Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Legendary Olaf

Statue of Olaf in Trondheim
King Olaf Tryggvason is the subject of far more stories than we have facts to support them. (He was implicated in the destruction of London Bridge and therefore the subsequent nursery rhyme.) He was King of Norway for only 5 years (995 - 1000), but there are no contemporary records of his actions. The earliest record we have is an English chronicle about 70 years after Olaf's death, and in that he is only mentioned briefly. We have to wait about 200 years after his death to get stories written down about him, and the veracity of those cannot be trusted.

There is agreement that he was either born in the Orkney Islands (which were part of Norway at the time, despite their proximity to Great Britain), or carried there at three years of age by his mother, in order to escape the killers of his father. He wound up (after being captured by pirates and sold into slavery, then discovered years later by a countryman and bought) in Kievan Rus.

As an adult, he was shipwrecked in Wendland, an area of Germany inhabited by Slavs. It was ruled at the time by Queen Geira, whom Olaf courted and wed. When she died, he was distraught and left Wendland, plundering on the seas. On the Scilly Isles off the southwestern tip of Great Britain, he met a seer, who told him he would become a great king and convert many people to Christianity. She predicted that when he returned to his ship he would face a mutiny, and be wounded in battle, but recover after seven days and then he would be baptized a Christian. After he left the seer, her prediction came true, so he let himself by baptized upon his recovery by St. Elphege of Canterbury (later made a bishop under Pope John XVIII).

As King of Norway,* he promoted Christianity heavily. He baptized Leif Erikson, known for discovering America. Not everyone wanted to be baptized, and anecdotes of forced conversion abound:

  • Raud the Strong refused conversion after Olaf defeated him in a sea battle, even though Olaf promised that he could keep his lands if he converted. Olaf had Raud tied to a beam, face up, forced a drinking horn into his mouth, and goaded a snake by means of a hot poker to go through the horn into Raud.
  • Eyvind Kinnrifi was punished with hot coals on his stomach.
  • Queen Sigrid of Sweden was courted by Olaf, but she refused to convert; supposedly, he slapped her with his glove. This motivated her to gather his enemies. He was attacked on the sea by an alliance of Danish, Swedish, and Wendish forces. The naval Battle of Svolder took place on 9 September 1000 (or perhaps 999). Seeing that he was losing, Olaf jumped overboard. The body was never found.

This led to Elvis-like sightings in later years. He was reportedly seen in Rome, Jerusalem, and around Europe and the Mediterranean. There was a sighting as late as 1046, and Æthelred the Unready supposedly received gifts from a visiting Olaf years after 1000.

*How he got back there is a convoluted tale that we will leave for another day.

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