Monday, August 14, 2006

The not-so-saintly Olaf of Norway

The King of Norway usually called St Olaf, was born in 995 CI and was through his lifetime known as Olaf the Stout. He was the great-grandson of the powerful Harald Fairhair, the warrior-king who at one time welded together all of Norway although the unification only lasted a short time. His father, Harald Grenski, died before Olaf was born, but his mother, Aasta, soon provided the baby boy with a royal stepfather, Sigurd Syr, King of Oppland.

When Olaf was still a small boy, another Olaf came to visit. Olaf Tryggvasson, king of another part of Norway, who had spent his boyhood in Novgorod and later fought under the Roman Emperor, Otto III (980-1002). He had become a christian and at that time travelled throughout Norway, preaching christianity to whomsoever would listen as well as to many who didn't or only reluctantly did because of the reputation of the king. This Olaf managed to convince Sigurd of Syr to accept the new faith and Sigurd himself, his family and court were baptized. The royal missionary became the godfather of little Olaf.

However, the religion of love did not make much impression on the young boy and at the age of twelve he had the same ambition as many other boys that age - he wanted to go a-viking. His mother made sure that her young son was suitably outfitted with a fleet of longboats under the able command of the boy's foster-father, Hrani. Olaf proved to have a knack for strategy and, in time, as was customary, was given the title of 'king' when he commanded some of his ships in raids along the coastal stretches of Sweden and Finland, collecting plunder and tribute.

Later Olaf journeyed south and he and his crew ended up working as mercenaries for King Aethelred the Unready of England who at that time had serious problems with regaining his land from the Danes. Olaf sailed up the Thames to the London Bridge. He quickly realized that warriors standing on the bridge could easily hit any target on his boats with arrows, rocks or any other object. He conceived the shrewd idea that by fastening ropes to the base of the bridge, his oarsmen could pull the foundation away and the bridge would collapse. He stealthily put his plan to work and when the Danish warriors were in position on the bridge, he ordered his men to turn downstream and pull at the oars with all their might. And right enough, they pulled down the bridge, all the Danish warriors standing on it fell into the water; many drowned and Olaf won the day. We don't know for sure, but this event may be the historic base of the nursery rhyme about the famous bridge.

The young king stayed at Aethelred's court three years during which he became an accomplished leader and seaman. When the English king died, Olaf went to France to visit relatives in Normandy. But after a few years he returned home where his ambition became to rule all of Norway which at that time was divided into many small kingdoms. He visited all the little kings and argued that it would be better to live under one Norwegian-born king than to pay tribute to foreigners; many of the nobles agreed but not all. Anyway, in 1014 Olaf the Stout was accepted as king of all Norway.

Olaf had thus, at the age of 19, reached his goal. In the district of Trondheim, 200-300 miles from Oslo, on the Atlantic coast, is a small river, Nid, and the village Nidaros close by; there Olaf built his stronghold.

As mentioned, Olaf was baptized as a child, so he never really learned about the tribal beliefs of his Viking ancestors, and he took his christian religion seriously. He built a church, St Clement's, at Nidaros and attended mass every day. It grieved him that so many of his countrymen still honored Odin, Thor and the old gods and he became more and more distressed over this and finally decided to put a stop to it. He selected a group of trusted followers and travelled the country proclaiming christ in all parts of the realm, demanding that the people became baptized. However, he met fierce resistance, particularly in the outlying areas; many of the small kings felt betrayed, for they had been promised autonomy, and they all held sacred the traditional beliefs.

But Olaf broke the promises given to the nobles and would not compromise on religious matters. Snorre tells us how determined the king was: If he found anyone who did not want to abandon heathendom, he drove him out of the land. Some he maimed, having their hands and feet lopped off or their eyes gouged out; others he hanged or beheaded but left no one unchastised who refused to serve God. That's determination, alright, and a very convincing conversion method, indeed!

A particularly nasty story concerns the conversion of the people of Valdress valley. The farmers there had no intentions of abandoning the tribal gods in favor of the new christ; they had gathered and were determined to fight Olaf who probably would have lost, had he confronted the farmers face to face. So the Soldier for Christ relied on trickery and terror. He secretly sent his men around to torch the farm houses and set the crops afire. When the assembled farmers saw the smoke from the many fires, they became worried and hastened home to look after their farms and families. Several lost all they owned; many good Norwegians were killed that day; animals and fields were laid waste. Those who survived agreed to become baptized.

It cannot but astonish modern heathen believers to see how superficial these conversions were; as soon as a person was baptized, all was well, never mind what thoughts the person had about the matter; never mind that the agreement to baptism was obviously obtained by force. The missionaries really seem to have believed that the means by which they got people to agree to become baptized didn't matter at all as long as the outer gesture of becoming baptized was accomplished, as long as you go through the motions, everything is fine. A strange creed!

After the surviving families of Valdress had been baptized, Olaf smashed all pictures and figures of the old gods, tore up the sacred groves and built churches all along the valley. He demanded that people attend mass and to make sure that they did, he was sneaky enough to take the sons of each family as hostages to insure that the christian practice would be followed. Olaf's was a powerful brand of evangelism, just as that experienced by our kin living in Central Europe at other times in our history.

It seems that the highborn were just as likely, or maybe even more so, than the common man, to suffer from this form of proselytizing. In one of the rich Oppland areas several of the small kings conspired to oppose the King and his christ; but Olaf got wind of it and staged a surprise attack early in the morning, hauled the confederates out of bed, took them captive, exiled three of them, had the tongue of one cut out, blinded another in both eyes and made sure that no one else dared to oppose his evangelic efforts.

However, Olaf was probably not worse than most of the other crusaders for christ although he may have been one of the more effective ones. But it is to his lasting shame that in this inhumane way he is responsible for the final christianization of Norway. Trying to persuade somebody to adopt one's religious beliefs is one thing, but to force him to do so is quite another; particularly when one has the power to put such atrocious methods behind the persuasion. That is extreme misuse of power.

Many christian rulers have had the same weird attitude - if you outwardly accept their religion, they want to do a lot for you, help you in many ways; but if you don't want to 'cooperate' you must be persecuted. The monotheistic religions have always been, and still are, the most intolerant of religions.

On Olaf's credit side of the ledger we must thus hesitantly list the fact that when the people first agreed to become christians, he wanted to improve their lot and give them the opportunity to live in peace. Previously the small kings and chieftains had been looting the countryside freely; Olaf put a stop to this which of course made him popular with the common people. He dealt severely with this kind of thievery and used his old conversion techniques of mutilation, death or exile. The royal families experienced a severe thinning of their ranks whereas Iceland and Greenland gained a number of freeborn farmers. Although the former country at that time was officially christianized there was no persecution of people who wanted to remain pagans. Nevertheless, Norwegians were disgruntled by Olaf's special brand of justice.

About this time messengers from the King of Denmark, Knut the Powerful, announced that he legally laid claim to Norway. This was a serious threat for as his name indicates, Knut was a mighty ruler. Olaf had, however, a good friend in his brother-in-law, Omund, King of Sweden. They combined their forces and Olaf led a series of vicious raids on the Danish coast, looting, killing and forcing the people to swear allegiance to him.

This was a serious mistake, for Knut could not ignore that kind of insult to his Danish citizens. He gathered a great fleet of warships, and in 1028 he sailed to Norway to challenge Olaf in his own land. It was no contest. The Norwegian nobles looked to Knut to liberate them from Olaf's oppression, and the Norwegian king was left without any support and had to flee for his life. Knut appointed the popular Norwegian earl, Haakon, to fill the empty throne.

Olaf took his wife and daughter to Sweden while he and his son Magnus went to Russia where another brother-in-law, Yaroslav the Wise, ruled Kiev; a small group of followers went with him.

He prayed long hours to his christian god for help in the decision whether or not to attempt to reconquer his lost land. He was convinced that the common people would support him but knew he could expect no help from the aristocracy although he figured that it might already have tired of being under the sway of the Danish throne.

About that time something extraordinary happened - Olaf acquired healing powers! He took this as a sign from above that god was with him. (It seems that never has there been a christian ruler who did not believe that his god looked with kind eyes and a helping hand on HIS side of the battlefield.)

Something else happened at that time. Earl Haakon died and Knut appointed his son Svein to rule Norway. Whereas Haakon had been well liked, the Dane was not; he was arrogant and, what was worse, he imposed higher taxes. Olaf therefore felt that the time was right for him to make his move. In 1030 CI he left Russia with a small group of less than 250 men on the quest to conquer his lost kingdom. In Sweden he picked up almost 500 more men and as he marched across Norway many of the common people joined him so that eventually he commanded an army of close to four thousand warriors. However, this was far less than Olaf had hoped and expected, and certainly not enough to do much good. But he could not stop now, the challenge had been made; he had to continue.

In the meantime Svein had outfitted a large army, commonly known as the 'Army of the Farmers', about four times as big as Olaf's. Svein was waiting for him a few miles outside Nidaros where the famous Battle of Sticklestad eventually took place. There is some discussion about the date on which the battle was fought. Snorre tells that although the day was clear, suddenly the sky darkened and the sunlight failed. This event was also reported by Sigvat the Skald as an important sign. Traditionally the date of the battle is July 29, but our scientists maintain that this must be wrong for the solar eclipse according to their calculations fell on August 30, a full month later; be that as it may, the year was 1030 CI.

Snorre describes Olaf as wearing a gilded helmet and a shield, white with a cross in gold; the haft of his sword, Hneitir, was wound with gold also; he had a chain mail. The king fought valiantly but was killed. According to Snorre this was how it happened: Thorir the Hound struck at the king and they exchanged blows. The King's sword had no effect against Thorir's reindeer coat which protected him but his hand was wounded. The King told his warrior Bjorn to strike down 'the dog on whom steel takes no effect!', and Bjorn used his battle axe and hit Thorir with the blunt of it. The blow hit Thorir on the shoulder; it did not wound him but he tottered. Thorir regained his balance and thrust his spear at Bjorn; it pierced him in the stomach and he died... Thorstein the Shipbuilder hewed at the King with his battle axe; the blow struck his leg above the knee. The King leaned against a boulder and threw down his sword and prayed to God to help him... Then Thorir the Hound pierced him from below the coat of mail and it went through this belly. Then the warrior Kalf slashed at the King and the blow hit the King on the left side of the neck. These wounds caused the death of King Olaf.

The battle was fought in the early afternoon and lasted less than two hours. Olaf's leaderless warriors fled for their lives, scared by the strange darkness. Some of those who had fought against the exiled king became frightened and also fled the battlefield. Then the sunlight returned and calm settled over the area filled with dead or dying warriors.

Some of his trusted friends brought Olaf's body to safety and he was buried near Nidaros, the city he had built. Stories about mysterious healings began to circulate; a man regained his sight; Thorir the Hound who had given Olaf one of the three death blows claimed that his wounded hand had healed when Olaf's blood had trickled over it. And the people remembered the other miracles told about the king's healing powers. Of course this gave rise to the belief that Olaf was a saint and an Olaf-cult formed. The bishop took advantage of the situation and talked openly about sainthood for the dead king. About a year after the Battle at Sticklestad Olaf's body was exhumed. There was no problem at all with finding his grave for, also mysteriously, the wooden casket in which his body had been placed, already was rising in the ground and almost broke through the surface - by itself!

When the box was opened another miracle was apparent; instead of a decomposed body, a sweet odor filled the air and those around were highly surprised. The king's body had not decayed, his complexion was still natural, he only looked as if asleep. And still one more mysterious thing had happened - his fingernails and hair had grown as if he were alive! The bishop trimmed both and when it was discovered that some of the hair could not burn, everybody simply knew that Olaf was a saint - there was no question about it. The king was soon officially declared a saint and during the following centuries pilgrimages to his grave were undertaken by the faithful. Such is the power of blind belief!

Norwegians acknowledge that another miracle, even a greater one, actually took place in the years after Olaf's death. A strong feeling of nationalism arose; in 1035 CI the people ousted the Danish Svein and put Olaf's son Magnus on the throne; the boy was only 12 years old at the time but he became known as Magnus the Good; he ruled well and in 1042 also became king of Denmark; he died in 1047.

Even though the christianization was thus officially completed by Olaf, the old folklore lived on, many of the tribal customs were followed and the pagan beliefs remained close to the surface of Norwegian folk consciousness.

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