11 August 2009

'A Heavenly Law, Which Long Will Stand'—St Olaf, King of Norway


Today, 29 July on the Church’s calendar, we celebrate the memory of St Olaf (Óláfr Haraldsson), King of Norway (995-1030). He has long been called Rex Perpetuus Norvegiæ, and the great historian, Christopher Dawson, has called him ‘the type and representative of the new [mediæval] ideal of Christian kingship in the Northern lands’ (Religion and the Rise of Western Culture: Gifford Lectures in the University of Edinburgh, 1948-1949 [Garden City, NY: Image, 1958], pp. 95-6).

St Olaf was the son of King Harald Grenske of Norway, but was raised by his mother and stepfather. According to Snorri Sturluson’s ‘Saga of Olaf Haraldson’ in the Heimskringla, ‘Olaf came early to manhood, was handsome in countenance, middle-sized in growth, and was even when very young of good understanding and ready speech’ (Olaf I.1, Samuel Laing’s 1844 translation, here). At the age of twelve he was taken on a viking expedition, and Sturluson quotes the poet Ottar Svarte (Olaf I.4):

Young was the king when from his home
He first began in ships to roam,
His ocean-steed to ride
To Denmark o’er the tide.
Well exercised art thou in truth—
In manhood's earnest work, brave youth!
Out from the distant north
Mighty hast thou come forth.

Concerning St Olaf’s first battle, when his men threw grappling irons onto the ships of a larger viking force and ‘cleared them of men’, Sturluson quotes Sigvat the Skald (Olaf I.5):

They launch his ship where waves are foaming—
To the sea shore
Both mast and oar,
And sent his o’er the seas a-roaming.
Where did the sea-king first draw blood?
In the battle shock
At Sote’s rock;
The wolves howl over their fresh food.

After other battles on the Baltic Sea, Sturluson describes St Olaf’s extensive campaigns fighting the Danes in England, and a sojourn of some months in Normandy. He was said to have planned a voyage to Jerusalem, when he had a dream ‘that there came to him a great and important man, but of a terrible appearance withal, who spoke to him, and told him to give up his purpose of proceeding to that land. “Return back to thy udal, for thou shalt be king over Norway for ever”’ (Olaf I.17). He did not return to Norway until 1015, when he sailed back through ‘waves mast-high . . . breaking round’ (Olaf I.27) and declared himself King. St Olaf obtained the support of the many petty kings of the Norwegian Uplands, whom he promised ‘his perfect friendship, and that he would hold by and improve the country's laws and rights, if he became supreme king of Norway’ (Olaf I.34), and was made King by the general acclamation of a Thing (Olaf I.35).

St Olaf joined battle with the forces of Earl Svein, who had been de facto ruler, on the sea at Nesjar in early 1016, exhorting his men, ‘when the fight becomes hot and the ships are bound together, then let each man show what is in him of manly spirit’ (Olaf I.46). In the end, though Earl Svein escaped, St Olaf dealt him a crushing blow. Sigvat the Skald, who was present, wrote (Olaf I.48):

The shields we brought from home were white,
Now they are red-stained in the fight:
This work was fit for those who wore
Ringed coats-of-mail their breasts before.
Where for the foe blunted the best sword
I saw our young king climb on board.
He stormed the first; we followed him—
The war-birds now in blood may swim.

It’s a bit unclear, but apparently at some point in England, St Olaf ‘became earnestly interested in Christianity’ and was eventually baptised, perhaps at Rouen (Catholic Encyclopedia). Thus, after he became King, Sturluson writes, ‘It was King Olaf's custom to rise betimes in the morning, put on his clothes, wash his hands, and then go to the church and hear the matins and morning mass’ (Olaf II.56). St Olaf ‘bent his whole mind to uprooting heathenism, and old customs which he thought contrary to Christianity’ (Olaf II.56). Although Olaf Trygvason (King of Norway, 995-1000) had begun the work of Christianising Norway, St Olaf Haraldson completed it, ‘breaking the stubborn resistance of the pagan chiefs and countryfolk with fire and sword’ (Dawson, p. 96).

He is the great Norwegian legislator for the Church, and like his ancestor (Olaf Trygvesson), made frequent severe attacks on the old faith and customs, demolishing the temples and building Christian churches in their place. He brought many bishops and priests from England, as King Saint Cnut later did to Denmark. Some few are known by name (Grimkel, Sigfrid, Rudolf, Bernhard). He seems on the whole to have taken the Anglo-Saxon conditions as a model for the ecclesiastical organization of his kingdom. (CE)

Sturluson quotes Sigvat the Skald (in Olaf II.56):

The king, who at the helm guides
His warlike ship through clashing tides,
Now gives one law for all the land—
A heavenly law, which long will stand.

One of the most famous of St Olaf’s Christianising activities is the destruction of an idol of Thor at Gulbrandsdal, in central Norway. Before attending a Thing there, ‘the king was in prayer all the night, beseeching God of His goodness and mercy to release him from evil. When mass was ended, and morning was grey, the king went to the Thing’ (Olaf IV.119). St Olaf saw the locals bearing an enormous wooden idol of Thor, to which it was their custom to offer food and golden jewelry. A local chief then challenged the King and his bishop:

Where now, king, is thy god? I think he will now carry his head lower; and neither thou, nor the man with the horn whom ye call bishop, and sits there beside thee, are so bold to-day as on the former days; for now our god, who rules over all, is come, and looks on you with an angry eye; and now I see well enough that ye are terrified, and scarcely dare to raise your eyes. Throw away now all your opposition, and believe in the god who has all your fate in his hands.

But St Olaf retorted:

Much hast thou talked to us this morning, and greatly hast thou wondered that thou canst not see our God; but we expect that he will soon come to us. Thou wouldst frighten us with thy god, who is both blind and deaf, and can neither save himself nor others, and cannot even move about without being carried; but now I expect it will be but a short time before he meets his fate: for turn your eyes towards the east,—behold our God advancing in great light.

Thus, as all of the people stared at the rising sun, St Olaf’s right-hand man-at-arms struck the idol with an oversized club. As Michael Scott Rohan and Allan Scott describe it in this Christian History article, ‘The rotten wood broke, scattering the gold and spilling out rats (as large as cats) and vermin that had fed on the offerings. The horrified pagans bolted.’ According to Sturluson, however, St Olaf called them back to speak to them, saying:

I do not understand what your noise and running mean. Ye see yourselves what your god can do,—the idol ye adorned with gold and silver, and brought meat and provisions to. Ye see now that the protecting powers who used it were the mice and adders, reptiles and paddocks; and they do ill who trust to such, and will not abandon this folly. Take now your gold and ornaments that are lying strewed about on the grass, and give them to your wives and daughters; but never hang them hereafter upon stock or stone. Here are now two conditions between us to choose upon,—either accept Christianity, or fight this very day; and the victory be to them to whom the God we worship gives it. (Olaf IV.119)

In this way, all of those people were converted to the Christian faith. But unfortunately, St Olaf’s rule did not last long. The Danish king, Canute, bribed his subjects to revolt against him (Olaf VI.166), and he was forced to flee to Kiev, first prophesying the fall of his rival (Olaf VI.190). In Kiev St Olaf was received by his cousin, St Yaroslav the Wise, ‘in the kindest manner, and made him the offer to remain with him, and to have so much land as was necessary for defraying the expense of the entertainment of his followers’ (Olaf VI.191). Sturluson writes:

King Olaf accepted this offer thankfully, and remained there. It is related that King Olaf was distinguished all his life for pious habits, and zeal in his prayers to God. But afterwards, when he saw his own power diminished, and that of his adversaries augmented, he turned all his mind to God's service; for he was not distracted by other thoughts, or by the labour he formerly had upon his hands, for during all the time he sat upon the throne he was endeavouring to promote what was most useful: and first to free and protect the country from foreign chiefs' oppressions, then to convert the people to the right faith; and also to establish law and the rights of the country, which he did by letting justice have its way, and punishing evil-doers. (Olaf VI.191)

Sturluson also relates a miracle performed by St Olaf while in Kiev. When a widow’s son become ill from a boil on his neck and was close to death, his mother went to Queen Ingegerd of Kiev, who sent her to St Olaf, saying, ‘Go to King Olaf, he is the best physician here; and beg him to lay his hands on thy lad, and bring him my words if he will not otherwise do it’ (Olaf VI.200). Although he at first told her to go to a doctor, upon hearing the Queen’s words he layed his hand on the boy’s neck, feeling the boil. ‘Then the king took a piece of bread, laid it in the figure of the cross upon the palm of his hand, and put it into the boy's mouth’, who swallowed it. Immediately the soreness left, and after a few days the boy made a full recovery. According to Sturluson, ‘Then first came Olaf into the repute of having as much healing power in his hands as is ascribed to men who have been gifted by nature with healing by the touch . . . .’ (there is an interesting article here that mentions, among other things, the idea that kings possess a miraculous healing power by virtue of their anointing).

In the end, although St Olaf contemplated going on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and perhaps becoming a monk, ‘yet the thought lay deep in his soul to recover again, if there should be any opportunity for him, his kingdom in Norway’ (Olaf VI.198). Thus, when Canute’s vassal in Norway was lost at sea, St Olaf returned in an attempt to regain the throne.

St Olaf landed with a small force, giving his men the battle cry, ‘Forward, forward, Christian men! cross men! king’s men!’ (Olaf VII.216). He entrusted a large sum of money to one man to be offered for the commemoration of the souls of his enemies who would fall in the battle, trusting that God would make provision for all of those who fought on his side (Olaf VIII.219). He met Canute’s force at Stiklestad on 29 June 1030, his own force of 3,500 strongly outnumbered by Canute’s 13,000, and told his men, ‘With this we may encourage ourselves, that we have a more just cause than the bondes; and likewise that God must either protect us and our cause in this battle, or give us a far higher recompense for what we may lose here in the world than what we ourselves could ask’ (Olaf VIII.223). Many of his subjects blanched to fight the man they knew to be their king, and Sturluson quotes Sigvat (Olaf VIII.238):

I think I saw them shrink with fear
Who would not shrink from foeman’s spear,
When Olaf’s lion-eye was cast
On them, and called up all the past.
Clear as the serpent’s eye—his look
No Throndhjem man could stand, but shook
Beneath its glance, and skulked away,
Knowing his king, and cursed the day.


At last, however, St Olaf was struck in the leg by an axe and staggered over to a rock. Then, being pierced through the belly by a spear weilded by Kalf Arnason and struck through the neck by an unknown assailant, he gave up his soul: ‘These three wounds were King Olaf’s death; and after the king’s death the greater part of the forces which had advanced with him fell with the king’ (Olaf VIII.240). According to Sturluson, after the remaining supporters of the King began to fall back, one of those who fought against him became the first to testify to a post-mortem miracle:

Thorer Hund went to where King Olaf’s body lay, took care of it, laid it straight out on the ground, and spread a cloak over it. He told since that when he wiped the blood from the face it was very beautiful; and there was red in the cheeks, as if he only slept, and even much clearer than when he was in life. The king’s blood came on Thorer’s hand, and ran up between his fingers to where he had been wounded, and the wound grew up so speedily that it did not require to be bound up. This circumstance was testified by Thorer himself when King Olaf’s holiness came to be generally known among the people; and Thorer Hund was among the first of the king’s powerful opponents who endeavoured to spread abroad the king’s sanctity. (Olaf VIII.242)

Concerning the battle, Dawson has commented:

Thus it was an historical realization of the dominant motive of the old epic poetry—the tragedy of loyal heroism defeated by treachery and gold. . . . But in the case of Olaf this ancient tradition of Nordic heroism was united with a new spirit of religious faith. As Olaf’s retainers kept their faith with their lord, so Olaf himself kept faith with the Lord of Heaven. And thus the new religion became the object of a deeper loyalty than the religion of the old gods had ever evoked. (p. 96)

St Olaf’s relics were taken to a nearby house, and later to the town of Nidaros (modern-day Trondheim). A miraculous spring appeared where his body had lain, to be later covered by a chapel. By the winter of 1031, ‘many in the Throndhjem land began to declare that Olaf was in reality a holy man, and his sanctity was confirmed by many miracles’ as people began to ask for his intercessions (Olaf VIII.254). When his relics were disinterred that year, he was found to be wholly incorrupt, with cheeks ‘as red as if he had but just fallen asleep’ (Olaf VIII.258), and his hair found to be impervious to fire. Sigvat wrote (Olaf VIII.259):

I lie not, when I say the king
Seemed as alive in every thing:
His nails, his yellow hair still growing,
And round his ruddy cheek still flowing,
As when, to please the Russian queen,
His yellow locks adorned were seen;
Or to the blind he cured he gave
A tress, their precious sight to save.

According to Sturluson, the Thing, the bishop, and the Danish usurper alike determined that King Olaf should be considered a man truly holy’ (Olaf VIII.258). He was moved into St Clement’s Church in Nidaros and interred near the high altar, under an elabourate shrine, where ‘Many kinds of miracles were soon wrought by King Olaf’s holy remains.’ Dawson points out:

St Olaf quickly took the place of Thor as the patron of the farmers, their champion against trolls and witches, and the ideal type of the Northern warrior. The national code of law became known as the laws of St Olaf, and the kings of Norway were regarded as the heirs and representatives of St Olaf . . . . (p. 98)

The great American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wrote a beautiful ‘Saga of King Olaf’ (1863) which highlights the confrontation between paganism and Christianity (Favorite Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1947], pp. 64-110). In part X, ‘Raud the Strong’, he writes:

‘All the old gods are dead,
All the wild warlocks fled;
But the White Christ lives and reigns,
And throughout my wide domains
His Gospel shall be spread!’
On the Evangelists
Thus swore King Olaf. (p. 83)

In conclusion, here is the Idiomelon in Tone 6 at Matins, from the Akolouthia for St Olaf by Reader Isaac Lambertsen:

Let us bless wondrous Olav the King, the warrior of Christ, courageous in battle, who in virtue was harder than adamant, the valiant champion of the Church of God, the unshakable tower of piety, who was shown to be a martyr for the Christian Faith, and standeth ever before the throne of Christ, praying on our behalf.

5 comments:

Benjamin Ekman said...

Thank you so much for this very rich post. I'm ashamed to say I've never really read up on this great saint of my brother people to the west.
You mention Queen Ingegerd of Kiev who of course was the daughter of the Swedish king St Olof Skötkonug. What is interesting is that she was engaged to be married with St Olaf of Norway, but her father St Olof quickly married her off with Yaroslav instead. When Yaroslav died Ingegerd became a nun under the name Anna, and was later venerated as a saint. Part of her relic was returned to Sweden this spring, as a gift from the Moscow Patriarchate. She is venerated as the patron saint of Orthodoxy in Sweden. (The idea that St Anna and Ingegerd are the same person is disputed on the english wiki-page about her, something that I've never heard before)

once again: thanks for your work with these posts!

Ian Climacus said...

As Benjamin wrote, I was unaware of St Olaf: thank you.

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you for your kind comments, gentlemen.

Benjamin> It's nice to hear from a real Northman from the fjords of Scandinavia on this post! To tell the truth, I had heard all of this about St Anna, but after seeing the Wikipedia article, I decided I'd like to do some research on the whole thing before I go posting about it. I at least like to have the tradition straight, even if in the end it doesn't quite gel with what the historians think. The whole issue of St Anna is especially interesting to me though because my father has traced one strand of our family tree back to St Yaroslav!

Ian> Always glad to 'raise awareness', as usual!

Christopher said...

Dear brother,

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Thanks so much for your post. It is well written and very edifying.

St.Olaf pray to God for us!

in Christ,
dn.christopher

aaronandbrighid said...

Dear Fr Deacon,

You are very welcome. I am only sorry it's so long, but I got carried away. I imagine it taxed many readers!

in Christ,
Aaron