Olaf the Holy

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OLAF THE HOLY (r. 10151030), ruler of Norway and Scandinavia's first saint. A missionary king who strove to impose religious unity on Norway, Olaf had great influence on the practice of traditional religion in Norway and Iceland. Olaf (also called Olaf the Stout and Saint Olaf) was a descendant of Harald I (known as Fairhair). He became a Viking at a young age, harrying ships in the Baltic and then off the coast of England. Later he fought for the duke of Normandy. Spurred by a prophetic dream, Olaf began his return to Norway to become king, stopping on the way to spend the winter of 10131014 in Rouen, where he was baptized.

In 1028 Olaf was forced to flee Norway because of conflicts with powerful Norwegian chieftains who were allied with the Danish king, Knut. While in exile he had another dream: that it was God's will that he reconquer Norway. Accordingly, he returnedwith Swedish helponly to meet defeat and lose his life at the Battle of Stiklastaðir in 1030. Soon after his death Olaf was sanctified. His former enemies in Norway rapidly became disenchanted with the new Danish rulers, ousting them and declaring Olaf's son Magnus king.

The question of why Olaf expended so much effort to bring Christianity to Norway is an interesting one, especially since his mission eventually destroyed him. Monarchy was vital for Christian ideology at that time. The throne represented justice and peace. In becoming a Christian, Olaf became joined to a more enlightened worldmaterially richer and with higher idealsthan Scandinavia then was. He sought to create peace, and for this he needed the support of the great leaders. Approaching his goal with missionary zeal, Olaf converted his countrymen ruthlessly and confiscated the property of those who refused to convert.

The key to Olaf's success lay in his effectiveness at destroying the old religion, which he accomplished in part by exposing it to ridicule. On one occasion, reports reached the king that during the winter the farmers of Hálogaland were holding great feasts to appease the Æsir, who had become angry because the farmers had let themselves be baptized by Olaf. In this feast of propitiation cattle and horses were slaughtered and their blood spread on pedestals for the purpose of improving harvests. When Olaf summoned the farmers to account for their acts, however, they would admit only to communal drinking.

In a similar incident, the farmers of Mærin denied having included sacrifices to the Germanic gods in their Yule feasts. Olaf continued forcing the inland Norwegians to convert until Dala-Gudbrand called up a large force of farmers to oppose the king and proposed this plan of action: "If we bear Thor [Þórr] out from our temple, where he stands here in this farm and has always helped us, and if he sees Olaf and his men, they will melt away, and he and his men become as nothing" (Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla 811). This plan was accepted. And when Olaf arrived he learned that the farmers had a god who was visibly present, everyday, made up in the image of Þórr: "He has a hammer in his hand and is of great size and hollow inside, and he stands on a pedestal. He receives four loaves of bread every day and also fresh meat" (Heimskringla 1316). The following morning the farmers carried out the huge statue of Þórr, and Dala-Gudbrand challenged Olaf, asking him where his god was. Olaf instructed a follower to strike the idol with a club if the farmers were to look away. Then he instructed the farmers to look to the east if they wanted to see the Christian godjust as the sun came over the horizon. At this moment Olaf's follower struck the idol, and as it fell to pieces, out sprang adders and other snakes and mice as big as cats. When the frightened farmers tried to flee, Olaf offered two alternatives, do battle or accept Christianity, whereupon they all accepted the new faith.


Fully one-third of Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla is taken up by the saga of Olaf the Holy. It has been ably translated by Lee M. Hollander in Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway by Snorri Sturluson, with introduction and notes (Austin, 1964). Marlene Ciklamini has one chapter on Olaf in her Snorri Sturluson (Boston, 1978), and Jan de Vries's Altnordische Literaturgeschichte, 2 vols., 2d ed. (Berlin, 19641967) contains useful information on the literary traditions on Olaf. For historical details of Olaf's life and reign, see Erik Gunnes's Riks-samling og Kristning 8001177 (Oslo, 1976), volume 2 of the series "Norges Historie," edited by Knut Mykland.

John Weinstock (1987)