Home research cultural Centre for Nordic Studies Mimir's Well St Olaf - our other saint

St Olaf - our other saint

Saint Olaf: Our “other” saint. Mimir’s Well 3

Friday the 16th of April is Saint Magnus Day, or Mansemas. Saint Magnus is Orkney’s most revered saint, and people in Kirkwall see his “big shrine” every day: The magnificent Saint Magnus Cathedral. It makes sense to think that this fantastic building is the one which gave Kirkwall its name, as it means kirk bay. The problem, though, is that the building of Saint Magnus Cathedral only begun in 1137, and Kirkwall was called Kirkwall – or in Old Norse Kirkjuvágr – already before that. Which church was Kirkwall named after? A good candidate is St. Olaf’s kirk, which you will see the remains of if you peep into the lane off Bridge Street called Saint Olaf’s Wynd.

But who is Saint Olaf? His name is King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway, and a statue of him stands in the St. Magnus Cathedral. He is a beautiful man, tall and slim, with shiny, red hair and beard. Under his feet is a dragon bearing his own face: He has conquered his own dark sides and stands victorious. In his hand is an axe: Like Saint Magnus, the axe is the weapon which killed him (or, strictly speaking, St. Olaf was killed by three wounds, but the axe is the one he is traditionally portrayed with). King Olaf was one of the main people responsible for converting the Norwegian people to Christianity. This he did by means of a sword rather than by means of the word alone. He was killed at the battle of Stiklestad, north of Trondheim, on the 29th of July 1030. To this day he is celebrated as “Norway’s eternal king”, and each new king of Norway just borrows the kingdom from St. Olaf.

Saint Olaf is the patron saint of Nidaros, or Trondheim as the city is called today. His “big shrine” is the Nidaros Cathedral. Here is St. Olaf’s Orkney connection: The bishopric of Orkney and Shetland belonged to the archdiocese of Nidaros, so we could say that St. Olaf is our saint, too. When he died at the battle of Stiklestad, a man who was loyal to him took his body and hid it in his boat, preventing the king’s enemies from getting hold of the body. He buried it in the sand bank by the river Nidelva, and it was here that the Cathedral was later built.

Several miracles are recorded in various sagas. At St. Olaf’s burial place, a spring of healing water sprung up, which can still be seen there. Pilgrims still throw offerings of coins in the water for good luck. The belief in sacred springs or wells is ancient, older than Christianity, and is found throughout Europe. St. Magnus also has a sacred well, in Birsay, believed from medieval times on to have healing powers. The holy well in Birsay is still used as such – I, for one, christened my son Magnus there. St. Olaf’s spring in Trondheim is not the only spring associated with this saint. There are several springs that bear St. Olaf’s name throughout Norway, and this probably reflects a continuation of an ancient cult, but transformed to suit the new, Christian ideas.

After a year, the body of King Olaf was dug up from the sand bank. When the wooden kist was opened, people saw that like with other saints before him, his body had not decayed: On the contrary, his hair and nails had grown! This proved really handy, as the bishop of Nidaros could then, once the belief in Olaf’s sainthood was established, trim off a little of his hair once every year and sell it to pilgrims or distribute it as relics. King Olaf’s son Magnus made sure that Olaf’s remains were put in a new and better shrine, made of gold with precious stones, which was put on display. Once the octagon of the Nidaros cathedral was finished, it was put on display behind the altar there, where the hundreds and hundreds of pilgrims were routed safely around it, just as you and I may experience in one of the big tourist magnets of today such as the Tower of London.

The Nidaros Cathedral is actually not dedicated to St. Olaf, although it is the centre of his cult. Its dedication is to Christ. In this it resembles Earl Thorfinn’s Christchurch in Birsay, where St. Magnus’s relics were kept for a while. The structure of the earliest phase of the Christchurch cathedral in Trondheim is also very similar to the church on the Brough of Birsay, which may be the Christchurch.

St. Olaf quickly became a very popular saint in Norway. In popular belief he seems to have taken over some of the jobs of the pagan god Thor. Thor, the god of thunder and lightning, rode across the sky, swinging his hammer. He kept the dangerous trolls and giants at bay, who would otherwise take over the world. Farmers who found Stone Age axe heads and didn’t know that these were tools from an earlier era thought that they were special magical stones which Thor had fired as missiles from the sky against the trolls. They were called thunderstones, and brought all sorts of good luck. Thunderstones kept the house safe from lightning and kept trolls away. People here in Orkney and Shetland also believed in these thunderstones. In Shetland they were called thunderbolts, and were believed to have fallen from the sky during thunderstorms. They could protect your house from lightning. An Orkney name for a thunderstone is a dian-stane. Ernest Marwick and the Orkneyjar.com website say that this word derives from the Norse word dynestein, meaning thunderstone. However, in Jakob Jakobsen’s Norn dictionary the word “di” or “dian” is recorded as meaning “calming of the weather”, deriving from Old Norse þýð. If this is the origin, the name tells us what the stone can do, rather than where it was believed to have come from. Anyway, St. Olaf, like Thor, could control trolls and giants, according to legend.  When he travelled around Norway on his Christening mission, the trolls often tried to block the way for him. He then used his power to turn them to stone, as if he was the sun, and using a cross instead of Thor’s hammer. (Trolls turn to stone if touched by sunlight, and incidentally Ernest Marwick reckons that the Orkney dian-stanes were thought of as sun symbols too, especially the ones that had a round hole through them. They were tied onto the sunny side of the plough). One story, from the area of Ringerike, tells us that when St. Olaf tried to pass a place called Krokkleiva, an angry giantess jumped out of the mountainside and said: “Saint Olaf with the red beard, you are riding too close to my cellar wall!” But St. Olaf replied: “Stand you there in wood and stone until I return!” Whereupon the giantess was turned into stone. Similar stories are told about various landscape features throughout Norway. People also saw other traces of St. Olaf in the landscape, such as footprints of his horse. A stone in Setesdal is his chair, two rocks near Stiklestad are his bowl and cup, and so on. In Viking times, before the conversion to Christianity (and after it, too), people in Norway believed in different supernatural beings living in the landscape. Landscape features could also be made by them, such as mountains being petrified trolls, or a ravine being the axe blow of a giant. With these stories about St. Olaf, this way of thinking and explaining the landscape takes on a Christian mask, but it is still fundamentally a continuation of traditional beliefs.

The giantess from Krokkleiva called St. Olaf the one “with the red beard”. And indeed, the statue of him in the St. Magnus Cathedral does have beautiful golden red hair and beard. Was this what the real King Olaf looked like? It may not have been, for his body may have been swapped for someone else’s in 1328! Until then, his shrine had been on display in the cathedral and taken out for processions on St. Olaf’s Day on the 29th of July. But in 1328 there was a disastrous fire in the cathedral. The shrine, too, may have been damaged, and this may be the reason for what happened next: A third shrine was built, encapsulating the one that Magnus Olafsson built and the first wooden box within it. Who was inside it? The sagas describe King Olaf as a stout, stocky person, with broad shoulders and brown hair. But in artwork from the 14th century onwards he is tall and slim, with red hair and beard. This is how he looked when the shrine was opened in the 16th century. Was the real Olaf damaged by the fire, or had the church simply run out of relics - if we assume that his hair and nails did not actually grow much after his death? In either scenario swapping the body for someone else’s would solve the problem. This was not cheating, as in the logic of the medieval Catholic Church a saint’s relics work a bit like homeopathic medicines: They can transfer their power to things that they touch! As long as some of Olaf’s real relics were kept in the shrine with the new body, the new guy would work fine.

This all came to an end when the Reformation reached Norway in 1537. St. Olaf’s shrine was transported to the archbishop’s castle at Steinvikholmen – a holm in the Trondheim fjord. St. Olaf, or whoever the new guy was, was allowed to stay there in his wooden kist, but the gold and precious stones from his shrine were seized by the Danish king. The saint’s body was kept in the castle in secret, as the Protestant church wanted to avoid any worship of saints. In 1564 it was moved to a church nearby by invading Swedes, but soon after moved again by the Norwegians back to the cathedral in Trondheim. There it was buried within the church, but as it attracted too many worshippers, it was moved again in 1568 to an anonymous grave somewhere within the cathedral.

The Reformation was successful, but even today, within the Protestant Church, St. Olaf remains a popular saint. There are churches dedicated to him in many countries, including one in Yell and one in Lewis. Around his saint’s day on the 29th of July there is a festival in Trondheim, a bit like the St. Magnus Festival in Orkney. This day is also the time of Ólavsøka (St. Olaf’s Wake), the Faroese national holiday. The old pilgrims’ route to Nidaros Cathedral has been marked again for modern pilgrims, and recently accommodation for the increasing numbers of pilgrims was opened near the church. Tourists throw coins in his well and drink from his spring. A stone in Stiklestad church, which St. Olaf is believed to have leant on when he died, today attracts many pilgrims and tourists, who can report on its good effects. It was ceremoniously brought back into the church in 2007, and has since received a lot of attention. At one end of Nidaros Cathedral’s West Front stands a statue of St. Magnus, and at the other end St. Olaf: Norway’s Eternal King.


Download as pdf

Filed under: