off the best of Denmark.
“We have this very conservative, ‘you have to do this in a very strict old way’ [approach]. But we also love the cracks in the canvas where the wild horses can run through,” he says.
Science challenging history
While Lyngvild’s proud take on Denmark’s Viking history is challenging stereotypes, new research suggests that much of what we know about these plunderers and empire builders may not be as concrete as once thought.
Step forward Eske Willerslev, a DNA scientist and director of the University of Copenhagen’s Centre for GeoGenetics. Eske, a former adventurer who once led expeditions through Siberia and Greenland, has been blowing up a thousand years of Viking history through his cutting-edge research.
His work has shown that Vikings weren’t just Scandinavians. Analysis of 400 skeletons from burial sites from across Scotland and Greenland has in fact found that many of those buried had no Scandinavian genetic history, with some being locals and others even having connections to southern Europe and Asia.
“Of course there are Scandinavians, Danes, that are Vikings, many of them. But there are also Vikings that have no genetic ancestry coming from Scandinavia,” explains Eske.
It appears that Viking was more of a job description, a way of life rather than a quirk of birth. These skeletons were buried using Viking rituals, with the same swords and shields you’d expect to find in Scandinavia.
“Our whole identity as Scandinavians… is based on the Viking myth. But you know as a researcher, what is your goal? Your goal is to find out what actually happened rather than ‘what do we believe happened or imagine happened.’”
And Eske has one other surprise.
“[They] were less blonde and blue eyed than Scandinavians are today.”
It seems our preconceptions about this cornerstone of Danish history have been well and truly blown out of the water.
A rebellious side
Copenhagen has developed a reputation internationally for its simplicity, consensus mentality and reasonableness. But that’s not to say it doesn’t have a rebellious side. And nowhere is that more in evidence than Christiania.
The Danish capital’s famous freetown dates back to 1971, when a group of free minded settlers broke into the Bådmandsgade military barracks and set up what has become one of the world’s most famous experiments in collective living.
During that time, Christiania has become known for its free and easy approach to life, with critics highlighting issues with open drug use and the area’s links with organized crime. Visitors are warned not to take pictures around its infamous Pusher Street, with a list of rules visible to all those who enter this unique corner of Copenhagen.
Since 2011, however, the area has been owned by the Foundation Freetown Christiania, a group committed to protecting their way of life and the place they have called home for 50 years.
So, what makes it so alluring after all these years?
Tanja Zebell is a long time resident and remains committed to the cause of communal living and doing things differently. Slipping through Christiania’s quiet streets on roller skates, she is a picture of the rebel spirit that still endures here. She is passionate about the commune where she lives and especially the art which adorn the area’s walls. The graffiti, she explains, is all part of the charm of the place.
“You look at what is already painted there, and then you ask yourself, ‘can I do this better?’ If the answer is no, then you will not overpaint,” she says, firmly.
This polite rebellion is particularly Danish in its sensibility. One side rebels, the other side tolerates. One side pushes, the other side acknowledges. It’s what goes to make Copenhagen and Denmark at large such a warm and welcoming place.
In the less rebellious surroundings of a traditional Danish bakery, globetrotting Danish correspondent and author Ulla Terkelsen, is in a reflective mood. Ulla has worked and traveled all over the world, but still has a deep affection for the place she called home for the first 20 years of her life. Like Tanja, she loves this city.
“I think it is a very beautiful country. I think it is also a very pragmatic, sensible country,” she says over traditional Weinerbrod.
“When you are here, you are as if you’ve stepped off the world. The world is dangerous and different and you step off it and step into a very pretty garden. Very well-kept where everything is sweet and nice. But outside the garden gate, there’s something else going on.”
Terkelsen says that, as she wanders the pretty cobbled streets of her home city, she grows emotional thinking of the connections to family and her past, tapping into a wider sense of Copenhagen being a place to come back to.
That sense is perhaps best summed up in the fairytales which originate from these shores. The safety, enchantment and wonder of home, but with a twist in the tale, whether it’s in rebellious Christiania or the new science revealing the truth about the Vikings and Denmark’s past. It’s fair to say that if you visit Copenhagen, you can live happily ever after.