Home » Uncategorized » The Miracles of Saint Olaf of Norway: An interdisciplinary approach. Part 2

The Miracles of Saint Olaf of Norway: An interdisciplinary approach. Part 2

This is the second part of the series on the Miracles of St Olaf.

Olaf the Man and King

“Oláfr var snimma gørviligr maðr, friðr synum, meðalmaðr á vaxt; vitr var hann ok snimma ok orðsnjallr.” [Olaf was early a capable man, handsome in appearance, middling in height; and good with words at a young age] (Sturluson, ed. Jonsson 182).  The first description of Olaf follows to style traditions; that of Norse sagas and the afore-mentioned Church influence.  Snorri goes on to describe Olaf II as being nicknamed Olaf the Stout or Thick.  He was known as a stingy, greedy man in life, neither a good thing in the hospitality consciencous Norse’s eyes nor in terms of showing living signs of sanctity.

During his early years, age twelve, his mother sends him on a Viking voyage.  From this inauspicious beginning, Olaf Haraldsson ends up a-viking in Sweden and England, against Knutr the Great, his future rival in Norway.  Following his kidnapping of the Hlaðir jarl Hákon, Olaf persuaded the local Assembly members to declare him king at the Gula Þing [1015].  By 1018 Olaf was king over Norway proper.  After this point, according to the sagas, Olaf spent the next thirteen years converting the Norwegian people.  This is information to be wary of because of the known conversion activities of Olaf I Tryggvasson, who’s saga immediately precedes that of Saint Olaf in Snorri’s Heimskringla (Lindow, Scand 123: Spr ’04, lecture 6).  From legal records, modern researchers know that Olaf II aided the establishment of the Church in Norway by enacting a tithe law that effectively established the well-known parish system in the land.  This would eventually establish another system of acknowledgement and taxes.  In terms of being an effective Norse monarch, creating laws and other legal involvement is a sign status and strength.  The fact that the monies were to be collected specifically for the purpose of being given to the Church did not hurt the saintly image either.

Unfortunately, for Olaf II, Knutr the Great of the Danelaw held imperialistic notions on Norway and by 1028 had effectively exiled Olaf Haraldsson from Norway.  This was done by a series of battles and Knutr’s subversion of the voting bonder farmers of local assemblies.  Olaf spent the time in the East, Sweden and Russia.  During this time he gathered his forces and made an attempt for his throne again in 1030.  This would ultimately culminate with the Battle of Stikklestaðr July 29, 1030, where the Olaf the man, called the Stout, died and Olaf the Saint, called the Holy, was born.

The Living Miracles of St. Olaf

Although not officially recognized by Snorri, one of Olaf’s first miracles, attributed to him during his lifetime, is given in Chapter 165 of Heimskringla.  In this chapter is related the story of Egil and Tove who foolishly freed some of Olaf’s prisoners in an act of pity, thus incurring the wrath of the King.  During this long period of time, Egil gets sick, literally “[. . . ] Egill var sjúkr [Egil was ill] and Olaf refuses to see him (Sturluson 349).  After  some time, and many people imploring upon him, Olaf visits Egil.  During this visit Olaf lays his hand upon the pained side of Egil and says a prayer.  Egil is instantly healed, no surprise.  This miracle maybe be explained by a simple stress caused ulcer.  If Egil were someone who was under stress, and he probably was by unwittingly committing an act of treason, his body may have responded with an overproduction of stomach acid that eventually would have eaten into mucous lining of his stomach.  As for the miraculous cure that Egil experienced, this may have been due to the psychosomatic effects associated with his relief.  If the king has accepted Egil back into the fold then there is no reason for his stomach to produce excessive acid.

The first miracle that Snorri acknowledges happening in Heimskringla occurs while Olaf is in forced exile in Russia.  In this episode a boy with a boil on his neck is presented before Olaf.  He requests that Olaf heal him of his affliction, which Olaf ultimately accomplishes by making the sign of the cross over a piece of bread which he has the boy swallow while he prays.  This episode especially shows the influence of the Church on actual events.  Perhaps the greatest signal of this involvement comes from the ritual Olaf used to cure the Russian lad, a version of the Eucharist ritual.  The easiest signal is consecrated piece of bread.  As for the actual cure, this is difficult to tell without knowing the exact nature of the boil.  If it were an inflamed tonsil and a really, really hard crust of bread perhaps something might have happened, but this is only speculation.  The entire episode exhibits the common medieval theme of a Christ figure healing the sick with pseudo-Church ritual.

Once Olaf had collected troops, as previously mentioned, he began a march back to Norway from Russia, via Sweden, his ally.  As his troops passed through various regions Olaf restrained his troops from ruining fields and thus upsetting the local populace, which could potentially do real harm to an army on the move, and a king trying to reclaim his throne.  Unfortunately in the Værdal District Olaf’s troops trample a field flat, thus ruining a farmer’s crop of corn [not maize, but rather, wheat or barley].  Olaf rides around the farmer’s field and tells him that God will repair the situation in a week.  He then stays [dvalðisk] the night with the farmer and his two sons.  Sure enough the corn is restored even better than before.  It is literally “[. . .] ok varð þat inn bezti akr, sem konungr sagði” [and was that the best field] (Sturluson 385). As a result the malcontented farmer and his large sons join Olaf’s march.  In true Norse style Olaf has seemingly restored peace and prosperity to the land after the devastation of battle.

Olaf’s sanctity is mentioned by the “forced” growing of the corn, which is notable only because Olaf had mentioned that, essentially, god would provide.  Sanctity was implied because the corn grew up better that before.  However, there are many things to consider with this particular miracle.  The first is the growing conditions of Norway.  According to Foth and Schafer, the majority of Norway has a growing season of less than ninety days and is too wet for agriculture 50% of the time.  This would have restricted farmers of the tenth and eleventh century to such crops as roots and quick growing, cool weather crops such as flax, barley, and rye [the latter two being known as korn in Old Norse].  Hay would have supported an animal industry of dairy and beef cattle, and pigs [the infamous fe] (418).  The corn of this saga was something that would have put on a significant amount of growth during a week.  The increased light because of the latitude probably would have accelerated this process.  Another factor is the “lawn mower concept” for lack of a better name.  Essentially, because the roots are still producing enough nutrients to supply more length, the damaged areas are able to rejuvenate that much faster.  This may also have been a field on an early plaggept.  As mentioned earlier the inclusion of the animal manure into the soil [humus] helps to neutralize the acidic spodosols and boost agricultural production.

Visions prior to the Battle of Stikklestaðr, and Olaf’s death, occur occasionally through Olafs saga helga, and are generally signified the chapter title “Draumr Olaf konungr” [the dream of Olaf the king].  Some tell Olaf the make certain decisions or to perform certain actions, and all are heavily laden with the afore-mentionChurch influence.  In example, the dream immediately prior to the Battle of Stikklestaðr [Olaf had to be awoken from it to go to the battle field] is presented as Olaf ascending a ladder and was awoken just before leaving the last rung behind and entering heaven.  This ladder may be an allusion to the Biblical Jacob’s ladder, a popular medieval theme.  The dream itself suggests that Olaf is subconsciously thinking like a saint, and is thus a sign of sanctity.   However, the context of the dream, especially the fact that Olaf had  to be awoken from it in order to arrive on the field of battle in a timely fashion bears a striking resemblance to the pre-Christian Macedonian king Alexander III, styled the Great.  This may be an example of the influence of past heroes rediscovered in Muslim sources, or even that Olaf was just a heavy sleeper.

The miracles prior to the birth of St. Olaf are presented in a manner to appear as to gain in intensity the closer to his martyrdom.  This may be a stylistic inclusion  by clerical writers to control Olaf’s being called by God.  

Works Cited

Beckett, S. 1915.  The Fjords and Folk of Norway.  London: Methuen and Company.

Bridges, E.M. 1975.  World Soils, second edition. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

Foth, H. and Schafer, J. 1980. Soil Geography and Land Use.  New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Lindow, J. Scandinavian 123:Spr. ’04. lecture notes.

Oftedahl, Chr. 1980.  Geology of Norway. Trondheim: Universitetsforlaget.

Sylte, T. 1966.  The Rivers of Norway.  Oslo: Dreyers Forlag.

Sturluson, Snorri, arr. Jonsson, F. 1925. Heimskringla.

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